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John Sullivan Dwight: The Religion of Beauty (1840)

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TRANSCENDENTALISM is notoriously difficult to define. But what it’s really all about is producing certain states of consciousness, including aesthetic, religious and mystical experiences, longer or shorter in duration.

Perhaps no better example of the Transcendentalist approach to beauty exists than an essay John Sullivan Dwight contributed to the first issue of The Dial. Dwight went on to become a prominent music critic. (He’s even better known, though, for supplying the English lyrics to the French carol O Holy Night.) In this essay, Dwight makes three important points: (1) Beauty reveals ones own soul; (2) it improves individuals and has practical social benefits; and (3) it proves the existence of and awakens natural religion. The essay is not especially well written, overdoing (in emulation of German Romantics) the ‘zealous manifesto’ style of prose. Yet individual sentences and paragraphs are brilliant. Here are some of the best.

Beauty reveals ones soul

The outward scenery of our life, when we feel it to be beautiful, is always commensurate with the grandeur of our inward ideal aspiration; it reflects encouragingly the heart’s highest, brightest dreams; it does not contradict the soul’s convictions of a higher life; it tells us that we are safe in believing the thought, which to us seems noblest.

When the skies and woods reveal their loveliness, then nature seems a glorious picture, of which our own inmost soul is the painter, and our own loves and longings the subject.

Beauty is the revelation of the soul to the senses.

We find the soul’s deep inexpressible thoughts written around us in the skies, the far blue hills, and swelling waters.

Beauty improves individuals and has practical social benefits

The instinct of obedience, of conciliation, of decorum, reverence, and harmony, flows into the soul with beauty.

It disposes to order. It gives birth in the mind to an instinct of propriety. It suggests imperceptibly, it inclines gently, but irresistibly, to the fit action, to the word in season. The beauty which we see and feel plants its seeds in us.

Gazing with delight on nature, our will imperceptibly becomes attuned to the same harmony. The sense of beauty is attended with a certain reverence; we dare not mar what looks so perfect.

This sense, too, has a something like conscience contained in it; we feel bound to do and be ourselves something worthy of the beauty we are permitted to admire.

This feeling, while it makes alive and quickens, yet is eminently conservative, in the best sense.

He, who has it, is always interested on the side of order, and of all dear and hallowed associations.

The presence of beauty, like that of nature, as soon as we feel it at all, overcomes us with respect, and a certain sensitive dread of all violence, mischief, or discord.

Again, the love of beauty awakens higher aspirations in us.

Beauty always suggests the thought of the perfect.

He trusts nature; for he has kissed her loveliness; he knows that she smiles encouragement to him.

The greatest blessing, which could be bestowed on the weary multitude, would be to give them the sense of beauty; to open their eyes for them, and let them see how richly we are here surrounded, what a glorious temple we inhabit, how every part of it is eloquent of God.

I hold, then, that without a cultivation of the sense of beauty, chiefly to be drunken from the open fountains of nature, there can be no healthy and sound moral development.

Beauty awakens and proves the existence of natural religion.

The devout mind is a lover of nature.

The love of nature grows with the growth of the soul. Religion makes man sensible to beauty; and beauty in its turn disposes to religion.

The love of nature ends in the love of God.

It is impossible to feel beauty, and not feel that there is a spirit there. The sensualist, the materialist, the worshipper of chance, is cheated of his doubts, the moment this mystery overtakes him in his walks.

This surrounding presence of beautiful nature keeps the soul buoyed up forever into its element of freedom, where its action is cheerful, healthful, and unwearied … and the call to worship, either by prayer or by self-sacrifice, is music to it.

