Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

St. Augustine on the Esoteric Meaning of the Beatitudes

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Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock. (Mat 7:24)

THE THEME of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels is the kingdom of heaven.  This kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36; cf. Luke 17:21), but is within.  Nowhere is the message of the kingdom, and its role in attaining to holy, happy and blesssed living, presented more directly than in the Sermon on the Mount, of which the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3−10) are the essence.  The Beatitudes are one of the great prayers of the Christian tradition.  Unfortunately they are too often regarded as mere platitudes, or else as moral commands to change the exterior world by promoting social justice, peace and so on.    But while things like social justice are undeniably important, the Beatitudes seek something greater still:  the union of the individual soul with God, which is the essence of beatitude and the purpose of true religion.

St. Augustine — always mindful in his writings of the soul’s journey to God — supplies a beautiful and insightful commentary on the interior meaning of the Beatitudes in Book 1 of his Commentary on Matthew, shown belowThe translation here is that of Jepson (1948).

Matthew 5

[3] Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
[4] Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
[5] Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
[6] Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
[7] Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
[8] Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
[9] Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
[10] Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

CHAPTER 1

The Sermon on the Mount is the perfect pattern of the Christian life. The poor in spirit. [Note 1]

3. Now, what does He say? Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. We read in the Scriptures concerning the craving for temporal things: All is vanity and presumption of spirit. [Qoh 1:14; LXX]. Presumption of spirit means boldness and haughtiness. In common parlance, too, the haughty are said to have “high spirits”; and rightly, since spirit is also called “wind.” Whence it is written: Fire, hail, snow, ice, stormy wind. [Psa 148:8] And who has not heard the haughty spoken of as “inflated,” blown up, as it were, with wind? So, too, the expression of the Apostle: Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth. [1 Cor 8.1] For this reason the poor in spirit are rightly understood here as the humble and those who fear God, that is, those who do not have an inflated spirit. And there could be no more felicitous beginning of blessedness, whose ultimate goal is perfect wisdom: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. [Pro 1:7; cf. Sir 1: 14; Psa 110:11] Whereas, on the contrary, we have the attribution: The beginning of all sin is pride. [Sir 10:13] Let, therefore, the haughty seek and love the kingdom of the earth; but Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

CHAPTER 2

The other Beatitudes.

4. Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the land by inheritance. [Notes 2, 3] The land I take in the sense of the Psalm: Thou art my hope, my portion in the land of the living. [Psa 142:5] It stands for something solid, the stability of an undying inheritance, where the soul in a state of well-being rests as in its natural environment, as the body does on earth; and thence draws its food, as the body from the earth. This is the life and rest of the Saints. The meek are those who yield before outbursts of wickedness and do not resist evil, but overcome evil with good. [Cf. Rom 12:21] Therefore let those who are not meek struggle and contend for earthly and temporal things; but blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the land by inheritance from which they cannot be expelled.

5. Blessed are the mourners, for they shall be comforted. Mourning is sadness for the loss of dear ones. But when people turn to God, they dismiss what they cherished as dear in this world; for they do not find joy in those things which before rejoiced them; and until there comes about in them the love for what is eternal, they feel the sting of sadness over a number of things. They, therefore, will be comforted by the Holy Spirit, who especially for this reason is named the Paraclete, that is, the Consoler, that disregarding the temporal they may enjoy eternal happiness.

6. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall have their fill. Here He means those who love the true and unshakable good. The food with which they will be filled is the food that the Lord Himself mentions: My meat is to do the will of my Father, [John 4:34] which is righteousness; and the water, of which whoso shall drink, as He Himself says, it shall become in him a fountain of water springing up into life everlasting. [John 4:14]

7. Blessed are the merciful, for mercy shall be shown them. He pronounces them blessed who come to the aid of the needy, since it is paid back to them so that they are freed from distress.

8. Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God. How senseless, therefore, are they who look for God with bodily eyes, since He is seen by the heart, as elsewhere it is written: And seek Him in simplicity of heart. [Wis 1.1] For this is a clean heart, one that is a simple heart; and as the light of this world cannot be seen save with sound eyes, so God cannot be seen unless that is sound by which He can be seen.

9. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Perfection lies in peace, where nothing is at war; and the children of God are peaceful for the reason that no resistance to God is present, and surely children ought to bear a likeness to their father. And they are at peace with themselves who quell all the emotions of their soul and subject them to reason, that is, to the mind and spirit, and have their carnal passions well under control; these make up the kingdom of God. In this kingdom everything is in such perfect order that the noblest and most excellent elements in man control without opposition the other elements which are common to us and animals. Moreover, what is most distinguished in man—mind and reason—is subject to a higher being, which is Truth itself, the only-begotten Son of God; for it cannot control the lower unless it puts itself in subjection to its superior. And this is the peace which is given on earth to men of good will; [cf. Luke 2:14] this is the life of a man who is rounded out and perfect in wisdom. From a kingdom of this sort enjoying greatest peace and order has been cast out the Prince of this world who lords it over the perverse and disorderly. With this peace set up and established in the soul, whatever onslaughts he who has been cast out makes against it from without, he but increases the glory which is according to God. He weakens nothing in that structure but by the very ineffectiveness of his machinations reveals what strength has grown within. Hence it follows: Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [Mat 5:10]

CHAPTER 3

The Beatitudes mark the stages traversed towards perfection.

10.  … [Note 4]

For blessedness starts with humility: Blessed are the poor in spirit, that is, those who are not puffed up, whose soul is submissive to divine authority, who stand in dread of punishment after this life despite the seeming blessedness of their earthly life.

The soul next makes itself acquainted with Sacred Scripture according to which it must show itself meek through piety, so that it may not make bold to censure what appears a stumbling block to the uninstructed and become intractable by obstinate argumentation.

The soul now begins to realize what a hold the world has on it through the habits and sins of the flesh. In this third step, then, wherein is knowledge, there is grief for the loss of the highest good through clinging to the lowest.

In the fourth step there is hard work. The soul puts forth a tremendous effort to wrench itself from the pernicious delights which bind it. Here there must be hunger and thirst for righteousness, and there is great need for fortitude, for not without pain is the heart severed from its delights.

At the fifth step it is suggested to those who are continuing their energetic efforts how they may be helped to master their situation. For unless one is helped by a superior power, he is incapable of freeing himself by his own efforts from the bonds of misery which encompass him. The suggestion given is a just proposition: If one wishes to be helped by a more powerful person, let him help someone who is weaker in a field wherein he himself holds an advantage. Hence, Blessed are the merciful, for mercy will be shown them.

The sixth step is cleanness of heart from a good consciousness of works well done, enabling the soul to contemplate that supreme good which can be seen only by a mind that is pure and serene.

Finally, the seventh step is wisdom itself, that is, contemplation of the truth, bringing peace to the whole man and effecting a likeness to God; and of this the sum is, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.

The eighth maxim [Note 5] returns, as it were, to the beginning, because it shows and commends what is perfect and complete. Thus, in the first and the eighth the kingdom of heaven is mentioned: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; and, Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven — when now it is said: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation? or distress? or persecution? or hunger? or nakedness? or danger? or the sword? [Rom 8:35]

Seven in number, therefore, are the things which lead to perfection. The eighth maxim throws light upon perfection and shows what it consists of, so that, with this maxim beginning again, so to speak, from the first, the two together may serve as steps toward the perfection of the others also.

Notes

1. In paragraphs 1 and 2, omitted here for brevity, Augustine gives a brief introduction.  He suggests that the Beatitudes supply a perfect perfect pattern of the Christian life and embrace all the directives we need.  Jesus states that those who hear and shape their lives according to his words spoken on the mount are like the man who built his house upon a rock. [Matt. 7:24-27].  Augustine proposes that the reference to Jesus “opening his mouth” [Matt.5:2] implies these are these are His words, i.e., the New Law, whereas previously in His ministry He was wont to open the mouth of the Prophets, i.e., the Old Law.

2. by inheritance.  These words appear in the Old Latin version of the Gospels that Augustine used at the time of writing this (ca. 394).  He didn’t routinely use the Vulgate until around 400.

3. He inverts the order of the 2nd and 3rd  Beatitudes.

4. We omit a paragraph wherein Augustine remarks on the grammatical difference between seven Beatitudes (Mat. 5: 3−9) and the two further maxims in Mat. 10−11.

5. That is, Mat. 5:10.  Again, he considers this verse relevant to the present theme, but not one of the seven Beatitudes themselves.

Bibliography

Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo: De sermone Domini in monte. CCSL 35 (1967). J. P. Migne (Paris, 1845), Patrologia Latina (PL) 34:1229−1308 (Latin text).

Findlay, William (tr.). Saint Augustine: Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. In: Philip Schaff (ed.), A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series 6. New York, 1903; repr. 1979.

Jepson, John J. (tr.). Saint Augustine: The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. Ancient Christian Writers 5. Newman Press, 1948.

Kavanagh, Denis J. Saint Augustine: Commentary on the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, with Seventeen Related Sermons. Fathers of the Church 11. New York 1951.

Paffenroth, Kim (tr.). The Sermon on the Mount (De sermone Domini in monte). In: Boniface Ramsey (ed.), Saint Augustine: New Testament I and II. New City Press, 2014.

Pryse, William. Praying the Beatitudes as a Spiritual Exercise. Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology.  2017.  Accessed 13 Oct 2020.

1st draft, 15 Oct 2020

Mental Ascent in St. Augustine’s De quantitate animae

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THROUGHOUT his works St. Augustine presents descriptions of the ascent of the mind through fixed levels or stages (Van Fleteren, 2009).  These are of interest not only because of their influence on later Christian contemplative thought, especially in the Middle Ages (for example, in the Victorines and St. Bonaventure), but also for their possible practical relevance today as aids for mindfulness and contemplation.

His earlier writings especially show the influence of Plotinus’ Enneads and possibly a lost of work of Porphyry, De regressu animae (On the Return of the Soul).  An important example is Chapter 33 of De quantitate animae (On the Greatness of the Soul).  In this work, purporting to describe a dialogue Augustine had with his friend, Evodius, several questions about the ‘magnitude’ of the soul are considered.  Magnitude is understood in two senses: (1) in regard to extension in space and time, and (2) concerning the soul’s power and capacity.  Chapter 33 — the work’s centerpiece — proposes a seven-fold categorization of the soul’s powers, which can also be interpreted as a scheme for ascent to contemplation, the highest activity of the mind.

The first level, animatio (animation) corresponds to simple vegetative and regulatory processes — which plants also possess.  Next are sensus (sensation) and ars (arts); ars is construed very broadly and encompasses directed thought, planning, and constructive activity.  Animals also, Augustine notes, possess these two powers.  It is the last four levels, however, that are of most interest.

In the fourth stage, virtus (moral virtue), the soul turns its interest away from vain and empty worldly concerns, realizing that its true treasure and source of happiness is itself.  It therefore sets out with a fervent desire for self-purification.

As a result, the soul reaches the fifth level, tranquillitas (tranquility).  Tranquility is indispensable for the mind of the eye to see clearly, so that the soul may advance further.

Once tranquility is attained, the soul must now exert itself to advance towards higher cognitions.  That is, an act of will is required.  This is the stage of ingressio, or approach.

Finally, the seventh level, contemplatio (contemplation) is reached.

Relative to the traditional three stages of Western mysticism — as, for example, found in the writings of St. John Cassian — virtus and tranquillitas roughly correspond to purification, ingressio to illumination, and contemplatio to union.

Augustine allows that contemplation has varying degrees.  The pinnacle is an ultimate mystical experience of union with God, such as “great and peerless souls” reach; for example, Porphyry reports that Plotinus attained this four times.  At this point in his life, young Augustine was very intent on achieving this ultimate experience.  However I believe his system might be applied to daily experience as we continually struggle to rise from our usual vain preoccupations with transient, delusory, worldly concerns to spiritual mindedness.  In a more secular sense, we can interpret this as an ascent from what the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow called ‘deficiency cognition’ to ‘Being cognition’, from distraction to mindfulness, or from various forms of folly to right cognition.

Note:  The translation here is that of Colleran (1950).

CHAPTER 33. The seven levels of the soul’s greatness.

The Fourth Level of the Soul (virtus)*

73. Take hold now and swing yourself onto the fourth level, which goodness and all true worth call their home. Here it is that the soul ventures to take precedence not only over its own body, acting some part in the universe, but even over the whole body of the universe itself. The goods of the world it does not account its own, and comparing them with its own power and beauty, it keeps aloof from them and despises them. Hence, the more the soul turns to itself for its own pleasure, the more does it withdraw from sordid things and cleanse itself and make itself immaculately clean through and through. It steels itself against every effort to lure it away from its purpose and resolve. It shows high consideration for human society and desires nothing to happen to another which it does not wish to happen to itself. It submits to the authority and the bidding of wise men and is convinced that through them God speaks to itself. Yet, this performance of the soul, noble as it is, still requires strenuous effort and the annoyances and allurements of this world engage it in a mighty struggle, bitterly contested. […]**

Yet, so great is the soul that it can do even this, by the help, of course, of the goodness of the supreme and true God — that goodness which sustains and rules the universe, that goodness by which it has been brought about not only that all things exist, but that they exist in such a way that they cannot be any better than they are. It is to this divine goodness that the soul most dutifully and confidently commits itself for help and success in the difficult task of self-purification.

