Most people have heard of the heresies, but few people know what they were. The main heresies were Manichaeism, Gnosticism and Catharism. Of Manichaeism and Catharism, only fragments of their teachings exist, and of Gnosticism only the Pistis Sophia exists in totality. Later discoveries, such as the library at Nag Hammadi, were quickly taken under Church control, and what has been released to date is largely indecipherable and fragmentary.
The lack of information regarding the heresies is not an accident, but a direct outcome of censorship and control. The treatment of the heretics by the Church was at times brutal, such as with the massacre of the Cathars at Bezier in France. Orthodox history, written largely by the Church, tells us that the main heresies were simply an alternative Church in waiting and that any associated violence was little more than a power struggle. But this is one-sided at best.
Of what is known, the heresies had their origin in Paganism, and in the teachings of the East in particular. The founder of Manichaeism, Mani, was referred to as a ‘Buddha’ by both his friends and enemies in his lifetime. The Manicheans, the Gnostics and the Catharis all believed in reincarnation, and the Cathars were noted for being vegetarian. Each of them held the same Pantheistic view of good and evil as is found in Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism.
It is not possible to understand the heresies without understanding the teachings of the East. Buddhism is not founded on dogma, or the submission to an authority, but on inner experience, and particularly on ‘prajna’, which means intuitive insight. The term ‘jnana’ can be found in Yoga, and has a common root with ‘gnosis’, which means ‘to know’. The Gnostics, for example, sought continued revelation through insight.
What troubled the Church was not that the heresies presented a threat in the form of an alternative power structure, but that they posed a threat to its assertion to represent truth on earth. Insight, the source of creativity and invention, challenges existing thinking, and at times it has done so very successfully. It is for this reason that the word ‘heretic’ means ‘one who chooses’. Authority has always feared the thinking individual.
By the time of the Reformation, the main heresies had been all but wiped out. Then came the Renaissance, and the same Pagan sources found expression again, notably from the Pythagorean school which taught the same insight-based approach to knowledge. Once again the assertion of a single, unassailable truth came under threat, and once again the Church responded with censorship, as with Galileo, or brutal punishment, as with Giordano Bruno.
The secular Enlightenment should have freed the West from the culture of dogma, but the Encyclopédistes employed the same approach, except this time their criticism was directed towards religion. It is for this reason that scientific heresies exist, and the treatment of novel and unconventional ideas is much the same even in the modern Secular era. Where once the unconventional thinker was a religious heretic, now the unconventional thinker is a scientific heretic.