Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

Richard of St. Victor’s Psychological Interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream

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Ernest Wallcousins, Nebuchadnezzar in the Hanging Gardens (1915)

AS previously noted, Richard of St. Victor (1110−1173) is a master of psychological-allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament.  His important exegetical works include Benjamin Minor, Benjamin Major and On the Extermination of Bad and the Promotion of Good.

Another superb example is his On the Education of the Interior Man (De eruditione hominis interiori). This considers an important practical matter in contemplative life: after one attains a state of divine contemplation, inevitably, whether through inattention or fatigue, one will eventually (sometimes rapidly) lapse into an inferior mental state. Returning to a higher state can be difficult. Hence the contemplative has a threefold problem: (1) how to avoid lapsing from divine states of mind; and, if one does fall (2) how to return quickly and (3) how to avoid falling to an even lower state.

Note that Plato considers the same problem of falling from contemplative states in his Chariot Allegory, and there are parallels between his discussion and Richard’s.

Richard addresses the topic by an exegesis of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the composite statue in Daniel 2. Like Philo of Alexandria, Richard’s Old Testament interpretations are insightful, relevant and compelling.  Also like Philo, Richard applies a form of personification which sees each Old Testament figure as symbolizing some feature, component or disposition of the individual psyche.

Briefly, his interpretation is as follows. Nebuchadnezzar represents the ego operating in its proper and higher capacity: as the king of ones soul. His dream is an example of divine revelation — that is, the ego experiences through contemplation or attainment of spiritual mindedness some special knowledge. His forgetting the dream and not understanding the meaning symbolizes the once-enlightened ego in its lapsed state.

The king, frustrated and unhappy at having fallen and lost divine vision, calls his wise men to describe and interpret his forgotten dream. For Richard, the wise men are higher intellectual abilities and activities — including reading Scripture, study, meditation and orderly speculation, which assist us in rising to contemplation.

As the wise men are unable to help, Nebuchadnezzar becomes furious and vows to kill them. Analogously, when the ‘studious’ actions which aid our mental elevation cannot return us to a contemplative state, we — already distraught that we have lost contemplation’s sweetness and delights — become further agitated.  In this condition we are prone to reject studies as not only burdensome (which, in a sense, they always are), but fruitless, and to instead dissipate ourselves in worldly affairs, vanities, or concupiscence.

The true remedy, Richard teaches, lay in the entrance of Daniel, who symbolizes devotion. Our first (and only truly effective) response to falling must be devotion and prayer. We should not only pray for the grace to return to contemplation (and, Richard emphasizes, contemplation is a grace), but pray for the grace of such prayer.

Daniels companions, Ananias, Mishael, and Azariah, symbolize three supporting cognitive activities which help us reach a devout state of mind: circumspection, discretion, and deliberation. Richard associates these with attentive consideration of the past, present and future, respectively. Circumspection examines past sins, admitting faults and learning from mistakes. Discretion mindfully considers present choices, exercising discrimination to determine what is bad and what is good. Deliberation applies sound judgment to choose actions that will minimize cause for future regret and unhappiness.

Richard treats these functions many times throughout his works, and their meanings are not always consistent.  All three are forms, we might say, of practical wisdom or prudence.  So, speaking more generally, Richard’s point is that while devotion per se is a grace, we should not simply wait passively for it.  Rather we are called to labor with self-examination and active steps to organize our mental and physical life. Richard is emphatic on about this: we must at all costs avoid the temptation to cease our studies and disciplines in times of desolation, when the grace of contemplation is withheld.  However he is even more emphatic that our attitude must remain one of devotion and humility. All studies and disciplines must be performed with utmost recognition of the constant need for God’s guidance and assistance.

As to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream itself, that too symbolize the progressive lapse of the soul. The statue is of a man, composed of (in descending order) gold, silver, brass, iron and clay — i.e., from precious to base metals, and finally (describing complete fall into sensuality), mud. All of these are common mythological tropes.  Gold, for example, is a usual symbol for higher consciousness, and mud sensuality. The dream is very close in details and meaning to Hesiod’s Ages of Man myth, which similarly mentions phases of Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron and complete degradation.

Without loss of meaning we may easily substitute for “contemplative states” mindfulness and mental integrity, and for “fallen condition” various forms of negative thinking and intrusive thoughts.  Hence Richard’s discussion also interests us at the level of the psychology of healthy-mindedness and optimal functioning (or, conversely, handling the psychopathology of everyday thought.)

Richard outlines the above in just the first 12 chapters of the three-book work.  Doubtless there is much more of interest.  The Latin text from Migne’s Patrologia Latina (1855) is available online (see Bibliography below). Unfortunately there is no critical edition or published English translation of the work. However I’ve placed online an automated English translation.

Victorine ascetico-mystical cognitive psychology deserves far more attention than it receives. Hugh, Richard and the others of the St. Victor school occupy an important position between patristic writers and the soon-to-arrive era of scholasticism. Drawing on writers like Cassian, Augustine, and Gregory, they begin to develop a complex set of psychological terms, and attempt to identify functional relationship among various intellectual and moral virtues.  Yet, unlike later scholastics, systematization and organization is not done for its own sake.  They are not writing for university students.  Rather, their concern always remains practical and pastoral.


Palmén, Ritva. Richard of St. Victor’s Theory of Imagination. Brill, 2014.

Richard of St. Victor, De eruditione hominis interioris (On the Education of the Inner Man), J. P. Migne, Patrologia Latina vol. 196 1229D−1366A.  Paris, 1855.  [Latin text]

Uebersax, John.  Myths of the Fall.  Christian Platonism website. 2021.

Zinn, Grover A. (tr.). Richard of St. Victor: The Twelve Patriarchs (Benjamin Minor), The Mystical Ark (Benjamin Major) and Book Three of The Trinity. Paulist Press, 1979.


De septem septenis — Inspiratio

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WE CONCLUDE our translation of Section 6 of De septem septenis with the last form of contemplation it considers, inspiration, which is called an “infusion of the mind from above.”  This is the longest, as well as probably the most interesting part.  Rather than attempt an analysis, I’ll simply leave it (as the anonymous author puts it), to the readers highness to intuitively understand and appreciate.

Seventh species of contemplation

22] Septima species contemplationis. In extimo vero loco praecelsa contemplationis species suspenditur inspiratio, quae est afficiens salubriter animum, de supernis infusio. Haec est autem quadrifaria: fit enim vel metu servitii, vel spe praemii, aut amore filii, aut affectu coniugii; prima fugitivum reducit servum, secunda in vinea laborantem angit mercenarium, tertia filium castigat et erudit, quarta sponsam sponso copulat, et lectulo inserit.

22] In the last place is suspended the exalted species of contemplation, inspiration (inspiratio) — a salubrious infusion of the mind from above. Now this is fourfold, for it is done either by servile fear, or by the hope of a reward, or by the love of a son, or by conjugal affection.

The first flight returns a slave; the second distresses the hireling laboring in the vineyard; the third chastises and educates the son; the fourth joins the bride to the bridegroom, and places him on the bed.

23] Inspiratio quoque fit aeterni timore supplicii, dolore praesentis exsilii, affectu fraternae compassionis, instinctu supernae devotionis. Hi sunt quatuor venti coeli [Zach. VI] a quibus congregantur electi Dei. Primus occidentalis, de occasu vicinorum educit poenitentes; secundus aquilonalis de frigore malitiae membra mortificantis; tertius australis, a calore iustitiae spiritu ferventes; quartus orientalis, amantes puritate tanquam ab orientali claritate lumen sapientiae per speculum contemplantes.

23] Inspiration comes from the fear of eternal punishment, the pain of present exile, the feeling of fraternal compassion, and the instinct of divine devotion. These are the four winds of heaven [Zech 6:1−8] by whom the elect of God are assembled. The first from the west, brings forth penitents from the setting of vices; the second, the cold northern, mortifying malicious limbs; the third south, boiling with the heat of the spirit of righteousness; the fourth easterly, from loving purity, contemplating the clear light of wisdom through a mirror of brightness.

24] In hac igitur contemplatione cognitio Dei quinque modis constat; ex creatura mundi, ex ratione vel natura animi, ex cognitione divini eloquii, ex radio contemplationis, ex gaudio felicissimae visionis. De primo legitur in Apostolo: Invisibilia ipsius a creatura mundi per ea quae facta sunt intellecta conspiciuntur: sempiterna quoque virtus eius ac divinitas [Rom. I]. In secundo plane docet ratio, ab uno cuncta descendisse principio.

