Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

The Allegorical Meaning of Jesus Walking on Water

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Jesus Walks on the Water, Ivan Aivazovsky (1888)

Walking on Water: Aisthesis vs. Hedone?

THE story of Jesus walking on the water occurs in three of the Gospels (Matt 14:22–34; Mark 6:45–53; John 6:15–21). Water is often a symbol for passions and emotions.  For example, the storms that beset Odysseus symbolize unregulated passions that threaten to shipwreck us (cf. the deluge in Genesis).

At the simplest level, then, Jesus walking on the water might be interpreted as a metaphor for rising above the storm of passions by means of holiness, virtue, temperance, Stoic apatheia and the like. However a different incident (Matt 8:23–27, Mark 4:35–41, Luke 8:22–25) describes Jesus, riding inside a boat with his disciples, calming a storm — which fits this interpretation better.  Here the details are structurally different (Jesus outside the boat and walks on the water), suggesting there is a different meaning.

Perhaps we can understand it as follows. As we encounter the material world, the first thing that happens is sensation. Ideally we direct our sensation to good and beautiful objects, finding them  pleasant. But there is commonly a second step: our attention is drawn beyond simple sensation/perception into the experience — such that our higher cognitive powers are distracted, diminished or ‘sedated.’  We become entranced, as it were, or feel attachment to the sense experience.  Our mind then easily falls from right, clear reason, veering into fantasy-laden and egoist thought.  “How can I have more of this sensory pleasure?” “How can I control this beautiful thing, or be sure to have it in the future?”

We become, that is, fixated on the delight of the experience. We go from mere aisthesis (perception, including the simple pleasure inherent in perception) to hedone (delight).  That step might be seen as the difference between simply walking on the water of sensory experience, vs. sinking into it, becoming worldly minded instead of spiritually minded.

We most definitely should notice, appreciate and enjoy sensory experience and the objects of the world. But these things must be seen in their proper relation to God.  In walking on water, our higher cognitive powers remain intact. Our delight is in God, not in material things. When our hearts and minds remain properly oriented, the sense world becomes more meaningful.

This seems a possible meaning, at least, and is also suggested by Philo’s psychological interpretation of the Garden of Eden myth in Allegorical Interpretation: the fruit of the Tree is beautiful to behold, but don’t eat it. (More on this in the next post.)

Finally, there is also a possible parallel here with the myth of Narcissus.


Myths of the Fall

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Polyphemus, Babel, Satan, Deluge, Eden, Pharaoh, Tyranny, Phaeton, Icarus  

NOT unexpectedly, the Wikipedia article, ‘Fall of Man,’ emphasizes the Garden of Eden myth, yet all but ignores its psychological meaning — which is arguably the true meaning.  Myths of the fall ought to interest us intensely, because it’s so obvious that human beings, individually and collectively, live mainly in a markedly fallen condition.  Individually this is manifest as the various forms of negative thinking that characterize much or most of our waking consciousness: anxiety, worry, greed, anger, hated, fear, confusion, distraction, delusion, folly, envy, resentment, fantasy, daydreaming, grandiosity, obsession, etc. Examples of collective chronic psychological and social dysfunction are just as many and obvious.

Yet the academic establishment has gotten virtually nowhere trying to understand what myths of the fall are trying to tell us about what the psychological fall is, why it happens and how to prevent it.

Concerning the opposite condition – the blessed or ascended state – there are also many valuable and important myths.  Indeed, we might be easily persuaded that the natural condition of the human mind is happy, blessed, active and extremely capable.

In the Western tradition we have three parallel sources of fall myths:  Greek mythology, Plato’s dialogues and the Old Testament.  Examples:

Greek: Pandora, Ages of Man, Deucalion, Phaeton, Narcissus, Odyssey (Lotus eaters, Cyclops, Circe, Scylla & Charybdis), Icarus; Judgment of Paris; cf. Choice of Hercules.

Plato: Cave allegory, Cronos myth (Statesman), Tyrant’s progress, Atlantis; cf. Chariot myth.

