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Nothing Further Can Be Found in Man: St. Athanasius on Interpretation of the Psalms

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Introduction

ONE of the finest Patristic works on Psalms is the letter of St. Athanasius of Alexandria to his friend, Marcellinus, Ad Marcellinum.  Ostensibly relaying what he learned from an “old man” — perhaps a saintly desert ascetic — St. Athanasius exhorts us not only to read the Psalms, but to read them “intelligently.”  He also affirms the benefits of singing the Psalms, by which means a uniting and harmonization all one’s faculties and powers occurs.

The letter is not long, and all who are drawn to Psalms and wish to profit from them are encouraged to read it in its entirety (links in Bibliography).  Some passages of special interest are supplied below.

(Note: square brackets indicate sections as enumerated in the Migne edition; translation is by Anonymous 1953/1998).

To Marcellinus

All the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction (2 Tim 3:16), as it is written; but to those who really study it, the Psalter yields especial treasure. … Each of these books, you see, is like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some those of all the rest. [2]

And herein is yet another strange thing about the Psalms. In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own … [however with] Psalms it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts. [11]

[T]he Psalms thus serve him who sings them as a mirror, wherein he sees himself and his own soul … [12]

Just as in a mirror, the movements of our own souls are reflected in them and the words are indeed our very own, given us to serve both as a reminder of our changes of condition and as a pattern and model for the amendment of our lives. [13]

The whole divine Scripture is the teacher of virtue and true faith, but the Psalter gives a picture [more particularly] of the spiritual life. [14]

It is possible for us …  to find in the Psalter not only the reflection of our own soul’s state, together with precept and example for all possible conditions, but also a fit form of words wherewith to please the Lord on each of life’s occasions …  [15]

unifying effect which chanting the Psalms has upon the singer. For to sing the Psalms demands such concentration of a man’s whole being on them that, in doing it, his usual disharmony of mind and corresponding bodily confusion is resolved, just as the notes of several flutes are brought by harmony to one effect; and he is thus no longer to be found thinking good and doing evil. [27]

When, therefore, the Psalms are chanted, it is not from any mere desire for sweet music but as the outward expression of the inward harmony obtaining in the soul, because such harmonious recitation is in itself the index of a peaceful and well-ordered heart. To praise God tunefully upon an instrument, such as well-tuned cymbals, cithara, or ten-stringed psaltery, is, as we know, an outward token that the members of the body and the thoughts of the heart are, like the instruments themselves, in proper order and control, all of them together living and moving by the Spirit’s cry and breath. … he who sings well puts his soul in tune, correcting by degrees its faulty rhythm so that at last, being truly natural and integrated, it has fear of nothing, but in peaceful freedom from all vain imaginings may apply itself with greater longing to the good things to come. For a soul rightly ordered by chanting the sacred words forgets its own afflictions and contemplates with joy the things of Christ alone. [29]

For I think that in the words of this book all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in Man. [30]

Bibliography

English translations

Anonymous (tr.). Letter to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms. In: Anonymous (tr.), Athanasius: On the Incarnation. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998. (Appendix; pp. 97−119; ‘Letter’ orig. publ. 1953). [online version]

Elowsky, Joel C. (tr.), Athanasius: Letter to Marcellinus on the Psalms. New Haven, CT: ICCS Press, 2017.

Gregg, Robert C. (tr.). Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, Paulist Press, 1980. (pp. 101−129).

Greek and Latin text

Epistula ad Marcellinum de interpretatione Psalmorum. [Greek text, digital].

Migne, Jacques-Paul (ed.). Patrologia Graeca 27, 1857. (cols. 11−46). [Greek text with Latin translation.]

Secondary sources

Kolbet, Paul R. Athanasius, the Psalms, and the Reformation of the Self. The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 99, no. 1, 2006, pp. 85–101.

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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).

Gregory of Nyssa’s Allegorical Interpretation of the Parable of the Lost Coin

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Luke 15:8−10
[8] Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?
[9] And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost.
[10] Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.