24] In this contemplation, therefore, the knowledge of God comes from five modes: from the created world, from the reason or nature of the mind, from the knowledge of divine utterance (cognitione divini eloquii), from the ray of contemplation (ex radio contemplationis), from the joy of the most felicitious vision (felicissimae visionis).

Of the first we read in the Apostle: For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead [Rom 1:20].

In the second, reason clearly teaches that all things descended from one Principle.

25] De tertio, id est ex cognitione divini eloquii, noscuntur invisibilia Dei; unde in Ezechiele [Ezech. I]: Spiritus vitae in rotis; et Dominus in Evangelio: Verba quae ego loquor vobis, spiritus et vita sunt [Ioan. VI]. Tria sunt Dei invisibilia: potentia, sapientia, bonitas. Haec praecipue divina pagina docet, commendat, suadet, quaeri, amplecti, diligi.

25] Concerning the third, that is, from the knowledge of divine utterance, the invisible things of God are [also] known; whence says Ezekiel,

The spirit of life in the wheels [Ezek. 1:20]; and the Lord in the Gospel: The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. [John 6:63]. There are three invisible things of God: power, wisdom, and goodness. [cf. Eph. 3: 18; St. Bernard, On Consideration 5.13] This especially divine writing teaches, recommends and advises us to seek, to embrace, to love it.

26] De quarto, di est ex radio contemplationis noscuntur invisibilia divinae speculationis;  unde Apostolus: Videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate, tunc autem facie ad faciem [I Cor. XIII]. Hinc Manue in libro Iudicum ad uxorem dixisse fertur: Moriemur, quia vidimus Deum [Iud. XIII].  Hinc Isaias: Vidi Dominum sedentem super solium elatum et exaltatum [Isa. VI]. Huius vero contemplationis tria sunt genera, a tribus designata theologis per tria vocabula; ab Isaia per solium [Isa. VI], ut dictum est,  ab Elia per sibilum; sic: Ecce spiritus Domini subvertens montes et conterens petras transibat; non in spiritu Dominus; et post spiritum commotio, non in commotione Dominus: et post commotionem ignis, non in igne Dominus, et post ignem sibilus aurae tenuis [III Reg. XIX]; ibi Dominus. Ab Ezechiele per palmum, ita: Ecce vir, et in manu eius calamus sex cubitorum, et palmi [Ezech. XL]. Tria vero sunt solia: Primum est imum, quando mens extollitur ad invisibilia mundi; secundum elevatum, quando elevatur ad invisibilia sui; tertium excelsum, quando sublimatur ad invisibilia Dei; hinc ad sibilum ascenditur, qui divinae gratiae suavitas dicitur.

26] Again, from the fourth, the ray of contemplation, the invisible things of God are known; whence the Apostle: Now we see through a mirror in an enigma, but then face to face [1 Cor 13]. Hence it is reported that Manoah said in the book of Judges to his wife: We shall surely die, because we have seen God [Jud 13:22]. Hence Isaiah: I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up [Isa 6:1]. Now there are three kinds of this contemplation, the three designated by theologians with three terms; by Isaiah through the throne [Isa 6; JU: the vision of the throne and Seraphim] as has been said, by Elijah through a gentle whistling of air [sibilum]; thus: Behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake:And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. [1 Kgs 19:11−12]; the Lord is there. From Ezekiel by a hand-span, thus: Behold, there was a manand in the man’s hand a measuring reed of six cubits long by the cubit and an hand breadth [Ezek 40:3,5].

But there are three levels: the first is the bottom, when the mind is lifted up to the invisible things of the world; second, according to the exalted, when he is exalted to the invisible things of himself; the third high, when it is sublimated to the invisible things of God; hence it ascends to the whisper [sibilum], which is called the sweetness of divine grace.

27] De hoc sibilo Gregorius: Sibilus catulos instigat, equos mitigat. Et Dominus per Isaiam de cita peccatoris conversione, et de virtute in virtutem ascensione: Levabit Dominus signum in nationibus procul, et sibilabit ad eas de finibus terrae; et ecce festivus velociter veniet [Isa. XI]. Per sex cubitos vero activa vita exprimitur, quia sexto die opera Dei perficiuntur.

27] Of this whisper Gregory says: A whisper encourages the puppies, soothes the horses. And the Lord, through Isaiah, speaks of the sinner’s conversion, and of the ascension from strength to strength: He will lift up a banner to the nations from afar, And will whistle to them from the end of the earth; Surely they shall come with speed, swiftly. [Isa 5:26; NKJV; cf. Isa 11:12] Active life is expressed by six cubits, because God’s work was completed in six days.

28] Palmus vero, qui super sex cubitos esse dicitur, iam de septimo est [dicendum] in quo contemplationis requies intelligitur. In palmo contemplatio, in manu operatio, in digitis discretio figuratur, et sicut in palmo manus et digiti extenduntur, sic in contemplatione bona operatio et sancta discretio protenduntur et reguntur.

Quintus modus divinae cognitionis vocatur gaudium felicissimae visionis. Hac perpauci in praesenti [vita] felices fruuntur, in qua nimia divini gustus dulcedine rapti, Deum tantum contemplantur.

28] But the hand-span is said to be above the six cubits. After this — a seventh day, as is said — there is understood the rest of contemplation. Contemplation is figured in the palm, operation in the hand, discretion in the fingers; and as in the palm of the hand and the fingers are stretched out, so in contemplation good operation and holy discretion are extended and controlled.

The fifth mode of divine knowledge is called the joy of the most blessed vision. Very few enjoy this happiness in the present [life], in which, enraptured by the excessive sweetness of the divine taste, they contemplate only God.

29] Differt autem hic modus divinae cognitionis: et quartus, in illo enim animus radio contemplationis illuminatur, ut in mundum et in seipsum cognitionis excursum faciat, et sic ad invisibilia maioris notionis recursus fiat, in hoc vero animus splendore lucis aeternae totus illustratus, perfecte peccatum odit, mundum postponit, seipsum abiicit, et totus solus nudus et propius in Dominum tendit, totus, uni Deo se totum vivens; solus, a materia non a forma; propius, a circumscriptione omnimoda.

29] Now this mode of divine knowledge is different from the fourth; for in that the mind is illuminated by the ray of contemplation, so that it may make a flow of knowledge into the world and into itself, and thus a recourse may be made to the invisible things of the greater concept, while in this one [the fifth mode] truth the mind is completely illuminated by the splendor of the eternal light. He hates sin completely, puts the world aside, casts himself off, and all alone, naked and nearer to the Lord, all of him, living himself entirely to one God; alone, from matter, not from form; nearer, from the circumscription of all kinds.

30] Huius autem supremae contemplationis tria sunt genera, a tribus per tria designata. A Iob per suspendium, ita: Elegit suspendium anima mea et mortem ossa mea [Iob. VII]; a Ioanne per silentium, sic: Factum est silentium in coelo [Apoc. VIII]: a Salomone per somnium, ut in Canticis sponsa.

30] Now there are three kinds of this supreme contemplation, designated as three by three.* From Job by the gallows, thus: My soul has chosen the gallows and my bones death [Job 7:15]; by John through silence, thus: There was silence in heaven [Rev 8:1]; by Solomon in a dream, as the bride in the Canticles,

* The meaning of this and the repeated numberings below (e.g., primo primus) is unclear.

31] Ego dormio et cor meum vigilat [Cant. V]. Primum genus est puritatis, secundum charitatis, tertium felicitatis. In primo primus gradus est, ut anima se ad se colligat; in secundo secundus, ut collecta qualis sit videat; in tertio tertius, ut super se ipsam ad invisibilia consurgat, se huic contemplationi purae puram subiiciat et ita purificata et illuminata in Deum tota intendat.

31] I sleep and my heart is awake [Cant 5.2]. The first kind is that of purity, the second that of charity, the third that of happiness. In the first, the first step is for the soul to gather itself to itself; in the second second, that he may see what it is when it is collected; in the third third, that he may rise above himself to the invisible, submit himself pure to this contemplation of the pure, and thus, purified and enlightened, concentrate entirely on God.

32] Distat autem inter revelationem, et emissionem, et inspirationem: prima fit cum materia et forma, secunda sine materia cum forma, tertia sine materia et forma; prima est realis, secunda spiritualis, tertia intellectualis, vel prima est sensibilis, secunda intelligibilis, tertia intellectibilis, vel prima mundana, secunda humana, tertia divina.

32] Now there is a distance between revelation, emission, and inspiration: the first occurs with matter and form, the second without matter and with form, the third without matter and form; the first is [materially] real, the second spiritual, the third intellectual, or the first known by the senses, the second by the understanding, the third by the intellect; or the first worldly, the second human, the third divine.*

* Compare with Richard of St. Victor’s grades of contemplation in Benjamin Major.

