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Thomas Traherne on Extraterrestrial Life

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Photo: Juno orbiter photograph (NASA/JPL/Caltech/Kevin M. Gill)

“Our solar system has more mysteries than the sands of time, and at every turn there are new discoveries to be made. It’s as if God has given us a never-ending puzzle, one that all humanity can endlessly enjoy.” [1]

IN 1610 GALILEO pointed his telescope heavenward and discovered four large moons orbiting Jupiter, changing forever how humanity saw itself. Casual speculations about other worlds, possibly inhabited, had been made since ancient times.  But now here was irrefutable evidence — direct experience of the senses — against the unchallenged premise that Earth is the only world. And as ever more powerful telescopes revealed previously unknown stars, the case for an infinitely large universe — and perhaps an infinite number of other worlds — seemed irresistible.  And would not at least some of these other worlds be inhabited?

These new discoveries supplied considerable fuel for radical atheists of the times. Yet the Anglican priest, poet and writer, Thomas Traherne (c. 1637–1674) — Oxford trained and well-versed in the writings of Francis Bacon, the pre-eminent spokesman of the new scientific method — remained unphased.  As Traherne set out to explain in Chapter 22 his work The Kingdom of God (which was not discovered until 1997):

the Wits of the Age are Atheisticaly disposed and pretend the Moon and Stars to be Inhabited, to the utter overthrow of Religion, as they design it; And many Terse Ingenuities hav of late furthered the opinion, Because the Genius of the Time is hammering at Such a thing … It Shall not be amiss, to shew cleerly that if their Discourses, were true no Detriment can accrue to Religion therby. (Kingdom of God 22, p. 369)

Indeed, in the rapidly emerging new discoveries of science Traherne saw even greater cause to believe in God.

What if the Stars should be all Inhabited, what would follow? May we conclude thence, that there is no GOD? no Religion? No Blessedness? verily it is more Apparent, that there is a God, a Religion, a Blessedness thereby. What if beyond the Heavens there were Infinit Numbers of Worlds at vast unspeakable distances. And all Those worlds full of Glorious Kingdoms? and all those Kingdoms full of the most Noble and Glorious Creatures. And all those Creatures walking in the Light of Eternitie, full of Joy, evry Moment celebrating the Praises of their Creator. And as full of Love towards each other. Would this Abolish Heaven? Verily in my Conceit, it Enricheth it. For it is more answerable to Goodness, Wisdom, and Felicitie; and demonstrates visibly, that there is a GOD. (Ibid., 372)

Traherne’s unshakeable first principle — one derived both from rational speculation and his personal experiences — is that God is infinitely good.  And infinitely good in infinitely many ways.  It is, of course, a traditional Christian doctrine that God is infinite.  But reading Traherne’s works one senses how remarkably profound and compelling he held this principle to be. He grasped and took it to heart more than any Christian writer before or since. (Indeed, his deep appreciation of infinity may have had something to do with the advances in astronomy, science and mathematics in his lifetime.)

For Traherne, God, infinitely Good and wishing with infinite Love to share His Goodness, created human beings with divine intellects and wills.  And these human faculties, being made in God’s image, are themselves infinite in scope, capacity and complexity.  Hence Man’s insatiable yearning for knowledge, beauty, goodness and love.  To meet these needs, and to reveal Himself to Man, God created a universe of infinite wonder and goodness for Man’s investigation and delight.

Running throughout Traherne’s work is St. Anselm of Canterbury’s seminal insight: “God is that beyond which no greater Good can be thought or imagined.”  In simple terms, whatever good things we can imagine Him doing for us, God — in order to be God — must be not only capable of these but vastly more.

From this premise, Traherne advanced three arguments supporting the possibility of life on other worlds. The first is because God, infinitely productive and generous, delights in creating beauty and variety.  Hence we would not expect God to leave the vast reaches of space uninhabited:

all Nature delighting in Life, is evry where productiv of Innumerable Creatures … Nature abhorres Vacuitie and Sterilitie: That the Elementary Qualities would be there in vain, if there were no Inhabitants. The Sun also and the Stars would Shine upon all those vast and Desolat Spaces in Vain, if there were none to see them…. For him that is Omnipresent and Eternal, to confine his Contentments to one litle Spot, and leav all the Rest Empty and Desolate is unworthie of his Majestie, and not very answerable to his Infinit Greatness. Neither is it suitable to his Wisdom, that Worlds of such Infinit Magnificence, Bulk, Number, Distance, and Varietie; should be Created; only for to be, and serv like Sparks of Weak, and Glittering Light, for such a litle Ball, a Point, a Mite as the Earth is, being Capable of so many more uses, if him self pleaseth. (Ibid., 371 f.)

Second, an infinite universe that contains other planets harboring life would be a gift of infinite value to Man.  It would meet our insatiable thirst for knowledge, give cause for ever increasing thanks and praise, and be most consistent with (a central theme of Traherne’s writings) the vast grandeur and infinite capacity of the human soul.

Third, by creating other worlds with intelligent beings, God would make more creatures that witness and delight in Him and His works. Moreover, sentient aliens would have and enjoy their own relationship with God:

He desires Multitudes … to see his Glory, to Enjoy his Lov, to walk in the Paths of Righteousness, and, to prize his Works, to possess his Treasures, to Praise, admire, and see his Blessedness. The Earth is too poor a Cottage, too small a centre, to be the Single and Solitary object of his care and Love. (Ibid., 372)

Remarkably, Traherne even considered that sentient aliens would behold with joy the human soul, made in God’s image and likeness:

The Soul of Man would be Glorified, and Praised, and Magnified, and seen, and Belovd, and Admired, and Delighted in, in evry Part of Heaven, in evry Planet, in evry Star, in evry Kingdom, God doth delight in those that bear his Image, and are Blest with his Similitude. (Ibid.)

If our advanced intelligence isn’t unique in the universe, would not the same apply to our moral and spiritual sensibilities?  Popular depictions of evil aliens notwithstanding, we’d expect that a species intelligent enough to master interstellar travel would have a great interest in knowing who or what made the universe — and them — and why?  We might well suppose that advanced aliens would be even more interested in discussing religion with us than vice versa!

In Traherne’s view then, not only would the existence of other worlds and intelligent species not contradict religion, but we might be disappointed if God hasn’t made them!

[As a footnote, it seems to me Traherne’s view bear some relevance to estimating the probability of advanced alien life.  A legitimate question to ask is, “If there are other intelligent species, why have none not already contacted us?”  The absence of contact so far would seem to reduce the probability estimate of there being a species capable of interstellar flight in our near vicinity of the galaxy.  But what if aliens are as morally advanced as they are technologically?  Why would they intervene in our affairs?  Wouldn’t they rather take greater delight in observing the amazing and intricate process of our development, just as we’d prefer to witness with awe a remarkable work of nature — say, the blossoming of a consummately beautiful flower — than to control or direct it? Yes, they might look with some concern about our negative tendencies. But at the same time they would see, to their joy and amazement, beings with infinitely capacious intellects and souls. Arguments like this would reduce the probability that an intelligent species might choose to initiate contact, and, in turn, increase the probability of there being intelligent alien life.]


  1. New Space Adventures: Mars. Through the Roof Productions. Video documentary, 2019.



Ross, Jan (ed.). The Works of Thomas Traherne: Volume I: Inducements to Retirednes, A Sober View of Dr Twisses his Considerations, Seeds of Eternity or the Nature of the Soul, The Kingdom of God. Cambridge: DS Brewer 2005.

1st draft: 10 Sep 2020

Preface to Traherne

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Art: Thomas Denny, Thomas Traherne windows (Hereford Cathedral, 2007) 

SINCE the rediscovery of Thomas Traherne’s work around the turn of 20th century, there has been wide consensus that he is a significant writer. There has been less agreement, however, on why he is significant — i.e., what his main contributions, especially for present times, consist of.

Somewhat unfortunately, many early commentators focused attention on his poetry, classifying him narrowly as an English metaphysical poet.  However, while his poetry is excellent, it is arguably,not quite as technically sophisticated as that of George Herbert or Henry Vaughan. Traherne’s best work is not his verse, but his Centuries of Meditations, which we might classify as prose-poetry.

Other writers sought to interpret Traherne as a critic of the newly emerging rationalism, especially of Hobbes.  More recently (e.g., Inge, 2009) attention has been drawn to his significance for Christian doctrinal theology.

Somewhat less attention, however, has been paid to simply understanding Traherne’s writings at face value:  as devotional works intended to stimulate and deepen the religious experience of readers. What if we simply allow that Traherne is authentically inspired?   In that case, perhaps we ought to be more interested in how he describes his work and mission than in historical or technical criticism.

Traherne’s two most sublime and famous works — the poems of the Dobell folio (Dobell, 1906) and Centuries of Meditations (Dobell, 1908) have been transmitted in manuscript form only and lack author prefaces.  However Traherne did prepare another work, Christian Ethicks, for publication (it reached print a year after his death) and this is prefaced with a ‘Note to the Reader.’  Here Traherne carefully and concisely explains his purpose.  Christian Ethicks is a systematic work, but it treats the same subjects as his poems and Centuries of Meditations.  Therefore his ‘To the Reader’ gives us insight into his intentions for these other works as well.

