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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.

2.
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.

3.
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.

4.
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.

5.
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.

6.
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).

Bibliography

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.

Contemplative Spirituality: From Plato to the Victorine Mystics

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

Coulter, Dale M.  Pseudo-Dionysius in the Twelfth Century Latin West. ORB Online Encyclopedia.  Accessed: 17 October 2019. < https://the-orb.arlima.net/encyclop/culture/philos/coulter.html >.

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Ulyxis Erroribus

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Burney MS 114 f 132r (detail), British Library

ONE of the most popular and insightful psychological commentaries on Homer’s Odyssey is the essay, On the Wanderings of Ulysses, published by the English Neoplatonist, Thomas Taylor, in 1823.  In an earlier 1792 version of the essay, published as an extended footnote to his translation of Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs, Taylor mentioned having made use of a “small treatise in Greek” by “an anonymous author.”  His full remark is as follows:

I only premise, that I shall make use of a small treatise in Greek, on the wanderings of Ulysses, by an anonymous author, where he appears to have penetrated the sense of the allegory; and freely reject his interpretation, when foreign from the leading character of Ulysses, above mentioned, according to Numenius and Porphyry. (Taylor, 1792, n. 294f.).

The “above mentioned” material refers to Porphyry’s explanation of Numenius’ interpretation of Odysseus:

Indeed as it appears to me it was not without foundation that Numenius thought the person of Ulysses in the Odyssey represented to us a man who passes in a regular manner over the dark and stormy sea of generation; and thus arrives at that region, where tempests and seas are unknown, and finds a nation Who ne’er knew salt, or heard the billows roar. (Ibid., p. 294).

Though he did not, Taylor could easily have added the name of Plotinus to that of Porphyry and Numenius. In his treatise On Beauty (Enneads 1.6.8), Plotinus, Porphyry’s teacher, supplies what is the quintessential Platonic understanding of the moral-psychological meaning of the Odyssey.  There he writes, in words echoing Diotima’s famous ‘ascent of Love’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, that one should not love physical or bodily beauty, but rather follow Homer’s advice in the Iliad 2.140 and 9.27:

Let us flee to our dear homeland” (Φεύγωμεν δή φίλην ές πατρίδα) and imitate the example of Odysseus who fled far away from Circe and Calypso. … Our homeland is the place we come from, and the Father is there” (Πατρίς δή ήμΐν, δθενπερ ήλθομεν, καί πατήρ έκεΐ). (tr. Berthelot).

For Plotinus, then, the Odyssey is an allegory for the soul’s journey away from material concerns — and the numerous trials and tribulations associated therewith — to our native land of contemplation, serenity, peace and clarity.  Though Porphyry, Numenius and Taylor also find a metaphysical meaning in the Odyssey, they all also appear to agree with Plotinus on the psychological interpretation.

Taylor began the later, 1823 version of his essay as follows:

In my History of the Restoration of the Platonic Theology [see Vo. II. of my Proclus on Euclid,] and in a note accompanying my translation of the treatise of Porphyry, on the Cave of the Nymphs, in that work, I attempted, from the hints afforded by Porphyry, and the work of an anonymous Greek writer, De Ulyxis Erroribus, to unfold the latent meaning of the wanderings of Ulysses, as narrated by Homer. But as, from my continued application to the philosophy of Plato for upwards of forty years, I now know much more of that philosophy than I then did, a period of thirty-five years having elapsed from that to the present time, I shall again attempt to explain those wanderings, rejecting some things, and retaining others which I had adopted before. (Taylor, 1823,  p. 241).

Here he again refers to an anonymous Greek source, but now supplies the Latinized title, De Ulyxis Erroribus.  It does not appear that this work’s author has previously been identified, or the work itself located. However it now seems likely that Taylor’s source was an eponymous essay authored by the Byzantine cleric, Manuel Gabalas (Matthew of Ephesus; c.1271−c.1359), or possibly his colleague, Nicephorus Gregoras (1295−1360).

The essay exists in two handwritten manuscripts of Gabalas.  One is part of the Codex Vindobonensis Theologici Graeci (Vindob. Theol. Gr.) 174 f. 116v−126r in Vienna. The second is part of the Burney MS 114, now held by the British Library.

