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Philo: The Allegorical Meaning of Cain’s City and His Descendants

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Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Cain building the city of Enoch (1860)

DEAR PHILOTHEA, Here, as you requested, are some remarks on Philo’s allegoresis of Cain’s descendants (Genesis 4:17−24), supplied as a continuation of what I previously wrote concerning the sacrifices of Cain and Abel.  As before, I wish to supply only brief pointers, believing that the spiritual meanings of the Old Testament — which are always anagogical or upward leading — require a dedicated personal effort to ascertain: so that meanings and the means of their understanding (effort) coincide.

The basic narrative of these verses, which follows upon the death of Abel, is as follows:

Cain fled God’s presence and dwelt in Nod.
Cain married and begat Enoch.
Cain builded a city.
Enoch begat Irad.
Irad begat Mehujael.
Mehujael begat Methusael.
Methusael begat Lamech.
Lamech had two wives: by Adah he begat Jabal and Jubal.
And by Zillah, Lamech begat Tubal and Naamah.

There is, as you noted, a tendency of readers to gloss over these verses, as though the author of Genesis merely inserted stray folklore.  However that view is inconsistent with how we know we should approach Holy Scripture, which is to assume that all there is placed intentionally and for some definite purpose: sometimes the more irrelevant a detail seems, the more strongly it alerts us to the existence of spiritual meanings.

That is certainly how Philo, our guide for interpreting Genesis, approached these verses.   I like to remind myself that Philo was once believed to be the author of the Wisdom of Solomon.  That is no longer thought to be the case, but the point is that he might have been the author; that is, he is without doubt a profoundly wise, devout and learned representative of the Alexandrian Jewish culture from which Wisdom of Solomon also originated.  Since we look upon the anonymous author of that work as divinely inspired, may we not consider Philo as well one of the eminent line of Jewish prophets?  And if that’s so, we are most fortunate to have, in addition to the Old Testament itself, a spiritually inspired, providential explanation of how to approach interpreting it.

But even to consider inspiration merely as a phenomenon of the human collective unconscious, we may see Philo as a gifted sage and great artist: a man of wide learning, pure intentions and immense zeal to edify others — an extraordinary creative genius, whose works reflect the supraconscious. Enough on this, then.

Philo performed a careful exegesis of these verses from Genesis 4 in his work titled On the Posterity of Cain (De posteritate Caini).  Here, as in his other allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament, Philo applies what we may call the principle of psychological correspondence: each person signifies a specific disposition of the human mind or personality, and each incident symbolizes a psychological event or process (Uebersax, 2012).

As previously described (Uebersax, 2018), for Philo, Cain and Abel symbolize the struggle (psychomachia) within each person between what, lacking better terms, we may follow St. Paul in calling carnal-mindedness and spiritual-mindedness (Romans 8:6). In brief, Cain symbolizes a certain fundamental condition of egoism and impious self-will, and stands in contrast with Abel, who represents an attitude of childlike trust in God.

For Philo, then, Cain’s descendants represent a progressive degradation and corruption of our mind when we leave an uplifted condition — where thinking is holy — to one ruled by egoistic, material concerns. We join the ‘race of Cain’ when we let worldly concerns predominate over spiritual ones.

We can observe this pattern of cognitive descent on various time-scales and with varying severity: from a major mutations in personality lasting months or years, to lesser shifts that occur throughout each day (Uebersax 2014). Hence the issue here is not only descent of the personality into major vices like obsession, gambling, addiction, etc., which ruin ones life entirely, but also daily descents into agitation, distraction, frustration, anger and despondency.  These lesser forms of descent, though perhaps brief, may still amount to a temporary death of ones soul.

Sequential ordering. Philo is describing the phenomenology of mental descent.  While each figure in Cain’s lineage corresponds to a different disposition and to associated cognitive processes, we need not assume these mental events always follow a strict order. However in some cases there does seem to be a tendency of one of these dispositions to ‘beget’ another.

In any case, Philo’s interpretations correspond to mental events that we may, with practice, learn to observe as they occur.  By attending closely to them, and to the transitions from one disposition to another, we may potentially learn how to arrest or even reverse mental descent as it happens. One may think, for example, “Ah, at this point I have become like Mehujael!” and then take appropriate corrective action.

Even if his analysis is not complete, or not correct in every detail, it nevertheless supplies considerable material for personal reflection.

