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Psuedo-Procopius of Gaza’s Platonic Commentary on Proverbs

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Gustave Doré, Solomon (cropped image)

THE BIBLE not only has important psychological meanings, but contains a blueprint for ethical renovation of the personality. Philo of Alexandria (fl. c. 20 AD), the master allegorical exegesis, makes a compelling case for the interpretation of the Pentateuch  according to Platonic ethics and moral psychology. Philo wrote very little about other books of the Old Testament, but nothing prevents us from applying his Platonic interpretive model more generally.  Indeed, the Wisdom Books would seem like prime candidates for this.  Their principal subject is, after all, Wisdom; and this was also the central concern of Plato, who understood philosophy (philosophia) as literally the love of Wisdom.  Indeed, the Wisdom of Solomon has long been suspected of being written by a Jewish Alexandrian Platonist (or even Philo himself) — and this book seems fully consistent with the themes, message, language and imagery of the other Wisdom Books.

A new translation by Justin Gohl (2019) of a little-studied work sheds important light on this subject. The work is a commentary on Proverbs attributed to Procopius of Gaza (c. 465–528), leader of the so-called School of Gaza.  Procopius’ authorship is now disputed, and the author is now referred to as Pseudo-Procopius.  The date of composition is similarly unknown, and could be anywhere between the 5th and 10th centuries.  The work shows the influence of Philo and Christian Platonists like Origen, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius of Pontus, and perhaps Maximus Confessor.

What matters more for us, though, is not the author or age of the work, but the relevance and plausibility of its interpretations.  On that basis, we would have to consider this a work of some importance and one that merits serious study.  It stands as (in my opinion, at least) as one of the best examples of a fully Platonic commentary on any Book of the Bible.

Proverbs, traditionally attributed to Solomon, is actually a compilation of several smaller compilations.  The first (Proverbs 1−9) is the most recent, thought to have reached its present form in Persian or Hellenistic times.  Gohl’s translation covers only this part of the Commentary. However consultation of the Greek text (with Latin translation) in Migne PG 87 suggests that this is representative of the whole Commentary.

A basic premise of the Commentary is the Platonic tripartite model of the human soul, which we outline below.

Plato’s Model of Soul

According to Plato — and he explains in Phaedrus, Republic and Timaeus — the human soul consists of appetitive, irascible (spirited, angry, ambitious) and rational elements.  Sometimes Plato refers to the first two combined as the irrational soul; their activity is called passions.

Proper function of the soul involves moderation of appetitive and irascible passions by the rational element.  The rational element should act as a wise governor or guide, neither giving full reign to passions nor denying them completely.  Rather it limits their expression according to just or right measure, producing harmonious operation of the psyche. This balanced, harmonious mental milieu, in turn, helps the rational part judge rightly: tranquility (ataraxia) and mental clarity allow us to maintain a vision of the Good, along with accurate perceptions and sound beliefs.

Our mental apparatus fails, however, when the rational element doesn’t properly exercise its moderating role, either overindulging, or over- suppressing an impulse, creating discord and conflict.

Importantly, for Plato there’s an integral connection between epistemology and ethics: virtue begets wisdom and wisdom, virtue — and, similarly, vice begets folly and folly begets vice.

Implicit in Plato’s system is a cognitive model of moral error.  Wrong actions are not always or even usually a simple matter of caving into a temptation.  There’s an intermediate step.  When first presented with an impulse to over-indulge an appetite or passion, we frequently hesitate. At that point opposing arguments — rationalizations — attempting to justify the action may emerge.  Overindulgence, then, is associated with following these wrong inner counsels.  Moreover, this characteristically involves a faulty or biased judgment of what’s good:  we don’t simply  intentionally sin, but often do so after having first convinced ourselves that the action is actually good.  A similar — but sometimes overlooked — process applies to injudicious suppression of appetitive or irascible urges.

This, then, in broad terms outlines our ethical fall for Plato.  This model has very real and practical implications.  The moral lapse, which affects attention, right belief and right judgment, is responsible for all manner of harmful and addictive behaviors, as well as myriad negative mental states like anxiety, worry, hatred, jealousy and the like.  Hence it’s of central importance to our mental and emotional well-being.

Little wonder, then, that both Plato and the Bible would be vitally concerned with helping us remedy this chronic problem in our nature. Since both sources are universally accepted as insightful and authoritative,  and the problem they are trying to solve is the same, we’d expect their remedies to be fundamentally similar.  In Plato and the Bible (and perhaps especially with the Wisdom Books) we have, as it were, two reciprocally illuminating maps for the same journey.

