Christian Platonism

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Contemplative Spirituality: From Plato to the Victorine Mystics

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REMARKABLY, the influential 12th century mystics/theologians of the School of Saint-Victor in Paris (most famously, Hugh and Richard of Saint-Victor) developed a sophisticated and fundamentally Platonic system of contemplative spirituality, but without (except for part of the Timaeus) direct knowledge of Plato’s writings. All was pieced together from St. Augustine, the Benedictine tradition, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Latin Platonic tradition — with exegetical borrowing from Saints Ambrose and Jerome. But uniting everything one senses a high degree of skill and experience with contemplation by the Victorines. The synthesis and systematization, unlike later Scholasticism, is not forced or overly rationalistic, but a harmonious integration of experience and dialectical reasoning.

Not only did the Victorines produce from these multiple strands of influence an original synthesis, but these elements were being synthesized differently by others at the same time (e.g., the School of Chartres):

PERHAPS ONE COULD measure the power of a mind by observing the varied systems of thought which its own intellectual constructions have more or less directly inspired in the course of history. … That one man’s thought should bring forth such varied progeny will seem less paradoxical if one reflects that master-insights never find complete expression in a single conceptual system and consequently they lend themselves readily to further adaptation, even to frank distortion that nonetheless preserves an undeniable kinship with the original.

Plato affords the major instance of this phenomenon, and historians have some difficulty in sorting out the currents of thought traceable to him. These Neoplatonisms that recur century after century comprise a family with little coherence, despite the profound perceptions radically common to them all.

Precisely in the area of Plato’s influence, the twelfth century furnished a spectacle of the clearest debt yet with the most tangled lines of descent. (Chenu, p. 49)

Bibliography

Chenu, Marie-Dominique. The Platonisms of the Twelfth Century. In: Marie-Dominique Chenu, Nature, Man, and Society in the Twelfth Century, trs. Jerome Taylor &, Lester K. Little, University of Toronto, 1997; pp. 49−98.

Coulter, Dale M.  Pseudo-Dionysius in the Twelfth Century Latin West. ORB Online Encyclopedia.  Accessed: 17 October 2019. < https://the-orb.arlima.net/encyclop/culture/philos/coulter.html >.

Feiss, Hugh; Mousseau, Juliet (eds.). A Companion to the Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris. Brill, 2018.

Gersh, Stephen. The medieval legacy from ancient Platonism. In: Stephen Gersh, Maarten J.F.M. Hoenen, (eds.), The Platonic Tradition in the Middle Ages: A Doxographic Approach, Walter de Gruyter, 2013. (pp. 3−30).

Gregory, Tullio. The Platonic inheritance. In: A History of Twelfth Century Western Philosophy. Edited by Peter Dronke. Cambridge University Press, 1988; pp. 54−80.

Hugh of Saint-Victor. Selected Spiritual Writings. Translated by a religious of C.S.M.V. London: Faber, 1962.  [ebook].

Louth, Andrew. The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys. Oxford, 1983 (repr. 2003).

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

Henry More

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CAMBRIDGE Platonist Henry More (1614 – 1687) studied Plato and Plotinus, Hermeticism and Christian Cabalism. A prolific writer, he produced, among other things, a marvelous set of poems collectively titled A Platonick Song of the Soul.  The set includes four poems, all written in the poetic style of Spenserian stanzas (named after Edmund Spenser, whose most notable work was the Neoplatonic allegory, The Fairie Queen): Psychozoia, Psychathanasis, Antipsychopannychia and Antimonopsychia. The word “Soul” in the title refers both to the individual human soul and the Platonic world soul. Strongly influenced by Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology, they explore many themes of Platonism and Neoplatonism, including metaphysics and ethics.

More is known for having attained certain elevated states of consciousness. He explained in an autobiographical passage how in early life he had an insatiable desire for secular learning, but eventually this left him empty.

But after taking my Degree, to pass over and omit abundance of things (…) [i]t fell out truly very happily for me, that I suffer’d so great a disappointment in my studies. For it made me seriously at last begin to think with my self; whether the knowledge of things was really that supreme felicity of man; or something greater and more divine was: or, supposing it to be so, whether it was to be acquir’d by such an eagerness and intentness in the reading of authors, and contemplating of things; or by the [purging] of the mind from all sorts of vices whatsoever.