Etymology. Philo applies here what may seem to us some very speculative etymologies in associating each descendant of Cain with a mental disposition. However we shouldn’t overestimate the importance of these etymologies for Philo. There’s no reason to think that they came first in his thinking, and then led him, based on a name, to derive a psychological meaning.  Another and perhaps more likely possibility is that he relied here more on his knowledge of human psychology and on self-observation. That is, he may sometimes have chosen an etymological association after the fact, as it were, to accommodate a prior psychological insight or theory. Alternatively, he may sometimes merely suggest questionable etymologies as helpful mnemonic devices for readers (or his hearers, if, as some suggest, he originally composed this material as homilies).

In any case we shouldn’t let questionable etymologies prejudice our minds against Philo or his interpretations. We should rather focus on his deep insight and remarkable powers of phenomenological analysis. This is superb philosophizing!

Finally, to avoid confusion, please note that in Genesis there are two Enochs, two Methuselahs and two Lamechs; in each case one is bad (Cain’s lineage) and one is good (Seth’s lineage).  Here Philo’s interest is with the bad line.

Now we’ll proceed to Philo’s allegoresis verse by verse.  As much as possible we’ll use his own words. Unless otherwise indicated all paragraph numbers refer to On the Posterity of Cain.

~*~
Genesis 4 (KJV)
[16] And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

Land of Nod (22, 32; Cher. 12f.)

Nod is similar to the Hebrew word for “toss.”  “Eden” symbolizes an opposite mental condition characterized by peace, joy and right reason.

IT IS worth while to notice the country also into which he betakes himself when he has left the presence of God: it is the country called ‘Tossing’ In this way the lawgiver indicates that the foolish man, being a creature of wavering and unsettled impulses, is subject to tossing and tumult, like the sea lashed by contrary winds when a storm is raging, and  has never even in fancy had experience of quietness and calm. And as at a time when a ship is tossing at the mercy of the sea, it is capable neither of sailing nor of riding at anchor, but pitched about this way and that it rolls in turn to either side and moves uncertainly swaying to and fro; even so the worthless man, with a mind reeling and storm-driven, powerless to direct his course with any steadiness, is always tossing, ready to make shipwreck of his life. (22; cf. DeCherubim. 12f.)

Having now shown each side of the picture, calm in a good man, restlessness in a foolish one, let us devote our attention to the sequel. The lawgiver says that Naid, ‘Tumult,’ to which the soul migrated, is over against Eden. ‘Eden’ is a symbolic name for right and divine reason, and so it is literally rendered ‘luxuriance.’ For right reason above all others finds its delight and luxury in the enjoyment of good things pure and undiluted, yea complete and full, while God the Giver of wealth rains down His virgin and deathless boons. And evil is by nature in conflict with good, unjust with just, wise with foolish, and all forms of virtue with all forms of vice. That is the meaning of Naid being over against Eden. (32)

[17] And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch.

Cain’s wife (33−39)

‘WIFE’ … [means] the opinion which the impious man (habitually) assumes touching (all) matters. … Of what sort then is an impious man’s opinion? That the human mind is the measure of all things. (34f.)

For if man is the measure of all things, all things are [incorrectly seen as] a present and gift of [ones own] mind … including … thought, resolves, counsels, forethought, comprehension, acquisition of knowledge, skill in arts and in organizing, other faculties too many to recount. Why … deliver … discourses about holiness and honouring God … seeing that you have with you the mind [that presumes] to take the place of God? (36f.)

Enoch (41−43; cf. 35f.)

Philo interprets “Enoch” to mean “thy gift,” here understood as “my gift to myself.”  He connects this with the preceding discussion of Cain’s wife, viz. the opinion that ones sensations and thoughts belong to ones ego.

THOSE who assert that everything that is involved in thought or perception or speech is a free gift of their own soul, seeing that they introduce an impious and atheistic opinion, must be assigned to the race of Cain, who, while incapable even of ruling himself, made bold to say that he had full possession of all other things as well. (42)

Builded a city (49−62)

A characteristic of egoistic thinking is that one builds a veritable city of false beliefs, wrong opinions and supporting rationalizations, populated by inauthentic dispositions.

NOW, every city needs for its existence buildings, and inhabitants, and laws. Cain’s buildings are demonstrative arguments. With these, as though fighting from a city-wall, he repels the assaults of his adversaries, by forging plausible inventions contrary to the truth.  His inhabitants are the wise in their own conceit, devotees of impiety, self-love, arrogance, false opinion: men ignorant of real wisdom, who have reduced to an organized system ignorance, lack of learning and of culture, and other pestilential things akin to these. His laws are various forms of lawlessness and injustice, unfairness, licentiousness, audacity, senselessness, self-will, immoderate indulgence in pleasures … Of such a city every impious man is found to be an architect in his own miserable soul, until such time as God takes counsel (Gen. 11:6), and brings upon their sophistic devices a great and complete confusion. (52f.)

