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Philo: The Allegorical Meaning of Cain’s City and His Descendants

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Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Cain building the city of Enoch (1860)

DEAR PHILOTHEA, Here, as you requested, are some remarks on Philo’s allegoresis of Cain’s descendants (Genesis 4:17−24), supplied as a continuation of what I previously wrote concerning the sacrifices of Cain and Abel.  As before, I wish to supply only brief pointers, believing that the spiritual meanings of the Old Testament — which are always anagogical or upward leading — require a dedicated personal effort to ascertain: so that meanings and the means of their understanding (effort) coincide.

The basic narrative of these verses, which follows upon the death of Abel, is as follows:

Cain fled God’s presence and dwelt in Nod.
Cain married and begat Enoch.
Cain builded a city.
Enoch begat Irad.
Irad begat Mehujael.
Mehujael begat Methusael.
Methusael begat Lamech.
Lamech had two wives: by Adah he begat Jabal and Jubal.
And by Zillah, Lamech begat Tubal and Naamah.

There is, as you noted, a tendency of readers to gloss over these verses, as though the author of Genesis merely inserted stray folklore.  However that view is inconsistent with how we know we should approach Holy Scripture, which is to assume that all there is placed intentionally and for some definite purpose: sometimes the more irrelevant a detail seems, the more strongly it alerts us to the existence of spiritual meanings.

That is certainly how Philo, our guide for interpreting Genesis, approached these verses.   I like to remind myself that Philo was once believed to be the author of the Wisdom of Solomon.  That is no longer thought to be the case, but the point is that he might have been the author; that is, he is without doubt a profoundly wise, devout and learned representative of the Alexandrian Jewish culture from which Wisdom of Solomon also originated.  Since we look upon the anonymous author of that work as divinely inspired, may we not consider Philo as well one of the eminent line of Jewish prophets?  And if that’s so, we are most fortunate to have, in addition to the Old Testament itself, a spiritually inspired, providential explanation of how to approach interpreting it.

But even to consider inspiration merely as a phenomenon of the human collective unconscious, we may see Philo as a gifted sage and great artist: a man of wide learning, pure intentions and immense zeal to edify others — an extraordinary creative genius, whose works reflect the supraconscious. Enough on this, then.

Philo performed a careful exegesis of these verses from Genesis 4 in his work titled On the Posterity of Cain (De posteritate Caini).  Here, as in his other allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament, Philo applies what we may call the principle of psychological correspondence: each person signifies a specific disposition of the human mind or personality, and each incident symbolizes a psychological event or process (Uebersax, 2012).

As previously described (Uebersax, 2018), for Philo, Cain and Abel symbolize the struggle (psychomachia) within each person between what, lacking better terms, we may follow St. Paul in calling carnal-mindedness and spiritual-mindedness (Romans 8:6). In brief, Cain symbolizes a certain fundamental condition of egoism and impious self-will, and stands in contrast with Abel, who represents an attitude of childlike trust in God.

For Philo, then, Cain’s descendants represent a progressive degradation and corruption of our mind when we leave an uplifted condition — where thinking is holy — to one ruled by egoistic, material concerns. We join the ‘race of Cain’ when we let worldly concerns predominate over spiritual ones.

We can observe this pattern of cognitive descent on various time-scales and with varying severity: from a major mutations in personality lasting months or years, to lesser shifts that occur throughout each day (Uebersax 2014). Hence the issue here is not only descent of the personality into major vices like obsession, gambling, addiction, etc., which ruin ones life entirely, but also daily descents into agitation, distraction, frustration, anger and despondency.  These lesser forms of descent, though perhaps brief, may still amount to a temporary death of ones soul.

Sequential ordering. Philo is describing the phenomenology of mental descent.  While each figure in Cain’s lineage corresponds to a different disposition and to associated cognitive processes, we need not assume these mental events always follow a strict order. However in some cases there does seem to be a tendency of one of these dispositions to ‘beget’ another.

In any case, Philo’s interpretations correspond to mental events that we may, with practice, learn to observe as they occur.  By attending closely to them, and to the transitions from one disposition to another, we may potentially learn how to arrest or even reverse mental descent as it happens. One may think, for example, “Ah, at this point I have become like Mehujael!” and then take appropriate corrective action.