Source: Gregory of Nyssa.  On Virginity 12.3−4. In: Virginia Woods Callahan  (Trans.), Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 58, Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1967. (pp. 44−45).

THE human effort extends only to this: the removal of the filth which has accumulated through evil and the bringing to light again the beauty in the soul which we had covered over. It is such a dogma that I think the Lord is teaching in the Gospel to those who are able to hear wisdom when it is mysteriously spoken: ‘The kingdom of God is within you.’ [Luke 17:21] This saying shows, I believe, that the goodness of God is not separated from our nature, or far away from those who choose to seek it, but it is ever present in each individual, unknown and forgotten when one is choked by the cares and pleasures of life, but discovered again when we tum our attention back to it.

If there is need for further support of the argument, I think this is what the Lord was suggesting in the search for the lost drachma [Luke 15:8−10]. The rest of the virtues [areton; ἀρετῶν] which the Lord refers to as drachmas are of no use, even if they all be present in the soul, if the soul is bereft of the one that is lost. Consequently, He bids us, first of all, to light a lamp, and by this He means perhaps the word which brings to light that which is hidden. Then, He tells us to look for the lost drachma in our own house, i.e., in ourselves.

Through this parable, He suggests that the image of the King is not entirely lost, but that it is hidden under the dirt. We must, I think, interpret the word ‘dirt’ as the filth of the flesh. Once this is swept away and cleaned off by our caring for our life [JU: that is, our spiritual life], that which is being looked for becomes visible, and then the soul can rejoice and bring together the neighbors to share her joy. For in reality, all the faculties of the soul [psuches dunameis; ψυχῆς δυνάμεις], which is what the Lord means by neighbors, do live together, and when the great image of the King which the Creator implanted in our hearts from the beginning is uncovered and brought to light, then, these faculties turn towards that divine joy and merriment, gazing upon the unspeakable beauty of what has been recovered. For it says: ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the drachma that I had lost.‘ [Luke 15:9]

The neighbors, i.e., the faculties of the soul which dwell together, rejoice at the finding of the divine drachma. Reason and desire [logistike te kai epithumetike; λογιστική τε καὶ ἐπιθυμητικὴ]and the faculty aroused by grief and anger, and whatever other faculties there are, are looked upon as being connected with the soul, and they are logically considered as friends who rightly rejoice in the Lord when they all look to the beautiful and the good and do everything for the glory of God, for now they are no longer the instruments of sin.

This concern, then, for the finding of what is lost is the restoration to the original state of the divine image which is now covered by the filth of the flesh. Let us become what the first being was during the first period of his existence.

A Beautiful Mind: Joseph Addison’s Religious Essays

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EADERS of this blog may download a free copy of my new book, a collection of religious and metaphysical essays by Joseph Addison which appeared in the The Spectator in 1711 and 1712. These are certain to delight and edify.  Addison is well known as one of the most skilled prose stylists in the English language; but few today are aware of the sublime quality of his religious essays.

Addison’s influence on both the English and American minds is considerable, yet largely unacknowledged today.

Download the ebook in pdf format here.

addison-book-cover

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Epitome of Plotinus, Ennead 1.3: On Dialectic, or the Upward Way

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plotinus-enneads-title

Below is an epitome of Plotinus: Dialectic, or The Upward Journey, in his own words. From: The Enneads 1.3,  Stephen MacKenna (transl.), London, 1917–1930.  Plotinus identifies three methods of upward ascent or anagogy, associating these with the musician, the lover, and the thinker.  These correspond to the Platonic ascents to the Form of Goodness (God) via the Higher Forms of Moral Goodness, Beauty, and Truth, described in the Phaedrus Chariot Myth, Diotima’s Ladder of Love in the Symposium, and the Cave Allegory in Book 7 of the Republic, respectively.  These paths are not completely distinct, however.  As Plotinus notes, dialectic is relevant to all three.  The same, of course, may be said for love of Beauty, and Moral Virtue.