Old Testament: Garden of Eden, Cain & Abel, Deluge, Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, Pharaoh’s army

Plato’s ethics and epistemology supply a clear framework for interpreting his myths, and, by extension, related Greek myths.  Philo of Alexandria, in turn effectively applies Platonic formulae to interpret the Old Testament myths of the fall.

The Platonic interpretation of myths of the fall has a long tradition, and is arguably more relevant than modern Jungian interpretations, which downplay the ethical and religious meanings.

To be clear, my conviction is that these myths are not mere historical recollections of ancient deluges or a cultural transition from a happy primitive hunter-gatherer society.  They are humanity’s attempt to understand that most significant fact of human psychology: that we spend the bulk of our lives in a dreadful fallen state, virtually asleep, a ‘life that is not life.’   Until we solve this problem, we won’t be able to see or think clearly enough to solve our social problems.


Uebersax, John.  The monomyth of fall and salvation.  Christian Platonism website. 2014.

The Great Psalm

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Furtmeyr Bible

THE PURPOSE of this post is to draw attention to the Great Psalm — one of the Bible’s hidden gems — and to encourage its personal study.

At 176 verses, Psalm 119 (118) is the longest psalm, with more verses than any other chapter of the Bible. Arranged in 22 sets of eight verses each, all verses within a set begin with the same consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet — aleph for the first eight verses, beth for the second eight, and so on. This has led some to mistakenly dismiss the psalm as a ancient Hebrew child’s ABC, but in fact the content is far too subtle and sublime for a child.

The principal subject is the greatness of God’s Law — ‘Law’ here understood in a comprehensive sense perhaps better expressed by words like Torah or Way. The psalm is a fervent prayer that ones life — but especially ones mind and heart — be conformed to God’s will.

Eight terms are used to denote specific elements of the Way, each referring to something coming from God: words, law, commandments, judgments, statutes, precepts, way and testimonies. All verses but two contain at least one of one of these eight words. These are not simple synonyms, but elements of a complex moral psychology: considered collectively they present a sophisticated and nuanced picture of how Torah operates as a guiding and organizing force in our spiritual life.

Psalm 119 has been likened to a commentary on Psalm 1:2a (But his delight is in the law of the LORD). There are also strong connections with Psalm 2, Psalm 19 and Psalm 23. The psalmist is one who in earnest seeks first the Reign of God (Matthew 6:33) — that is, the constant, active reigning of God within the soul by means of spiritual gifts, inspiration, discernment, and right thoughts and judgments.

There are three principle characters in the psalm: ourselves, God, and persecutors (that is, inner persecutors: wrong attachments, vain thoughts and the like).

Important themes include: (1) the psalmist’s genuine hunger and thirst for inner righteousness (Matthew 5:6); (2) an acute and painful awareness of the falseness of thoughts of the unregenerate mind; and (3) very importantly, a totality of commitment.

The psalmist’s fervent desire for a mind and heart organized on the principles of God’s guidance and grace as opposed to self-will corresponds to the transformation from carnal- to spiritual-mindedness (Romans 12:2).

Many helpful commentaries exist, including sermons of St. Ambrose. The Palestinian catenae (Harl, 1972) is an important source of commentary by Eastern Church Fathers. Spurgeon’s excellent work excerpts the best of earlier English commentators.

More need not be said here, as deeper understanding will come from prayerful study.


Boulding, Maria (tr.); Ramsey, Boniface (ed.). Expositions of Psalm 118. In: Augustine: Expositions of the Psalms 99−120. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2003; 342.

Bridges, Charles. Exposition of Psalm CXIX: as Illustrative of the Character and Exercises of Christian Experience. New York: R. Carter & Brothers, 1861.

Cowper, William (bishop). A Holy Alphabet for Sion’s Scholars. A Commentary upon 119 Psalme. London: John Budge, 1613.

Freedman, David Noel. Psalm 119: The Exaltation of Torah. Eisenbrauns, 1999.

Gori, Franco. Augustine: In Psalmo CXIII. In: Enarrationes in Psalmos 101−150. Pars 2: Enarrationes in Psalmos 110−118. CSEL 95.2. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2001.