Even if his analysis is not complete, or not correct in every detail, it nevertheless supplies considerable material for personal reflection.

Etymology. Philo applies here what may seem to us some very speculative etymologies in associating each descendant of Cain with a mental disposition. However we shouldn’t overestimate the importance of these etymologies for Philo. There’s no reason to think that they came first in his thinking, and then led him, based on a name, to derive a psychological meaning.  Another and perhaps more likely possibility is that he relied here more on his knowledge of human psychology and on self-observation. That is, he may sometimes have chosen an etymological association after the fact, as it were, to accommodate a prior psychological insight or theory. Alternatively, he may sometimes merely suggest questionable etymologies as helpful mnemonic devices for readers (or his hearers, if, as some suggest, he originally composed this material as homilies).

In any case we shouldn’t let questionable etymologies prejudice our minds against Philo or his interpretations. We should rather focus on his deep insight and remarkable powers of phenomenological analysis. This is superb philosophizing!

Finally, to avoid confusion, please note that in Genesis there are two Enochs, two Methuselahs and two Lamechs; in each case one is bad (Cain’s lineage) and one is good (Seth’s lineage).  Here Philo’s interest is with the bad line.

Now we’ll proceed to Philo’s allegoresis verse by verse.  As much as possible we’ll use his own words. Unless otherwise indicated all paragraph numbers refer to On the Posterity of Cain.

~*~
Genesis 4 (KJV)
[16] And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

Land of Nod (22, 32; Cher. 12f.)

Nod is similar to the Hebrew word for “toss.”  “Eden” symbolizes an opposite mental condition characterized by peace, joy and right reason.

IT IS worth while to notice the country also into which he betakes himself when he has left the presence of God: it is the country called ‘Tossing’ In this way the lawgiver indicates that the foolish man, being a creature of wavering and unsettled impulses, is subject to tossing and tumult, like the sea lashed by contrary winds when a storm is raging, and  has never even in fancy had experience of quietness and calm. And as at a time when a ship is tossing at the mercy of the sea, it is capable neither of sailing nor of riding at anchor, but pitched about this way and that it rolls in turn to either side and moves uncertainly swaying to and fro; even so the worthless man, with a mind reeling and storm-driven, powerless to direct his course with any steadiness, is always tossing, ready to make shipwreck of his life. (22; cf. DeCherubim. 12f.)

Having now shown each side of the picture, calm in a good man, restlessness in a foolish one, let us devote our attention to the sequel. The lawgiver says that Naid, ‘Tumult,’ to which the soul migrated, is over against Eden. ‘Eden’ is a symbolic name for right and divine reason, and so it is literally rendered ‘luxuriance.’ For right reason above all others finds its delight and luxury in the enjoyment of good things pure and undiluted, yea complete and full, while God the Giver of wealth rains down His virgin and deathless boons. And evil is by nature in conflict with good, unjust with just, wise with foolish, and all forms of virtue with all forms of vice. That is the meaning of Naid being over against Eden. (32)

[17] And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch.

Cain’s wife (33−39)

‘WIFE’ … [means] the opinion which the impious man (habitually) assumes touching (all) matters. … Of what sort then is an impious man’s opinion? That the human mind is the measure of all things. (34f.)

For if man is the measure of all things, all things are [incorrectly seen as] a present and gift of [ones own] mind … including … thought, resolves, counsels, forethought, comprehension, acquisition of knowledge, skill in arts and in organizing, other faculties too many to recount. Why … deliver … discourses about holiness and honouring God … seeing that you have with you the mind [that presumes] to take the place of God? (36f.)

Enoch (41−43; cf. 35f.)

Philo interprets “Enoch” to mean “thy gift,” here understood as “my gift to myself.”  He connects this with the preceding discussion of Cain’s wife, viz. the opinion that ones sensations and thoughts belong to ones ego.

THOSE who assert that everything that is involved in thought or perception or speech is a free gift of their own soul, seeing that they introduce an impious and atheistic opinion, must be assigned to the race of Cain, who, while incapable even of ruling himself, made bold to say that he had full possession of all other things as well. (42)

Builded a city (49−62)

A characteristic of egoistic thinking is that one builds a veritable city of false beliefs, wrong opinions and supporting rationalizations, populated by inauthentic dispositions.