[18] And unto Enoch was born Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael: and Mehujael begat Methusael: and Methusael begat Lamech.

Irad (66−68)

THE SON of Enoch is named Gaidad [Irad], which means ‘a flock.’ Such a name follows naturally upon his father’s name. For it was fitting that the man who deems himself beholden to mind, which is incapable of comprehending its own nature, should beget irrational faculties [dunameis], collected into a flock. (66)

Now every flock that has no shepherd over it necessarily meets with great disasters, owing to its inability by itself to keep hurtful things away and to choose things that will be good for it. (67)

For when the protector, or governor, or father, or whatever we like to call him, of our complex being, namely right reason (orthos logos), has gone off leaving to itself the flock within us, the flock itself being left unheeded perishes, and great loss is entailed upon its owner, while the irrational and unprotected creature, bereft of a guardian of the herd to admonish and discipline it, finds itself banished to a great distance from rational and immortal life. (68)

Mehujael (Mahujael, Maiel; 69−72)

THIS IS why Gaidad is said to have a son Maiel, whose name translated is ‘away from the life of God.’ For since the flock is without reason, and God is the Fountain of reason, it follows that he that lives an irrational life has been cut off from the life of God. (69)

Methusael (Methuselah; 73, 44f., cf. 41)

This descendant of Cain is not to be confused with the long-lived Methuselah of Seth’s lineage in Genesis 5.

WHAT issue awaits him who does not live according to the will of God, save death of the soul? And to this is given the name Methuselah, which means (as we saw) ‘a dispatch of death.’ Wherefore he is son of Mahujael, of the man who relinquished his own life, to whom dying is sent, yea soul-death, which is the change of soul under the impetus of irrational passion. (73f.)

He who receives [this] death is an intimate of Cain, who is ever dying to the way of life directed by virtue. (45)

Lamech (74−79; 46−48; cf. 41)

WHEN the soul has conceived this passion, it brings forth with sore travail-pangs incurable sicknesses and debilities, and by the contortion brought on by these it is bowed down and brought low; for each one of them lays on it an intolerable burden, so that it is unable even to look up. To all this the name ‘Lamech’ has been given, which means ‘humiliation,’ [or ‘brought low’] … a low and cringing passion being [an] offspring of the soul’s death, [and] a sore debility child of irrational impulse. (74)

[19] And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah.
[20] And Adah bare Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle.
[21] And his brother’s name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ.

Adah (79−83)

For Philo, Ada means “witness” — in the sense of self-witness and attention directed to ones thoughts and acts.

THE LOW and grovelling Lamech marries as his first wife Ada, which means ‘Witness.’ He has arranged the marriage for himself, for he fancies that the prime good for a man is the smooth movement and passage of the mind along the line of well-aimed projects, with nothing to hinder its working towards easy attainment. ‘For what,’ says he, ‘could be better than that one’s ideas, purposes, conjectures, aims, in a word one’s plans, should go, as the saying is, without a limp, so as to reach their goal without stumbling, understanding being evidenced in all the particulars mentioned?’ (79)

If a man has used a natural aptness and readiness not only for good and worthy ends, but also for their opposites … let him be deemed unhappy. … for verily it is a desperate misfortune for the soul to succeed in all things which it attempts, although they be utterly base. (81)

Therefore, Ο mind, have nothing to do with Ada, who bears witness to (the success of) worthless things, and is borne witness to (as helping) in the attempts to accomplish each of them. (83)

Jabal (Jobel; 83−99)

IF you shall think well to have her [Ada] for a partner, she will bear to you a very great mischief, even Jobel (Gen. iv. 20), which signifies ‘one altering.’ For if you delight in the witness borne to (the goodness of) everything that may present itself, you will desire to twist everything and turn it round, shifting the boundaries fixed for things by nature. (83)

The man who removes the boundaries of the good and beautiful both is accursed and is pronounced to be so with justice. These boundaries were fixed … on principles which are divine and are older than we and all that belongs to earth. This has been made clear by the Law, where it solemnly enjoins upon each one of us not to adulterate the coinage of virtue, using these words: ‘thou shalt not remove thy neighbour’s boundaries, which thy fathers set up.’ (Deut. 19:14) (88f.)