To the Reader, copied from the 1675 edition of Christian Ethicks is supplied below. Original spelling is retained.  Page numbers have been added in braces ({}) and paragraphs numbered in brackets ([]).  Some key points are as follows:

In the first paragraph he announces his aim to elevate the soul and inflame the heart.  He is interested in ethics not as a dry academic exercise or as theories developed by force of rational argument.  Rather he seeks to excite the intelligence and arouse the will, enabling people to seek and directly experience the religious and moral truths contained.  Here he follows the tradition of Plato — to achieve moral transformation by an ascent of the mind and heart and by recollection (anamnesis) of already known truths — and not the rationalism of Aristotle or scholasticism.

In [2−3] he contrasts his method with discussions that approach ethics either (1) dogmatically, as ‘things we must do because God so ordains’, or (2) based on practical expedience.  Indeed, a hallmark feature of Traherne’s philosophy is that ethics is what produces our greatest good, which he calls Felicity.  Felicity includes happiness, but is something more.  It also carries the sense of joy, illumination and holiness.  For Traherne, Felicity is the telos of human beings, our ethical summum bonum.  It unites in a single principle our greatest happiness, our duty, expedience, God’s will, love of God and charity to others.

Traherne has sometimes been criticized as being an impractical optimist, with no significant theory of evil.  He addresses this point in paragraph [4], taking the position that virtues are so good, beautiful and attractive in themselves that, if we can see them truly, they will by their own force overcome any attraction to baseness or sin. Hence explicit discussion of vice is a digression and a distraction from topics that matter more.

Traherne is clearly promoting what we would today call virtue ethics. In the subsequent paragraphs he alludes to a number of specific virtues, including the traditional cardinal and theological virtues.  Again in a characteristically Platonic way, he recognizes a fundamental unity amongst virtues.  At the center of them all is Goodness, the source of which is God.

The final paragraph emphasizes two things.  First, the essence of his entire system is to exhort us to God’s praise and glory.  God’s glory, for Traherne, is the essential fact of the universe.  This fact is not only virtually a logical necessity, but something Traherne claims to have experienced himself many times.  Further, we cannot doubt that it is his personal, passionate aim to convey this message to us so that we may achieve the Felicity of which he speaks.  Traherne presents his writings as a charitable outreaching to his readers, seeking to further God’s glory by making us want to further God’s glory, achieving, in the process, our own Felicity.  This kind of self-reinforcing circularity is recurring theme in his writings.

Finally and tellingly, he is careful to emphasize that we must not only understand these high truths intellectually, but “sense” them.


[1] THE design of this Treatise is, not to stroak and tickle the Fancy, but to elevate the Soul, and refine its Apprehensions, to inform the Judgment, and polish it for Conversation, to purifie and enflame the Heart, to enrich the Mind, and guide Men {ii} (that stand in need of help) in the way of Vertue; to excite their Desire, to encourage them to Travel, to comfort them in the Journey, and so at last to lead them to true Felicity, both here and hereafter.

[2] need not treat of Vertues in the ordinary way, as they are Duties enjoyned by the Law of GOD; that the Author of The whole Duty of Man *hath excellently done: nor as they are Prudential Expedients and Means for a mans Peace and Honour on Earth; that is in some measure done by the French Charon {iii} of Wisdom**. My purpose is to satisfie the Curious and Unbelieving Soul, concerning the reality, force, and efficacy of Vertue; and having some advantages from the knowledge I gained in the nature of Felicity (by many years earnest and diligent study) my business is to make as visible, as it is possible for me, the lustre of its Beauty, Dignity, and Glory: By shewing what a necessary Means Vertue is, how sweet, how full of Reason, how desirable in it self, how just and amiable, how delightful, and how powerfully conducive also {iv} to Glory: how naturally Vertue carries us to the Temple of Bliss, and how immeasurably transcendent it is in all kinds of Excellency.

[3] And (if I may speak freely) my Office is, to carry and enhance Vertue to its utmost height, to open the Beauty of all the Prospect, and to make the Glory of GOD appear, in the Blessedness of Man, by setting forth its infinite Excellency: Taking out of the Treasuries of Humanity those Arguments that will discover the great perfection of the End of Man, which he may atchieve {v} by the capacity of his Nature: As also by opening the Nature of Vertue it self, thereby to display the marvellous Beauty of Religion, and light the Soul to the sight of its Perfection.

[4] I do not speak much of Vice, which is far the more easie Theme, because I am intirely taken up with the abundance of Worth and Beauty in Vertue, and have so much to say of the positive and intrinsick Goodness of its Nature. But besides, since a strait Line is the measure both of it self, and of a crooked one, I conclude, That the very Glory of {vi} Vertue well understood, will make all Vice appear like dirt before Jewel, when they are compared together. Nay, Vice as soon as it is named in the presence of these Vertues, will look like Poyson and a Contagion, or if you will, as black as Malice and Ingratitude: so that there will need no other Exposition of its Nature, to dehort Men from the love of it, than the Illustration of its Contrary.

[5] Vertues are listed in the rank of Invisible things; of which kind, some are so blind as to deny there are any existent {vii} in Nature: But yet it may, and will be made easily apparent, that all the Peace and Beauty in the World proceedeth from them, all Honour and Security is founded in them, all Glory and Esteem is acquired by them. For the Prosperity of all Kingdoms is laid in the Goodness of GOD and of Men. Were there nothing in the World but the Works of Amity, which proceed from the highest Vertue, they alone would testifie of its Excellency. For there can be no Safety where there is any Treachery: But were all {viii} Truth and Courtesie exercis’d with Fidelity and Love, there could be no Injustice or Complaint in the World; no Strife, nor Violence: but all Bounty, Joy and Complacency. Were there no Blindness, every Soul would be full of Light, and the face of Felicity be seen, and the Earth be turned into Heaven.

[6] The things we treat of are great and mighty; they touch the Essence of every Soul, and are of infinite Concernment, because the Felicity is eternal that is acquired by them: I do not mean Immortal only but worthy to be Eternal: and it is {ix} impossible to be happy without them. We treat of Mans great and soveraign End, of the Nature of Blessedness, of the Means to attain it: Of Knowledge and Love, of Wisdom and Goodness, of Righteousness and Holiness, of Justice and Mercy, of Prudence and Courage, of Temperance and Patience, of Meekness and Humility, of Contentment, of Magnanimity and Modesty, of Liberality and Magnificence, of the waies by which Love is begotten in the Soul, of Gratitude, of Faith, Hope, and Charity, of Repentance, Devotion, {x} Fidelity, and Godliness. In all which we shew what sublime and mysterious Creatures they are, which depend upon the Operations of Mans Soul; their great extent, their use and value, their Original and their End, their Objects and their Times: What Vertues belong to the Estate of Innocency, what to the Estate of Misery and Grace, and what to the Estate of Glory. Which are the food of the Soul, and the works of Nature; which were occasioned by Sin, as Medicines and Expedients only: which are {xi} Essential to Felicity, and which Accidental; which Temporal, and which Eternal: with the true Reason of their Imposition; why they all are commanded, and how wise and gracious GOD is in enjoyning them. By which means all Atheism is put to flight, and all Infidelity: The Soul is reconciled to the Lawgiver of the World, and taught to delight in his Commandements: All Enmity and Discontentment must vanish as Clouds and Darkness before the Sun, when the Beauty of Vertue appeareth in its {xii} brightness and glory. It is impossible that the splendour of its Nature should be seen, but all Religion and Felicity will be manifest.

[7] Perhaps you will meet some New Notions: but yet when they are examined, he hopes it will appear to the Reader, that it was the actual knowledge of true Felicity that taught him to speak of Vertue; and moreover, that there is not the least tittle pertaining to the Catholick Faith contradicted or altered in his Papers. For he firmly retains all that was established in the {xiii} Ancient Councels, nay and sees Cause to do so, even in the highest and most transcendent Mysteries: only he enriches all, by farther opening the grandeur and glory of Religion, with the interiour depths and Beauties of Faith. Yet indeed it is not he, but GOD that hath enriched the Nature of it: he only brings the Wealth of Vertue to light, which the infinite Wisdom, and Goodness, and Power of GOD have seated there. Which though Learned Men know perhaps far better than he, yet he humbly craves pardon for casting in {xiv} his Mite to the vulgar Exchequer. He hath nothing more to say, but that the Glory of GOD, and the sublime Perfection of Humane Nature are united in Vertue. By Vertue the Creation is made useful, and the Universe delightful. All the Works of GOD are crowned with their End, by the Glory of Vertue. For whatsoever is good and profitable for Men is made Sacred; because it is delightful and well-pleasing to GOD: Who being LOVE by Nature, delighteth in his Creatures welfare.{xv}

[8] There are two sorts of concurrent Actions necessary to Bliss. Actions in GOD, and Actions in Men; nay and Actions too in all the Creatures. The Sun must warm, but it must not burn; the Earth must bring forth, but not swallow up; the Air must cool without starving, and the Sea moisten without drowning: Meats must feed but not poyson: Rain must fall, but not oppress: Thus in the inferiour Creatures you see Actions are of several kinds. But these may be reduced to the Actions of GOD, from whom they {xvi} spring; for he prepares all these Creatures for us. And it is necessary to the felicity of his Sons, that he should make all things healing and amiable, not odious and destructive: that he should Love, and not Hate: And the Actions of Men must concur aright with these of GOD, and his Creatures. They must not despise Blessings because they are given, but esteem them; not trample them under feet, because they have the benefit of them, but magnifie and extol them: They too must Love, and not Hate: They must not kill and murther, {xvii} but serve and pleasure one another: they must not scorn great and inestimable Gifts, because they are common, for so the Angels would lose all the happiness of Heaven. If GOD should do the most great and glorious things that infinite Wisdom could devise; if Men will resolve to be blind, and perverse, and sensless, all will be in vain: the most High and Sacred things will increase their Misery. This may give you some little glimpse of the excellency of Vertue.{xviii}

[9] You may easily discern that my Design is to reconcile Men to GOD, and make them fit to delight in him: and that my last End is to celebrate his Praises, in communion with the Angels. Wherein I beg the Concurrence of the Reader, for we can never praise him enough; nor be fit enough to praise him: No other man (at least) can make us so, without our own willingness, and endeavour to do it. Above all, pray to be sensible of the Excellency of the Creation for upon the due sense of its Excellency the life of {xix} Felicity wholly dependeth. Pray to be sensible of the Excellency of Divine Laws, and of all the Goodness which your Soul comprehendeth. Covet a lively sense of all you know, of the Excellency of GOD, and of Eternal Love; of your own Excellency, and of the worth and value of all Objects whatsoever. For to feel is as necessary, as to see their Glory.

