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On the Six Levels of Contemplation – Richard of Saint-Victor

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Seraphim, Petites Heures de Jean de Berry (14th century)

CHRISTIAN mystics have an elaborate system for classifying contemplative experience. In fact, possibly it’s too systematized; at least I personally have never been able to fully understand it. Accordingly, I’d like to de-mystify (no pun inteded) things by going back early in the tradition, to when this effort to classify and arrange experiences was getting started: systematized, but perhaps not overly so.

To begin then, in the 12th century, Richard of St. Victor proposed a classification of contemplative experience into six ascending grades. The six forms of contemplation are associated with the six winged seraphim in Isaiah’s famous vision (Isaiah 6:1–3). His system strongly influenced St. Bonaventure, who, a century later proposed his own six-fold classification of contemplative experiences.

Richard’s classification is not simply derived from experience (i.e., phenomenological observation), but also relies on a theoretical premise. Specifically, he sees the human mind as having three divisions: (1) sense perception and sensory imagination; (2) discursive reasoning or ratiocination (Latin: ratio; Greek: dianoia); and (3) pure intellection (i.e., immediate intuitive grasp; Greek: noesis). From this three-fold division he derives his six ascending grades of contemplation, as follows:

  1. Sense experience alone. Example: contemplating natural beauty for its own sake; a purely aesthetic experience.)
  2. Sense experience combined with reasoning. Example: contemplating natural beauty, and then thinking about what it implies (e.g., a providential and wise Creator).
  3. Reasoning guided by imagination. Example: admiring a flower and considering how its unfolding petals correspond to human mental development.
  4. Reasoning alone. Example: noticing some process within ones own mind, and that leading to some further self-insight.
  5. Insight above, but not contrary to ratiocination. Example: an insight into some aspect of God’s nature or being that conforms to logic.
  6. Insight above and contrary to or completely uninterpretable by ratiocination. Example: an insight into some aspect of God’s nature or being that is beyond or contradicts logic.

This discussion appears in The Mystical Ark (Benjamin Major) 1.6.

The arrangement is systematic, but not overwhelmingly so. He emphasizes that contemplation is something fluid and dynamic. That is, during contemplation the mind moves freely among these levels. He likens things to a hawk or kestrel that flies higher or lower, sometimes hovering, sometimes diving, sometimes returning for a second look, and so on. This is an intriguing analogy not only because of its aptness, but also because it’s likely an insight derived from his own contemplative practice (level 3 contemplation).

In Book 5 he supplies another classification concerning contemplation at the highest levels, noting that one may experience (1) expansion (dilatio), (2) elevation (sublevatio), and finally (3) ecstatic loss (alienatio) of consciousness.

Benjamin, youngest of Jacob’s 12 sons, is, for Richard, is a symbol of contemplation. He basis this on the Vulgate version of Psalm lxvii.: Ibi Benjamin adolescentulus in mentis excessu: “There is Benjamin, a youth, in ecstasy of mind.” (whereas the modern English Bible reads: “Little Benjamin their ruler.”)

His two works, Benjamin Minor (The Twelve Patriarchs) and Benjamin Major (The Mystical Ark) consider the ascetical/moral preparation for contemplation, and contemplation itself, respectively.

At the birth of Benjamin, his mother Rachel dies, and Richard writes: “For, when the mind of man is rapt above itself, it surpasseth all the limits of human reasoning. Elevated above itself and rapt in ecstasy, it beholdeth things in the divine light at which all human reason succumbs. What, then, is the death of Rachel, save the failing of reason?” (Benjamin Minor 73).

So in sum, we can see that Richard’s ‘system’ (if that’s a fair term to apply) is a felicitious combination of knowledge derived from experience and dialectic. As such it represents, arguably, a remarkably high level of synthesis between experience, creative imagination, insight and rational analysis.