Harl, Marguerite; Dorival, Gilles (eds.). La chaîne palestinienne sur le Psaume 118. 2 vols. Sources Chrétiennes 189−190; Paris: Cerf, 1972.  (Palestinian catena: Origen, Eusebius, Didymus, Apollinaris, Athanasius, Theodoret). Introduction, critical text, and translation.

Henry, Matthew. Commentary on Psalms 119. In: An Exposition of the Old and New Testament, in Six Volumes. Vol. 3. Edinburgh, 1790; 576−608.

Manton, Thomas. One hundred and Ninety Sermons on One Hundred and Nineteenth Psalm. London: 1681.

Migne, Jacques Paul (ed.). Ambrose: In Psalmum David CXVIII Expositio. 22 sermons. Patrologia Latina 15.1197−1526, Paris, 1845.

Migne, Jacques Paul (ed.).  Augustine: In Psalmum CXVIII Enarratio. 32 sermons. Patrologia Latina 37.1501−1596, Paris, 1841

Mukasa, Edoth M. Give me understanding, that I may learn your commandments.” The Grace of the Law: A Study of Augustine’s Enarratio in Psalmum 118. Diss. University of Notre Dame, 2014.

Neale, John Mason; Littledale, Richard Frederick. A Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 4. London: Joseph Masters, 1874; 1−161 (Psalm CXIX).

Petschenig, Michael (ed.). Ambrose of Milan: Expositio Psalmi CXVIII  (22 sermons).  CSEL 62. Vienna: Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1913 (repr. 1999).

Riain, Íde Nı́ (tr.). Homilies of Saint Ambrose on Psalm 118 (119). Dublin: Halcyon Press, 1998.

Spurgeon, Charles Haddon. The Treasury of David. Vol 6. New York, Funk & Wagnalls, 1882; 1−398 (Psalm CXIX).

Wesselschmidt, Quentin F. (ed.). Psalms 51−150. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT Volume 8. Intervarsity Press, 2007; 312−338 (Psalm 119).

Psalm 119

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Beati inmaculati in via

Psalm 119 (KJV)

Torah is the source of happiness to those who walk by it,
[1] Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the LORD.
[2] Blessed are they that keep his testimonies, and that seek him with the whole heart.
[3] They also do no iniquity: they walk in his ways.
[4] Thou hast commanded us to keep thy precepts diligently.
[5] O that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes!
[6] Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect unto all thy commandments.
[7] I will praise thee with uprightness of heart, when I shall have learned thy righteous judgments.
[8] I will keep thy statutes: O forsake me not utterly.

of holiness to those who give heed to it,
[9] Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word.
[10] With my whole heart have I sought thee: O let me not wander from thy commandments.
[11] Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.
[12] Blessed art thou, O LORD: teach me thy statutes.
[13] With my lips have I declared all the judgments of thy mouth.
[14] I have rejoiced in the way of thy testimonies, as much as in all riches.
[15] I will meditate in thy precepts, and have respect unto thy ways.
[16] I will delight myself in thy statutes: I will not forget thy word.

of truth to those whose eyes the Lord opens by his Spirit,
[17] Deal bountifully with thy servant, that I may live, and keep thy word.
[18] Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.
[19] I am a stranger in the earth: hide not thy commandments from me.
[20] My soul breaketh for the longing that it hath unto thy judgments at all times.
[21] Thou hast rebuked the proud that are cursed, which do err from thy commandments.
[22] Remove from me reproach and contempt; for I have kept thy testimonies.
[23] Princes also did sit and speak against me: but thy servant did meditate in thy statutes.
[24] Thy testimonies also are my delight and my counsellors.

of law to those whose heart he renews
[25] My soul cleaveth unto the dust: quicken thou me according to thy word.
[26] I have declared my ways, and thou heardest me: teach me thy statutes.
[27] Make me to understand the way of thy precepts: so shall I talk of thy wondrous works.
[28] My soul melteth for
[29] Remove from me the way of lying: and grant me thy law graciously.
[30] I have chosen the way of truth: thy judgments have I laid before me.
[31] I have stuck unto thy testimonies: O LORD, put me not to shame.
[32] I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shalt enlarge my heart.