NOW, every city needs for its existence buildings, and inhabitants, and laws. Cain’s buildings are demonstrative arguments. With these, as though fighting from a city-wall, he repels the assaults of his adversaries, by forging plausible inventions contrary to the truth.  His inhabitants are the wise in their own conceit, devotees of impiety, self-love, arrogance, false opinion: men ignorant of real wisdom, who have reduced to an organized system ignorance, lack of learning and of culture, and other pestilential things akin to these. His laws are various forms of lawlessness and injustice, unfairness, licentiousness, audacity, senselessness, self-will, immoderate indulgence in pleasures … Of such a city every impious man is found to be an architect in his own miserable soul, until such time as God takes counsel (Gen. 11:6), and brings upon their sophistic devices a great and complete confusion. (52f.)

[18] And unto Enoch was born Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael: and Mehujael begat Methusael: and Methusael begat Lamech.

Irad (66−68)

THE SON of Enoch is named Gaidad [Irad], which means ‘a flock.’ Such a name follows naturally upon his father’s name. For it was fitting that the man who deems himself beholden to mind, which is incapable of comprehending its own nature, should beget irrational faculties [dunameis], collected into a flock. (66)

Now every flock that has no shepherd over it necessarily meets with great disasters, owing to its inability by itself to keep hurtful things away and to choose things that will be good for it. (67)

For when the protector, or governor, or father, or whatever we like to call him, of our complex being, namely right reason (orthos logos), has gone off leaving to itself the flock within us, the flock itself being left unheeded perishes, and great loss is entailed upon its owner, while the irrational and unprotected creature, bereft of a guardian of the herd to admonish and discipline it, finds itself banished to a great distance from rational and immortal life. (68)

Mehujael (Mahujael, Maiel; 69−72)

THIS IS why Gaidad is said to have a son Maiel, whose name translated is ‘away from the life of God.’ For since the flock is without reason, and God is the Fountain of reason, it follows that he that lives an irrational life has been cut off from the life of God. (69)

Methusael (Methuselah; 73, 44f., cf. 41)

This descendant of Cain is not to be confused with the long-lived Methuselah of Seth’s lineage in Genesis 5.

WHAT issue awaits him who does not live according to the will of God, save death of the soul? And to this is given the name Methuselah, which means (as we saw) ‘a dispatch of death.’ Wherefore he is son of Mahujael, of the man who relinquished his own life, to whom dying is sent, yea soul-death, which is the change of soul under the impetus of irrational passion. (73f.)

He who receives [this] death is an intimate of Cain, who is ever dying to the way of life directed by virtue. (45)

Lamech (74−79; 46−48; cf. 41)

WHEN the soul has conceived this passion, it brings forth with sore travail-pangs incurable sicknesses and debilities, and by the contortion brought on by these it is bowed down and brought low; for each one of them lays on it an intolerable burden, so that it is unable even to look up. To all this the name ‘Lamech’ has been given, which means ‘humiliation,’ [or ‘brought low’] … a low and cringing passion being [an] offspring of the soul’s death, [and] a sore debility child of irrational impulse. (74)

[19] And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah.
[20] And Adah bare Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle.
[21] And his brother’s name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ.

Adah (79−83)

For Philo, Ada means “witness” — in the sense of self-witness and attention directed to ones thoughts and acts.

THE LOW and grovelling Lamech marries as his first wife Ada, which means ‘Witness.’ He has arranged the marriage for himself, for he fancies that the prime good for a man is the smooth movement and passage of the mind along the line of well-aimed projects, with nothing to hinder its working towards easy attainment. ‘For what,’ says he, ‘could be better than that one’s ideas, purposes, conjectures, aims, in a word one’s plans, should go, as the saying is, without a limp, so as to reach their goal without stumbling, understanding being evidenced in all the particulars mentioned?’ (79)

If a man has used a natural aptness and readiness not only for good and worthy ends, but also for their opposites … let him be deemed unhappy. … for verily it is a desperate misfortune for the soul to succeed in all things which it attempts, although they be utterly base. (81)

Therefore, Ο mind, have nothing to do with Ada, who bears witness to (the success of) worthless things, and is borne witness to (as helping) in the attempts to accomplish each of them. (83)