In all this outward beauty, — these soft swells and curves of the landscape, which seems to be the earth’s smile; — this inexhaustible variety of form and colors and motion, not promiscuous, but woven together in as natural a harmony as the thoughts in a poem; this mysterious hieroglyphic of the flowers; this running alphabet of tangled vine and bending grass studded with golden paints; this all-embracing perspective of distance rounding altogether into one rainbow-colored sphere, so perfect that the senses and the soul roam abroad over it unsated, feeling the pesence and perfection of the whole in each part; this perfect accord of sights, sounds, motions, and fragrance, all tuned to one harmony, out of which run melodies inexhaustible of every mood and measure;—in all this, man first feels that God is without him, as well as within him, that nature too is holy; and can he bear to find himself the sole exception?

Does not the soul begin to dream of its own boundless capacities, when it has felt beauty? Does not immortality then, for the first time, cease to be a name, a doctrine, and become a present experience?

The beautiful, then, is the spiritual aspect of nature. By cherishing a delicate sensibility to it, we make nature preach us a constant lesson of faith; we find all around an illustration of the life of the spirit.

Everything beautiful is emblematic of something spiritual.

Is it not God revealed through the senses? Is not every beautiful thing a divine hint thrown out to us?

The close, unseemly school-house, in which our infancy was cramped, — of how much natural faith did it not rob us!

This should be a part of our religious education.

Source: The Dial (July 1840) pp. 17-22. Read the whole essay here.

Blinding Polyphemus Gently

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Arnold Böcklin (Swiss), Odysseus and Polyphemus, 1896

ODYSSEUS’ problems, you’ll recall, began in earnest after he blinded the cyclops, Polyphemus. He might have proceeded straight home without incident, but instead gloated as he sailed away, revealing his name and identity.  It was then that Polyphemus, armed with that information,  asked his father, Poseidon to take revenge — setting the stage for many perils Odysseus faced.

A common view since antiquity is that the Odyssey has an allegorical and philosophical meaning: a return of the mind to its natural homeland of peace, clarity, right reason and wisdom.  The ancient Greeks summed all these things up in one word: sophrosyne, meaning soundness of mind. The events of Odysseus’ journey home symbolize the hazards and milestones in our own psychological process of return — a journey we make daily.  As often as we become disturbed and upset, losing composure and mental clarity, we are like Odysseus, cast into a churning sea and must make our way back.

In Polyphemus — an oafish, anti-social giant, concerned with nothing beyond eating, drinking, sleeping and satisfying primitive biological instincts — we easily see a symbol of our most base nature, more or less corresponding to the Freudian id. Polyphemus’ having only one eye means he sees only the realm of sense perception, oblivious to all that’s spiritual, ideal and eternal.

Despite some of his crew being devoured (symbolizing a disruption of our clear rational consciousness by intrusive thoughts and mental agitation caused by ungratified appetites), Odysseus escapes by using his intelligence.  Some commentators see in the sharpened, fire-hardened pole with which he blinds Polyphemus a symbol for dialectic — e.g., analyzing urges with sharp, incisive reasoning, instead of instantly giving in to them.

But, as we’ve said, Odysseus pays a price, because Poseidon makes his subsequent journey very difficult. [1] This suggests a rather grim picture of life. Is our only choice to either gratify every appetite, or else suffer for not doing so?

Porphyry, the disciple of Plotinus (the first Neoplatonist), thought otherwise.  In his short essay, On the Cave of the Nymphs — a landmark in the allegorical interpretation of Homer — he considers a later episode of the Odyssey that, like the Polyphemus story, involves a cave.  When Odysseus, with the help of Athena and the splendid Phaecians, arrives at Ithaca, he lands at the Cave of the Nymphs.  Homer describes the cave in a few lines (Od. XIII 102–112) densely packed with imagery.  Porphyry sees a parallelism between this cave and that of Polyphemus:  once again Odysseus leaves a cave, but this time more fortunately.  Following earlier advice given by the prophet Tiresias in the underworld, Odysseus walks inland until he finds a “land that knows nothing of the sea,” where he plants an oar from his ship and offers appeasing sacrifice to Poseidon.