begets perseverance by its promises,
[33] Teach me, O LORD, the way of thy statutes; and I shall keep it unto the end.
[34] Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law; yea, I shall observe it with my whole heart.
[35] Make me to go in the path of thy commandments; for therein do I delight.
[36] Incline my heart unto thy testimonies, and not to covetousness.
[37] Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity; and quicken thou me in thy way.
[38] Stablish thy word unto thy servant, who is devoted to thy fear.
[39] Turn away my reproach which I fear: for thy judgments are good.
[40] Behold, I have longed after thy precepts: quicken me in thy righteousness.

reveals the mercy and salvation of the Lord,
[41] Let thy mercies come also unto me, O LORD, even thy salvation, according to thy word.
[42] So shall I have wherewith to answer him that reproacheth me: for I trust in thy word.
[43] And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth; for I have hoped in thy judgments.
[44] So shall I keep thy law continually for ever and ever.
[45] And I will walk at liberty: for I seek thy precepts.
[46] I will speak of thy testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed.
[47] And I will delight myself in thy commandments, which I have loved.
[48] My hands also will I lift up unto thy commandments, which I have loved; and I will meditate in thy statutes.

awakens the comfort of hope in God,
[49] Remember the word unto thy servant, upon which thou hast caused me to hope.
[50] This is my comfort in my affliction: for thy word hath quickened me.
[51] The proud have had me greatly in derision: yet have I not declined from thy law.
[52] I remembered thy judgments of old, O LORD; and have comforted myself.
[53] Horror hath taken hold upon me because of the wicked that forsake thy law.
[54] Thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage.
[55] I have remembered thy name, O LORD, in the night, and have kept thy law.
[56] This I had, because I kept thy precepts.
loving way self-reinforcing, keeping – living – sensing — keeping

presents the Lord as the portion of the trusting soul,
[57] Thou art my portion, O LORD: I have said that I would keep thy words.
[58] I intreated thy favour with my whole heart: be merciful unto me according to thy word.
[59] I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies.
[60] I made haste, and delayed not to keep thy commandments.
[61] The bands of the wicked have robbed me: but I have not forgotten thy law.
[62] At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee because of thy righteous judgments.
[63] I am a companion of all them that fear thee, and of them that keep thy precepts.
[64] The earth, O LORD, is full of thy mercy: teach me thy statutes.

makes affliction instructive and chastening,
[65] Thou hast dealt well with thy servant, O LORD, according unto thy word.
[66] Teach me good judgment and knowledge: for I have believed thy commandments.
[67] Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word.
[68] Thou art good, and doest good; teach me thy statutes.
[69] The proud have forged a lie against me: but I will keep thy precepts with my whole heart.
[70] Their heart is as fat as grease; but I delight in thy law.
[71] It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes.
[72] The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver.

begets a fellowship in the fear of God,
[73] Thy hands have made me and fashioned me: give me understanding, that I may learn thy commandments.
[74] They that fear thee will be glad when they see me; because I have hoped in thy word.
[75] I know, O LORD, that thy judgments are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me.
[76] Let, I pray thee, thy merciful kindness be for my comfort, according to thy word unto thy servant.
[77] Let thy tender mercies come unto me, that I may live: for thy law is my delight.
[78] Let the proud be ashamed; for they dealt perversely with me without a cause: but I will meditate in thy precepts.
[79] Let those that fear thee turn unto me, and those that have known thy testimonies.
[80] Let my heart be sound in thy statutes; that I be not ashamed.

and a longing for the full peace of salvation,
[81] My soul fainteth for thy salvation: but I hope in thy word.
[82] Mine eyes fail for thy word, saying, When wilt thou comfort me?
[83] For I am become like a bottle in the smoke; yet do I not forget thy statutes.
[84] How many are the days of thy servant? when wilt thou execute judgment on them that persecute me?
[85] The proud have digged pits for me, which are not after thy law.
[86] All thy commandments are faithful: they persecute me wrongfully; help thou me.
[87] They had almost consumed me upon earth; but I forsook not thy precepts.
[88] Quicken me after thy lovingkindness; so shall I keep the testimony of thy mouth.