Also unhappy with the strict Calvinist doctrines of his childhood, he characterized his general state of mind in a short poem titled, Aporia (i.e., puzzlement or impasse):

Nor whence, nor who I am, poor Wretch! know I:
Nor yet, O Madness! Whither I must goe:
But in Grief’s crooked Claws fast held I lie;
And live, I think, by force tugg’d to and fro.
Asleep or wake all one. O Father Jove,
’Tis brave, we Mortals live in Clouds like thee.
Lies, Night-dreams, empty Toys, Fear, fatal Love,
This is my Life: I nothing else do see.

He further explained how he then investigated various religious writings that discuss the moral and intellectual purification that are a prerequisite for an authentic spiritual life:

Especially having begun to read now the Platonick Writers, Marsilius Ficinus, Plotinus himself, Mercurius Trismegistus; and the Mystical Divines; among whom there was frequent mention made of the Purification of the Soul, and of the Purgative Course that is previous to the Illuminative; as if the Person that expected to have his Mind illuminated of God, was to endeavour after the Highest Purity. ”

But amongst all the Writings of this kind there was none, to speak the Truth, so pierced and affected me. as that Golden little Book, with which Luther is also said to have been wonderfully taken. viz. Theologia Germanica [note: a 14th work on Christian mysticism influenced by Meister Eckhart and Pseudo-Dionysius].

After his conversion and purification,  which lasted several years, he enjoyed certain exalted states of consciousness, described by himself and his biographers.

More knew and had scholarly debates with alchemists like Thomas Vaughan (the twin brother of metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan), and evidently considered the real purpose of alchemy to be to effect a religious transformation of consciousness.

And that insatiable desire and thirst of mine after the knowledge of things was wholly almost extinguish’d in me, as being sollicitous now, about nothing so much as a more full union with this Divine and Coelestial Principle: the inward flowing Well-spring of Life eternal. With the most fervent prayers breathing often unto God, that he would be pleas’d throughly to set me free from the dark chains, and this so sordid captivity of my own will.

But here openly to declare the thing as it was; when this inordinate desire after the knowledge of things was thus allay’d in me, and I aspir’d after nothing but this sole purity and simplicity of mind, there shone in upon me daily a greater assurance than ever I could have expected, even of those things which before I had the greatest desire to know. Insomuch that within a few years, I was got into a most joyous and lucid state of mind, and such plainly as is ineffable; though, according to my custom, I have endeavoured to express it, to my power, in another stanza of eight verses.

The poem More refers to here is called Euporia (fullness):

I come from Heav’n; am an immortal ray
Of 
God; O joy! and back to God shall goe.
And here sweet Love on’s wings me up doth stay.
I live, I’m sure; and joy this Life to know.
Night and vain dreams be gone: Father of Lights,
We live, as Thou, clad with Eternal Day.
Faith, Wisdom, Love, fix’d Joy, free winged
Might,This is true Life: All else death and decay.

His, biographer, Richard Ward, supplies some examples of More’s religious experiences:

When yet early in the morning he was wont to awake usually into an immediate unexpressible life and vigour; with all his thoughts and notions raying (as I may so speak) about him, as beams surrounding the centre from whence they all proceed.

He was once for ten days together, no where (as he term’d it) or in one continued fit of contemplation: during which, though he eat, drank, slept, went into the hall, and convers’d, in a measure, as at other times; yet the [thread] of it for all that space was never once, as it were, broken or interrupted; nor did he animadvert (in a sort) on the things which he did.

And he hath been heard likewise unaffectedly to profess; that his thoughts would often-times be as clear as he could almost desire: and that he could take them off, or fix them upon a subject in a manner as he pleas’d. So that he himself seems plainly to have got that Chimical Art spoken of in his Ethics [Enchiridion ethicum, 1667] of making the volatile fixum, et fixum volatile, the volatile fix’d and the fix’d volatile; upon which some promise themselves, it seems, such wonderful matters: that is, he had reduc’d his spirits (as he there goes on) to a sufficient tenuity and volatility; and could yet at the same time, fix them steadily, at his pleasure, upon any object he had a mind to contemplate. Which things are notwithstanding (I conceive) to be understood with their reasonable qualifications. It was pleasant, he said, to go quick in a man’s thoughts from notion to notion, without any images of words in the mind. And elsewhere [Preface, An Explanation of the Grand Mystery of Godliness, 1660] he speaks more particularly of the exceeding great pleasure of speculation, and that easy springing up of coherent thoughts and conceptions within: And how that the lazy [i.e., relaxed] activity (as he there calls it) of his mind, in compounding and dissevering of notions and ideas in the silent observation of their natural connexions and disagreements, was as a holy day, and sabbath of rest to his soul. His very dreams were often regular, and he could study in them. And the constitution of his spirits was moreover such, if I may be allow’d to mention it, that he could on design sometimes, by thinking upon distant external objects, bring them as to his view; and thus continue, or disolve them for a time, at pleasure.” Source: Richard Ward, Life of Dr. Henry More, 1710, pp. 41−43.