The Fifth Level of the Soul (tranquillitas)

74. When this has been accomplished, that is, when the soul will be free from all corruption and purified of all its stains, then at last it possesses itself in utter joy and has no fears whatever for itself nor any anxiety for any reason. This, then, is the fifth level. For it is one thing to achieve purity, another to be in possession of it; and the activity by which the soul restores its sullied state to purity and that by which it does not suffer itself to be defiled again are two entirely different things. On this level it conceives in every way how great it is in every respect; and when it has understood that, then with unbounded and wondrous confidence it advances toward God, that is, to the immediate contemplation of truth; and it attains that supreme and transcendent reward for which it has worked so hard.

The Sixth Level of the Soul (ingressio)

75. Now, this activity, namely, the ardent desire to understand truth and perfection, is the soul’s highest vision: it possesses none more perfect, none more noble, none more proper. This, therefore, will be the sixth level of activity. For it is one thing to clear the eye of the soul so that it will not look without purpose and without reason and see what is wrong; it is something else to protect and strengthen the health of the eye; and it is something else again, to direct your gaze calmly and squarely to what is to be seen. Those who wish to do this before they are cleansed and healed recoil so in the presence of that light of truth or that they may think there is in it not only no goodness, but even great evil; indeed, they may decide it does not deserve the name of truth, and with an amount of zest and enthusiasm that is to be pitied, they curse the remedy offered and run back into the darkness engulfing them and which alone their diseased condition suffers them to face. Hence, the divinely inspired prophet says most appositely: Create a clean heart in me, O God, and renew a right spirit within my bowels. [Psalms 51: 10] The spirit is “right,” I believe, if it sees to it that the soul cannot lose its way and go astray in its quest for truth. This spirit is not really “renewed” in anyone unless his heart is first made clean, that is to say, unless he first controls his thoughts and drains off from them all the dregs of attachment to corruptible things.

The Seventh Level of the Soul (contemplatio)

76. Now at last we are in the very vision and contemplation of truth, which is the seventh and last level of the soul; and here we no longer have a level but in reality a home at which one arrives via those levels. What shall I say are the delights, what the enjoyment, of the supreme and true Goodness, what the everlasting peace it breathes upon us? Great and peerless souls — and we believe that they have actually seen and are still seeing these things, have told us this so far as they deemed it should be spoken of. This would I tell you now: if we hold most faithfully to the course which God enjoins on us and which we have undertaken to follow, we shall come by God’s power and wisdom to that supreme Cause or that supreme Author or supreme Principle of all things, or whatever other more appropriate appellative there may be for so great a reality.

And when we understand that, we shall see truly how all things under the sun are the vanity of the vain. For “vanity” is deceit; and “the vain ” are to be understood as persons who are deceived, or persons who deceive, or both. Further, one may discern how great a difference there is between these and the things that truly exist; and yet, since all the other things have also been created and have God as their Maker, they are wonderful and beautiful when considered by themselves, although in comparison with the things that truly exist, they are as nothing. […] Furthermore, in the contemplation of truth, no matter what degree of contemplation you reach, the delight is so great, there is such purity, such innocence, a conviction in all things that is so absolute, that one could think he really knew nothing when aforetime he fancied he had knowledge. And that the soul may not be impeded from giving full allegiance to the fullness of truth, death — meaning complete escape and acquittal from this body — which previously was feared, is now desired as the greatest boon.

* We omit here his discussion of animatio, sensus and ars, which are not directly related to contemplation.
** In the omitted material St. Augustine describes how at this stage an exaggerated fear of death may arise as a person, increasingly aware of faults, fears condemnation by God.  This concern seems rather foreign to the thought of Plotinus and Porphyry.

Bibliography

Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo: De quantitate animae. J. P. Migne (Paris, 1841), Patrologia Latina (PL) 32:1035−1080 (Latin text). CSEL 89 (1986), pp. 129−231.

Colleran, Joseph M. (tr.). St. Augustine: The Greatness of the Soul, The Teacher. Ancient Christian Writers 9. Newman Press, 1950; 1−112.

Fokin, Alexey. St. Augustine’s paradigm: ab exterioribus ad interiora, ab inferioribus ad superiora in Western and Eastern Christian mysticism. European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 7.2 (2015): 81−107.

Garvey, Mary Patricia. Saint Augustine: Christian or Neo-platonist? Marquette University Press, 1939. (See pp. 146−160.)

Maslow, Abraham H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking (republished: Arkana, 1993). Ch. 9. Notes on Being-Psychology. pp. 121−142.

McMahon, John J. The Magnitude of the Soul. Fathers of the Church: Writings of Saint Augustine 2. New York, 1947; 51−149.

Tourscher, Francis Edward. De Quantitate Animae: The Measure of the Soul; Latin Text, with English Translation and Notes. Peter Reilly Company, 1933.

Van Fleteren, Frederick. Ascent of the Soul. In: Allan D. Fitzgerald (ed.), Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, Eerdmans, 2009; pp. 63−67.

1st draft, 13 Oct 2020

Christian Platonism as Spirituality

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Art: Fyodor Bronnikov, Pythagoreans Celebrate Sunrise, 1869.

FOR some time I’ve hesitated to address the question, ‘What is Christian Platonism?’, believing this is something too important to treat lightly.  Just when it seemed I could delay no longer, W. R. Inge’s book, The Platonic Tradition in English Religious Thought (Hulsean Lectures, 1925−1926), became available online. As Inge’s definition and understanding of Christian Platonism, it turns out, corresponds closely to my own, and also has the imprimatur of a respected authority, let this suffice as a working definition for now.

As Inge explains in the first lecture, the key features of Christian Platonism might be summarized as follows:

  • Christian Platonism is, first and foremost, a form of personal spirituality. It is not the abstract application of Platonic philosophy by Christian theologians (whom we might rather call Platonizing Christians).  It is, as Inge puts it, a religion of the spirit.  As such, it is based on personal religious experience, and, for that reason, not infrequently poses a challenge to dogmatic, authoritarian religion.
  • This form of spirituality is very much — if not almost exactly — what St. Paul described as spiritual mindedness. As such, Christian Platonism is concerned with achieving a certain higher level of consciousness or awareness opposed to, or at least different from, our usual concerns for material and worldly things (carnal-mindedness).
  • A religion of the spirit is the perennial philosophy, although this has evolved over time. It was the basis of Christ’s original teachings, which sought more to spiritually liberate individuals than to establish church hierarchies and dogmas.
  • In each age there have been specific obstacles opposing the emergence of spiritual Christianity. Despite this, there have been periodic flowerings of it at opportune moments of history. Hopefully now is such a time.

Below are excerpts from this lecture, along with a few comments.

Religion of the Spirit

He begins by stating the axial age hypothesis: that during the 1st millennia before Christ, certain social and/or environmental changes led to the emergence of a different form of religion across Asia and the Mediterranean:

The study of comparative religion has revealed the remarkable fact that a new spiritual enlightenment, quite unique in character, came to all the civilised peoples of the earth in the millennium before the Christian era. The change was felt first in Asia, but the same breath passed over Greece and South Italy in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. … The essence of the new movement was the recognition of an unseen world of unchanging reality behind the flux of phenomena, a spiritual universe compared with which the world of appearance grew pale and unsubstantial and became only a symbol or even an illusion.

With this new outlook upon life came the conception of salvation as deliverance…. The chief aim … should be to escape from the ‘weary wheel’ of earthly existence, and to find rest in the bosom of the Eternal. The way to this deliverance is by the observance of discipline, which whether ascetic, in the ordinary sense of the word, or not, involves a renunciation of the world of surface experience. (pp. 7−8)

Inge tends to characterize this new spiritual religion in dualistic, world-denying terms. What this excludes (but should not) is the possibility that more integrated forms of spirituality — i.e., harmonious combination of concerns for this and the Eternal world — existed at this time.  Ancient myths could be interpreted as reflecting such integral spirituality. Further, to assume no ‘religion of the spirit’ existed before the 1st millennium BC seems rather arbitrary.  However neither of these points are crucial to his main argument.

Plato, according to Inge, inherited this newly coalescing spirituality from earlier philosophers, organizing and presenting it more clearly than ever before:

[I]t is in Plato, the disciple of the Pythagoreans as well as of Socrates … that this conception of an unseen eternal world, of which the visible world is only a pale copy, gains a permanent foothold in the West. What (he asked) if man had eyes to see that pure Beauty, unalloyed with the stains of material existence, would he not hasten to travel thither, happy as a captive released from the prison-house? Such was the call, which, once heard, has never long been forgotten in Europe. It was revived with an even more poignant longing in the New Platonism of the Roman Empire, from which it passed into the theology and philosophy of the Christian Church. (pp. 9−10)

Christian Platonism

He then proceeds to discuss how Platonism passed into Christianity.  Jesus Christ, while not, that we know of, aware of Platonism, nevertheless sought to teach the perennial spiritual religion, and in an improved form:

A Christian will be disposed to find, in this independent growth of spiritual religion, which began to influence the Jews of the Dispersion not later than the second century before Christ, a divinely ordered preparation for the supreme revelation in the Gospel. For although we cannot trace any foreign influence, either Western or Oriental, upon the recorded teaching of Christ, which seems rather to point back to the highest flights of Jewish prophecy, it is unquestionable that most of the canonical books of the New Testament, especially the epistles of St. Paul and the Johannine group, do not belong to the Palestinian tradition. (p. 10)

Christ was primarily concerned with awakening into activity the consciousness of God in the individual soul; His parting promise was that this consciousness should be an abiding possession of those who followed in His steps … . The path of life, as He showed it by precept and example, was superior to anything that either Greeks or Indians traced out; but the conception of salvation is essentially the same — a growth in the power of spiritual communion by a consecrated life of renunciation and discipline. (p. 19)

It might be mentioned here that Jesus Christ, who likely knew Greek, may indeed have known something about Greek philosophy. At the very least (and this is not inconsistent with what Inge says above), the Jewish prophetic tradition and Plato’s writings may have had certain influences in common.

As distinct from the ‘original teachings’ of Christ, Inge allows for Platonic influence of the written Gospels, especially John’s.  He passes over this rather briefly, however, seeing a much clearer connection to Platonism in St. Paul’s writings:

We are on surer ground when we look for a Platonic element in St. Paul’s theology than when we discuss possible borrowings from the mystery-cults.

The whole doctrine of the Spirit in his epistles corresponds closely to the Platonic Νους. The equation was made by some of the Greek Fathers; and the associations of the two words are so similar that I have thought ‘Spirit ’ less misleading than any other English word in translating the Νους of Plotinus. The words, ‘The things that are seen are temporal, but the things that are not seen are eternal,’ [2 Cor 4:18] are pure Platonism; and this is not an isolated instance. In Rom. i. 20 ‘the invisible things’ (νοούμενα) are understood through the things that are made, and 1 Cor. xiii. 12 [‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’] reminds us of Plato’s parable of the cave. The immateriality of Spirit was perhaps not quite clearly asserted by any writer before Plotinus. …

Other examples may be given of St. Paul’s affinity with Plato. The use of νους in Rom. vii. 23 (‘I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind’) is Platonic. … In 2 Cor. iii. 18 we read ‘we all, reflecting as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image.’ Col. iii. 1, ‘If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above,’ reminds us of Plato’s exhortation to ‘cleave ever to the upward path and follow after righteousness and wisdom.’ [Rep. 10.621c]. We must turn away from material things, for ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.’ … They share the tripartite psychology which divides human nature into νους (or πνεύμα in Christian theology), ψυχή and σώμα. ‘The earthly house of our tabernacle in which we groan’ is very un-Jewish, and very like the σώμα σημα of Orphism. Lastly, in the Phaedrus as in i Corinthians, love is the great hierophant of the divine mysteries, which forms the link between divinity and humanity. (pp. 11−13).

Much more could be said here concerning the connection of St. Paul and Platonism and many more verses cited.  Especially emblematic is Rom. 12:2, And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind [νοῦς], that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. Curiously, whereas Stoic influences on St. Paul have elicited considerable interest lately, any Platonic elements to his writings — which are arguably even more salient and important — have received little attention.

Inge describes how each historical epoch of Church history has presented special obstacles to the wide acceptance of spiritual Christianity, treating in succession the early centuries, Dark Ages, Middle Ages, Reformation and post-Reformation periods.

My point is that the religion of the Spirit, that autonomous faith which rests upon experience and individual inspiration, has seldom had much of a chance in the world since the Christian revelation, in which it received its full and final credentials. … [T]he luck of history, we may say, has hitherto been unfavourable to what I, at least, hold to be the growth of the divine seed. It has either fallen on the rock or by the wayside, or the thorns have grown up with it and choked it. (pp. 27,  29).

In the early centuries, both Eastern and Western Christianity suffered from excessive institutionalization, theocracy, and what he terms “caesaropapism”:

The religion of the Spirit has not fared much better in the West [than Buddhism in the East]. Scarcely had the persecutions ceased when the Church began to develop into the centralised autocracy which had become the type of civil government. Caesaropapism — the Byzantine type of state, which till lately survived in Russia, established itself in the East and produced a deadly stagnation in religious as well as secular life. In the West there was, in theory at least, a dual control; but the theocracy proved too strong for the Empire, which was rather an idea than a fact; and a fierce intolerance, which may be regarded as mainly Jewish in origin, but was strengthened by the Roman theory of rebellion against an Empire de iure universal, quenched or drove underground the free activities of religious thought. (p. 15)

In the Dark Ages, the loss of Greek learning in the West made it necessary to “bind the fetters of Church authority” on the masses.  Later, with the Middle Ages came the stranglehold of scholasticism and dogmatism.