Jabal (Jobel; 83−99)

IF you shall think well to have her [Ada] for a partner, she will bear to you a very great mischief, even Jobel (Gen. iv. 20), which signifies ‘one altering.’ For if you delight in the witness borne to (the goodness of) everything that may present itself, you will desire to twist everything and turn it round, shifting the boundaries fixed for things by nature. (83)

The man who removes the boundaries of the good and beautiful both is accursed and is pronounced to be so with justice. These boundaries were fixed … on principles which are divine and are older than we and all that belongs to earth. This has been made clear by the Law, where it solemnly enjoins upon each one of us not to adulterate the coinage of virtue, using these words: ‘thou shalt not remove thy neighbour’s boundaries, which thy fathers set up.’ (Deut. 19:14) (88f.)

How, then, should Jobel escape rebuke, whose name when turned into Greek is ‘altering’ the natures of things or making them other than they are? For he changed the forms of wisdom and endurance and justice and virtue in general, forms of Godlike beauty, substituting contrary shapes of folly, intemperance, injustice, and all wickedness, obliterating the shapes that had been impressed before. (93)

Jubal (100−111)

‘JUBAL’ is akin in meaning to ‘Jobel,’ for it means ‘inclining now this way now that,’ and it is a figure for the uttered word, which is in its nature brother to mind. It is a most appropriate name for the utterance of a mind that alters the make of things, for its way is to halt between two courses, swaying up and down as if on a pair of scales, or like a boat at sea, struck by huge waves and rolling towards either side. For the foolish man has never learned to say anything sure or well-grounded. (100)

[He swerves aside from the] royal road, which we have just said to be true and genuine philosophy, is called in the Law the utterance and word of God. (102)

Jubal is the father of musical instruments because music, like foolish thought and speech, has infinitely many variations:

RIGHT well then is Jubal, the man who alters the tone and trend of speech, spoken of as the father of psaltery and harp, that is of music. (111)

[22] And Zillah, she also bare Tubal-cain, an instructer of every artificer in brass and iron: and the sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.

Zillah (Sella; 112−113)

LET us contemplate Lamech’s other wife Sella (Zillah) and her offspring. Well, ‘Sella’ means ‘a shadow,’ and is a figure of bodily and external goods, which in reality differ not a whit from a shadow. (112)

Tubal (Thobel; 114−119)

OF this shadow and its fleeting dreams a son is born, to whom was given the name of Thobel, meaning ‘all together.’ For it is a fact that those who have obtained health and wealth … think that they have secured absolutely all things. (115)

He goes on to say: This man was a wielder of the hammer, a smith in brass and iron work. For the soul that is vehemently concerned about bodily pleasures or the materials of outward things, is being ever hammered on an anvil, beaten out by the blows of his desires with their long swoop and reach. Always and everywhere you may see those who care for their bodies more than anything else setting lines and snares to catch the things they long for. You may see lovers of money and fame dispatching on expeditions to the ends of the earth and beyond the sea the frenzied craving for these things. They draw to them the produce of every region of the globe, using their unlimited lusts as nets for the purpose, until at last the violence of their excessive effort makes them give way, and the counter pull throws down headlong those who are tugging. All these people are war-makers, and that is why they are said to be workers in iron and bronze, and these are the instruments with which wars are waged. (116f.)

It is an invariable rule that broils and factions arise among men scarcely ever about anything else than what is in reality a shadow. For the lawgiver [Moses] named the manufacturer of weapons of war, of brass and iron, Thobel, son of Sella the shadow… . For he was aware that every naval or land force chooses the greatest dangers for the sake of bodily pleasures or to gain a superabundance of things outward, no one of which is proved sure and stable by all-testing time; for those things resemble pictures that are mere superficial delineations of solid objects, and fade away of themselves. (119)

Tubal, who signifies a state of complete inner strife and self-tyranny, is the culmination of the entire line of Cain: hence his full name, Tubal-cain.  His association with bronze and iron is reminiscent of the Bronze and Iron races in Hesiod’s Ages of Man myth (Works and Days 109–201), another allegory of the soul’s progressive descent.