How, then, should Jobel escape rebuke, whose name when turned into Greek is ‘altering’ the natures of things or making them other than they are? For he changed the forms of wisdom and endurance and justice and virtue in general, forms of Godlike beauty, substituting contrary shapes of folly, intemperance, injustice, and all wickedness, obliterating the shapes that had been impressed before. (93)

Jubal (100−111)

‘JUBAL’ is akin in meaning to ‘Jobel,’ for it means ‘inclining now this way now that,’ and it is a figure for the uttered word, which is in its nature brother to mind. It is a most appropriate name for the utterance of a mind that alters the make of things, for its way is to halt between two courses, swaying up and down as if on a pair of scales, or like a boat at sea, struck by huge waves and rolling towards either side. For the foolish man has never learned to say anything sure or well-grounded. (100)

[He swerves aside from the] royal road, which we have just said to be true and genuine philosophy, is called in the Law the utterance and word of God. (102)

Jubal is the father of musical instruments because music, like foolish thought and speech, has infinitely many variations:

RIGHT well then is Jubal, the man who alters the tone and trend of speech, spoken of as the father of psaltery and harp, that is of music. (111)

[22] And Zillah, she also bare Tubal-cain, an instructer of every artificer in brass and iron: and the sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.

Zillah (Sella; 112−113)

LET us contemplate Lamech’s other wife Sella (Zillah) and her offspring. Well, ‘Sella’ means ‘a shadow,’ and is a figure of bodily and external goods, which in reality differ not a whit from a shadow. (112)

Tubal (Thobel; 114−119)

OF this shadow and its fleeting dreams a son is born, to whom was given the name of Thobel, meaning ‘all together.’ For it is a fact that those who have obtained health and wealth … think that they have secured absolutely all things. (115)

He goes on to say: This man was a wielder of the hammer, a smith in brass and iron work. For the soul that is vehemently concerned about bodily pleasures or the materials of outward things, is being ever hammered on an anvil, beaten out by the blows of his desires with their long swoop and reach. Always and everywhere you may see those who care for their bodies more than anything else setting lines and snares to catch the things they long for. You may see lovers of money and fame dispatching on expeditions to the ends of the earth and beyond the sea the frenzied craving for these things. They draw to them the produce of every region of the globe, using their unlimited lusts as nets for the purpose, until at last the violence of their excessive effort makes them give way, and the counter pull throws down headlong those who are tugging. All these people are war-makers, and that is why they are said to be workers in iron and bronze, and these are the instruments with which wars are waged. (116f.)

It is an invariable rule that broils and factions arise among men scarcely ever about anything else than what is in reality a shadow. For the lawgiver [Moses] named the manufacturer of weapons of war, of brass and iron, Thobel, son of Sella the shadow… . For he was aware that every naval or land force chooses the greatest dangers for the sake of bodily pleasures or to gain a superabundance of things outward, no one of which is proved sure and stable by all-testing time; for those things resemble pictures that are mere superficial delineations of solid objects, and fade away of themselves. (119)

Tubal, who signifies a state of complete inner strife and self-tyranny, is the culmination of the entire line of Cain: hence his full name, Tubal-cain.  His association with bronze and iron is reminiscent of the Bronze and Iron races in Hesiod’s Ages of Man myth (Works and Days 109–201), another allegory of the soul’s progressive descent.

Naamah (Noeman; 120−123)

WE are told that the sister of Thobel was Noeman, meaning ‘fatness’; for when those, who make bodily comfort and the material things of which I have spoken their object, succeed in getting something which they crave after, the consequence is that they grow fat. Such fatness I for my part set down not as strength but as weakness, or it teaches us to neglect to pay honour to God, which is the chiefest and best power of the soul. (120)

From this we see that the Divine word dwells and walks among those for whom the soul’s life is an object of honour, while those who value the life given to its pleasures, experience good times that are transient and fictitious. These, suffering from the effects of fatness and enjoyment spreading increasingly, swell out and become distended till they burst; but those who are fattened by wisdom which feeds souls that are lovers of virtue, acquire a firm and settled vigour, of which the fat taken from every sacrifice to be offered with the whole burnt offering is a sign. For Moses says all the fat is a due for ever to the Lord (Lev. 3:16f.), showing that richness of mind is recognized as God’s gift and appropriated to Him. (122f.)

Final Remarks

In verses 23 and 24, the slain young man whom Lamech refers to is Abel, the disposition of piety, innocence and childlike trust in God, whose death is brought to completion by the line of Cain.

So much for Philo’s exegesis of Cain’s progeny and how they relate to the moral/cognitive descent of the psyche.  Philo continues his analysis of descent in his interpretations of the giants mentioned in Genesis 6 (On the Giants) and the Tower of Babel (On the Confusion of Tongues). In addition to considering the descending lineage of Cain, Philo also allegorically interprets the improving race of Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son (Genesis 5). Future articles will discuss these.