Porphyry interprets this to mean that, while we should oppose our base nature (Polyphemus), we should do so wisely, and, one might say, with diplomacy. We don’t want an outright confrontation that will elicit Poseidon’s wrath.

Porphyry explains it thus at the end of Cave of the Nymphs:

16. In this cave [of the Nymphs], therefore, says Homer, all external possessions must be deposited. Here, naked, and assuming a suppliant habit, afflicted in body, casting aside everything superfluous, and being averse to the energies of sense, it is requisite to sit at the foot of the olive and consult with Minerva [Athena] by what means we may most effectually destroy that hostile rout of passions which insidiously lurk in the secret recesses of the soul. (tr. Taylor)

He means that the cave is like the haven of our mind which we return to in contemplation, withdrawing our attention from the world of sense.

Indeed, as it appears to me, it was not without reason that Numenius and his followers thought the person of Ulysses in the Odyssey represented to us a man who passes in a regular manner over the dark and stormy sea of generation [genesis = becoming, a Platonic term for the sensory world] and thus at length arrives at that region where tempests and seas are unknown, and finds a nation

“Who ne’er knew salt, or heard the billows roar.” (Ibid.)

Above Porphyry is explaining the allegorical meaning of the Odyssey as a mental journey, attributing this approach to the earlier Platonist philosopher, Numenius.

17. Again, according to Plato, the deep, the sea, and a tempest are images of a material nature [i.e., our biological nature]. (…) But from Thoosa the Cyclops was born, whom Ulysses deprived of sight. And this deed of Ulysses became the occasion of reminding him of his errors, till he was safely landed in his native country. On this account, too, a seat under the olive is proper to Ulysses, as to one who implores divinity and would appease his natal daemon [the id] with a suppliant branch. For it will not be simply, and in a concise way, possible for anyone to be liberated from this sensible life, who blinds this daemon, and renders his energies inefficacious; but he who dares to do this, will be pursued by the anger of the marine and material gods [gods = inner energies and/or archetypal complexes?], whom it is first requisite to appease by sacrifices, labours, and patient endurance; at one time, indeed, contending with the passions, and at another employing enchantments and deceptions, and by these, transforming himself in an all-various manner; in order that, being at length divested of the torn garments (by which his true person was concealed) he may recover the ruined empire of his soul.

Nor will he even then be liberated from labours; but this will be effected when he has entirely passed over the raging sea, and, though still living, becomes so ignorant of marine and material works (through deep attention to intelligible concerns) as to mistake an oar for a corn-van [or winnowing fan — i.e., to be so far inland that people there don’t know what an oar is]. (Ibid.)

Porphyry explains this principle of intelligent resistance to our ‘inner Polyphemus’ more directly in his book advocating vegetarianism for spiritual aspirants, On Abstinence from Animal Food.

32. But this departure [from sense, imagination, and irrationality] may be effected by violence, and also by persuasion and by reason, through the wasting away, and, as it may be said, oblivion and death of the passions; which, indeed, is the best kind of departure, since it is accomplished without oppressing that from which we are divulsed. (…) And this negligence is produced by an abstinence from those sensible perceptions which excite the passions, and by a persevering attention to intelligibles. And among these passions or perturbations, those which arise from food are to be enumerated. (tr. Taylor)

So he’s recommending a moderate, reasoned approach to handling troublesome appetites and passions, instead of a direct confrontation. To put this in practical terms, instead of going on a crash diet, it’s better to wean oneself gradually from over-eating — by, for example, phasing out delicacies that keep us constantly thinking about the next meal.  Have tofu for dinner once in a while, or enjoy a meatless Friday.  Let Polyphemus go gradually to sleep, instead of waging war.

A more general lesson from this is how, allegorically understood, the Odyssey is concerned with practical psychological issues in life.  The same is, of course, also true with the Iliad — and with Greek myths generally (see, e.g., my page here).