Naamah (Noeman; 120−123)

WE are told that the sister of Thobel was Noeman, meaning ‘fatness’; for when those, who make bodily comfort and the material things of which I have spoken their object, succeed in getting something which they crave after, the consequence is that they grow fat. Such fatness I for my part set down not as strength but as weakness, or it teaches us to neglect to pay honour to God, which is the chiefest and best power of the soul. (120)

From this we see that the Divine word dwells and walks among those for whom the soul’s life is an object of honour, while those who value the life given to its pleasures, experience good times that are transient and fictitious. These, suffering from the effects of fatness and enjoyment spreading increasingly, swell out and become distended till they burst; but those who are fattened by wisdom which feeds souls that are lovers of virtue, acquire a firm and settled vigour, of which the fat taken from every sacrifice to be offered with the whole burnt offering is a sign. For Moses says all the fat is a due for ever to the Lord (Lev. 3:16f.), showing that richness of mind is recognized as God’s gift and appropriated to Him. (122f.)

Final Remarks

In verses 23 and 24, the slain young man whom Lamech refers to is Abel, the disposition of piety, innocence and childlike trust in God, whose death is brought to completion by the line of Cain.

So much for Philo’s exegesis of Cain’s progeny and how they relate to the moral/cognitive descent of the psyche.  Philo continues his analysis of descent in his interpretations of the giants mentioned in Genesis 6 (On the Giants) and the Tower of Babel (On the Confusion of Tongues). In addition to considering the descending lineage of Cain, Philo also allegorically interprets the improving race of Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son (Genesis 5). Future articles will discuss these.

References

Colson, F. H. & Whitaker, G. H. Philo: On the Posterity of Cain.  In: Philo, Volume 2. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: 1929.

Uebersax, John. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. Paso Robles, CA: El Camino Real, 2012.

Uebersax, John. The monomyth of fall and salvation. Christian Platonism. 2014. Accessed 22 April 2018.

Uebersax, John. Philo’s psychological exegesis of Cain and Abel. Christian Platonism. 2018. Accessed 22 April 2018.

John Uebersax
First draft: 27 April 2018 (please excuse typos)

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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)

Greek Philosophy for Bible Exegetes

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IT’S GOOD to see when a Christian is so consumed with zeal to understand the New Testament that he or she resolves to learn Greek to better understand its message. For some, this same kind of zeal might motivate an interest to learn about the Greek philosophy circulating at the time the New Testament was written.

St. Paul was well versed in Greek philosophy. He was raised in Tarsus (a philosophical center), studied in Jerusalem at Gamaliel’s rabbinical school, and when in Athens discoursed intelligently with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers. The better-educated of those to whom he directed his letters would have been familiar with Greek philosophy and accustomed to thinking about morals and religion in such terms. St. Paul, who was willing to be “all things to all men, so that some might be saved,” would have found many ideas and principles of Greek philosophy helpful in approaching Gentiles and Hellenized Jews with the message of Christianity.

The writers of the Gospels, too, show every sign of being well-educated Greek-speakers, who might easily have been familiar with elements of Greek philosophy.

Jesus himself probably spoke Greek, and may have lived in the large community of Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria during his childhood, where he might have come into contact with Greek learning.

Therefore, for such practicing Christians as may feel inspired to plunge into Greek philosophy to further their Bible study, below is a list of suggested primary texts sufficient to give one a good understanding of the subject.

Diogenes Laërtius (180 – 240 AD), Lives of Eminent Philosophers selections.

Perhaps the best single resource on the lives of ancient Greek philosophers.  Much better than modern texts!  The main chapters (“Lives”) of interest are as follows:

Plato (428 − 347 BC), selected dialogues, in suggested reading order shown

It is widely believed today that St. Paul was influenced by Stoic thought. However, many of the ideas present in Stoicism are found earlier in Plato’s writings.  Stoicism, in fact, could be considered a branch of Platonism.

  • Charmides (an easy introduction to the writing of the greatest Greek philosopher)
  • Apology (background on the historical Socrates)
  • Phaedo (Socrates’ final conversations before his execution)
  • Symposium (On love)
  • Phaedrus (includes Plato’s famous chariot myth)
  • Republic (contrary to common opinion, this is not a literal treatise on civil politics, but an inspired allegory for the governance of ones soul; the subtitle is On the Righteous Man.)

