Christian Platonism

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Philo: The Allegorical Meaning of the Serpents of Moses and Pharaoh’s Magicians

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Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Aaron’s Rod Changed into a Serpent. Charles Foster, Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us (1860).

ONE of the most memorable sections in Exodus is where, in his confrontation with Pharaoh, Moses throws down Aaron’s rod and it becomes a serpent that devours the serpents of the court magicians. Philo mentions this incident in On the Migrations of Abraham while discussing God’s command to Abraham (at this point named Abram) to leave his father’s home and begin journeying. Philo interprets this command to mean that the righteous man should leave his native land of the carnal mind and travel to the condition of spiritual mindedness.

Philo notes five promises God makes associated with this command.  The third promise is I will bless thee. In the Greek Septuagint Philo used, the word for bless is εὐλογήσω (eulogeso), which he interprets as “excellence of logos.” According to Philo this gift of superior logos has two aspects — mental and spoken — symbolized by Moses and Aaron.  The two operate in combination and, in a broad sense, jointly subsume heavenly inspirations, right reason, and speech that expresses right reason.

For Philo, Egypt symbolizes the carnal mind, which holds our spiritual nature, or Israel, in bondage. Moses’ rod and serpent symbolize pure reasonings applied to counter the rationalizations which the carnal mind raises to resist ones directing ones mind to God and divine contemplations.

The swallowing of the magicians’ serpents by Moses’ serpent symbolizes how our inspired right reasons prevail completely over the specious reasonings of the carnal mind.  Moses’ serpent doesn’t merely bite and kill the others: it devours them, so that no trace remains.  The idea is that inspired right reason doesn’t just win an argument with carnal-minded sophistries, but utterly destroys them by revealing their hollowness and baselessness.

To summarize: To the righteous man (Abram) who leaves his home country (of the senses and material concerns) to travel to the promised land (mental ascent), God promises to send divine intuitions, right reason and true speech (Moses and Aaron). These combat and destroy the specious arguments of ones pleasure-loving inner sophists (Pharaoh’s magicians and their rods/serpents).

Philo’s allegorical interpretation of Moses and Aaron here involves some important principles of transcendental cognitive psychology. His discussion suggests three steps:

(1) receipt of a subtle, inspired intuition that is preverbal in nature;

(2) forming the insight inwardly into words (i.e., as with self-talk); and

(3) outward expression of the idea in the act of speech.

The spiritually-minded religious practitioner can observe these processes by introspection and verify their existence. The three steps are, in Philo’s scheme, allocated to two figures, Moses and Aaron. Hence there’s some ambiguity as to which brother step (2) is assigned; arguably it goes naturally with (3) and hence is part of ones ‘inner Aaron.’

Exodus 7 (KJV)

[8] And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,

[9] When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying, Shew a miracle for you: then thou shalt say unto Aaron, Take thy rod, and cast it before Pharaoh, and it shall become a serpent.

[10] And Moses and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and they did so as the LORD had commanded: and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent.

[11] Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers: now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments.

[12] For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents: but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.

[13] And he hardened Pharaoh’s heart, that he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said.

Genesis 12 (KJV)

[1] Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee:

[2] And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing:

[3] And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.

Philo, On the Migrations of Abraham

XIV.  […] (77) WHEN, therefore, the mind walks abroad among the affairs of the ruler of the universe, it requires nothing further as an object of contemplation, since the mind [νους; nous] alone is the most piercing of all eyes as applied to the objects of the intellect; but when it is directed towards those things which are properly objects of the outward senses, or to any passion, or substance, of which the land of Egypt is the emblem, then it will have need of skill and power in argument.

(78) On which account Moses is directed also to take Aaron with him as an addition, Aaron being the symbol of uttered speech [logos in utterance], Behold, says God, is not Aaron thy brother? [Exod. 4:14] For one rational nature being the mother of them both, it follows of course that the offspring are brothers, I know that he will speak. For it is the office of the mind to comprehend, and of utterance to speak. He, says God, will speak for thee. For the mind not being able to give an adequate exposition of the part which is assigned to it, uses its neighbour speech as an interpreter, for the purpose of explaining what it feels.

