Christian Platonism

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Greek Philosophy for Bible Exegetes

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IT’S GOOD to see when a Christian is so consumed with zeal to understand the New Testament that he or she resolves to learn Greek to better understand its message. For some, this same kind of zeal might motivate an interest to learn about the Greek philosophy circulating at the time the New Testament was written.

St. Paul was well versed in Greek philosophy. He was raised in Tarsus (a philosophical center), studied in Jerusalem at Gamaliel’s rabbinical school, and when in Athens discoursed intelligently with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers. The better-educated of those to whom he directed his letters would have been familiar with Greek philosophy and accustomed to thinking about morals and religion in such terms. St. Paul, who was willing to be “all things to all men, so that some might be saved,” would have found many ideas and principles of Greek philosophy helpful in approaching Gentiles and Hellenized Jews with the message of Christianity.

The writers of the Gospels, too, show every sign of being well-educated Greek-speakers, who might easily have been familiar with elements of Greek philosophy.

Jesus himself probably spoke Greek, and may have lived in the large community of Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria during his childhood, where he might have come into contact with Greek learning.

Therefore, for such practicing Christians as may feel inspired to plunge into Greek philosophy to further their Bible study, below is a list of suggested primary texts sufficient to give one a good understanding of the subject.

Diogenes Laërtius (180 – 240 AD), Lives of Eminent Philosophers selections.

Perhaps the best single resource on the lives of ancient Greek philosophers.  Much better than modern texts!  The main chapters (“Lives”) of interest are as follows:

Plato (428 − 347 BC), selected dialogues, in suggested reading order shown

It is widely believed today that St. Paul was influenced by Stoic thought. However, many of the ideas present in Stoicism are found earlier in Plato’s writings.  Stoicism, in fact, could be considered a branch of Platonism.

  • Charmides (an easy introduction to the writing of the greatest Greek philosopher)
  • Apology (background on the historical Socrates)
  • Phaedo (Socrates’ final conversations before his execution)
  • Symposium (On love)
  • Phaedrus (includes Plato’s famous chariot myth)
  • Republic (contrary to common opinion, this is not a literal treatise on civil politics, but an inspired allegory for the governance of ones soul; the subtitle is On the Righteous Man.)

Aristotle (384 – 322 BC)

Cicero (106 − 43 BC)

In Cicero (a Roman who wrote about Greek philosophy) we see a kind of humanism emerging that is almost Christian.  Also, Cicero transmits to us the philosophical ideas of Posidonius of Apamea (c. 135 – c. 51 BC) and Panaetius of Rhodes (c. 185 − c. 110 BC), whose versions of Stoicism would have likely influenced St. Paul and his contemporaries.

Seneca (Seneca the Younger; c. 4 BC – 65 AD), selections 

Seneca was the brother of Gallio, proconsul of Achaea, who handled St. Paul’s case in Corinth. It’s remotely possible that St. Paul met Seneca in Rome, or that among his contacts in Caesar’s household were some who knew Seneca well.

As an example of later Stoicism, one might read either Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius.

Epictetus (55 – 135 AD)

Marcus Aurelius (121 − 180 AD) 

Finally mention should be made of the great Platonic-Jewish exegete, Philo of Alexandria  (c. 20 BC – 50 AD).  The three books of Allegorical Interpretation supply an introduction to his sublime thought.  In some ways Philo is the most relevant of all these philosophers for Christians, but as his writing style is somewhat difficult, it’s perhaps better to first gain a solid foothold in Greek philosophy by reading the other authors.

John Uebersax
1st draft (sorry for any typos)

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Philo: The Lifelong Festival of Those Who Follow Nature

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

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

Special Laws 2.42−48

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gregory of Nyssa’s Allegorical Interpretation of the Parable of the Lost Coin

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Luke 15:8−10
[8] Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?
[9] And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost.
[10] Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.

Source: Gregory of Nyssa.  On Virginity 12.3−4. In: Virginia Woods Callahan  (Trans.), Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 58, Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1967. (pp. 44−45).

