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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

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 Greater and Lesser Vision of God

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PHILO OF ALEXANDRIA, in On Rewards and Punishments (De praemiis et poenis), distinguishes two modes by which the devout soul may see God.  One is by the familiar ‘ladder’ of ascending from contemplation of God’s goodness, wisdom and providence as manifest in Creation (cf. Plato, Symposium 201–212).  The second, more exalted kind, is associated with a direct union of God granted by grace.  This contrast is prominent in the history of Christian mysticism, and it’s interesting to see how earlier it appears in Philo (who, of course, is also writing two centuries before Plotinus). Leading up to this passage Philo has reiterated his often-made distinction between three types of holy souls:  the Taught (symbolized by Abraham, one who seeks to learn wisdom from created things, science, and human culture); the Self-taught (symbolized by Isaac, one who acquires wisdom and virtue by following the adage, know thyself); and greatest of all, the Practicer (symbolized by Jacob, the ascetic who uses all available means and discipline in a dedicated quest for holiness).  To Jacob alone is granted the highest ‘vision’ of God — and for this reason he is also called Israel, which, according to Philo, means ‘seeing God.’

VI. After the self-taught, the man enriched by his natural gifts, the third to reach perfection is the Man of Practice who receives for his special reward the vision of God. …

In his former years the eyes of his soul had been closed, but by means of continuous striving he began though slowly to open them and to break up and throw off the mist which overshadowed him. For a beam purer than ether and incorporeal suddenly shone upon him and revealed the conceptual world ruled by its charioteer. [see Plato, Phaedrus 246a− 257b]

That charioteer, ringed as he was with beams of undiluted light, was beyond his sight or conjecture, for the eye was darkened by the dazzling beams. Yet in spite of the fiery stream which flooded it, his sight held its own in its unutterable longing to behold the vision.

The Father and Saviour perceiving the sincerity of his yearning in pity gave power to the penetration of his eyesight and did not grudge to grant him the vision of Himself in so far as it was possible for mortal and created nature to contain it. Yet the vision only showed that He is, not what He is.

For this … cannot be discerned by anyone else; to God alone is it permitted to apprehend God.

VII. Now the fact that He is, which can be apprehended under the name of His subsistence, is not apprehended by all or at any rate not in the best way. Some distinctly deny that there is such a thing as the Godhead. Others hesitate and fluctuate as though unable to state whether there is or not. Others whose notions about the subsistence of God are derived through habit rather than thinking from those who brought them up, believe themselves to have successfully attained to religion yet have left on it the imprint of superstition.

Others again who have had the strength through knowledge to envisage the Maker and Ruler of all have in the common phrase advanced from down to up. Entering the world as into a well-ordered city they have beheld the earth standing fast, highland and lowland full of sown crops and trees and fruits and all kinds of living creatures to boot; also spread over its surface, seas and lakes and rivers both spring fed and winter torrents. They have seen too the air and breezes so happily tempered, the yearly seasons changing in harmonious order, and over all the sun and moon, planets and fixed stars, the whole heaven and heaven’s host, line upon line, a true universe in itself revolving within the universe.

Struck with admiration and astonishment they arrived at a conception according with what they beheld, that surely all these beauties and this transcendent order has not come into being automatically but by the handiwork of an architect and world maker; also that there must be a providence, for it is a law of nature that a maker should take care of what has been made.

These no doubt are truly admirable persons and superior to the other classes. They have as I said advanced from down to up by a sort of heavenly ladder and by reason and reflection happily inferred the Creator from His works. But those, if such there be, who have had the power to apprehend Him through Himself without the co-operation of any reasoning process to lead them to the sight, must be recorded as holy and genuine worshippers and friends of God in very truth.

In their company is he [Jacob] who in the Hebrew is called Israel but in our tongue the God-seer who sees not His real nature, for that, as I said, is impossible— but that He is. And this knowledge he has gained not from any other source, not from things on earth or things in Heaven, not from the elements or combinations of elements mortal or immortal, but at the summons a of Him alone who has willed to reveal His existence as a person to the suppliant.