(79) Presently he further adds, Behold he will come to meet thee, since in truth speech when it meets the conceptions, and embodies them in words, and names stamps what had before no impression on it, so as to make it current coin. And further on he says, And when he seeth thee he will rejoice in himself; for speech rejoices and exults when the conception is not indistinct, because it being clear and evident employs speech as an unerring and fluent expositor of itself, having a full supply of appropriate and felicitous expressions full of abundant distinctness and intelligibility.

XV. (80) AT ALL events when the conceptions are at all indistinct and ambiguous, speech is the treading as it were on empty air, and often stumbles and meets with a severe fall, so as never to be able to rise again. And thou shalt speak to him, and thou shalt give my words into his mouth, which is equivalent to, Thou shalt suggest to him conceptions which are in no respect different from divine language and divine arguments.

(81) For without some one to offer suggestions, speech will not speak; and the mind is what suggests to speech, as God suggests to the mind. And he shall speak for thee to the people, and he shall be thy mouth, and thou shalt be to him as God. And there is a most emphatic meaning in the expression, He shall speak for thee, that is to say, He shall interpret thy conceptions, and He shall be thy mouth. For the stream of speech being borne through the tongue and mouth conveys the conceptions abroad. But speech is the interpreter of the mind [διάνοια; dianoia] to men, while again mind is by means of speech the interpreter to God; but these thoughts are those of which God alone is the overseer.

(82) Therefore it is necessary for any one who is about to enter into a contest of sophistry, to pay attention to all his words with such vigorous earnestness, that he may not only be able to escape from the maneuvers of his adversaries, but may also in his turn attack them, and get the better of them, both in skill and in power.

(83) Do you not see that conjurors and enchanters, who attempting to contend against the divine word with their sophistries, and who daring to endeavor to do other things of a similar kind, labour not so much to display their own knowledge, as to tear to pieces and turn into ridicule what was done? For they even transform their rods into the nature of serpents [Exod. 7:12], and change water into the complexion of blood, [Exod.7:22] and by their incantations they attract the remainder of the frogs to the land, [Exod.8:7] and, like miserable men as they are, they increase everything for their own destruction, and while thinking to deceive others they are deceived themselves.

(84) And how was it possible for Moses to encounter such men as these unless he had prepared speech, the interpreter of his mind, namely Aaron? who now indeed is called his mouth; but in a subsequent passage we shall find that he is called a prophet, when also the mind, being under the influence of divine inspiration, is called God. For, says God, I give thee as a God to Pharaoh, and Aaron they brother shall be thy Prophet. [Exod. 7:1] O the harmonious and well-organised consequence! For that which interprets the will of God is the prophetical race, being under the influence of divine possession and frenzy.

(85) Therefore the rod of Aaron swallowed up their rods, [Exod. 7:12] as the holy scripture tells us. For all sophistical reasons are swallowed up and destroyed by the varied skilfulness of nature; so that they are forced to confess that what is done is the finger of God, [Exod. 8:19] an expression equivalent to confessing the truth of the divine scripture which asserts that sophistry is always subdued by wisdom.



Source:  Philo, On the Migrations of Abraham.  In: David M. Scholer (editor) and Charles Duke Yonge (translator), The Works of Philo, New updated edition (ebook edition), Peabody, MA, Hedrickson Publishers, 2013. (Original Yonge edition 1854−1855, Bohn’s Classical Library.)

John Uebersax
First draft, March 31, 2018


Philo on Heavenly Inspirations

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Manna, Maciejowski Bible (13th C.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Allegorical Meaning of ‘Doubting’ Thomas

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Today the Catholic Church commemorates the Apostle, ‘Doubting’ Thomas. Thomas doubted that Jesus had resurrected until he saw him and touched him in the flesh. Eventually he saw and touched Jesus, and then believed. But in response Jesus said, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

Thomas can be interpreted allegorically as symbolizing a certain tendency of our ego to be overly rationalistic and to insist that material facts and logical proofs are the only genuine basis for belief. This doubting disposition denies the experiential reality of other valid forms of knowledge, like intuition, insight, Conscience, inspiration and faith (pistis). Significantly, Thomas means ‘twin’ in Aramaic. Our ego is like one of a pair of twins, the other being a more intuitive, authentic, or higher self.  The ego must learn to loosen its overly tight control.  We must admit to ourselves that sometimes we have valid knowledge from extra-rational faculties.

