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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

Epilogue – Philo on the Strange Woman of the Old Testament

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Here is Philo’s practical suggestion for responding to the lure of the strange woman.

Philo – On the Giants (De Gigantibus) 10.43-44

(43) Now it is well not to desert the ranks of God, in which it follows inevitably that all who are arrayed must be most excellent, and it would be shameful to quit those ranks, to fly to unmanly and effeminate pleasure, which injures its friends and benefits its enemies, for its nature is a very singular one; for all those to whom it chooses to give a share of its special advantages, it at once chastises and injures; and those whom it thinks fit to deprive of its good things, it benefits in the greatest possible degree, for it injures them when it gives, but it benefits them when it takes away.

(44) If therefore, O my soul, any one of the temptations of pleasure invites you, turn yourself away, and directing your views towards another point, look at the genuine beauty of virtue, and having surveyed it, remain, until a desire for it has sunk into you, and draws you to it, like a magnet, and immediately leads you and attaches you to that which has become the object of your desire.

Philo Judaeus. De gigantibus

43. καλὸν δὲ μὴ λιποτακτῆσαι μὲν τῆς τοῦ θεοῦ τάξεως, ἐν ᾗ τοὺς τεταγμένους πάντας ἀριστεύειν ἀνάγκη, αὐτομολῆσαι δὲ πρὸς τὴν ἄνανδρον καὶ κεκλασμένην ἡδονήν, ἣ βλάπτει μὲν τοὺς φίλους, ὠφελεῖ δὲ τοὺς ἐχθρούς. καινοτάτη γάρ τις αὐτῆς ἡ φύσις· οἷς μὲν ἂν ἐθελήσῃ τῶν ἰδίων ἀγαθῶν μεταδοῦναι, τούτους εὐθὺς ἐζημίωσεν, οὓς δ’ ἂν ἀφελέσθαι, τὰ μέγιστα ὤνησε· βλάπτει μὲν γὰρ ὅταν διδῷ, χαρίζεται δὲ ὅταν ἀφαιρῆται.

44. ἐὰν οὖν, ὦ ψυχή, προσκαλῆταί σέ τι τῶν ἡδονῆς φίλτρων, μετάκλινε σεαυτὴν καὶ ἀντιπεριάγουσα τὴν ὄψιν κάτιδε τὸ γνήσιον ἀρετῆς κάλλος καὶ ὁρῶσα ἐπίμεινον, ἄχρις ἂν ἵμερος ἐντακῇ σοι καὶ ὡς σιδηρῖτις λίθος ἐπισπάσηταί σε καὶ ἐγγὺς ἀγάγῃ καὶ ἐξαρτήσῃ τοῦ ποθουμένου.

Written by John Uebersax

March 6, 2010 at 7:24 am

Philo on the Two Wives of the Soul

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Philo on the Two Wives of the Soul

This most remarkable treatise, an allegory on virtue and vice, is due to Philo of Alexandria. Owing to its omission in some critical editions (notably the Greek/Latin edition of Thomas Mangey [Mangey; 1745; Mangey & Pfeiffer, 1820])  there is some confusion about in which of Philo’s works it belongs. Some editions place it at the end of Special Laws I, but others place it in  Book 1 of On the Sacrifices of Cain and Abel.

Besides paralleling the Old Testament theme of the strange woman, it is reminiscent of “The Choice of Hercules”, found in Xenophon’s Memorobilia of Socrates 2.1.21-34.  There, Xenophon, who includes this narrative as an illustration of the ethical teachings of Socrates, paraphrases a lost treatise by the Athenian sophist, Prodicus.   Even by the standards of Philo, the work below is unusually prolix — although skillfully and with good effect; one might well imagine it having partly originated with the legendary rhetorician, Prodicus.

St. Ambrose of Milan’s work, On Cain and Abel (1.13 ff.) follows Philo’s text here closely.