Inge’s comments on the Reformation are especially interesting:

[T]he Reformation checked the progress of the religion of the Spirit. This was not the fault of the Reformers, but the inevitable result of the civil war which disrupted and distracted Christendom. In time of war the prophet and seer are not wanted. Effective partisan cries have to be devised, which will appeal to and be understood by the masses. If one side appeals to ancient and sacrosanct authority, the other side has to find a rival authority equally august and compelling.

… In the long and bitter struggle which was to decide which parts of Europe were to be Catholic and which Protestant, both sides were narrowed and hardened. The Roman Church was never again Catholic, and the Protestant Churches forgot the principles which justified their independent existence. The gains of the Renaissance were, within the religious domain, almost entirely lost. … Two religions of authority confronted each other, and real Christianity was once more driven underground. (pp. 23−24)

Inge sees both Catholicism and Protestantism as never having recovered from a descent into exaggerated dogmatism during the Reformation.  Among other things, this has left both camps ill-equipped to adapt to modern scientific discoveries.

Nevertheless, “The religion of the Spirit has an intrinsic survival value, and there have continually been “rare flowering-times of the human spirit which come and pass unaccountably, like the wind which bloweth where it listeth”:

We find it explicitly formulated by Clement and Origen, and we may appeal to one side of that strangely divided genius, Augustine. It lives on in the mystics, especially in the German medieval school, of which Eckhart is the greatest name. We find it again, with a new and exuberant life, in many of the Renaissance writers, so much so that our subject might almost as well be called the Renaissance tradition. Our own Renaissance poetry is steeped in Platonic thoughts. Later, during the civil troubles of the seventeenth century, it appears in a very pure and attractive form in the little group of Cambridge Platonists, Whichcote, Smith, Cudworth, and their friends. In the unmystical eighteenth century Jacob Bohme takes captive the manly and robust intellect of William Law, and inspires him to write some of the finest religious treatises in the English language. … The tradition has never been extinct; or we may say more truly that the fire which, in the words of Eunapius, ‘still burns on the altars of Plotinus,’ has a perennial power of rekindling itself when the conditions are favourable. (p. 28)

Whether these rare flowering-times are, as Inge suggests, unpredictable, or are connected with scientifically understandable socio-economic or evolutionary factors is unclear. The sociologist, Pitirim Sorokin, for example, saw in human cultural history a cyclical alternation of Idealism, materialism, rationalism and integralism that follows more or less lawful principles.

In a very helpful passage, Inge lists what he considers the essential features of Christian Platonism:

My contention is that besides the combative Catholic and Protestant elements in the Churches, there has always been a third element, with very honourable traditions, which came to life again at the Renaissance, but really reaches back to the Greek Fathers, to St. Paul and St. John, and further back still. The characteristics of this type of Christianity are

— a spiritual religion, based on a firm belief in absolute and eternal values as the most real things in the universe;

— a confidence that these values are knowable by man;

— a belief that they can nevertheless be known only by whole-hearted consecration of the intellect, will, and affections to the great quest;

— an entirely open mind towards the discoveries of science;

— a reverent and receptive attitude to the beauty, sublimity, and wisdom of the creation, as a revelation of the mind and character of the Creator;

— a complete indifference to the current valuations of the worldling. (p. 33)

See also Inge (1899, p. 79).  This is a good starting point, but we could easily expand it.  Christian Platonists also have a strong interest in understanding Goodness itself and in gaining the beatific vision. The are often perennialist in their interest in ancient traditions, and latitudinarian towards other religions and Christian denominations.  In terms of actual ascetical practices, Christian Platonists typically understand the cardinal virtues and contemplative practices as essential.  Many follow Philo in interpreting the Old Testament in allegorical terms corresponding to Platonic ethics and psychology.

He then adds:

The Christian element is supplied mainly by the identification of the inner light with the Spirit of the living, glorified, and indwelling Christ. This was the heart of St. Paul’s religion, and it has been the life-blood of personal devotion in all branches of the Christian Church to this day. (pp. 33−34)

Far more could — and ultimately should — be said about how Christianity improves on pagan Platonist spirituality.  Perhaps the very vastness of the topic caused Inge to settle on a very general, summary statement here.  Among the Christian innovations (besides the complex and multidimensional role of Christ in personal salvation), is a stronger view of a personal, loving God in Christianity: in Platonism Man seeks to ascend to God; in Christianity, God’s love is understood as so personal, so fervent, that God reaches out to Man.  It is God’s grace, ultimately, that leads one to liberation and salvation.  Further, in Christianity social charity is integral to spiritual salvation in a way not found (or at least not emphasized) in Platonism.

Future Prospects

Inge closes as follows:

In such a presentation of Christianity lies, I believe, our hope for the future. It cuts us loose from that orthodox materialism which in attempting to build a bridge between the world of facts and the world of values only succeeds in confounding one order and degrading the other. It equally emancipates us from that political secularising of Christianity which is just a characteristic attempt of institutionalism to buttress itself with the help of the secular power. This, as we have seen, has always been the policy of the religion of authority. The religion of Christ, the religion of the Spirit, will not have a chance till it is freed from these entanglements.

It will be a pleasure to me to consider briefly three periods in English History when there was a fruitful return in the Church to ‘her old loving nurse the Platonick philosophy’ … and I hope we are only at the beginning of a new Reformation on these lines. (pp. 34 – 35).

Unfortunately, we’ve seen no such renaissance of Christian Platonism or spiritual Christianity in the nearly 100 years since he wrote. Why?  Surely part of the answer lay in the twin juggernauts of materialism and globalization. Material technological advances will likely continue unabated for the indefinite future.  Will Western society be able to resist ever-more alluring gadgetry?  Or will it be recognized that advanced technology alone is unable to supply a fulfilling, meaningful and happy life?

But while the United States and Europe may by this point be ready for a new spiritual renaissance, developing countries may still find the appeal of materialism irresistible. At the same time, globalization has produced multi-national corporations that rival in wealth and power civil governments, and which are both able and willing to manipulate public tastes and opinions for self-interest.

To the extent that organized Christianity has changed since Inge wrote (as opposed to merely declined), we have seen emerge a fairly radical dominance of the social Gospel — radical in the sense that social justice and human rights are seen as more important than spirituality, prayer and worship.  In part, this is a necessary consequence of globalization, as the conditions of the world’s poor can no longer be ignored.  Yet amidst the clamor for social change we seem to have lost sight of spirituality — including the traditional view that personal love of God (and awareness of God’s personal love for us) is by far the most powerful and productive impetus for social charity.

If we survey the current situation, then, there seems little reason to believe that a new flowering of Christian Platonism will simply happen on its own today.  However if we leave the forces that shape human consciousness to history and economics, we are slaves of blind forces, of chaos.  Plato’s Timaeus suggests that chaos is the default state of matter, and that Form must be imposed upon it from without.  For Christianity to become a genuine religion of the spirit at this time, then, may require the conscious efforts of a dedicated minority.

Bibliography

Inge, William Ralph. Christian Mysticism: Considered in Eight Lectures Delivered Before the University of Oxford. New York: Scribner; London: Methuen, 1899. (Chs. 3 & 4, “Christian Platonism and Speculative Mysticism”, pp. 77−164).

Inge, William Ralph. The Platonic Tradition in English Religious Thought. London: Longmans, 1926.

1st draft: 21 Sep 2020

Thomas Traherne on Extraterrestrial Life

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Photo: Juno orbiter photograph (NASA/JPL/Caltech/Kevin M. Gill)

“Our solar system has more mysteries than the sands of time, and at every turn there are new discoveries to be made. It’s as if God has given us a never-ending puzzle, one that all humanity can endlessly enjoy.” [1]

IN 1610 GALILEO pointed his telescope heavenward and discovered four large moons orbiting Jupiter, changing forever how humanity saw itself. Casual speculations about other worlds, possibly inhabited, had been made since ancient times.  But now here was irrefutable evidence — direct experience of the senses — against the unchallenged premise that Earth is the only world. And as ever more powerful telescopes revealed previously unknown stars, the case for an infinitely large universe — and perhaps an infinite number of other worlds — seemed irresistible.  And would not at least some of these other worlds be inhabited?

These new discoveries supplied considerable fuel for radical atheists of the times. Yet the Anglican priest, poet and writer, Thomas Traherne (c. 1637–1674) — Oxford trained and well-versed in the writings of Francis Bacon, the pre-eminent spokesman of the new scientific method — remained unphased.  As Traherne set out to explain in Chapter 22 his work The Kingdom of God (which was not discovered until 1997):

the Wits of the Age are Atheisticaly disposed and pretend the Moon and Stars to be Inhabited, to the utter overthrow of Religion, as they design it; And many Terse Ingenuities hav of late furthered the opinion, Because the Genius of the Time is hammering at Such a thing … It Shall not be amiss, to shew cleerly that if their Discourses, were true no Detriment can accrue to Religion therby. (Kingdom of God 22, p. 369)

Indeed, in the rapidly emerging new discoveries of science Traherne saw even greater cause to believe in God.

What if the Stars should be all Inhabited, what would follow? May we conclude thence, that there is no GOD? no Religion? No Blessedness? verily it is more Apparent, that there is a God, a Religion, a Blessedness thereby. What if beyond the Heavens there were Infinit Numbers of Worlds at vast unspeakable distances. And all Those worlds full of Glorious Kingdoms? and all those Kingdoms full of the most Noble and Glorious Creatures. And all those Creatures walking in the Light of Eternitie, full of Joy, evry Moment celebrating the Praises of their Creator. And as full of Love towards each other. Would this Abolish Heaven? Verily in my Conceit, it Enricheth it. For it is more answerable to Goodness, Wisdom, and Felicitie; and demonstrates visibly, that there is a GOD. (Ibid., 372)

Traherne’s unshakeable first principle — one derived both from rational speculation and his personal experiences — is that God is infinitely good.  And infinitely good in infinitely many ways.  It is, of course, a traditional Christian doctrine that God is infinite.  But reading Traherne’s works one senses how remarkably profound and compelling he held this principle to be. He grasped and took it to heart more than any Christian writer before or since. (Indeed, his deep appreciation of infinity may have had something to do with the advances in astronomy, science and mathematics in his lifetime.)

For Traherne, God, infinitely Good and wishing with infinite Love to share His Goodness, created human beings with divine intellects and wills.  And these human faculties, being made in God’s image, are themselves infinite in scope, capacity and complexity.  Hence Man’s insatiable yearning for knowledge, beauty, goodness and love.  To meet these needs, and to reveal Himself to Man, God created a universe of infinite wonder and goodness for Man’s investigation and delight.

Running throughout Traherne’s work is St. Anselm of Canterbury’s seminal insight: “God is that beyond which no greater Good can be thought or imagined.”  In simple terms, whatever good things we can imagine Him doing for us, God — in order to be God — must be not only capable of these but vastly more.

From this premise, Traherne advanced three arguments supporting the possibility of life on other worlds. The first is because God, infinitely productive and generous, delights in creating beauty and variety.  Hence we would not expect God to leave the vast reaches of space uninhabited:

all Nature delighting in Life, is evry where productiv of Innumerable Creatures … Nature abhorres Vacuitie and Sterilitie: That the Elementary Qualities would be there in vain, if there were no Inhabitants. The Sun also and the Stars would Shine upon all those vast and Desolat Spaces in Vain, if there were none to see them…. For him that is Omnipresent and Eternal, to confine his Contentments to one litle Spot, and leav all the Rest Empty and Desolate is unworthie of his Majestie, and not very answerable to his Infinit Greatness. Neither is it suitable to his Wisdom, that Worlds of such Infinit Magnificence, Bulk, Number, Distance, and Varietie; should be Created; only for to be, and serv like Sparks of Weak, and Glittering Light, for such a litle Ball, a Point, a Mite as the Earth is, being Capable of so many more uses, if him self pleaseth. (Ibid., 371 f.)

Second, an infinite universe that contains other planets harboring life would be a gift of infinite value to Man.  It would meet our insatiable thirst for knowledge, give cause for ever increasing thanks and praise, and be most consistent with (a central theme of Traherne’s writings) the vast grandeur and infinite capacity of the human soul.

Third, by creating other worlds with intelligent beings, God would make more creatures that witness and delight in Him and His works. Moreover, sentient aliens would have and enjoy their own relationship with God:

He desires Multitudes … to see his Glory, to Enjoy his Lov, to walk in the Paths of Righteousness, and, to prize his Works, to possess his Treasures, to Praise, admire, and see his Blessedness. The Earth is too poor a Cottage, too small a centre, to be the Single and Solitary object of his care and Love. (Ibid., 372)

Remarkably, Traherne even considered that sentient aliens would behold with joy the human soul, made in God’s image and likeness:

The Soul of Man would be Glorified, and Praised, and Magnified, and seen, and Belovd, and Admired, and Delighted in, in evry Part of Heaven, in evry Planet, in evry Star, in evry Kingdom, God doth delight in those that bear his Image, and are Blest with his Similitude. (Ibid.)