Aristotle (384 – 322 BC)

Cicero (106 − 43 BC)

In Cicero (a Roman who wrote about Greek philosophy) we see a kind of humanism emerging that is almost Christian.  Also, Cicero transmits to us the philosophical ideas of Posidonius of Apamea (c. 135 – c. 51 BC) and Panaetius of Rhodes (c. 185 − c. 110 BC), whose versions of Stoicism would have likely influenced St. Paul and his contemporaries.

Seneca (Seneca the Younger; c. 4 BC – 65 AD), selections 

Seneca was the brother of Gallio, proconsul of Achaea, who handled St. Paul’s case in Corinth. It’s remotely possible that St. Paul met Seneca in Rome, or that among his contacts in Caesar’s household were some who knew Seneca well.

As an example of later Stoicism, one might read either Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius.

Epictetus (55 – 135 AD)

Marcus Aurelius (121 − 180 AD) 

Finally mention should be made of the great Platonic-Jewish exegete, Philo of Alexandria  (c. 20 BC – 50 AD).  The three books of Allegorical Interpretation supply an introduction to his sublime thought.  In some ways Philo is the most relevant of all these philosophers for Christians, but as his writing style is somewhat difficult, it’s perhaps better to first gain a solid foothold in Greek philosophy by reading the other authors.

John Uebersax
1st draft (sorry for any typos)

Philo’s Psychological Exegesis of Cain and Abel

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Cain's Fight, Fernand Cormon, 1880

Cain is egoism, Abel is holiness.

T 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)

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).

Your Greatest Psychological Enemy

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Dorees engler

Today my readings took me to St. Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, and an interesting passage where he warns them against what he calls the great Rebel (2 Thess. 2:3) This is in a modern (Jerusalem Bible) translation. The King James Version renders the Greek expression (anthropos hamartia) as that man of sin. Usually I am wary of modern translations, but here one suspects that the international team of scholars who translated the Jerusalem Bible had good grounds for their more evocative choice of words.

In any case this reading serves as a welcome stimulus to address a topic I have too long delayed. I wish to call attention to the reality of this great Rebel as a psychological phenomenon , and as a major obstacle to human happiness.

Now as to whether Satan, in the traditional sense, exists or not does not concern me here. What is of concern is a satanic principle as it exists within the psyche of each individual. That I am convinced does exist.   And it is this inner satanic principle which is, I believe, our most immediate concern, and perhaps ultimately our greatest adversary and obstacle to well-being.

What is the evidence for this? To begin with, I call attention to the psychological theories of Carl Jung. Jung’s theories are not always right, and much of what he wrote is either inconsistent with — or has been interpreted (perhaps wrongly) in ways that make it inconsistent with — Christianity. However, points of incorrectness or disagreement should never make us hesitate to accept whatever else is true and useful. And there is indeed much true and useful in Jung’s theories.

In this case, Jung’s theories make a very strong case that the Bible, as well as the sacred writings and myths of all cultures, (1) can be interpreted psychologically, and (2) that this can be done more or less along the same lines as one interprets dreams psychologically.

One proviso or explanation must be made immediately: to say that the Bible can be interpreted psychologically in no way denies that it has other levels of meaning. Most importantly, it does not deny that the New Testament is literally true. (Whether the Old Testament is literally true is, of course, another matter.) Thus, rather than detract from the grandeur of the Bible, this view actually enhances it: it allows that God, the Supreme Author, uses all modes of meaning which literature may carry — literal and symbolic — to communicate with our souls.   But having stated this, I will not further defend the premise here, having done so elsewhere. In any case, many readers will be willing to accept this key premise prima facie.

A corollary of this premise is that each figure in the Bible has some counterpart, and thus serves as a symbol for some part or process of the individual psyche. Again, many, especially those already familiar with Jungian theory, will accept this without further explanation. It is a standard element of psychological interpretation of dreams, as well as of mythology, art and literature.

However, from the preceding, fairly unimpressive propositions, logic leads us necessarily to a momentous one: this means that the figure of Satan — or the great Rebel — must also correspond to something within the individual psyche.

If true, this is a huge concern. It means that, at virtually all times, in whatever we do or think, in whatever way we seek to improve ourselves on the road of virtue, or to love others, or to contribute to a better word, something within us opposes our efforts. Moreover this energy, force, or principle of opposition is extremely strong, crafty, utterly callous and unloving, devoid of virtue, and, in every way corresponds to the figure of Satan in the Bible!