References

Colson, F. H. & Whitaker, G. H. Philo: On the Posterity of Cain.  In: Philo, Volume 2. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: 1929.

Uebersax, John. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. Paso Robles, CA: El Camino Real, 2012.

Uebersax, John. The monomyth of fall and salvation. Christian Platonism. 2014. Accessed 22 April 2018.

Uebersax, John. Philo’s psychological exegesis of Cain and Abel. Christian Platonism. 2018. Accessed 22 April 2018.

John Uebersax
First draft: 27 April 2018 (please excuse typos)

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Philo on Heavenly Inspirations

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Manna, Maciejowski Bible (13th C.)

PHILO here, in one of his most famous passages, gives us insight into the personal experiential basis of his exegesis of the patriarchs.  First he presents Abraham as the type of man who directs his mind away from thoughts associated with worldly and carnal concerns (Egypt) to the “father’s land” of Wisdom from which heavenly inspirations flow.  This orientation gives birth to a new disposition of mind, Isaac — whom, Philo elsewhere explains, symbolizes spiritual Joy. He then describes the nature of his own experiences, noting with regret intervening periods of aridity. (FIRST DRAFT)

(28) … Nay, thou must change thine abode and betake thee to thy father’s land, the land of the Word that is holy and in some sense father of those who submit to training: and that land is Wisdom, abode most choice of virtue-loving souls.

(29) In this country there awaiteth thee the nature which is its own pupil, its own teacher, that needs not to be fed on milk as children are fed, that has been stayed by a Divine oracle from going down into Egypt (Gen. 26:2) and from meeting with the ensnaring pleasures of the flesh. That nature is entitled Isaac.

(30) When thou hast entered upon his inheritance, thou canst not but lay aside thy toil; for the perpetual abundance of good things ever ready to the hand gives freedom from toil. And the fountain from which the good things are poured forth is the companionship of the bountiful God. He shews this to be so when to set His seal upon the flow of His kindnesses, He says “I will be with thee.”

VII. (31) What  fair thing, then, could fail when there was present God the Perfecter, with gifts of grace, His virgin daughters, whom the Father that begat them rears up uncorrupted and undefiled? Then are all forms of studying, toiling, practising at rest; and without come forth all things in one outburst charged with benefit for all.

(32) And the harvest of spontaneous good things is called “Release,” [άφεσις; aphesis] inasmuch as the Mind [νους; nous] is released from the working out of its own projects, and is, we may say, emancipated from self-chosen tasks, by reason of the abundance of the rain and ceaseless shower of blessings.

(33) And these are of a most marvellous nature and passing fair. For the offspring of the soul’s own travail are for the most part poor abortions, things untimely born; but those which God waters with the snows of heaven come to the birth perfect, complete and peerless.

(34) I feel no shame in recording my own  experience, a thing I know from its having happened to me a thousand times. On some occasions, after making up my mind to follow the usual course of writing on philosophical tenets, and knowing definitely the substance of what I was to set down, I have found my understanding (διάνοιαν; dianoia) incapable of giving birth to a single idea, and have given it up without accomplishing anything, reviling my understanding for its self-conceit, and filled with amazement at the might of Him that is to Whom is due the opening and closing of the soul-wombs.

(35) On other  occasions, I have approached my work empty and suddenly become full, the ideas falling in a shower from above and being sown invisibly, so that under the influence of the Divine possession I have been filled with corybantic frenzy and been unconscious of anything, place, persons present, myself, words spoken, lines written. For I obtained language, ideas, an enjoyment of light, keenest vision, pellucid distinctness of objects, such as might be received through the eyes as the result of clearest shewing.

Source: Philo, On the Migration of Abraham 6.28−7.35 (tr. Colson & Whitaker, pp. 149−153)

Psalm 90, The Prayer of Moses

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Moses and the Burning Bush (detail), William Blake (English; 1757−1827), c. 1803.

THE following meditation,  inspired, wise and beautifully written, comes from the pen of Rev. William Stratton Pryse (1849−1928), an American Presbyterian minister; and a prize indeed it is.  Other homilies of his on the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer which appeared in the same volume of the Herald and Presbyter are equally profitably.

_________

Psalm 90, A prayer of Moses the man of God. KJV

  1. LORD, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.
  2. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.
  3. Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.
  4. For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.
  5. Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.
  6. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.
  7. For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.
  8. Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.
  9. For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.
  10. The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
  11. 11. Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.
  12. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
  13. Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.
  14. O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
  15. Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.
  16. Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.
  17. And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.