* Anonymous, The Whole Duty of Man. London: Henry Hammond, 1658.  A popular 17th century Anglican devotional work.

** Pierre Charron, De la sagesse (translated into English as Of Wisdome, 1612).  Charron, a disciple of Montaigne, defended virtue on the basis of practical expedience.


Balakier, James, J. Thomas Traherne and the Felicities of the Mind. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2010.

Dobell, Bertram (ed.). The Poetical Works of Thomas Traherne. London, 1903; 2nd ed. 1906.

Dobell, Bertram (ed.). Thomas Traherne: Centuries of Meditations. London, 1908.

Hunter, Stuart Charles. Prophet of Felicity: A Study of the Intellectual Background of Thomas Traherne. Diss. McMaster University, 1965.

Inge, Denise. Wanting Like a God: Desire and Freedom in Thomas Traherne. London: SCM Press, 2009.

Margoliouth, H. M. (ed.). Centuries, Poems, and Thanksgivings. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958.

Marks, Carol L. Thomas Traherne and Hermes Trismegistus. Renaissance News, vol. 19, no. 2, 1966, 118–131.

Martz, Louis. The Paradise Within: Studies in Vaughan, Traherne, and Milton. New Haven and London, 1964.

Traherne, Thomas. Christian ethicks, or, Divine morality opening the way to blessedness, by the rules of vertue and reason. London, Jonathan Edwin, 1675. [Orig. edition]

1st draft: 1 Sep 2020

St. Anselm: A rousing of the mind to the contemplation of God

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Photo: source unknown

ST ANSELM OF CANTERBURY is for many best known as the originator of the ontological argument for God’s existence, and on that basis is sometimes dismissed as sort of a precursor to scholasticism.  But this is quite unfair to the legacy of the venerable archbishop, who shines as an example of inspired integration of Faith and Reason.  The ontological ‘argument’ is found in Chapters 2 and 3 of Anselm’s Prosologion.  However Chapter 1 (below) reveals Anselm’s true intentions:  not to supply a logical proof, but rather to draw up the mind into a mystical contemplation of God’s being and nature.  Anselm, like Augustine and Plato before him, is a rational mystic.  He demonstrates for us the religious mental power of inspired dialectic, a form of meditation.  Dialectic is an exercise which seeks to focus the mind, opening the ‘eye of the intellect’ for divine contemplation (theoria), and not a dry excursion into rationalism.

In reading this chapter it struck me that it worked better as poetry than prose, and I’ve so parsed it here. (It turns out that in her translation Benedicta Ward had the same notion, based partly on punctuation in old manuscripts.)  The strong influence of St. Augustine (e.g., his Confessions and Soliloquies) may be seen.

COME now, thou poor child of man,
turn awhile from thy business,
hide thyself for a little time from restless thoughts,
cast away thy troublesome cares,
put aside thy wearisome distractions.

Give thyself a little leisure to converse with God,
and take thy rest awhile in Him.
Enter into the secret chamber of thy heart:
leave everything without but God
and what may help thee to seek after Him,
and when thou hast shut the door,
then do thou seek Him.
Say now, O my whole heart, say now to God,
I seek Thy face; Thy face, Lord, do I seek.


COME now then, O Lord my God,
teach Thou my heart when and how I may seek Thee,
where and how I may find Thee?

O Lord, if Thou art not here, where else shall I seek Thee?
but if Thou art everywhere, why do I not behold Thee,
since Thou art here present?

Surely indeed Thou dwellest in the light which no man can approach unto.
But where is that light unapproachable?
or how may I approach unto it since it is unapproachable?
or who shall lead me and bring me into it
that I may see Thee therein?

Again, by what tokens shall I know Thee,
in what form shall I look for Thee?
I have never seen Thee, O Lord my God; I know not Thy form.
What shall I do then, O Lord most high,
what shall I do, banished as I am so far from Thee?
What shall Thy servant do that is sick for love of Thee,
and yet is cast away from Thy presence?
He panteth to behold Thee, and yet Thy presence is very far from him.
He longeth to approach unto Thee, and yet Thy dwelling-place is unapproachable.
He desireth to find Thee, yet he knoweth not Thy habitation.
He would fain seek Thee, yet he knoweth not Thy face.

O Lord, Thou art my God, Thou art my Lord; and I have never beheld Thee.
Thou hast created me and created me anew,
and all good things that I have, hast Thou bestowed upon me,
and yet I have never known Thee.
Nay, I was created to behold Thee, and yet have I never unto this day
done that for the sake whereof I was created.


O MISERABLE lot of man, to have lost that whereunto he was created!
O hard and terrible condition!
Alas, what hath he lost? what hath he found?
what hath departed from him? what hath continued with him?
He hath lost the blessedness whereunto he was created,
and he hath found the misery whereunto he was not created;
that without which nothing is happy, hath departed from him,
and that hath continued with him which by itself cannot but be miserable.

Once man did eat angels’ food, after which he now hungereth;
now he eateth the bread of affliction, which then he knew not.
Alas for the common woe of man, the universal sorrow of the children of Adam!
Our first father was filled with abundance, we sigh with hunger;
he was rich, we are beggars.
He miserably threw away that in the possession whereof he was happy, and in the lack whereof we are miserable;
after which we lamentably long and alas! abide unsatisfied.
Why did he not keep for us, when he might easily have kept it, that the loss whereof so grievously afflicts us?
Wherefore did he so overcloud our day, and plunge us into darkness?
Why did he take from us our life, and bring upon us the pains of death?
Wretches that we are, whence have we been driven out and whither?
From our native country into banishment,
from the vision of God into blindness,
from the joy of immortality into the bitterness and horror of death.
How sad the change from so great good to so great evil!
Grievous is the loss, grievous the pain, grievous every thing.


BUT alas for me, one of the miserable children of Eve, cast far away from God!
What did I begin? and what have I accomplished?
At what did I aim? and unto what have I attained?
To what did I aspire? and where am I now sighing?
I sought good, and behold, trouble.
I aimed at God, and have stumbled upon myself.
I sought rest in my secret chamber, and I have found tribulation and grief in the inmost parts.
I desired to laugh for gladness of spirit and am constrained to roar for the disquietness of my heart.
I hoped for joy and behold increase of sorrow.


HOW long, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord, wilt Thou forget us,
how long wilt Thou hide Thy face from us?
When wilt Thou turn and hearken unto us?
When wilt thou enlighten our eyes and show us Thy face?
When wilt Thou restore Thy presence to us?

Turn and took upon us, O Lord:
hearken unto us, enlighten us, show us Thyself.
Restore to us Thy presence that it may be well with us;
for without Thee it goeth very ill with us.
Have pity upon our labours and strivings after Thee, for without Thee we can do nothing.
Thou callest us; help us to obey the call.
I beseech Thee, O Lord, that 1 may not despair in my sighing,
but may draw full breath again in hope.
My heart is embittered by its desolation;
with Thy consolation, I beseech Thee, O Lord, make it sweet again.
I beseech Thee, O Lord, for in my hunger I have begun to seek Thee,
suffer me not to depart from Thee fasting.
I have come to Thee fainting for lack of food;
let me not go empty away.
I have come to Thee, as the poor man to the rich, as the miserable to the merciful,
let me not return unsatisfied and despised:
and if before I be fed, I sigh,
grant me that, though after I have sighed, I may be fed.

O Lord, I am bent downwards, I cannot look up:
raise me up, that I may lift mine eyes to heaven.
My iniquities are gone over my head, they overwhelm me;
they are like a sore burden too heavy for me to bear.
Deliver me, take away my burden,
lest the pit of my wickedness shut its mouth upon me:
grant unto me that I may look upon Thy light,
though from afar off, though out of the deep.

Let me seek Thee in desiring Thee;
let me desire Thee in seeking Thee;
let me find Thee in loving Thee;
let me love Thee in finding Thee.

