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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

Meditation on Psalm 23, the Good Shepherd

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PSALM 23, the Good Shepherd, is the best known and most beloved psalm, an enduring source of inspiration and consolation.  We should investigate its allegorical meanings with special care.

The psalm is a spiritual meditation on ones relationship with God and on the gifts God bestows.  As its themes are of universal interest, it is suitable for people of any religious denomination, not only Christians and Jews.

The purposes of psalm are to ingrain in faithful souls a firm conviction of God’s unremitting providence and to help one, in all things, to seek God’s guidance at all times, rather than to follow ones own fallible will and pursue ones egoistic thoughts. That is the leading project of the Old and New Testament — a renovation of mind and will — and is most directly expressed in Matthew 6:33: But seek ye first the reign of God and his righteousness.  The word translated as reign or kingdom (βασιλείαν, basileia) can be interpreted here to mean reigning or shepherding — that is, a condition, not a place — of ones mind and soul.

1. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Like a shepherd, God constantly and faithfully guides our thoughts and affections, protects us, and takes care of our needs.

Many important Old Testament figures — including Abel, Joseph, Moses and David — were shepherds. These righteous and holy persons serve as exemplars for us in shepherding our thoughts away from vanities and towards goodness and integrity.  God, though, is the supreme shepherd.  While we ourselves are expected to direct our own thoughts in a holy way as we are able, ultimately we depend on the divine Good Shepherd to direct and transform our interior life.

A shepherd is stronger and wiser than his sheep.  He looks after them, protects them, oversees all that is necessary for their welfare and flourishing.  As God, who is infinitely wise and good is our shepherd, he will anticipate and supply all our needs, inner and outer.

In understanding God as the Good Shepherd we are freed from the burden of having to direct our own life, and the myriad errors that is bound to produce. Therefore we should be confident, not fear about the future, not think unduly to prepare for our own needs, and develop the habit of expecting and discerning the presence and meaning of God’s guidances.

2. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

The image of green pastures suggests three things: repose, beauty and nourishment.  All of these apply to the pastures to which God leads ones soul. Repose, because arrival at green pastures means a potentially difficult and demanding journey to them is completed; beauty, because these pastures are themselves delightful to behold;  nourishment, because food of the best kind is supplied for the soul.

Once we have ceased the vain, grasping, ego thoughts of self-will and humbly turn to God, we may receive the spiritual gifts he is eager and ready to supply. These include noble thoughts, desires and insights that nourish and build our soul. We are nourished when our mind’s eye is opened to receive spiritual insights and inspirations, and to recognize the deeper meanings of Scripture and of external experiences. Besides nourishing us, the mere act of eating such food is delightful.

In the Bible, water images such as wells and fountains are often used to mean springs rising from the depths of ones soul that bring deep forms of knowledge, including self-knowledge. The verse refers not simply to waters, but still waters. Still water has two attributes, both of which apply here. In a well or deep pool, stillness allows one to see clearly beneath the surface. Still water also produces accurate and beautiful reflections. When our mind is stilled, so that we arrive at the condition the ancient Greeks called  ataraxia (ἀταραξία), meaning undisturbedness, we may discern the subtle thoughts that come from the depths of our soul with greater skill and also perform self-reflection with greater skill.

3. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Our soul dies in varying degrees when it goes astray to dwell on worldly concerns, anxieties, thoughts of the future, ambitions, worries and the like. Much of the time our mind is either in acute distress, or else in a state of confusion, unrest, distraction, idleness or undirected attention, flitting from one thought to another.

All such conditions produce a degradation in the clarity, depth and integrity of consciousness.

To the extent our consciousness is not clear and constant, but instead chaotic and disturbed, it may legitimately said we are not fully alive.

In one sense, then, the restoration referred to here is that of the mind from it’s fallen and fragmented condition.  It is of great significance that we have a Good Shepherd on whom we can continually rely to restore us. This is an ongoing process. We must prepared to be restored 100 times a day, or as many times as our mind goes astray.

Restoration here has a second sense as well. In the Septuagint version, the Greek word for “restoreth” is epestrepsen (ἐπέστρεψεν), from the verb epistréphō (ἐπιστρέφω), which means to return, convert, or turn back.  This is same term the Neoplatonist Plotinus uses in the Enneads to describe the return of ones soul to God after it has fallen into worldly-mindedness.  So the restoring of which the psalmist speaks includes how God graciously calls the soul back to the path of return.  That act of choosing to seek God again is itself a restoration. While this is our choice, it is also inspired by God, a grace.  This sense of restoration is much better for us than a mere feeling of tranquility or refreshment.