If our advanced intelligence isn’t unique in the universe, would not the same apply to our moral and spiritual sensibilities?  Popular depictions of evil aliens notwithstanding, we’d expect that a species intelligent enough to master interstellar travel would have a great interest in knowing who or what made the universe — and them — and why?  We might well suppose that advanced aliens would be even more interested in discussing religion with us than vice versa!

In Traherne’s view then, not only would the existence of other worlds and intelligent species not contradict religion, but we might be disappointed if God hasn’t made them!

[As a footnote, it seems to me Traherne’s view bear some relevance to estimating the probability of advanced alien life.  A legitimate question to ask is, “If there are other intelligent species, why have none not already contacted us?”  The absence of contact so far would seem to reduce the probability estimate of there being a species capable of interstellar flight in our near vicinity of the galaxy.  But what if aliens are as morally advanced as they are technologically?  Why would they intervene in our affairs?  Wouldn’t they rather take greater delight in observing the amazing and intricate process of our development, just as we’d prefer to witness with awe a remarkable work of nature — say, the blossoming of a consummately beautiful flower — than to control or direct it? Yes, they might look with some concern about our negative tendencies. But at the same time they would see, to their joy and amazement, beings with infinitely capacious intellects and souls. Arguments like this would reduce the probability that an intelligent species might choose to initiate contact, and, in turn, increase the probability of there being intelligent alien life.]

Notes

  1. New Space Adventures: Mars. Through the Roof Productions. Video documentary, 2019.

 

Bibliography

Ross, Jan (ed.). The Works of Thomas Traherne: Volume I: Inducements to Retirednes, A Sober View of Dr Twisses his Considerations, Seeds of Eternity or the Nature of the Soul, The Kingdom of God. Cambridge: DS Brewer 2005.

1st draft: 10 Sep 2020

Preface to Traherne

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Art: Thomas Denny, Thomas Traherne windows (Hereford Cathedral, 2007) 

SINCE the rediscovery of Thomas Traherne’s work around the turn of 20th century, there has been wide consensus that he is a significant writer. There has been less agreement, however, on why he is significant — i.e., what his main contributions, especially for present times, consist of.

Somewhat unfortunately, many early commentators focused attention on his poetry, classifying him narrowly as an English metaphysical poet.  However, while his poetry is excellent, it is arguably,not quite as technically sophisticated as that of George Herbert or Henry Vaughan. Traherne’s best work is not his verse, but his Centuries of Meditations, which we might classify as prose-poetry.

Other writers sought to interpret Traherne as a critic of the newly emerging rationalism, especially of Hobbes.  More recently (e.g., Inge, 2009) attention has been drawn to his significance for Christian doctrinal theology.

Somewhat less attention, however, has been paid to simply understanding Traherne’s writings at face value:  as devotional works intended to stimulate and deepen the religious experience of readers. What if we simply allow that Traherne is authentically inspired?   In that case, perhaps we ought to be more interested in how he describes his work and mission than in historical or technical criticism.

Traherne’s two most sublime and famous works — the poems of the Dobell folio (Dobell, 1906) and Centuries of Meditations (Dobell, 1908) have been transmitted in manuscript form only and lack author prefaces.  However Traherne did prepare another work, Christian Ethicks, for publication (it reached print a year after his death) and this is prefaced with a ‘Note to the Reader.’  Here Traherne carefully and concisely explains his purpose.  Christian Ethicks is a systematic work, but it treats the same subjects as his poems and Centuries of Meditations.  Therefore his ‘To the Reader’ gives us insight into his intentions for these other works as well.

To the Reader, copied from the 1675 edition of Christian Ethicks is supplied below. Original spelling is retained.  Page numbers have been added in braces ({}) and paragraphs numbered in brackets ([]).  Some key points are as follows:

In the first paragraph he announces his aim to elevate the soul and inflame the heart.  He is interested in ethics not as a dry academic exercise or as theories developed by force of rational argument.  Rather he seeks to excite the intelligence and arouse the will, enabling people to seek and directly experience the religious and moral truths contained.  Here he follows the tradition of Plato — to achieve moral transformation by an ascent of the mind and heart and by recollection (anamnesis) of already known truths — and not the rationalism of Aristotle or scholasticism.

In [2−3] he contrasts his method with discussions that approach ethics either (1) dogmatically, as ‘things we must do because God so ordains’, or (2) based on practical expedience.  Indeed, a hallmark feature of Traherne’s philosophy is that ethics is what produces our greatest good, which he calls Felicity.  Felicity includes happiness, but is something more.  It also carries the sense of joy, illumination and holiness.  For Traherne, Felicity is the telos of human beings, our ethical summum bonum.  It unites in a single principle our greatest happiness, our duty, expedience, God’s will, love of God and charity to others.

Traherne has sometimes been criticized as being an impractical optimist, with no significant theory of evil.  He addresses this point in paragraph [4], taking the position that virtues are so good, beautiful and attractive in themselves that, if we can see them truly, they will by their own force overcome any attraction to baseness or sin. Hence explicit discussion of vice is a digression and a distraction from topics that matter more.

Traherne is clearly promoting what we would today call virtue ethics. In the subsequent paragraphs he alludes to a number of specific virtues, including the traditional cardinal and theological virtues.  Again in a characteristically Platonic way, he recognizes a fundamental unity amongst virtues.  At the center of them all is Goodness, the source of which is God.

The final paragraph emphasizes two things.  First, the essence of his entire system is to exhort us to God’s praise and glory.  God’s glory, for Traherne, is the essential fact of the universe.  This fact is not only virtually a logical necessity, but something Traherne claims to have experienced himself many times.  Further, we cannot doubt that it is his personal, passionate aim to convey this message to us so that we may achieve the Felicity of which he speaks.  Traherne presents his writings as a charitable outreaching to his readers, seeking to further God’s glory by making us want to further God’s glory, achieving, in the process, our own Felicity.  This kind of self-reinforcing circularity is recurring theme in his writings.

Finally and tellingly, he is careful to emphasize that we must not only understand these high truths intellectually, but “sense” them.

TO THE READER.

[1] THE design of this Treatise is, not to stroak and tickle the Fancy, but to elevate the Soul, and refine its Apprehensions, to inform the Judgment, and polish it for Conversation, to purifie and enflame the Heart, to enrich the Mind, and guide Men {ii} (that stand in need of help) in the way of Vertue; to excite their Desire, to encourage them to Travel, to comfort them in the Journey, and so at last to lead them to true Felicity, both here and hereafter.

[2] need not treat of Vertues in the ordinary way, as they are Duties enjoyned by the Law of GOD; that the Author of The whole Duty of Man *hath excellently done: nor as they are Prudential Expedients and Means for a mans Peace and Honour on Earth; that is in some measure done by the French Charon {iii} of Wisdom**. My purpose is to satisfie the Curious and Unbelieving Soul, concerning the reality, force, and efficacy of Vertue; and having some advantages from the knowledge I gained in the nature of Felicity (by many years earnest and diligent study) my business is to make as visible, as it is possible for me, the lustre of its Beauty, Dignity, and Glory: By shewing what a necessary Means Vertue is, how sweet, how full of Reason, how desirable in it self, how just and amiable, how delightful, and how powerfully conducive also {iv} to Glory: how naturally Vertue carries us to the Temple of Bliss, and how immeasurably transcendent it is in all kinds of Excellency.

[3] And (if I may speak freely) my Office is, to carry and enhance Vertue to its utmost height, to open the Beauty of all the Prospect, and to make the Glory of GOD appear, in the Blessedness of Man, by setting forth its infinite Excellency: Taking out of the Treasuries of Humanity those Arguments that will discover the great perfection of the End of Man, which he may atchieve {v} by the capacity of his Nature: As also by opening the Nature of Vertue it self, thereby to display the marvellous Beauty of Religion, and light the Soul to the sight of its Perfection.

[4] I do not speak much of Vice, which is far the more easie Theme, because I am intirely taken up with the abundance of Worth and Beauty in Vertue, and have so much to say of the positive and intrinsick Goodness of its Nature. But besides, since a strait Line is the measure both of it self, and of a crooked one, I conclude, That the very Glory of {vi} Vertue well understood, will make all Vice appear like dirt before Jewel, when they are compared together. Nay, Vice as soon as it is named in the presence of these Vertues, will look like Poyson and a Contagion, or if you will, as black as Malice and Ingratitude: so that there will need no other Exposition of its Nature, to dehort Men from the love of it, than the Illustration of its Contrary.

[5] Vertues are listed in the rank of Invisible things; of which kind, some are so blind as to deny there are any existent {vii} in Nature: But yet it may, and will be made easily apparent, that all the Peace and Beauty in the World proceedeth from them, all Honour and Security is founded in them, all Glory and Esteem is acquired by them. For the Prosperity of all Kingdoms is laid in the Goodness of GOD and of Men. Were there nothing in the World but the Works of Amity, which proceed from the highest Vertue, they alone would testifie of its Excellency. For there can be no Safety where there is any Treachery: But were all {viii} Truth and Courtesie exercis’d with Fidelity and Love, there could be no Injustice or Complaint in the World; no Strife, nor Violence: but all Bounty, Joy and Complacency. Were there no Blindness, every Soul would be full of Light, and the face of Felicity be seen, and the Earth be turned into Heaven.

[6] The things we treat of are great and mighty; they touch the Essence of every Soul, and are of infinite Concernment, because the Felicity is eternal that is acquired by them: I do not mean Immortal only but worthy to be Eternal: and it is {ix} impossible to be happy without them. We treat of Mans great and soveraign End, of the Nature of Blessedness, of the Means to attain it: Of Knowledge and Love, of Wisdom and Goodness, of Righteousness and Holiness, of Justice and Mercy, of Prudence and Courage, of Temperance and Patience, of Meekness and Humility, of Contentment, of Magnanimity and Modesty, of Liberality and Magnificence, of the waies by which Love is begotten in the Soul, of Gratitude, of Faith, Hope, and Charity, of Repentance, Devotion, {x} Fidelity, and Godliness. In all which we shew what sublime and mysterious Creatures they are, which depend upon the Operations of Mans Soul; their great extent, their use and value, their Original and their End, their Objects and their Times: What Vertues belong to the Estate of Innocency, what to the Estate of Misery and Grace, and what to the Estate of Glory. Which are the food of the Soul, and the works of Nature; which were occasioned by Sin, as Medicines and Expedients only: which are {xi} Essential to Felicity, and which Accidental; which Temporal, and which Eternal: with the true Reason of their Imposition; why they all are commanded, and how wise and gracious GOD is in enjoyning them. By which means all Atheism is put to flight, and all Infidelity: The Soul is reconciled to the Lawgiver of the World, and taught to delight in his Commandements: All Enmity and Discontentment must vanish as Clouds and Darkness before the Sun, when the Beauty of Vertue appeareth in its {xii} brightness and glory. It is impossible that the splendour of its Nature should be seen, but all Religion and Felicity will be manifest.

[7] Perhaps you will meet some New Notions: but yet when they are examined, he hopes it will appear to the Reader, that it was the actual knowledge of true Felicity that taught him to speak of Vertue; and moreover, that there is not the least tittle pertaining to the Catholick Faith contradicted or altered in his Papers. For he firmly retains all that was established in the {xiii} Ancient Councels, nay and sees Cause to do so, even in the highest and most transcendent Mysteries: only he enriches all, by farther opening the grandeur and glory of Religion, with the interiour depths and Beauties of Faith. Yet indeed it is not he, but GOD that hath enriched the Nature of it: he only brings the Wealth of Vertue to light, which the infinite Wisdom, and Goodness, and Power of GOD have seated there. Which though Learned Men know perhaps far better than he, yet he humbly craves pardon for casting in {xiv} his Mite to the vulgar Exchequer. He hath nothing more to say, but that the Glory of GOD, and the sublime Perfection of Humane Nature are united in Vertue. By Vertue the Creation is made useful, and the Universe delightful. All the Works of GOD are crowned with their End, by the Glory of Vertue. For whatsoever is good and profitable for Men is made Sacred; because it is delightful and well-pleasing to GOD: Who being LOVE by Nature, delighteth in his Creatures welfare.{xv}

[8] There are two sorts of concurrent Actions necessary to Bliss. Actions in GOD, and Actions in Men; nay and Actions too in all the Creatures. The Sun must warm, but it must not burn; the Earth must bring forth, but not swallow up; the Air must cool without starving, and the Sea moisten without drowning: Meats must feed but not poyson: Rain must fall, but not oppress: Thus in the inferiour Creatures you see Actions are of several kinds. But these may be reduced to the Actions of GOD, from whom they {xvi} spring; for he prepares all these Creatures for us. And it is necessary to the felicity of his Sons, that he should make all things healing and amiable, not odious and destructive: that he should Love, and not Hate: And the Actions of Men must concur aright with these of GOD, and his Creatures. They must not despise Blessings because they are given, but esteem them; not trample them under feet, because they have the benefit of them, but magnifie and extol them: They too must Love, and not Hate: They must not kill and murther, {xvii} but serve and pleasure one another: they must not scorn great and inestimable Gifts, because they are common, for so the Angels would lose all the happiness of Heaven. If GOD should do the most great and glorious things that infinite Wisdom could devise; if Men will resolve to be blind, and perverse, and sensless, all will be in vain: the most High and Sacred things will increase their Misery. This may give you some little glimpse of the excellency of Vertue.{xviii}

[9] You may easily discern that my Design is to reconcile Men to GOD, and make them fit to delight in him: and that my last End is to celebrate his Praises, in communion with the Angels. Wherein I beg the Concurrence of the Reader, for we can never praise him enough; nor be fit enough to praise him: No other man (at least) can make us so, without our own willingness, and endeavour to do it. Above all, pray to be sensible of the Excellency of the Creation for upon the due sense of its Excellency the life of {xix} Felicity wholly dependeth. Pray to be sensible of the Excellency of Divine Laws, and of all the Goodness which your Soul comprehendeth. Covet a lively sense of all you know, of the Excellency of GOD, and of Eternal Love; of your own Excellency, and of the worth and value of all Objects whatsoever. For to feel is as necessary, as to see their Glory.

