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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cain’s wife (33−39)

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

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

Enoch (41−43; cf. 35f.)

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

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

Builded a city (49−62)

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

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

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

Irad (66−68)

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

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

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

Mehujael (Mahujael, Maiel; 69−72)

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

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

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

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

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

Lamech (74−79; 46−48; cf. 41)

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

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

Adah (79−83)

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

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

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

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

Jabal (Jobel; 83−99)

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

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

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

Jubal (100−111)

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

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

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

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

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

Zillah (Sella; 112−113)

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

Tubal (Thobel; 114−119)

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

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

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

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

Naamah (Noeman; 120−123)

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

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

Final Remarks

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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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)

Psalm 90, The Prayer of Moses

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Moses and the Burning Bush (detail), William Blake (English; 1757−1827), c. 1803.

THE following meditation,  inspired, wise and beautifully written, comes from the pen of Rev. William Stratton Pryse (1849−1928), an American Presbyterian minister; and a prize indeed it is.  Other homilies of his on the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer which appeared in the same volume of the Herald and Presbyter are equally profitably.

_________

Psalm 90, A prayer of Moses the man of God. KJV

  1. LORD, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.
  2. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.
  3. Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.
  4. For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.
  5. Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.
  6. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.
  7. For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.
  8. Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.
  9. For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.
  10. The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
  11. 11. Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.
  12. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
  13. Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.
  14. O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
  15. Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.
  16. Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.
  17. And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.

A
N IMPRESSIVE and beautiful prayer is that of the great lawgiver Moses, which is contained in the 90th psalm. There seems to be no reason to question the correctness of the title, “A Prayer of Moses,” and the psalm therefore is the oldest extant poem in the world, by many centuries older than the other psalms and the poems of Homer.

It is a noble psalm, solemn and majestic in tone and movement, and it fits well our estimate of the character of Moses. It is also a true memorial of the forty years of desert wandering. As has been said, it “faithfully reflects the long, weary wanderings, the multiplied provocations and the consequent punishments of the wilderness.” [1]

The psalm comprises two parts, of which the first is the longer, consisting of a meditation upon human life as contrasted with that of God. In a tone of deep sadness it dwells upon the brevity, uncertainty and tribulations of man’s earthly life. But coupled with this sadness is a firm confidence in God, who is from everlasting to everlasting, and in whom is our dwelling place forevermore. This meditation is a true part of the prayer of which the whole psalm consists, for while it is not in the form of petition it is, throughout, a cry of the soul after God.

Beginning with the 12th verse, the remainder of the psalm is composed of petitions which spring naturally out of the preceding reflectings. These petitions are seven in number, and thus conform to the symbolism which throughout Scripture attaches to that number. For the trend of these petitions is in precise accord with the symbolical meaning of that number, as indicating a work of God for man. Such a divine working for help and blessing is the burden of the petitions from the first to the last. And they conform to the arrangement of the seven units, which is found in every instance of the symbolical use of that number in Scripture.

The seven fall into the two groups of four and three, and the other division of six and one, the petitions in each case corresponding with and illustrated by the significance of these divisions. The order of the four and three however, the world-human number four coming first and followed by the divine number three, reverses the order of the Lord’s Prayer, which is three and four. This order grows out of the previous meditation, which leads up to the petitions of human need. The grouping of four and three is indicated by the pronouns “us” and “thy.” Teach us, return unto us, satisfy us, make us glad; and thy work, thy beauty, thy establishing power.

It is to be noted that Moses in this prayer nowhere speaks of himself alone, but includes all his people with him. It is nowhere “I” but always “we,” nowhere “me” but always “us.” It is as mediator and intercessor for the people that he utters the prayer. Is he not in this an example for every praying Christian? Upon the truly praying heart rests not only the wants of self, but the burden of humanity’s need. So also the Lord in his model prayer taught us to pray.

The first of these petitions is profoundly beautiful, but it is also vitally essential in human life. “So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.” Here is the vital lesson of human life, upon which turns the success or failure of each and every one, not only for time but for eternity. He who learns so to number his days as to acquire this heart wisdom, secures true and high success; he who does not so do makes a disastrous and hopeless failure. And that lesson God, and God alone, can teach us to learn, through his Word and by his Spirit.

