It has often been observed that the Hebrew and Greek traditions occupy different difficult to reconcile dimensions of our cultural heritage. It has been claimed that the roads leading from Jerusalem and the road leading from Athens into our modern cultures are different parallel roads without intersection points. Alexandrian Jews, however, seriously question this early hypothesis partly perhaps because they were Greek speakers and sought in the writings of ancient Greek Philosophers confirmation of the articles of their faith. Professor Brett has this to say:
“The Egyptian Jews appear to have formed a mixed society mainly Hellenic in manners and language, but still thoroughly Jewish in temper. For this community the Greek version of the Septuagint was made somewhere about the year 250 BC. Into the disputes on the nature and authority of this translation, the version of the Septuagint, there is no need to enter: it is sufficient to remark that it was a version not wholly free from innovations. Even if there were no self-willed theorists among the translators and no direct intention to give the Scriptures a Stoic or Platonic colouring, there must have still been many an instance when the change from Hebrew to Greek words involved a change of atmosphere that amounted to a change of doctrine.”
This piece was written of course long before it became clear to scholars that there were translation difficulties with even the translation of Greek philosophical terms into Latin because the Latin terms carried cultural commitments to the Greek terms that were not shared by the Greeks.
The Book of Wisdom ascribed to Solomon, to take one example of the difficulties of translation, involved preachings by Ecclesiastes that appeared to traditional Jewish scholars to contain a number of mistranslations. Philo’s position in this debate was that there were aspects of Judaism that needed correction by Greek Philosophy and there were also aspects of Greek Philosophy that needed reinterpretation in terms of Judaic wisdom in relation to the doctrine of the eternal life of the soul. Such eclectism would have seemed to Aristotle to be a form of madness but as we know Aristotle’s philosophy at this time was conspicuous by its absence. Philo’s preference for a Platonic form of dualism ranging over the mind-body problem and the reality-appearance problem essentially ignored Aristotelian solutions to these problems. in Philo, as in Plato, we also encounter a penchant for allegorical illustrations in his interpretations of the Scriptures.
The Creation Myth of the Old Testament(OT) involving the image of God breathing into the body of man is a central image for Philo from which follows in almost Pythagorean spirit a hierarchy of beings living in a world in which the very air is inhabited by spirits that are divine and can in their turn “fall” from divine grave and inhabit human bodies until the moment of their salvation is nigh and they can be restored to the kingdom in the heavens. Prior to divine inspiration and the entering of these spirits into their bodies, humans lead an animal-like existence steered solely by their appetites and their senses.
Brett claims that the Stoics have influenced Philo but the influence is probably more complex than Brett envisages in the following quote:
“From this point, Philo develops the Stoic aspect of his doctrine. All things that exist have
Brett had earlier pointed out that the Stoics had simplified Aristotle’s 4 cause schema of explanation into two and reduced the idea of the actualisation process( a process of development) to a kind of monism(reminiscent of Spinoza’s Substantialism). We can also see in the above quote an echo of Spinoza’s conatus, a power that things possess to preserve themselves in their existence. The thoughts of the Stoics, characterizing the Platonic dualism of thought and extension as aspects of an infinite substance from which everything originates is a position that is only distantly related to the thought of Aristotle. The Stoic system of classification is not that of Cartesian thought and extension but rather a dualistic system of action and passion which in its turn indicates an ontological commitment that everything that is real is so in virtue of either being capable of action or capable of being acted upon. We can already see that, in this transformation of the thought of Aristotle, the idea of form or principle has disappeared as has the idea of chance. The Stoic substance, even if it includes the will as part of a deterministic substance leaves no space for free choice in human voluntary action. Mental activity, as we know from the Stoics is also reduced to knowing and feeling and the Aristotelian notion of deliberation connected to phronesis(the power of reasoning practically) is also conspicuous by its absence. In the Stoic investigation of the powers of the mind, we encounter a confusion of the power of the imagination with passive sensation. We also find “principles” or regularities such as the association of ideas masquerading as principles of reason. The positive result of this opening up of gaps between perception, imagination, and reason, is that we encounter in this account the first indications of a concept of self-consciousness. This concept was a bridge between experience and reason. There is an argument for regarding this moment as one of the moments of a beginning of our modern “cognitive psychology” that was later to become obsessed with the so-called “subjective” perspective of the individual. This notion of the self-sufficiency of the individual and his experience was, of course, a result of the notion of self-sufficiency Aristotle discussed in relation to phronesis or practical reasoning.