The Strange Woman

The ‘strange woman’ —a prostitute or harlot — is a central figure who recurs throughout Proverbs (Prv 2:16−19; 5:3−8; 5:15−19; 5:20; 6:24−26; 7:5−27; 9:13−18; 20:16; 22:14; 23:27−35; 27:13, 15).  Ps.-Procopius interprets her as a personification of sensual pleasure.  St. Ambrose of Milan (fl. 390 AD) similarly interpreted the strange woman as voluptas in Cain and Abel 4.13−5.15, a paraphrase and expansion of Philo’s discussion of the two wives of the soul (On the Sacrifices of Cain and Abel 1.5.21−34), itself a reworking of Prodicus moral fable, Hercules at the Crossroads.  There are obvious close connections between this interpretation and Philo’s discussion of pleasure’s role in the fall of Adam and Eve in his Allegorical Interpretation.  Indeed, what we might call Ps.-Procopius ‘orthodox Philonism’ (unlike, say, Origen, who typically elaborates on Philo, introducing new doctrinal elements) is very noticeable.

The strange woman is not merely synonymous with sensual pleasure, but represents a complex of psychological processes associated with excessive interest in sensual pleasure.  She also distorts judgment and misleads with false reasoning.  Importantly, she has ulterior motivation, connected with opposition to the life of virtue.  Her ways lead to death and destruction.  According to this view, serious moral error originates not merely in our natural interest in maximizing pleasure, but in a self-destructive energy present in the psyche (cf. the thanatos of Freud’s theories, and pthoras in Philo.)

Opposed to the strange woman is the ‘wife of thy youth’ (Prv 5:15−19) and the good woman of Proverbs 31:10−31, a personification of virtue and Wisdom.

My principal interest here is to alert readers to the existence of Ps-Procopius’ Commentary, argue for it’s importance — both for its own sake and in the history of Platonic and psychological Bible exegesis —and to encourage people to read Gohl’s translation.  However a few excerpts will suffice to illustrate the themes of the work.

Using a familar Platonic and Stoic trope, Ps.-Procopius connects Wisdom with guidance of the mind amidst storms of passions; cf. St. Basil, Homily on the Beginning of Proverbs (Gohl, 2017, 26−29):

Proverbs 1:5b. “And the one who is intelligent will acquire steering.” (LXX).  The one here who has received the true knowledge of existing things [onton episteme], and who likewise recognizes how unstable is the movement of human affairs, is equipped to voyage across (for neither the good fortunes and things desired by the multitudes, nor the misfortunes and downturn of matters have any stability or regularity). Even in the stillness of life, he will expect the changes of all those things to advance on him like a current, and he will not depend upon present things as if they were immortal. And in the more sullen condition, he will not give himself over to despair, such that he might be swallowed up by excessive sorrow, but having the mind as a kind of pilot, controlling the flesh as if it were a boat, and deftly steering the thoughts as though a helm, he will bravely ride the waves, those things stirred up by the passions as though from some violent surging of the fleshly mind. He will be high above these things and difficult to access, in no way being swamped with the brine of these things. And he always remains as the same kind of person, neither being excited by cheerful things, nor falling down into misfortunes.

Here he asserts the principle of the golden mean, a concept we most often associate with Aristotle (i.e., virtue is a right mean between exctremes of excess and deficiency), but which is found in Plato, too:

Proverbs 4:27. “Do not turn to the right nor to the left.” (LXX).  Do not turn aside unto the passions with regard to an excess of virtue, nor unto the [passions] with regard to a deficiency [of virtue]. “And turn your foot away from a way of evil and perversion.” If something of this sort should happen to you, with your intellect being moved toward these things, make [your intellect] cross over promptly, from the ruin that comes with vice in accordance with a deficiency of virtue, and [from the ruin] that comes with evil in accordance with an excess [of virtue], where there is love of labor only, in such a degree that one pursues the good, not for the sake of God, but for the sake of pleasing man.

The strange woman:

Proverbs 5:20. “Do not be much with the strange woman.” (LXX). Do not let the rational part [of your soul] be immoderate with one who is alienated from reason, in accordance with sensible pleasure. But even though you partake of drink or sleep for the sake of the body’s sustenance, and though you are intimate with [your] lawful wife for the sake of bearing children—to which things pleasure is naturally attached—do make use of all of these things with self-control.