THE human effort extends only to this: the removal of the filth which has accumulated through evil and the bringing to light again the beauty in the soul which we had covered over. It is such a dogma that I think the Lord is teaching in the Gospel to those who are able to hear wisdom when it is mysteriously spoken: ‘The kingdom of God is within you.’ [Luke 17:21] This saying shows, I believe, that the goodness of God is not separated from our nature, or far away from those who choose to seek it, but it is ever present in each individual, unknown and forgotten when one is choked by the cares and pleasures of life, but discovered again when we tum our attention back to it.

If there is need for further support of the argument, I think this is what the Lord was suggesting in the search for the lost drachma [Luke 15:8−10]. The rest of the virtues [areton; ἀρετῶν] which the Lord refers to as drachmas are of no use, even if they all be present in the soul, if the soul is bereft of the one that is lost. Consequently, He bids us, first of all, to light a lamp, and by this He means perhaps the word which brings to light that which is hidden. Then, He tells us to look for the lost drachma in our own house, i.e., in ourselves.

Through this parable, He suggests that the image of the King is not entirely lost, but that it is hidden under the dirt. We must, I think, interpret the word ‘dirt’ as the filth of the flesh. Once this is swept away and cleaned off by our caring for our life [JU: that is, our spiritual life], that which is being looked for becomes visible, and then the soul can rejoice and bring together the neighbors to share her joy. For in reality, all the faculties of the soul [psuches dunameis; ψυχῆς δυνάμεις], which is what the Lord means by neighbors, do live together, and when the great image of the King which the Creator implanted in our hearts from the beginning is uncovered and brought to light, then, these faculties turn towards that divine joy and merriment, gazing upon the unspeakable beauty of what has been recovered. For it says: ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the drachma that I had lost.‘ [Luke 15:9]

The neighbors, i.e., the faculties of the soul which dwell together, rejoice at the finding of the divine drachma. Reason and desire [logistike te kai epithumetike; λογιστική τε καὶ ἐπιθυμητικὴ]and the faculty aroused by grief and anger, and whatever other faculties there are, are looked upon as being connected with the soul, and they are logically considered as friends who rightly rejoice in the Lord when they all look to the beautiful and the good and do everything for the glory of God, for now they are no longer the instruments of sin.

This concern, then, for the finding of what is lost is the restoration to the original state of the divine image which is now covered by the filth of the flesh. Let us become what the first being was during the first period of his existence.

A Beautiful Mind: Joseph Addison’s Religious Essays

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fancy_dropcase_r

EADERS of this blog may download a free copy of my new book, a collection of religious and metaphysical essays by Joseph Addison which appeared in the The Spectator in 1711 and 1712. These are certain to delight and edify.  Addison is well known as one of the most skilled prose stylists in the English language; but few today are aware of the sublime quality of his religious essays.

Addison’s influence on both the English and American minds is considerable, yet largely unacknowledged today.

Download the ebook in pdf format here.

addison-book-cover

mr-01

Edward Young’s Night Thoughts – A New Edition for Modern Readers

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cover_use

fancy_dropcase_NIGHT THOUGHTS by Edward Young (1683—1765) might easily be the greatest English literary work of the last 300 years.  A masterpiece judged by any standard, it rivals the works of Shakespeare and Milton and exceeds those of Young’s better-known contemporary, Pope. It is testimony to the infidelity of the modern age the neglect into which this great work has fallen.

Its topics?  Ones of greatest moment and timeless concern: Life, Death, Eternity, heaven-sent Philosophy, and the true meaning of the Delphic maxim, Know Thyself.

Young published Night Thoughts in nine installments or Nights.  The present new edition, with an introduction and notes for modern readers, supplies the first four Nights — originally conceived by Young as a complete work, and which supply the work’s main lines of thought. For a limited time an advance copy of the new edition is available for free here.

