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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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.

Uebersax, John S. Philo on the two wives of the soul. 2010. Christian Platonism website.

Uebersax, John S.  The archetypal meaning of Hercules at the Crossroads. 2020. Christian Platonism website.

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

The Archetypal Meaning of Hercules at the Crossroads

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Annibale Carracci, The Choice of Hercules, 1596

THE ATHENIAN philosopher and rhetorician, Prodicus, a contemporary of Socrates, wrote an essay commonly known as Hercules at the Crossroads, which he often delivered orally to appreciative crowds. A moral allegory of deep psychological significance, it describes a young Hercules at a crossroads confronted by two women who personify Vice and Virtue.  Each appeals to him to take a different route: Lady Vice claims the easy path will lead to pleasure and happiness; Lady Virtue reminds him that the road to true and lasting satisfaction is the harder and more toilsome route.

Our best source of the story is Xenophon’s dialogue Memorabilia (2.1.21–34), wherein Socrates is presented as relating Prodicus’ story to a young protege named Aristippus (evidently not the eponymous founder of the Cyrenaic philosophical sect).

Thanks to Xenophon, the story was well known and often alluded to throughout antiquity and beyond.  Cicero, in On Moral Duties (1.32.118; 3.5.25), a work addressed to his son, mentions Prodicus’ tale in the context of choosing ones career.  Others, too, have understood the tale as referring choosing one’s long term course in life.  However we have good reason to believe the story has a deeper psychological and more existential meaning.

One clue to the deeper meaning is the strong appeal of the story throughout the centuries to the artistic imagination.  As Erwin Panovsky (1930) in a seminal work on art history describes, Prodicus story elicited scores of paintings and drawings beginning in the Renaissance.

Another clue to a deeper meaning is to see how this same theme is expressed in many variations throughout antiquity.  The earliest and best known example in the Greek tradition is Hesiod’s Works and Days 1.287−294.

Wickedness (κακότητα; kakotes) can be had in abundance easily: smooth is the road and very nigh she dwells. But in front of virtue (ἀρετῆς; arete) the gods immortal have put sweat: long and steep is the path to her and rough at first; but when you reach the top, then at length the road is easy, hard though it was.
Source: Hesiod, Works and Days 1.287−294 (tr. Evelyn-White)

This passage serves as a virtual epitome of book 1 of Works and Days, which also contains the Pandora and Ages of Man myths, both allegories of the moral fall.

In Greek mythology, a similar trope is found in the Judgment of Paris, where Paris must choose which goddess is more beautiful: Athena, Hera or Aphrodite — allegorically symbolizing Wisdom, domestic virtue, and sensory pleasure, respectively.  His choice of Aphrodite over Athena and Hera led to the Trojan War.  If we understand the Trojan War as allegorically symbolizing the principle of psychomachia, or conflict between virtuous and unvirtuous elements of the human psyche, then the Judgment of Paris may be understood as symbolizing a depth-psychological dynamic that precipitates a fundamental form of  inner conflict.

Plato cites the above passage of Hesiod in two of his works (Republic 2.364d  and Laws 4.718e−719a). Moreover, in two underworld myths presented in his dialogues (Republic 10.614c−d and Gorgias 524a−527a), he describes a parting of two paths — one associated virtue and leading to the Isles of the Blest, and one associated with vice and leading to punishment in Tartarus. If we understand the underworld as symbolizing depth-psychological processes, it suggests that Plato is saying that orienting our mind wrongly leads to internal self-inflicted punishments, the ultimate aim of which is to educated and reform us (Gorgias 525b−c).