We argued in the previous chapter that Stoicism was not a
The question that arises as a consequence of this developmental process of the substitution of reason for spirit is, what the early Christian Fathers will do with this cultural inheritance.
THE EARLY CHRISTIAN FATHERS
ST Paul and St John
One could detect in the writings of Philo echoes of Aristotle even if the ideas were significantly distorted because of Stoic materialistic and deterministic assumptions and also because his doctrines were given a baptism in a cauldron of what Brett called “Lofty passions” striving to understand a God that was perfectly rational. In Philo Philosophical Psychology was illustrated with a Platonic form of allegorical thinking in “symbolic pictures”. For Philo, the road to salvation is not the road taken by travelers arguing over the truth of statements but rather the road taken by travelers seeking divine signs of the invisible in the visible experience of the surrounding landscape. St Paul, we know traveled the road to Damascus and had such an experience of the invisible that spiritually transformed him. Writing after such a spiritual transformation Pauls writings have very little, if any, Aristotelian content. Paul clearly distinguishes between the mind controlled by reason which for him fails to survive the death of the body and the soul as immortal spirit related to God not via knowledge but via a “moral vision” that presumably can only be explicated by “symbolic pictures”. A moral telos was, of course, the theme of Plato’s Republic but the constituting mechanism was not a moral vision given in symbolic pictures but rather an idea of the Good arrived at and defended via various methods of reasoning. The constituting mechanism of spiritual conversion or salvation via symbolic pictures appears to lack the power or capacity to
Paul Ricoeur has analyzed, for example, the confessions the religious soul makes of his own defilement, sin, and guilt and the analysis reveals that this use of language concerns what man considers sacred: symbolic confessions of evil denotes, according to Ricoeur the experienced disruption, fault, or breach in mans relation to what he regards as sacred. Ricoeur, in the context of a discussion of the symbolism also refers to Hegel’s teleologically oriented philosophy of religion, and claims that symbols reach out to the future destiny of man that will be revealed by a world spiritual meaning. Ricoeur also discusses how symbols reveal an archeological dimension that takes us back to the origin of mankind and the origin of meaning. Was the origin connected to acts of creation of the universe and man by a supernatural being? Was there a first man, like Adam who after receiving the breath of the creator failed to follow his law thus accounting for all future evil in the world? This is one message of the OT which with this myth of what happened to the first man lays the groundwork for an individualistic interpretation of the spiritual life of man. This, of course, is a very different spiritual outlook to that of the Greeks for whom mankind began not with an individual but with a race of men, that, in order to live successfully together required laws of their own making emanating from the rational part of their mind( the only effective means of controlling the spiritual and appetitive aspects of mans mind). The New Testament(NT) Gospels testify to a continued individualization of man and the continued absence of reason in their accounts of the psychology of man. The NT, however, appeals to something new and unique in its words:
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”(John 1:1)
Language, the medium of communicative action, is brought into the discussion but the above words whilst being assertive and expressive of a kind of truth that is spiritual, are not argumentative. John continues at 8:32:
“And you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
Jesus avoids any confusion by clarifying that what is being referred to here is not truth in any sense suggestive of academic truths about the external world but rather truth in relation to the individual salvation of all of his listeners. His was a message urging his audience to heed and obey the word of God if they desired to be free of the bondage of their own personal sins. It should be pointed out, however, that whether or not there is an academic argument for the idea of the Good in relation to the idea of Freedom, the rational investigation of these terms is not on the agenda of either the OT or the NT. This is somewhat surprising given the fact that one of the grounds for a discussion of the relation of these two terms is a Philosophical Psychology that has identified the individual will as an important element of action. The explanation for this state of affairs, however, lies with two factors: the abandonment of rationality and the Stoic connection of the will to the will to survive.