The strange woman represents not only sensual pleasure, but, by extension, also the folly that inordinate interest in pleasure produces:

Proverbs 5:5. “For the feet of folly bring those who use her down with death unto Hades.” (LXX). For the impulses of irrationality, along with the natural death itself coming from sin, pull down those who have dealings with it to the utter destruction in terms of somatic ruin.

Inordinate interest in sensual pleasure also produces distorted judgments of what’s good:

Proverbs 5:6. “For she does not travel the ways of life.” (LXX).  For it does not pass through, in terms of practice, the divine commandments that bring [one] unto the life that is eternal and blessed in spirit. “And her paths are perilous, and not easily discerned.” And its courses with regard to contemplation (theoria) err in the judgment of the good, since they do not look to the good with truth, but with false conception (pseudei hypolexei); and they are not apprehended easily in this way, because of the deceit of temporary pleasures.

Bibliography

Colson, F. H.; Whitaker, G. H. (trs.). Philo: On the Sacrifices of Abel and Cain. In: Philo, Volume 2. Loeb Classical Library L227. Harvard University Press, 1929.

DelCogliano, Mark. St. Basil the Great: On Christian Doctrine and Practice. Popular Patristics Series 47. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012; pp. 39-78.

Delitzsch, Franz. Biblical Commentary on the Proverbs of Solomon. Vol. 1. M. G. Easton (tr.). T&T Clark, 1874.

Devreesse, Robert. Chaînes exégétiques grecques. In: Dictionnaire de la Bible. Supplément 1. Paris, 1928, pp. 1083−1234.

Gohl, Justin M. St. Basil the Great, Homily 12: On the Beginning of Proverbs (PG 31.385−424). Translation & Notes. 2017.

Gohl, Justin M. Pseudo-Procopius of Gaza, Commentary on Proverbs 1-9 (Ἑρμηνεία εἰς τὰς Παροιμίας). 2019.

Procopius of Gaza (attr.). Interpretation of Proverbs (Ἑρμηνεία εἰς τὰς Παροιμίας).  J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca 87.1 1219−1544.  Paris, 1865.

Procopius of Gaza. Commentaria in Proverbia et in Canticum canticorum. In: Nicetas David (ed.), Catena in libros Sapientiales. Parchment, 1050−1150 AD. MS. Parisinus gr. 153, f. 59-117v.

Savage, John J. (tr.). Saint Ambrose: Hexameron, Paradise, and Cain And Abel. Fathers of the Church 42. Catholic University of America, 1961.

Uebersax, John S. The strange woman of Proverbs. 2009. Christian Platonism website. https://catholicgnosis.wordpress.com/2009/05/19/the-strange-woman-of-proverbs/

Uebersax, John S. Philo on the two wives of the soul. 2010. Christian Platonism website. https://catholicgnosis.wordpress.com/2010/02/22/philo-on-the-two-wives-of-the-soul/

Uebersax, John S.  The archetypal meaning of Hercules at the Crossroads. 2020. Christian Platonism website. https://catholicgnosis.wordpress.com/2020/03/02/crossroads-archetype/

Westberg, David. Rhetorical exegesis in Procopius of Gaza’s Commentary on Genesis. In: S. Rubenson (ed.), Early Monasticism and Classical Paideia. Studia Patristica LV, Peeters, 2013, pp. 95−108.

1st draft, 8 Mar 2020

The Archetypal Meaning of Hercules at the Crossroads

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Annibale Carracci, The Choice of Hercules, 1596

THE ATHENIAN philosopher and rhetorician, Prodicus, a contemporary of Socrates, wrote an essay commonly known as Hercules at the Crossroads, which he often delivered orally to appreciative crowds. A moral allegory of deep psychological significance, it describes a young Hercules at a crossroads confronted by two women who personify Vice and Virtue.  Each appeals to him to take a different route: Lady Vice claims the easy path will lead to pleasure and happiness; Lady Virtue reminds him that the road to true and lasting satisfaction is the harder and more toilsome route.

Our best source of the story is Xenophon’s dialogue Memorabilia (2.1.21–34), wherein Socrates is presented as relating Prodicus’ story to a young protege named Aristippus (evidently not the eponymous founder of the Cyrenaic philosophical sect).

Thanks to Xenophon, the story was well known and often alluded to throughout antiquity and beyond.  Cicero, in On Moral Duties (1.32.118; 3.5.25), a work addressed to his son, mentions Prodicus’ tale in the context of choosing ones career.  Others, too, have understood the tale as referring choosing one’s long term course in life.  However we have good reason to believe the story has a deeper psychological and more existential meaning.