More’s own experiences are important in understanding his own understanding of godliness, or as patristic writings call it, theosis (divinization).

References

Crocker, Robert. Mysticism and enthusiasm in Henry More. In S. Hutton (ed.), Henry More (1614-1687) Tercentenary Studies, 137-55. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990.

Grosart, Alexander Balloch (ed.). The Complete Poems of Henry More. Edinburgh University Press, 1878.

Henry, John, Henry More, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), < https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/henry-more/ >.

Hutton, Sarah (ed.); Crocker, Robert. Henry More (1614–1687): Tercentenary Studies. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990.

Jacob, Alexander. Henry More: A Platonick Song of the Soul. Bucknell University Press, 1998.

Leech, David. Henry More: Bibliography. Cambridge Platonist Research Group. 2017. < https://cprg.hypotheses.org/bibliography/henry-more >

Ward, Richard. The life of the learned and pious Dr. Henry More. London: Jos. Downing, 1710; modern edition (eds. S. Hutton, C. Courtney, M. Courtney R. Crocker, R. Hall) Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000; ebook: Springer, 2013.

Art: Henry More (detail), by William Faithorne; etching and line engraving, 1675. National Portrait Gallery NPG D22865.

Philo on Heavenly Inspirations

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Manna, Maciejowski Bible (13th C.)

PHILO here, in one of his most famous passages, gives us insight into the personal experiential basis of his exegesis of the patriarchs.  First he presents Abraham as the type of man who directs his mind away from thoughts associated with worldly and carnal concerns (Egypt) to the “father’s land” of Wisdom from which heavenly inspirations flow.  This orientation gives birth to a new disposition of mind, Isaac — whom, Philo elsewhere explains, symbolizes spiritual Joy. He then describes the nature of his own experiences, noting with regret intervening periods of aridity. (FIRST DRAFT)

(28) … Nay, thou must change thine abode and betake thee to thy father’s land, the land of the Word that is holy and in some sense father of those who submit to training: and that land is Wisdom, abode most choice of virtue-loving souls.

(29) In this country there awaiteth thee the nature which is its own pupil, its own teacher, that needs not to be fed on milk as children are fed, that has been stayed by a Divine oracle from going down into Egypt (Gen. 26:2) and from meeting with the ensnaring pleasures of the flesh. That nature is entitled Isaac.

(30) When thou hast entered upon his inheritance, thou canst not but lay aside thy toil; for the perpetual abundance of good things ever ready to the hand gives freedom from toil. And the fountain from which the good things are poured forth is the companionship of the bountiful God. He shews this to be so when to set His seal upon the flow of His kindnesses, He says “I will be with thee.”

VII. (31) What  fair thing, then, could fail when there was present God the Perfecter, with gifts of grace, His virgin daughters, whom the Father that begat them rears up uncorrupted and undefiled? Then are all forms of studying, toiling, practising at rest; and without come forth all things in one outburst charged with benefit for all.

(32) And the harvest of spontaneous good things is called “Release,” [άφεσις; aphesis] inasmuch as the Mind [νους; nous] is released from the working out of its own projects, and is, we may say, emancipated from self-chosen tasks, by reason of the abundance of the rain and ceaseless shower of blessings.

(33) And these are of a most marvellous nature and passing fair. For the offspring of the soul’s own travail are for the most part poor abortions, things untimely born; but those which God waters with the snows of heaven come to the birth perfect, complete and peerless.

(34) I feel no shame in recording my own  experience, a thing I know from its having happened to me a thousand times. On some occasions, after making up my mind to follow the usual course of writing on philosophical tenets, and knowing definitely the substance of what I was to set down, I have found my understanding (διάνοιαν; dianoia) incapable of giving birth to a single idea, and have given it up without accomplishing anything, reviling my understanding for its self-conceit, and filled with amazement at the might of Him that is to Whom is due the opening and closing of the soul-wombs.