Notes

  1. A further issue here is the problem of hubris. At first Odysseus is content to call himself “nobody.” Only while sailing off does he tempt the gods by revealing his name and identity. Psychologically, calling himself nobody corresponds to ones ego acting, as it should, on behalf of the entire Self, and exerting a healthy and natural control over the appetites.  The latter situation occurs when the ego becomes too strongly identified with opposing appetites.

Bibliography

Clark, Gillian. Porphyry: On Abstinence from Killing Animals. London: Duckworth, 2000. Reprinted: London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Lamberton, Robert. Porphyry: On the Cave of the Nymphs. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1983

Taylor, Thomas (tr.). On Abstinence from Animal Food . In: Thomas Taylor (tr.), Select Works of Porphyry, London: Rodd, 1823, (pp. 1−170).

Taylor, Thomas (tr.). On the Cave of the Nymphs in the Thirteenth Book of the Odyssey. In: Thomas Taylor (tr.), Select Works of Porphyry, London: Rodd, 1823, (pp. 171−200). Reprinted: London, John M. Watkins, 1917.

 

A Better Diagram of the Cardinal Virtues

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RECENTLY I noticed some diagrams of the traditional four cardinal virtues of prudence (phronesis), temperance (sophrosyne), courage (andreia) and righteousness (or justice; dikaiosyne) arranged as a square. Such a configuration is problematic in that it ignores the unique relationship that righteousness has with the others.

Another more general issue is that Plato — from whom the tradition of cardinal virtues originates — arguably proposed five, not four.  A new diagram above attempts to redress both issues.First, the lower half of the diagram helps show the affinity of the usual four cardinal virtues to Plato’s famous tripartite model of the psyche that distinguishes the (1) rational, (2) appetitive and (3) spirited elements of the soul.In Plato’s system, courage is the excellence (or right-tuning) of the spirited element, temperance the excellence of the appetitive element, and prudence of the rational element. Righteousness, in turn, is the harmonization of the three other virtues.  Hence it makes more sense to place righteousness in the center of the other three.

Second, while Plato sometimes lists these four cardinal virtues, other times he mentions a fifth: piety or holiness. In fact, he seems almost deliberately vague about this — but we also know that Plato sometimes reveals his most important points subtly.

Writing a few centuries later, Philo, the famous Jewish Platonist of Alexandria, was more explicit. In his in his influential allegorical interpretation of Genesis he saw the Garden of the Eden a symbolizing human virtues generally. The four rivers that surround and water Eden, he suggested, correspond to prudence, temperance, courage and righteousness: these nourish the other virtues.

The Tree of Life in the center of the Garden is theosebeia (θεοσέβεια), or reverence towards God’s goodness. This, he says, is  “the greatest of the virtues, by means of which the psyche is made deathless”  (i.e., it does not ‘die’ by lapsing into sin; On the Creation of the World, 154).

This virtue of perfect piety, godliness and ongoing trust in God constitutes the apex of the spiritual life.  It is a progression beyond purification and illumination to what mystics call the unitive life: assimilation to God, erasure of the distinction between self-will and divine will, and the Reign(ing) of God in ones soul.

Transcendentalism as Spiritual Consciousness

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AMERICAN Transcendentalism (i.e., the movement associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson) is notoriously hard to define.  Perhaps the best way to understand the movement is that it centers on recognition of a certain dimension of experience — transcendent awareness — which is very real, but distinctly different from waking consciousness. In Platonic terms, it amounts to an elevation of the mind and awakening of what we might call the higher intelligence.

This shift in consciousness sometimes comes spontaneously; but more often it’s the result of a deliberate choice.  It is a skill that can be practiced and improved.  We could perhaps develop specific exercises to produce and develop it.

Thomas Starr King here supplies as fine a description of this higher consciousness as perhaps has ever been written.  (Note, incidentally, that this is not a cloistered mystic writing, but someone involved in public affairs.)