Evidence of the reality of this adversarial principle can be found in ancient philosophy. I refer, in particular, to the writings of the Jewish Middle Platonist, Philo of Alexandria (c. 25 BC–c.50 AD). Philo is most famous for his complex and amazingly astute psychological interpretations of Genesis and Exodus. However in the process of his interpreting Scripture he contributed quite a bit of philosophical and psychological theory as well. In particular, Philo sees human nature as containing two opposed energies — one salvific and salutary, which he calls soteria (so-tay-ree’-ah; the Greek work for salvation), and the other, its antithesis: a destructive force, which he calls phthorá (fthor-ah’; Liddell-Scott; Strong G5356).

Even this much is quite valuable to know. Now we have a name for this opposing principle, our great enemy: phthorá. This is a great advance over not having a name, in which case we must simply experience the effects of this force. With a term, however, we have the ability to form a definite concept, to associate that concept with other concepts, and to think rationally and productively about it.

There would appear to be at least a vague connection between this negative principle and Freud’s concept of death wish, or thanatos. However, for reasons I won’t go into here, I think that phthorá is something more — and more problematic for us — than the Freudian death wish.

As would be expected for something of such vital and fundamental psychological importance, this principle is represented in the world’s mythologies. In Greek mythology, for example, it corresponds to the god Typhon, a many-headed serpent of inconceivable strength and virulence, who is also the god of storms (hence our word, typhoon.)

Each of us is concerned, both each day and moment to moment, with constructing a stable, integrated personality. This corresponds to the state of unity or harmony discussed in my previous article on the monomyth of fall and restoration. Phthorá is that force within us which actively seeks our fall, and, once we’ve fallen, prevents us from rising again to wholeness.

At a phenomenological level, this is experienced as disturbing thoughts which agitate our mind, and distract us from positive, creative, loving and productive cognition. In a very real sense, at least phenomenologically speaking, life is virtually the same as clear and whole awareness of our outer and inner experience. If we look at a meadow and our mind is tranquil, we see the beauty, the details —we are alive to it. The more our mind is agitated, the more our experience comes to approximate semi- and even un-consciousness — and, in that degree, we are only partly alive. In a state of complete mental agitation we could be said to be dead, in the sense that, if we are conscious at all of our surroundings or inner life, the mental impressions are devoid of vitality and vividness (i.e., of life)

I wish to do no more here than to expose this deadly foe by naming him (or her or it). Knowing phthorá exists alone will not stop it. But better to know your foe than to let it wreak havoc unobserved.

I would only add a few additional points:

  1. As already noted, this force is opposed by soterias, the principle of self-actualization, which is stronger. In Christianity, Jesus Christ corresponds to (among having other meanings and levels of reality), or perhaps is, soterias. This means that remedy for phthorá is to be found in the complex system of mythos, religion, psychology and philosophy that surrounds the figure of Jesus Christ.
  1. There is possibly some legitimate reason, biologically and/or psychologically, for the existence of phthorá. Perhaps goodness needs an adversary to stay in trim and so that we can grow in virtue. Nevertheless, in this case a little goes a long way: if we need the devil, keep it chained, well guarded, and hopefully with Jesus Christ standing on its head.
  1. Again, it is very important to recognize how this force operates within us. Otherwise (as Jung pointed out), there is a strong tendency for us to project our own satanic tendencies onto others. Our great enemy, adversary and antagonist is within.   Whatever harm anyone else can do us is negligible in comparison with the ferocity and malice of this opponent.
  1. In keeping with everything said here, it follows that there is a serious danger our identifying with this principle, of becoming it. This, in fact, happens routinely. It occurs, for example, when we become so harshly condemning of others that we literally take the attitude of an avenging angel towards them. To take an example from today’s news, political conservatives may condemn progressives, angrily denouncing them and insisting they are great sinners, etc. But in doing this, in relinquishing the reign of love and goodness in their psyche, they become literally possessed by phthorá. And, of course, the exact same can be said of progressives who condemn, rather than try to engage or reason with conservatives.   But this is only an example; a hundred others could serve equally well as illustrations.