The topic, the motives, and the poetic skill of Young are magnificent.  The work is inspired, and one of the great jewels of English literature, not to be missed.flower

A Meditation on Psalms 1:1–2

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A Meditation on Psalms 1:1–2

Tree-rivers

[1] 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.
[2] But his delight is in the law of the LORD;

and in his law doth he meditate day and night. (Psalms 1:1–2)

 Επου θεω

pdf version

illuminated_THE Bible is a key to salvation. Psalms is a key to the Bible.[1] Psalm 1, a proem, is a key to Psalms;[2] and its key verses 1 and 2.[3] Careful study and meditation on these verses therefore profits us greatly.

 

          [1] Blessed is the man

In the Septuagint, the Greek word translated as Blessed is makarios, which means either blessed or happy; both are understood to apply here.

Also, consider that when one feels especially blessed, with this is much joy. We may therefore read here, “this man is blessed, happy, joyful, and lacks nothing.” Such, then, is our goal.

After the goal is stated, we are warned of three principal obstacles. These are three categories of mental error — which, as we will see, correspond to Plato’s three divisions of the human soul. (Republic 4.434d–4.445e, 9.588b–9.591e; Phaedrus 246a-e; 253c–256c)

          that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,

Counsel of the ungodly aptly describes the principal sin to which the rational or logical division of our mind (Plato’s logistikon) is vulnerable. This, our faculty of discursive reasoning, is prone to entertain innumerable schemes, plans, anxieties, and similar vain thoughts. Some such thoughts involve positive projects we imagine; some concern needless fears and anxieties; some, of guilt and remorse. All such ruminations are almost always baseless and imaginary. Attention to ones thoughts will reveal the seriousness of this problem: one can seldom go a minute, or even a few seconds, without ungodly counsel.

The word walketh is appropriate here, because once one accepts the initial impulse to follow such thoughts, they lead the mind — for minutes or even hours — on a journey; yet they lead nowhere, or certainly nowhere good.

          nor standeth in the way of sinners,

The way of sinners refers to mental errors of the concupiscent nature, or what Plato called epithymia (or the epithymetikon). These are temptations to inordinate or untimely sensory pleasures, such as over- or improper indulgence in food, drink, sex, etc.

It is called standing, because such temptations characteristically assault us when we are, so to speak, mentally stationary — that is, not actively applying our minds in ways connected with our spiritual development, helping others, or attending to productive tasks. “An idle mind,” it is said, “is the devil’s workshop.”

          nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

No less problematic (and, for religious people, often more so) are mental errors of our irascible and honor-seeking nature — what Plato called thumos (or our thymoeides). A principal form of such temptations is ones tendency to judge, condemn, or criticize others. Hence this is like a seat upon which one sits and presumes to pass judgment.

Again, by observing the thoughts one may easily see this strong, chronic tendency to find fault with people and things, and, in short, to think negatively.

          [2] But his delight is in the law of the LORD;

We are next told that the blessed man is one who delights in the law of the LORD.

Here the law of the Lord must not be mistakenly understood as meaning written rules, commandments, prohibitions, and so on. To orient ones life to codified rules is legalism. Legalism does not bring happiness.

Law (in Hebrew, Torah) here is properly understood as the promptings of the Holy Spirit which gently guide us to do God’s will.

A parallel may be drawn here with the Chinese concept of Dao, which may be understood as the Universal Law that governs all things benignly and providentially. To follow this Law is to live in accord with Nature — a principle that has only positive connotations, and is never considered onerous or ‘against ones grain.’

We are to gently follow God’s will instead of willfully pursuing our own schemes and plans. For this to become a habit is the journey of a lifetime and a main task of salvation.

Ones reconciliation to God’s will is the message of the entire Bible. In the Old Testament, it is expressed by Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In the New Testament, the entire life of Jesus, including his crucifixion and resurrection, epitomize the principle.

This condition is also called the Reign (or Reigning) [4] and Kingdom of God in ones heart and soul. Indeed, this reconciliation of wills is the main ethical concern of all religion.