I confess to Thee, O Lord, and I give thanks unto Thee,
because Thou hast created in me this Thine image,
that I may remember Thee, think upon Thee, love Thee:
but so darkened is Thine image in me by the smoke of my sins
that it cannot do that whereunto it was created,
unless Thou renew it and create it again.
I seek not, O Lord, to search out Thy depth,
but I desire in some measure to understand Thy truth,
which my heart believeth and loveth.
Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe,
but I believe that I may understand.
For this too I believe, that unless I first believe, I shall not understand.

Source: St. Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogin 1 (tr. Webb, pp. 5−11; slightly edited)


St. Anselm, Opera Omnia. Patrologia Latina 158, 223–248 (ch. 1: 225−228). Paris: Migne, 1854. [Online Latin text]

Barth, Karl. Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum. Trans. Ian Robertson. John Knox Press, 1960.

Davies, Brian; Evans, G. R. Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Sansom, Dennis. The virtue of contemplation and St. Anselm’s Proslogion II and III. Saint Anselm Journal 9.2, 2014.

Schmitt, Franciscus Salesius. S. Anselmi Cantuariensis Archiepiscopi Opera Omnia. Friedrich Fromann Verlag, 1968.

Southern, R.W. Saint Anselm: A Portrait In Landscape. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Stolz, Anselm. Anselm’s Theology in the Proslogion. In: John Hick & Arthur C. McGill (eds.), The Many Faced Argument, New York: Macmillan, 1967 (repr. Wipf and Stock, 2009); pp. 183−206.

Ward, Benedicta (tr.). The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm. Penguin, 1973.

Webb, Clement Charles Julian (tr.). The Devotions of Saint Anselm. Methuen, 1903.

Williams, Thomas. Anselm: Basic Writings. Hackett, 2007.

1st draft: 4 May 2020

Martianus Capella, The Apotheosis of Philologia

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Sandro Botticelli, Venus and the Three Graces Presenting Gifts to a Young Woman, 1483–1486.

BOOK II of Martianus Capella’s On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury (De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii) continues the mythical introduction to the work (the previous post discusses Book I).  Before she can marry Mercury, Philologia (love of study) must ascend to heaven.  In preparation for this she is greeted and praised by a succession of goddesses and other divinities, including Phronesis (her mother), the Seven Muses, Philosophy, the Graces, the Virtues, Immortality, and Astrae. The speeches of the Muses, especially noteworthy, are presented below.

Modern writers criticize Martianus for what they call his ‘turgid prose’ and elaborate descriptions.  But this is seeing him through the lens of narrow rationalism.  May we instead adopt a post-rationalist worldview, and accept that he is either (1) using art intentionally to convey a fuller message, or (2) that he just might be inspired, whether by some divine power, the collective unconscious, or both?  May we in the 21st century regain an appreciation for the prophetic sense?

In Book III Martianus himself addresses his critics:

[221] Once again in this little book the Muse prepares her ornaments and wants to tell fabricated stories at first, remembering that utility cannot clothe the naked truth; she regards it as a weakness of the poet to make straightforward and undisguised statements, and she brings a light touch to literary style and adds beauty to a page that is already heavily colored. (Stahl et al, p. 64).

Criticisms notwithstanding, the purpose of the myth in the first two books seems as explicitly religious as it is momentous: Martianus is suggesting that Philologia — this quality of love of study, of scholarship, of yearning to understand the meanings of things — is something divine.  And it seems likely he considers this a means of gradual ascent of the mind (nous) in a manner consistent with Platonism and Neoplatonism.

Small wonder, then, that this work exerted such a profound influence on education and consciousness in the West for 1000 years after he wrote, from the fall of  the Roman Empire to the Renaissance.  His message should be heard again today.  The purpose of Liberal Arts education is neither utilitarian, nor merely to make a ‘good and productive citizen.’  It is part of the far more significant process of divinization, of ‘assimilation to God insofar as possible.’

Two details concerning the following should be noted.  First, the Seven Muses are not the same as the Seven Liberal Arts, which are treated in the remaining seven books.  Second, Martianus deviates somewhat from how other writers interpret each Muse.  The English translation of Stahl et al. has been lightly edited.

[117] BEFORE the door, sweet music with manifold charms was raised, the chorus of assembled Muses singing in well-trained harmony to honor the marriage ceremony. Flutes, lyres, the grand swell of the water organ blended in tuneful song and with a melodious ending as they became silent for an appropriate interval of unaccompanied singing by the Muses. Then the entire chorus with melodious voices and sweet harmony outstripped the beauty of all the instrumental music, and the following words were poured forth in notes of sacred song:

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[118] Then, while the others kept quiet a moment, URANIA (Muse of astronomy) began:

“With trust in the divine will and without disputing,
Behold the assemblies of the stars,
And the sacred vaults of the heavens;
You formerly studied what cause whirled the interdependent spheres,
Now as their leader you shall assign causes to their sweeping motions.
You shall perceive what is the fabric that connects their circuits,
What bond encompasses them,
And what huge spheres are enclosed within a curving orbit;
You will see what drives on and what delays courses of the planets,
Which rays of the sun inflame the moon or diminish its light,
What substance kindles the stars in heaven,
And how great are the bodies which heaven spins around,
What is the providence of the gods, and what its mode of operation.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[119] Then sang CALLIOPE (Muse of epic poetry):

“Always a friend to the favoring Muses,
For you Magnesian rivers and the fountain of Pegasus have poured your drink,
For you the Aonid peak [Mount Helicon], green with garlands, puts forth its leaves, while Cirrha prepares violets;
You know how to chant prophecies to the sweet Muses,
And to play the lyre of Pindar,
And at your word the strings and the sacred plectrum,
Know how to pour forth the Thracian song.
Light of our lives, praise always our sacred songs,
And approve the music that we play.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks uou to rise to the lofty stars.”

[120] Thus sang POLYMNIA (Muse of rhythm and poetic meter):

“You have been exalted and, though recently of mortal blood,
Are now endowed with godhead;
At last you reap the rewards of your efforts:
The shining sky, the abodes of the gods, and the companionship of Jove.
You are used to combining and dispersing a variety of sounds,
According to the rules of rhythm,
To assessing then which syllable, marked with the macron,
Is pronounced with circumflexion,
Which with the mark of brevity the micron curves;
To assessing melodies and tones and tunes and all such knowledge,
And all that can, when the mind is urged to it,
Gain the heights of heaven.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[121] Thus sang MELPOMEME (Muse of sacred theater):

“You are accustomed to sing tragic songs for the theater,
Or wear the boot of comedy and echo the songs,
Which under your care we offered when sweet music aided us;
Now to you, maiden, our champion and our expositor,
Made immortal by the theme of your song, to you I sing.
For I am happy to adorn your bridal chamber,
And may my garlands be acceptable in your service.
May you ever seem worthy of an Olympian wedding,
Ever fairer than the other gods.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupitet asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[122] Thus sang CLIO (Muse of history and rhetoric):

“You sound forth in the guise of the rhetorician,
And set free by your passion the man accused.
You link together contrary sentiments,
Building up sophisms by heaping together arguments,
Now binding something together by the rule of grammar,
Clever at using your gift of fine speech,
To play with words that by their double meaning destroy the ordinary sense;
Now gaze upon the starry threshold of the sky,
And enjoy the holy whiteness of heaven,
For it is precious to see that in its true light.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[123] Next spoke ERATO (Muse of lyric and love poetry):

“O famous maiden, to whom the palace of the Thunderer is open,
Source of the arts, rightly is the world subject to you,
Since it was from the beginning apprehended by your rational principles.
Why the sacred lightning flashes,
Whence the echoing thunder sounds,
What drives the moisture through the opening of the sky when the storm clouds gather,
What is brought back by the clearness of spring when the rain clouds march away,
Why the circle of the year spins round to end all the hurrying centuries
—we avow that secrets unknown to others are known to you alone.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[124] Then sang TERPSICHORE (Muse of dance and chorus):

“I am delighted, dear maiden, that through this honor you gain a sight of the stars!
Your industry and the genius of your nature have won this for you.
That wakeful concentration of yours bestowed this honor on your lucubrations.
Having toiled day and night on the sacred writings,
And knowing the future and being ready to learn,
You have understood what the Stoics offer in their sacrifices when the flame puffs from the kindling.
For without misgivings, with unhesitating utterance,
You anticipate what the smoke tells on the flaming altars of the Sabaeans,
What message is brought by air thick with the ash of incense,
Or what the sure signs foretell by prophetic voices.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[125] Then EUTERPE (Muse of flute music) began:

“O maiden, our guide to skillful prophecy,
Who could ascend to heaven and bring down to pure souls,
The sacred teachings by which they were able to know themselves,
And by which they discerned
And saw with a clear light the decrees of fate and the countenances of the spirits,
And who allotted stars to be the minds of Plato and Pythagoras,
And who has ordered ephemeral creatures,
To behold the decree of heaven with all obscurity removed:
Rightly ascend to the senate of the Thunderer,
You who alone are fit to be married to Mercury.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[126] Then THALIA (Muse of comedy and pastoral poetry) spoke:

“O blessed maiden, who take up the marriage bond,
Amid such a singing of the stars,
And with such approval from the universe,
Become a daughter-in-law of the Thunderer.
Of which god are you to become the wife?
He alone on wandering wing, alert for sudden storms,
Flies out beyond the stars of the universe,
And when he has crossed the straits on high, returns to Tartarus.
He alone is able to wield his famous staff before the chariot and white horses of the high father;
He alone gladly restores the fortunes of Osiris as he falls,
Whom the father of the gods knows to be weighed down by the life-giving seed he has discovered;
To Mercury his stepmother gladly gave her milky breast;
His powerful caduceus counteracts dread poison;
And when he speaks, all venom is dissolved.
He is learned among the gods; but this girl is still more learned.
Now, now the arts are blessed, which you two so sanctify,
That they allow men to rise to heaven and open to them the stars,
And allow holy prayers to fly up to the clear sky.
Through you the mind’s intelligence, alert and noble, fills the uttermost depth,
Through you proven eloquence brings everlasting glory.
You bless all subjects, and you bless us, the Muses.”