Moreover, it has been printed five times:

  • A Greek version edited by Vincentius Opsopoeus and published in 1531;
  • A Latin translation by Conrad Gessner published in 1542;
  • Greek text with a new Latin translation by Johannes Columbus in 1678;
  • A reprint of the Columbus edition in 1745; and
  • A Greek edition by A. Westermann (1843; with corrections suggested by Hercher, 1853).

Recent translations have been made in French by Pralon (2004) and Van Kasteel (2012), and in Spanish by Juan-López (2019).

The Greek and Latin versions shows sufficient correspondences with portions of Taylor’s essay to make its identification as his source probable.

The British Library lists the editions of Opsopoeus, Gessner, and Columbus (1678 and 1745) in its catalogue, and, potentially, any or all of them could have been available for Taylor to consult. Kristeller (1987, p. 128) suggested that Gessner’s 1542 translation of Proclus’ defense of Homer in his Commentary on Plato’s Republic, published in the same volume as the anonymous Odyssey essay, along with Porphyry’s Cave of the Nymphs, “seems to have been known to Thomas Taylor.”  If Taylor did indeed consult Gessner’s translation of Proclus (and/or Porphyry), he would therefore have seen the Odyssey essay. However, that was a Latin-only version, whereas in 1792 Taylor referred specifically to a “small treatise in Greek” (italics added).

Possibly Taylor also found the 1531 Greek edition of Opsopoeus in the British Library.  In any case, it does seem likely he consulted one of the Latin/Greek editions of Johannes Columbus.  Not only would these have been the most recent (and potentially the most widely disseminated) editions, but only they have the same words as Taylor’s title: De Ulyxis Erroribus.

We might wonder if Taylor saw the Burney manuscript version, as he was acquainted with the London classicist and collector, Charles Burney.  Had that been so, however, Taylor would have been able to connect the essay with Gabalas and Gregoras.

Doubtless most of Taylor’s essay reflects his own creative synthesis and insight gained by decades of close involvement with Greek texts and Platonist philosophy.  It would, nonetheless be interesting to see exactly what insights he gleaned from the Greek work, and what material he ignored.  We further have some obvious interest in approaching De Ulyxis Erroribus for its own sake — both for what it can tell us about the allegorical meaning of the Odyssey, and the light it may shed on the Byzantine commentary tradition on Homer.

Readers should be expressly cautioned that there are other works on the Odyssey associated with Matthew of Ephesus (Browning, 1992; Vianès, 2003), with which this work should not be confused.

References

Berthelot, Katell. Philo and the allegorical Interpretation of Homer in the Platonic tradition (with an emphasis on Porphyry’s De antro nympharum). Homer and the Bible in the Eyes of Ancient Interpreters (2012): 155-74.

Browning, Robert. A fourteenth-century prose version of the Odyssey. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, vol. 46, 1992, pp. 27–36.

Ford, Philip. Classical myth and its interpretation in sixteenth-century France. In: Sandy, Gerald N. (ed.). The Classical Heritage in France. Leiden: Brill, 2002. (pp. 331−349.)

Gabalas, Manuel (attr.). De Ulyssis erroribus. Burney MS 114, ff 132r-145v. Religious texts copied by Matthew, Metropolites of Ephesus, Volume III. British Museum. 2nd quarter of the 14th century.

Anonymous; Opsopoeus, Vincentius (ed.). Compendiosa explicatio in errores Ulyssis Odysseae Homericae, cum contemplatione morali elaborata. Printed with Xenophon: Symposium: eruditum, iucundum & elegans. Haguenau: Johann Setzer, 1531.

Anonymous; Gessner, Conrad (tr.). Moralis interpretatio errorum Ulyssis Homerici; Commentatio Porphyrii philosophi de nympharum antro in XIII. libro Odyssae Homericae, multiplici cognitione rerum variarum instructissima; Ex commentariis Procli Lycii, philosophi Platonici, in libros Platonis de repub. apologiae quaedam pro Homero & fabularum aliquot enarrationes. Zurich, 1542. (Latin translation only).

Anonymous; Columbus, Johannes (tr.). Incerti Scriptoris Graeci Fabulae Aliquot Homericae de Ulixis Erroribus Ethice Explicatae. Leiden, 1745; (orig. publ. J. G. Eberdt, 1678). (Greek and Latin translation.)