See if you can catch your own inner ‘doubting Thomas’ in action.  For example, perhaps there is some article of Christian faith which you believe is true, but which your rational mind doubts or about which complains that logical proof is lacking.  Your rational mind says, “You claim to believe this thing by ‘faith’. But what is this ‘faith’?  How can it be seen, touched?  How can it be proven to exist at all, much less be demonstrated to be reliable?”  But despite this, the part of your mind responsible for conviction, for deciding “do I or do I not genuinely believe this to be true?”  has the conviction.  And by conviction we mean the same kind of ‘belief-in-the-trueness-of’ that a closely reasoned argument supplies.  Consider the logical syllogism (1) if A then  B, (2) A is true, (3) therefore B is true.  If we know propositions (1) and (2) are both true, then we believe with absolute certainty that the conclusion (3) is true.  That feeling of certainty is what is meant by conviction.  I am merely suggesting that, if one examines ones thoughts closely, one may detect cases where one has the strong conviction of some article of faith, and that this conviction or convincedness is essentially the same as what is felt for a conclusion that is proven by explicit logic, as in the above example. But the conviction produced by faith is such that it is not accompanied by awareness of a rational argument that proves, in a logical sense, the belief.

Obviously not all forms of ‘unreasoned’ belief are of this character.   It is possible to believe something on mere superstition, because it is flattering, or because of wishful thinking.  Religious beliefs based on these things are not genuine faith, even though an ignorant person — namely one who does not know what true faith is — may claim otherwise.   Atheist writers find ample ammunition from such examples with which to discredit religion. True faith, however, is not like these other things.  It is characterized by genuine conviction; these other cases produce, at best, a shallow delusion or pretense of conviction.

St. Ignatius Loyola and the Discernment of Spirits

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From the life of Saint Ignatius from his own words by Luis Gonzalez

Put inward experiences to the test to see if they come from God

Ignatius was passionately fond of reading worldly books of fiction and tales of knight-errantry. When he felt he was getting better, he asked for some of these books to pass the time. But no book of that sort could be found in the house; instead they gave him a life of Christ and a collection of the lives of saints written in Spanish.

032IgnatiusLoyolaBy constantly reading these books he began to be attracted to what he found narrated there. Sometimes in the midst of his reading he would reflect on what he had read. Yet at other times he would dwell on many of the things which he had been accustomed to dwell on previously. But at this point our Lord came to his assistance, insuring that these thoughts were followed by others which arose from his current reading.

While reading the life of Christ our Lord or the lives of the saints, he would reflect and reason with himself: “What if I should do what Saint Francis or Saint Dominic did?” In this way he let his mind dwell on many thoughts; they lasted a while until other things took their place. Then those vain and worldly images would come into his mind and remain a long time. This sequence of thoughts persisted with him for a long time.

But there was a difference. When Ignatius reflected on worldly thoughts, he felt intense pleasure; but when he gave them up out of weariness, he felt dry and depressed. Yet when he thought of living the rigorous sort of life he knew the saints had lived, he not only experienced pleasure when he actually thought about it, but even after he dismissed these thoughts, he still experienced great joy. Angel Fra_Angelico-Annunciatory_Angel-detail

Yet he did not pay attention to this, nor did he appreciate it until one day, in a moment of insight, he began to marvel at the difference. Then he understood his experience: thoughts of one kind left him sad, the others full of joy. And this was the first time he applied a process of reasoning to his religious experience. Later on, when he began to formulate his spiritual exercises, he used this experience as an illustration to explain the doctrine he taught his disciples on the discernment of spirits.

– from the Roman Catholic breviary, 31 July 2009

Further Reading

First Rules for the Discernment of Spirits (from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius)

Second Rules, for More Probing Discernment of Spirits (from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius)

On Ignatian Discernment of Spirits.  Chapter 12 of All My Liberty, by Fr. John A. Hardon SJ

Written by John Uebersax

July 31, 2009 at 2:38 pm