The version here is as shown on the Early Christian Writings website, in On the Sacrifices of Cain and Abel, from the translation of Charles Duke Yonge, The Works of Philo Judeaus (Vol  3. “On the Wages of a Harlot”); the numbering supposes it’s placement in On the Sacrifices of Cain and Abel 1.5.21-34:

Book 1, Chapter V.

(19) And concerning this doctrine Moses also records a law, which he makes with great beauty and suitableness. And it runs thus, “If a man have two wives, the one of them beloved and the other hated; and if both the one who is beloved and the one who is hated have borne him children, and if the child of her who is hated is the firstborn, then it shall be in the day in which he divides the inheritance of his possessions among his sons that he shall not be able to give the inheritance of the first-born to the son of the wife that is beloved, overlooking his first-born son, the son of her who is hated; but he shall recognise the son of her who is hated as his first-born, to give him a double share of all the property that he has acquired; because he is the beginning of his children, and the right of the first-born is His.”[Deut. 21:15].

(20) Consider, O my soul, and know who it is who is hated, and who is the son of her who is hated, and immediately you shall perceive that the chief rights and chief honours belong to no one else but to him alone; for there are two wives cohabiting with each individual of us, hostile and inimical to one another, filling the abode of the soul with the contentions which arise from jealousy. Of these we love one, which is gentle and tractable, and which we think very affectionate and akin to ourselves, and its name is pleasure; but the other we hate, looking upon it as untameable, ungentle, fierce, and very hostile to us, and the name of this one is virtue. Now what mortal is ignorant of the great mysteries of that exceedingly beautiful and greatly contended for pleasure? And who could worthily describe the multitude or the greatness of the good things which are treasured up by Virtue? [Footnote 1]

(21) For two women live with each individual among us, both unfriendly and hostile to one another, filling the whole abode of the soul with envy, and jealousy, and contention; of these we love the one looking upon her as being mild and tractable, and very dear to and very closely connected with ourselves, and she is called pleasure; but the other we detest, deeming her unmanageable, savage, fierce, and most completely hostile, and her name is virtue. Accordingly, the one comes to us luxuriously dressed in the guise of a harlot and prostitute, with mincing steps, rolling her eyes about with excessive licentiousness and desire, by which baits she entraps the souls of the young, looking about with a mixture of boldness and impudence, holding up her head, and raising herself above her natural height, fawning and giggling, having the hair of her head dressed with most superfluous elaborateness, having her eyes pencilled, her eyebrows covered over, using incessant warm baths, painted with a fictitious colour, exquisitely dressed with costly garments, richly embroidered, adorned with armlets, and bracelets, and necklaces, and all other ornaments which can be made of gold, and precious stones, and all kinds of female decorations; loosely girdled, breathing of most fragrant perfumes, thinking the whole market her home; a marvel to be seen in the public roads, out of the scarcity of any genuine beauty, pursuing a bastard elegance.

(22) And with her there walk as her most intimate friends, bold cunning, and rashness, and flattery, and trick, and deceit, and false speaking, and false opinion, and impiety, and injustice, and intemperance, in the middle of which she advances like the leader of the company, and marshalling her band, speaks thus to her mind, “My good friend, the treasuries of all human blessings and stores of happiness are in my power (for as for divine blessings they are all in heaven), and besides them you will find nothing.

(23) “If you will dwell with me I will open to you all these treasures, and will bestow on you for ever the most unsparing use and enjoyment of them. And I desire to inform you beforehand of the multitude of good things which I have stored up there, that if you are so inclined you may of your own accord live happily, and that if you refuse you may not decline them out of ignorance.

“There is in my power perfect relaxation, and exemption from all fear, and tranquillity, and a complete absence of all care and labour, and an abundant variety of colours, and most melodious intonations of the voice, and all kinds of costly viands and drinks, and plentiful varieties of the sweetest scents, and continual loves, and sports such as require no teacher, and connections which will never be inquired into, and speeches which will have no shade of reproof in them, and actions free from all necessity of being accounted for, and a life free from anxiety, and soft sleep, and abundance without any feeling of satiety.