Cristante, Lucio; Lenaz, Luciano. Martiani Capellae: De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. Vol. 1, Libri I – II. Bibliotheca Weidmanniana, 15.1. Hildesheim: Weidmann, 2011.

Stahl, William Harris; Johnson, Richard; Burge, E. L. The Marriage of Philology and Mercury. Columbia University Press, 1977.

Willis, James (ed.). Martianus Capella: De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii libri IX. Leipzig: Teubner, 1983. (Critical edition of Latin text.)

1st draft, 1 Apr 2020

Martianus Capella’s Fable of the Marriage of Philologia and Mercury

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Sandro Botticelli, A Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts (detail), 1483–1486.


MARTIANUS CAPELLA, an early 5th century North African writer, is most famous for a work titled, On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury (De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii).  Virtually ignored today, this work had vast influence on education for next 1000 years and shaped the curriculum of the Middle Ages. The first two books, an introduction, present an allegorical fable involving the marriage of Mercury and Philology (love of study.).  Subsequent chapters discuss, one by one, the seven traditional liberal arts (Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Geometry, Arithmetic, Astronomy and Music), supplying a compendium of existing knowledge on each.

Even less modern attention has been given to the introductory fable than to the work as a whole.  However the former merits our attention as an imaginative and creative attempt to explain the purpose of liberal education by means of a psychological allegory.  As a work of art and an expression of the collective unconscious, the fable is not dated. Indeed, the daring style — precisely because it’s so unconventional by modern standards — deserves our attention that much more.The allegory has two parts, called the Betrothal and the Marriage. Part 1 — psychologically more interesting — is supplied below.  This is taken (in abridged and edited form) from the English translation of Stahl, Johnson and Burge.  Except for Mercury, names of the gods are changed from their Latin to Greek forms.

Readers may notice similarities to the story of Cupid and Psyche, from the Metamorphosis (Golden Ass) of Apuleius.  That is not merely coincidental, as Martianus consciously emulated his illustrious predecessor Apuleius, a fellow native of Madaura (in what is now Algeria).Philology, as already noted, means the love of study, and Mercury — known both for his role as communicator and mediator, as well as for his quickness — is a familiar symbol for the intelligence.

Rather than over-analyze the charming story, I’ll trust the author’s creative instincts and let art itself appeal to readers’ imaginations to suggest psychological meanings. Overall, the story might be understood as suggesting that education in the Seven Liberal Arts is more than merely expedient; it also serves to elevate and harmonize the mind. In that sense it (just as Plato suggests in the Republic), supports ones moral and spiritual development. Indeed, insofar as it helps realize Man’s greatest potentials, it serves the entire Universe and contributes to cosmic harmony.

[5] MERCURY was moved and excited by the reciprocity of love among the gods; at the same time he saw what was clear to many people—love and marriages are universally celebrated. So he too decided to get married. His mother had encouraged him in this inclination when, on his yearly journey through the zodiac, he greeted her in the company of the Pleiades.

[6] Because of the importance of the venture, he pondered a great deal on whom he ought to marry. He himself ardently desired Wisdom, because she was prudent and holy, and purer and fairer than the other maidens. However Wisdom was like a foster sister of Athena and seemed inseparably devoted to her, as though having espoused virginity; he accordingly decided not to marry Wisdom, as this would offend Athena, his own sister.

In the same way, the splendid beauty of Prophecy inflamed his desires. She was nobly born, being the elder daughter of Forethought, and her farsighted and penetrating wisdom commended her to him. But at that very time, as it happened, she went of her own accord to young Apollo and, unable to endure her inordinate passion, she became his lover.

[7] He wanted then to ask for Psyche, the daughter of Endelechia [World Soul] and Sol, because she was extremely beautiful and the gods had taken great care over her education. On the day of her birth the gods, being invited to a celebration, had brought her many gifts. Jupiter, in fact, had placed on her head a diadem which he had taken from his favored daughter Eternity; Juno had added a band for her hair, made from a gleaming vein of pure gold. Athena loosed from her tunic the flame-red veil and breastband and, herself a virgin holy and wise, draped the virgin in the very mantle from her own bosom. Apollo also, carrying his laurel branch, showed her with that wand of foresight and prophecy the birds, the bolts of lightning, the motions of heaven itself and the stars. Urania with gentle kindness gave her a gleaming mirror which Wisdom had hung in Urania’s rooms amongst her gifts—a mirror in which Psyche could recognize herself and learn her origins. Hephaestus kindled for her ever-burning flamelets; she would not then be oppressed by gloomy shadows and blind night. Aphrodite had given to all her senses every kind of pleasure. Mercury himself had given her a vehicle with swift wheels in which she could travel at an astonishing speed, although Memory bound it and weighed it down with golden chains. So now Mercury, his earlier hopes frustrated, sought in marriage Psyche, wealthy as she was in the gifts of heaven and richly adorned by the gods. But Virtue, almost in tears and clinging fast to him, confessed that Psyche had been snatched from her company into the hand of Cupid the flying archer, and was being held captive by him in shackles of adamant. (See ‘Cupid and Psyche’ by Apuleius):

[8] So the happiness of the destiny he had planned eluded Mercury, because of the marriages of these maidens; and there did not readily seem to be anyone else who might fittingly be chosen as Zeus the Thunderer’s daughter-in-law. Virtue therefore suggested that he give the matter further thought; he ought not decide anything without the advice of Apollo; he was not meant to wander far from his company, since, as Mercury traveled through the signs of the zodiac, Apollo never permitted him to be further than one month’s journey away from himself. And so it was decided that Mercury go to his brother, Apollo, wherever he might be.

[9] Then, as usual, he gave his caduceus to Virtue, so that she could penetrate the secret parts of the world with him, and with equal swiftness could break into the more remote quarters of heaven. He himself bound on his feet his golden sandals and they made a thorough search for Apollo. They looked for him in temples where oracles poured forth in evasive ambiguity and where, by the slaughter of animals and the separation of their entrails, the viscera declared foreordained events; and in places where it was the custom for a lottery to be drawn and for prophecies to be told.

[10] But in these leading shrines and these deserted caves they found nothing of Apollo except only a few leaves of withered laurel and half-torn fillets outside the cave of the sybil of Cumae. Even through the paths of air where Apollo usually guided the varied flights of birds and the cries they uttered, and formed omens in their fleeting wings, they looked for him without success. Indeed Apollo, patron of the Pythia, distressed by contact with those who sought his advice, had long ago given up his reputation as a prophet. They pursued him to Helicon, Delos, Lycia. In one place they found old laurel and withered ivy, in another a rotting tripod, sandals stiff with mildew, and an account of prophecies lying between them.

[11] At length they learned by rumor that the rock of Parnassus rejoiced in the presence of Phoebus, although from there too it was said that he had later moved to an Indian mountain’s secret crag, shrouded in perpetual clouds. Yet Mercury and Virtue visited the Delphic temple (by way of Cirrha on the Gulf of Corinth) and the sacred cave’s prophetic hollows. In it there stood about all the impending vicissitudes of the ages, in their order: the fortunes of cities and nations, of all their kings, and of the entire human race.

[20] When Pythian Apollo saw them approach from afar, conversing thus, and realized from the first glance the reason for their coming, he rose from the throne on which he was sitting and bade the Muses meet them. Although they seemed to hasten in service to Mercury, they moved with measured pace. When his brother had been brought to sit with him and join him in his work, Apollo first began:

[21] “When their minds tremble with apprehension in perilous times, or their destiny is unknown and unsettled with the future insecure, let the race of men consult the gods, because anxiety without knowledge of the truth makes them hesitant, uncertain prospects weary them; but to us foreknowledge is permitted, for us there is no hesitation. What the gods decide is law; heaven’s decisions cause us no wistfulness, for necessity is whatever is pleasing to us. But because you have not yet settled upon a choice, you want to have my advice. You thus associate me with all your desires, and you make up your mind with my advice.

[22] “There is a maiden of ancient lineage, highly educated and well acquainted with Parnassus; upon her the constellations shine in close proximity; no hidden region can conceal from her the movements of the stars through Tartarus, nor can thunderbolts hide from her the will of Zeus: she beholds under the sea the nature of wave-born Nereus. She knows your circuits through the several kingdoms of your brothers: ever watchful, with unsparing toil she penetrates the secrets of knowledge, so that with her patient learning she can anticipate all that it is given to gods to foreknow. Indeed, very often she has rights over us, impelling gods under compulsion to obey her decrees; she knows that what no power of heaven can attempt against Jove’s will, she can attain. Sublimity may cost dear: and the crowning consideration is that either of you is a fitting match for the other.”