A century later Scholasticism would be in full swing, the balance leaning progressively more and more (up to this day!) towards intellectual analysis (or perhaps we should say, towards a dissociation of rationalism and mysticism).

References

Richard of Saint-Victor. Omnia opera. Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. MIGNE (Paris 1878–90) 196.

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

Henry More

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CAMBRIDGE Platonist Henry More (1614 – 1687) studied Plato and Plotinus, Hermeticism and Christian Cabalism. A prolific writer, he produced, among other things, a marvelous set of poems collectively titled A Platonick Song of the Soul.  The set includes four poems, all written in the poetic style of Spenserian stanzas (named after Edmund Spenser, whose most notable work was the Neoplatonic allegory, The Fairie Queen): Psychozoia, Psychathanasis, Antipsychopannychia and Antimonopsychia. The word “Soul” in the title refers both to the individual human soul and the Platonic world soul. Strongly influenced by Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology, they explore many themes of Platonism and Neoplatonism, including metaphysics and ethics.

More is known for having attained certain elevated states of consciousness. He explained in an autobiographical passage how in early life he had an insatiable desire for secular learning, but eventually this left him empty.

But after taking my Degree, to pass over and omit abundance of things (…) [i]t fell out truly very happily for me, that I suffer’d so great a disappointment in my studies. For it made me seriously at last begin to think with my self; whether the knowledge of things was really that supreme felicity of man; or something greater and more divine was: or, supposing it to be so, whether it was to be acquir’d by such an eagerness and intentness in the reading of authors, and contemplating of things; or by the [purging] of the mind from all sorts of vices whatsoever.

Also unhappy with the strict Calvinist doctrines of his childhood, he characterized his general state of mind in a short poem titled, Aporia (i.e., puzzlement or impasse):

Nor whence, nor who I am, poor Wretch! know I:
Nor yet, O Madness! Whither I must goe:
But in Grief’s crooked Claws fast held I lie;
And live, I think, by force tugg’d to and fro.
Asleep or wake all one. O Father Jove,
’Tis brave, we Mortals live in Clouds like thee.
Lies, Night-dreams, empty Toys, Fear, fatal Love,
This is my Life: I nothing else do see.

He further explained how he then investigated various religious writings that discuss the moral and intellectual purification that are a prerequisite for an authentic spiritual life:

Especially having begun to read now the Platonick Writers, Marsilius Ficinus, Plotinus himself, Mercurius Trismegistus; and the Mystical Divines; among whom there was frequent mention made of the Purification of the Soul, and of the Purgative Course that is previous to the Illuminative; as if the Person that expected to have his Mind illuminated of God, was to endeavour after the Highest Purity. ”

But amongst all the Writings of this kind there was none, to speak the Truth, so pierced and affected me. as that Golden little Book, with which Luther is also said to have been wonderfully taken. viz. Theologia Germanica [note: a 14th work on Christian mysticism influenced by Meister Eckhart and Pseudo-Dionysius].

After his conversion and purification,  which lasted several years, he enjoyed certain exalted states of consciousness, described by himself and his biographers.

More knew and had scholarly debates with alchemists like Thomas Vaughan (the twin brother of metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan), and evidently considered the real purpose of alchemy to be to effect a religious transformation of consciousness.

And that insatiable desire and thirst of mine after the knowledge of things was wholly almost extinguish’d in me, as being sollicitous now, about nothing so much as a more full union with this Divine and Coelestial Principle: the inward flowing Well-spring of Life eternal. With the most fervent prayers breathing often unto God, that he would be pleas’d throughly to set me free from the dark chains, and this so sordid captivity of my own will.

But here openly to declare the thing as it was; when this inordinate desire after the knowledge of things was thus allay’d in me, and I aspir’d after nothing but this sole purity and simplicity of mind, there shone in upon me daily a greater assurance than ever I could have expected, even of those things which before I had the greatest desire to know. Insomuch that within a few years, I was got into a most joyous and lucid state of mind, and such plainly as is ineffable; though, according to my custom, I have endeavoured to express it, to my power, in another stanza of eight verses.