The same trope of a parting of the ways in an underworld journey is found in Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid (Smith, 2000).  Further, an epigram attributed (probably incorrectly, but perhaps written within a century of Virgil’s death) describes what is commonly called the Pythagorean Y (so-named because of the resemblance of ‘Y’ to a forking path):

This letter of Pythagoras, that bears
This fork’d distinction, to conceit prefers
The form man’s life bears. Virtue’s hard way takes
Upon the right hand path, which entry makes
(To sensual eyes) with difficult affair ;
But when ye once have climb’d the highest stair,
The beauty and the sweetness it contains,
Give rest and comfort, far past all your pains.’
The broadway in a bravery paints ye forth,
(In th’ entry) softness, and much shade of worth;
But when ye reach the top, the taken ones
It headlong hurls down, torn at sharpest stones.
He then, whom virtues love, shall victor crown
Of hardest fortunes, praise wins and renown:
But he that sloth and fruitless luxury
Pursues, and doth with foolish wariness fly
Opposed pains (that all best acts befall).
Lives poor and vile, and dies despised of all.
(tr. George Chapman)

Like Hercules at the Crossroads, the Pythagorean Y inspired many Renaissance works of art.

Philo of Alexandria (fl. ca. 20 AD), the Jewish Middle Platonist philosopher (and, as it happens, the virtual father of Christian allegorical interpretation of the Bible), expanded on Prodicus’ theme in a discussion of the ‘two wives of the soul’ (On the Sacrifices of Cain and Abel 1.5.21−34).  Philo’s treatment is quite interesting in its own right, in part because of his remarkable list of over 150 negative adjectives to describe a votary of Pleasure (who plays the role of Vice in Prodicus’ tale).  Readers of Philo will immediately recognize the connection of the story with his allegorical interpretation of the Garden of Eden myth.

Centuries later, St. Ambrose of Milan (fl. 390 AD), in Cain and Abel 4.13−5.15, paraphrased Philo’s discussion and connected it with the ‘strange woman’ (Uebersax, 2009) in the Book of 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), a personification of pleasure and/or folly, and opponent of the virtuous ‘wife of thy youth.’ (Prv 5:15−19).

The theme of two paths associated with a choice or judgment concerning virtue vs. wickedness occurs throughout the Old and New Testament.  Perhaps best known is Psalm 1 (traditionally called The Two Paths).

When we find the same theme like this so prominently expressed across many times and traditions, it implies some universal, archetypal psychological dynamic of fundamental significance. That, I believe, is the case here. This is not a simple, prosaic morality tale such that “one must choose good and not evil.” Rather it confronts us with the existential fact — readily verifiable by introspection and close attention to thoughts — that we are always, every moment at our lives, faced with the two paths:  we can direct the immediate energies of our mind towards seeking physical pleasure, or to virtue, spirituality and higher cognitive activity.  When we choose the latter, all is well. Our mind is a harmony.  This is the path of life. But the moment we stop actively choosing virtue, our mind lapses into its immature state dominated by the pleasure principle; we are no longer true to our genuine nature, and a cascading sequence of negative mental events ensues.

This is not unlike the Freudian distinction between the pleasure principle and the reality principle, which, according to him, it is the principal task of the ego to broker.  However in this case, the reality principle is replaced by what we might call the virtue principle:  that our psyche is, in its core, fundamentally aligned with virtue.  In a sense this is still a reality principle — but, here the reality is that our nature seeks virtue.

To choose the path of virtue, wisdom and righteousness on an ongoing basis is not easy. It is, rather, as Plato calls it, the contest of contests (Gorgias 526e) and requires a degree of resolve and effort we may perhaps rightly call Herculean.


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.

Evelyn-White, Hugh G. (tr.). Hesiod: Works and Days. In: Hesiod, Homeric Hymns and Homerica. Loeb Classical Library L057. Harvard University Press, 1943.

Marchant, E. C. Xenophon: Memorabilia and Oeconomicus. Harvard University Press, 1923.

Miller, Walter (tr.). Cicero: De Officiis. Loeb Classical Library L030. Harvard University Press, 1913.

Panofsky, Erwin. Hercules am Scheidewege und andere antike Bildstoffi in der neueren Kunst, Studien der Bibliothek Warburg 18, Leipzig, 1930.

Rochette, Bruno. Héraclès à la croissé des chemins: un topos dans la literature grécolatine. Études Classiques 66, 1998, 105−113.

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

Smith, Richard Upsher. The Pythagorean letter and Virgil’s golden bough. Dionysius 18, 2000, pp. 7−24.

Uebersax, John S.  The strange woman of Proverbs. 2009.

