Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

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

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