is faithful and immutable,
[89] For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven.
[90] Thy faithfulness is unto all generations: thou hast established the earth, and it abideth.
[91] They continue this day according to thine ordinances: for all are thy servants.
[92] Unless thy law had been my delights, I should then have perished in mine affliction.
[93] I will never forget thy precepts: for with them thou hast quickened me.
[94] I am thine, save me; for I have sought thy precepts.
[95] The wicked have waited for me to destroy me: but I will consider thy testimonies.
[96] I have seen an end of all perfection: but thy commandment is exceeding broad.

commands the approval of the heart,
[97] O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day.
[98] Thou through thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies: for they are ever with me.
[99] I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation.
[100] I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts.
[101] I have refrained my feet from every evil way, that I might keep thy word.
[102] I have not departed from thy judgments: for thou hast taught me.
[103] How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
[104] Through thy precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every false way.

is a light to the path,
[105] Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
[106] I have sworn, and I will perform it, that I will keep thy righteous judgments.
[107] I am afflicted very much: quicken me, O LORD, according unto thy word.
[108] Accept, I beseech thee, the freewill offerings of my mouth, O LORD, and teach me thy judgments.
[109] My soul is continually in my hand: yet do I not forget thy law.
[110] The wicked have laid a snare for me: yet I erred not from thy precepts.
[111] Thy testimonies have I taken as an heritage for ever: for they are the rejoicing of my heart.
[112] I have inclined mine heart to perform thy statutes alway, even unto the end.

from which to swerve is hateful,
[113] I hate vain thoughts: but thy law do I love.
[114] Thou art my hiding place and my shield: I hope in thy word.
[115] Depart from me, ye evildoers: for I will keep the commandments of my God.
[116] Uphold me according unto thy word, that I may live: and let me not be ashamed of my hope.
[117] Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe: and I will have respect unto thy statutes continually.
[118] Thou hast trodden down all them that err from thy statutes: for their deceit is falsehood.
[119] Thou puttest away all the wicked of the earth like dross: therefore I love thy testimonies.
[120] My flesh trembleth for fear of thee; and I am afraid of thy judgments.

warrants the plea of innocence,
[121] I have done judgment and justice: leave me not to mine oppressors.
[122] Be surety for thy servant for good: let not the proud oppress me.
[123] Mine eyes fail for thy salvation, and for the word of thy righteousness.
[124] Deal with thy servant according unto thy mercy, and teach me thy statutes.
[125] I am thy servant; give me understanding, that I may know thy testimonies.
[126] It is time for thee, LORD, to work: for they have made void thy law.
[127] Therefore I love thy commandments above gold; yea, above fine gold.
[128] Therefore I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right; and I hate every false way.

is a testimony to God’s character and will,
[129] Thy testimonies are wonderful: therefore doth my soul keep them.
[130] The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple.
[131] I opened my mouth, and panted: for I longed for thy commandments.
[132] Look thou upon me, and be merciful unto me, as thou usest to do unto those that love thy name.
[133] Order my steps in thy word: and let not any iniquity have dominion over me.
[134] Deliver me from the oppression of man: so will I keep thy precepts.
[135] Make thy face to shine upon thy servant; and teach me thy statutes.
[136] Rivers of waters run down mine eyes, because they keep not thy law.

is a law of rectitude,
[137] Righteous art thou, O LORD, and upright are thy judgments.
[138] Thy testimonies that thou hast commanded are righteous and very faithful.
[139] My zeal hath consumed me, because mine enemies have forgotten thy words.
[140] Thy word is very pure: therefore thy servant loveth it.
[141] I am small and despised: yet do not I forget thy precepts.
[142] Thy righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and thy law is the truth.
[143] Trouble and anguish have taken hold on me: yet thy commandments are my delights.
[144] The righteousness of thy testimonies is everlasting: give me understanding, and I shall live.

warrants the cry for salvation,
[145] I cried with my whole heart; hear me, O LORD: I will keep thy statutes.
[146] I cried unto thee; save me, and I shall keep thy testimonies.
[147] I prevented the dawning of the morning, and cried: I hoped in thy word.
[148] Mine eyes prevent the night watches, that I might meditate in thy word.
[149] Hear my voice according unto thy lovingkindness: O LORD, quicken me according to thy judgment.
[150] They draw nigh that follow after mischief: they are far from thy law.
[151] Thou art near, O LORD; and all thy commandments are truth.
[152] Concerning thy testimonies, I have known of old that thou hast founded them for ever.