(24) If therefore you are inclined to take up your abode with me, I will give you what is suitable for you of all the things which I have prepared, considering carefully by eating or drinking what you may be most thoroughly cheered, or by what sights addressed to your eyes, or by what sounds visiting your ears, or by the small of what fragrant odours you may be most delighted. “And nothing which you can desire shall be wanting to you; for you shall find what is produced anew more abundant than what is expended and consumed;

(25) for in the treasuries which I have mentioned there are ever-flourishing plants, blossoming and producing an incessant series of fruits, so that the beauty of those in their prime and fresh appearing overtakes and overshadows those which are already fully ripe; and no war, either domestic or foreign, has ever cut down these plants, but from the very day that the earth first received them it has cherished them like a faithful nurse, sending down into its lowest depths the roots to act like the strongest branches, and above ground extending its trunk as high as heaven, and putting forth branches which are by analogy imitations of the hand and feet which we see in animals, and leaves which correspond to the hair. I have prepared and caused that to blossom which shall be at the same time a covering and an ornament to you; and besides all this, I have provided fruit for the sake of which the branches and leaves are originally produced.”

(26) When the other woman heard these words (for she was standing in a place where she was out of sight but still within hearing), Bouguereau_The_Virgin_With_Angelsfearing lest the mind, without being aware of it, might be led captive and be enslaved, and so be carried away by so many gifts and promises, yielding also to the tempter in that she was arrayed so as to win over the sight, and was equipped with great variety of ingenuity for the purposes of deceit; for by all her necklaces and other appendages, and by her different allurements, she spurred on and charmed her beholders, and excited a wonderful desire within them; she in her turn came forward, and appeared on a sudden, displaying all the qualities of a native, free-born, and lady-like woman, such as a firm step, a very gentle look, the native colour of modesty and nature without any alloy or disguise, an honest disposition, a genuine and sincere way of life, a plain, honest opinion, an language removed from all insincerity, the truest possible image of a sound and honest heart, a disposition averse to pretence, a quiet unobtrusive gait, a moderate style of dress, and the ornaments of prudence and virtue, more precious than any gold.

(27) And she was attended by piety, and holiness, and truth, and right, and purity, and an honest regard for an oath, and justice, and equality, and adherence to one’s engagements and communion, and prudent silence, and temperance, and orderliness, and meekness, and abstemiousness, and contentment, and good-temper, and modesty, and an absence of curiosity about the concerns of others, and manly courage, and a noble disposition and wisdom in counsel, and prudence, and forethought, and attention, and correctness, and cheerfulness, and humanity, and gentleness, and courtesy, and love of one’s kind, and magnanimity, and happiness, and goodness. One day would fail me if I were to enumerate all the names of the particular virtues.

(28) And these all standing on each side of her, were her bodyguards, while she was in the middle of them.

And she, having assumed an appearance familiar to her, began to speak as follows: “I have seen pleasure, that worker of wonderous tricks, that conjuror and teller of fables, dressed in a somewhat tragic style, and constantly approaching you in a delicate manner; so that (for I myself do by nature detest everything that is evil) I feared lest, without being aware of it, you might be deceived, and might consent to the very greatest of evils as if they were exceeding good; and therefore I have thought fit to declare to you with all sincerity what really belongs to that woman, in order that you might not reject anything advantageous to you out of ignorance, and so proceed unintentionally on the road of transgression and unhappiness.

(29) “Know, then, that the very dress in which she appear to you wholly belongs to some one else; for of ten things which contribute to genuine beauty, not one is ever brought forward as being derived from or as belonging to her. But she is hung round with nets and snares with which to catch you with a bastard and adulterated beauty, which you, beholding beforehand, will, if you are wise, take care that her pursuit shall be unprofitable to her; for when she appears she conciliates your eyes, and when she speaks she wins over your ears; and by these, and by all other parts of her conduct, she is well calculated by nature to injure your soul, which is the most valuable of all your possessions; and all the different circumstances belonging to her, which were likely to be attractive to you if you heard of them, she enumerated; but all those which would not have been alluring she suppressed and made no mention of, but, meaning mischief to you, concealed utterly, as she very naturally expected that no one would readily agree with them.”

