Have you heard the story of the architect from Shiraz who designed the world's most beautiful mosque? No one had ever conjured up such a design. It was breathtakingly daring yet well-proportioned, divinely sophisticated, yet radiating a distinctly human warmth. Those who saw the plans were awe-struck.
Famous builders begged the architect to allow them to erect the mosque; wealthy people came from afar to buy the plans; thieves devised schemes to steal them; powerful rulers considered taking them by force. Yet the architect locked himself in his study, and after staring at the plans for three days and three nights, burned them all.
The architect couldn't stand the thought that the realized building would have been subject to the forces of degradation and decay, eventual collapse or destruction by barbarian hordes. During those days and nights in his study he saw his creation profaned and reduced to dust, and was terribly unsettled by the sight. Better that it remain perfect. Better that it was never built.
The story is a fable, but its main idea — that a thing's ideal state is before it comes into existence, that it is better to not be born — is equal parts terrifying and uncanny, especially today, when progress and productivity are practically worshiped. And it evokes a philosophical insight with ancient roots that is still worth investigating.
"The world," we read in the Gnostic Gospel of Philip, "came about through a mistake." The demiurge who made it "wanted to create it imperishable and immortal," but eventually he "fell short of attaining his desire, for the world never was imperishable, nor, for that matter, was he who made the world." The Gnostics believed nonexistence to be a mark of perfection, and coming into being a form of degradation.
Basilides, one of the most intriguing figures of early Gnosticism, believed that the highest attribute of divinity is its inexistence. By his own account, Basilides was a theologian of the "nonexistent God"; he referred to God as "he who is not," as opposed to the maker of the world, trapped in existence and time.
Gnostic thinking takes us to a privileged ontological realm: the state of perfection that precedes actualization. That which is yet to be born — be it the world, a person, a piece of furniture or a piece of writing like this one — may be nothing, but at this stage it is at its utmost. Its nothingness is fuller and richer than any ordinary existence. To fall into existence is to enter time, and with time comes decay, aging and death.Continue reading the main story