Hercher, R. Zu Nikephoros Gregoras De erroribus Ulixis. Philologus 8 (1853) 755−758.

Hunger H., Kresten O. & Hannick C. Katalog der griechischen Handscbriften der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek. Codices Theologici 101-200, III, 2. Vienna, 1984.

Juan-López, J. B. Allegorical interpretation of Odysseus’s wanderings and his impassive philosophy, De Ulixis Erroribus. Presentation, 2018.

Juan-López, J. B. De Ulixis Erroribus. Spanish translation, notes and commentary. In press (2019), eClassica (?), Lisbon.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Proclus as a reader of Plato and Plotinus, and his influence in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance. Editions du CNRS, 1987.  Reprinted in: Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, vol. IV, Rome, 1996.

Plotinus. Armstrong, Arthur Hilary (tr.).  The Enneads, in 7 vols., (Loeb Classical Library), vol. 1, Cambridge, Mass., 1966 .

Pralon, Didier. Une allégorie anonyme de l’Odyssée: Sur les errances d’Ulysse. In: Brigitte Pérez-Jean, B. & Patricia Eichel-Lojkine, L’allégorie de l’Antiquité à la Renaissance, Paris: Champion, 2004; pp. 189−208.

Schleyer, R. On the Wanderings of Ulysses in the Odyssey (incomplete fragment). Unpublished paper. September, 2014.

Taylor, Thomas. History of the Restoration of the Platonic Theology. In: Philosophical and Mathematical Commentaries of Proclus on the First Book of Euclid’s Elements. Vol. II. London, 1792; note, pp. 294−307.

Taylor, Thomas. On the Wanderings of Ulysses. In Select Works of Porphyry. London, 1823; Appendix, pp. 241−272. (pdf version)

Van Kasteel, Hans (tr.). Matthieu d’Éphèse, Exégèse concise sur les errances d’Ulysse selon Homère, augmentée d’une explication éthique. In: H. Van Kasteel, Questions homériques. Physique et métaphysique chez Homère, Éditions Beya, Grez-Doiceau, 2012.

Vianès, Laurence. Les Errances d’Ulysse par Matthieu d’Éphèse, alias Manuel Gabalas (XIVe siècle). GAIA. Revue interdisciplinaire sur la Grèce ancienne 7.1 (2003): 461-480.

Westermann, A. Μυθόγραφοι: Scriptores poeticae historiae Graeci. Brauschweig, 1843; pp. 329-344 & Pref. xvii); corrections proposed by Hercher, 1853.

Philo on Heavenly Inspirations

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Manna, Maciejowski Bible (13th C.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greek Philosophy for Bible Exegetes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aristotle (384 – 322 BC)

Cicero (106 − 43 BC)

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

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

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

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

Epictetus (55 – 135 AD)

Marcus Aurelius (121 − 180 AD) 

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

John Uebersax
1st draft (sorry for any typos)

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

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Vincent Van Gogh, The Sower, 1888

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

Thomas Taylor’s Panegyric to Floyer Sydenham

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BEFORE Thomas Taylor there was Floyer Sydenham.

Sydenham (1710−1787) was the preeminent British translator of Plato in the 18th century, but suffered from obscurity and poverty — even more so than Thomas Taylor, whose own tragic and difficult life was at least compensated for by posthumous fame and influence.

Sydenham was an excellent Greek scholar and devoted himself to the task of translating the works of Plato.  Between 1759 and 1780, he translated and published 9 of Plato’s dialogues, including the Banquet (Symposium), Philebus, Meno, and the First and Second Alcibiades; these translations were included in Thomas Taylor’s famous 1804 edition of the Works of Plato — the first English version of Plato’s complete works (properly called the Taylor & Sydenham edition, with contributions by Harry Spens).

Sydenham’s essay, A Synopsis or General View of the Works of Plato (1759), remains valuable and merits modern study.

Despite his skill as a translator (he was better educated and, by most estimates, a more able translator than Taylor), so many of his subscribers, victims of a chaotic British economy, defaulted payment that he was sentenced to debtors prison in 1787 and subsequently died.   In consequence of his unfortunate treatment and tragic death, the Royal Literary Fund (1790) was founded for the relief of authors in distress.

Taylor paid posthumous tribute to Sydenham with the following memorial, which he published in 1790, and again, in revised form, in 1805.