(30) But I, stripping off all her disguises, will reveal her to you; and I will not myself imitate the ways of pleasure, so as to show you nothing in me but what is alluring, and to conceal and to keep out of sight everything that has any unpleasantness or harshness in it; but, on the contrary, I will say nothing about those matters which do of themselves give delight and pleasure, well knowing that such things will of themselves find a voice by their effects; but I will fully detail to you all that is painful and difficult to be borne about me, putting them plainly forward with their naked appellation, so that their nature may be visible and plain even to those whose sight is somewhat dim. For the things which, when offered by me, appear to be the greatest of my evils, will in effect be found to be more honourable and more beneficial to the users than the greatest blessings bestowed by pleasure. But, before I begin to speak of what I myself have to give, I will mention all that may be mentioned of those things which are kept in the back ground by her. John Waterhouse - Siren

(31) For she, when she spoke of what she had stored up in her magazines, such as colours, sounds, flavours, smells, distinctive qualities, powers relating to touch and to every one of the outward senses, and having softened them all by the allurements which she offered to the hearing, made no mention at all of those other qualities which are her misfortunes and diseases; which, however, you will of necessity experience if you choose those pleasures which she offers; that so, being borne aloft by the breeze of some advantage, you may be taken in her toils.

(32) Know, then, my good friend, that if you become a votary of pleasure you will be all these things: a bold, cunning, audacious, unsociable, uncourteous, inhuman, lawless, savage, illtempered, unrestrainable, worthless man; deaf to advice, foolish, full of evil acts, unteachable, unjust, unfair, one who has no participation with others, one who cannot be trusted in his agreements, one with whom there is no peace, covetous, most lawless, unfriendly, homeless, cityless, seditious, faithless, disorderly, impious, unholy, unsettled, unstable, uninitiated, profane, polluted, indecent, destructive, murderous, illiberal, abrupt, brutal, slavish, cowardly, intemperate, irregular, disgraceful, shameful, doing and suffering all infamy, colourless, immoderate, unsatiable, insolent, conceited, self-willed, mean, envious, calumnious, quarrelsome, slanderous, greedy, deceitful, cheating, rash, ignorant, stupid, inharmonious, dishonest, disobedient, obstinate, tricky, swindling, insincere, suspicious, hated, absurd, difficult to detect, difficult to avoid, destructive, evil-minded, disproportionate, an unreasonable chatterer, a proser, a gossip, a vain babbler, a flatterer, a fool, full of heavy sorrow, weak in bearing grief, trembling at every sound, inclined to delay, inconsiderate, improvident, impudent, neglectful of good, unprepared, ignorant of virtue, always in the wrong, erring, stumbling, ill-managed, ill-governed, a glutton, a captive, a spendthrift, easily yielding, most crafty, double-minded, double-tongued, perfidious, treacherous, unscrupulous, always unsuccessful, always in want, infirm of purpose, fickle, a wanderer, a follower of others, yielding to impulses, open to the attacks of enemies, mad, easily satisfied, fond of life, fond of vain glory, passionate, ill-tempered, lazy, a procrastinator, suspected, incurable, full of evil jealousies, despairing, full of tears, rejoicing in evil, frantic, beside yourself, without any steady character, contriving evil, eager for disgraceful gain, selfish, a willing slave, an eager enemy, a demagogue, a bad steward, stiffnecked, effeminate, outcast, confused, discarded, mocking, injurious, vain, full of unmitigated unalloyed misery.