Several ‘dimensions’ of transcendent cognitive experience are mentioned, including recognition of deeper meanings, appreciation of beauty, and awareness of God’s goodness.

* * *

True Spiritual Communications

EVERY flower, every tree, every plant, every star, exists because it is a receptacle of the Divine vitality. It was organized and is sustained by his thought and his goodness, and we comprehend it, we really see it, when it is translucent with the rays of the Infinite life, and brings us into fellowship of mind or heart with God. The visible material world is the shell of which the spiritual world is the soul. It is the series of printed signs of which the spiritual world constitutes the sense.

When you read the sentences which Burke or Bacon have written, you do not stop to study the letters or shape of the types that cover their pages. The substance you are after is the wisdom and eloquence which they poured from their minds, and which the types record. You get into communion with the spiritual world, to which those inky paragraphs are the portals, as you feel your intellect penetrated, and your passions stirred, with the light and heat that streamed, in their creative mood, from their genius. And the visible universe is the vast array of types, not simply once set up, but continually created and composed by the Infinite Mind, to convey his wisdom and love.

We have the privilege, therefore, of living in the spiritual world now. We need not wait to get into the next stage of existence to begin to enter it. […] We live in the spiritual world, if our souls are awake, precisely as they do, though possibly we may be one remove farther off, by our bodily organization, from the waves of light and love that flow out from heaven.

And we ought to hold firmly to the principle that the spiritual faculty in us is the real organ of communion with the spiritual sphere. The organ through which we know and receive light is the eye. The ear enables us to hold intercourse with music, eloquence, and all uttered thought. The lungs are the channel of our reception from the atmosphere. And the soul, the power by which we become acquainted with Divine truth and respond to the breath of the Infinite Life, is the channel or medium, and the only channel of reception from the spiritual world.

There is hardly any limit to be assigned to the intercourse we can hold with everlasting truth, which is the substance of heaven, even in this world, by the soul.

When you look at a landscape in summer, if you see simply so many trees, acres, cattle, stones, you are wholly in the natural world. You see the outside shapes and colors, just as a sheep or a deer does, when the scene is painted on its eye.

If you study the soil and rocks so as to learn the geological truth of the region, how it was put together through ages of elaboration, by the power of God, and prepared for human habitation, the outside facts are at once a medium of Divine truth to you. A wave of God’s life, an influence from the spiritual world, rolls out of the scene into your intellect, and to that extent you come into communion with the Divine sphere by your mind.

If you see the beauty of the landscape, if the charm and harmony of the colors and the grouping of grove, meadow, hill, and stream, and the blaze of the overhanging blue, flecked with clouds that shed sailing shadows to cool the grass, waken in you a joy that springs from perception of the ineffable art of God, a richer wave from the spiritual world breaks through the scene upon your nature.

If, beyond these two experiences, you see in the same landscape a mystic expression of the Divine goodness, — if the beauty glows with an exhalation of love, “like a finer light in light,” — so that you look on the budding corn and the grazing life, and the peaceful ministry of a thousand forces to human happiness, as Jesus looked upon the bounteous hills that sloped from the shores of Gennesaret, and if, through all the processes which publish that goodness, you see the working of laws that tell you how God’s laws and life play in the experience of the human spirit, as Jesus plucked part of his gospel — the parable of the sower — from the various fortunes of the scattered grain, a still finer surge from the everlasting world floods you from that vision, and though you stand under the visible sun, and are in the body, and within the conditions of mortality, your soul is in communion with God; you look upon one district of this world as an angel looks upon it; your feet are in matter, your soul is in the spiritual sphere.

You will see, too, how this principle applies to all productions of genius. When you read a book, look at a statue, examine a painting, you are on the natural plane, if you simply see the material which the creative mind used to convey its thought and sentiment. You pass up into spiritual reception in proportion as, through the printed eloquence, the imprisoned meaning, the glowing character and imagination, you rise into sympathy with the genius of the writer or artist, and lie open with him to the inspiration that streams out of heaven into the human soul.