(35) On other  occasions, I have approached my work empty and suddenly become full, the ideas falling in a shower from above and being sown invisibly, so that under the influence of the Divine possession I have been filled with corybantic frenzy and been unconscious of anything, place, persons present, myself, words spoken, lines written. For I obtained language, ideas, an enjoyment of light, keenest vision, pellucid distinctness of objects, such as might be received through the eyes as the result of clearest shewing.

Source: Philo, On the Migration of Abraham 6.28−7.35 (tr. Colson & Whitaker, pp. 149−153)

Psalm 90, The Prayer of Moses

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Moses and the Burning Bush (detail), William Blake (English; 1757−1827), c. 1803.

THE following meditation,  inspired, wise and beautifully written, comes from the pen of Rev. William Stratton Pryse (1849−1928), an American Presbyterian minister; and a prize indeed it is.  Other homilies of his on the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer which appeared in the same volume of the Herald and Presbyter are equally profitably.

_________

Psalm 90, A prayer of Moses the man of God. KJV

  1. LORD, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.
  2. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.
  3. Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.
  4. For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.
  5. Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.
  6. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.
  7. For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.
  8. Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.
  9. For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.
  10. The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
  11. 11. Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.
  12. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
  13. Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.
  14. O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
  15. Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.
  16. Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.
  17. And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.

A
N IMPRESSIVE and beautiful prayer is that of the great lawgiver Moses, which is contained in the 90th psalm. There seems to be no reason to question the correctness of the title, “A Prayer of Moses,” and the psalm therefore is the oldest extant poem in the world, by many centuries older than the other psalms and the poems of Homer.

It is a noble psalm, solemn and majestic in tone and movement, and it fits well our estimate of the character of Moses. It is also a true memorial of the forty years of desert wandering. As has been said, it “faithfully reflects the long, weary wanderings, the multiplied provocations and the consequent punishments of the wilderness.” [1]

The psalm comprises two parts, of which the first is the longer, consisting of a meditation upon human life as contrasted with that of God. In a tone of deep sadness it dwells upon the brevity, uncertainty and tribulations of man’s earthly life. But coupled with this sadness is a firm confidence in God, who is from everlasting to everlasting, and in whom is our dwelling place forevermore. This meditation is a true part of the prayer of which the whole psalm consists, for while it is not in the form of petition it is, throughout, a cry of the soul after God.

Beginning with the 12th verse, the remainder of the psalm is composed of petitions which spring naturally out of the preceding reflectings. These petitions are seven in number, and thus conform to the symbolism which throughout Scripture attaches to that number. For the trend of these petitions is in precise accord with the symbolical meaning of that number, as indicating a work of God for man. Such a divine working for help and blessing is the burden of the petitions from the first to the last. And they conform to the arrangement of the seven units, which is found in every instance of the symbolical use of that number in Scripture.

The seven fall into the two groups of four and three, and the other division of six and one, the petitions in each case corresponding with and illustrated by the significance of these divisions. The order of the four and three however, the world-human number four coming first and followed by the divine number three, reverses the order of the Lord’s Prayer, which is three and four. This order grows out of the previous meditation, which leads up to the petitions of human need. The grouping of four and three is indicated by the pronouns “us” and “thy.” Teach us, return unto us, satisfy us, make us glad; and thy work, thy beauty, thy establishing power.

It is to be noted that Moses in this prayer nowhere speaks of himself alone, but includes all his people with him. It is nowhere “I” but always “we,” nowhere “me” but always “us.” It is as mediator and intercessor for the people that he utters the prayer. Is he not in this an example for every praying Christian? Upon the truly praying heart rests not only the wants of self, but the burden of humanity’s need. So also the Lord in his model prayer taught us to pray.

The first of these petitions is profoundly beautiful, but it is also vitally essential in human life. “So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.” Here is the vital lesson of human life, upon which turns the success or failure of each and every one, not only for time but for eternity. He who learns so to number his days as to acquire this heart wisdom, secures true and high success; he who does not so do makes a disastrous and hopeless failure. And that lesson God, and God alone, can teach us to learn, through his Word and by his Spirit.

But in teaching us God deals with us in discipline, and this leads to the second petition. Out of life’s trials and sorrows we are moved to pray for a turn in our experience, bringing a merciful relief and a happier state. “Return, O Lord; how long? And let it repent thee concerning thy servants.” God “repents” when a change comes from severe trials to peace and happiness.

In the third petition there is progress in definite and positive desire. Not only relief but soul-satisfaction is sought. As the brightness of morning follows the darkness of night, so hope reaches out to such a morning of satisfaction and joy. “Oh, satisfy us early with thy mercy, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” Only in God, in his love and kindness, can this blessing be realized and become our abiding portion.