(33) These are the great mysteries of that very beautiful and much to be sought for pleasure, which she designedly concealed and kept out of sight, from a fear that if you knew of them you would turn away from any meeting with her. But who is there who could worthily describe either the multitude or the magnitude of the good things which are stored up in my treasure houses? They who have partaken of them already know it, and those whose nature is mild will hereafter know, when they have been invited to a participation in the banquet, not the banquet at which the pleasures of the satiated belly make the body fat, but that at which the mind is nourished and at which it revels among the virtues, and exults and revels in their company.

Book 1, Chapter VI.

(34) Now, on account of these things, and because of what was said before, namely, that the things which are really pious, holy, and good do naturally utter a voice from themselves, even while they keep silence, I will desist from saying any more about them; for neither does the sun nor the moon require an interpreter, because they, being on high, fill the whole world with light, the one shining by day and the other by night. But their own brilliancy is an evidence in their case which stands in no need of witnesses, but which is confirmed by the eyes, which are more undeniable judges than the ears.

(35) But I will speak with all freedom of that point in virtue which appears to have the greatest amount of difficulty and perplexity, for this, too, does appear to the imagination, at their first meeting, to be troublesome; but, on consideration, it is found to be very pleasant and, as arising from reason, to be suitable. But labour is the enemy of laziness, as it is in reality the first and greatest of good things, and wages an irreconcilable war against pleasure; for, if we must declare the truth, God has made labour the foundation of all good and of all virtue to man, and without labour you will not find a single good thing in existence among the race of men.

(36) For, as it is impossible to see without light, since neither colours nor eyes are sufficient for the comprehension of things which we arrive at by means of sight (for nature has made light beforehand to serve as a link to connect the two, by which the eye is brought near and adapted to colour, for the powers of both eye and of colour are equally useless in darkness), so in the same manner is the eye of the soul unable to comprehend anything whatever of the actions in accordance with virtue, unless it takes to itself labour as a coadjutor, as the eye borrows the assistance of light; for this, being placed in the middle, between the intellect and the good object which the intellect desires, and understanding the whole nature of both the one and the other, does itself bring about friendship and harmony, two perfect goods between the two things on either hand of it.

Footnote.

1. “Sections 21-33 were misplaced in Yonge’s translation because the edition on whichYonge based his translation, Thomas Mangey, Philonis Iudaei opera omnia graece et latine ad editionem Thomae Mangey collatis aliquot mss. edenda curavit Augustus Fridericus Pfeiffer (Erlangae: In Libraria Heyderiana, 1820), lacked this material. The lines in Yonge’s edition were originally [i.e., in Yonge’s original edition] located in On the Special Laws 2.284ff.”

On this issue, F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker write (Philo, vol. 2, pp. 88-93; Loeb Classical Library,):

“The other [special point] is the history of the sections 21-32, which do not appear in this place in Mangey’s edition nor in Yonge’s translation. These sections containing the allegory of the two women had been incorporated in an otherwise spurious treatise, De Mercede Meretricis. In consequence the archetype of the MSS. from which Turnebus made his edition of 1552 omitted them here, and this was followed in subsequent editions. That their proper place is in this treatise is shown not only by their presence in other MSS., but also by the evidence that Ambrose, whose treatise on Cain and Abel draws largely from Philo, evidently had these sections before him.”

Written by John Uebersax

February 22, 2010 at 1:33 am

The ‘Strange Woman’ of Proverbs

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The ‘Strange Woman’ of Proverbs

[Please note update at end of this article.]

The Book of Proverbs refers to the strange woman. For example, Chapter 5 says:

My son, attend unto my wisdom, and bow thine ear to my understanding:

That thou mayest regard discretion, and that thy lips may keep knowledge.

For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil:

But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. (Proverbs 5:1−4; KJV)

Who is the strange woman mentioned in Proverbs (2:16−19; 6:24−26; 7:5−27; 9:13−18; 20:16; 22:14; 23:27−35; 27:13, 15) and elsewhere in the Old Testament? A search of the web reveals few convincing efforts to answer this question. It seems like this ought to be discussed somewhere online, so we should make the effort to do so here.

