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Preface to Traherne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO THE READER.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1st draft: 1 Sep 2020

Your Greatest Psychological Enemy

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Dorees engler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would only add a few additional points:

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

Gnosis comes from Jesus Christ – 1Cr 1 (KJV)

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1Cr 1:4 I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ;

1Cr 1:5 That in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and [in] all knowledge;

knowledge = gnosei (gnōsis) [Strong’s G1108]

via Blue Letter Bible – 1Cr 1 (KJV).

1. Gnosis is a grace.

2. It is a grace of God.

3. It is given by Jesus Christ.

4. It enriches.

Written by John Uebersax

January 4, 2009 at 8:53 pm