33] Haec, magistrum nostrum sequentes, pro viribus succincte diximus, reliqua vero celsius et expolitius vestrae celsitudini committimus.

33] These things, following our teacher, we have said succinctly to strengthen you, but the rest, indeed higher and more refined, we  entrust to your own highness [celsitudini].


Baron, Roger (ed.). De contemplatione et ejus speciebus (La Contemplation et Ses Espèces). Desclée, 1955.

Giles, J. A. (ed.). De septem septenis. In: Joannis Saresberiensis postea episcopi camotensis opera omnia, vol. V: Opuscula.  Oxford, 1848; 209−238. Reprinted in Jacques-Paul Migne, J. P. Patrologia Latina, vol. 199, cols. 945−965. Paris, 1855. [Latin text] [Latin text]

Hauréau, Barthélemy (ed.). Hugues de Saint-Victor. Paris, 1859; De contemplatione et ejus speciebus, pp. 96−102, 177−210.

Németh, Csaba. Fabricating philosophical authority in the Twelfth Century: The Liber Egerimion and the De septem septenisAuthorities in the Middle Ages. De Gruyter, 2013; 69−87.

Written by John Uebersax

January 18, 2023 at 3:20 am

Psychological Interpretation of the Book of Zechariah

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Gustve Dore, Zecharia 6:5

IT MAKES sense to consider interpreting the visions in the Book of Zechariah at a psychological-allegorical level.  By ‘psychological’ I don’t mean in terms of modern materialist/reductionist psychology, but more along the lines of Platonic and ascetical psychology.  As previously discussed, Philo of Alexandria employed this level of interpretation with great success, and his work strongly influenced Patristic and medieval allegorical commentary of Scripture.  So there’s nothing radical or unorthodox about my proposal.

Still, despite believing this is a sound level of analysis, I’m hesitant to proceed for two reasons. The first is that I don’t perceive much ambient interest in this topic: it rather amazes me that more people today aren’t interested in Philonic interpretation as a way to better understand and apply the truths of Scripture.  Second, maybe allegories don’t need to be interpreted — but, rather, the whole purpose of visionary and apocalyptic literature is to communicate directly with the unconscious or subconscious mind using symbols.

Therefore let me take the middle path: to outline only some leading ideas — enough to suggest the lines along which a fuller interpretation might proceed.


The Book of Zechariah contains 14 chapters.  It was written by at least two different people.  Chapters 9−14 are distinct from the others, and Chapters 7−8 are potentially distinct from Chapters 1−6.  Chapters 1−8 were potentially written in the 6th century during the period of exile, and the rest in the 5th century in the post-exilic period.  Alternatively, at least Chapters 9−14 may date from the Hellenistic period.

Our guiding hermeneutic premises are:

• All persons referred to symbolize elements of the individual soul.  That is, a special case of the literary device of personification is employed.

• All Scripture refers to the salvation of the soul.  At one level, salvation involves a re-integration and re-harmonization of the soul, restoring it from its fragmented condition brought about by sin and fall from God.

• Israelites symbolize the holy and virtuous dispositions of the soul.

• The enemies of Israel symbolize our sinful, vicious and refractory dispositions. (It is to these Psalms 2:1 refers when it asks, Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?)

• Salvation involves, among other things (1) a renewed commitment of our inner Israelites to love and seek God and (2) punishment, ‘scattering’ and even destruction of our base elements.  This is somewhat complicated, of course, because, in a real sense, both the inner Israelites and the inner enemies *are* us.

• Amongst the virtuous elements or dispositions of our soul are certain leading ones — which help organize or guide the others.  For Philo, Moses symbolizes one such leading element.  In Zechariah, a new figure is presented:  Joshua, a High Priest, who helps effect salvation.  Traditionally this Joshua is interpreted as a symbol for Jesus Christ.  At a psychological level, we might understand him as symboizing an inner ‘image’ of Jesus Christ, a new addition to the personality, who helps lead the psyche to salvation.  Again, to speak of an inner image of Jesus Christ we are saying nothing that isn’t found in traditional Church writings.

Chapter 1

Characters: Zechariah, the word of the LORD, the LORD of hosts (possibly the same as the ‘word’); an angel amidst the myrtle trees riding a red horse.

Verse by verse commentary:

In the first vision, the angel is accompanied by red, white and speckled horses. “What are these?” Zechariah asks.  The angel replies, These are they whom the LORD hath sent to walk to and fro through the earth. (1.8).  The horses say to the angel, “We have walked to and fro through the earth, and, behold, all the earth sitteth still, and is at rest.” (1.11).

So the horses function in a way reminiscent of Conscience:  they roam the psyche, assessing its moral condition.  A similar trope is found in Hesiod’s Works and Days, in the Ages of Man Myth, concerning the first golden race:

But after the earth had covered this generation — they are called pure spirits (daimones hagnoi; δαίμονες ἁγνοὶ = holy spirits) dwelling on the earth, and are kindly, delivering from harm, and guardians of mortal men; for they roam everywhere over the earth, clothed in mist and keep watch on judgements and cruel deeds, givers of wealth. (WD 109–126).

This idea of roving monitors or ‘eyes of God’ is repeated later in the Book of Zechariah.

The favorable report of the horses suggests that Israel has now expiated its former sins, and is in a condition to merit restoration.

Psychological interpretation:  at some point during the process of moral and spiritual reformation, Conscience gives a favorable report.  There is no longer need for punishment and chastisement.  However, what remains is to subdue or eliminate the last vestiges of power amongst impious dispositions.

In the next vision Zechariah sees four horns (1:18).  These symbolize the Gentile nations that have scattered Israel.  Along with these Zechariah sees four carpenters (1:20).  These come to destroy and cast out the four horns.  At a psychological level, the Gentiles, as we have already said, would symbolize base, sinful and refractory dispositions of the soul.  The four carpenters would then symbolize new dispositions which effect the elimination of remaining resistance and oppression.

Chapter 2

Characters:  Zechariah, the first angel, a second angel.

Zechariah has a vision of a man with a measuring line.  The man is marking the dimensions of the new, restored Jerusalem. The angels, announce the message of the LORD of hosts: Jerusalem is to be restored and rebuilt, and many nations shall be joined to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people: and I will dwell in the midst of thee. (2:11)

Psychological interpretation:  A new, redeemed, prosperous kingdom of the soul is imminent.  God will dwell within such a soul, and will protect it.

Chapter 3

New characters: Joshua, Satan.

The angel reveals Joshua the high priest to Zechariah.  Joshua’s filthy garments are replaced with clean ones, and a fair mitre is placed on his head.  Joshua is appointed to judge and ‘hold court’ in the restored Jerusalem.  A stone with seven eyes is placed before Joshua.

Psychological interpretation:  As we suggested in the Introduction, it is natural to see Joshua as a new ruling personality element.  If Joshua is a symbol for Jesus, the redeemed personality, then, is poised to become remade, reconfigured and reconstructed on the pattern of Jesus Christ.  Compare this with St. Paul, who, when he says, I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. [Gal 2:20b]

Chapter 4

Next Zechariah has a vision of a golden candlstick with seven lamps.  The lamps are fed by oil flowing from two olive trees, one on the right and one on the left.  The angels says the lamps are the eyes of the LORD, which run to and fro through the whole earth (4:10), and the trees, are the two anointed ones, that stand by the LORD of the whole earth. [4:14]

Psychological interpretation:  The seven eyes which roam the earth remind us of the horses in Chapter 1.  Perhaps they too are symbolically connected with Conscience.  The details being so brief, any attempt to explain the meaning of the olive trees would be too speculative to pursue with any assurance of correctness.

Chapter 5

There are two visions.  The first is of a flying roll or scroll.  This is a “curse that goeth forth over the face of the whole earth” (5:1), that serves to “cut off” sinners.  In the second vision is of an ephah (a bushel basket).  Inside the ephah is a woman called wickedness.  The ephah is sealed with lead.  Two winged women carry the ephah to the land of Shinar.

Psychological interpretation:  The flying scroll may relate again to the theme of Conscience.  Sinful elements of the soul are somehow divided or sequestered from the virtuous elements.  The meaning of the ephah is enigmatic.  Wickedness is being shut up in such a way that it poses no immediate threat to inner Jerusalem.