* Anonymous, The Whole Duty of Man. London: Henry Hammond, 1658.  A popular 17th century Anglican devotional work.

** Pierre Charron, De la sagesse (translated into English as Of Wisdome, 1612).  Charron, a disciple of Montaigne, defended virtue on the basis of practical expedience.

Bibliography

Balakier, James, J. Thomas Traherne and the Felicities of the Mind. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2010.

Dobell, Bertram (ed.). The Poetical Works of Thomas Traherne. London, 1903; 2nd ed. 1906.

Dobell, Bertram (ed.). Thomas Traherne: Centuries of Meditations. London, 1908.

Hunter, Stuart Charles. Prophet of Felicity: A Study of the Intellectual Background of Thomas Traherne. Diss. McMaster University, 1965.

Inge, Denise. Wanting Like a God: Desire and Freedom in Thomas Traherne. London: SCM Press, 2009.

Margoliouth, H. M. (ed.). Centuries, Poems, and Thanksgivings. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958.

Marks, Carol L. Thomas Traherne and Hermes Trismegistus. Renaissance News, vol. 19, no. 2, 1966, 118–131.

Martz, Louis. The Paradise Within: Studies in Vaughan, Traherne, and Milton. New Haven and London, 1964.

Traherne, Thomas. Christian ethicks, or, Divine morality opening the way to blessedness, by the rules of vertue and reason. London, Jonathan Edwin, 1675. [Orig. edition]

1st draft: 1 Sep 2020

St. Anselm: A rousing of the mind to the contemplation of God

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Photo: source unknown

ST ANSELM OF CANTERBURY is for many best known as the originator of the ontological argument for God’s existence, and on that basis is sometimes dismissed as sort of a precursor to scholasticism.  But this is quite unfair to the legacy of the venerable archbishop, who shines as an example of inspired integration of Faith and Reason.  The ontological ‘argument’ is found in Chapters 2 and 3 of Anselm’s Prosologion.  However Chapter 1 (below) reveals Anselm’s true intentions:  not to supply a logical proof, but rather to draw up the mind into a mystical contemplation of God’s being and nature.  Anselm, like Augustine and Plato before him, is a rational mystic.  He demonstrates for us the religious mental power of inspired dialectic, a form of meditation.  Dialectic is an exercise which seeks to focus the mind, opening the ‘eye of the intellect’ for divine contemplation (theoria), and not a dry excursion into rationalism.

In reading this chapter it struck me that it worked better as poetry than prose, and I’ve so parsed it here. (It turns out that in her translation Benedicta Ward had the same notion, based partly on punctuation in old manuscripts.)  The strong influence of St. Augustine (e.g., his Confessions and Soliloquies) may be seen.

COME now, thou poor child of man,
turn awhile from thy business,
hide thyself for a little time from restless thoughts,
cast away thy troublesome cares,
put aside thy wearisome distractions.

Give thyself a little leisure to converse with God,
and take thy rest awhile in Him.
Enter into the secret chamber of thy heart:
leave everything without but God
and what may help thee to seek after Him,
and when thou hast shut the door,
then do thou seek Him.
Say now, O my whole heart, say now to God,
I seek Thy face; Thy face, Lord, do I seek.

*

COME now then, O Lord my God,
teach Thou my heart when and how I may seek Thee,
where and how I may find Thee?

O Lord, if Thou art not here, where else shall I seek Thee?
but if Thou art everywhere, why do I not behold Thee,
since Thou art here present?

Surely indeed Thou dwellest in the light which no man can approach unto.
But where is that light unapproachable?
or how may I approach unto it since it is unapproachable?
or who shall lead me and bring me into it
that I may see Thee therein?

Again, by what tokens shall I know Thee,
in what form shall I look for Thee?
I have never seen Thee, O Lord my God; I know not Thy form.
What shall I do then, O Lord most high,
what shall I do, banished as I am so far from Thee?
What shall Thy servant do that is sick for love of Thee,
and yet is cast away from Thy presence?
He panteth to behold Thee, and yet Thy presence is very far from him.
He longeth to approach unto Thee, and yet Thy dwelling-place is unapproachable.
He desireth to find Thee, yet he knoweth not Thy habitation.
He would fain seek Thee, yet he knoweth not Thy face.

O Lord, Thou art my God, Thou art my Lord; and I have never beheld Thee.
Thou hast created me and created me anew,
and all good things that I have, hast Thou bestowed upon me,
and yet I have never known Thee.
Nay, I was created to behold Thee, and yet have I never unto this day
done that for the sake whereof I was created.

*

O MISERABLE lot of man, to have lost that whereunto he was created!
O hard and terrible condition!
Alas, what hath he lost? what hath he found?
what hath departed from him? what hath continued with him?
He hath lost the blessedness whereunto he was created,
and he hath found the misery whereunto he was not created;
that without which nothing is happy, hath departed from him,
and that hath continued with him which by itself cannot but be miserable.

Once man did eat angels’ food, after which he now hungereth;
now he eateth the bread of affliction, which then he knew not.
Alas for the common woe of man, the universal sorrow of the children of Adam!
Our first father was filled with abundance, we sigh with hunger;
he was rich, we are beggars.
He miserably threw away that in the possession whereof he was happy, and in the lack whereof we are miserable;
after which we lamentably long and alas! abide unsatisfied.
Why did he not keep for us, when he might easily have kept it, that the loss whereof so grievously afflicts us?
Wherefore did he so overcloud our day, and plunge us into darkness?
Why did he take from us our life, and bring upon us the pains of death?
Wretches that we are, whence have we been driven out and whither?
From our native country into banishment,
from the vision of God into blindness,
from the joy of immortality into the bitterness and horror of death.
How sad the change from so great good to so great evil!
Grievous is the loss, grievous the pain, grievous every thing.

*

BUT alas for me, one of the miserable children of Eve, cast far away from God!
What did I begin? and what have I accomplished?
At what did I aim? and unto what have I attained?
To what did I aspire? and where am I now sighing?
I sought good, and behold, trouble.
I aimed at God, and have stumbled upon myself.
I sought rest in my secret chamber, and I have found tribulation and grief in the inmost parts.
I desired to laugh for gladness of spirit and am constrained to roar for the disquietness of my heart.
I hoped for joy and behold increase of sorrow.

*

HOW long, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord, wilt Thou forget us,
how long wilt Thou hide Thy face from us?
When wilt Thou turn and hearken unto us?
When wilt thou enlighten our eyes and show us Thy face?
When wilt Thou restore Thy presence to us?

Turn and took upon us, O Lord:
hearken unto us, enlighten us, show us Thyself.
Restore to us Thy presence that it may be well with us;
for without Thee it goeth very ill with us.
Have pity upon our labours and strivings after Thee, for without Thee we can do nothing.
Thou callest us; help us to obey the call.
I beseech Thee, O Lord, that 1 may not despair in my sighing,
but may draw full breath again in hope.
My heart is embittered by its desolation;
with Thy consolation, I beseech Thee, O Lord, make it sweet again.
I beseech Thee, O Lord, for in my hunger I have begun to seek Thee,
suffer me not to depart from Thee fasting.
I have come to Thee fainting for lack of food;
let me not go empty away.
I have come to Thee, as the poor man to the rich, as the miserable to the merciful,
let me not return unsatisfied and despised:
and if before I be fed, I sigh,
grant me that, though after I have sighed, I may be fed.

O Lord, I am bent downwards, I cannot look up:
raise me up, that I may lift mine eyes to heaven.
My iniquities are gone over my head, they overwhelm me;
they are like a sore burden too heavy for me to bear.
Deliver me, take away my burden,
lest the pit of my wickedness shut its mouth upon me:
grant unto me that I may look upon Thy light,
though from afar off, though out of the deep.

Let me seek Thee in desiring Thee;
let me desire Thee in seeking Thee;
let me find Thee in loving Thee;
let me love Thee in finding Thee.

I confess to Thee, O Lord, and I give thanks unto Thee,
because Thou hast created in me this Thine image,
that I may remember Thee, think upon Thee, love Thee:
but so darkened is Thine image in me by the smoke of my sins
that it cannot do that whereunto it was created,
unless Thou renew it and create it again.
I seek not, O Lord, to search out Thy depth,
but I desire in some measure to understand Thy truth,
which my heart believeth and loveth.
Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe,
but I believe that I may understand.
For this too I believe, that unless I first believe, I shall not understand.

Source: St. Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogin 1 (tr. Webb, pp. 5−11; slightly edited)

Bibliography

St. Anselm, Opera Omnia. Patrologia Latina 158, 223–248 (ch. 1: 225−228). Paris: Migne, 1854. [Online Latin text]

Barth, Karl. Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum. Trans. Ian Robertson. John Knox Press, 1960.

Davies, Brian; Evans, G. R. Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Sansom, Dennis. The virtue of contemplation and St. Anselm’s Proslogion II and III. Saint Anselm Journal 9.2, 2014.

Schmitt, Franciscus Salesius. S. Anselmi Cantuariensis Archiepiscopi Opera Omnia. Friedrich Fromann Verlag, 1968.

Southern, R.W. Saint Anselm: A Portrait In Landscape. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Stolz, Anselm. Anselm’s Theology in the Proslogion. In: John Hick & Arthur C. McGill (eds.), The Many Faced Argument, New York: Macmillan, 1967 (repr. Wipf and Stock, 2009); pp. 183−206.

Ward, Benedicta (tr.). The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm. Penguin, 1973.

Webb, Clement Charles Julian (tr.). The Devotions of Saint Anselm. Methuen, 1903.

Williams, Thomas. Anselm: Basic Writings. Hackett, 2007.

1st draft: 4 May 2020

St. John Cassian on spiritual discernment: Be ye good money changers

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Photo: Ancient counterfeiters and their fake coins 

BE YE GOOD MONEY-CHANGERS is one of a few dozen agrapha, or unwritten sayings attributed to Jesus in the patristic literature.  This particular saying — one of those most commonly cited — forms the basis of an extended discussion in Cassian’s (c. 410) Conferences.  Abba Moses, a desert father whom Cassian interviews, connects it not with the transactional aspect of a money-changer’s profession, but with the need to test coinage: Is it gold or brass? Genuine or counterfeit? Was it legally minted? Is the metal pure or adulterated? Hence the need for careful inspection, a sound eye, a nail to scratch the surface, and a true scale to judge weight.

For Abba Moses, four tests of metal coins have mental counterparts in the process of discernment. He’s mainly concerned with discernment involving an action we propose to undertake — is it truly good, or a mere imitation of goodness? — and secondarily for distinguishing true from false religious doctrines.  But the principles he describes apply to discernment generally.

In the preceding chapter, Abba Moses, the speaker leading this conference, has identified three sources of our thoughts:  from God, from the devil, and from ourselves, and he now continues:

XX. 1. WE SHOULD, then, be continually aware of this threefold distinction and with a wise discretion examine all the thoughts that emerge in our heart, first tracing their origins and causes and their authors, so that, in accordance with the status of whoever is suggesting them, we may be able to consider how we should approach them. Then we shall … in keeping with the precept of the Lord, [be] approved money-changers. [Resch, Logion 43; pp. 112ff.]

The very high skill and training of such persons exists for the sake of [i] determining whether something is gold of the purest sort — what is popularly called obrizum — or whether it has been less purified by fire. It also exists for the sake of not being deceived by a common brass denarius if it is being passed off as a precious coin under the guise of shining gold; this is assured by a very careful examination. These people [moreover] not only [ii] shrewdly recognize coins displaying the heads of usurpers but also [iii] discern with a still finer skill those which are stamped with the image of the true king but are counterfeits. Finally, [iv] they submit them to careful weighing in case they are lighter than they should be.