But in teaching us God deals with us in discipline, and this leads to the second petition. Out of life’s trials and sorrows we are moved to pray for a turn in our experience, bringing a merciful relief and a happier state. “Return, O Lord; how long? And let it repent thee concerning thy servants.” God “repents” when a change comes from severe trials to peace and happiness.

In the third petition there is progress in definite and positive desire. Not only relief but soul-satisfaction is sought. As the brightness of morning follows the darkness of night, so hope reaches out to such a morning of satisfaction and joy. “Oh, satisfy us early with thy mercy, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” Only in God, in his love and kindness, can this blessing be realized and become our abiding portion.

One step further in the fourth petition crowns the series, compensation, gladness for affliction. “Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.” And why should it not be so? Is it not the very purpose of discipline? Is it not a part of God’s plan concerning his people, that by trial they shall be prepared for good? The Master himself gives assurance that it shall be so: “Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you and persecute you—for great is your reward in heaven.” [cf. Mat 5:11−12] For all life’s sufferings the believer shall receive great and glorious compensation, of which no small part may be hoped for in the present life.

But now the flow of petition turns to things divine, the supreme things of God. The fifth rises to the very pinnacle at once of human aspiration and divine manifestation. “Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.” The work and glory of God are inseparable, for his work is full of his glory, and his glory flames through all his work. It is this glory shining in his work that puts all meaning and purpose and hope into all things that exist. And it is the vision of this glory-filled work of God, and of his own glory revealed in it, that puts all exalted meaning and blessed hope into human life. He who is blind to it is poor indeed, but he to whom God has shown it is rich with the unsearchable riches of Christ. And the vision most clearly appears in the person and work of him who is himself the shining forth of the glory of God.

Exquisitely beautiful and in the same line is the next petition, the sixth: “And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.” All the endless beauty that appears in nature is but his own, the reflection of the ineffable beauty of himself, the beauty that most brightly shines in him who is the express image of his person. The beauty of God, everywhere, in all things, how it reveals him and how it glorifies human life. What a prayer, that this beauty may be upon us, that it may crown us with its radiance, that it may clothe us as with a garment. His beauty upon us for assurance and hope; his beauty upon us for joy and peace; his beauty upon us for strength and power; so is our life exalted and beatified. Beauty is the revelation of divine goodness and eternal glory.

These six petitions lead up to and are crowned by the seventh; “Establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” Here is the final essential without which all our work must come to nothing, with which our work shall succeed gloriously and stand forever. The finishing, confirming touch of God upon our work, what can human effort avail without this? No work conducted without God, in human wisdom and power alone, is completed at all. It is but a house built upon the sand, which can only fall. If men would accomplish any good and abiding results, they must co-operate with God, and look to him to establish their work upon them. The only hope of the world is in the leaders and people of the nations recognizing this fact.

We can not fail to see that this seventh petition is truly Sabbath, in the sense of completing all the rest. The whole prayer would be incomplete without it. In it the prayer reaches its true culmination and completion. God’s establishing touch alone brings our work to a successful end, and ushers us into our hoped-for rest. In all true effort and progress our attitude must be that of “looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.” [Heb 12:2]

Moses, we are grateful unto you under God for this wondrous prayer. We see that you are not only lawgiver, leader, governor, commander; you are also a true poet, one divinely inspired. Yours is the poetry of the heart and soul, poetry of spiritual understanding, poetry of the profound insight and exalted inspiration, poetry of true sympathy with man and communion with God.

Source: Pryse, W. S. The Prayer Of Moses. The Herald and Presbyter, Vol. XCIII, No. 29 (July 19, 1922), pp.5−6.

Notes.

  1. Smith, William (Ed.), ‘Psalms, Book of’, Dictionary of the Bible, Hartford: Scranton Co., 1908. (p. 775)

 

Philo’s Psychological Exegesis of Cain and Abel

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Cain's Fight, Fernand Cormon, 1880

Cain is egoism, Abel is holiness.

T HE STORY of Cain and Abel in Chapter 4 of Genesis follows immediately after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and, like the latter, is a ethical myth of great and fundamental significance.

Here the Bible first presents in allegorical form one of it’s main themes: the primal conflict or psychomachia within the human soul between good and bad dispositions, vice and virtue, worldliness and piety. The same contrast and conflict symbolized by Cain and Abel is recapitulated and developed throughout the Bible in the stories of Jacob and Esau, Noah and the wicked men, Moses and Pharaoh, the Israelites and their various enemies, and, later, in St. Paul’s analysis of the ‘earthy-minded ‘ and ‘heavenly-minded’ person.

