A Philosophical History of Psychology, Cognition, and Consciousness: Philo, Early Christian Fathers(Paul and John), and Gnosticism.

Hits: 108


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 power of some kind: at its lowers level there is the power of self-conservation called Habit, which is found in motionless objects such as stones. The next degree is the power of growth, which is a higher form of self-conservation, found in plants, for example. The third level is that of soul-life where we find perception, representation of ideas and impulse. The common element in this scale is spirit, in the sense of air… Man, as last created, sums up all these forms–he has the various forms in his bones(analogous to the rocks of the earth) his hair and nails (analogous to the plants) and in the sensitive soul. Man is this a microcosm: he has a material organism illuminated by the mind just as the macrocosm is a vast organism illuminated by the sun. The study of man and the study of the universe can be conducted on parallel lines, and to some extent, the knowledge of man is a knowledge of God”

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 self-centred ethical philosophy given its commitment to the role of conscience and duty tied to its telos of a cosmopolitan man but it is clear from the above discussion that the Stoics were in the throes of building an alternative skeletal frame of philosophical psychology that would later in its turn be transformed and used with a vengeance in the creation of Modern scientific Psychology. Philo’s work was supposedly influenced not just by Stoic materialism(substantialism) but also by Platonic Psychology of the Spirit. Plato’s influence is also encountered in Philo’s hope for an enlightened(sun-like) spiritual inspiration as sometimes occurred in dreams which may symbolically represent in their images the invisible powers that hold our world and our universe together. In Philo, we see an advanced spiritualization of our rational powers as a stage in the abandonment of rationalism but there was in this process, however, an anchor in the Ethical law of Moses that probably prevented an Epicurean drifting into the straits of relativism. We find, however, no attempt to seek to articulate in any detail the role of the will or self-consciousness in the process of replacing man’s rational power.

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.


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 universalise the object of the pictures and this ensures that the writings of Paul at best are dedicated to achieving individual salvation, ie. they contain recipes for individual action and judgment tied to individual revelation or vision in a spiritual mode. This mechanism would have been obscure for those living at the time of Aristotle who was beginning to become suspicious of those that experienced visions. For the Plato of the Republic his three famous allegories of the sun, the divided line, and the cave symbolized two realities: the physical sun and the mental idea of the good. These allegories differed significantly from the allegories we find in myths and the Bible in that they are embedded not in narratives concerning the origin and destiny of the universe and man but rather threads of argument woven together for the purposes of revealing to us humans the meaning of Being. This latter use of language is an advanced form of use compared with that which the passionate religious soul uses in his efforts to understand himself and his world.

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 in turn is reminiscent of the position that Freud adopts in his “Civilization and its Discontents” where all of Culture is a battlefield in which the giants of Eros and Thanatos struggle for supremacy. A more potent image of ” world spirit”, conjured up more or less on the eve of the second world war is difficult to find.

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 similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as a starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own and says “My God, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body. Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate…If you carefully investigate these matters you will find him in yourself.” (p18)

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 favour of what Brett called the “lofty passions” or what we refer to as “spirit”(which of course is also a Platonic aspect of the soul). What is at issue in this abandonment of Rationality is not merely an academic affair relating to Academic areas of knowledge such as Mathematics, it is rather the issue of a form of life, the so-called examined life, which Plato argued in the Republic was a superior form of life to either the wealthy or political/spiritual life that both ultimately depended upon circumstances outside of themselves for their happiness. The Philosophers of the Republic, armed with the idea of the Good would have no attachment to the desires of the bodily appetites of the wealthy man or the desires of the spirited warlike man who fails to acknowledge his mortality and its meaning. The desire for understanding of the meaninglessness of external goals in the face of death was an essential part of the examined life that Socrates illustrated in his relation to his own execution by the Athenians. In his cell before his death we encounter no “lofty passions or emotions manifested by his accusers at his trial: only a steadfast stoical acceptance of the inevitable, an attitude that could only exist in someone who had responded with the entire spectrum of his intellectual and spiritual powers to the challenge of Delphic oracle to “know thyself”.

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 man to the brink or limit of one’s self-knowledge. The fate of the physical body must have been clear for all but the ceasing to exist of one’s consciousness, the medium in which we conduct our investigations into all phenomena including death must have presented itself as the mystery of mysteries almost on a par with the mystery of the nature of God’s existence. Much more could be said about the role of Gnosticism in the History of Psychology but let us for the moment rest our case with an acknowledgment that until its historical origins are clarified we can only guess at the ultimate significance of this issue in this debate. Pagels suggests that Gnosticism may have been politically outmanoeuvred by the orthodox Christians. If this is the case then the connection of Gnosticism with the Hellenic influences becomes a victim of the realm of political Spirit in the political realm which is a far cry from the spirit of Eros in the NT that associated itself with the emotion of Love.