[23] Virtue was delighted at these words of Apollo, recognizing that he proposed for marriage a paragon of a maiden; nevertheless, to be sure that there was no detraction from the dignity of the prospective brides mentioned earlier, she asked this one’s name. When she learned that it was Philologae whose espousal Apollo was urging, she was seized with such joy and enthusiasm that she behaved with less severity of deportment than was her wont. She called to mind that Philologae was her own kinswoman, a patroness of Prophecy, who had been so well commended, and most generous to Wisdom in giving her valuable ornaments. In addition, said Virtue, Psyche, who at first lived a primitive sort of existence, has been so refined by Philologae that whatever beauty and embellishment Psyche had she acquired from the polish Philologae gave her; for the maiden had shown Psyche so much affection that she strove constantly to make her immortal. Therefore they must not delay— and indeed she knew that the Cyllenian was swift in action. Having heard the words of Apollo, Mercury replied:

[24] “Lord of the laurel, splendor of the gods, certain it is that our concord comes from our kinship, and that you, my fellow-god, bring to pass whatever you and I together find to approve. I am never more ready to give up my own will, more happy to obey orders than when your caution and judgment prompt me to obey the Delian oracle. “I think it is sacrilege to regard the Delian utterances as ambiguous, and I forgo my own decision, whatever it was. It is therefore all the more appropriate that the I gladly obey these celebrated pronouncements when he is ordered to enter into matrimony. Try then, Delian Apollo, to ensure that Zeus should give the same decision, that he should give willing approval; for you are used to moving his will, you are alert to influence his predispositions; get him to approve your commands; I pray that his holy will has shone upon what has begun.”

Book I continues, informing us that Zeus not only confirms the choice of Philologae as Mercury’s bride, but is overjoyed at the prospect. He duly commands all the Olympian gods to commence festivities and prepare gifts. Book II continues with an elaborate description of the marriage ceremony. Accompanying the bride are her handmaids, the seven Liberal Arts, to which the remaining books are devoted.


Apuleius. Cupid and Psyche. William Addington (tr.); John Uebersax (ed.). 2018.

Cristante, Lucio; Lenaz, Luciano. Martiani Capellae: De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. Vol. 1, Libri I – II. Bibliotheca Weidmanniana, 15.1. Hildesheim: Weidmann, 2011.

Gersh, Stephen. Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism: The Latin Tradition. Vol. 2. University of Notre Dame Press, 1986. (Ch. 8. Martianus Capella, pp. 597−646.)

Stahl, William Harris; Johnson, Richard; Burge, E. L. The Marriage of Philology and Mercury. Columbia University Press, 1977.

Willis, James (ed.). Martianus Capella: De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii libri IX. Leipzig: Teubner, 1983. (Critical edition of Latin text.)

1st draft, 24 Mar 2020

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

St. Augustine and Intellectual Vision

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Gerard Seghers (attr). The Four Doctors of the Western Church, Saint Augustine of Hippo

ST. AUGUSTINE, in several works, but most famously in Book 12 of On the Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Gen ad lit), developed a typology of ‘vision’ that became very influential throughout the Middle Ages, and which still merits our interest today. His main concern is not vision per se, but rather to use vision as a metaphor for knowing or cognition, and especially mental insight and knowledge of divine things.  His basic scheme is a tripartite division:

Corporeal vision.  The lowest form of vision is ordinary seeing by means of the eye, or bodily vision (visio corporalis). By this vision we see objects in the material world.

Spiritual vision. Above this is the mental vision by which we see images in the mind, either as memories of past sense experience, or products of the imagination. This he calls spiritual vision (visio spiritualis) — but this term requires an explanation. This vision is not spiritual in the sense that we understand that word today.  Rather, the connection with ‘spirit’ derives from ancient theories of perception, wherein it was believed that sense experience involved stimulation of a semi-material fluid (pneuma) that permeated the body.  Therefore a more apt term might be imaginative vision.

Intellectual vision. This all leads up to what really interests Augustine: the highest level of vision, which he calls intellectual vision (visio intellectualis). Unlike the other two forms of vision, intellectual vision sees things that have no connection with physical objects or their images.  It includes what a Platonist or Neoplatonist might call the ‘intellection of Forms’ (noesis): for example, by intellectual vision we can ‘see’ that bisecting a triangle always produces two triangles, and that 5 is greater than 4.  But for Augustine, intellectual vision is much more than Platonic or Plotinian noesis, and includes a wider range of cognitive activity, including what today we would call insight or (some kinds of) intuition.

Intellectual vision is, in fact, a pivotal concept in Augustine’s philosophy.  It plays an important role for him in contemplative ascent to God, in the relationship of Jesus Christ to the individual soul, and in understanding what faith means.  Hence he takes care to supply examples so readers can understand intellectual vision and observe it at work in their own minds.  It probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that Augustine’s notion of intellectual vision is critical to understanding his important role not only in Christian philosophy, but in the history of human consciousness.

In De Gen ad lit 12 Augustine supplies many examples of intellectual vision.  These include the ability to see and understand virtues (12.24.50; 12.31.59), truth (12.26.54), love and (within limits) God (12.28.56; 12.31.59).  He also suggests that it’s by means of intellectual vision that we can recognize allegorical meanings of Scripture, and distinguish valid from spurious spiritual visions and understand the meanings of the latter.

De videndo Deo

We also learn more about intellectual vision in a book-length letter Augustine wrote to Paulina, known as On seeing God (De videndo Deo). He is trying to help Paulina understand what it means to ‘see God,’ with particular reference to certain verses of Scripture, such as Matthew 5:8 (Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.)  More specifically, he wishes to help her see God herself.

The letter reveals in a most remarkable way his humanism and pastoral concern.  Having ‘seen’ God himself, he has an intense, earnest desire to help others do the same. (This humanistic and personal view of Augustine stands in contrast with the common modern perception of him shaped by later appropriation and narrow interpretation of his teachings by later Scholastic and academic theologians.)

His concern is to show that God is seen by intellectual, not bodily vision. But first he must help Paulina understand what intellectual vision is, or, rather, to witness its operation in her own mind. For this purpose in chapters 38 to 41 he employs a novel and effective device: he has her reflect on her inner response to the various arguments and propositions advanced in his letter up to this point. He asks her to review his preceding discussion, noting which points ones she’s found credible and which she’s doubted; and then to notice the inner ‘vision’ by which the recognizes her varying degrees of belief:

But examine in this whole discussion of ours what you have seen, what you have believed, what you still do not know, either because I have not spoken of it, or you have not understood, or you have not judged it credible. Among the points which you have seen to be true, distinguish further how you saw them: whether it was by recalling that you had seen them through the body, such as heavenly or earthly bodies, or whether you never perceived them by corporeal sight, but, by looking upon them with your mind only, observed that they are true and certain, such as your own will, about which I believe you when you speak, for it is true I cannot see it myself as it is seen by you. And when you have distinguished between these two, notice, too, how you make your distinction. (De videndo Deo 38; italics added)

Whether we believe or doubt, we see that we do so.  We also see that we we find some sources more credible than others.  Paulina does not place equal credence in the opinions of Augustine and Ambrose.  And she instinctively believes Scripture even more:

Note this, therefore, after you have carefully and faithfully examined and distinguished what you see; in making your distinction assess the actual weight of evidence on what you believe in this whole speech which I have been making to you, since I began to speak to you in this letter, and in it note to what extent you lend your faith to what you do not see. You do not put the same faith in me as you do in Ambrose … ; or if you do think that we are both to be weighed in the same balance, of course you will not compare us in any way with the Gospel, or put our writings on the same footing with the canonical Scriptures. …

Therefore, you yield faith to these words [of Ambrose and myself] in one way, but to the divine words in quite a different way. Perhaps some little doubt has crept into your mind about us; that we may be somewhat less than clear about some of the divine words, and that they are interpreted by us, not as they were said, but as we imagine them. … About the divine Scriptures, however, even when they are not clearly understood, you have no doubt that they are to be believed. But you surely observe and see this weighing of belief or non-belief, and the difficulty of knowing, and the storms of doubt, and the devout faith which is owed to the divine utterances; all these you see in your mind as they are, and you do not doubt in the least that they are in your mind in this way, either as I said them, or, preferably, as you knew them yourself. Therefore, you see your faith, you see your doubt, you see your desire and will to learn, and when you are led by divine authority to believe what you do not see, you see at once that you believe these things; you analyze and distinguish all this. (Ibid. 39f.; italics added)

Importantly, he is not equating intellectual vision with her actual beliefs or doubts, but rather with her ability to perceive differences in her degrees of belief.  He then has her note the difference between this faculty and corporeal vision.

Of course, you will not make any sort of comparison between your bodily eyes and these eyes of your heart, with which you perceive that all this is true and certain, with which you observe and distinguish what is invisibly present to you. (Ibid. 41)

Augustine is turning what might otherwise be an abstruse and sterile technical discussion about ‘seeing’ God into a spiritual exercise and practical demonstration. He is helping Paulina integrate her intellectual vision more fully into her rational consciousness. Before, she, like all of us, engaged in intellectual vision, but somewhat subliminally, as something not fully in awareness.  But by drawing her attention to it, the faculty now becomes more consciously accessible and more acute, even enlarged.  By this means she will be able to eventually exercise it in subtle perceptions of God’s presence and activity in her mind.