1st draft, 1 Mar 2020

St. Augustine and Intellectual Vision

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Gerard Seghers (attr). The Four Doctors of the Western Church, Saint Augustine of Hippo

ST. AUGUSTINE, in several works, but most famously in Book 12 of On the Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Gen ad lit), developed a typology of ‘vision’ that became very influential throughout the Middle Ages, and which still merits our interest today. His main concern is not vision per se, but rather to use vision as a metaphor for knowing or cognition, and especially mental insight and knowledge of divine things.  His basic scheme is a tripartite division:

Corporeal vision.  The lowest form of vision is ordinary seeing by means of the eye, or bodily vision (visio corporalis). By this vision we see objects in the material world.

Spiritual vision. Above this is the mental vision by which we see images in the mind, either as memories of past sense experience, or products of the imagination. This he calls spiritual vision (visio spiritualis) — but this term requires an explanation. This vision is not spiritual in the sense that we understand that word today.  Rather, the connection with ‘spirit’ derives from ancient theories of perception, wherein it was believed that sense experience involved stimulation of a semi-material fluid (pneuma) that permeated the body.  Therefore a more apt term might be imaginative vision.

Intellectual vision. This all leads up to what really interests Augustine: the highest level of vision, which he calls intellectual vision (visio intellectualis). Unlike the other two forms of vision, intellectual vision sees things that have no connection with physical objects or their images.  It includes what a Platonist or Neoplatonist might call the ‘intellection of Forms’ (noesis): for example, by intellectual vision we can ‘see’ that bisecting a triangle always produces two triangles, and that 5 is greater than 4.  But for Augustine, intellectual vision is much more than Platonic or Plotinian noesis, and includes a wider range of cognitive activity, including what today we would call insight or (some kinds of) intuition.

Intellectual vision is, in fact, a pivotal concept in Augustine’s philosophy.  It plays an important role for him in contemplative ascent to God, in the relationship of Jesus Christ to the individual soul, and in understanding what faith means.  Hence he takes care to supply examples so readers can understand intellectual vision and observe it at work in their own minds.  It probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that Augustine’s notion of intellectual vision is critical to understanding his important role not only in Christian philosophy, but in the history of human consciousness.

In De Gen ad lit 12 Augustine supplies many examples of intellectual vision.  These include the ability to see and understand virtues (12.24.50; 12.31.59), truth (12.26.54), love and (within limits) God (12.28.56; 12.31.59).  He also suggests that it’s by means of intellectual vision that we can recognize allegorical meanings of Scripture, and distinguish valid from spurious spiritual visions and understand the meanings of the latter.

De videndo Deo

We also learn more about intellectual vision in a book-length letter Augustine wrote to Paulina, known as On seeing God (De videndo Deo). He is trying to help Paulina understand what it means to ‘see God,’ with particular reference to certain verses of Scripture, such as Matthew 5:8 (Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.)  More specifically, he wishes to help her see God herself.

The letter reveals in a most remarkable way his humanism and pastoral concern.  Having ‘seen’ God himself, he has an intense, earnest desire to help others do the same. (This humanistic and personal view of Augustine stands in contrast with the common modern perception of him shaped by later appropriation and narrow interpretation of his teachings by later Scholastic and academic theologians.)

His concern is to show that God is seen by intellectual, not bodily vision. But first he must help Paulina understand what intellectual vision is, or, rather, to witness its operation in her own mind. For this purpose in chapters 38 to 41 he employs a novel and effective device: he has her reflect on her inner response to the various arguments and propositions advanced in his letter up to this point. He asks her to review his preceding discussion, noting which points ones she’s found credible and which she’s doubted; and then to notice the inner ‘vision’ by which the recognizes her varying degrees of belief:

But examine in this whole discussion of ours what you have seen, what you have believed, what you still do not know, either because I have not spoken of it, or you have not understood, or you have not judged it credible. Among the points which you have seen to be true, distinguish further how you saw them: whether it was by recalling that you had seen them through the body, such as heavenly or earthly bodies, or whether you never perceived them by corporeal sight, but, by looking upon them with your mind only, observed that they are true and certain, such as your own will, about which I believe you when you speak, for it is true I cannot see it myself as it is seen by you. And when you have distinguished between these two, notice, too, how you make your distinction. (De videndo Deo 38; italics added)