Chapter 6

Again, two visions.  The first is of four chariots that emerge from two mountains of brass.  The chariots are drawn by red, black, white, and grizzled and bay horses. “What are these?” Zechariah asks.  The angel answers, “These are the four spirits of the heavens, which go forth from standing before the Lord of all the earth.” (6:5)

In the second vision Zechariah sees Joshua again. The word of the LORD commands that Joshua be given crowns of silver and gold, and says, Behold the man whose name is The BRANCH; and he shall grow up out of his place, and he shall build the temple of the LORD. (6:12)

Psychological interpretations:  The first vision reminds us of the horses in Chapter 1 and the seven eyes in Chapter 4, and again may have something to do with Conscience. In all of these cases, it’s interesting that these figures are all plural. Conscience (if that’s what they symbolize) is not represented by a single figure, but by multiple ones.  Could it be that such is how human conscience operates?  Are there multiple, autonomous ‘conscience complexes’ that operate in the mind?  (Cf. Marvin Minsky, 1986, who takes a cybernetic/systems theory to propose an ‘agent’ theory of the human mind.)

Chapter 7

Two years later the word of LORD comes to Zechariah.  He is instructed to tell the people that they have, hitherto, suffered scattering and desolation of the land because they did not heed the message of the prophets, and their penitential fasts were insincere.

Psychological interpretation:  scattering, disorganization and barrenness is the condition of the fallen psyche.

Chapter 8

The word of the LORD returns, now giving good news. If God was harsh with Israel before, it was only because He loved her so much.

Now the promise of restoration is made. So again have I thought in these days to do well unto Jerusalem and to the house of Judah: fear ye not. (8:15) But the people must be reminded: These are the things that ye shall do; Speak ye every man the truth to his neighbour; execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates: And let none of you imagine evil in your hearts against his neighbour; and love no false oath: for all these are things that I hate, saith the LORD. (8:16−17). Other nations will come to join Israel.

Psychological interpretation: The message is clearly one of hope.  Despite the suffering experienced in the fallen condition, God will heal and restore the genuinely repentant soul. The joining of other nations suggest a possible threefold division among personality elements:  (1) holy and virtuous ones (inner Israelites), (2) enemies of Israel (vicious dispositions which must be eliminated or somehow separated; and (3) a class of personality elements that are not inner Israelites, but which may be allied with them.  Perhaps (2) correspond to outright sinful dispositions, and (3) to interests in natural or sensible things that are not innately bad, but which must be properly ordered.

To be continued …

Much said in this post doubtless will seem incomplete and open to many questions.  However, the task is not an easy one.  All that has been attempted is to supply a first pass at the question.  It’s almost certainly not completely correct, even in what it does say. We might put the question thus, “If Philo were to interpret the Book of Zechariah, what would he say?”  He didn’t, of course, so we are left to conjecture.

However at least we have arguably accoplished one small thing: to establish that it is *possible* to meaningfully interpret the Book of Zechariah at a psychological-allegorical level.  That possibility supplies an alternative to (1) strict literal interpretation, and (2) a ‘typological’ interpretation (i.e., that merely sees Joshua as a prophecy of Jesus Christ coming in history).  If Zechariah is only a historical prophecy, it would have little practical relevance for us today, as the event it would be prophesying has already occurred.  The more pious and devout — or at least more spiritual — approach is to search each Book of the Bible for what it says about ones own salvation.

Lest we give the wrong impression, it is to be emphasized that this form of interpretation should not be approached as an exercise in rationalistic, academic scholarship.  It can be done in connection with the traditional lectio divina steps of reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation.  In that context it properly belongs to the meditation stage.  Among other things, it helps one focus attention on the details of a passage of Scripture.  The approach should not be so much “it must mean this” as “could it mean this?”  Absolutely essential to interpreting scripture in any case is prayer.  Contemplation goes beyond intellectual analysis by tapping supraconscious wells of inspiration.  Allow God to supply understanding at levels that cannot be expressed in words.


Minsky, Marvin. The Society of Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.

De septem septenis — Revelatio

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CONTINUING with our preceding posts, the fifth species of contemplation discussed in section 6 of the anonymous Christian medieval work, De septem septenis, is revelation (revelatio).  The anonymous author gives this very brief treatment.  Four examples are supplied.  The first is St. Peter’s dream in Acts 10, which, symbolically, instructed him to evangelize Gentiles. The second possibly refers to Dionysius of Alexandria, who was briefly imprisoned during a persecution of Christians. The third mentions Heraclius — the Emperor of Byzantium who returned the Cross to Jerusalem in 629 after reclaiming it from the Persians.  However the famous vision and revealed words, “In hoc vince” involve Constantine. The fourth mentions a vision that revealed to a certain priest the True Presence in the Eucharistic sacrament. For the author these illustrate, respectively, four purposes of revelation: for instruction (eruditionem), for consolation (consolationem), for devotion (devotionem), and for thanksgiving (gratiarum actionem).

Revelation is also treated very briefly in De contemplatione et ejus especiebus, but it adds several Old Testament examples.

18] Quinta species. Revelatio est occultorum per subiectam creaturam divina eruditio. Haec quadrifaria est. Prima Petro facta est linteo: Occide, inquit, macta et manduca; quod Deus mundavit, tu ne commune dixeris [Act. X]. Secunda facta est Dionysio in carcere posito: Accipe, inquit Christus, hoc chare, quod mox tibi complebo: una cum Patre meo.

18] Fifth species. Revelation is the divine learning of the hidden in created things. This is fourfold. The first is as with Peter. “Kill,” he was told, “kill and eat” And “what God has cleansed: you should not call common.” [Acts 10:10−28]. The second took place when Dionysius was put in prison, “Take,” says Christ, “take care of this, which I will soon complete for you: together with my Father.”

19] Tertia Heracleo, cui ostendit Christus crucem in coelo, nocte dicens: In hoc vince. Quarta facta est, ut Gregorius refert, cuidam presbytero, cui in sacramento altaris revelata est veritas Dominici corporis et sanguinis. Primus revelationis modus factus est ad eruditionem, secundus ad consolationem, tertius ad devotionem, quartus ad gratiarum actionem.

19] The third to Heraclius, to whom Christ showed the cross in heaven, saying at night: In hoc vince  (“By this you shall conquer.”) The fourth took place, as Gregory relates, to a certain priest, to whom was revealed the truth of the Lord’s body and blood in the sacrament of the altar. The first mode of revelation was made for learning, the second for consolation, the third for devotion, the fourth for thanksgiving.


Baron, Roger (ed.). De contemplatione et ejus speciebus (La Contemplation et Ses Espèces). Desclée, 1955.

Giles, J. A. (ed.). De septem septenis. In: Joannis Saresberiensis postea episcopi camotensis opera omnia, vol. V: Opuscula.  Oxford, 1848; 209−238. Reprinted in Jacques-Paul Migne, J. P. Patrologia Latina, vol. 199, cols. 945−965. Paris, 1855. [Latin text] [Latin text]

Hauréau, Barthélemy (ed.). Hugues de Saint-Victor. Paris, 1859; De contemplatione et ejus speciebus, pp. 96−102, 177−210.

Németh, Csaba. Fabricating philosophical authority in the Twelfth Century: The Liber Egerimion and the De septem septenisAuthorities in the Middle Ages. De Gruyter, 2013; 69−87.

De septem septenis — Emissio

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THE SIXTH  form or species of contemplation in Section 6 of De septem septenis (as we continue our translation) is emissio, that is, ’emissions’ or products. These are likened to trees and fruits.  Much here is unclear, such as the number of these growths, their relationship to each other, and their relationship to other forms of contemplation discussed, such as soliloquium and circumspectio.  There is also the question of why these ’emissions’ are considered a separate species of contemplation, as opposed to fruits of contemplation.

The source from which the anonymous author drew, Section 13 of De contemplatione et ejus speciebus, contains more detail, but doesn’t resolve these questions (Baron’s critical edition — which I have not consulted — may be helpful here). It begins with a citation from Canticles, A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed. Thy plants are an orchard. [Cant 12−13a].

20] Sexta species. Emissio est ad sui commodum, divinitus erudita mentis illustratio. Septem sunt emissiones quasi septem arbores, de quibus in libro Sapientiae legitur: Quasi cedrus exaltata sum in Libano, et quasi cypressus in monte Sion. Quasi palma exaltata sum in Cades, et quasi plantatio roseti in Iericho; quasi oliva spirans in campis et quasi platanus iuxta aquam in plateis [Eccli. XXIV]. Prima est fructus poenitentiae, secunda opus misericordiae, tertia amor iustitiae, quarta rigor mortificationis, quinta dulcedo contemplationis, sexta gaudium futurae felicitatis, septima arbor vitae iis, qui apprehenderint eam; et qui tenuerit eam, beatus.