One step further in the fourth petition crowns the series, compensation, gladness for affliction. “Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.” And why should it not be so? Is it not the very purpose of discipline? Is it not a part of God’s plan concerning his people, that by trial they shall be prepared for good? The Master himself gives assurance that it shall be so: “Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you and persecute you—for great is your reward in heaven.” [cf. Mat 5:11−12] For all life’s sufferings the believer shall receive great and glorious compensation, of which no small part may be hoped for in the present life.

But now the flow of petition turns to things divine, the supreme things of God. The fifth rises to the very pinnacle at once of human aspiration and divine manifestation. “Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.” The work and glory of God are inseparable, for his work is full of his glory, and his glory flames through all his work. It is this glory shining in his work that puts all meaning and purpose and hope into all things that exist. And it is the vision of this glory-filled work of God, and of his own glory revealed in it, that puts all exalted meaning and blessed hope into human life. He who is blind to it is poor indeed, but he to whom God has shown it is rich with the unsearchable riches of Christ. And the vision most clearly appears in the person and work of him who is himself the shining forth of the glory of God.

Exquisitely beautiful and in the same line is the next petition, the sixth: “And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.” All the endless beauty that appears in nature is but his own, the reflection of the ineffable beauty of himself, the beauty that most brightly shines in him who is the express image of his person. The beauty of God, everywhere, in all things, how it reveals him and how it glorifies human life. What a prayer, that this beauty may be upon us, that it may crown us with its radiance, that it may clothe us as with a garment. His beauty upon us for assurance and hope; his beauty upon us for joy and peace; his beauty upon us for strength and power; so is our life exalted and beatified. Beauty is the revelation of divine goodness and eternal glory.

These six petitions lead up to and are crowned by the seventh; “Establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” Here is the final essential without which all our work must come to nothing, with which our work shall succeed gloriously and stand forever. The finishing, confirming touch of God upon our work, what can human effort avail without this? No work conducted without God, in human wisdom and power alone, is completed at all. It is but a house built upon the sand, which can only fall. If men would accomplish any good and abiding results, they must co-operate with God, and look to him to establish their work upon them. The only hope of the world is in the leaders and people of the nations recognizing this fact.

We can not fail to see that this seventh petition is truly Sabbath, in the sense of completing all the rest. The whole prayer would be incomplete without it. In it the prayer reaches its true culmination and completion. God’s establishing touch alone brings our work to a successful end, and ushers us into our hoped-for rest. In all true effort and progress our attitude must be that of “looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.” [Heb 12:2]

Moses, we are grateful unto you under God for this wondrous prayer. We see that you are not only lawgiver, leader, governor, commander; you are also a true poet, one divinely inspired. Yours is the poetry of the heart and soul, poetry of spiritual understanding, poetry of the profound insight and exalted inspiration, poetry of true sympathy with man and communion with God.

Source: Pryse, W. S. The Prayer Of Moses. The Herald and Presbyter, Vol. XCIII, No. 29 (July 19, 1922), pp.5−6.

Notes.

  1. Smith, William (Ed.), ‘Psalms, Book of’, Dictionary of the Bible, Hartford: Scranton Co., 1908. (p. 775)

 

Philo: The Lifelong Festival of Those Who Follow Nature

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Spring (detail); Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Dutch, 1836−1912); 1894

PHILO of Alexandria, a writer of great but largely unexplored relevance to our age, expounds on the perennial psychology: the mythical Golden Age symbolizes the exalted psychological condition attainable by a lover of wisdom and of virtue who lives in accord with nature; whereas strife, inner and outer, result from placing material things above higher, spiritual goods.

Special Laws 2.42−48

XII. (42) When the law records that every day is a festival [Num. 28, 29], it accommodates itself to the blameless life of righteous men who follow nature and her ordinances. And if only the vices had not conquered and dominated the thoughts in us which seek the truly profitable and dislodged them from each soul — if instead the forces of the virtues had remained in all respects unsubdued, the time from birth to death would be one continuous festival, and all houses and every city would pass their time in continual peace and absence of fear, being full of every imaginable blessing, enjoying perfect tranquility.

(43) But, as it is now, the overreaching and assaults which people contrive against each other and even against themselves and have cleft a breach in the continuous line of this cheerful gaiety. And here is clear proof:

(44) All who practice wisdom, whether in Greek or barbarian lands, and who live a blameless and irreproachable life, choosing neither to inflict nor retaliate injustice, avoid the gatherings of busy-bodies and abjure the scenes which such people haunt — like law-courts, council-chambers, markets, congregations and, in general, any gathering or assemblage of careless people.