Whether we believe or doubt, we see that we do so.  We also see that we we find some sources more credible than others.  Paulina does not place equal credence in the opinions of Augustine and Ambrose.  And she instinctively believes Scripture even more:

Note this, therefore, after you have carefully and faithfully examined and distinguished what you see; in making your distinction assess the actual weight of evidence on what you believe in this whole speech which I have been making to you, since I began to speak to you in this letter, and in it note to what extent you lend your faith to what you do not see. You do not put the same faith in me as you do in Ambrose … ; or if you do think that we are both to be weighed in the same balance, of course you will not compare us in any way with the Gospel, or put our writings on the same footing with the canonical Scriptures. …

Therefore, you yield faith to these words [of Ambrose and myself] in one way, but to the divine words in quite a different way. Perhaps some little doubt has crept into your mind about us; that we may be somewhat less than clear about some of the divine words, and that they are interpreted by us, not as they were said, but as we imagine them. … About the divine Scriptures, however, even when they are not clearly understood, you have no doubt that they are to be believed. But you surely observe and see this weighing of belief or non-belief, and the difficulty of knowing, and the storms of doubt, and the devout faith which is owed to the divine utterances; all these you see in your mind as they are, and you do not doubt in the least that they are in your mind in this way, either as I said them, or, preferably, as you knew them yourself. Therefore, you see your faith, you see your doubt, you see your desire and will to learn, and when you are led by divine authority to believe what you do not see, you see at once that you believe these things; you analyze and distinguish all this. (Ibid. 39f.; italics added)

Importantly, he is not equating intellectual vision with her actual beliefs or doubts, but rather with her ability to perceive differences in her degrees of belief.  He then has her note the difference between this faculty and corporeal vision.

Of course, you will not make any sort of comparison between your bodily eyes and these eyes of your heart, with which you perceive that all this is true and certain, with which you observe and distinguish what is invisibly present to you. (Ibid. 41)

Augustine is turning what might otherwise be an abstruse and sterile technical discussion about ‘seeing’ God into a spiritual exercise and practical demonstration. He is helping Paulina integrate her intellectual vision more fully into her rational consciousness. Before, she, like all of us, engaged in intellectual vision, but somewhat subliminally, as something not fully in awareness.  But by drawing her attention to it, the faculty now becomes more consciously accessible and more acute, even enlarged.  By this means she will be able to eventually exercise it in subtle perceptions of God’s presence and activity in her mind.

As we investigate the meaning of intellectual vision — and especially by observing our own mental operations — it gradually becomes clear that this is no mere abstract epistemological category, but an entire dimension or plane of psychological experience.  We begin to appreciate the reality, vastness and importance of an entire inner reality, a realm perhaps as as vast as the entire universe of sense experience.

Yet despite its importance, intellectual vision operates for most people only subliminally, in the sub- or pre-conscious mind. We constantly apply these subtle mental operations of inner vision, discernment and judgment and could not adaptively function otherwise. But by becoming more conscious of them, we may better integrate this dimension of our being into our rational mental life and social activity, so that both our outer and inner life becomes more holy, virtuous and spiritually authentic

Richard of Saint-Victor

Augustine’s concept of intellectual vision became a staple of medieval Latin Christina thought, and is especially prominent in the writings of Hugh and Richard of Saint-Victor, 12th century writers. To give but one example, Richard’s Adnotationes mysticae in Psalmos 143 distinguishes several distinct aspects of discretion [discretio]:

(1) diiudicatio is the right judgment that directs virtues toward their ends; it is the light that leads us to truth (lucerna cordis iudicium discretionis);

(2) deliberatio makes the distinction between what should and should not be done in a specific situation, taking into account the particular circumstances;

(3) dispositio considers the proper ordering of means for attaining an end;

(4) dispensatio distinguishes what’s appropriate and inappropriate, and reexamines a first judgment when required;

(5) moderatio determines the right measure of the action.

Considering that discretion is only one part of intellectual vision, we can begin to get an idea of the complexity and richness of our subtle mental life.