The way in which language is used in the NT in combination with the above two factors overshadows the accumulated wisdom of Philosophical Psychology. The telos of reason or rationality of the individual is, as was the case in the OT, replaced with the theological goal of the salvation of the individual through individual works( in the spirit of faith in God and the words of his prophets). With the absence of reason and the consequent devaluation of the importance of knowledge in the sense of epistemé, a vacuum of justification emerges that is filled with powers of mind such as the Imagination and its connection to the Emotions. Juxtapose the Imagination with Language and we are confronted with the “symbolic pictures” referred to by Brett. These pictures may, of course, be factually true(true descriptions of the life of Jesus, for example) but the symbolic structure of these “pictures” place these descriptions in a realm of meaning where the descriptions also refer to the intended relation of man to the sacred. As we know, however, even the mere factual descriptions of the life of Jesus have been a matter of controversy ever since the discovery of alternative Gnostic Gospels. This is an issue of knowledge or epistemé or truth about the external world and probably unrelated to the kind of inner truth or insight that Jesus was referring to in John 8:32. The Gnostics as we know promote truth perhaps in a wider sense but definitively in relation to an inherited and transformed philosophical psychology. The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, for example, claims that Jesus also said the following:
“Jesus said, “if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you”
The idea of something within having such destructive power reminds the modern reader of Freud’s death instinct, Thanatos, that is biological in origin but also responsible for war and all forms of human aggression. This
One of the Gnostic texts discovered near Nag Hammadi: the “Testimony of Truth” gives a controversial interpretation of the Myth of the Garden of Eden( an interpretation incidentally that Aristotle certainly would have approved of.) The interpretation views the whole series of events through the eyes of the value of knowledge and the speaking serpent in the Garden. The Serpent does not use symbolic pictures but probably something resembling an argument to suggest that knowledge is necessary for the future development of Adam and Eve. God is accused of being malicious and holding grudges. Unsurprisingly, this text and many others were regarded as the blasphemy of heretics by many members of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. The Serpent convinces Eve who convinces Adam. The kind of knowledge at issue here is not clear but it is probably not epistemé. It is probably more akin to the kind of knowledge the Delphic oracle challenged man to acquire, namely self-knowledge which according to Gnosticism is the path to divine knowledge or knowledge of God.
Pagels in her work “The Gnostic Gospels” quotes the Gnostic Teacher Monoimus:
“Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of
This is clearly a matter of intuitive knowledge or what some have called insight acquired via experience subjected to a kind of self-observation or process of introspection. Beyond these recommendations the kind of investigation required for this voyage of self-discovery is obscure and the problem, from the Christian point of view, with these so-called secret Gospels, is that they transpose the theme of salvation through repentance of sins into a philosophical/psychological theme of enlightenment from illusion. Pagels suggests that this recommendation sounds more Eastern than Western but there is an argument to be made that we are on Platonic terrain. Pagels does, however, in the context of this debate raise an interesting hypothesis relating to the possible influence of the Brahmins who conceive of God as Logos or the light of discourse. The Gospel of John could well refer to this Eastern position or alternatively, it could refer to an awareness of the role of the language of sacred texts in the conversion or salvation process of individuals. One might wonder If it is the case that the Platonic ascent from the darkness of illusory images deep inside the cave to the enlightenment provided by the knowledge of the forms or principles of all existence might also be a constituent feature of understanding that language can be used to instrumentally communicate wisdom and knowledge. If this is the case then one might also wonder why the Aristotelian arguments against the Platonic theory of forms in the context of dualistic philosophical psychology and metaphysics were not considered as an extension of the Platonic rationalist position. One answer to this question is that the weakness of the theory of forms and various dualistic assumptions sufficed for many thinkers to abandon rationality as a power of mind and justificatory principle in
Socrates’ declared agnosticism over the issue of whether after his death he would continue to exist in any form may have been repeated again in the Gnostic doubt about the resurrection of the carnal body. The issue of death obviously brings