It seems clear these verses represent something beyond the literal advice of a father to his son to stay away from prostitutes. That’s certainly good advice, but is a topic more suitable for an instruction manual for fathers than for inspired Holy Scripture.

The strange woman here appears to relate to some realm or dimension of ones own mental experience. In broad terms, she seems to correspond to a class of tempting thoughts, and perhaps also to a part of our nature that produces such thoughts.

To understand the strange woman, it will help to refer to Psalm 1, the preface to Psalms and an important interpretative key to the Wisdom Literature. [A psychological interpretation of Psalm 1 may be found here.]

Verses 1-2 of Psalm 1 tell us:

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. (Psalms 1:1−2; KJV)

The first verse summarizes in a few words the perils of our ordinary waking consciousness. Clearly we should be try to always remain on the right path of thinking and experience, the path of life. Our minds and hearts should be turned towards God. However, as is easily verified, we are continually opposed in this by three kinds of tempting or negative thoughts. Psalm 1 refers to these as (1) counsels of the ungodly, (2) the way of sinners, and (3) the seat of the scornful.

Counsels of the ungodly encompass all manner of vain, useless thoughts that run through our minds: schemes, plans, vague, pointless daydreams, and the like. The way of sinners, in contrast, refers to outright sinful thoughts. And we occupy the seat of the scornful when we engage in hateful, cynical, and inappropriately critical thoughts about others and the world. These are indeed three of the most serious obstacles we face on our spiritual journey.

The strange woman is another member of this rogues gallery. As already noted, there is a potential tendency to interpret this term too literally as a  seductive woman. So narrow an interpretation, however, robs the concept of its full spiritual significance. There is also a danger in adopting too broad an allegorical interpretation. Thus it is potentially going too far to see the strange woman as corresponding to every seductive false doctrine or every form of idolatry. (If such is the meaning, for example, then why assign the figure a specifically female gender?)

It seems more reasonable to assume the author had a particular meaning in mind in applying the analogy of a harlot. This certainly makes sense from a psychological standpoint. Along with the three forms of negative thinking alluded to in Psalm 1:1, sexual and sensual temptations round out a short list of the mental phenomena that psychologically assail us and against which we must maintain vigilance.

The strange woman seems to refers to our concupiscent nature, or, we might say, our concupiscent nature when it is disordered. She is the part of us that is too interested in and attached to sensual and, in particular, sexual pleasure; a part of us that not only enjoys such pleasure, but craves it, desires it, and schemes to get it.

The strange woman beckons and cajoles. She says, “let’s just make this one exception” or “this time won’t count as a sin”, or “we’ll just follow a tempting thought a little ways, then stop before it is a sin”. Or basically, “let’s direct our attention to pleasure, instead of anything good, productive, helpful, or uplifting.”

Beyond simply noting the existence of the strange woman, the author of Proverbs considers her motives. He explains that the agenda of the strange woman is specifically to draw us away from the path of life:

  • Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell.

  • Lest thou shouldest ponder the path of life, her ways are moveable, that thou canst not know them.
     (Proverbs 5: 5−6; KJV)

Not only does the strange woman divert us from the path of life, but she has ulterior motives. Her purpose is not really, as we might think, to obtain pleasure, but has the precise aim to divert us.

This observation fits with our with our actual experience. While sensual and sexual temptations promise pleasure, in reality they offer but little pleasure followed by longer lasting displeasure. One succumbs to temptation and self- indulgence only to find that, soon after, one feels depressed, disillusioned, and disoriented. Thus, by a strictly utilitarian calculus, nothing is gained by following the suggestions of the strange woman. Her promises are deceitful, and they have a darker aim than mere pleasure. The strange woman is a close companion of the wicked man, described in Proverbs 6:12-14, who soweth discord, a figure that represents the psychic principle which works to oppose psychological integration and salvation.