By the end of the 12th century, the Augustinian tradition had achieved a remarkable synthesis of rationalism and mysticism (and also, though we have not discussed this aspect here, charity as an organizing principle of social life).  This progress halted as Scholasticism and rationalistic dogmatism became a dominating force in the 13th century and beyond, even to present times.  As the rational separated itself from the mystical element of Christianity, so the mystical separated itself from the rational: Pseudo-Dionysian and ‘apophatic’ mysticism submerged the intellectual mystical tradition of Augustine.  This split between rationalism and mysticism remains today.  Augustinian intellectual mysticism may potentially supply a more integral form of Christianity for present times.


Augustine of Hippo. Epistolae 147. De videndo deo. Patrologia Latina 33:596−622. J. P. Migne. Paris, 1841.

Augustine of Hippo. De Genesi ad litteram. Patrologia Latina 34:245−486. J. P. Migne. Paris, 1841.

Cary, Phillip. Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self: The Legacy of a Christian Platonist. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Clark, Mary T. (tr.).  On Seeing God (De videndo Deo; Letter 147. In: Augustine of Hippo, Selected Writings. Classics of Western Spirituality. Paulist Press, 1984; pp. 361−402.

Fraeters, Veerle. Visio/Vision. In: Amy Hollywood & Patricia Z. Beckman (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism, Cambridge University Press 2012; pp. 178−188.

Hill, Edmund (tr.). The Literal Meaning of Genesis. In: Augustine, On Genesis, New City Press, 2002; ch. 12, pp. 464–475.

Meagher, Robert E. Augustine: On the Inner Life of the Mind. Hackett, 1998.

Parsons, Wilfrid (tr.). Letter 147: Augustine to Paulina (De videndo Deo). Saint Augustine: Letters Vol. 3. Fathers of the Church 20. New York, 1953; pp. 170−224.

Ragazzi, Grazia Mangano. Obeying the Truth: Discretion in the Spiritual Writings of Saint Catherine of Siena. Oxford University Press, 2013; p. 126.

Richard of Saint-Victor. Adnotationes mysticae in Psalmos. Patrologia Latina 196:265−402. J. P. Migne. Paris, 1855. (196:381d−382a)

Schlapbach, Karin. Intellectual vision in Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram 12, or: seeing the hidden meaning of images. Studia Patristica 43, 2006, 239−244.

Taylor, John H. (tr.). Saint Augustine: The Literal Meaning of Genesis. Ancient Christian Writers 41 and 42. Paulist Press, 1982.

Zycha, Joseph (ed.). De Genesi ad Litteram libri duodecimo. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) 28.1. Critical text. Vienna, 1894.

1st draft, 23 Feb 2020

Philo, On Jacob’s Dream

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Jacob’s Dream (detail), St. Paul’s Cathedral, Pittsburgh

WHETHER they exist as metaphysical entities or not, angels are certainly psychologically real — that is, as certain inspirations, communications, subtle insights and promptings and high contemplative experiences that we consider ‘angelic.’ Angels, therefore, are, in terms of Jungian psychology, archetypally real; this is also evident from the proliferation of the angel motif in art, folklore, myth, etc.

The classic treatment of angels in the Bible is the story of Jacob’s Ladder in Genesis, which Philo addressed in his work, On Dreams.. Philo — the great allegorical exegete of the Pentateuch — didn’t write a great many words about this, but what he did write great words!

Note a certain asymmetry with regard to ascending and descending angels in Philo’s discussion. The ascending ones involve the drawing up of our minds to thoughts and ‘spectacles,’ whereas the descending angels heal and quicken the soul. Philo associates angels with the logoi of God, which we may understand as God’s ‘words’, i.e., discrete units of God’s will which direct the world (or, in this case, our mind.)

XXIII. Such then is that which in the universe is figuratively called stairway. If we consider that which is so called in human beings we shall find it to be soul. Its foot is sense-perception, which is as it were the earthly element in it, and its head, the mind which is wholly unalloyed, the heavenly element, as it may be called.

