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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

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.

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.

Contemplative Spirituality: From Plato to the Victorine Mystics

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

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

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

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

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


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

Coulter, Dale M.  Pseudo-Dionysius in the Twelfth Century Latin West. ORB Online Encyclopedia.  Accessed: 17 October 2019. < >.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philo and Origen on the Allegorical Meaning of Pharaoh

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Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Oppression of the Israelites (1860)

FOR Philo and Origen, Pharaoh symbolizes what St. Paul later called the carnal mind, i.e., that which strives within our soul against spiritual mindedness (see e.g., Rom.7:14−25, 8:1−7; Galatians 5:17). Our souls are weighed down and oppressed by the demands of worldly desires and concerns.  Our exodus to the Promised Land is accomplished by practice of virtue and elevation of mind, heart and spirit.  Philo associates the mortar and bricks in Exodus 1:14 with the similar figure in the Tower of Babel story, producing an interesting phenomenological analysis of human thought in the fallen condition of folly, hubris and impiousness.

Exodus 1

[7] And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.

[8] Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.

[9] And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we:

[11] Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses.

[14] And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in morter, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigour.

Philo, On the Confusion of Tongues

XVIII. (83) Now the wicked man wishes to display his unity of voice and speech through fellowship in unjust deeds rather than in actual words, and therefore begins to build a city and a tower which will serve for the hold of vice, as a citadel for a despot. He exhorts all those who form his company to take their share in the work, but first to prepare the suitable material.

(84) “Come,” he says, “let us make bricks and bake them with fire” [Gen. 11: 3]. The meaning of this is as follows. At present we have all the contents of the soul in inextricable confusion, so that no clear form of any particular kind is discernible.

(85) Our right course is to take the passion and vice, which at present is a substance devoid of form and quality, and divide it by continuous analysis into the proper categories and the subdivisions in regular descending order till we reach the ultimate; thus we shall obtain both a clearer apprehension of them and that experienced use and enjoyment which is calculated to multiply our pleasure and delight.

(86) Forward then, come as senators to the council-hall of the soul, all you reasonings which are ranged together for the destruction of righteousness and every virtue, and let us carefully consider how our attack may succeed.

(87) The firmest foundations for such success will be to give form to the formless by assigning them definite shapes and figures and to distinguish them in each case by separate limitations, not with the uncertain equilibrium of the halting, but firmly planted, assimilated to the nature of the square — that most stable of figures — and thus rooted brick-like in unwavering equilibrium they will form a secure support for the superstructure.

XIX. (88) Every mind that sets itself up against God, the mind which we call “King of Egypt,” that is of the body, proves to be a maker of such structures. For Moses describes Pharaoh as rejoicing in buildings constructed of brick.

(89) This is natural, for when the workman has taken the two substances of earth and water, one solid and the other liquid, but both in the process of dissolution or destruction, and by mixing them has produced a third on the boundary line between the two, called clay, he divides it up into portions and without interruption gives each of the sections its proper shape. He wishes thus to make them firmer and more manageable since this, he knows, is the easiest way to secure the completion of the building.

(90) This process is copied by the naturally depraved, when they first mix the unreasoning and exuberant impulses of passion with the gravest vices, and then divide the mixture into its kinds, sense into sight and hearing, and again into taste and smell and touch; passion into pleasure and lust, and fear and grief; vices in general into folly, profligacy, cowardice, injustice, and the other members of that fraternity and family — the materials which moulded and shaped, to the misery and sorrow of their builders, will form the fort which towers aloft to menace the soul.

Source: Colson, F. H.; Whitaker, G. H. (Trs.). Philo: On the Confusion of Tongues. In: Philo (10 volumes and 2 supplements), vol. 4. Loeb Classical Library. L261. Harvard, 1932. (pp. 55−59).


Origen, Homilies on Exodus 1.5

BUT let us see what is added subsequently. (5) “But another king arose in Egypt,” the text says, “who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Behold, the race of the sons of Israel is a great multitude and is stronger than us.'” [Ex 1.8−9]

First of all I wish to investigate who the king [i.e., pharaoh] is in Egypt who knows Joseph and who he is who does not know him. For while the king who knew Joseph reigned, the sons of Israel are not reported to have been afflicted nor exhausted “by mud and brick.” [Ex 1.14] … But when the other king — who did not know Joseph — arose and began to reign, then all these things are reported to have happened. Let us see, therefore, who that other king is.

If the Lord guides us, then our understanding, illuminated by the Lord, always remembers Christ — just as Paul writes to Timothy: “Remember that Christ Jesus has arisen from the dead” [2 Tm 2.8],

As long as it remembers these things in Egypt — that is in our flesh — our spirit holds the kingdom with justice and does not exhaust the sons of Israel, whom we said above to be the rational senses or virtues of the soul, “by mud and brick,” nor does it weaken them with earthly cares and troubles.

But if our understanding should lose the memory of these things — if it should turn away from God, if it should become ignorant of Christ — then the wisdom of the flesh which is hostile to God [cf. Rom 8.7] succeeds to the royal power and addresses its own people, bodily pleasures. When the leaders of the vices have been called together for consultation, deliberation is undertaken against the sons of Israel. They discuss how the sons of Israel may be distressed, how they may be oppressed. Their goal is to afflict the sons of Israel “by mud and bricks“; to expose the males and raise the females; to build the cities of Egypt and “fortified cities.” [cf. Ex 1.10-16]

These words were not written to instruct us in history, nor must we think that the divine books narrate the acts of the Egyptians. What has been written “has been written for our instruction and admonition.” [1 Cor 10.11] Its purpose is that you, who hear these words, who perhaps have already received the grace of baptism and have been numbered among the sons of Israel and received God as king in yourself and later you wish to turn away and do the works of the world, to do deeds of the earth and muddy services, may know and recognize that “another king has arisen in you who knows not Joseph,” [Ex 1.8] a king of Egypt, and that he is compelling you to his works and is making you labor in bricks and mud for himself.

It is this king of Egypt who leads you by whips and blows to worldly works with magistrates and supervisors put over you that you may build cities for him. It is he who makes you run about through the world to disturb the elements of sea and earth for lust. It is he who makes you agitate the forum with lawsuits and weary your neighbors with altercations for a little piece of land, to say nothing about lying in ambush for chastity, to deceive innocence, to commit foul things at home, cruel things abroad, shameful things within your conscience. When, therefore, you see yourself acting in these ways, know that you are a soldier for the king of Egypt, which is to be led by the spirit of this world..

Source: Origen, Homilies on Exodus 1.5 (Tr. Ronald Heine, Origen: Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, Father of the Church 71, pp. 233 f., 1982) Note: edited slightly by JU.