2. All of these things we ourselves have to carry out in a spiritual manner, as this gospel saying demonstrates.

First, we should carefully scrutinize whatever enters our hearts, especially if it is a doctrine to which we have been exposed, to see if it has been purified by the divine and heavenly fire of the Holy Spirit or if it is a part of … superstition or if, coming from the pridefulness of worldly philosophy, it has the mere look of piety to it. We shall be able to accomplish this if we fulfill what the Apostle says: ‘Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God.’ [1 John 4:1; cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:21−22 ]

3. This is how some have been deceived who, after their monastic profession, have been seduced by elegant words and by certain teachings of the philosophers which, at first hearing, attracted them superficially at a given moment. These teachings fooled the hearers, much like shining gold, because of a few pious sentiments not inconsistent with religion. But since they were, so to say, counterfeit brass coins, they impoverished those who had been taken in and made them miserable forever, either by reintroducing them into the tumult of the world or by dragging them into heretical errors and bloated presumptions. We read in the Book of Joshua son of Nun that this also happened to Achan: He coveted a gold bar from the camp of the Philistines and stole it, and thus he deserved to be placed under sentence and condemned to eternal death. [cf. Joshua 7]

4. Secondly, we should look closely to see that no wicked interpretation fastened on to the pure gold of Scripture deceives us by the precious appearance of its metal. This was how the crafty devil attempted to deceive even the Lord, the Savior, as if he were a mere man: he tried to make an adaptation, corrupting with a wicked interpretation things that should generally be understood as applying only to the righteous and particularly to him who did not need the protection of angels, when he said: ‘For he will command his angels concerning you, that they may guard you in all your ways, and in their hands they will carry you, lest perchance you strike your foot against a stone.’ [Matthew 4: 5−7; Luke 4:9−12; Psalms 91:11−12] Thus he changed the precious words of Scripture by his clever use of them and gave them a contrary and harmful meaning, like someone who presents us with the image of a usurper’s face under the guise of deceptive gold. He also tries to lead us astray with counterfeits by exhorting us to pursue a certain pious work which, since it is not the legitimate coinage of the elders, leads to vice under the appearance of virtue and brings us to a bad end by deceiving us either with immoderate and inappropriate fasting or severe vigils or inordinate praying or excessive reading.

5. He [i.e., the devil] also persuades us to give ourselves to acts of meditation and to pious visitations, by which he would pry us away from the spiritual ramparts of the monastery and from our retreat of cherished calm, even suggesting that we worry and be concerned about nuns and destitute women, by snares of this sort inextricably entangling the entrapped monk with baleful preoccupations. And, indeed, he inveigles us into desiring the holy clerical office [priesthood] under the pretext of edifying many and for the love of spiritual gain, thus tearing us away from the humility and severity of our present chosen orientation [as monks].

6. Although all these things are contrary to our salvation and to our profession, they nonetheless easily deceive the unskilled and the unwary since they are covered by a kind of veil of mercy and religion. For they imitate the coins of the true king because they appear very pious at first sight, but they have not been stamped by lawful minters — that is to say, by the approved and Catholic fathers — nor do they come from the central and public workshop of their conferences, but they are clandestinely fabricated by the fraud of demons and, to their detriment, are offered to the unskilled and the ignorant. Although they might seem good and necessary at first sight, yet if afterwards they begin to have a negative effect on the solidity of our profession and in some way weaken the whole body of our chosen orientation, they are rightly cut off and cast away from us just like anything that is necessary and seems to perform the office of a right hand or a foot but that causes scandal.

7. For it is preferable to be without the member of one commandment — that is, without one work and its fruit — and to be healthy and solid in the other members and to enter the kingdom of heaven crippled, than with all the commandments to trip against some stumbling block that through pernicious habit would separate us from our habitual rigor and from the discipline of the orientation that we have chosen and embraced. This would bring such a great loss upon us that we would never be able to compensate for future setbacks, and all our past achievements and the whole body of our activity would be burned up in the fires of Gehenna. [cf. Matthew 18:8]

8. Proverbs also speaks well about these kinds of deceptions: ‘There are paths that seem to be right to a man, but they arrive finally at the depths of hell. [Proverbs 16:25 LXX] And again: ‘An evil person does harm when he involves himself with a righteous one.’ [Proverbs 11:15a LXX] That is to say, the devil is deceptive when he veils himself in the appearance of holiness. ‘But he hates the sound of the watchman’ [Proverbs 11:15b LXX] — namely, the power of discretion that comes from the words and the advice of the elders.

XXI. l. WE HAVE heard how even the Abba John, who used to live at Lycon, was recently deceived in this way. For when he had put off eating because of a two-day fast and his body was worn out and enfeebled, the devil approached him in the form of a black Ethiopian on the following day, just as he was about to eat. Embracing his knees he said: ‘Pardon me, for it was I who inflicted this labor on you.’ Then that man, so great and perfect in the ordering of his discretion, understood that in haring exercised an exaggerated abstinence he had been duped by the devil’s cleverness and been so preoccupied with his fasting that he had considered unnecessary weariness, which would in fact be spiritually harmful, more important, than his exhausted body. He was deceived by a counterfeit coin, and while he was venerating the image of the true king on it he was too little aware of whether it was lawfully minted.

2. The final thing to be observed by this approved money-changer, which we said had to do with examining and weighing, will be accomplished if we reflect meticulously on whatever our thoughts suggest that we should do. This we must place in the scale of our heart and weigh with the most delicate balance to see whether it has the proper weight of common goodness, and whether it is sufficiently heavy with the fear of God and integral in meaning, or whether it is too light because of human ostentation or some novel presumption, or whether the pride of empty vainglory has diminished or eroded the weight of its worth. Hence, let us bring it out immediately in public to weigh by having recourse to the deeds and testimonies of the prophets and apostles, and let us hold on to the things that balance with them as being integral and perfect and very cautiously and carefully reject, as being imperfect and condemnable, whatever does not weigh conformably with them.

XXII. 1. THIS DISCRETION, then, will be necessary for us in the fourfold manner of which I have spoken — that is, in the first place, so that the material itself, whether real gold or false, may not be concealed from us; secondly, so that we may reject thoughts that lie about works of piety as being adulterated and counterfeit coins since they are not lawfully minted and have a false image of the king; then, so that with similar discernment we may be able to turn down those which, because of an evil and heretical interpretation, portray in the precious gold of Scripture the face not of the true king but of a usurper; and finally, so that we may refuse as too light and condemnable and insufficiently heavy those coins whose weight and value have been eaten away by the rust of vanity, which does not let them balance out in the scale of the elders. Otherwise we shall stumble into what we are warned by the Lord’s commandment to be on the watch for with all our strength, and we shall be defrauded of all the deserts and rewards of our labors: ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where rust and moth destroy and where thieves break in and steal.’ [Matthew 6:19]

2. For whatever we have done with a view to human glory we know that we have stored up for ourselves as a treasure on earth, according to the Lord’s words, and that consequently, having been as it were hidden in the soil and buried in the earth, it will be ravaged by different demons and consumed by the devouring rust of vainglory and so eaten up by the moths of pride that it will be of no use or profit to the person who hid it.

All the secret places of our heart, therefore, must be constantly scrutinized and the prints of whatever enters them must be investigated in the most careful way.

Source: John Cassian, Conferences 1.20-22.2 (PL 49:510−519); tr. Ramsey.

Bibliography

Gazet, Alard (ed.). Joannes Cassianus: Collationes. Migne Patrologia Latina 49:477−1328. Paris, J. P. Migne, 1846. Latin text. [Online version]

Gibson, Edgar Charles Sumner. (tr.). Conferences of John Cassian. In: Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (eds.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Vol. 11 (NPNF2-11), pp. 291−545. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.

Hutt, Curtis. ‘Be ye approved money changers!’ Reexamining the social contexts of the saying and its interpretation. Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 131, no. 3, 2012, pp. 589–609. doi:10.2307/23488256

Petschenig, Michael (ed.). Iohannis Cassiani: Conlationes XXIIII. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum. Vienna: Geroldi, 1886. Latin critical edition.

Pichery, E. Jean Cassien: Conférences, SC 42, 54, 64. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1955, 1958, 1959. Latin text with French translation.

Ramsey, Boniface (tr.). John Cassian: The Conferences. ACW 57. New York: Paulist Press, 1997. English translation. [This edition — well translated, with ample notes and excellent introductions (overall and for each book) and remarkably inexpensive — is highly recommended. Amazon and Google ebook versions are available.]

Resch, Alfred (ed.). Agrapha: Ausserkanonische Evangelienfragmente. Leipzig, 1906. Agraphon 87 (Logion 43), pp. 112−128.

Stewart, Columba. Cassian the Monk. Oxford University Press, 1998.

1st draft: 18 Apr 2020

Martianus Capella, The Apotheosis of Philologia

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Sandro Botticelli, Venus and the Three Graces Presenting Gifts to a Young Woman, 1483–1486.

BOOK II of Martianus Capella’s On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury (De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii) continues the mythical introduction to the work (the previous post discusses Book I).  Before she can marry Mercury, Philologia (love of study) must ascend to heaven.  In preparation for this she is greeted and praised by a succession of goddesses and other divinities, including Phronesis (her mother), the Seven Muses, Philosophy, the Graces, the Virtues, Immortality, and Astrae. The speeches of the Muses, especially noteworthy, are presented below.

Modern writers criticize Martianus for what they call his ‘turgid prose’ and elaborate descriptions.  But this is seeing him through the lens of narrow rationalism.  May we instead adopt a post-rationalist worldview, and accept that he is either (1) using art intentionally to convey a fuller message, or (2) that he just might be inspired, whether by some divine power, the collective unconscious, or both?  May we in the 21st century regain an appreciation for the prophetic sense?

In Book III Martianus himself addresses his critics:

[221] Once again in this little book the Muse prepares her ornaments and wants to tell fabricated stories at first, remembering that utility cannot clothe the naked truth; she regards it as a weakness of the poet to make straightforward and undisguised statements, and she brings a light touch to literary style and adds beauty to a page that is already heavily colored. (Stahl et al, p. 64).

Criticisms notwithstanding, the purpose of the myth in the first two books seems as explicitly religious as it is momentous: Martianus is suggesting that Philologia — this quality of love of study, of scholarship, of yearning to understand the meanings of things — is something divine.  And it seems likely he considers this a means of gradual ascent of the mind (nous) in a manner consistent with Platonism and Neoplatonism.

Small wonder, then, that this work exerted such a profound influence on education and consciousness in the West for 1000 years after he wrote, from the fall of  the Roman Empire to the Renaissance.  His message should be heard again today.  The purpose of Liberal Arts education is neither utilitarian, nor merely to make a ‘good and productive citizen.’  It is part of the far more significant process of divinization, of ‘assimilation to God insofar as possible.’

Two details concerning the following should be noted.  First, the Seven Muses are not the same as the Seven Liberal Arts, which are treated in the remaining seven books.  Second, Martianus deviates somewhat from how other writers interpret each Muse.  The English translation of Stahl et al. has been lightly edited.

[117] BEFORE the door, sweet music with manifold charms was raised, the chorus of assembled Muses singing in well-trained harmony to honor the marriage ceremony. Flutes, lyres, the grand swell of the water organ blended in tuneful song and with a melodious ending as they became silent for an appropriate interval of unaccompanied singing by the Muses. Then the entire chorus with melodious voices and sweet harmony outstripped the beauty of all the instrumental music, and the following words were poured forth in notes of sacred song:

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[118] Then, while the others kept quiet a moment, URANIA (Muse of astronomy) began:

“With trust in the divine will and without disputing,
Behold the assemblies of the stars,
And the sacred vaults of the heavens;
You formerly studied what cause whirled the interdependent spheres,
Now as their leader you shall assign causes to their sweeping motions.
You shall perceive what is the fabric that connects their circuits,
What bond encompasses them,
And what huge spheres are enclosed within a curving orbit;
You will see what drives on and what delays courses of the planets,
Which rays of the sun inflame the moon or diminish its light,
What substance kindles the stars in heaven,
And how great are the bodies which heaven spins around,
What is the providence of the gods, and what its mode of operation.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[119] Then sang CALLIOPE (Muse of epic poetry):

“Always a friend to the favoring Muses,
For you Magnesian rivers and the fountain of Pegasus have poured your drink,
For you the Aonid peak [Mount Helicon], green with garlands, puts forth its leaves, while Cirrha prepares violets;
You know how to chant prophecies to the sweet Muses,
And to play the lyre of Pindar,
And at your word the strings and the sacred plectrum,
Know how to pour forth the Thracian song.
Light of our lives, praise always our sacred songs,
And approve the music that we play.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks uou to rise to the lofty stars.”