How this access has been obtained may be well seen through an illustration. Do we behold the sun which sense perceives by any other thing than the sun, or the stars by any others than the stars, and in general is not light seen by light? In the same way God too is His own brightness and is discerned through Himself alone, without anything co-operating or being able to co-operate in giving a perfect apprehension of His existence.

They then do but make a happy guess, who are at pains to discern the Uncreated, and Creator of all from His creation …. The seekers for truth are those who envisage God through God, light through light.

Source: Philo, On Rewards and Punishments (De praemiis et poenis) VI.36−VII.46 (tr. Colson)


Colson, F. H. Philo in Ten Volumes, Vol. 8. Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA, 1939.

Louth, Andrew. The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys. Oxford, 1983 (repr. 2003); Chapter 2, Philo.

Ryu, Bobby Jang Sun. Knowledge of God in Philo of Alexandria. Mohr Siebeck, 2015. (Dissertation).

Winston, David. Philo of Alexandria: The Contemplative Life, The Giants and Selections. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1981. (pp. 124−153 collects Philonic excerpts on knowledge of God.)

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.

The Great Prayer of St. Augustine

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Art: Unknown.

BETWEEN the time of his conversion and his baptism, St. Augustine retired with his family and friends to a villa in Casciago in the beautiful lake region north of Milan. There he wrote several dialogues in the manner of Cicero, including the Soliloquies. Years later Augustine described his conversion in the Confessions, but here we have, as it were, a direct window into his mind at this important period of his life. The Soliloquies opens with an inspired and impassioned prayer — full of phrases from the Neoplatonist Plotinus and the Bible.

While I was turning over in my mind many and divers matters, searching ceaselessly and intently through many a day for my very own self and my good, and what evil should be avoided, all at once a voice spoke to me— whether it was myself or another inside or outside of me I do not know, for that is the very thing I am endeavoring to find out. Reason thereupon spoke to me as follows:

Reason. Now then, suppose you had discovered something, to what would you consign it, in order that you might proceed to other matters?

Augustine. To memory, of course.

R. Is memory of such virtue that it well preserves all that has been thought out?

A. That is difficult; in fact, it is impossible.

R. It must be written down, then. But, what are you going to do now that your poor health shirks the task of writing? These matters ought not to be dictated, for they demand real solitude.

A. You speak the truth. Wherefore, I really do not know what I am to do.

O God, the Founder of the Universe, grant me first of all that I may fittingly supplicate Thee; next, that I may so act that I may be worthy of a hearing from Thee; finally, I beg Thee to set me free.
O God, through whom all those things, which of themselves would not exist, strive to be.
O God, who dost not permit to perish even that which is self-destructive.
O God, who from nothing hast created this world which every eye sees to be most beautiful.
O God, who dost not cause evil, and who dost cause that it become not most evil.
O God, who, to those few who have their refuge in that which truly is, dost show that evil is nothing.
O God, through whom the universe, even with its sinister side, is perfect.
O God, by whose ordinance the uttermost discord is as naught, since the less perfect things are in harmony with the more perfect.’
O God, whom everything loves which is capable of loving whether knowingly or unknowingly.
O God, in whom are all things—and yet the shamefulness of every creature does not shame Thee, their wickedness does not harm Thee, nor docs their error deceive Thee.
O God, who hast not willed that any save the pure should know the True.
O God, the Father of Truth, the Father of Wisdom, Father of True and Supreme Life, Father of Happiness, Father of the Good and the Beautiful, Father of Intelligible Light, Father of our watching and our enlightenment, Father of the covenant by which we are admonished to return to Thee.