One clue to the deeper meaning is the strong appeal of the story throughout the centuries to the artistic imagination.  As Erwin Panovsky (1930) in a seminal work on art history describes, Prodicus story elicited scores of paintings and drawings beginning in the Renaissance.

Another clue to a deeper meaning is to see how this same theme is expressed in many variations throughout antiquity.  The earliest and best known example in the Greek tradition is Hesiod’s Works and Days 1.287−294.

Wickedness (κακότητα; kakotes) can be had in abundance easily: smooth is the road and very nigh she dwells. But in front of virtue (ἀρετῆς; arete) the gods immortal have put sweat: long and steep is the path to her and rough at first; but when you reach the top, then at length the road is easy, hard though it was.
Source: Hesiod, Works and Days 1.287−294 (tr. Evelyn-White)

This passage serves as a virtual epitome of book 1 of Works and Days, which also contains the Pandora and Ages of Man myths, both allegories of the moral fall.

In Greek mythology, a similar trope is found in the Judgment of Paris, where Paris must choose which goddess is more beautiful: Athena, Hera or Aphrodite — allegorically symbolizing Wisdom, domestic virtue, and sensory pleasure, respectively.  His choice of Aphrodite over Athena and Hera led to the Trojan War.  If we understand the Trojan War as allegorically symbolizing the principle of psychomachia, or conflict between virtuous and unvirtuous elements of the human psyche, then the Judgment of Paris may be understood as symbolizing a depth-psychological dynamic that precipitates a fundamental form of  inner conflict.

Plato cites the above passage of Hesiod in two of his works (Republic 2.364d  and Laws 4.718e−719a). Moreover, in two underworld myths presented in his dialogues (Republic 10.614c−d and Gorgias 524a−527a), he describes a parting of two paths — one associated virtue and leading to the Isles of the Blest, and one associated with vice and leading to punishment in Tartarus. If we understand the underworld as symbolizing depth-psychological processes, it suggests that Plato is saying that orienting our mind wrongly leads to internal self-inflicted punishments, the ultimate aim of which is to educated and reform us (Gorgias 525b−c).

The same trope of a parting of the ways in an underworld journey is found in Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid (Smith, 2000).  Further, an epigram attributed (probably incorrectly, but perhaps written within a century of Virgil’s death) describes what is commonly called the Pythagorean Y (so-named because of the resemblance of ‘Y’ to a forking path):

This letter of Pythagoras, that bears
This fork’d distinction, to conceit prefers
The form man’s life bears. Virtue’s hard way takes
Upon the right hand path, which entry makes
(To sensual eyes) with difficult affair ;
But when ye once have climb’d the highest stair,
The beauty and the sweetness it contains,
Give rest and comfort, far past all your pains.’
The broadway in a bravery paints ye forth,
(In th’ entry) softness, and much shade of worth;
But when ye reach the top, the taken ones
It headlong hurls down, torn at sharpest stones.
He then, whom virtues love, shall victor crown
Of hardest fortunes, praise wins and renown:
But he that sloth and fruitless luxury
Pursues, and doth with foolish wariness fly
Opposed pains (that all best acts befall).
Lives poor and vile, and dies despised of all.
(tr. George Chapman)

Like Hercules at the Crossroads, the Pythagorean Y inspired many Renaissance works of art.

Philo of Alexandria (fl. ca. 20 AD), the Jewish Middle Platonist philosopher (and, as it happens, the virtual father of Christian allegorical interpretation of the Bible), expanded on Prodicus’ theme in a discussion of the ‘two wives of the soul’ (On the Sacrifices of Cain and Abel 1.5.21−34).  Philo’s treatment is quite interesting in its own right, in part because of his remarkable list of over 150 negative adjectives to describe a votary of Pleasure (who plays the role of Vice in Prodicus’ tale).  Readers of Philo will immediately recognize the connection of the story with his allegorical interpretation of the Garden of Eden myth.

Centuries later, St. Ambrose of Milan (fl. 390 AD), in Cain and Abel 4.13−5.15, paraphrased Philo’s discussion and connected it with the ‘strange woman’ (Uebersax, 2009) in the Book of Proverbs (Prv 2:16−19; 5:3−8; 5:15−19; 5:20; 6:24−26; 7:5−27; 9:13−18; 20:16; 22:14; 23:27−35; 27:13, 15), a personification of pleasure and/or folly, and opponent of the virtuous ‘wife of thy youth.’ (Prv 5:15−19).