[120] Thus sang POLYMNIA (Muse of rhythm and poetic meter):

“You have been exalted and, though recently of mortal blood,
Are now endowed with godhead;
At last you reap the rewards of your efforts:
The shining sky, the abodes of the gods, and the companionship of Jove.
You are used to combining and dispersing a variety of sounds,
According to the rules of rhythm,
To assessing then which syllable, marked with the macron,
Is pronounced with circumflexion,
Which with the mark of brevity the micron curves;
To assessing melodies and tones and tunes and all such knowledge,
And all that can, when the mind is urged to it,
Gain the heights of heaven.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[121] Thus sang MELPOMEME (Muse of sacred theater):

“You are accustomed to sing tragic songs for the theater,
Or wear the boot of comedy and echo the songs,
Which under your care we offered when sweet music aided us;
Now to you, maiden, our champion and our expositor,
Made immortal by the theme of your song, to you I sing.
For I am happy to adorn your bridal chamber,
And may my garlands be acceptable in your service.
May you ever seem worthy of an Olympian wedding,
Ever fairer than the other gods.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupitet asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[122] Thus sang CLIO (Muse of history and rhetoric):

“You sound forth in the guise of the rhetorician,
And set free by your passion the man accused.
You link together contrary sentiments,
Building up sophisms by heaping together arguments,
Now binding something together by the rule of grammar,
Clever at using your gift of fine speech,
To play with words that by their double meaning destroy the ordinary sense;
Now gaze upon the starry threshold of the sky,
And enjoy the holy whiteness of heaven,
For it is precious to see that in its true light.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[123] Next spoke ERATO (Muse of lyric and love poetry):

“O famous maiden, to whom the palace of the Thunderer is open,
Source of the arts, rightly is the world subject to you,
Since it was from the beginning apprehended by your rational principles.
Why the sacred lightning flashes,
Whence the echoing thunder sounds,
What drives the moisture through the opening of the sky when the storm clouds gather,
What is brought back by the clearness of spring when the rain clouds march away,
Why the circle of the year spins round to end all the hurrying centuries
—we avow that secrets unknown to others are known to you alone.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[124] Then sang TERPSICHORE (Muse of dance and chorus):

“I am delighted, dear maiden, that through this honor you gain a sight of the stars!
Your industry and the genius of your nature have won this for you.
That wakeful concentration of yours bestowed this honor on your lucubrations.
Having toiled day and night on the sacred writings,
And knowing the future and being ready to learn,
You have understood what the Stoics offer in their sacrifices when the flame puffs from the kindling.
For without misgivings, with unhesitating utterance,
You anticipate what the smoke tells on the flaming altars of the Sabaeans,
What message is brought by air thick with the ash of incense,
Or what the sure signs foretell by prophetic voices.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[125] Then EUTERPE (Muse of flute music) began:

“O maiden, our guide to skillful prophecy,
Who could ascend to heaven and bring down to pure souls,
The sacred teachings by which they were able to know themselves,
And by which they discerned
And saw with a clear light the decrees of fate and the countenances of the spirits,
And who allotted stars to be the minds of Plato and Pythagoras,
And who has ordered ephemeral creatures,
To behold the decree of heaven with all obscurity removed:
Rightly ascend to the senate of the Thunderer,
You who alone are fit to be married to Mercury.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[126] Then THALIA (Muse of comedy and pastoral poetry) spoke:

“O blessed maiden, who take up the marriage bond,
Amid such a singing of the stars,
And with such approval from the universe,
Become a daughter-in-law of the Thunderer.
Of which god are you to become the wife?
He alone on wandering wing, alert for sudden storms,
Flies out beyond the stars of the universe,
And when he has crossed the straits on high, returns to Tartarus.
He alone is able to wield his famous staff before the chariot and white horses of the high father;
He alone gladly restores the fortunes of Osiris as he falls,
Whom the father of the gods knows to be weighed down by the life-giving seed he has discovered;
To Mercury his stepmother gladly gave her milky breast;
His powerful caduceus counteracts dread poison;
And when he speaks, all venom is dissolved.
He is learned among the gods; but this girl is still more learned.
Now, now the arts are blessed, which you two so sanctify,
That they allow men to rise to heaven and open to them the stars,
And allow holy prayers to fly up to the clear sky.
Through you the mind’s intelligence, alert and noble, fills the uttermost depth,
Through you proven eloquence brings everlasting glory.
You bless all subjects, and you bless us, the Muses.”

Bibliography

Cristante, Lucio; Lenaz, Luciano. Martiani Capellae: De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. Vol. 1, Libri I – II. Bibliotheca Weidmanniana, 15.1. Hildesheim: Weidmann, 2011.

Stahl, William Harris; Johnson, Richard; Burge, E. L. The Marriage of Philology and Mercury. Columbia University Press, 1977.

Willis, James (ed.). Martianus Capella: De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii libri IX. Leipzig: Teubner, 1983. (Critical edition of Latin text.)

1st draft, 1 Apr 2020

Martianus Capella’s Fable of the Marriage of Philologia and Mercury

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Sandro Botticelli, A Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts (detail), 1483–1486.

 

MARTIANUS CAPELLA, an early 5th century North African writer, is most famous for a work titled, On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury (De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii).  Virtually ignored today, this work had vast influence on education for next 1000 years and shaped the curriculum of the Middle Ages. The first two books, an introduction, present an allegorical fable involving the marriage of Mercury and Philology (love of study.).  Subsequent chapters discuss, one by one, the seven traditional liberal arts (Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Geometry, Arithmetic, Astronomy and Music), supplying a compendium of existing knowledge on each.

Even less modern attention has been given to the introductory fable than to the work as a whole.  However the former merits our attention as an imaginative and creative attempt to explain the purpose of liberal education by means of a psychological allegory.  As a work of art and an expression of the collective unconscious, the fable is not dated. Indeed, the daring style — precisely because it’s so unconventional by modern standards — deserves our attention that much more.The allegory has two parts, called the Betrothal and the Marriage. Part 1 — psychologically more interesting — is supplied below.  This is taken (in abridged and edited form) from the English translation of Stahl, Johnson and Burge.  Except for Mercury, names of the gods are changed from their Latin to Greek forms.

Readers may notice similarities to the story of Cupid and Psyche, from the Metamorphosis (Golden Ass) of Apuleius.  That is not merely coincidental, as Martianus consciously emulated his illustrious predecessor Apuleius, a fellow native of Madaura (in what is now Algeria).Philology, as already noted, means the love of study, and Mercury — known both for his role as communicator and mediator, as well as for his quickness — is a familiar symbol for the intelligence.

Rather than over-analyze the charming story, I’ll trust the author’s creative instincts and let art itself appeal to readers’ imaginations to suggest psychological meanings. Overall, the story might be understood as suggesting that education in the Seven Liberal Arts is more than merely expedient; it also serves to elevate and harmonize the mind. In that sense it (just as Plato suggests in the Republic), supports ones moral and spiritual development. Indeed, insofar as it helps realize Man’s greatest potentials, it serves the entire Universe and contributes to cosmic harmony.

[5] MERCURY was moved and excited by the reciprocity of love among the gods; at the same time he saw what was clear to many people—love and marriages are universally celebrated. So he too decided to get married. His mother had encouraged him in this inclination when, on his yearly journey through the zodiac, he greeted her in the company of the Pleiades.

[6] Because of the importance of the venture, he pondered a great deal on whom he ought to marry. He himself ardently desired Wisdom, because she was prudent and holy, and purer and fairer than the other maidens. However Wisdom was like a foster sister of Athena and seemed inseparably devoted to her, as though having espoused virginity; he accordingly decided not to marry Wisdom, as this would offend Athena, his own sister.

In the same way, the splendid beauty of Prophecy inflamed his desires. She was nobly born, being the elder daughter of Forethought, and her farsighted and penetrating wisdom commended her to him. But at that very time, as it happened, she went of her own accord to young Apollo and, unable to endure her inordinate passion, she became his lover.

[7] He wanted then to ask for Psyche, the daughter of Endelechia [World Soul] and Sol, because she was extremely beautiful and the gods had taken great care over her education. On the day of her birth the gods, being invited to a celebration, had brought her many gifts. Jupiter, in fact, had placed on her head a diadem which he had taken from his favored daughter Eternity; Juno had added a band for her hair, made from a gleaming vein of pure gold. Athena loosed from her tunic the flame-red veil and breastband and, herself a virgin holy and wise, draped the virgin in the very mantle from her own bosom. Apollo also, carrying his laurel branch, showed her with that wand of foresight and prophecy the birds, the bolts of lightning, the motions of heaven itself and the stars. Urania with gentle kindness gave her a gleaming mirror which Wisdom had hung in Urania’s rooms amongst her gifts—a mirror in which Psyche could recognize herself and learn her origins. Hephaestus kindled for her ever-burning flamelets; she would not then be oppressed by gloomy shadows and blind night. Aphrodite had given to all her senses every kind of pleasure. Mercury himself had given her a vehicle with swift wheels in which she could travel at an astonishing speed, although Memory bound it and weighed it down with golden chains. So now Mercury, his earlier hopes frustrated, sought in marriage Psyche, wealthy as she was in the gifts of heaven and richly adorned by the gods. But Virtue, almost in tears and clinging fast to him, confessed that Psyche had been snatched from her company into the hand of Cupid the flying archer, and was being held captive by him in shackles of adamant. (See ‘Cupid and Psyche’ by Apuleius):

[8] So the happiness of the destiny he had planned eluded Mercury, because of the marriages of these maidens; and there did not readily seem to be anyone else who might fittingly be chosen as Zeus the Thunderer’s daughter-in-law. Virtue therefore suggested that he give the matter further thought; he ought not decide anything without the advice of Apollo; he was not meant to wander far from his company, since, as Mercury traveled through the signs of the zodiac, Apollo never permitted him to be further than one month’s journey away from himself. And so it was decided that Mercury go to his brother, Apollo, wherever he might be.

[9] Then, as usual, he gave his caduceus to Virtue, so that she could penetrate the secret parts of the world with him, and with equal swiftness could break into the more remote quarters of heaven. He himself bound on his feet his golden sandals and they made a thorough search for Apollo. They looked for him in temples where oracles poured forth in evasive ambiguity and where, by the slaughter of animals and the separation of their entrails, the viscera declared foreordained events; and in places where it was the custom for a lottery to be drawn and for prophecies to be told.

[10] But in these leading shrines and these deserted caves they found nothing of Apollo except only a few leaves of withered laurel and half-torn fillets outside the cave of the sybil of Cumae. Even through the paths of air where Apollo usually guided the varied flights of birds and the cries they uttered, and formed omens in their fleeting wings, they looked for him without success. Indeed Apollo, patron of the Pythia, distressed by contact with those who sought his advice, had long ago given up his reputation as a prophet. They pursued him to Helicon, Delos, Lycia. In one place they found old laurel and withered ivy, in another a rotting tripod, sandals stiff with mildew, and an account of prophecies lying between them.

[11] At length they learned by rumor that the rock of Parnassus rejoiced in the presence of Phoebus, although from there too it was said that he had later moved to an Indian mountain’s secret crag, shrouded in perpetual clouds. Yet Mercury and Virtue visited the Delphic temple (by way of Cirrha on the Gulf of Corinth) and the sacred cave’s prophetic hollows. In it there stood about all the impending vicissitudes of the ages, in their order: the fortunes of cities and nations, of all their kings, and of the entire human race.

[20] When Pythian Apollo saw them approach from afar, conversing thus, and realized from the first glance the reason for their coming, he rose from the throne on which he was sitting and bade the Muses meet them. Although they seemed to hasten in service to Mercury, they moved with measured pace. When his brother had been brought to sit with him and join him in his work, Apollo first began:

[21] “When their minds tremble with apprehension in perilous times, or their destiny is unknown and unsettled with the future insecure, let the race of men consult the gods, because anxiety without knowledge of the truth makes them hesitant, uncertain prospects weary them; but to us foreknowledge is permitted, for us there is no hesitation. What the gods decide is law; heaven’s decisions cause us no wistfulness, for necessity is whatever is pleasing to us. But because you have not yet settled upon a choice, you want to have my advice. You thus associate me with all your desires, and you make up your mind with my advice.

[22] “There is a maiden of ancient lineage, highly educated and well acquainted with Parnassus; upon her the constellations shine in close proximity; no hidden region can conceal from her the movements of the stars through Tartarus, nor can thunderbolts hide from her the will of Zeus: she beholds under the sea the nature of wave-born Nereus. She knows your circuits through the several kingdoms of your brothers: ever watchful, with unsparing toil she penetrates the secrets of knowledge, so that with her patient learning she can anticipate all that it is given to gods to foreknow. Indeed, very often she has rights over us, impelling gods under compulsion to obey her decrees; she knows that what no power of heaven can attempt against Jove’s will, she can attain. Sublimity may cost dear: and the crowning consideration is that either of you is a fitting match for the other.”

[23] Virtue was delighted at these words of Apollo, recognizing that he proposed for marriage a paragon of a maiden; nevertheless, to be sure that there was no detraction from the dignity of the prospective brides mentioned earlier, she asked this one’s name. When she learned that it was Philologae whose espousal Apollo was urging, she was seized with such joy and enthusiasm that she behaved with less severity of deportment than was her wont. She called to mind that Philologae was her own kinswoman, a patroness of Prophecy, who had been so well commended, and most generous to Wisdom in giving her valuable ornaments. In addition, said Virtue, Psyche, who at first lived a primitive sort of existence, has been so refined by Philologae that whatever beauty and embellishment Psyche had she acquired from the polish Philologae gave her; for the maiden had shown Psyche so much affection that she strove constantly to make her immortal. Therefore they must not delay— and indeed she knew that the Cyllenian was swift in action. Having heard the words of Apollo, Mercury replied:

[24] “Lord of the laurel, splendor of the gods, certain it is that our concord comes from our kinship, and that you, my fellow-god, bring to pass whatever you and I together find to approve. I am never more ready to give up my own will, more happy to obey orders than when your caution and judgment prompt me to obey the Delian oracle. “I think it is sacrilege to regard the Delian utterances as ambiguous, and I forgo my own decision, whatever it was. It is therefore all the more appropriate that the I gladly obey these celebrated pronouncements when he is ordered to enter into matrimony. Try then, Delian Apollo, to ensure that Zeus should give the same decision, that he should give willing approval; for you are used to moving his will, you are alert to influence his predispositions; get him to approve your commands; I pray that his holy will has shone upon what has begun.”