I call upon Thee, O God the Truth, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things are true which are true.
O God, Wisdom, in whom and by whom and through whom all those are wise who are wise.
O God, True and Supreme Life, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things live which truly and perfectly live.
O God, Happiness, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things are happy which are happy.
O God, the Good and the Beautiful, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things are good and beautiful which are good and beautiful.
O God, Intelligible Light, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things which have intelligible light have their intelligible light.
O God, whose domain is the whole world unknown to sense.
O God, from whose realm law is promulgated even in these regions.
O God, from whom to turn away is to fall, to whom to turn is to rise again, in whom to abide is to stand firm.
O God, from whom to depart is to die, to whom to return is to be revived, in whom to dwell is to live.
O God, whom no one loses unless deceived, whom no one seeks unless admonished, whom no one finds unless he is purified.
O God, whom to abandon is to perish, whom to heed is to love, whom to see is to possess.
O God, to whom Faith moves us, Hope raises us, Charity unites us.
O God, through whom we overcome the enemy, Thee do I pray.
O God, through whom we obtain that we do not altogether perish.
O God, by whom we are admonished to be ever watchful.
O God, through whom we discern the good from the evil.
O God, through whom we flee evil and follow after good.
O God, through whom we are not overcome by afflictions.
O God, through whom we fittingly serve and fittingly rule.
O God, through whom we learn that that is alien to us which once we thought was meet for us, and that is meet which we used to think was alien.
O God, through whom we cling not to the charms and lures of evil.
O God, through whom deprivations do not abase us.
O God, through whom what is better in us is not under the dominion of our lower self.
O God, through whom death is swallowed up in victory.
O God, who dost convert us, stripping us of that which is not and clothing us with that which Is.
O God, who makest us worthy to be heard.
O God, who strengthenest us; who leadest us into all truth.
O God, who speakest to us of all good things; who dost not drive us out of our mind, nor permittest that anyone else do so.
O God, who callest us back to the way; who leadest us to the gate; who grantest that it is opened to those who knock.
O God, who givest us the bread of life.
O God, through whom we thirst for the cup, which when it is drunk we shall thirst no more.
O God, who dost convince the world of sin, of justice, and of judgment.
O God, through whom we are not shaken by those who have no faith.
O God, through whom we denounce the error of those who think that the merits of souls are naught before Thee.
O God, through whom we do not serve weak and beggarly elements.
O God, who dost cleanse us, who dost make us ready for divine rewards, graciously come to me.

Whatever I have said, come to my aid, Thou, the one God, the one, eternal, true substance in whom there is no strife, no disorder, no change, no need, no death; where there is supreme harmony, supreme clarity, supreme permanence, supreme fullness, supreme life; where there is no deficiency and no excess; where the One begetting and the One begotten is One.
O God, who art served by all things which serve, who art obeyed by every good soul.
O God, by whose laws the poles revolve, the stars follow their courses, the sun rules the day, and the moon presides over the night; and all the world maintains, as far as this world of sense allows, the wondrous stability of things by means of the orders and recurrences of seasons: through the days by the changing of light and darkness, through the months by the moon’s progressions and declines, through the years by the successions of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, through the cycles by the completion of the sun’s course, through the great eras of time by the return of the stars to their starting points.
O God, by whose ever-enduring laws the varying movement of movable things is not suffered to be disturbed, and is always restored to a relative stability by the controls of the encompassing ages.
O God, by whose laws the choice of the soul is free, and rewards to the good and chastisements to the wicked are meted out in accord with inexorable and universal destiny.
O God, from whom all good things flow even unto us, and by whom all evil things are kept away from us.
O God, above whom, beyond whom, and without whom nothing exists.
O God, under whom everything is, in whom everything is, with whom everything is.
O God, who hast made man to Thine image and likeness, a fact which he acknowledges who knows himself.
Hear, hear, O hear me, my God, my Lord, my King, my Father, my Cause, my Hope, my Wealth, my Honor, my Home, my Native Land, my Salvation, my Light, my Life.
Hear, hear, O hear me, in that way of Thine well known to a select few.

