Renouncing the Trivial World: commentary on Logion 8 of the Gospel of Thomas

And he said: “Man can be compared to a wise fisher who cast his net at sea and drew it up full of small fish from below (the surface). Among them the wise fisher found a fine, large fish. He threw away the fry back into the sea, and he had no difficulty choosing the large fish. He who has an ear to lend, let him listen.

—Gospel of Thomas

The first parable-like saying of Thomas breaks away from the author’s cryptic, mystifying style and surprises with its common-sense thrust, and simplicity. The wisdom of the fisher resembles the pragmatism of the child who discards his smaller treats in favor of the biggest one. Several logia in Thomas’ gospel play on the mystical theme of a return to childhood as a prerequisite for the liberation of the divine essence.
If we are asked to lend an attentive ear, there must be matters of the foremost importance to be learned from the fisherman who chooses one large fish over many small ones. In the last paragraph of his massive epic novel Musashi, Eiji Yoshikawa offers a surprising conclusion to the readers who for months had been kept enthralled by the characters’ adventures (the novel was originally serialized):
The little fishes, abandoning themselves to the waves, dance and sing, and play, but who knows the heart of the sea, a hundred feet down? Who knows its depth?
The philosophical wink is clever: we are the little fishes, preoccupied by trifles and frivolities at the surface while incognizant of the great, meaningful depths were the Spirit dwells. That is also the key to understand Logion 8.
Unlike his counterparts, the fishers of men in the Gospel of Matthew (see Matthew 4:19), the gnostic fisher imagined by Thomas has no intention to turn the fry into a flock. His yearning is for the Spirit, the desirable fish in the inner depths of man. The fish of course was also an emblem for Jesus in early Christianity. So the parable is congruent with the idea that Jesus in Thomas’ writings is an allegorical figure for the indwelling, divine presence.

Photograph, picture of  a young fisherman, youth mending a fishing net siting on his boat
Ph. Artur Pastor, Série Crianças. Póvoa de Varzim, década de 50

I enjoy visiting public aquariums, and when I do, I am always haunted by the gaze of the enormous fish dawdling silently, peering through the glass at all those humans they may find very foolish. I often think they epitomize the wise soul full of prudence and sagacity.

For an original interpretation of the Logia with a more esoteric or gnostic thrust in the Gospel of Thomas , see A Book to Free the Soul.

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