A
N IMPRESSIVE and beautiful prayer is that of the great lawgiver Moses, which is contained in the 90th psalm. There seems to be no reason to question the correctness of the title, “A Prayer of Moses,” and the psalm therefore is the oldest extant poem in the world, by many centuries older than the other psalms and the poems of Homer.

It is a noble psalm, solemn and majestic in tone and movement, and it fits well our estimate of the character of Moses. It is also a true memorial of the forty years of desert wandering. As has been said, it “faithfully reflects the long, weary wanderings, the multiplied provocations and the consequent punishments of the wilderness.” [1]

The psalm comprises two parts, of which the first is the longer, consisting of a meditation upon human life as contrasted with that of God. In a tone of deep sadness it dwells upon the brevity, uncertainty and tribulations of man’s earthly life. But coupled with this sadness is a firm confidence in God, who is from everlasting to everlasting, and in whom is our dwelling place forevermore. This meditation is a true part of the prayer of which the whole psalm consists, for while it is not in the form of petition it is, throughout, a cry of the soul after God.

Beginning with the 12th verse, the remainder of the psalm is composed of petitions which spring naturally out of the preceding reflectings. These petitions are seven in number, and thus conform to the symbolism which throughout Scripture attaches to that number. For the trend of these petitions is in precise accord with the symbolical meaning of that number, as indicating a work of God for man. Such a divine working for help and blessing is the burden of the petitions from the first to the last. And they conform to the arrangement of the seven units, which is found in every instance of the symbolical use of that number in Scripture.

The seven fall into the two groups of four and three, and the other division of six and one, the petitions in each case corresponding with and illustrated by the significance of these divisions. The order of the four and three however, the world-human number four coming first and followed by the divine number three, reverses the order of the Lord’s Prayer, which is three and four. This order grows out of the previous meditation, which leads up to the petitions of human need. The grouping of four and three is indicated by the pronouns “us” and “thy.” Teach us, return unto us, satisfy us, make us glad; and thy work, thy beauty, thy establishing power.

It is to be noted that Moses in this prayer nowhere speaks of himself alone, but includes all his people with him. It is nowhere “I” but always “we,” nowhere “me” but always “us.” It is as mediator and intercessor for the people that he utters the prayer. Is he not in this an example for every praying Christian? Upon the truly praying heart rests not only the wants of self, but the burden of humanity’s need. So also the Lord in his model prayer taught us to pray.

The first of these petitions is profoundly beautiful, but it is also vitally essential in human life. “So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.” Here is the vital lesson of human life, upon which turns the success or failure of each and every one, not only for time but for eternity. He who learns so to number his days as to acquire this heart wisdom, secures true and high success; he who does not so do makes a disastrous and hopeless failure. And that lesson God, and God alone, can teach us to learn, through his Word and by his Spirit.

But in teaching us God deals with us in discipline, and this leads to the second petition. Out of life’s trials and sorrows we are moved to pray for a turn in our experience, bringing a merciful relief and a happier state. “Return, O Lord; how long? And let it repent thee concerning thy servants.” God “repents” when a change comes from severe trials to peace and happiness.

In the third petition there is progress in definite and positive desire. Not only relief but soul-satisfaction is sought. As the brightness of morning follows the darkness of night, so hope reaches out to such a morning of satisfaction and joy. “Oh, satisfy us early with thy mercy, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” Only in God, in his love and kindness, can this blessing be realized and become our abiding portion.

One step further in the fourth petition crowns the series, compensation, gladness for affliction. “Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.” And why should it not be so? Is it not the very purpose of discipline? Is it not a part of God’s plan concerning his people, that by trial they shall be prepared for good? The Master himself gives assurance that it shall be so: “Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you and persecute you—for great is your reward in heaven.” [cf. Mat 5:11−12] For all life’s sufferings the believer shall receive great and glorious compensation, of which no small part may be hoped for in the present life.

But now the flow of petition turns to things divine, the supreme things of God. The fifth rises to the very pinnacle at once of human aspiration and divine manifestation. “Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.” The work and glory of God are inseparable, for his work is full of his glory, and his glory flames through all his work. It is this glory shining in his work that puts all meaning and purpose and hope into all things that exist. And it is the vision of this glory-filled work of God, and of his own glory revealed in it, that puts all exalted meaning and blessed hope into human life. He who is blind to it is poor indeed, but he to whom God has shown it is rich with the unsearchable riches of Christ. And the vision most clearly appears in the person and work of him who is himself the shining forth of the glory of God.