The Greek word translated as delight is hedone, which may also mean pleasure (hence our English word, hedonism). In this state, God’s Law may be experienced as a delightful pleasure.

To achieve this state of reconciliation to God’s will is not only to feel blessedness and delight, but it also joins two basic elements of ones nature: the pleasure-seeking and the duty-seeking. The two become one in purpose.

A practice to recommend is to repeat these verses silently, as wit a mantra. And, so, these guides always near, one may ask in succession of each thought that occurs: Is this ungodly counsel? The way of sinners? The scoffer’s seat?

The bad thoughts being rejected, those remaining are more likely to accord with God’s will.

We end here, for it is better to discover for oneself the deeper meanings of Scripture. A basic interpretative approach has been outlined here; that, with what has been said elsewhere (Uebersax, 2012, 2014) is enough.

We may only mention one further promise of Psalm 1: the blessed man will be like a tree planted by the rivers of water (Psalm 1:3a). This can be understood as a restoration of the Tree of Life in Genesis 2:9.[5]

The Tree of Life also appears Revelation 22:1–2, in the very last chapter of the Bible. The whole saga of Scripture, then, concerns a journey from self-will and the fall into sin — whence the Tree of Life is lost — to its restoration, which is a restoration of our soul as a godly Garden of virtue and delight.

Thus we do not err when we say that within these few verses the Bible’s entire message of salvation is epitomized. Wisdom is near for those who seek it, and for this we should be grateful.

Copy of book_end

References

Uebersax, John S. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. Paso Robles, CA, 2012.

Uebersax, John S. ‘Principles of Psychological Exegesis of the Bible‘.

Christian Platonism website. <catholicgnosis.wordpress.com>. September, 2014.

Uebersax, John S. ‘Noetic, Sapiential, and Spiritual Exegesis.’ Christian Platonism website. <catholicgnosis.wordpress.com>. November, 2013.

John Uebersax, 25 March 2015

Footnotes

[1] Origen, The Philocalia, 2.3 (G. Lewis, tr., 1911, p. 32); St. Basil, Homilies on the Psalms, 10.1 (A. Way, tr., 1963, Fathers of the Church 46:151–152).

[2] St. Jerome. The Homilies of Saint Jerome. Vol. 1. Homily 1 (M. Ewald, tr., 1964, Fathers of the Church 48, p. 3).

[3] St. Basil, Homilies on the Psalms, 10.3 (A. Way, tr., 1963, Fathers of the Church 46:154–155).

[4] Uebersax, John S. ‘Thy Kingdom or Thy Kingship Come – What Does Basileia in the Lord’s Prayer Mean?‘ <catholicgnosis.wordpress.com>. July, 2014.

[5] The Tree of Life is watered by four rivers (Genesis 2:10–14).

True Charity and Anamnesis

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Charity

The other day a thought occurred to me which seems to clarify the meaning of Charity, as distinct from other related things like compassion and sympathy, generosity, kindness, etc. The definition: Charity is acting to love others for the sake of God.

At first glance this may strike you as prosaic – a mere formula, one in fact, found in traditional Christian teaching. Likely I had heard this formula someplace, yet it never quite stuck. This time, however, from my creative imagination, Muse, or call-it-what-you-will, there arose insight into the meaning, not merely the definition, of Charity.

To understand true Charity it helps to refer to Platonism.

A hallmark of Platonism is that God is identified as the source and very essence of Goodness. Plato’s defined God, in fact, as the Form or pattern of Goodness of which all individual good things partake, just as all triangles partake of the Form of a triangle. (This conceptual principle is a powerful and distinct asset to those who try to understand who or what God is – but that is a topic to take up another time.)

With this innovation, our definition becomes “Charity is the doing of good to others for the sake of the Good.”