20] The sixth species. Emissio is a divinely trained enlightenment of the mind for its own benefit. There are seven emissions, like the seven trees, of which it is read in the book of Wisdom: I am exalted as a cedar in Lebanon, and as a cypress on Mount Zion. I am exalted as a palm tree in Kadesh, and as a planting of a rose in Jericho; like an olive growing in the fields, and like a plane tree by the water in the streets. [Sirach 24: 13−14]*

* KJV: [13] I was exalted like a cedar in Libanus, and as a cypress tree upon the mountains of Hermon; [14] I was exalted like a palm tree in En-gaddi, and as a rose plant in Jericho, as a fair olive tree in a pleasant field, and grew up as a plane tree by the water.

The first is the fruit of repentance, the second the work of mercy, the third the love of justice, the fourth the rigor of mortification, the fifth the sweetness of contemplation, the sixth the joy of future happiness, the seventh the tree of life for those who have grasped it; and he who holds it, blessed.**

** The quoted verses from Sirach only mention six trees.

21] Septem sunt arbores et septem locorum varietates. In valle namque sunt poenitentes, in plano misericordes, in civitate disciplinam exercentes, in monte crucem Christi baiulantes, mundo crucifixi in specula contemplativi; in Libano perfecti candorem innocentiae adepti, et ad tertium coelum rapti. Haec sunt septem mulieres in Isaia, quae apprehendent virum unum in die illa: prima parit lacrymas et gemitus, secunda venialium reatuum saluberrimos cruciatus, tertia compassionis suavissimos affectus, quarta mundi, carnis et peccati odia, quinta virtutum et regni coelorum desideria, de sexta oritur ineffabilis actionis gratia, de septima arcanorum coelestium intelligentia, mentisque mundissimae incomparabilis gloria.

21] There are seven trees and seven varieties of places. For in the valley they are penitents, on the plain they are merciful, in the city exercising discipline, on the mountain praising the cross of Christ, the world crucified in their contemplative mirrors, when they were perfected in Lebanon having obtained the whiteness of innocence, and were raptured to the third heaven.

These are the seven women in Isaiah [Isa 4:1−2] who will seize one man in that day: the first gives birth to tears and groans, the second the salutary crucifixion of venial sins, the third the sweetest feelings of compassion, the fourth hatred of the world, flesh and sin, the fifth desires virtues and the kingdom of heaven, from the sixth arises the ineffable actual grace (?) [actionis gratia], the seventh, intelligence of heavenly secrets, and the incomparable glory of the purest mind.


Baron, Roger (ed.). De contemplatione et ejus speciebus (La Contemplation et Ses Espèces). Desclée, 1955.

Giles, J. A. (ed.). De septem septenis. In: Joannis Saresberiensis postea episcopi camotensis opera omnia, vol. V: Opuscula.  Oxford, 1848; 209−238. Reprinted in Jacques-Paul Migne, J. P. Patrologia Latina, vol. 199, cols. 945−965. Paris, 1855. [Latin text] [Latin text]

Hauréau, Barthélemy (ed.). Hugues de Saint-Victor. Paris, 1859; De contemplatione et ejus speciebus, pp. 96−102, 177−210.

Németh, Csaba. Fabricating philosophical authority in the Twelfth Century: The Liber Egerimion and the De septem septenisAuthorities in the Middle Ages. De Gruyter, 2013; 69−87.

St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain — Spiritual and Proper Delights of the Mind

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Cover art by William Bakos (detail)

ARECURRING topic here is the grandeur and divinity of the human soul.  St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite (1749−1809) is best known as the compiler of the Philokalia.  However among his other works is one titled A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, which contains a section, ‘The Spiritual and Proper Delights of the Mind.’

There are two ways to reach a proper contempt of the world.  The first — the harder way — is from experience of the frustration, disappointment and ultimate futility of seeking happiness in worldly pleasures.  The second — much better — is to experience the delights of spiritual mindedness.  As St. Nicodemus puts it:

When the spiritual beauty is revealed to the soul and when it tastes the spiritual delights, then the formerly desirable pleasures of the body are hated and rejected. The whole reason why the physical pleasures are loved is the fact that the mind has not yet attained a vision and has not tasted a more sublime delight than the physical ones.”
Source: Chamberas, 228.

Below are a some excerpts from the Paulist Press edition in the Classics of Western Spirituality series.

The Six Areas of Spiritual Delight

Have you guarded your external senses so that they do not partake of the physical delights? I lave you guarded the external sense of imagination so that it does not receive impressions of evil passions? Have you also guarded your mind and your heart from passions and evil thoughts? Listen now to what are the spiritual and proper delights of the mind, about which we said a few things at the beginning. I suppose there are six main sources or areas from which the proper delights are born and derived. These may be ennumerated as follows:

  1. Doing the divine commandments and fulfilling the will of God.
  1. Acquiring the God-enacted virtues.
  1. Reading and understanding the word of God in Sacred Scriptures.
  1. Contemplating the reason and beauty of creation.
  1. Knowing the reason for the incarnate economy of the Son of God.
  1. Contemplating upon the attributes and perfections of God.

Each of these topics will be discussed briefly, for if one were to attempt a thorough discussion one would have to write many books.
Source: Chamberas, 173.

How the Mind Glorifies God with All of the Creatures

The mind of man is not alone in glorifying and magnifying the Creator and loving father of the whole of creation, who, out of his abundant goodness, has produced so many thousands upon thousands, myriads upon myriads, millions upon millions of creatures — spiritual, physical, animate, inanimate, rational, irrational, adorned with such a variety of essences, powers, organs, energies, and perfections. The mind of man is filled by a sort of fulness, so to speak, of joy and gladness and is not pleased to glorify God alone, but as the appointed leader of all the visible creation, man is able to gather unto himself all the creatures that are subject to him and to formulate an all-harmonious choir. Thus, man glorifies God first and then moves the rest of the creatures through  a fine personification to glorify him also, and to praise their Creator. Now, man calls upon all of these creatures together with the three Children: “Let all the works of the Lord glorify the Lord; praise and magnify him throughout the ages.” And with David we say, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” (Ps 150:6). Man is desirous to see these creatures acquire minds too and tongues and words to proclaim to all the almighty power and the transcendent goodness and wisdom of God, which he has poured out upon them. The divine Creator has not only created them out of nothing and given them existence, but also continuously provides for them everything needed for their preservation and well-being.

How the Mind Rejoices When It Considers Its Own Value

The mind especially rejoices — oh, how it rejoices! — when it glorifies its own architect, its omniscient Creator, God! When the mind returns to contemplate itself and paradoxically becomes its own — the seer and the one seen, the thinker and the one thought about — it realizes that among all the creatures of the whole world, only the mind has been lavished with so many gifts and has been glorified and honored above the angels and above all the creatures of the visible world. The mind has been honored more than the angels because the angels, not being united to a body, are consequently without a spirit that is life-giving to the body, according to St. Gregory Palamas. The mind, however, being united to a body, has consequently also a spirit that is life-giving to its own body. The mind, moreover, has been honored above all the visible and physical creatures because only the mind has been created in the image and likeness of its ow n Creator; the mind is the head and king of all this expansive sphere of earthly creations. It is also receptive of everlasting blessedness, since it has the natural attribute—if only it would observe the commandments of its Creator — to be united with its prototype and to become willingly by grace what its Creator is by nature. That is to say, the mind has the capacity to be deified and to become divine. As the meditative mind of the prophet David pondered upon these things, he had this to say about the magnificent value of man: “You have crowned him with glory and honor; you have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea” (Ps 8:5-8).
Source: Chamberas, 1989 200 f.

Having read Holy Scripture very carefully, you should also read the holy Fathers who interpret the Scriptures. You will receive no less delight from reading the Fathers than you do from the Scriptures. The Fathers develop the hidden meanings in Scripture and with their own writings help us to understand what we did not before. Because of that philosophic axiom that all men by nature seek knowledge, we must say that great delight follows naturally when we learn about hidden and unknown matters. This is why there will be ineffable joy and gladness that will come to your soul from the interpretations and the words of the holy Fathers. You too will be shouting, as did David, those enthusiastic words in the Psalms.
Ibid., 190.