and prayer for deliverance from affliction,
[153] Consider mine affliction, and deliver me: for I do not forget thy law.
[154] Plead my cause, and deliver me: quicken me according to thy word.
[155] Salvation is far from the wicked: for they seek not thy statutes.
[156] Great are thy tender mercies, O LORD: quicken me according to thy judgments.
[157] Many are my persecutors and mine enemies; yet do I not decline from thy testimonies.
[158] I beheld the transgressors, and was grieved; because they kept not thy word.
[159] Consider how I love thy precepts: quicken me, O LORD, according to thy lovingkindness.
[160] Thy word is true from the beginning: and every one of thy righteous judgments endureth for ever.

and from persecution without a cause,
[161] Princes have persecuted me without a cause: but my heart standeth in awe of thy word.
[162] I rejoice at thy word, as one that findeth great spoil.
[163] I hate and abhor lying: but thy law do I love.
[164] Seven times a day do I praise thee because of thy righteous judgments.
[165] Great peace have they which love thy law: and nothing shall offend them.
[166] LORD, I have hoped for thy salvation, and done thy commandments.
[167] My soul hath kept thy testimonies; and I love them exceedingly.
[168] I have kept thy precepts and thy testimonies: for all my ways are before thee.

and assures of an answer in due time.
[169] Let my cry come near before thee, O LORD: give me understanding according to thy word.
[170] Let my supplication come before thee: deliver me according to thy word.
[171] My lips shall utter praise, when thou hast taught me thy statutes.
[172] My tongue shall speak of thy word: for all thy commandments are righteousness.
[173] Let thine hand help me; for I have chosen thy precepts.
[174] I have longed for thy salvation, O LORD; and thy law is my delight.
[175] Let my soul live, and it shall praise thee; and let thy judgments help me.
[176] I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek thy servant; for I do not forget thy commandments.

Hebrew, Latin, Greek versions, tools, commentaries

Italicized headings are from: James G. Murphy, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 1875 (as shown in Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, 1882).

Art: Munich Psalter

Allegorical Meaning of the High Priest’s Clothing

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Furtmeyr Bible

EXODUS is a great presentation of the timeless philosophy, an inspired and extremely relevant allegory for the journey of the soul to God and to authentic human life. Within the larger narrative the story of the Tabernacal in the desert recapitulates and elaborates many of the central themes. Amongst all commentators of Exodus, Philo of Alexandria stands pre-eminent in psychological and mystical insight. Here he addresses the meaning of the High Priest’s clothing.  The High Priest symbolizes our interior person as it enters truer states of consciousness.  First comes a state of the Sacred Union of sensory and spiritual realms, the ethical summum bonum: living in the world restored to its true, miraculous condition.  We need not, like strict ascetics, deny the pleasures of the sensory world.  Rather, so long as we keep spiritual concerns foremost in our minds the sensory realm becomes divinized.

If again you examine the High Priest the Logos, you will find … his holy vesture to have a variegated beauty derived from powers belonging some to the realm of pure intellect, some to that of sense-perception. … On the head, then, there is “a plate of pure gold, bearing as an engraving of a signet, ‘a holy thing to the Lord'” (Ex. xxviii. 32); and at the feet on the end of the skirt, bells and flower patterns (Ex. xxviii. 29 f.). The signet spoken of is the original principle behind all principles, after which God shaped or formed the universe, incorporeal, we know, and discerned by the intellect alone; whereas the flower patterns and bells are symbols of qualities recognized by the senses and tested by sight and hearing. And [Moses] has well weighed his words when he adds: “His sound shall be audible when he is about to enter into the Holy Place” (Ex. xxviii. 31), to the end that when the soul is about to enter the truly holy place, the divine place which only mind can apprehend, the senses also may be aided to join in the hymn with their best, and that our whole composite being, like a full choir all in tune, may chant together one harmonious strain rising from varied voices blending one with another; the thoughts of the mind inspiring the keynotes — for the leaders of this choir are the truths perceived by mind alone — while the objects of sense-perception, which resemble the individual members of the choir, chime in with their accordant tuneful notes.
~ Philo, Migration of Abraham 100−104 (tr. Colson & Whitaker)

Integral to this experience is maintenance of a continuous attitude of thanks and praise to God.