Up and down throughout its whole extent are moving incessantly the “words” [λόγοι] of God, drawing it up with them when they ascend and disconnecting it with what is mortal, and exhibiting to it the spectacle of the only objects worthy of our gaze; and when they descend not casting it down, for neither does God nor does a divine Word cause harm, but condescending out of love for man and compassion for our race, to be helpers and comrades, that with the healing of their breath they may quicken into new life the soul which is still borne along in the body as in a river.

In the understandings of those who have been purified to the utmost the Ruler of the universe walks noiselessly, alone, invisibly, for verily there is an oracle once vouchsafed to the Sage, in which it is said: “I will walk in you, and will be your God” (Lev. 26:12): but in the understandings of those who are still undergoing cleansing and have not yet fully washed their life defiled and stained by the body’s weight there walk angels, divine words, making them bright and clean with the doctrines* of all that is good and beautiful.  Source: Philo, On Dreams (De somniis) 1.146ff, tr. Colson & Whitaker, p. 375.

* this word is uncertain in manuscripts.


Colson, F.H.; Whitaker, G. H.  On Dreams.  In: Philo in Ten Volumes, Vol. 5. Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA, 1938.

Richard of St. Victor: Allegorical Meaning of Jacob’s Wives and Children

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GENESIS 29ff tells of the wives and children of Jacob, grandson of the patriarch Abraham.  Jacob had 12 sons, from whom descended the 12 tribes of Israel.  The story’s details suggest that, like the rest of Genesis, it has an allegorical meaning.  Richard of Saint-Victor’s (fl. 1140) analysis of this, a work titled the Twelve Patriarchs (Benjamin Minor), is a masterpiece of psychological allegoresis, rivaling the even seminal contributions of Philo of Alexandria to this genre.

As Genesis explains, Jacob married Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel, and also their respective handmaids, Zilpah and Bilhah  These four mothers bore 12 sons and one daughter.  For Richard — following the long tradition established by Philo (and mediated through Origen, Ambrose and Jerome; see Sheridan, 2012) Jacob symbolizes the ‘practicer’ of moral reformation and spiritual growth.  That is, practice here is understood in the sense of askesis, namely the practical effort one makes to mature into a self-realized holy and spiritual person.

Each of Jacob’s wives and children, according to Richard, symbolizes a distinct psychological disposition relevant to this journey. Leah and Rachel represent the affective and intellectual sides of our psyche or soul, and Zilpah and Bilah are sensation and imagination, which, according to Richard, serve affection and reason, respectively.

Each son and daughter is a virtuous disposition originating in our psychological nature (in effect, they are very much like Jungian archetypes, but all concerned with our moral and spiritual development). They emerge in a particular order and supply some necessary function as we proceed towards higher levels of moral integration and spiritual consciousness.  This is a cyclical process, something we repeat often, perhaps even daily in our constant struggle to rise from worldly-mindedness and egoism to spiritual mindedness.

Two give two examples, Naphtali, a son of Bilah, is the disposition to uplift our soul from consideration of material things to the eternal goods these things suggest or symbolize; and Gad, a son of Zilpha, represents abstinence, or the intentional putting aside of sensual pleasures. Ultimately we arrive at the births of Joseph (discriminative self-knowledge) and Benjamin (religious contemplation).

Whether this is the original intended meaning of Genesis here or not, merely taken on its own terms Richard’s exegesis supplies an insightful and valuable analysis of the psychology of the spiritual journey. It’s also landmark in the history of Old Testament interpretation and deserves wider attention today.

The following excerpt concerning Joseph exemplifies quality of the entire work.

Richard of Saint-Victor. The Twelve Patriarchs (Benjamin Minor), Chs. 71−72

Chapter LXXI. Concerning the two offspring of reason, viz., grace of discretion and grace of contemplation.

By this Joseph the soul is continually instructed and at times is led to full knowledge of itself, just as by his [full] brother Benjamin it is at times lifted up to the contemplation of God. For just as we understand grace of discretion by Joseph, so we understand grace of contemplation by Benjamin. Both are born from [Rachel] because knowledge of God and of self are learned from Reason. Benjamin is born long after Joseph because the soul that has not been practiced over a long time and educated fully in knowledge of self is not raised up to knowledge of God. In vain he raises the eye of the heart to see God when he is not yet prepared to see himself. Let a person first learn to know his own invisible things before he presumes that he is able to grasp at invisible divine things. You must know the invisible things of your own spirit before you can be capable of knowing the invisible things of God. If you are not able to know yourself, how do you have the boldness to grasp at those things which are above you?