How does this help? One way is with respect to the Platonic principle known as the unity of virtues. Because all virtues, and indeed all good things, are instances of the Good, a corollary is that pure virtue of any kind, i.e., pure Truth, pure Beauty, pure Justice, etc., must be compatible with every other pure virtue. One cannot, for example, act in a way that affirms Truth yet contradicts Justice or Beauty. This principle supplies a means by which we may test whether a given act is true Charity: the act must awaken in us an awareness of Goodness generally; contemplating or performing the proposed act should leave our mind ‘basking’ in the glow of the train of all divine virtues.

This has some very practical implications for modern social activism. It means that one cannot be motivated by Charity and yet act in a contentious way. Suppose a person is angry that poor people do not have adequate health care. This is certainly an important concern. But if this concern takes the form of hateful denunciation of other people – the greedy rich, selfish Republicans, whoever – then it is not a form of Charity. Because anger is not consistent, in fact it is incompatible, with the Virtues. This helps us see why St. Paul defined Charity as he did: Charity “charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.” (1 Corinthians 13 4–5)

The Platonic perspective also reveals four further attributes of Charity. First, it is it’s own reward. Plato had a name for that kind of experience where we suddenly we regain our ability to see truth: who we are, what really matters, what brings us happiness. He called it anamnesis, literally unforgetting (an = un, amnesis = forgetting). True Charity should have the quality of anamnesis: it realigns our mind such that we are again in touch with our true nature; we become properly oriented to ourselves, other people, Nature, and God.

Clearly this is much different from, say, sending money in a perfunctory way to a “charity” like Greenpeace. Sometimes such actions are performed out of a sense of mechanical duty. Other times they may be motivated by sentimentality – as when one feels sorrow at the plight of abused animals. There is nothing wrong with such actions. They are commendable, in fact, and may well constitute virtues in their own right; our only point here is Charity is something distinct and greater than these things, and to lose sight of the distinction is to risk losing sight of the full meaning and significance of Charity.

Second, the proposed definition shows how Charity is ultimately connected with our own salvation (understood in a broad, nondenominational, psychological sense). The truth is that, however much we may believe or protest otherwise, our ultimate instinctive concern is not with others, but for ourselves. Said another way, our first order of business is to help ourselves. History is full of examples of people who neglected their own moral development for the sake of busying themselves with other people’s problems. To such as these one might well say, “Physician, heal thyself,” or “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew16:26) We must be constantly aware, in whatever we think or do, or our own need of salvation in this broad sense. This is the meaning of humility. The moment we lose sight of our immense proclivity for error, much of which goes under the name of ‘egoism’, then our ego takes over and all manner of mischief is liable to occur. Unless God or the Good is in the picture, any action, even giving a million dollars to help others, will have a strong egoistic component.

Third, our Platonic perspective helps shows how Charity is contagious. If you act towards another with true Charity, the recipient knows, in their own soul, that your act is accompanied by your anamnesis. And since anamnesis always engenders feelings like trust, love, and hope, the person knows that you have gained a reward greater than any human being could give you.

This, in turn, produces a sympathetic anamnesis in the recipient. It reawakens in them a remembrance of what the important, the finer things in life are. And this is cause for them to affirm life and thank God – not so much for whatever charitable benefit they received, but because God made such a world where Charity itself exists. It may literally restore the other’s faith in humanity. Moreover, the recipient is presented with the fact that they too have the ability to show Charity to others. A quality of a truly Charitable act, then, is that it leaves the recipient in a frame of mind eager to show Charity to others. When you act with Charity to others, then, often more important than the physical gift to the other is the psychological gift.

Finally, the Platonic perspective helps us to see that Charity is different from other forms of helping, giving, sharing, etc., in terms of epistemology. True Charity, because it is consciously aligned with God and the Good, opens the mind to an influx of higher thoughts – the mode of knowledge Plato called noesis. This is distinct from our usual form of rationalistic thinking, called dianoia, or reasoning. Thus, a characteristic of true Charity is that it is frequently motivated by inspiration, often more an act of spontaneous creativity than cold calculation. Again, this is not to say that we should avoid applying our logical minds to helping others – only that Charity is something distinct from rationality alone.

 

Written by John Uebersax

May 2, 2014 at 2:55 pm