The soul is the organ of reception from the substantial world. Spiritual communications appeal to, and are verified by, no other faculties, any more than light can be perceived by the ear or flavors by the eye. It is impossible to obtain communion with the essential quality of the spiritual world in external ways. You can only be carried to the outside of the world of spirits in such ways. It is by something told to the interior faculties, something superior in its grade to anything we can learn by logic and by sight, some thing that makes us more wise in everlasting truth for which the world was made, more spiritual in feeling, that is, more pure, reverent, devout, and joyful, that we verify a message from the heavenly world. (pp. 73−77)

Source: Thomas Starr King, Christianity and Humanity: A Series of Sermons. Edwin P. Whipple (ed.). Boston: Osgood, 1877.  True Spiritual Communications (pp. 71− 89).

Related Articles

Frederic Henry Hedge, The Transfiguration: A Sermon (1838).

Uebersax, John.  What is Transcendentalism? Satyagraha.

Hesiod’s Ages of Man Myth as Psychological Allegory

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Dance of the Muses at Mount Helicon by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1807)

MY HYPOTHESIS is that Hesiod’s Works and Days is not a “glorified farmer’s almanac,” but an example of ancient wisdom literature meant to convey the perennial philosophy. Its purpose is to advise readers on how to operate the human mind and soul and to find happiness in life via the same philosophical principles expressed by the Delphic religion (and, for that matter, also the Old Testament, the wisdom tradition of ancient Egypt, etc.). For this it uses, as befits poetry, figures and metaphors drawn from history and daily life; but the meanings are parabolic, and it is the reader’s task To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings. (Prov.1:6)

I leave this experiment of interpretation to individual readers.  But for this experiment it will help to have an artistic translation which potentially highlights the interior, psychological meanings — and at least one that does not obscure poetic meanings, which can easily (if not inevitably) happen in translations that are extremely literal and technical, which is the modern trend.

Therefore for your enjoyment and edification I have placed online a copy of Thomas Cooke’s inspired 1743 verse translation, and also for ease of reading an 1822 reprint with modern spelling.

Part of my hypothesis is that the Ages of Man is myth of moral fall (Uebersax, 2014), and symbolizes stages in our periodic descent from a state of grace (understood in either a religious sense, or alternatively in a psychological sense as a condition of greater unity and mental ability) into its opposite mundane and debased condition, through successive cognitive stages, with parallels to Plato’s Tyrant’s Progress in the Republic (Uebersax, 2015). Here is Cooke’s translation of Hesiod’s Ages of Man myth, illustrated with engravings designed by John Flaxman and executed by William Blake.

Bibliography

Praying the Beatitudes as a Spiritual Exercise

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The Sermon on the Mount (detail), Heinrich Hofmann; German, 1824–1911; date unknown.

By William Pryse

THE Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3−10) are literally and thematically at the center of the Sermon on the Mount.  They mark successive steps of the upward course of the spiritual life to its full and final perfection. Each beatitude grows out of all that precede it, and occupies a necessary place in the progressive series. There is not a grace, excellence, experience or duty of the moral life which does not find its place within this series.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Poverty of spirit refers to those who have awakened from their self-righteousness to the fact of their self-poverty. Without this conscious and heartfelt awareness of ones limitations and shortcomings, there can be no start, much less progress, in the spiritual life. And it is gloriously significant that with the first step is promised the end: namely, attainment to the grace-led and blessed manner of life which the Gospels call the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Poverty of spirit leads directly to mourning for sin. One who has become sensible of spiritual destitution soon recognizes the cause of ones inward need. One perceives that it is egoism and selfish attachments which deprive one of happiness and spiritual good. Thus one becomes increasingly sensible of the evil of sin, and sensitive to the miseries resulting from it, in ones own life and in the world at large. In other words, one becomes a penitent mourner for sin in oneself, and a sincere mourner over the dreadful reality and destructive work of sin in human life and society.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Out of conscious poverty and penitent mourning grows the meekness of the third beatitude. This meekness is the modest, self-denying and self-restrained spirit which evinces itself in gentleness and forbearance toward others in one emptied of pride and self-sufficiency.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