Chapter LXXII. How the soul is lifted up to contemplation of God by means of full knowledge of self.

The rational soul discovers without doubt that it is the foremost and principal mirror for seeing God. For if the invisible things of God are seen, being understood by the intellect by means of those things which have been made (cf. Rom. 1:20), where, I ask, have the traces of knowledge been found more clearly imprinted than in His image? … Whoever thirsts to see his God — let him wipe his mirror, let him cleanse his spirit. And so the true Joseph does not cease to hold, wipe and gaze into this mirror incessantly: to hold it so that it does not adhere to the earth, after it has fallen down by means of love; to wipe it so that it does not become dirty from the dust of useless thoughts; to gaze into it so that the eye of his intention does not turn toward empty pursuits. When the mirror has been wiped and gazed into for a long time, a kind of splendor of divine light begins to shine in it and a great beam of unexpected vision appears to his eyes. This light illumined the eyes of him who said: “The light of your face has been sealed upon us, Lord; you have put joy in my heart” (Ps. 4:7). Therefore, from the vision of this light that it wonders at within itself, the soul is kindled from above in a marvelous way and is animated to see the living light that is above it. I say, from this vision the soul conceives the flame of longing for the sight of God, and it lays hold of a pledge. And so the mind that now bums with longing for this vision should know that if it already hopes for what it longs for, it already has conceived Benjamin himself. By hoping the mind conceives; by longing it goes into labor; and the more longing increases, the closer it comes to giving birth. (Zinn, pp. 129−130)

Richard’s sequel to this work, The Mystical Ark (Benjamin Major), treats of the fruits of the ascetical process, that is, contemplation: its nature, ascending levels, and culmination in mystical union with God. That work is important both for its own sake and for its influence on St. Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind to God.


Châtillon, Jean; Duchet-Suchaux, Monique. Les douze Patriarches ou Benjamin Minor. Texte critique et traduction par Jean Châtillon et Monique Duchet-Suchaux; introduction, notes et index par Jean Longère. Sources chrétiennes 419. Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1997.

Richard of Saint-Victor, De praeparatione animi ad contemplationem, liber dictus Benjamin Minor. Omnia opera. Patrologia Latina, vol. 196, ed. J. P. Migne. Paris, 1855, col. 1−64.

Sheridan, Mark. Jacob and Israel: A contribution to the history of an interpretation. In: Mark Sheridan, From the Nile to the Rhone and Beyond: Studies in Early Monastic Literature and Scriptural Interpretation. Rome, 2012; pp. 315−334. Originally published in: Studia Anselmo, 116, 1995, 219−241.

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

Contemplative Christianity in the 13th and 14th Centuries: Latin West

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(click image to view in high resolution)

HERE we extend the previous timeline forward to the 13th and 14th centuries.
Legend: Olive = Benedictine; Light green: Cistercian; Purple: Dominican; Orange = Carthusian; Dark blue = Augustinian; Light blue = Other.

Recommended Reading

Egan, Harvey D. An Anthology of Christian Mysticism. Liturgical Press, 1991.

McGinn, Bernard. The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism (1200−1350). (Vol. 3 of B. McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism.) New York: Crossroad, 1998.

Hugh of St. Victor: Noah’s Ark as an Allegory for Contemplation

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Art: (c) Conrad Rudolph

the ark is the secret place of our own heart

IN THE early High Middle Ages, before Scholasticism arose to dominate Christian theology, the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris was a leading intellectual center. Some work performed there built on the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius (translated into Latin two centuries earlier) to develop what we might call a science of contemplation, laying important groundwork for later Christian mysticism. Allegorical interpretation of Scripture supported this. Hugh of St. Victor’s (c. 1096–1141) exegesis of the story of Noah’s Ark is an example.