As we investigate the meaning of intellectual vision — and especially by observing our own mental operations — it gradually becomes clear that this is no mere abstract epistemological category, but an entire dimension or plane of psychological experience.  We begin to appreciate the reality, vastness and importance of an entire inner reality, a realm perhaps as as vast as the entire universe of sense experience.

Yet despite its importance, intellectual vision operates for most people only subliminally, in the sub- or pre-conscious mind. We constantly apply these subtle mental operations of inner vision, discernment and judgment and could not adaptively function otherwise. But by becoming more conscious of them, we may better integrate this dimension of our being into our rational mental life and social activity, so that both our outer and inner life becomes more holy, virtuous and spiritually authentic

Richard of Saint-Victor

Augustine’s concept of intellectual vision became a staple of medieval Latin Christina thought, and is especially prominent in the writings of Hugh and Richard of Saint-Victor, 12th century writers. To give but one example, Richard’s Adnotationes mysticae in Psalmos 143 distinguishes several distinct aspects of discretion [discretio]:

(1) diiudicatio is the right judgment that directs virtues toward their ends; it is the light that leads us to truth (lucerna cordis iudicium discretionis);

(2) deliberatio makes the distinction between what should and should not be done in a specific situation, taking into account the particular circumstances;

(3) dispositio considers the proper ordering of means for attaining an end;

(4) dispensatio distinguishes what’s appropriate and inappropriate, and reexamines a first judgment when required;

(5) moderatio determines the right measure of the action.

Considering that discretion is only one part of intellectual vision, we can begin to get an idea of the complexity and richness of our subtle mental life.

By the end of the 12th century, the Augustinian tradition had achieved a remarkable synthesis of rationalism and mysticism (and also, though we have not discussed this aspect here, charity as an organizing principle of social life).  This progress halted as Scholasticism and rationalistic dogmatism became a dominating force in the 13th century and beyond, even to present times.  As the rational separated itself from the mystical element of Christianity, so the mystical separated itself from the rational: Pseudo-Dionysian and ‘apophatic’ mysticism submerged the intellectual mystical tradition of Augustine.  This split between rationalism and mysticism remains today.  Augustinian intellectual mysticism may potentially supply a more integral form of Christianity for present times.


Augustine of Hippo. Epistolae 147. De videndo deo. Patrologia Latina 33:596−622. J. P. Migne. Paris, 1841.

Augustine of Hippo. De Genesi ad litteram. Patrologia Latina 34:245−486. J. P. Migne. Paris, 1841.

Cary, Phillip. Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self: The Legacy of a Christian Platonist. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Clark, Mary T. (tr.).  On Seeing God (De videndo Deo; Letter 147. In: Augustine of Hippo, Selected Writings. Classics of Western Spirituality. Paulist Press, 1984; pp. 361−402.

Fraeters, Veerle. Visio/Vision. In: Amy Hollywood & Patricia Z. Beckman (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism, Cambridge University Press 2012; pp. 178−188.

Hill, Edmund (tr.). The Literal Meaning of Genesis. In: Augustine, On Genesis, New City Press, 2002; ch. 12, pp. 464–475.

Meagher, Robert E. Augustine: On the Inner Life of the Mind. Hackett, 1998.

Parsons, Wilfrid (tr.). Letter 147: Augustine to Paulina (De videndo Deo). Saint Augustine: Letters Vol. 3. Fathers of the Church 20. New York, 1953; pp. 170−224.

Ragazzi, Grazia Mangano. Obeying the Truth: Discretion in the Spiritual Writings of Saint Catherine of Siena. Oxford University Press, 2013; p. 126.

Richard of Saint-Victor. Adnotationes mysticae in Psalmos. Patrologia Latina 196:265−402. J. P. Migne. Paris, 1855. (196:381d−382a)

Schlapbach, Karin. Intellectual vision in Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram 12, or: seeing the hidden meaning of images. Studia Patristica 43, 2006, 239−244.

Taylor, John H. (tr.). Saint Augustine: The Literal Meaning of Genesis. Ancient Christian Writers 41 and 42. Paulist Press, 1982.

Zycha, Joseph (ed.). De Genesi ad Litteram libri duodecimo. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) 28.1. Critical text. Vienna, 1894.

1st draft, 23 Feb 2020

The Great Prayer of St. Augustine

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Art: Unknown.

BETWEEN the time of his conversion and his baptism, St. Augustine retired with his family and friends to a villa in Casciago in the beautiful lake region north of Milan. There he wrote several dialogues in the manner of Cicero, including the Soliloquies. Years later Augustine described his conversion in the Confessions, but here we have, as it were, a direct window into his mind at this important period of his life. The Soliloquies opens with an inspired and impassioned prayer — full of phrases from the Neoplatonist Plotinus and the Bible.

While I was turning over in my mind many and divers matters, searching ceaselessly and intently through many a day for my very own self and my good, and what evil should be avoided, all at once a voice spoke to me— whether it was myself or another inside or outside of me I do not know, for that is the very thing I am endeavoring to find out. Reason thereupon spoke to me as follows:

Reason. Now then, suppose you had discovered something, to what would you consign it, in order that you might proceed to other matters?

Augustine. To memory, of course.

R. Is memory of such virtue that it well preserves all that has been thought out?

A. That is difficult; in fact, it is impossible.

R. It must be written down, then. But, what are you going to do now that your poor health shirks the task of writing? These matters ought not to be dictated, for they demand real solitude.

A. You speak the truth. Wherefore, I really do not know what I am to do.

O God, the Founder of the Universe, grant me first of all that I may fittingly supplicate Thee; next, that I may so act that I may be worthy of a hearing from Thee; finally, I beg Thee to set me free.
O God, through whom all those things, which of themselves would not exist, strive to be.
O God, who dost not permit to perish even that which is self-destructive.
O God, who from nothing hast created this world which every eye sees to be most beautiful.
O God, who dost not cause evil, and who dost cause that it become not most evil.
O God, who, to those few who have their refuge in that which truly is, dost show that evil is nothing.
O God, through whom the universe, even with its sinister side, is perfect.
O God, by whose ordinance the uttermost discord is as naught, since the less perfect things are in harmony with the more perfect.’
O God, whom everything loves which is capable of loving whether knowingly or unknowingly.
O God, in whom are all things—and yet the shamefulness of every creature does not shame Thee, their wickedness does not harm Thee, nor docs their error deceive Thee.
O God, who hast not willed that any save the pure should know the True.
O God, the Father of Truth, the Father of Wisdom, Father of True and Supreme Life, Father of Happiness, Father of the Good and the Beautiful, Father of Intelligible Light, Father of our watching and our enlightenment, Father of the covenant by which we are admonished to return to Thee.

I call upon Thee, O God the Truth, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things are true which are true.
O God, Wisdom, in whom and by whom and through whom all those are wise who are wise.
O God, True and Supreme Life, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things live which truly and perfectly live.
O God, Happiness, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things are happy which are happy.
O God, the Good and the Beautiful, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things are good and beautiful which are good and beautiful.
O God, Intelligible Light, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things which have intelligible light have their intelligible light.
O God, whose domain is the whole world unknown to sense.
O God, from whose realm law is promulgated even in these regions.
O God, from whom to turn away is to fall, to whom to turn is to rise again, in whom to abide is to stand firm.
O God, from whom to depart is to die, to whom to return is to be revived, in whom to dwell is to live.
O God, whom no one loses unless deceived, whom no one seeks unless admonished, whom no one finds unless he is purified.
O God, whom to abandon is to perish, whom to heed is to love, whom to see is to possess.
O God, to whom Faith moves us, Hope raises us, Charity unites us.
O God, through whom we overcome the enemy, Thee do I pray.
O God, through whom we obtain that we do not altogether perish.
O God, by whom we are admonished to be ever watchful.
O God, through whom we discern the good from the evil.
O God, through whom we flee evil and follow after good.
O God, through whom we are not overcome by afflictions.
O God, through whom we fittingly serve and fittingly rule.
O God, through whom we learn that that is alien to us which once we thought was meet for us, and that is meet which we used to think was alien.
O God, through whom we cling not to the charms and lures of evil.
O God, through whom deprivations do not abase us.
O God, through whom what is better in us is not under the dominion of our lower self.
O God, through whom death is swallowed up in victory.
O God, who dost convert us, stripping us of that which is not and clothing us with that which Is.
O God, who makest us worthy to be heard.
O God, who strengthenest us; who leadest us into all truth.
O God, who speakest to us of all good things; who dost not drive us out of our mind, nor permittest that anyone else do so.
O God, who callest us back to the way; who leadest us to the gate; who grantest that it is opened to those who knock.
O God, who givest us the bread of life.
O God, through whom we thirst for the cup, which when it is drunk we shall thirst no more.
O God, who dost convince the world of sin, of justice, and of judgment.
O God, through whom we are not shaken by those who have no faith.
O God, through whom we denounce the error of those who think that the merits of souls are naught before Thee.
O God, through whom we do not serve weak and beggarly elements.
O God, who dost cleanse us, who dost make us ready for divine rewards, graciously come to me.