The Jewish philosophy, Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BC − c.50 AD), exerted considerable influence on Christian allegorical interpretation of the Bible. He dedicated several books to the story of Cain and Abel, which he interpreted, as he usually did, according to a mix of Platonic, Stoic and Pythagorean ethical philosophy and Judaism. Philo’s allegorical exegetical insights are unmatched in excellence (and supported by modern cognitive science) — but tend to be obscured by his discursive writing style. In order to present Philo’s interpretations in a more accessible way, the key points of his commentaries are here excerpted and re-arranged to correspond to the Genesis account verse-by-verse. …
Link for full article: www.john-uebersax.com/pdf/philo-cain-abel.pdf

Art: Cain Fleeing Before Jehovah’s Curse (1880), Fernand Cormon (1845–1924, French)

Philo: The Lifelong Festival of Those Who Follow Nature

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Spring (detail); Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Dutch, 1836−1912); 1894

PHILO of Alexandria, a writer of great but largely unexplored relevance to our age, expounds on the perennial psychology: the mythical Golden Age symbolizes the exalted psychological condition attainable by a lover of wisdom and of virtue who lives in accord with nature; whereas strife, inner and outer, result from placing material things above higher, spiritual goods.

Special Laws 2.42−48

XII. (42) When the law records that every day is a festival [Num. 28, 29], it accommodates itself to the blameless life of righteous men who follow nature and her ordinances. And if only the vices had not conquered and dominated the thoughts in us which seek the truly profitable and dislodged them from each soul — if instead the forces of the virtues had remained in all respects unsubdued, the time from birth to death would be one continuous festival, and all houses and every city would pass their time in continual peace and absence of fear, being full of every imaginable blessing, enjoying perfect tranquility.

(43) But, as it is now, the overreaching and assaults which people contrive against each other and even against themselves and have cleft a breach in the continuous line of this cheerful gaiety. And here is clear proof:

(44) All who practice wisdom, whether in Greek or barbarian lands, and who live a blameless and irreproachable life, choosing neither to inflict nor retaliate injustice, avoid the gatherings of busy-bodies and abjure the scenes which such people haunt — like law-courts, council-chambers, markets, congregations and, in general, any gathering or assemblage of careless people.

(45) Rather, their own aspirations are for a life of peace, free from warring. They are the closest contemplators of nature and all it contains: earth, sea, air and heaven and the various forms of beings which inhabit them are food for their research, as in mind and thought they share the ranging of the moon and sun and the ordered march of the other stars, fixed and planetary. Having their bodies, indeed, firmly planted on the earth, but having their souls furnished with wings, in order that thus hovering in the air they may closely survey all the powers above, they consider the whole world as their native city, looking upon it as in reality the most excellent of cosmopolites, and all the devotees of wisdom as their fellow citizens, virtue herself having enrolled them as such, to whom it has been entrusted to frame a constitution for their common city.

XIII. (46) Being, therefore, full of all kinds of excellence, and accustomed to disregard ills of the body and external circumstances, inured to look upon things indifferent as indeed indifferent, being armed by study against the pleasures and appetites, ever eager to raise themselves above the passions and trained to use every effort to pull down the fortification which those appetites have built up, never swerving under the blows of fortune, because they have calculated beforehand the force of its assaults (since the heaviest adversities are lightened by anticipation, when the mind ceases to find anything strange in the event and apprehends it but merely as it might some stale and familiar story.) Such individuals, being very naturally rendered cheerful by their virtues, pass the whole of their lives as a festival.

(47) These are indeed but a small number, kindling in their different cities a sort of spark of wisdom, in order that virtue may not become utterly extinguished, and so entirely extirpated from our race [cf. Hesiod, WD 200 f.] .

(48)  But if only everywhere men thought and felt as these few, and became what nature intended them to be, all blameless and guiltless, lovers of wisdom, rejoicing in moral excellence just because it is what it is, and counting it the only true good and all the other goods but slaves and vassals subject to their authority — then cities would brim with happiness, utterly free from all that causes grief and fears, and packed with what produces joys and states of well-being, so that no time would ever cease to be the time of a happy life, but the whole circle of the year would be one festival.

~ Philo of Alexandria, Special Laws 2.42−48. Translation from F. H. Colson (1937) & C. D. Yonge (1855).

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