The fire on the altar, [Moses] tells us, will burn continuously and not be extinguished (Lev. vi. 13). That, I think, is natural and fitting, for since the gracious gifts of God granted daily and nightly to men are perennial, unfailing and unceasing, the symbol of thankfulness also, the sacred flame, should be kept alight and remain unextinguished for ever.
~ Philo, Special Laws 1.284 f. (tr. Colson)

Beyond this level of consciousness is entrance into the Holy of Holies — which we understand as pure contemplation, completely detached from sensory concerns.

There is an amazing amount of material from Philo about the allegorical meaning of Exodus, barely explored by modern readers.


F. H. Colson; G. H. Whitaker; Ralph Marcus (eds.). The Works of Philo. 12 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press, 1929−1953.

Psalm 23

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Dominus pascit me

Psalm 23 (KJV)

THE LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

[2] He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

[3] He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

[4] Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

[5] Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

[6] Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

[14] Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.

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Psalm 19

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Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei

Psalm 19 (KJV)

THE HEAVENS declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.

[2] Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.

[3] There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.

[4] Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun,

[5] Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.

[6] His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it: and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.

[7] The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.

[8] The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.

[9] The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.

[10] More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.

[11] Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward.

[12] Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults.

[13] Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression.

[14] Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.

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Psalm 2

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Quare turbabuntur gentes

Psalm 2 (KJV)

WHY do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?

[2] The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying,

[3] Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.

[4] He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.

[5] Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.

[6] Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.

[7] I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.

[8] Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.

[9] Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.

[10] Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth.

[11] Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.

[12] Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.

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Psalm 1

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Psalm 1, illuminated Manuscript

Psalm 1 (KJV)

BLESSED is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

[2] But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.

[3] And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.

[4] The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.

[5] Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.

[6] For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.

Edward Herbert, Conjectures Concerning Heavenly Life

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Edward  Herbert  (1583–1648) 

THE eminent metaphysical poet, George Herbert (1593–1633), had an even more famous brother, Edward (1583–1648).  Whereas George lived the life of a simple country parson, Edward was immersed in military and state affairs, first a friend of King James I (for which he was appointed 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury) and later an opponent.  But like George, he had great literary ability and was deeply pious.  The following poem, composed originally in Latin, is a meditation on the possibility of infinite felicity in heaven, and what that might mean.  The English translation comes from the well-known American Transcendentalist and literary figure, Margaret Fuller (1810–1850; more on her below).  The Latin version can be found in Edward Herbert’s autobiography (ed. Horace Walpole) and his collected poems; links are supplied in the Sources section.

Conjectures Concerning the Heavenly Life (De Vita Cælesti Conjectura)