When the mind rises through the creatures to the Creator and discerns that the reasons in the creatures have similitude with their Creator, the positive or cataphatic theology is used to name God positively — wise, good, creator, light, sun, air, fire and all of the beings as their Cause. But when the mind rises in the Spirit and supernaturally to the Creator and envisions the spiritual reality that God is unlike all the creatures and incomparably beyond them, then the mind uses the apophatic and transcendent theology to name God apophatically and transcendently as more-than-wise, more-than-good. Thus God is not a sun, nor light, nor fire, nor air, nor anything else from among the created beings.
Ibid., 197

As St. John Chrysostom (Commentary on Psalm 9) explained: What does it mean to “be glad and exult in thee”? (Ps 9,2). It means that I have such a master that he is my delight and my joy. Whoever knows this delight as it should be known does not feel any other. For this is delight itself, while everything else is only names of delight. This joy causes man to be lifted up; it causes the soul to be free of the body; it flies toward heaven; it raises me beyond the worldly cares; it relieves us from evil.
Ibid., 215

The (human) mind of course is by nature a lover of the good and seeks always to understand the best and the highest. It is drawn by the delight of having communication and participation in the divine perfections and so it seeks with all of its power to rise to the highest of these. Now since the mind is finite and therefore cannot contain the infinite, it realizes that that which it was unable to comprehend is much higher and much more delightful than that which it did understand. Thus, it marvels and ponders and does not know what will come of this amazement. In this state the mind is filled with divine love and kindles the soul with strong desires that are the result of a divine love and delight that is in turn provoked by the comprehensible aspect of the incomprehensible God and the ensuing questions that are raised. This divine love purifies the mind; purified, the mind becomes more godlike.
Ibid., 216 f.

In other words, in all the virtues and good works which the mind uses, it must keep before itself as an example and an image the natural attributes and the perfections of God. These must be imitated as much as possible and through works one must prove that his mind is cultivated and refined by these perfections. St. Paul has urged all Christians to “be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph 5:1).
Ibid., 219

What the Sun Is to Physical Things, God Is to Spiritual Things

St. Gregory the Theologian (Homily on St. Athanasius the Great) said succinctly and wisely something which he borrowed from Plato:

What the sun is to physical things, God is to spiritual things. For the one gives light to the visible world and the other to the invisible world. The one makes the bodily visions to be like the sun, and the other makes the spiritual natures to be like God. Moreover, the sun makes it possible for those who see to see and for those that are seen to be seen, and of the objects that are seen the sun is the best. So, also with God. To those who think and to those who are thought about, God makes it possible for the thinkers to think and for those thought about to be thought about. And of those realities thought about, God is the ultimate reality, where every appeal ends since there is nothing beyond God.
Ibid., 221


Chamberas, Peter A. (tr., ed.).  Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain: A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel. Classics of Western Spirituality. Paulist Press, 1989; The Spiritual and Proper Delights of the Mind; pp. 173−227. []

Written by John Uebersax

January 2, 2023 at 12:47 am

Richard of St. Victor — Philo Redivivus

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RICHARD OF ST. VICTOR‘s (1110−1173) psychological-allegorical interpretations are exceptional — arguably as good as those of Philo of Alexandria. The two best known examples are his works Benjamin Minor and Benjamin Major.  The first interprets the 12 sons of Jacob allegorically, each son symbolizing a particular virtue — leading up to the youngest sons, Benjamin and Joseph, who symbolize contemplation and discretion, respectively.  Benjamin Major builds on this in a long discussion of contemplation.  Here the framework is a detailed interpretation of the details of the Ark of the Covenant.  In both these works Richard uses allegorical interpretation to great effect.  One never feels he is forcing interpretations or imposing foreign meanings.  Rather — as with Philo — one has the sense that he has, in an inspired way, tapped genuine, deeper spiritual meanings of Scripture.

Benjamin Minor and Benjamin Major are not the only works where Richard displays his remarkable skill in allegoresis.  Another example is the little known work, De exterminatione male et promotione boni (On the Extermination of Bad and the Promotion of Good).*  In a broad sense, the theme it treats is the advancement of the soul through the three ascetical-mystical stages of purification, illumination and unification.  For this, he refers to the two water crossings of the Israelites:  first the crossing of the Red Sea as they enter the wilderness, and second, their crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering.

* Draft English translation is here.  Latin version is here.

Like Philo, Richard sees Egypt as bondage to the flesh.  Hence the first crossing symbolizes the soul that attains contempt of the world.  In turning from the world, the soul turns inward.  Over time, as it comes to know itself, it realizes its own innate proneness to folly, pride and sin — the root cause of which is love of self.  Symbolically, crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land occurs when the soul reverses the course of its affective energies (just as, in Joshua 3, the Jordan reverses course, enabling the Israelites to cross) from cupidity to charity.

The actual crossing, for Richard, symbolizes contemplation. The twelve stones that Joshua gathers after the crossing and uses to build a memorial, symbolize twelve supporting virtues.  The spies that Joshua first sends into the Promised Land represent ‘pre-meditation’ upon the things that contemplation actually experiences.  Here Richard shows his practical insight into the contemplative life.  To reach high degrees of contemplation — e.g., the intoxication of divine ecstasy — we must yearn for them.  And to stimulate the affections to this yearning, first we must begin by meditating on and considering divine things.

In Joshua 3, first the priests carry the Ark of the Covenant across the Jordan.  Then the Jews follow at a distance of 2000 cubits.  As Richard discussed in Benjamin Major, the Ark of the Covenant is a symbol for contemplation.  The Jews that follow symbolize our other dispositions — including those that connect us with the material world.  These reach the Promised Land in a transformed condition, once the soul’s affections have been properly reoriented to charity through virtue, meditation and contemplation.  So Richard sees in all this not a dour, world-denying asceticism, but an integral psychology, in which our entire self — body, mind, soul and spirit — is transformed and renewed.

Also like Philo, Richard has remarkable attention to detail; no word in Scripture is seen as superfluous.  And also like Philo, his allegorical interpretations avoid excess by staying focused on a single psychological theme.  This is unlike St. Augustine and Origen, who often shift levels of interpretation — say, from psychological, to typological (i.e., interpretation based on the premise that figures and events in the Old Testament prefigure those of the New Testament), to ecclesial (seeing the Old Testament as symbolizing the Church and its sacraments).


Richard of St. Victor, De exterminatione mali et promotione boni (On the Extermination of Bad the Promotion of Good), J. P. Migne, Patrologia Latina vol. 196 1073C−1116C.  Paris, 1855.  [Latin text]

Zinn, Grover A. (tr.). Richard of St. Victor: The Twelve Patriarchs (Benjamin Minor), The Mystical Ark (Benjamin Major) and Book Three of The Trinity. Paulist Press, 1979.

De septem septenis — Meditatio

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WE continue our series of posts on Book 6 of De septem septenis (On the Seven Sevens), which discusses seven forms of contemplation: meditatio, soliloquium, circumspectio, ascensio, revelatio, emissio and inspiratio.  Below is a translation of the section on meditatio.

In this short section the anonymous author has two main aims.  The first is to establish a connection between reading, meditation and contemplation: meditation follows reading (usually Scripture), and is followed by contemplation.  Second, it presents three classes of things meditated on, as suggested by reading:  morals (the beauties of morality and perils of immorality), God’s ‘commandments,’ and divine works.  Whether these are to be understood in a literal or psychological sense is not clear.  A literal view might be that God’s commandments are his laws by which creation is organized and governed in a good, just and harmonious whole, and divine works are God’s works.  A more psychological interpetation would be that God’s commandments are inspirations, guidances and promptings which lead the soul, and divine works are things we do under such guidance.

SECT. VI. Sexta septena de septem generibus contemplationis.

SECT. 6. The sixth of the seven kinds of contemplation.

1] Sexta septena de septem generibus contemplationis sequitur, in quibus anima requiescens iucundius immoratur. Septem sunt contemplationis genera, meditatio, soliloquium, circumspectio, ascensio, revelatio, emissio, inspiratio. Meditatio est in consilio frequens cogitatio, quae causam et originem, modum et utilitatem uniuscuiusque rei prudenter investigat.

1] The sixth seventh of the seven kinds of contemplation follows, in which the resting soul dwells more pleasantly. There are seven kinds of contemplation: meditation, soliloquy, circumspection, ascent, revelation, emission, and inspiration.

2] Meditatio principium sumit a lectionis scrutatione; nullis stringitur regulis vel praeceptis lectionis; delectatur enim quodam aperto spatio decurrere, ubi liberam affigat rationem veritatis contemplandae, et nunc has nunc illas rerum causas perstringere, nunc autem profunda quaeque penetrare, nihil anceps, nihil obscurum relinquere. Principium ergo doctrinae in lectione, consummatio in lectionis scrutatione, contemplatio in scrutationis meditatione.

2] Meditation takes its beginning from scrutinous reading; [lectionis scrutatione] it is bound by no rules or precepts of reading; for it delights in running about in a kind of open space, where it is left free to contemplate the truth — now to grasp these things and now those causes of things, and now to penetrate deep things, leaving nothing uncertain, nothing obscure. Therefore, the beginning of teaching is in reading: reading is consummated by study, study and meditation in contemplation.