Exquisitely beautiful and in the same line is the next petition, the sixth: “And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.” All the endless beauty that appears in nature is but his own, the reflection of the ineffable beauty of himself, the beauty that most brightly shines in him who is the express image of his person. The beauty of God, everywhere, in all things, how it reveals him and how it glorifies human life. What a prayer, that this beauty may be upon us, that it may crown us with its radiance, that it may clothe us as with a garment. His beauty upon us for assurance and hope; his beauty upon us for joy and peace; his beauty upon us for strength and power; so is our life exalted and beatified. Beauty is the revelation of divine goodness and eternal glory.

These six petitions lead up to and are crowned by the seventh; “Establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” Here is the final essential without which all our work must come to nothing, with which our work shall succeed gloriously and stand forever. The finishing, confirming touch of God upon our work, what can human effort avail without this? No work conducted without God, in human wisdom and power alone, is completed at all. It is but a house built upon the sand, which can only fall. If men would accomplish any good and abiding results, they must co-operate with God, and look to him to establish their work upon them. The only hope of the world is in the leaders and people of the nations recognizing this fact.

We can not fail to see that this seventh petition is truly Sabbath, in the sense of completing all the rest. The whole prayer would be incomplete without it. In it the prayer reaches its true culmination and completion. God’s establishing touch alone brings our work to a successful end, and ushers us into our hoped-for rest. In all true effort and progress our attitude must be that of “looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.” [Heb 12:2]

Moses, we are grateful unto you under God for this wondrous prayer. We see that you are not only lawgiver, leader, governor, commander; you are also a true poet, one divinely inspired. Yours is the poetry of the heart and soul, poetry of spiritual understanding, poetry of the profound insight and exalted inspiration, poetry of true sympathy with man and communion with God.

Source: Pryse, W. S. The Prayer Of Moses. The Herald and Presbyter, Vol. XCIII, No. 29 (July 19, 1922), pp.5−6.

Notes.

  1. Smith, William (Ed.), ‘Psalms, Book of’, Dictionary of the Bible, Hartford: Scranton Co., 1908. (p. 775)

 

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

Divinus Plato: Is Plato a Religious Figure?

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Divinus Plato: Is Plato a Religious Figure?

Divinus_Plato_Philipp-Kilan_per_Joachim-von-SandrartSHOULD we view Plato only as a philosopher, or may we also approach him as a religious figure: a prophet, sage, priest, or shaman, who is in some sense divinely inspired, and whom a superintending Providence supplied for the benefit of humanity? Historically, the view of Plato as a religious figure has been common, but in recent centuries it has been dismissed by a prevailing narrow rationalism in academic and scholarly circles. Perhaps it is time to re-open the question. We review arguments supporting the proposition that Plato is a figure with religious significance. The aim is not to settle the question here, but to pave the way for continued discussion. (Abstract)

Read full paper here: http://goo.gl/iWP8Mm (if clicking link doesn’t work, try right-click, Save link as)

Update (March 2017):  An updated version has now been published in the Kronos Philosophical Journal.

Written by John Uebersax

June 15, 2015 at 8:52 pm

The Platonic Triad

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platonictriad

There is confusion about the Platonic Triad of higher Forms. Let’s clear this up.