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A Panegyric on Floyer Sydenham

by Thomas Taylor

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HILE vulgar souls the public notice claim,
And dare to stand as candidates for fame;
While Sydenham’s worth in shameful silence lies,
Who liv’d unnotic’d and neglected dies;
My Muse indignant wakes her dormant fire,
And, rous’d by Friendship, boldly strikes the lyre.
Ye liberal few, who in his footsteps tread,
Rise, and assert the honours of the dead;
Genius sublime; who from barbaric night,
Led Wisdom forth, far beaming heav’nly light;
Whose skill great Plato’s elegance commands,
His graces copies and his fire expands.
For this shall future Bards his worth prolong,
Example bright and theme of lib’ral song!
O! hadst thou liv’d in those exalted days,
When Monarchs crown’d Philosophers with bays;
When Alexandria’s god-like sons appear’d,
And Truth restor’d, her head majestic rear’d;
Who rose unveil’d perspicuous to the wise,
Though by the vulgar seen in dark disguise:
Then had thy mind with native worth elate,
Shone through the ruins of a falling state;
And far extended Wisdom’s endless reign,
O’er Rome’s wide-spreading, tottering domain;
Then had thy genius met its just reward,
Awe from the vulgar, and from kings regard;
Then had thy days with plenteous ease been crown’d,
Thy pupils noble, and thy name renown’d;
Thy death lamented through immortal Rome,
And the fair column planted o’er thy tomb.
But doom’d to live where Truth’s refulgent light
Yet scarcely glimmers through Oblivion’s night;
Where genuine Science scarcely lifts her head,
For ages buried with the mighty dead;
Where Wealth, not Virtue, is the road to Fame;
And ancient Wisdom is an empty name;
Where Plato’s sacred page neglected lies,
And words, not things, are studied to be wise.
Here shone thy Wisdom o’er this sea of life,
Rous’d with perpetual storms of grief and strife;
Like some fair lamp whose solitary light,
Streams from a watch-tower through the gloom of night,
And shines secure, though raging waves surround,
Its splendours beaming o’er the dark profound.
Here, while alive, thy genius was alone;
Thy worth neglected, and almost unknown:
Here thy disciples, and thy friends were few;
Nor these all just, magnanimous, and true:
For some whom Heav’n had blest with wealth and pow’r,
Turn’d mean deserters in the needful hour;
While others prais’d thy genius and admir’d,
But ne’er to ease thy wretched state desir’d,
Basely contended Wisdom to receive;
Without a wish its author to relieve.
Such was thy fate, while matters drowsy ties
Held thee an exile from thy native skies.
But now emerg’d from sense, and error’s night,
Thy soul has gain’d its ancient orb of light;
Refulgent shines in Truth’s immortal plain,
And scorns dull body, and her dark domain.
No gloomy clouds those happy realms assail;
And the calm aether knows no stormy gale;
No vain pretenders there, no faithless friends;
No selfish motives, no ignoble ends.
O! may some spark of Truth’s celestial fire,
My breast, like thine, with sacred warmth inspire.
Teach me like thee, with vigour unconfin’d,
To soar from body to the realms of mind;
To scorn like thee, wealth’s despicable race,
The vain—the sordid—impudent, and base.

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Source: Thomas Taylor, Miscellanies, in Prose and Verse, London: C. Whittingham, 1805 (pp. 37−40).

These verses first appeared in the General Advertiser in 1787, and were thence copied into “most of the evening papers.” Taylor made some minor alterations when he republished them in 1805.

References

Demetriou, Kyriakos N. Asking for Plato’s Forgiveness. Floyer Sydenham: A Platonic Visionary of 18th-century Britain. Quaderni di Storia, vol. 78, 2013, pp. 55-86.

Sydenham, Floyer.  A Synopsis or General View of the Works of Plato. London, 1759.

Taylor, Thomas; Sydenham, Floyer. The Works of Plato, 5 vols.  With Harry Spens (trans.). London: T. Taylor, 1804.

Uebersax, John.  Harry Spens and the First English Translation of Plato’s Republic.  Online article.  https://satyagraha.wordpress.com/2015/01/13/harry-spens/ .  Last updated: January 13, 2016.

Written by John Uebersax

January 31, 2017 at 3:50 am