Purified in my whole genius, I congratulate myself
Secure of fate, while neither am I downcast by any terrors,
Nor store up secret griefs in my heart,
But pass my days cheerfully in the midst of mishaps,
Despite the evils which engird the earth,
Seeking the way above the stars with ardent virtue.
I have received, beforehand, the first fruits of heavenly life—
I now seek the later, sustained by divine love,
Through which, conquering at once the scoffs of a gloomy destiny,
I leave the barbarous company of a frantic age,
Breathing out for the last time the infernal air—breathing in the supernal,
I enfold myself wholly in these sacred flames,
And, sustained by them, ascend the highest dome,
And far and wide survey the wonders of a new sphere,
And see well-known spirits, now beautiful in their proper light,
And the choirs of the higher powers, and blessed beings
With whom I desire to mingle fires and sacred bonds—
Passing from joy to joy the heaven of all,
What has been given to ourselves, or sanctioned by a common vow.
God, in the meantime, accumulating his rewards,
May at once increase our honour and illustrate his own love.
Nor heavens shall be wanting to heavens, nor numberless ages to life,
Nor new joys to these ages, such as an
Eternity shall not diminish, nor the infinite bring to an end.
Nor, more than all, shall the fair favour of the Divine be wanting—
Constantly increasing these joys, varied in admirable modes,
And making each state yield only to one yet happier,
And what we never even knew how to hope, is given to us—
Nor is aught kept back except what only the One can conceive,
And what in their own nature are by far most perfect
In us, at least, appear embellished,
Since the sleeping minds which heaven prepares from the beginning—
Only our labor and industry can vivify,
Polishing them with learning and with morals,
That they may return all fair, bearing back a dowry to heaven,
When, by use of our free will, we put to rout those ills
Which heaven has neither dispelled, nor will hereafter dispel.
Thus through us is magnified the glory of God,
And our glory, too, shall resound throughout the heavens,
And what are the due rewards of virtue, finally
Must render the Father himself more happy than his wont
Whence still more ample grace shall be showered upon us,
Each and all yielding to our prayer,
For, if liberty be dear, it is permitted
To roam through the loveliest regions obvious to innumerable heavens,
And gather, as we past, the delights of each,
If fixed contemplation be chosen rather in the mind,
All the mysteries of the high regions shall be laid open to us,
And the joy will he to know the methods of God,—
Then it may be permitted to act upon earth, to have a care
Of the weal of men, and to bestow just laws.
If we are more delighted with celestial lave,
We are dissolved into flames which glide about and excite one another
Mutually, embraced in sacred ardours,
Spring upwards, enfolded together in firmest bonds,
In parts and wholes, mingling by turns,
And the ardour of the Divine kindles (in them) still new ardours,
It will make us happy to praise God, while he commands us,
The angelic choir, singing together with sweet modulation,
Sounds through heaven, publishing our joys,
And beauteous spectacles are put forth, hour by hour,
And, as it were, the whole fabric of heaven becomes a theatre,
Till the divine energy pervades the whole sweep of the world,
And chisels out from it new forms,
Adorned with new faculties, of larger powers.
Our forms, too, may then be renewed—
Assume new forms and senses, till our
Joys again rise up consummate.
If trusting thus, I shall have put off this mortal weed,
Why may not then still greater things be disclosed?

The poem appears to have never been translated into English before or since Margaret Fuller.  It appeared in an essay titled The Two Herberts, which was originally published in the short-lived literary journal, The Present (1844), and republished in various editions of her collected essays.  The essay is not very well known, but is one of her best.  In it she portrays an imaginary dialogue between George Herbert and Edward.  The dialogue is very engaging.  Instead of both figures merely serving as artificial mouthpieces for the authors own view, here we see two distinct personalities, with important similarities and divergences of thought.  Further, Fuller displays considerable sensitivity to their religious views.  Edward was one of the founders of English Deism, while George was a devout Anglican.  One main disagreement concerns the personal nature of ones relationship with God. The contrast between Edward, a man of action, and George, a pure contemplative, is also highlighted — biographers have noted the similarity here with this split in Fuller’s own personality (she eventually left New England for Italy, becoming active in the revolution there). But arguably the real significance of her essay is its religious dimension.  I could extol its praises and expand on its subtle points, but ultimately it’s a work of art, appreciated more by reading than analyzing it.


Fuller, Margaret. The Two Herberts.  In: Margaret Fuller, Art, Literature and the Drama, ed. Arthur B. Fuller, Boston, 1874; pp. 25−44. Orig. publ. in The Present, Vol. 1, March 1844, pp. 301−312.

Grey, Robin. Margaret Fuller’s “The Two Herberts,” Emerson, and the Disavowal of Sequestered Virtue. In: The Complicity of Imagination: The American Renaissance, Contests of Authority, and Seventeenth-Century English Culture, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997; pp. 87−106.

Herbert, Edward. The Life of Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury. Horace Walpole (ed.).  London: Cassell, 1887; pp. 33−34. (First ed. Strawberry Hill, 1764).

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Margaret Fuller Ossoli. Houghton Mifflin, 1890.  Ch. 18. Literary Traits (pp. 281−298).

Smith, George Charles Moore. The Poems of Lord Herbert of Cherbury. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923; pp. 103−106.

1st draft: 17 Jan 2021