In Proverbs 5 the strange woman is contrasted with another female character, the wife of thy youth. Indeed, perhaps the real question to ask here is not who the strange woman is, but who the wife of thy youth is.

  • Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well.

Let thy fountains be dispersed abroad, and rivers of waters in the streets.

Let them be only thine own, and not strangers’ with thee.

Let thy fountain be blessed: and rejoice with the wife of thy youth. (Proverbs 5: 15−19; KJV)

It is again important not to restrict interpretation here to the literal level (otherwise, how would the “wife of thy youth” carry any meaning to the half of readers who are women?)

To drink waters from thine own cistern means to be mentally guided by the true inspirations which flow from God. This goes along with what Psalm 1 describes as following the path of life and with taking delight in the law or guidance of God. The temptations of the strange woman are likened to water that comes from a different, foreign cistern — one that we should not draw from.

The wife of thy youth could be understood in various ways. One interpretation is suggested by the analysis of Genesis 2 by the great exegete, Philo of Alexandria, which many Church Fathers followed. By this view, Eve, or the female aspect of human nature, corresponds to our feeling or sensual nature. She contrasts with Adam, who represents our intellective nature. The wife of thy youth, then, would correspond to our Eve “nature” before the fall — a companion, friend, and helpmate to our intellect. Our feelings and sensory nature — and by extension the body itself — are, if they are pure and properly ordered to support our relationship with God, helpful and a source of genuine enjoyment. Our body, in short, is a gift from God, to be enjoyed and used properly.

The wife of thy youth can also be interpreted as Wisdom, or the part of the psyche from which Wisdom springs.

Another interpretation is suggested by modern depth psychology. In Jungian psychology, positive female images — which would include the wife of thy youth, correspond to what Jung termed the anima. Like many terms in Jungian psychology, it’s difficult to define the anima precisely, but the term encompassss various aspects of the psyche which, like a mother or female friend, help, support, nurture, and guide the ego. The wife of thy youth, then, would correspond to certain unconscious aspects of the personality which inspire, guide, and help the ego.

In a more general sense, we might say that the wife of thy youth corresponds to the virginal innocence of ones youth, lost, but recoverable. She represents an element of our personality that we knew in our youth, that delighted us, took care of us, and satisfied our need for companionship. A child takes delight simply in being alive, in the thrill and joy of existence, and in learning, discovering, and knowing. Concerning people, a child enjoys simply being with another human being; of making another smile or laugh; of engaging another in play or games; in learning or teaching something.

The contrast between the strange woman and the wife of thy youth presents a choice between two kinds pleasures. On the one hand are the gross, dull, and ephemeral sensual pleasures offered by the strange woman. On the other are pure, eternal, and transcendent pleasures offered by the wife of thy youth — things like spiritual joy, wisdom, and virtue. The latter are the fruits of Eden and the jewels that adorn the heavenly city and the crown of victory. Clearly we should prefer these to sensual pleasures. The strange woman offers only inferior pleasures, and leads us away from the path of life, the path by which we may obtain the truer and better pleasures which God in His great love desires for us.

Update (2 March 2020): Since first writing this, two significant related items have come to my attention that corroborate the analysis here.

First is St. Ambrose’ Cain and Abel is a paraphrase/reworking of Philo’s On the Sacrifices of Cain and Abel. Philo’s treatise includes an expanded (and very remarkable) version of Prodicus’ story of the Choice of Hercules (Sacr. 1.5.21−34), which posits a fundamental choice between Pleasure and Virtue, personified as two women.  In this work Ambrose  (4.13−5.15) repeatedly connects ‘Lady Pleasure’ with the strange woman of Proverbs.

Second is an ancient commentary on Proverbs once attributed to Procopius of Gaza that interprets the strange woman allegorically according to ascetical psychology, and, in particular with the tripartite psychological model of Plato. The work has recently been translated in part (covering Proverbs 1−9) by Justin Gohl.