(45) Rather, their own aspirations are for a life of peace, free from warring. They are the closest contemplators of nature and all it contains: earth, sea, air and heaven and the various forms of beings which inhabit them are food for their research, as in mind and thought they share the ranging of the moon and sun and the ordered march of the other stars, fixed and planetary. Having their bodies, indeed, firmly planted on the earth, but having their souls furnished with wings, in order that thus hovering in the air they may closely survey all the powers above, they consider the whole world as their native city, looking upon it as in reality the most excellent of cosmopolites, and all the devotees of wisdom as their fellow citizens, virtue herself having enrolled them as such, to whom it has been entrusted to frame a constitution for their common city.

XIII. (46) Being, therefore, full of all kinds of excellence, and accustomed to disregard ills of the body and external circumstances, inured to look upon things indifferent as indeed indifferent, being armed by study against the pleasures and appetites, ever eager to raise themselves above the passions and trained to use every effort to pull down the fortification which those appetites have built up, never swerving under the blows of fortune, because they have calculated beforehand the force of its assaults (since the heaviest adversities are lightened by anticipation, when the mind ceases to find anything strange in the event and apprehends it but merely as it might some stale and familiar story.) Such individuals, being very naturally rendered cheerful by their virtues, pass the whole of their lives as a festival.

(47) These are indeed but a small number, kindling in their different cities a sort of spark of wisdom, in order that virtue may not become utterly extinguished, and so entirely extirpated from our race [cf. Hesiod, WD 200 f.] .

(48)  But if only everywhere men thought and felt as these few, and became what nature intended them to be, all blameless and guiltless, lovers of wisdom, rejoicing in moral excellence just because it is what it is, and counting it the only true good and all the other goods but slaves and vassals subject to their authority — then cities would brim with happiness, utterly free from all that causes grief and fears, and packed with what produces joys and states of well-being, so that no time would ever cease to be the time of a happy life, but the whole circle of the year would be one festival.

~ Philo of Alexandria, Special Laws 2.42−48. Translation from F. H. Colson (1937) & C. D. Yonge (1855).

St. Macrina’s Exegesis of the Parable of the Sower

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Vincent Van Gogh, The Sower, 1888

The following allegorical interpretation of the Parable of the Sower (Matt.13: 24 -30) comes from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s treatise, On the Soul and the Resurrection, which describes a conversation St. Gregory had with his sister, St. Macrina, shortly before her death. Platonic philosophy is discussed throughtout the work. It has been called Phaedo Christianus due to its similarities in theme and setting to Plato’s Phaedo, which records discussions of Socrates on the soul before he drank the hemlock.

“To Macrina, the good seeds are the impulses of our soul which are capable, when directed towards the good (i. e., God), of producing virtue. The bad seed is sin, which is construed as a confusion of our judgment of what is, in fact, good.” (Matz, p. 278).

Matt.13
[24] Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:
[25] But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.
[26] But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.
[27] So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?
[28] He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?
[29] But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
[30] Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.

AND who, she replied, could deny that truth is to be found only in that upon which the seal of Scriptural testimony is set? So, if it is necessary that something from the Gospels should be adduced in support of our view, a study of the Parable of the Wheat and Tares will not be here out of place. The Householder there sowed good seed. …  But the “enemy,” having watched for the time when men slept, sowed that which was useless in that which was good for food, setting the tares in the very middle of the wheat. The two kinds of seed grew up together; for it was not possible that seed put into the very middle of the wheat should fail to grow up with it. But the Superintendent of the field forbids the servants to gather up the useless crop, on account of their growing at the very root of the contrary sort; so as not to root up the nutritious along with that foreign growth.

Now we think that Scripture means by the good seed the corresponding impulses of the soul, each one of which, if only they are cultured for good, necessarily puts forth the fruit of virtue within us. But since there has been scattered amongst these the bad seed of the error of judgment as to the true Beauty which is alone in its intrinsic nature such, and since this last has been thrown into the shade by the growth of delusion which springs up along with it (for the active principle of desire does not germinate and increase in the direction of that natural Beauty which was the object of its being sown in us, but it has changed its growth so as to move towards a bestial and unthinking state, this very error as to Beauty carrying its impulse towards this result;

and in the same way the seed of anger does not steel us to be brave, but only arms us to fight with our own people; and the power of loving deserts its intellectual objects and becomes completely mad for the immoderate enjoyment of pleasures of sense; and so in like manner our other affections put forth the worse instead of the better growths),— on account of this the wise Husbandman leaves this growth that has been introduced amongst his seed to remain there, so as to secure our not being altogether stripped of better hopes by desire having been rooted out along with that good-for-nothing growth.