A recurring and important theme in Psalms is God’s Name. A great discovery we make following the road of sincere repentance is what it means to call upon God’s Name. By God’s Name here we mean his reputation. We are absolutely certain of one thing: God, the all-loving Creator of the universe, wishes to save sinners, and to rescue the lost from the dreadful suffering which accompanies alienation from his grace.

We cannot even comprehend a God who lacks this merciful and loving quality. It is essential both to the definition of a Supreme Being, and to our instinctive, unalterable sense of moral rightness.

Since God, then, wishes to save sinners, it must follow that he values his reputation, for his reputation is of incalculable value in attracting sinners back to the way of righteousness. If God were to do anything that calls into question his reputation as fair, just and saving, it would oppose the very salvific interest which is part of God’s defining essence.  People would not seek him, and would not be saved.  A supremely benevolent, just, loving and powerful God would not permit this.

Hence, when pleading for God to raise us from our fallen condition, with its unhappiness, suffering, and painful alienation, we say with the psalmist, Let my fate not put to shame those who trust in you (Ps. 69:6).  We are certain that as long as we do not actively oppose God’s plan of salvation for us, he will faithfully act.

But if we invoke God’s Name here — if we say to God, “Save me, answer my desperate pleas for your Name’s sake! — this requires something from us as well. For we would be absurd and hypocritical to suppose that God would preserve his reputation were he to rescue us when we are insincere and undeserving.  God will not be made a fool.  Were he to save an insincere repentant, that would harm his reputation as much, if not more, than were he to ignore sincere pleas.  If we invoke God’s Name, then, we must search our conscience, and know we are sincerely trying to reform.  We must not plead with our lips but remain reprobate in our heart.

4. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

We may understand the valley here as referring to this life, in which all is passing away, and where what things appear to be real are mere shadows of reality. We have no fear, because it is also a mere illusion to believe God is not immediately and actively concerned with our welfare.

Note carefully the shift here, whereby before God was referred to in the third person (“he”), and now in the second person (“thou”). We are now addressing God himself, and communing with him. More than a prayer, then, the psalm becomes an actual experience of drawing closer to God.

God’s staff pulls us out of the thorns of temptations and back to the right path. When necessary, God’s rod rebukes us; for that we should not feel resentful, but grateful: its presence is proof of God’s active interest and loving care.

5. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou annointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

God prepares a banquet of spiritual goods.  Enemies here — as throughout Psalms — means the inner enemies within our soul. Compared to the exalted nature of these goods, the presence of enemies is no concern.  Nothing is more suitable for dispelling the power of enemies than that one such receive, even in their presence, such wonderful gifts.

Anointing the head with oil is a universal symbol for the opening of the eye of the mind that sees spiritual things and receives divine illuminations.  Speaking of this verse, St. Ambrose tells us, “At this banquet there is the oil of sanctification, poured richly over the head of the just. This oil strengthens the inner senses. It does away with the oil of the sinner that fattens the head.” (Commentary on Twelve Psalms 35.19).

The cup is filled with spiritual wine, referring to a divine stimulation of holy emotions.  The usual English translation loses the explicit sense of inebriation implied.  The Septuagint Greek retains this, saying, τὸ ποτήριόν σου μεθύσκον ὡς κράτιστον, which means, your cup gladdens like the best wine, or your cup bestows the most exalted form of inebriation.  Our spiritual yearnings are fulfilled in their entirety.

6. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The psalm closes on a strong note of optimism, hope and confidence — these words being so clear that no interpretation is needed.  We emerge from our meditation renewed and strengthened.

Philo and Origen on the Allegorical Meaning of Pharaoh

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Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Oppression of the Israelites (1860)

FOR Philo and Origen, Pharaoh symbolizes what St. Paul later called the carnal mind, i.e., that which strives within our soul against spiritual mindedness (see e.g., Rom.7:14−25, 8:1−7; Galatians 5:17). Our souls are weighed down and oppressed by the demands of worldly desires and concerns.  Our exodus to the Promised Land is accomplished by practice of virtue and elevation of mind, heart and spirit.  Philo associates the mortar and bricks in Exodus 1:14 with the similar figure in the Tower of Babel story, producing an interesting phenomenological analysis of human thought in the fallen condition of folly, hubris and impiousness.

Exodus 1

[7] And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.

[8] Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.

[9] And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we:

[11] Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses.

[14] And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in morter, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigour.

Philo, On the Confusion of Tongues

XVIII. (83) Now the wicked man wishes to display his unity of voice and speech through fellowship in unjust deeds rather than in actual words, and therefore begins to build a city and a tower which will serve for the hold of vice, as a citadel for a despot. He exhorts all those who form his company to take their share in the work, but first to prepare the suitable material.