Book I continues, informing us that Zeus not only confirms the choice of Philologae as Mercury’s bride, but is overjoyed at the prospect. He duly commands all the Olympian gods to commence festivities and prepare gifts. Book II continues with an elaborate description of the marriage ceremony. Accompanying the bride are her handmaids, the seven Liberal Arts, to which the remaining books are devoted.

Bibliography

Apuleius. Cupid and Psyche. William Addington (tr.); John Uebersax (ed.). 2018.

Cristante, Lucio; Lenaz, Luciano. Martiani Capellae: De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. Vol. 1, Libri I – II. Bibliotheca Weidmanniana, 15.1. Hildesheim: Weidmann, 2011.

Gersh, Stephen. Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism: The Latin Tradition. Vol. 2. University of Notre Dame Press, 1986. (Ch. 8. Martianus Capella, pp. 597−646.)

Stahl, William Harris; Johnson, Richard; Burge, E. L. The Marriage of Philology and Mercury. Columbia University Press, 1977.

Willis, James (ed.). Martianus Capella: De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii libri IX. Leipzig: Teubner, 1983. (Critical edition of Latin text.)

1st draft, 24 Mar 2020

Psuedo-Procopius of Gaza’s Platonic Commentary on Proverbs

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Gustave Doré, Solomon (cropped image)

THE BIBLE not only has important psychological meanings, but contains a blueprint for ethical renovation of the personality. Philo of Alexandria (fl. c. 20 AD), the master allegorical exegesis, makes a compelling case for the interpretation of the Pentateuch  according to Platonic ethics and moral psychology. Philo wrote very little about other books of the Old Testament, but nothing prevents us from applying his Platonic interpretive model more generally.  Indeed, the Wisdom Books would seem like prime candidates for this.  Their principal subject is, after all, Wisdom; and this was also the central concern of Plato, who understood philosophy (philosophia) as literally the love of Wisdom.  Indeed, the Wisdom of Solomon has long been suspected of being written by a Jewish Alexandrian Platonist (or even Philo himself) — and this book seems fully consistent with the themes, message, language and imagery of the other Wisdom Books.

A new translation by Justin Gohl (2019) of a little-studied work sheds important light on this subject. The work is a commentary on Proverbs attributed to Procopius of Gaza (c. 465–528), leader of the so-called School of Gaza.  Procopius’ authorship is now disputed, and the author is now referred to as Pseudo-Procopius.  The date of composition is similarly unknown, and could be anywhere between the 5th and 10th centuries.  The work shows the influence of Philo and Christian Platonists like Origen, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius of Pontus, and perhaps Maximus Confessor.

What matters more for us, though, is not the author or age of the work, but the relevance and plausibility of its interpretations.  On that basis, we would have to consider this a work of some importance and one that merits serious study.  It stands as (in my opinion, at least) as one of the best examples of a fully Platonic commentary on any Book of the Bible.

Proverbs, traditionally attributed to Solomon, is actually a compilation of several smaller compilations.  The first (Proverbs 1−9) is the most recent, thought to have reached its present form in Persian or Hellenistic times.  Gohl’s translation covers only this part of the Commentary. However consultation of the Greek text (with Latin translation) in Migne PG 87 suggests that this is representative of the whole Commentary.

A basic premise of the Commentary is the Platonic tripartite model of the human soul, which we outline below.

Plato’s Model of Soul

According to Plato — and he explains in Phaedrus, Republic and Timaeus — the human soul consists of appetitive, irascible (spirited, angry, ambitious) and rational elements.  Sometimes Plato refers to the first two combined as the irrational soul; their activity is called passions.

Proper function of the soul involves moderation of appetitive and irascible passions by the rational element.  The rational element should act as a wise governor or guide, neither giving full reign to passions nor denying them completely.  Rather it limits their expression according to just or right measure, producing harmonious operation of the psyche. This balanced, harmonious mental milieu, in turn, helps the rational part judge rightly: tranquility (ataraxia) and mental clarity allow us to maintain a vision of the Good, along with accurate perceptions and sound beliefs.

Our mental apparatus fails, however, when the rational element doesn’t properly exercise its moderating role, either overindulging, or over- suppressing an impulse, creating discord and conflict.

Importantly, for Plato there’s an integral connection between epistemology and ethics: virtue begets wisdom and wisdom, virtue — and, similarly, vice begets folly and folly begets vice.

Implicit in Plato’s system is a cognitive model of moral error.  Wrong actions are not always or even usually a simple matter of caving into a temptation.  There’s an intermediate step.  When first presented with an impulse to over-indulge an appetite or passion, we frequently hesitate. At that point opposing arguments — rationalizations — attempting to justify the action may emerge.  Overindulgence, then, is associated with following these wrong inner counsels.  Moreover, this characteristically involves a faulty or biased judgment of what’s good:  we don’t simply  intentionally sin, but often do so after having first convinced ourselves that the action is actually good.  A similar — but sometimes overlooked — process applies to injudicious suppression of appetitive or irascible urges.

This, then, in broad terms outlines our ethical fall for Plato.  This model has very real and practical implications.  The moral lapse, which affects attention, right belief and right judgment, is responsible for all manner of harmful and addictive behaviors, as well as myriad negative mental states like anxiety, worry, hatred, jealousy and the like.  Hence it’s of central importance to our mental and emotional well-being.

Little wonder, then, that both Plato and the Bible would be vitally concerned with helping us remedy this chronic problem in our nature. Since both sources are universally accepted as insightful and authoritative,  and the problem they are trying to solve is the same, we’d expect their remedies to be fundamentally similar.  In Plato and the Bible (and perhaps especially with the Wisdom Books) we have, as it were, two reciprocally illuminating maps for the same journey.

The Strange Woman

The ‘strange woman’ —a prostitute or harlot — is a central figure who recurs throughout Proverbs (Prv 2:16−19; 5:3−8; 5:15−19; 5:20; 6:24−26; 7:5−27; 9:13−18; 20:16; 22:14; 23:27−35; 27:13, 15).  Ps.-Procopius interprets her as a personification of sensual pleasure.  St. Ambrose of Milan (fl. 390 AD) similarly interpreted the strange woman as voluptas in Cain and Abel 4.13−5.15, a paraphrase and expansion of Philo’s discussion of the two wives of the soul (On the Sacrifices of Cain and Abel 1.5.21−34), itself a reworking of Prodicus moral fable, Hercules at the Crossroads.  There are obvious close connections between this interpretation and Philo’s discussion of pleasure’s role in the fall of Adam and Eve in his Allegorical Interpretation.  Indeed, what we might call Ps.-Procopius ‘orthodox Philonism’ (unlike, say, Origen, who typically elaborates on Philo, introducing new doctrinal elements) is very noticeable.

The strange woman is not merely synonymous with sensual pleasure, but represents a complex of psychological processes associated with excessive interest in sensual pleasure.  She also distorts judgment and misleads with false reasoning.  Importantly, she has ulterior motivation, connected with opposition to the life of virtue.  Her ways lead to death and destruction.  According to this view, serious moral error originates not merely in our natural interest in maximizing pleasure, but in a self-destructive energy present in the psyche (cf. the thanatos of Freud’s theories, and pthoras in Philo.)

Opposed to the strange woman is the ‘wife of thy youth’ (Prv 5:15−19) and the good woman of Proverbs 31:10−31, a personification of virtue and Wisdom.

My principal interest here is to alert readers to the existence of Ps-Procopius’ Commentary, argue for it’s importance — both for its own sake and in the history of Platonic and psychological Bible exegesis —and to encourage people to read Gohl’s translation.  However a few excerpts will suffice to illustrate the themes of the work.

Using a familar Platonic and Stoic trope, Ps.-Procopius connects Wisdom with guidance of the mind amidst storms of passions; cf. St. Basil, Homily on the Beginning of Proverbs (Gohl, 2017, 26−29):

Proverbs 1:5b. “And the one who is intelligent will acquire steering.” (LXX).  The one here who has received the true knowledge of existing things [onton episteme], and who likewise recognizes how unstable is the movement of human affairs, is equipped to voyage across (for neither the good fortunes and things desired by the multitudes, nor the misfortunes and downturn of matters have any stability or regularity). Even in the stillness of life, he will expect the changes of all those things to advance on him like a current, and he will not depend upon present things as if they were immortal. And in the more sullen condition, he will not give himself over to despair, such that he might be swallowed up by excessive sorrow, but having the mind as a kind of pilot, controlling the flesh as if it were a boat, and deftly steering the thoughts as though a helm, he will bravely ride the waves, those things stirred up by the passions as though from some violent surging of the fleshly mind. He will be high above these things and difficult to access, in no way being swamped with the brine of these things. And he always remains as the same kind of person, neither being excited by cheerful things, nor falling down into misfortunes.

Here he asserts the principle of the golden mean, a concept we most often associate with Aristotle (i.e., virtue is a right mean between exctremes of excess and deficiency), but which is found in Plato, too:

Proverbs 4:27. “Do not turn to the right nor to the left.” (LXX).  Do not turn aside unto the passions with regard to an excess of virtue, nor unto the [passions] with regard to a deficiency [of virtue]. “And turn your foot away from a way of evil and perversion.” If something of this sort should happen to you, with your intellect being moved toward these things, make [your intellect] cross over promptly, from the ruin that comes with vice in accordance with a deficiency of virtue, and [from the ruin] that comes with evil in accordance with an excess [of virtue], where there is love of labor only, in such a degree that one pursues the good, not for the sake of God, but for the sake of pleasing man.

The strange woman:

Proverbs 5:20. “Do not be much with the strange woman.” (LXX). Do not let the rational part [of your soul] be immoderate with one who is alienated from reason, in accordance with sensible pleasure. But even though you partake of drink or sleep for the sake of the body’s sustenance, and though you are intimate with [your] lawful wife for the sake of bearing children—to which things pleasure is naturally attached—do make use of all of these things with self-control.

The strange woman represents not only sensual pleasure, but, by extension, also the folly that inordinate interest in pleasure produces:

Proverbs 5:5. “For the feet of folly bring those who use her down with death unto Hades.” (LXX). For the impulses of irrationality, along with the natural death itself coming from sin, pull down those who have dealings with it to the utter destruction in terms of somatic ruin.

Inordinate interest in sensual pleasure also produces distorted judgments of what’s good:

Proverbs 5:6. “For she does not travel the ways of life.” (LXX).  For it does not pass through, in terms of practice, the divine commandments that bring [one] unto the life that is eternal and blessed in spirit. “And her paths are perilous, and not easily discerned.” And its courses with regard to contemplation (theoria) err in the judgment of the good, since they do not look to the good with truth, but with false conception (pseudei hypolexei); and they are not apprehended easily in this way, because of the deceit of temporary pleasures.

Bibliography

Colson, F. H.; Whitaker, G. H. (trs.). Philo: On the Sacrifices of Abel and Cain. In: Philo, Volume 2. Loeb Classical Library L227. Harvard University Press, 1929.

DelCogliano, Mark. St. Basil the Great: On Christian Doctrine and Practice. Popular Patristics Series 47. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012; pp. 39-78.

Delitzsch, Franz. Biblical Commentary on the Proverbs of Solomon. Vol. 1. M. G. Easton (tr.). T&T Clark, 1874.

Devreesse, Robert. Chaînes exégétiques grecques. In: Dictionnaire de la Bible. Supplément 1. Paris, 1928, pp. 1083−1234.

Gohl, Justin M. St. Basil the Great, Homily 12: On the Beginning of Proverbs (PG 31.385−424). Translation & Notes. 2017.

Gohl, Justin M. Pseudo-Procopius of Gaza, Commentary on Proverbs 1-9 (Ἑρμηνεία εἰς τὰς Παροιμίας). 2019.

Procopius of Gaza (attr.). Interpretation of Proverbs (Ἑρμηνεία εἰς τὰς Παροιμίας).  J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca 87.1 1219−1544.  Paris, 1865.

Procopius of Gaza. Commentaria in Proverbia et in Canticum canticorum. In: Nicetas David (ed.), Catena in libros Sapientiales. Parchment, 1050−1150 AD. MS. Parisinus gr. 153, f. 59-117v.

Savage, John J. (tr.). Saint Ambrose: Hexameron, Paradise, and Cain And Abel. Fathers of the Church 42. Catholic University of America, 1961.

Uebersax, John S. The strange woman of Proverbs. 2009. Christian Platonism website. https://catholicgnosis.wordpress.com/2009/05/19/the-strange-woman-of-proverbs/

Uebersax, John S. Philo on the two wives of the soul. 2010. Christian Platonism website. https://catholicgnosis.wordpress.com/2010/02/22/philo-on-the-two-wives-of-the-soul/

Uebersax, John S.  The archetypal meaning of Hercules at the Crossroads. 2020. Christian Platonism website. https://catholicgnosis.wordpress.com/2020/03/02/crossroads-archetype/

Westberg, David. Rhetorical exegesis in Procopius of Gaza’s Commentary on Genesis. In: S. Rubenson (ed.), Early Monasticism and Classical Paideia. Studia Patristica LV, Peeters, 2013, pp. 95−108.

1st draft, 8 Mar 2020