Whatever I have said, come to my aid, Thou, the one God, the one, eternal, true substance in whom there is no strife, no disorder, no change, no need, no death; where there is supreme harmony, supreme clarity, supreme permanence, supreme fullness, supreme life; where there is no deficiency and no excess; where the One begetting and the One begotten is One.
O God, who art served by all things which serve, who art obeyed by every good soul.
O God, by whose laws the poles revolve, the stars follow their courses, the sun rules the day, and the moon presides over the night; and all the world maintains, as far as this world of sense allows, the wondrous stability of things by means of the orders and recurrences of seasons: through the days by the changing of light and darkness, through the months by the moon’s progressions and declines, through the years by the successions of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, through the cycles by the completion of the sun’s course, through the great eras of time by the return of the stars to their starting points.
O God, by whose ever-enduring laws the varying movement of movable things is not suffered to be disturbed, and is always restored to a relative stability by the controls of the encompassing ages.
O God, by whose laws the choice of the soul is free, and rewards to the good and chastisements to the wicked are meted out in accord with inexorable and universal destiny.
O God, from whom all good things flow even unto us, and by whom all evil things are kept away from us.
O God, above whom, beyond whom, and without whom nothing exists.
O God, under whom everything is, in whom everything is, with whom everything is.
O God, who hast made man to Thine image and likeness, a fact which he acknowledges who knows himself.
Hear, hear, O hear me, my God, my Lord, my King, my Father, my Cause, my Hope, my Wealth, my Honor, my Home, my Native Land, my Salvation, my Light, my Life.
Hear, hear, O hear me, in that way of Thine well known to a select few.

Thee alone do I love; Thee alone do I follow; Thee alone do I seek; Thee alone am I ready to serve, for Thou alone hast just dominion; under Thy sway do I long to be.
Order, I beg Thee, and command what Thou wilt, but heal and open my ears, so that with them I may hear Thy words.
Heal and open my eyes so that with them I may perceive Thy wishes.
Banish from me my senselessness, so that I may know Thee.
Tell me where I should turn that I may behold Thee; and I hope I shall do all Thou hast commanded me.
Look, I beseech Thee, upon Thy prodigal, O Lord, kindest Father; already have I been punished enough; long enough have I served Thine enemies whom Thou hast beneath Thy feet; long enough have I been the plaything of deceits. Receive me Thy servant as I flee from them, for they took me in a stranger when I was fleeing from Thee.
I realize I must return to Thee. Let Thy door be open to my knocking. Teach me how to come to Thee. Nothing else do I have but willingness. Naught else do I know save that fleeting and perishable things are to be spurned, certain and eternal things to be sought after. This I do, O Father, because this is all I know, but how I am to reach Thee I know not.
Do Thou inspire me, show me, give me what I need for my journey.
If it is by faith that they find Thee who have recourse to Thee, give me faith; if it is through virtue, give me virtue; if it is by knowledge, give knowledge to me. Grant me increase of faith, of hope, and of charity. O how marvelous and extraordinary is Thy goodness.

To Thee do I appeal, and once more I beg of Thee the very means by which appeal is made to Thee. For, if Thou shouldst abandon us, we are lost; but Thou dost not abandon us, because Thou art the Supreme Good whom no one ever rightly sought and entirely failed to find. And, indeed, every one hast rightly sought Thee whom Thou hast enabled to seek Thee aright. Grant that I may seek Thee, my Father; save me from error. When I seek Thee, let me not find aught else but Thee, I beseech Thee, Father. But, if there is in me any vain desire, do Thou Thyself cleanse me and make me fit to look upon Thee.

With regard to the health of this my mortal body, so long as I am ignorant of its usefulness to me or to those whom I love, I entrust it to Thee, O wisest and best of Fathers, and I shall pray for it as Thou shalt in good time advise me. This only I shall ask of Thine extreme kindness, that Thou convertest me wholly to Thee, and that Thou allowest nothing to prevent me when I wend my way to Thee. I beg Thee to command, while I move and bear this my body, that I may be pure, generous, just, and prudent; that I may be a perfect lover and knower of Thy Wisdom; that I may be worthy of Thy dwelling place, and that I may in fact dwell in Thy most blessed kingdom. Amen. Amen.  (Source: Soliloquies 1.1−6; Migne PL 32 cols 869−872; tr. Gilligan pp. 343−350).


Augustini Hipponensis. Soliloquia (Soliloquiorum libri II). Migne Patrologia Latina vol. 32, cols. 869−904, Paris, 1841. Latin text.

Gilligan, Thomas F. St. Augustine: Soliloquies. In: Schopp, Ludwig (ed), Writings of St. Augustine, Vol. 1.  (Fathers of the Church, Vol. 5). CUA Press, 1947 (repr. 2008); pp. 333−426. English translation.

The Seven Virtues and Fifty Sub-Virtues of Medieval Christianity

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Tree of Virtues” from Speculum Virginum, Walters Art Museum Ms. W.72, fol. 26r.

BEGINNING in the 11th century we find in Western medieval  manuscripts frequent portrayal of the canonical virtues and vices as tree diagrams.  These vary in details, but always include the four cardinal virtues of the Greco-Roman ethical tradition (Fortitude, Temperance,  Prudence and Justice) the three three theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity) from the Bible.  Each virtue is shown as a branch of the tree, along with seven sub-virtues (except for Charity, which may have ten sub-virtues) as leaves.  Typically a parallel tree of the seven deadly vices and their sub-vices accompanies the Tree of Virtues.  Pride (Superbia) is considered the common root of all vices, and Humility (Humilitas) of all virtues.

One early version is contained in the work, De fructibus carnis et spiritus (On the Fruits of the Flesh and the Spirit), once attributed to Hugh of Saint-Victor (c. 1096–1141); some consider Conrad of Hirsau the author.

The seven Virtues and their sub-virtues are listed below.  In some cases I’ve merely guessed at a modern English translation (and in those cases have supplied the definition supplied in the text.  The selection of sub-virtues and their definition seems influenced by a variety of patristic and biblical sources.  Possibly writers consulted precursors of the Glossa Ordinaria (collections of glosses on the Bible by Church Fathers and later writers) in selecting definitions.

Prudentia (Prudence)

  • timor Domini (fear of God)
  • alacritas (promptness)
  • consilium (counsel)
  • memoria (memory)
  • intelligentia (intelligence)
  • providentia (foresight)
  • deliberatio (deliberation)

Justitia (Justice)

  • lex (law)
  • severitas (strictness)
  • aequitas (equity)
  • correctio (correction; Correctio est erroris innati vel consuetudine introducti freno rationis inhibitio.)
  • jurisjurandi observatio (honoring a pledge; Jurisjurandi observatio est quae, plebescito civibus promulgato, transgressionem ejus temerariam arcet praestito juramento de conservatione illius perpetua.)
  • judicium (judgment)
  • veritas (truth)

Fortitudo (Courage)

  • magnanimitas (magnanimity)
  • fiducia (fidelity)
  • tolerantia (tolerance)
  • requies (rest)
  • stabilitas (stability)
  • constantia (constancy)
  • perseverantia (perseverance)

Temperantia (Temperance)

  • discretio (discernment)
  • morigeratio (obedience; acquiescence)
  • taciturnitas (silence)
  • jejunium (fasting)
  • sobrietas (sobriety)
  • afflictio carnis (physical penance; mortification of flesh; Afflictio carnis est per quem lascivae mentis seminaria castigatione discreta comprimuntur.)
  • contemptus saeculi (contempt of the world)

Fides (Faith)

  • religio (pratice of religion)
  • munditia (decorum; Munditia est consummata integritas utriusque hominis intuitu divini vel amoris vel timoris.)
  • obedientia (obedience)
  • castitas (chastity)
  • reverentia (reverence)
  • continentia (continence)
  • affectus (good desire)

Spes (Hope)

  • contemplatio supernorum (heavenly contemplation; Contemplatio supernorum est per sublevatae mentis jubilum mors carnalium affectuum).
  • gaudium (joy)
  • modestia (modesty)
  • confessio (confession of faults)
  • patientia (patience)
  • compunctio (sorrow for faults)
  • longanimitas (longsuffering)

Caritas (Charity)

  • gratia (forgiveness)
  • pax (peace)
  • pietas (piety)
  • mansuetudo (mildness; leniency)
  • liberalitas (liberality)
  • misericordia (mercy)
  • indulgentia (indulgence)
  • compassio (compassion)
  • benignitas (benignity)
  • concordia (concord)


Goggin, Cheryl Gohdes. Copying manuscript illuminations: The Trees of Vices and Virtues. Visual Resources, 2004, 20:2-3, 179−198.

Hugo de S. Victore. De fructibus carnis et spiritus. J. P. Migne. Patrologia Latina, Paris, 1854; cols. 997−1010 (rough diagrams of the Tree of Vices and Tree of Virtues appear at the end of the work).  Latin text is online:

Katzenellenbogen, Adolf. Allegories of the Virtues and Vices in Medieval Art from Christian Times to the Thirteenth Century. Alan J. P. Crick (tr.). London: Warburg Institute, 1939.

Tucker, Shawn R. The Virtues and Vices in the Arts: A Sourcebook. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015.

Art: “Tree of Virtues” from Speculum Virginum, Walters Art Museum Ms. W.72, fol. 26r; early 13th century manuscript from the Cistercian abbey of Himmerode, Germany.