(84) “Come,” he says, “let us make bricks and bake them with fire” [Gen. 11: 3]. The meaning of this is as follows. At present we have all the contents of the soul in inextricable confusion, so that no clear form of any particular kind is discernible.

(85) Our right course is to take the passion and vice, which at present is a substance devoid of form and quality, and divide it by continuous analysis into the proper categories and the subdivisions in regular descending order till we reach the ultimate; thus we shall obtain both a clearer apprehension of them and that experienced use and enjoyment which is calculated to multiply our pleasure and delight.

(86) Forward then, come as senators to the council-hall of the soul, all you reasonings which are ranged together for the destruction of righteousness and every virtue, and let us carefully consider how our attack may succeed.

(87) The firmest foundations for such success will be to give form to the formless by assigning them definite shapes and figures and to distinguish them in each case by separate limitations, not with the uncertain equilibrium of the halting, but firmly planted, assimilated to the nature of the square — that most stable of figures — and thus rooted brick-like in unwavering equilibrium they will form a secure support for the superstructure.

XIX. (88) Every mind that sets itself up against God, the mind which we call “King of Egypt,” that is of the body, proves to be a maker of such structures. For Moses describes Pharaoh as rejoicing in buildings constructed of brick.

(89) This is natural, for when the workman has taken the two substances of earth and water, one solid and the other liquid, but both in the process of dissolution or destruction, and by mixing them has produced a third on the boundary line between the two, called clay, he divides it up into portions and without interruption gives each of the sections its proper shape. He wishes thus to make them firmer and more manageable since this, he knows, is the easiest way to secure the completion of the building.

(90) This process is copied by the naturally depraved, when they first mix the unreasoning and exuberant impulses of passion with the gravest vices, and then divide the mixture into its kinds, sense into sight and hearing, and again into taste and smell and touch; passion into pleasure and lust, and fear and grief; vices in general into folly, profligacy, cowardice, injustice, and the other members of that fraternity and family — the materials which moulded and shaped, to the misery and sorrow of their builders, will form the fort which towers aloft to menace the soul.

Source: Colson, F. H.; Whitaker, G. H. (Trs.). Philo: On the Confusion of Tongues. In: Philo (10 volumes and 2 supplements), vol. 4. Loeb Classical Library. L261. Harvard, 1932. (pp. 55−59).

____________

Origen, Homilies on Exodus 1.5

BUT let us see what is added subsequently. (5) “But another king arose in Egypt,” the text says, “who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Behold, the race of the sons of Israel is a great multitude and is stronger than us.'” [Ex 1.8−9]

First of all I wish to investigate who the king [i.e., pharaoh] is in Egypt who knows Joseph and who he is who does not know him. For while the king who knew Joseph reigned, the sons of Israel are not reported to have been afflicted nor exhausted “by mud and brick.” [Ex 1.14] … But when the other king — who did not know Joseph — arose and began to reign, then all these things are reported to have happened. Let us see, therefore, who that other king is.

If the Lord guides us, then our understanding, illuminated by the Lord, always remembers Christ — just as Paul writes to Timothy: “Remember that Christ Jesus has arisen from the dead” [2 Tm 2.8],

As long as it remembers these things in Egypt — that is in our flesh — our spirit holds the kingdom with justice and does not exhaust the sons of Israel, whom we said above to be the rational senses or virtues of the soul, “by mud and brick,” nor does it weaken them with earthly cares and troubles.

But if our understanding should lose the memory of these things — if it should turn away from God, if it should become ignorant of Christ — then the wisdom of the flesh which is hostile to God [cf. Rom 8.7] succeeds to the royal power and addresses its own people, bodily pleasures. When the leaders of the vices have been called together for consultation, deliberation is undertaken against the sons of Israel. They discuss how the sons of Israel may be distressed, how they may be oppressed. Their goal is to afflict the sons of Israel “by mud and bricks“; to expose the males and raise the females; to build the cities of Egypt and “fortified cities.” [cf. Ex 1.10-16]

These words were not written to instruct us in history, nor must we think that the divine books narrate the acts of the Egyptians. What has been written “has been written for our instruction and admonition.” [1 Cor 10.11] Its purpose is that you, who hear these words, who perhaps have already received the grace of baptism and have been numbered among the sons of Israel and received God as king in yourself and later you wish to turn away and do the works of the world, to do deeds of the earth and muddy services, may know and recognize that “another king has arisen in you who knows not Joseph,” [Ex 1.8] a king of Egypt, and that he is compelling you to his works and is making you labor in bricks and mud for himself.