The poem More refers to here is called Euporia (fullness):

I come from Heav’n; am an immortal ray
Of 
God; O joy! and back to God shall goe.
And here sweet Love on’s wings me up doth stay.
I live, I’m sure; and joy this Life to know.
Night and vain dreams be gone: Father of Lights,
We live, as Thou, clad with Eternal Day.
Faith, Wisdom, Love, fix’d Joy, free winged
Might,This is true Life: All else death and decay.

His, biographer, Richard Ward, supplies some examples of More’s religious experiences:

When yet early in the morning he was wont to awake usually into an immediate unexpressible life and vigour; with all his thoughts and notions raying (as I may so speak) about him, as beams surrounding the centre from whence they all proceed.

He was once for ten days together, no where (as he term’d it) or in one continued fit of contemplation: during which, though he eat, drank, slept, went into the hall, and convers’d, in a measure, as at other times; yet the [thread] of it for all that space was never once, as it were, broken or interrupted; nor did he animadvert (in a sort) on the things which he did.

And he hath been heard likewise unaffectedly to profess; that his thoughts would often-times be as clear as he could almost desire: and that he could take them off, or fix them upon a subject in a manner as he pleas’d. So that he himself seems plainly to have got that Chimical Art spoken of in his Ethics [Enchiridion ethicum, 1667] of making the volatile fixum, et fixum volatile, the volatile fix’d and the fix’d volatile; upon which some promise themselves, it seems, such wonderful matters: that is, he had reduc’d his spirits (as he there goes on) to a sufficient tenuity and volatility; and could yet at the same time, fix them steadily, at his pleasure, upon any object he had a mind to contemplate. Which things are notwithstanding (I conceive) to be understood with their reasonable qualifications. It was pleasant, he said, to go quick in a man’s thoughts from notion to notion, without any images of words in the mind. And elsewhere [Preface, An Explanation of the Grand Mystery of Godliness, 1660] he speaks more particularly of the exceeding great pleasure of speculation, and that easy springing up of coherent thoughts and conceptions within: And how that the lazy [i.e., relaxed] activity (as he there calls it) of his mind, in compounding and dissevering of notions and ideas in the silent observation of their natural connexions and disagreements, was as a holy day, and sabbath of rest to his soul. His very dreams were often regular, and he could study in them. And the constitution of his spirits was moreover such, if I may be allow’d to mention it, that he could on design sometimes, by thinking upon distant external objects, bring them as to his view; and thus continue, or disolve them for a time, at pleasure.” Source: Richard Ward, Life of Dr. Henry More, 1710, pp. 41−43.

More’s own experiences are important in understanding his own understanding of godliness, or as patristic writings call it, theosis (divinization).

References

Crocker, Robert. Mysticism and enthusiasm in Henry More. In S. Hutton (ed.), Henry More (1614-1687) Tercentenary Studies, 137-55. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990.

Grosart, Alexander Balloch (ed.). The Complete Poems of Henry More. Edinburgh University Press, 1878.

Henry, John, Henry More, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), < https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/henry-more/ >.

Hutton, Sarah (ed.); Crocker, Robert. Henry More (1614–1687): Tercentenary Studies. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990.

Jacob, Alexander. Henry More: A Platonick Song of the Soul. Bucknell University Press, 1998.

Leech, David. Henry More: Bibliography. Cambridge Platonist Research Group. 2017. < https://cprg.hypotheses.org/bibliography/henry-more >

Ward, Richard. The life of the learned and pious Dr. Henry More. London: Jos. Downing, 1710; modern edition (eds. S. Hutton, C. Courtney, M. Courtney R. Crocker, R. Hall) Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000; ebook: Springer, 2013.

Art: Henry More (detail), by William Faithorne; etching and line engraving, 1675. National Portrait Gallery NPG D22865.