  1. Often the Triad is given as Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.   Because these are all Forms, it might be more technically accurate to refer here to the Form (meaning eternal essence or Ideal) of Truth, the Form of Beauty, and so on. But for simplicity, we simply say here Truth and not the Form of Truth, Beauty, and not its Form, etc.
  1. Within this formulation, naming the first two Truth and Beauty is fine, but calling the third Goodness is incorrect.
  1. The problem is that these three occupy only the second-highest tier in the realm of Platonic Forms. Above all three (and this is of central importance) is the Form of the Good. The very point is that by contemplation any of these second-tier forms (or all together), our minds are drawn upwards to contemplate or intuit the Form of the Good, or God. To call the third Form of the Triad “Goodness” therefore confounds levels. It places Goodness, or the Form of the Good on the second tier along with Truth and Beauty, yet also above Truth and Beauty. This is not only ambiguous, but contradicts what Plato actually wrote.
  1. The third Form of the Triad would be more properly called Moral Goodness. That is, it refers to the Goodness of the moral realm. Here ‘moral’ means something much greater than its colloquial use associated with ethical actions and choices; rather it encompasses everything that concerns meaning, value, and virtue in our life.
  1. Yet the term Moral Goodness is arguably not a prefect choice here. It might be misunderstood as suggesting that what it denotes has a greater or more direct connection to Goodness than Truth and Beauty. But such is not true; for we could as easily call the other two Truth Goodness and Beauty Goodness.The issue then is simply a limitation in vocabulary; we seem to lack a single word that means Moral Goodness.
  1. Now in truth we have such a word: Justice. So a faithful expression of the Platonic Triad could be Truth, Beauty, and Justice. However the word ‘justice’ in English carries certain connotations because of its other uses. For example, people today may associate justice with courts, laws, and retributive justice — associations which obscure the meaning of Justice here. What is meant in the present case is a Justice that is is inseparable from peace, harmony, moderation and right measure.  Perhaps we could call it ‘just rightness,’ as in the sense of that special satisfaction felt when we get something just rightness.
  1. Therefore, with the qualification that one understands this fuller and nobler meaning of Justice, we can give the Platonic Triad as (the Forms of ) Truth, Beauty, and Justice (or Measure, or Virtue, or Excellence).
  1. Plato describes three corresponding means of ascent to contemplation of the Form of the Good: i.e., via Truth (dialectical ascent in Book 7 of Republic), Beauty (Diotima’s Ladder of Love in the Symposium), and Moral Goodness (the Phaedrus Chariot Allegory).
  1. This Triad is not to be confused with the Neoplatonist “trinity” of the One, the Good, and Intellect or Mind (Nous). In the Neoplatonist model, as first described by Plotinus, the One is the ultimate level, from which proceed or emanate in a cascading sequence the Good, and then Intellect from the Good, then Soul from Intellect, then Body from Soul.

Update: Plato seems to come as close as anywhere in his writings to explicitly stating this triad in Philebus 61a–66b, especially 64d–65a: Beauty, Truth, and Measure (metriotes) or Proportion (symmetria). In view of this new information I would be less eager to call the third member of the triad Moral Goodness, as that seems to specific. Principles like Measure, Justice/Justness/’Just right’-ness, Excellence, Proportion and Moderation all seem to apply.  There is perhaps no single English term that expresses the essence of all these, which is perhaps what Plato means here.  The Egyptians elevated this cosmic principle to the status of a goddess, Ma’at (Measure), who also corresponds to the Greek goddess Themis.

Applying the Platonic Triad

Here’s how we put the Platonic Triad to practical use in our life.  When, say, one is struck with the beauty of some beautiful thing, (or the virtue of some virtuous person or action, or truth of some truth), one lets ones mind rise to consider Beauty (or Moral Goodness, or Truth) itself: How all things deemed beautiful must share some common essence, Beauty; how this essence, Form, or Ideal of Beauty is something real; how it is changeless and eternal; how it is more perfectly beautiful than any actual object.  For example, for any beautiful object, we see notice slight flaws or imperfections and can imagine how it could be still more beautiful.  The perfect beauty towards which our mind inclines is the Form of Beauty, or Beauty.

And then consider how Beauty itself is merely one species of Goodness.  Truth and Justice are also good.  So there must be some essence, Form, or Ideal which all have in common.  This is the Form of the Good.

Such considerations may enable the mind to rise, then, higher than Beauty itself, to glimpse with ones soul the Form of the Good.

Adepts in the art of contemplation may then dwell on this sight, or rise still higher, learning more of the Form of the Good.  And, it is said, a person’s mind can ascend still higher, beyond the Good — to the One beyond all differentiation.  That brings us to the subject of so-called apophatic mysticism.  This highest form of contemplation is called dark knowing, because it is beyond all concepts.

But others of us who are not contemplative monks and deal with the practicalities of daily social life may, alternatively, draw from a glimpse of the Form of the Good the immediate intuition of what it implies for practical affairs.  We may see a certain activity or task, for example, “in the light of” the Good; and this may help us to simplify problems, remove obstacles, pursue plans with much greater efficiency and effect, etc.

Thus while some forms of the vision of the Good (the famous visio beatifica) are immensely profound and exceedingly rare, others are within our reach on a daily basis and can be of great value in ordering our practical affairs and lives. This is the goal of a good Platonic or Christian (or other religious) life. A personality built on this principle is the real meaning of Plato’s Republic: a city of soul where all the citizens — our numerous subpersonalities, passions, and dispositions — are ruled by love of Wisdom and love of the Good. Then our personality is a harmonious, integrated whole, and not an unruly mob of conflicting subpersonalities, each ruled by its own narrow desires and schemes.

Further Reading

Plotinus.  Enneads 1.3. On Dialectic.  Trans.: Stephen MacKenna, London, 1917–1930 (4rd. ed.  revised by B. S. Page, 1969).

Summary of Plotinus, Enneads 1.3: On Dialectic, or the Upward Way.