Thee alone do I love; Thee alone do I follow; Thee alone do I seek; Thee alone am I ready to serve, for Thou alone hast just dominion; under Thy sway do I long to be.
Order, I beg Thee, and command what Thou wilt, but heal and open my ears, so that with them I may hear Thy words.
Heal and open my eyes so that with them I may perceive Thy wishes.
Banish from me my senselessness, so that I may know Thee.
Tell me where I should turn that I may behold Thee; and I hope I shall do all Thou hast commanded me.
Look, I beseech Thee, upon Thy prodigal, O Lord, kindest Father; already have I been punished enough; long enough have I served Thine enemies whom Thou hast beneath Thy feet; long enough have I been the plaything of deceits. Receive me Thy servant as I flee from them, for they took me in a stranger when I was fleeing from Thee.
I realize I must return to Thee. Let Thy door be open to my knocking. Teach me how to come to Thee. Nothing else do I have but willingness. Naught else do I know save that fleeting and perishable things are to be spurned, certain and eternal things to be sought after. This I do, O Father, because this is all I know, but how I am to reach Thee I know not.
Do Thou inspire me, show me, give me what I need for my journey.
If it is by faith that they find Thee who have recourse to Thee, give me faith; if it is through virtue, give me virtue; if it is by knowledge, give knowledge to me. Grant me increase of faith, of hope, and of charity. O how marvelous and extraordinary is Thy goodness.

To Thee do I appeal, and once more I beg of Thee the very means by which appeal is made to Thee. For, if Thou shouldst abandon us, we are lost; but Thou dost not abandon us, because Thou art the Supreme Good whom no one ever rightly sought and entirely failed to find. And, indeed, every one hast rightly sought Thee whom Thou hast enabled to seek Thee aright. Grant that I may seek Thee, my Father; save me from error. When I seek Thee, let me not find aught else but Thee, I beseech Thee, Father. But, if there is in me any vain desire, do Thou Thyself cleanse me and make me fit to look upon Thee.

With regard to the health of this my mortal body, so long as I am ignorant of its usefulness to me or to those whom I love, I entrust it to Thee, O wisest and best of Fathers, and I shall pray for it as Thou shalt in good time advise me. This only I shall ask of Thine extreme kindness, that Thou convertest me wholly to Thee, and that Thou allowest nothing to prevent me when I wend my way to Thee. I beg Thee to command, while I move and bear this my body, that I may be pure, generous, just, and prudent; that I may be a perfect lover and knower of Thy Wisdom; that I may be worthy of Thy dwelling place, and that I may in fact dwell in Thy most blessed kingdom. Amen. Amen.  (Source: Soliloquies 1.1−6; Migne PL 32 cols 869−872; tr. Gilligan pp. 343−350).


Augustini Hipponensis. Soliloquia (Soliloquiorum libri II). Migne Patrologia Latina vol. 32, cols. 869−904, Paris, 1841. Latin text.

Gilligan, Thomas F. St. Augustine: Soliloquies. In: Schopp, Ludwig (ed), Writings of St. Augustine, Vol. 1.  (Fathers of the Church, Vol. 5). CUA Press, 1947 (repr. 2008); pp. 333−426. English translation.

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.

Richard of Saint-Victor: On the Movements of Contemplation

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IN  A SUSTAINED analogy, Richard of Saint-Victor (1110−1173) likens contemplation to the movements of a bird (he doesn’t say what kind, but a hummingbird fits).  He evidently attached some importance to this analogy, and in any case we can be sure it’s something he developed from his own contemplation of natural phenomena.

An interesting detail his rather unexpected mention of major and minor premises (parts of a logical syllogism) — illustrating the integral nature of Victorine philosophy, artfully combining what today we might call left-brain and right-brain functions, i.e., logical analysis with creative intuition.

While I personally found this description of the phenomenology of contemplation fascinating, I hesitated to post it, thinking others might find it less interesting.  But yesterday a bird seemed to deliberately hover a few feet in front of my face, which I took it as sufficiently like an oracle to proceed.