The theme of two paths associated with a choice or judgment concerning virtue vs. wickedness occurs throughout the Old and New Testament.  Perhaps best known is Psalm 1 (traditionally called The Two Paths).

When we find the same theme like this so prominently expressed across many times and traditions, it implies some universal, archetypal psychological dynamic of fundamental significance. That, I believe, is the case here. This is not a simple, prosaic morality tale such that “one must choose good and not evil.” Rather it confronts us with the existential fact — readily verifiable by introspection and close attention to thoughts — that we are always, every moment at our lives, faced with the two paths:  we can direct the immediate energies of our mind towards seeking physical pleasure, or to virtue, spirituality and higher cognitive activity.  When we choose the latter, all is well. Our mind is a harmony.  This is the path of life. But the moment we stop actively choosing virtue, our mind lapses into its immature state dominated by the pleasure principle; we are no longer true to our genuine nature, and a cascading sequence of negative mental events ensues.

This is not unlike the Freudian distinction between the pleasure principle and the reality principle, which, according to him, it is the principal task of the ego to broker.  However in this case, the reality principle is replaced by what we might call the virtue principle:  that our psyche is, in its core, fundamentally aligned with virtue.  In a sense this is still a reality principle — but, here the reality is that our nature seeks virtue.

To choose the path of virtue, wisdom and righteousness on an ongoing basis is not easy. It is, rather, as Plato calls it, the contest of contests (Gorgias 526e) and requires a degree of resolve and effort we may perhaps rightly call Herculean.

Bibliography

Colson, F. H.; Whitaker, G. H. (trs.). Philo: On the Sacrifices of Abel and Cain. In: Philo, Volume 2. Loeb Classical Library L227. Harvard University Press, 1929.

Evelyn-White, Hugh G. (tr.). Hesiod: Works and Days. In: Hesiod, Homeric Hymns and Homerica. Loeb Classical Library L057. Harvard University Press, 1943.

Marchant, E. C. Xenophon: Memorabilia and Oeconomicus. Harvard University Press, 1923. http://data.perseus.org/texts/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0032.tlg002.perseus-eng1

Miller, Walter (tr.). Cicero: De Officiis. Loeb Classical Library L030. Harvard University Press, 1913. https://archive.org/details/deofficiiswithen00ciceuoft

Panofsky, Erwin. Hercules am Scheidewege und andere antike Bildstoffi in der neueren Kunst, Studien der Bibliothek Warburg 18, Leipzig, 1930.

Rochette, Bruno. Héraclès à la croissé des chemins: un topos dans la literature grécolatine. Études Classiques 66, 1998, 105−113.

Savage, John J. (tr.). Saint Ambrose: Hexameron, Paradise, and Cain And Abel. Fathers of the Church 42. Catholic University of America, 1961.

Smith, Richard Upsher. The Pythagorean letter and Virgil’s golden bough. Dionysius 18, 2000, pp. 7−24. https://dialnet.unirioja.es/revista/10126/A/2000

Uebersax, John S.  The strange woman of Proverbs. 2009. https://catholicgnosis.wordpress.com/2009/05/19/the-strange-woman-of-proverbs/

1st draft, 1 Mar 2020

The Seven Virtues and Fifty Sub-Virtues of Medieval Christianity

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

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

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

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

Prudentia (Prudence)

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

Justitia (Justice)

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

Fortitudo (Courage)

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

Temperantia (Temperance)

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

Fides (Faith)

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

Spes (Hope)

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

Caritas (Charity)

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

Bibliography

Goggin, Cheryl Gohdes. Copying manuscript illuminations: The Trees of Vices and Virtues. Visual Resources, 2004, 20:2-3, 179−198. https://doi.org/10.1080/0197376042000207552

Hugo de S. Victore. De fructibus carnis et spiritus. J. P. Migne. Patrologia Latina, Paris, 1854; cols. 997−1010 (rough diagrams of the Tree of Vices and Tree of Virtues appear at the end of the work).  Latin text is online: http://mlat.uzh.ch/?c=2&w=HuDeSVi.DeFrCaE

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

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

Art: “Tree of Virtues” from Speculum Virginum, Walters Art Museum Ms. W.72, fol. 26r; early 13th century manuscript from the Cistercian abbey of Himmerode, Germany. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Virtues_Speculum_Virginum_W72_26r.jpg

 

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)

On Dogmatic Agnosticism

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Many people who call themselves agnostics are arguably dogmatists.  Why do I say this?  Because today atheistic-materialism is a received opinion, a dogma.  And the dominant cultural assumption, as expressed in higher education and mass media, is that Christianity is obsolete, disproven, and all but finished as a paradigm.  Someone like the comedian, Bill Maher, can get on television and make snide jokes about Christians, and imply by innuendo that all Christians are basically stupid bigots, and everyone accepts these statements as completely ordinary, or even ‘cool’.  Nobody expects him to defend his accusations with intelligent arguments.