Philo (Questions and Answers on Genesis 1.89−2.78) and St. Ambrose (De Noe et Arca; PL 14.361−416) had, much earlier, allegorically interpreted the story of Noah and the Ark. In the light of these writings, the story emerges as a far more subtle and relevant myth than people ordinarily suppose. It’s very important to attend to specific details — such as the ark was three stories high, had a window and door, and that Noah first sent out a raven.

According to art historian Conrad Rudolph, Hugh lectured on the topic using a large, 10-foot square painting summarizing the symbolism. The figure shown above is Rudolph’s reconstruction.

Now the figure of this spiritual building which I am going to present to you is Noah’s ark. This your eye shall see outwardly, so that your soul may be fashioned to its likeness inwardly. You will see there certain colours, shapes, and figures which will be pleasant to behold. But you must understand that these are put there, that from them you may learn wisdom, instruction, and virtue, to adorn your soul. …

The third [ark] is that which wisdom builds daily in our hearts through continual meditation on the law of God. …

[W]hoever makes it his endeavour to cut himself off from the enjoyment of this world and cultivate the virtues, must with the assistance of God’s grace erect within himself a building of virtues three hundred cubits long in faith of Holy Trinity, fifty cubits wide in charity, and thirty cubits high in the hope that is in Christ, a building long in good works and wide in love and lofty in desire, so that his heart may be where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. …

If, then, we have begun to live persistently in our own heart through the practice of meditation, we have already in a manner ceased to belong to time; and, having become dead as it were to the world, we are living inwardly with God. We shall then easily make light of anything that fortune brings upon us outwardly, if our heart is there fixed where we are not subject to change, where we neither seek to have again things past, nor look for those to come, where we neither desire the pleasant things of this life, nor fear things contrary. Let us therefore have right thoughts, let us have pure and profitable thoughts, for of such material we shall build our ark. These are the timbers that float when they are put into the water and burn when placed in the fire; for the tide of fleshly pleasures does not weigh down such thoughts, but the flame of charity enkindles them. …

As we have said before, the ark of the flood is the secret place of our own heart, in which we must hide from the tumult of this world. But because the feebleness of our condition itself prevents our staying long in the silence of inward contemplation, we have a way out by the door and window. The door denotes the way out through action, the window the way out through thought. The door is below, the window above, because actions pertain to the body and thoughts to the soul. That is why the birds went out through the window and the beasts and men through the door. …

But the fact that the door is situated in the side denotes that we must never leave the secret chamber of our heart through our own deliberate choice, but only as necessity may happen to demand. …

But the fact that the door is situated in the side denotes that we must never leave the secret chamber of our heart through our own deliberate choice, but only as necessity may happen to demand.  …

Now we go out by action in four ways. For some actions are carnal those, that is to say, which are concerned with physical need; others are spiritual, and are concerned with the instruction of the mind. Good men and bad go forth for both. Those who are enslaved to the outward fulfilling of their lusts are like the unclean animals that went forth from the ark. Those, however, who discharge them from necessity are animals indeed, but clean. …

Eve ‘saw that the tree was pleasant to the eyes, and was good for food, and she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat’. Those who in this way issue forth through thought are like the raven which did not return. For when they find outside what gives them evil pleasure, they never want to come back again to the ark of conscience. …

The other three kinds of contemplation, however, are symbolized by the going forth of the dove who, when she was sent out and found no rest for her foot, returned at evening carrying in her mouth an olive branch in leaf. She went out empty, but she did not return so. For she found outside that which she did not have within, although the thing that she brought in she did not love outside. The olive branch in leaf denotes a good state of soul.

Source: Hugh of St. Victor, De arca Noe morali. In: Hugh of St. Victor: Selected Spiritual Writings, Translated by a religious of the Community of St. Mary the Virgin,  Harper, 1962.  [ebook].

Latin: Hugh of Saint-Victor. Omnia opera. Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, vol. 176. Paris, 1854. Cols. 618−680.

Art:  Rudolph, Conrad. The Mystic Ark: Hugh of Saint Victor, Art, and Thought in the Twelfth Century. Cambridge University Press, 2014.