Richard of Saint-Victor. The Mystical Ark 1.5

That the mode of contemplation operates in many ways

While the penetrating ray of contemplation is always suspended near something because of greatness of wonder, [admirationis magnitudine], it operates neither always nor uniformly in the same mode.  For that vivacity of intelligence in the soul of a contemplative (1) at one time goes out and returns with marvelous quickness, (2) at another time bends itself, as it were, into a circle, and (3) yet at another time gathers itself together in one place and fixes itself, as it were, motionless.

We see this pattern daily in the birds of the sky.  You may see some raising themselves high, others plunging low — and often repeating their ascent and descent.  Some turn to the side, now to the right, now to the left, or moving ahead a little, or advancing almost not at all, again repeating their movements with great constancy.

Others thrust ahead in great haste. But then, with equal rapidity, return to the rear, and repeating this for some time.

Others move in a circle many times,  one time a little wider, another time slightly smaller,  always returning to the same place.

Others suspend themselves for a long time in the same place with rapidly vibrating wings, fix themselves motionless and cling to the same place. It’s as though they wish to exclaim, “It is good for us to be here” (Matt. 17:4).

Similarly the flight of our contemplation is varied in many ways and of varying modes.

At one time it rises from the lower to the higher; at another it falls from the higher to the lower.  By the quickness of its consideration it moves at one time from the part to the whole; at another time from the whole to the part.

And at one time it draws the argument for that which it ought to know from a major premise; at another from a minor premise. At one moment it turns aside into this part, at another moment into the opposite part; it elicits an idea of contraries from knowledge of contraries, and usually varies the performance of its reasoning according to the differing mode of opposites.

At some time it runs forward and quickly runs back when it discerns the quality or mode of anything whatsoever, either from the effects or from the causes and whatever has preceded or followed.

But sometimes our speculation is led as it were in a circle, when some things are considered that are in common with many things or when, for the determination of any one thing whatsoever, a reason is drawn and assigned now to similar things, now to things having similar essences or accidents.

The fixed focus of our consideration is placed in one place, immobile, when the attention of the contemplative gladly  remains with the being of any thing whatsoever in order to observe and marvel at its proper nature.

Perhaps we shall more fitly say that to rise and fall, to go and return, to turn aside now here, now there, to continue at one time in a circle, and finally to cling together in unity: this is nothing other than by means of the greatest quickness to pass, in the mind,  now from the lowest things to the highest, or from the highest to the lowest; now from the oldest things to the newest or from the newest to the oldest; at one time from unequal to equal kinds of merits and rewards; at another time, to consider with diligent examination the circumstance and connection of everything whatsoever; and finally, at some time, satisfying the soul with the rareness of some speculation and wonder at the rareness.  See, as we have said above, how the activity of our contemplation is always suspended and is drawn forth according to some thing, while the soul of the contemplative gladly remains in the manifestation of its joy and is always eager either to return into itself frequently or to continue immobile in the same place for a long time.

Listen—concerning that mode of contemplation which is accustomed to go forward and back in a certain manner: “The living creatures will go and return in the likeness of flashing lightning” (Ezek. 1:14).  [JU: referring to the Chariot Vison of Ezekiel and the four ‘living creatures’]

The one who moves upward and downward, as it were, is described by the Psalmist in a few words: “They rise all the way to the heavens and they fall all the way into the abyss” (Ps. 106:26).

With respect to that mode of contemplation which, for instance, is led in a circle, you are admonished by the prophetic voice where it is said: “Lift up your eyes in a circle and see” (Isa. 60:4).

The ray of contemplation is fixed motionless in one place, for example, when anyone experiences in himself Habakkuk in that place: “Sun and moon stood still in their dwelling place” (Hab. 3:11).

It remains for us to see how many kinds of contemplation there are.

Source: Zinn, Grover A. (tr.). Richard of St. Victor: The Twelve Patriarchs, The Mystical Ark and Book Three of The Trinity. Paulist Press, 1979; pp. 158ff (edited and paraphrased).

Latin: Richard of Saint-Victor, Omnia opera. Patrologia Latina, vol. 196, ed. J. P. Migne. Paris, 1855; cols. 68C−70B.

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.