MR 01

OUR journey is to the Good. What art or method will bring us there? How lies the course? Is it alike for all, or is there a distinct method for each class of temperament? There are several paths; for all, there are two stages. First, is conversion from the lower life. Second, those who already gain a footprint in the upper sphere may advance still further, until they reach the topmost peak of the Noetic (pure Intellectual) realm. But discussion of this highest degree must wait. Let us here speak of the initial process of conversion. We must begin by distinguishing the three types.

  1. The musician we may think of as being exceedingly quick to beauty, drawn in a very rapture to it. All that offends unison, harmony, and measure repels him. He must be shown that what ravished him was no other than the Harmony of the Noetic universe. The truths of philosophy must be implanted in him to lead him to a faith in that which, unknowing it, he already possesses within himself.
  1. The born lover, to whose degree the musician also may attain. Spellbound by visible loveliness he clings amazed about that. His lesson must be to fall down no longer in bewildered delight before some, one embodied form; he must be led, under a system of mental discipline, to beauty everywhere and made to discern and love the One Principle underlying all.
  1. The metaphysician or thinker, winged already and not like those others, in need of disengagement, attracted to the supernal but doubting of the way, needs only a guide. He must be led to make his virtue perfect; after Mathematics he must be put through a course in Dialectic.

But this science, this Dialectic essential to all the three classes alike, — what, in sum, is it? It brings with it the power of pronouncing with final truth upon the nature and relation of things: what each is, how it differs from others, what common quality all have. Dialectic treats also of the Good and the not-Good, and of the particulars that fall under each, and of what is the Eternal and what the not Eternal; and of these, it must be understood, not by the becoming-knowledge of the senses, but with the Being-knowledge of noesis. This accomplished, it gives up its roaming amongst thoughts concerned with material things, and settles contented in the noetic realm of pure Forms. Is Dialectic, then, the same as Philosophy? It is the precious part of Philosophy. We must not think of it as the mere tool of the metaphysician: Dialectic does not consist of bare theories and rules: it deals with verities. It knows above all, the operation of ones own soul.

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Written by John Uebersax

November 13, 2014 at 12:56 am

What is True Charity?

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Satyagraha

Charity

The other day a thought occurred to me which seems to clarify the meaning of Charity, as distinct from other related things like compassion and sympathy, generosity, kindness, etc. The definition: Charity is acting to love others for the sake of God.

At first glance this may strike you as prosaic – a mere formula, one in fact, found in traditional Christian teaching. Likely I had heard this formula someplace, yet it never quite stuck. This time, however, from my creative imagination, Muse, or call-it-what-you-will, there arose insight into the meaning, not merely the definition, of Charity.

To understand true Charity it helps to refer to Platonism.

A hallmark of Platonism is that God is identified as the source and very essence of Goodness. Plato’s defined God, in fact, as the Form or pattern of Goodness of which all individual good things partake, just as all triangles partake of…

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Written by John Uebersax

July 24, 2014 at 9:30 am

True Charity and Anamnesis

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Charity

The other day a thought occurred to me which seems to clarify the meaning of Charity, as distinct from other related things like compassion and sympathy, generosity, kindness, etc. The definition: Charity is acting to love others for the sake of God.

At first glance this may strike you as prosaic – a mere formula, one in fact, found in traditional Christian teaching. Likely I had heard this formula someplace, yet it never quite stuck. This time, however, from my creative imagination, Muse, or call-it-what-you-will, there arose insight into the meaning, not merely the definition, of Charity.

To understand true Charity it helps to refer to Platonism.

A hallmark of Platonism is that God is identified as the source and very essence of Goodness. Plato’s defined God, in fact, as the Form or pattern of Goodness of which all individual good things partake, just as all triangles partake of the Form of a triangle. (This conceptual principle is a powerful and distinct asset to those who try to understand who or what God is – but that is a topic to take up another time.)

With this innovation, our definition becomes “Charity is the doing of good to others for the sake of the Good.”

