The Language Attic: Hylic

Webster'sOne of the words my sweetheart’s daughter wanted to look up when she came over the other night was hylic. According to our big fat dictionary, it means “of or pertaining to matter; corporeal.”

But the more interesting definition was that from Gnosticism: “A material being, belonging to the lowest of the three classes into which mankind was divided.” Gnosticism is a form of early Christianity, though it is often condemned as a heresy by the established church.

Gnosticism divided humans into three groups: pneumatic, psychic, and hylic. The Gnostics apparently looked down on the hylics and found them incapable of understanding the truth because they were so invested in the material world.

My first inclination was to do the same, to use the term hylic to refer to those who value gold bathroom fixtures and other gaudy symbols of extravagant wealth. Certainly one way to look at the word – which comes from Greek – is to apply it to the kind of materialism that values things and money over anything else.

But as I got to thinking about it, I had different ideas. For one thing, materialism in philosophy (and in modern science) has come to mean a doctrine that nothing exists except matter – a concept I might argue with, but not an unreasonable place to begin an examination of what is and isn’t.

While I agree with the idea that overvaluation of things and money is not particularly enlightened, the fact that corporeal (which means, among other things, relating to the body) is a synonym made me think hylic could also be used to mean a person in touch with or aware of their body.

And that, I submit, is a good thing.

Western philosophy has for many years preached the separation of mind and body, and emphasized that the mind is superior. But one of the things I’ve figured out over years of martial arts is that “mind” does not mean just the brain. We learn things with our whole selves, not just with the seven or so pounds of neurons in our heads.

I figured out a long time ago that to truly understand something, I had to move with it, not just think about it. Doing things provides a different understanding than just thinking about them or memorizing a list of facts.

Descartes said “Cogito ergo sum.” Me, I hold with “I move therefore I am.”

Not that I want to toss out the intellectual side of things, or even the spiritual (I don’t believe in any gods, but I do find value in meditation and similar practices). Rather, I’m in favor of an integrated whole: a person who thinks about things, moves with them, and meditates upon them.

Also, maybe it’s time to stop dividing people into groups with the express goal of condemning them.

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About Nancy Jane Moore

Nancy Jane Moore's science fiction novel, The Weave, is now available in print and ebook versions from Aqueduct Press. Some of her short stories are now appearing as reprints on Curious Fictions. She is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her BVC ebooks can be found here. She also has short stories and essays in most of the BVC anthologies. In addition to writing fiction, Nancy Jane, who has a fourth degree black belt in Aikido, teaches empowerment self defense. She is at work on a self defense book that emphasizes non-fighting skills.


The Language Attic: Hylic — 4 Comments

  1. Gnosticism isn’t only a Christian heresy. It was pagan originally, a logical extension of some of Plato’s theories. Some classical scholars still try to insist it was a religion that came from Persia, but they are mostly trying to deny that their beloved Greeks could believe such a thing. 🙂 There was no one set of beliefs that all Gnostics endorsed, for starters.

    I’ve got books I can lend you if you want to read up. It’s actually a fascinating topic, and one of those “forgotten realms” of our history.

    • I’ll remember you have those books if I decide I need to dig in deeper. (I’ve got an old novel idea that has religious overtones and this might be useful if I get back to it at some point.) I didn’t know Gnosticism had pagan roots, but that’s probably because my main familiarity with it comes from some of the gospels associated with it that were rejected back in the 4th Century when they decided what did and didn’t belong in the Christian Bible.

      • The problem being their history is a bit hard to trace, but there were definitely Gnostic ideas floating about pre-Christianity.

        Also the “hylic” status is not something you fall into by bad habits. It’s an innate, inborn inability to attain the secret knowledge.

        • I had assumed that was the intention in dividing people into such categories — to mark someone as too base to achieve salvation. But I would be inclined to argue with that, too.