It is this king of Egypt who leads you by whips and blows to worldly works with magistrates and supervisors put over you that you may build cities for him. It is he who makes you run about through the world to disturb the elements of sea and earth for lust. It is he who makes you agitate the forum with lawsuits and weary your neighbors with altercations for a little piece of land, to say nothing about lying in ambush for chastity, to deceive innocence, to commit foul things at home, cruel things abroad, shameful things within your conscience. When, therefore, you see yourself acting in these ways, know that you are a soldier for the king of Egypt, which is to be led by the spirit of this world..

Source: Origen, Homilies on Exodus 1.5 (Tr. Ronald Heine, Origen: Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, Father of the Church 71, pp. 233 f., 1982) Note: edited slightly by JU.

 

Nothing Further Can Be Found in Man: St. Athanasius on Interpretation of the Psalms

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Introduction

ONE of the finest Patristic works on Psalms is the letter of St. Athanasius of Alexandria to his friend, Marcellinus, Ad Marcellinum.  Ostensibly relaying what he learned from an “old man” — perhaps a saintly desert ascetic — St. Athanasius exhorts us not only to read the Psalms, but to read them “intelligently.”  He also affirms the benefits of singing the Psalms, by which means a uniting and harmonization all one’s faculties and powers occurs.

The letter is not long, and all who are drawn to Psalms and wish to profit from them are encouraged to read it in its entirety (links in Bibliography).  Some passages of special interest are supplied below.

(Note: square brackets indicate sections as enumerated in the Migne edition; translation is by Anonymous 1953/1998).

To Marcellinus

All the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction (2 Tim 3:16), as it is written; but to those who really study it, the Psalter yields especial treasure. … Each of these books, you see, is like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some those of all the rest. [2]

And herein is yet another strange thing about the Psalms. In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own … [however with] Psalms it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts. [11]

[T]he Psalms thus serve him who sings them as a mirror, wherein he sees himself and his own soul … [12]

Just as in a mirror, the movements of our own souls are reflected in them and the words are indeed our very own, given us to serve both as a reminder of our changes of condition and as a pattern and model for the amendment of our lives. [13]

The whole divine Scripture is the teacher of virtue and true faith, but the Psalter gives a picture [more particularly] of the spiritual life. [14]

It is possible for us …  to find in the Psalter not only the reflection of our own soul’s state, together with precept and example for all possible conditions, but also a fit form of words wherewith to please the Lord on each of life’s occasions …  [15]

unifying effect which chanting the Psalms has upon the singer. For to sing the Psalms demands such concentration of a man’s whole being on them that, in doing it, his usual disharmony of mind and corresponding bodily confusion is resolved, just as the notes of several flutes are brought by harmony to one effect; and he is thus no longer to be found thinking good and doing evil. [27]

When, therefore, the Psalms are chanted, it is not from any mere desire for sweet music but as the outward expression of the inward harmony obtaining in the soul, because such harmonious recitation is in itself the index of a peaceful and well-ordered heart. To praise God tunefully upon an instrument, such as well-tuned cymbals, cithara, or ten-stringed psaltery, is, as we know, an outward token that the members of the body and the thoughts of the heart are, like the instruments themselves, in proper order and control, all of them together living and moving by the Spirit’s cry and breath. … he who sings well puts his soul in tune, correcting by degrees its faulty rhythm so that at last, being truly natural and integrated, it has fear of nothing, but in peaceful freedom from all vain imaginings may apply itself with greater longing to the good things to come. For a soul rightly ordered by chanting the sacred words forgets its own afflictions and contemplates with joy the things of Christ alone. [29]

For I think that in the words of this book all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in Man. [30]

Bibliography

English translations

Anonymous (tr.). Letter to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms. In: Anonymous (tr.), Athanasius: On the Incarnation. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998. (Appendix; pp. 97−119; ‘Letter’ orig. publ. 1953). [online version]

Elowsky, Joel C. (tr.), Athanasius: Letter to Marcellinus on the Psalms. New Haven, CT: ICCS Press, 2017.

Gregg, Robert C. (tr.). Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, Paulist Press, 1980. (pp. 101−129).

Greek and Latin text

Epistula ad Marcellinum de interpretatione Psalmorum. [Greek text, digital].

Migne, Jacques-Paul (ed.). Patrologia Graeca 27, 1857. (cols. 11−46). [Greek text with Latin translation.]

Secondary sources

Kolbet, Paul R. Athanasius, the Psalms, and the Reformation of the Self. The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 99, no. 1, 2006, pp. 85–101.

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

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.