How does this help? One way is with respect to the Platonic principle known as the unity of virtues. Because all virtues, and indeed all good things, are instances of the Good, a corollary is that pure virtue of any kind, i.e., pure Truth, pure Beauty, pure Justice, etc., must be compatible with every other pure virtue. One cannot, for example, act in a way that affirms Truth yet contradicts Justice or Beauty. This principle supplies a means by which we may test whether a given act is true Charity: the act must awaken in us an awareness of Goodness generally; contemplating or performing the proposed act should leave our mind ‘basking’ in the glow of the train of all divine virtues.

This has some very practical implications for modern social activism. It means that one cannot be motivated by Charity and yet act in a contentious way. Suppose a person is angry that poor people do not have adequate health care. This is certainly an important concern. But if this concern takes the form of hateful denunciation of other people – the greedy rich, selfish Republicans, whoever – then it is not a form of Charity. Because anger is not consistent, in fact it is incompatible, with the Virtues. This helps us see why St. Paul defined Charity as he did: Charity “charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.” (1 Corinthians 13 4–5)

The Platonic perspective also reveals four further attributes of Charity. First, it is it’s own reward. Plato had a name for that kind of experience where we suddenly we regain our ability to see truth: who we are, what really matters, what brings us happiness. He called it anamnesis, literally unforgetting (an = un, amnesis = forgetting). True Charity should have the quality of anamnesis: it realigns our mind such that we are again in touch with our true nature; we become properly oriented to ourselves, other people, Nature, and God.

Clearly this is much different from, say, sending money in a perfunctory way to a “charity” like Greenpeace. Sometimes such actions are performed out of a sense of mechanical duty. Other times they may be motivated by sentimentality – as when one feels sorrow at the plight of abused animals. There is nothing wrong with such actions. They are commendable, in fact, and may well constitute virtues in their own right; our only point here is Charity is something distinct and greater than these things, and to lose sight of the distinction is to risk losing sight of the full meaning and significance of Charity.

Second, the proposed definition shows how Charity is ultimately connected with our own salvation (understood in a broad, nondenominational, psychological sense). The truth is that, however much we may believe or protest otherwise, our ultimate instinctive concern is not with others, but for ourselves. Said another way, our first order of business is to help ourselves. History is full of examples of people who neglected their own moral development for the sake of busying themselves with other people’s problems. To such as these one might well say, “Physician, heal thyself,” or “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew16:26) We must be constantly aware, in whatever we think or do, or our own need of salvation in this broad sense. This is the meaning of humility. The moment we lose sight of our immense proclivity for error, much of which goes under the name of ‘egoism’, then our ego takes over and all manner of mischief is liable to occur. Unless God or the Good is in the picture, any action, even giving a million dollars to help others, will have a strong egoistic component.

Third, our Platonic perspective helps shows how Charity is contagious. If you act towards another with true Charity, the recipient knows, in their own soul, that your act is accompanied by your anamnesis. And since anamnesis always engenders feelings like trust, love, and hope, the person knows that you have gained a reward greater than any human being could give you.

This, in turn, produces a sympathetic anamnesis in the recipient. It reawakens in them a remembrance of what the important, the finer things in life are. And this is cause for them to affirm life and thank God – not so much for whatever charitable benefit they received, but because God made such a world where Charity itself exists. It may literally restore the other’s faith in humanity. Moreover, the recipient is presented with the fact that they too have the ability to show Charity to others. A quality of a truly Charitable act, then, is that it leaves the recipient in a frame of mind eager to show Charity to others. When you act with Charity to others, then, often more important than the physical gift to the other is the psychological gift.

Finally, the Platonic perspective helps us to see that Charity is different from other forms of helping, giving, sharing, etc., in terms of epistemology. True Charity, because it is consciously aligned with God and the Good, opens the mind to an influx of higher thoughts – the mode of knowledge Plato called noesis. This is distinct from our usual form of rationalistic thinking, called dianoia, or reasoning. Thus, a characteristic of true Charity is that it is frequently motivated by inspiration, often more an act of spontaneous creativity than cold calculation. Again, this is not to say that we should avoid applying our logical minds to helping others – only that Charity is something distinct from rationality alone.

 

Written by John Uebersax

May 2, 2014 at 2:55 pm