If our nature suffered such a mutilation, what will there be to lift us up to grasp the heavenly delights? If love is taken from us, how shall we be united to God? If anger is to be extinguished, what arms shall we possess against the adversary?

Therefore the Husbandman leaves those bastard seeds within us, not for them always to overwhelm the more precious crop, but in order that the land itself (for so, in his allegory, he calls the heart) by its native inherent power, which is that of reasoning, may wither up the one growth and may render the other fruitful and abundant: but if that is not done, then he commissions the fire to mark the distinction in the crops. If, then, a man indulges these affections in a due proportion and holds them in his own power instead of being held in theirs, employing them for an instrument as a king does his subjects’ many hands, then efforts towards excellence more easily succeed for him. But should he become theirs, and, as when any slaves mutiny against their master, get enslaved by those slavish thoughts and ignominiously bow before them; a prey to his natural inferiors, he will be forced to turn to those employments which his imperious masters command. This being so, we shall not pronounce these emotions of the soul, which lie in the power of their possessors for good or ill, to be either virtue or vice. But, whenever their impulse is towards what is noble, then they become matter for praise, as his desire did to Daniel, and his anger to Phineas, and their grief to those who nobly mourn. But if they incline to baseness, then these are, and they are called, bad passions.

Bibliography

Callahan, Virginia Woods (Trans.). On the Soul and the Resurrection. In: Virginia Woods Callahan, Saint Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works. (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 58). Washington DC: CUA Press, 1967.

Matz, Brian J.  Ascetic Readings of the Agricultural Parables in Matt 13:1-48 in the Cappadocians. In: Ed. Hans-Ulrich Weidemann, Asceticism and Exegesis in Early Christianity, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013. pp. 268−283.

St. Gregory of Nyssa. On the Soul and the Resurrection (De anima et resurrectione).  Migne Patrologia Graeca vol. 46, cols. 11−160. Paris: 1863. [Greek text]

St. Gregory of Nyssa. On the Soul and the Resurrection. Trans. William Moore, Henry Austin Wilson. In: Eds. Philip Schaff & Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series 2, Vol. 5: Gregory of Nyssa (NPNF2-5‎). New York: Scribner, 1917 (orig. ed. 1893).

The Purpose of Plato’s Arguments for the Immortality of the Human Soul

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Plato_Greek_Frame

ucase-T- angelsHROUGHOUT Plato’s dialogues, and especially in the Phaedo (which describes Socrates’ final conversations), the celestial philosopher presents many logical arguments and proofs for the immortality of the human soul. He also implies that we ought to be convinced that the soul is immortal. Yet, in truth, his arguments and proofs are not fully persuasive at the logical level. Sometimes the premises of his arguments are open to question, and other times the conclusion does not automatically follow from the premises.

This has puzzled many scholars, and some have gone to great lengths to reconcile Plato’s assertion of confidence with the seemingly flawed arguments. The logical gaps are plain enough that surely even Plato sees them. So what’s going on?

I think the answer partly lies in Plato’s unique teaching method, which we might sum up in two words: dialectic and anamnesisDialectic is the term Plato uses for his general method for approaching philosophical and moral problems. Through the conversations between Socrates and other characters in the dialogues, Plato likes to approach problems methodically and analytically, often using specific techniques like division, collection or aggregation, contradiction, and so on. His real aim, however, is not by such methods to come up with a specific logical answer. In fact, we find that Plato’s dialogues often end in a condition of what is called aporia, or perplexity, in which none of the various solutions proposed seem correct or fully satisfactory.

But that is precisely Plato’s purpose. For him the real aim of dialectic is not to deduce an answer, but to focus ones attention, intentions, and Intellect on a problem. In making that strenuous mental effort, one may find that a spontaneous insight into the problem being considered arises. One catches a fleeting but definitive glimpse of some important thing, say the beauty of Moral Virtue.

This flash of insight Plato calls anamnesis. Etymologically, this means recollection or un-forgetting (an = not, amnesis = forgetting). Taken literally, it implies that the insight is not something seen for the first time, but is actually a remembering of a truth previously known.   That has implications, some perhaps controversial, concerning other aspects of Plato’s theories, which there is no need to consider here. It suffices to note that a hallmark formula for Plato is: perform dialectic to produce anamnesis.

