Christian Platonism

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Philo’s Psychological Exegesis of Cain and Abel

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Cain's Fight, Fernand Cormon, 1880

Cain is egoism, Abel is holiness.

TN HE STORY of Cain and Abel in Chapter 4 of Genesis follows immediately after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and, like the latter, is a ethical myth of great and fundamental significance.

Here the Bible first presents in allegorical form one of it’s main themes: the primal conflict or psychomachia within the human soul between good and bad dispositions, vice and virtue, worldliness and piety. The same contrast and conflict symbolized by Cain and Abel is recapitulated and developed throughout the Bible in the stories of Jacob and Esau, Noah and the wicked men, Moses and Pharaoh, the Israelites and their various enemies, and, later, in St. Paul’s analysis of the ‘earthy-minded ‘ and ‘heavenly-minded’ person.

The Jewish philosophy, Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BC − c.50 AD), exerted considerable influence on Christian allegorical interpretation of the Bible. He dedicated several books to the story of Cain and Abel, which he interpreted, as he usually did, according to a mix of Platonic, Stoic and Pythagorean ethical philosophy and Judaism. Philo’s allegorical exegetical insights are unmatched in excellence (and supported by modern cognitive science) — but tend to be obscured by his discursive writing style. In order to present Philo’s interpretations in a more accessible way, the key points of his commentaries are here excerpted and re-arranged to correspond to the Genesis account verse-by-verse. …
Link for full article: www.john-uebersax.com/pdf/philo-cain-abel.pdf

Art: Cain Fleeing Before Jehovah’s Curse (1880), Fernand Cormon (1845–1924, French)

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Philo: The Lifelong Festival of Those Who Follow Nature

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

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

Special Laws 2.42−48

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vincent Van Gogh, The Sower, 1888

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

A Meditation on Man’s Transcendent Dignity

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Satyagraha

Pope Francis

On November 25, 2014, Pope Francis addressed the members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, exhorting them to greater concern for what he called man’s transcendent dignity. The next day one newspaper ran the somewhat misleading headline, “Pope Calls for End to Hunger.” Now clearly ending hunger is a good thing, and the Pope did mention it. But this was not his core message, which considered not so much man’s needs and dignity at a material level, but man’s transcendent dignity.

What, then, is man’s transcendent dignity? This is clearly too large and involved a topic to pursue in detail here. Rather it is more fitting to call attention to the fact that it is a question. Our first task, that is, is to come to a more clear and explicit understanding of this term, transcendent dignity, which we seem to collectively intuit has some valid meaning…

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Hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come

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Jesus
In the English language version of the Lord’s Prayer there is a tendency to consider as connected the two phrases, Thy kingdom come and that which follows, Thy will be done. This is partly so because, like a couplet, these two phrases have identical meter and the last syllables rhyme, at least approximately.

However in consulting the commentaries of Church Fathers on the Lord’s Prayer, the view instead emerges that the phrase Thy kingdom come is more naturally linked with the preceding Hallowed be Thy name to form a unitary concept.

Why?

Consider when it is that we best and most naturally praise and thank God. Is it not in our moments of greatest joy and happiness? When some unexpected windfall occurs, do we not exclaim, or literally gush, “Thank you God!”, even, if in public, letting everyone around witness? Anyone seeing this understands exactly how we feel. There is nothing contrived or artificial. It is a natural expression of extreme, consummate happiness.

Therefore when we pray Hallowed be thy name we say in few words what might be expanded as follows: “Please let me experience true joy, happiness, and bliss, and with such fullness that it would cause me, being perfectly satisfied in the moment, to wish to hallow Thy name by giving sincere, spontaneous thanks and praise.”

Notice also how much more such spontaneous, heartfelt exclamation of thanks and praise glorifies God, that is, hallows God’s name, more than merely reciting a prayer with labored effort, even though that may be quite sincere. No, if we truly wish to most praise God’s name, then we must wish to have joy and happiness, for this makes our desire to hallow God’s name the greatest. Our happiness, which is itself evidence of God’s supreme love for us, and the thanks and praise this elicits, glorifies God.

This is an important insight. For how much better it is to pray for what we truly desire (i.e. happiness), and how much more strong such authentic prayer may be, rather than to merely make ourselves pray for what we believe we ought to pray for!

But then consider how the only way we can reach such states of happiness is when we surrender control, letting go of myriad forms of ego-drivenness, and let ourselves instead be guided by the Holy Spirit; and so inspired by grace, do God’s will, and by that to discover to our delight that what we have done brings some happy outcome. Previously we considered the suggestion that this surrender to the guidance of God is the main meaning of the kingdom (i.e., reign, kingship, rule, dominion) of God, a detail evident in other languages but somewhat obscured in English.

Therefore these two phrases, Hallowed be Thy name and Thy kingdom come are linked to form a unitary concept. [1] The desired end is stated first, and then the means: the end is to reach a condition of true happiness, and the means to discern and follow God’s guidance. We pray for these not in an abstract or remote sense, but for them to happen now, today, this hour or moment if possible. We pray to return to the condition which we may call, without trying too hard to define it precisely, the state of grace.

An ancient and rare manuscript tradition (see e.g., here) has a variant form of the Lord’s Prayer as given in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 11). In place of Thy kingdom come it reads, “May Thy Holy Spirit come upon us and purify us.” This supports our view, shared by St. Gregory of Nyssa [2] among others, that to pray Thy kingdom come is in essence the same thing as to pray, Come Holy Spirit.

first draft: 15 September 2014 (please excuse typos)

Notes

  1. The words which follow, Thy will be done, would then be understood as linked with on earth as it is in heaven. We may address the significance of this another time.
  2. Graef, Hilda C. (editor, translator). Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer, The Beatitudes. (Ancient Christian Writers, No. 18). New York: Paulist Press, 1954. (pp. 52–53, 56).

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

Thy Kingdom or Thy Kingship Come – What Does Basileia in the Lord’s Prayer Mean?

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media-527672-2 There is an important issue with the English language version of the Lord’s Prayer. Specifically, the phrase Thy Kingdom come might be more accurately given as “Thy Reign come.” Alternatively, Rule, Kingship, Dominion, or Sovereignty are arguably better translations of the Greek word here, which is Basileia (Βασιλεία). There is a major difference between a Kingdom and Reign or Rule. The former is a thing, a place; the latter imply an action or process. What we are praying for, in particular, is that God will govern our will and soul; that we are morally purified, cleansed of egoism, so that God reigns. The word “Kingdom” has this psychological meaning only obliquely. Actually I think both meanings are implied by Basileia, but “Kingdom” loses the important psychological sense. A few minutes after writing the above, I found the following confirmation in note to St. Gregory of Nyssa’s sermons on the Lord’s Prayer: “Basileia, the word for kingdom is the same as that for kingship in Greek. The argumentation from “Thy Kingdom come” to the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit can therefore not be adequately reproduced in English, as it depends on the double sense of the one Greek term.” (Graef, 1954, n68, p. 187) St. Gregory of Nyssa’s association of the Kingdom with the Holy Spirit is based on a rare variant of Luke 11:2 he quotes which has “May Thy Holy Spirit come upon us and purify us,” in place of Thy Kingdom come. Reference Graef, Hilda C. (translator). St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer, The Beatitudes. (Ancient Christian Writers, No. 18). New York: Paulist Press, 1954.

Written by John Uebersax

July 21, 2014 at 11:38 pm