The problem is that this so-called conclusion is very far from the truth. Christianity has not been refuted or debunked.  Rather, the logical fallacy of ‘demolishing a straw man’ has been committed on a massive scale.  The poorest examples of Christianity (e.g., fundamentalists) are held up as the examples, and these are ridiculed.

The problem is that Christianity is not defined by it’s poorer examples.  In the same way, if we wanted to ridicule democracy as a principle, we could easily find examples where democracy is abused, ridicule those, and thereby conclude that all democracy is bad.  The same principle applies to any ideology or institution.  The simple truth, evident at least since the time of Socrates, is that *most people* are deeply confused.  Christianity is no exception to this rule.  In fact, one could argue that confused people *should* join a religion — since the express purpose of religion is to un-confuse people.  But no religion claims to do that without a long process.  Hence, it is perfectly consistent with the principles of Christianity that, at any given point in time, most Christians are poor Christians!

A true agnosticism would embrace the principle of intellectual humility.  An intellectually humble person doesn’t follow the scenario outlined above. Intellectually humble skeptics or agnostics would recognize their  ignorance as a liability, and therefore make a determined effort to investigate all plausible possibilities that might lead them to a definitive, or at least probable, opinion.

The first prerequisite of such an orientation, therefore, would be to struggle heroically to divest oneself of prejudice — for all people, being inclined to self-interest, habitually distort and select evidence in self-serving ways.  Next, a virtuous skeptic, in the Socratic tradition, would seek out not the worst examples of an opposing viewpoint, but the best.

Here then is my challenge to skeptics or agnostics who want to exert themselves manfully (or womanfully).  I propose that the work of the Roman philosopher, Cicero, titled On Moral Duties (De officiis) expresses, even though it is not an explicitly Christian work, essentially the same religious world view on morality as Christianity does.  What I’m suggesting is that the work is something extraordinary, sublime, beyond the merely rational, or, if you will, inspired.  Cicero’s eclectic synthesis of Platonic, Stoic, and Aristotelian ethics was integrated into Christianity via the later writers such as Ambrose of Milan, St. Augustine, and many others. The spirit of Christian morality is in it.  That is, Cicero’s philosophical writings contain much of what is best in the Christian moral tradition.  Yes, Christianity assimilated it from a non-Christian writer, but this was done, for the most part, in conscious recognition and admiration of Cicero.

Cicero’s work is also extremely interesting and entertaining to read.  It is a literary masterpiece, and ought to be read by everyone.   Nor can I imagine anyone reading without their feeling edified.

That is the proposal I would make to the sincere skeptic or agnostic.  Read this work, and having your mind placed on a higher plane, as reading the work should do, then in that light you will have a more solid and unprejudiced basis for evaluating the plausibility of the Christian tradition.  If the moral principles advocated by Cicero in the work, for example, are laudable and socially constructive, that would be something to factor into an evaluation of the merits and truth of Christianity, which has preserved this moral tradition, and taught it to countless millions of people.

This page has links to several translations of On Moral Duties that can be read online or downloaded.  The Peabody translation is excellent.

Written by John Uebersax

March 29, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Timeline of Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers

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I made this timeline to help with my research and am uploading it in case others might fight it useful.  Several birth or death dates are conjectural.

Second draft

Neostoicism

Errata.  (1) Cicero is more of an Academic Platonist, but deserves honorable mention as a major transmitter of Stoic doctrine; (2) need to add Attalus, a teacher of Seneca, to figure.

For more information :

Stoics

Epicureans

Written by John Uebersax

September 3, 2010 at 10:15 pm

Posted in philosophy, Stoicism

The Socratic Schools of Philosophy

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Often when we think of Socrates we think of Plato almost exclusively, and forget that Socrates’ other pupils made important contributions. Each of these schools emphasized some important aspect of Socrates’ teachings. Rather than focus on one school, such as Platonism, Stoicism, or Epicureanism, exclusively, we do well to study them all, seeking  to integrate the insights associated with each.


For more information:

Written by John Uebersax

August 13, 2010 at 6:14 pm