With this principle in mind, Plato’s seemingly less-than-perfect arguments for the soul’s immortality make more sense. We wouldn’t expect him to prove by deductive logic that the soul is immortal. Rather, it is more characteristic of his modus operandi to use the outward form of a logical argument as an exercise of dialectic, the real aim being to have us see the true nature of the soul. And in doing this, we may see that the soul is divine and immortal.

Again, I present this only as a proposal or conjecture. The best or perhaps only way to verify it is to study Plato’s arguments, become engaged with them, and see if they may indeed elicit some experiential insight into the soul’s divine nature.

As noted, this view comports with Plato’s general didactic method (whereas an attempt to logically prove the soul’s immortality would not). Some corroboratory evidence comes from Plotinus, in Enneads 4.7. In this treatise, Plotinus reviews arguments for the immortality of the soul. In section 4.7.1 he says:

To know the nature of a thing we must observe it in its unalloyed state, since any addition obscures the reality. Clear, then look: or, rather, let a man first purify himself and then observe: he will not doubt his immortality when he sees himself thus entered into the pure, the Intellectual. For, what he sees is an Intellectual-Principle looking on nothing of sense, nothing of this mortality, but by its own eternity having intellection of the eternal: he will see all things in this Intellectual substance, himself having become an Intellectual Kosmos and all lightsome, illuminated by the truth streaming from The Good, which radiates truth upon all that stands within that realm of the divine. (Plotinus, Enneads 4.7.10; MacKenna translation)

This comes just after Plotinus has referred to some of Plato’s logical arguments for the soul’s immortality. Plotinus’ language is, as is often the case, a bit obscure, but it seems he is basically saying: “If you want to know without doubt that the soul is immortal, see it.” (cf. “Know Thyself”), which I take to generally support the claim I’m raising.

It also seems fitting to note a comment Cicero makes in Book 1 of the Tusculan Disputations. (The latter part of this Book is in many respects a commentary on Plato’s Phaedo.)

Even if Plato gave no reasons for his belief—see how much confidence I have in the man—he would break down my opposition by his authority alone; but he brings forward so many reasons as to make it perfectly obvious that he is not only fully persuaded himself, but desirous of convincing others. (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 1.21; Peabody translation.)

In other words, even if his arguments are not fully convincing at the logical level, we sense the conviction of Plato in the skillful and earnest way that he presents the issue to us, and this itself is evidence that his beliefs in the soul’s immortality are correct.

I hope in future posts to list, categorize and summarize all of Plato’s arguments for the soul’s immortality, and perhaps to explore some of them in detail. It might be mentioned that the four main arguments in the Phaedo for the immortality of the soul are the cyclicity argument, the recollection argument, the affinity argument, and the Form of Life argument. A good summary of these can be found here. Other major proofs Plato presents include the self-moved mover argument of Phaedrus 245c–246a, and the vitiating principle argument of Republic 10.608e–10.611a.

Postscript

A few hours after writing the above, the thought occurred — in connection with a different project — to consult Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology. There I was surprised to learn that its full title is actually The Platonic Theology: On the Immortality of the Soul (Theologia Platonica De immortalitate animorum). He says much of value in the proem, for example:

Whatever subject he [Plato] deals with, be it ethics, dialectic, mathematics or physics, he quickly brings it round, in a spirit of utmost piety, to the contemplation and worship of God. He considers man’s soul to be like a mirror in which the image of the divine countenance is readily reflected; and in his eager hunt for God, as he tracks down every footprint, he everywhere turns hither and thither to the form of the soul. For he knows that this is the most important meaning of those famous words of the oracle, “Know thyself,” namely “If you wish to be able to recognize God, you must first learn to know yourself.” So anyone who reads very carefully the works of Plato that I translated in their entirety into Latin some time ago will discover among many other matters two of utmost importance: the worship of God with piety and understanding, and the divinity of souls. On these depend our whole perception of the world, the way we lead our lives, and all our happiness. (Marsilio Ficino, The Platonic Theology, proem; Allen translation)

Ficino also says that “in the sphere of moral philosophy one must purify the soul until its eye becomes unclouded and it can see the divine light and worship God,” and that it is a mistake to “divorce the study of philosophy from sacred religion.” (Ibid.)

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Written by John Uebersax

June 17, 2015 at 2:06 am