3] Trimodum vero meditationis est genus, unum constat in speculatione morum, aliud in scrutatione mandatorum, tertium in investigatione divinorum operum, et ita fit contemplationis exordium. Cum enim animus a Scripturarum meditatione in orationem, ab oratione in lectionem digreditur, miseriam praesentium, poenam damnatorum et praemia iustorum vere contemplatur.

3] But three are meditation’s kinds. One consists in the observation of morals, another in the scrutiny of commandments, the third in the investigation of divine works.* Thus is the beginning of contemplation. For when the mind turns from meditation on the Scriptures to prayer, digressing from reading to prayer, he contemplates truly the misery of the present, the punishment of the damned, and the rewards of the just.

* De contemplatione et ejus speciebus, on which Book 6 of De septem is based, inserts this here: “But morals consist in vices and virtues; the divine command commanding one thing, forbidding another, permitting another; the work of God is that which creates power, and that which is moderated by wisdom, and that which cooperates with grace. How much all these things are worthy of admiration, each one knows so much the more the more attentively he is accustomed to meditate on the wonders of God.”

4] Deinde praemiorum amore tractus et poenarum timore tactus, descendit ad suorum memoriam delictorum. Qui dum culpam propriam cognoscit, alienae ignoscit, et ideo post memoriam delictorum descendit ad compassionem proximorum. In meditatione Scripturarum saepius laboramus, timentes ne praemium iustorum amittamus; in memoria delictorum gemimus, ne cum damnatis simus, in compassione proximorum, ut bonum opus diligamus.

4] Then, drawn by the love of rewards and touched by the fear of punishments, he proceeds [descendit] to the remembrance of his own offenses. He who, while he knows his own fault, forgives that of others, and therefore, after the remembrance of his offences, proceeds to the compassion of his neighbours. So we labor often in the meditation of the Scriptures, fearing lest we should lose the reward of the righteous; we groan in remembrance of our transgressions, lest we be with the condemned, in compassion for our neighbors, that we may love good work.

5] Sic igitur cum tota mentis tranquillitate meditando oramus vel legimus, in contemplatione quiescimus.

5] Thus, when we pray or read while meditating with complete a tranquil mind, we rest in contemplation.


Baron, Roger (ed.). De contemplatione et ejus speciebus (La Contemplation et Ses Espèces). Desclée, 1955.

Giles, J. A. (ed.). De septem septenis. In: Joannis Saresberiensis postea episcopi camotensis opera omnia, vol. V: Opuscula.  Oxford, 1848; 209−238. Reprinted in Jacques-Paul Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. 199, cols. 945−965. Paris, 1855. [Latin text] [Latin text]

Hauréau, Barthélemy (ed.). Hugues de Saint-Victor. Paris, 1859; De contemplatione et ejus speciebus, pp. 96−102, 177−210.

Németh, Csaba. Fabricating philosophical authority in the Twelfth Century: The Liber Egerimion and the De septem septenis. Authorities in the Middle Ages. De Gruyter, 2013; 69−87.


Short Commentary on Psalm 56

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British Library Arundel MS 157 f.53v

PSALMS is one of the Widom Books of the Old Testament.  It’s important to understand its psychological and sapiential meanings. Here, as we’ve already done with a few other Psalms, we interpret Psalm 56 (using the King James Version numbering).

[1] Be merciful unto me, O God: for man would swallow me up; he fighting daily oppresseth me.

Man here means the Old Man within onself, the fleshy man, the Old Adam, the carnal, worldly mind.

[2] Mine enemies would daily swallow me up: for they be many that fight against me, O thou most High.

The carnal mind creates thoughts that swallow up our divine, spiritual consciousness.

[3] What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee.

Our main response must be to trust God.  If we *worry* about  carnal thoughts, we feed the carnal mind.  In a sense, the carnal mind is the same as egoistic thinking, which characteristically overvalues it’s own imnportance and ability.

We can’t defeat egoistic thinking by egoistic thinking.  Our recourse must be to God.  That isn’t to say there are no steps we can take ourselves.  But the heavy lifting here must be done by God.  We must pray for grace, assistance and guidance.

[4] In God I will praise his word, in God I have put my trust; I will not fear what flesh can do unto me.

Returning to the condition of praising God is our aim.  This is our highest joy.

[5] Every day they wrest my words: all their thoughts are against me for evil.
[6] They gather themselves together, they hide themselves, they mark my steps, when they wait for my soul.

There are many tactics by which the carnal mind seeks to maintain power.  At a biological level, it manifests itself as complexes.  These can both join together and hide themselves.

[7] Shall they escape by iniquity? in thine anger cast down the people, O God.
[8] Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?

The wandering mind.  The effect of carnal mindedness is to temporarily alienate our consciousness from God.  This painful separation, for one who has tasted of communion with God, is cause for tears.

[9] When I cry unto thee, then shall mine enemies turn back: this I know; for God is for me.
[10] In God will I praise his word: in the LORD will I praise his word.
[11] In God have I put my trust: I will not be afraid what man can do unto me.
[12] Thy vows are upon me, O God: I will render praises unto thee.

Call on God’s help.  Praise God.  Give thanks.  Upon returning to a condition of thanksgiving, the carnal mind is subdued.

[13] For thou hast delivered my soul from death: wilt not thou deliver my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living?

The swallowing up of spiritual mindedness by carnal mindedness is truly a kind of death.  It is disconnected from reality, from truth. Spiritual mindedness is life.

Written by John Uebersax

December 20, 2022 at 3:49 am

Richard of St. Victor: De exterminatione mali et promotione boni

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Crossing the Jordan, William Hole (detail)

AWORK of Richard of St. Victor, De exterminatione mali et promotione boni (On the Extermination of Bad the Promotion of Good)*, has received little attention.  It’s subject is the process of self-transformation, beginning with such purgative virtues as contempt of the world, self-contempt and contrition, and proceeding to positive moral virtues, culminating in contemplation.  Below is a translation of the final chapter — a discussion of contemplation and ecstasy — and the subtitles of all chapters.  In the Bibliography is a link to the Latin text.

* Draft English translation is here.  Latin version is here.

CHAPTER XVIII. On Quiet Contemplation.

We can find the twelfth stone, and the last of all, as I think, at the Lord’s tomb.* It has been said, as has been said above, that the stone is the tranquility of contemplation. Of this kind, that Joseph of Arimathea cut a stone for his tomb, but Jesus rested dead in it, because the rest which prudence seeks for itself through meditation, and describes through definition, wisdom through contemplation, he found it, and by experiment he apprehended it. True prudence always seeks, and must always seek that peace which Christ taught, that it may not be troubled or afraid. He always seeks where he can find such peace, he always strives to defend his true security, but he always finds something to grieve over the past, something to attack in the present, something to be wary of and afraid of the future. Therefore, the mind can skillfully seek this peace through prudence, and investigate it with precision through meditation, but it will never be able to find it except through wisdom and the grace of contemplation.

*Treatise 3 discusses twelve virtues that are essential to the soul’s good.  Throughout Richard refers allegorically to the 12 stones of the monument of Gilgal that Joshua built to memorialize the miracle of the Israelites’ crossing the Jordan. (Josh 4).  The 12th virtue/stone, contemplation, he also associates with the sepulchre in which Jesus’ body rested for 3 days.  Richard supplies a comparable moral-allegorical exegesis of the 12 sons of Jacob (and therefore the 12 tribes of Israel, each one of which is associated with a stone in Joshua 4) in his masterpiece, Benjamin Major.

But when the mind began to go beyond itself through pure intelligence, and into that clear, incorporeal light, to enter completely, and to draw from what he sees inwardly a certain taste of inmost sweetness, and from it to build his intelligence, and to turn it into wisdom; meanwhile, in this ecstasy [mentis excessu], that peace which neither disturbs nor frightens, is found and obtained, so that it becomes silence in heaven for half an hour [Rev. 8:1], so that the mind of the beholder is disturbed by no tumult of conflicting thoughts: you will find nothing at all, either to ask for through desire, or to argue with through disgust, or to accuse through hatred. He who is buried in this stone, who is completely collected and concluded within the tranquility of contemplation, is composed for the highest peace. For this stone, like that of Jacob*, is not placed on the head alone, nor, like the latter, is it placed under the feet, but on the whole it is grasped and applied to the body. This stone, therefore, surrounds the whole body, includes the whole, and grasps it from every side, because that peace which surpasses all sense, thoroughly absorbs all human sense, and turns into a certain divine attitude the purer part of the soul by a successful transfiguration. Here lies the body without sense or motion in this Sunday monument [Dominico monumento]; Sensuality does nothing, the imagination does nothing, and all the lower power of the soul is put on its proper duty in the meantime.

For this stone monument (like the stone recumbent of the patriarch Jacob) does not receive a living body, however asleep, nor does it receive a body unless it is mortified. It is one thing to sleep, it is another thing to endure. Another thing is to collect his whole spirit into himself, and it is another thing to rise above oneself and to abandon oneself. It is one thing to have controlled the appetite, and to have cut off the external cares of the heart, and it is another thing to forget oneself. It is necessary, therefore, before it is permitted to enter into that secret of the most intimate repose and the arcanum of the utmost tranquillity; it is necessary, I say, that it should be very serious and truly wonderful, not the dissolution of soul and body, but something else much more wonderful and much more glorious than this, namely, that of which this is the type, namely, the division of soul and spirit. But this is what the Apostle testifies, that he is the living and efficacious word of God, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit. [Heb 4:12]

What, I pray thee, is seen anywhere in this division of creatures, where that which is essentially one and an individual is divided into itself, and that which is simple in itself and consists without parts is divided and separated from itself? For in one man there is not one essence of his spirit and another essence of his soul, but one and the same simple substance of nature. For in this twin term a twin substance is not meant; but when the twin forces of the same essence are used for distinction, one superior is designated by spirit, the other inferior by soul. In this division, therefore, the soul and that which is animal remains in the bottom; but the spirit and that which is spiritual flies to the top.

That which is corpulent and stiff as a dead body fails, and falls back on itself and under himself; that which is subtle and exuded as a breathed-out spirit ascends and transcends within and beyond itself. O deep rest, O sublime rest, where everything that is usually moved by human beings loses all movement, where everyone who is then moved becomes divine and passes into God! This Spirit, breathed out, and entrusted to the hands of the Father, does not, like that dreamer Jacob, need a ladder, in order to fly to the third, not to say to the first, heaven. What need, I pray thee, of a ladder, which the Father holds between his hands, to rapture to the secrets of the third heaven, so that he may glory and say: Thy right hand received me. Did you hold my right hand and lead me in your will, and received me with glory? (Psa 18:35; cf. Psa 16:11, 17:7)

Therefore the Spirit has no work; here he is removed from the middle of the duty of the ladder, and does not need to be supported in that ascent of his subtlety by the shadow [adumbratione] of any bodily likeness, where he sees face to face, not through a mirror, and in an enigma. I would be lying if they did not say the same about themselves who are like him: But we all, they say, beholding the glory of the Lord with our face revealed, are transformed into the same image from brightness to brightness, as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3). You certainly see what he is doing, and you understand, as I think, what is the value of that division of soul and spirit, of which we have already spoken above.

The spirit is divided from the lowest in order to rise to the highest. The spirit is separated from the soul in order to unite with the Lord. For he who clings to the Lord is one spirit. A happy division, and an expectable separation, where what is recognized as passible, that which is corruptible, dies in the meantime by its passions, so much so that nothing of passibility, nothing of corruption is felt in the meantime; where also that which is spiritual, that which is subtle, is sublimated even to the contemplation of the divine glory, and is transformed into the same image. Therefore the lower part is composed for the utmost peace and tranquillity, while the upper part is sublimated for glory and delight. Thus we recognized the face of Moses (certainly the upper part of the body) glorified by the company of the Lord, so that the children of Israel could not focus on his face because of his brightness. Who, I pray thee, is worthy to say, who is sufficient to explain what excssive perfection the spirit acquires in its glorification, even though it does not extend the prolongation of its pilgrimage to the third day, even if it does not produce a delay of silence for half an hour, and may go and return in likeness a flash of lightning?

Thus Moses, from the company of the divine conversation, with a glorified countenance also brings back the horns, showing what valor and what courage he has contracted from his company, who gives courage and strength to his people, blessed God. Then at last it returns, and that spirit which had gone far beyond itself, and which it had placed as passible and corruptible, resumes, as it were, impassive and incorruptible, in comparison with its former state, and rises again into newness of life. What do you think of being cheerful at an injury, not blushing at an insult, and rejoicing in trouble? Is not this to walk in the newness of life, and in some way to show oneself impassible and not subject to ones passions? Behold how long those who rest on this stone advance.

Note: The soul acquires durable virtues, useful in the material world, from contemplation.

There are many things that could have been said about this matter, if they had to be said in this place and did not exceed the measure of moderate digression. For I think that this last kind of stone is the most worthy and precious of all. However, we must not reject anything, but at least ask each one about each one, and gather them together.

It must be noted that this is the first work that is commanded to be done in the Promised Land, so that an eternal memorial of the divine works may be established first of all. For without this heaping of stones, that Sunday promise of an eternal inheritance will never be firmly acquired, never securely possessed. For he who forgets the benefits received from God [beneficiorum divinitus] does not deserve to be promoted to obtain greater ones.


CHAPTER I. (no subheading)

CHAPTER II. Of the double confession, and the double promotion [advancement].

CHAPTER III. How the confession of a crime is effective for the extermination of evil.

CHAPTER IV. How the confession of praise is useful for the promotion of good.

CHAPTER V. That the first promotion of virtue is in the contempt of the world.

CHAPTER VI The second promotion of virtue is in self-contempt.

CHAPTER VII. How by the contempt of the world is the extermination of evil.

CHAPTER VIII. That a contrite mind is now a helper, now a support of good.

CHAPTER IX Of useful and useless contrition.

CHAPTER X. Of the twin compunction of the heart.

CHAPTER XI. Of vain and true contempt of the world

CHAPTER XII. How difficult it is to reach complete self-contempt.

CHAPTER XIII. By these methods the mind is trained to complete self-contempt.

CHAPTER 14 That superfluous love of self is more difficult to overcome among the successes of the virtues.

CHAPTER XV. How gradually the mind is to be advanced to self-contempt.

CHAPTER XVI How the mind, exhausted by vain love, expands in the love of God.

CHAPTER XVII. Of the failure of vain love, and the beginning of true love.

CHAPTER XVIII. How through the want of vain love the disorders of the mind fail.

CHAPTER XIX With what caution we ought to remove disorders of the heart.

From this point on the subject is the study of contemplation, and how or how much it is worth for the reformation of true love.

CHAPTER I (no subheading)

CHAPTER II. How the investigation and revision of salubrious things is valid for correcting the mind.

CHAPTER III. It is easier to correct the mind than to penetrate into its inmost parts.

CHAPTER IV. It may be worth while to linger longer in the contemplation of our weakness with profound wonder.

CHAPTER V. How, after full self-correction, the soul is introduced to the contemplation of the eternal.

CHAPTER VI That in the future life, after the contemplation of the eternal, the mind is relaxed to all the satisfaction of its desire.

CHAPTER VII. How some, even in this life, are lifted up to the contemplation of the eternal.

CHAPTER VIII. It is always necessary to anticipate by the study of contemplation where we should aim by desire.

CHAPTER IX Of the twin imperfections which must always be kept in mind.

CHAPTER X. An example or form of a proposed consideration.

CHAPTER XI. Of those things which pertain to meditation or contemplation, and how much they are capable of promoting the virtue of such captives.

CHAPTER XII. On the double premeditation, that is, of rewards and merits.

CHAPTER XIII. How we must insist more strongly on the prospect of prizes.

CHAPTER XIV. The merits of this speculation consist in two things.

CHAPTER XV. What is meditation, and what is contemplation.

Hitherto the promotion of good, formerly of the confirmation of the same.

CHAPTER I. (no subheading)

CHAPTER II. On the confirmation of the mind in good and the hardening of the mind in evil.

CHAPTER III. Of the evil of presumption or despair.

CHAPTER IV. How, from the remembrance of our evils, we ought to check our presumption.

CHAPTER V. How we ought to repel despair from the remembrance of our goods.

CHAPTER VI Of the twelve principal virtues in which the mind is to be strengthened.

CHAPTER VII. On the solidity of fear.

CHAPTER VIII. On the severity of compunction.

CHAPTER IX On long-suffering hope.

CHAPTER X. On the integrity of charity.

CHAPTER XI. On mature pleasure.

CHAPTER XII. On rugged severity.

CHAPTER XIII. On austere abstinence.

CHAPTER XIV. On the strength of patience.

CHAPTER XV. The concern of the circumspection.

CHAPTER XVI On assiduous speculation.

CHAPTER XVII. Of the certainty of discretion.

CHAPTER XVIII. On quiet contemplation.


Richard of St. Victor, De exterminatione mali et promotione boni (On the Extermination of Bad the Promotion of Good), J. P. Migne, Patrologia Latina vol. 196 1073C−1116C.  Paris, 1855.  [Latin text]