These three experiences naturally lead to a supreme valuation of and desire for righteousness — that is, to think, act and live rightly, in right accord with ones own true physical and moral nature, with the Cosmos and Eternal Order, with God, and with ones fellow human beings. And to desire this good above all things else.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

As the next stage of spiritual progress, the heir of the heavenly kingdom becomes merciful toward ones fellow men. All ones previous experiences conspire to awaken in one a clear sense of their lost condition, their trials and sorrows, their need of sympathy and help. Ones consciousness of ones own infirmities teaches one charity toward the infirmities of others. Ones sense of the supreme importance of salvation from unwisdom and unvirtue prompts one to efforts for their spiritual and eternal good. A realization of ones own imperative need of the divine mercy quickens in one the same spirit of mercy toward all others.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Purity is a composite of all the previous graces, freedom from all their opposites. Each of the five contributes to it. In it is the love of all things good, the abhorrence of all things evil. As such it carries with it the vision of the true Good. It is the clearing away of the mists from the soul, and the cleansing of the films from the spiritual eyes.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

It is easy to see how such qualities as humility, penitence, meekness, desire after righteousness, mercifulness and purity become elements of peace in the soul and influences for peace in the life. They invest the character with an effective power to prevent strife and allay discord. They are the very elements and conditions of peace, whether internal or external. There can be no peace where they are absent; there can be no strife where they prevail. Their opposite qualities are the direct causes of all strife and dissension, and they who are swayed by them are necessarily strifemakers. But the graces of the beatitudes are, each and all, potent solvents of discord, and they who possess them are necessarily also peacemakers, both through conscious effort and unconscious influence. To seek and promote this peace, inward and outward — peace within oneself, peace with God and Nature and peace among men — becomes a free impulse, urge and ordering principle of their lives.

Based on the writings of Rev. William Stratton Pryse (1849−1928).

Key to the Republic of Plato

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I
N A SERIES of articles here I’ve been arguing that Plato’s Republic is not about politics at all (except perhaps, indirectly), but rather is intended as a sublime allegory for the complex moral and cognitive workings of the human psyche; and that this allegorical and psychological perspective is the key to the interpretation of the Republic. To recap what has been said in earlier articles here, the basic premise is that in the Republic Plato uses his description of an ideal city-state mostly as a vehicle for explaining the proper and harmonious operation of the human psyche, which can be likened to a city.  By this means Plato seeks to help his readers comprehend and acquire the virtue of Righteousness (dikaiosyne, or rightness of soul).

This view was known in antiquity (Proclus mentions it in his Commentary on the Republic), although not an especially common one. In modern times, writers have been more inclined to uncritically accept the premise that the Republic is a literal political treatise; even the esoterically inclined Thomas Taylor, who himself wrote a masterly essay on the allegorical meaning of the Odyssey, was unwilling to part with the notion.  It is of some interest, therefore, to note that, in the 19th century, the American Platonist, Hiram K. Jones, urged most strongly for an allegorical reading of the Republic: “Let us then have done with all this improbable and silly notion about a figmentary political State.”

Jones published his take on the Republic in “Key to the Republic of Plato,” which appeared in the journal The Platonist in 1890.  Main extracts from the article are supplied below.

Johnson’s interpretative innovations include the suggestion that the citizens of psychopolis (e.g., our thoughts, passions and judgments) can, at least in some cases, be meaningfully regarded as male and female, and may have offspring — I made similar suggestions in the table of allegorical correspondences here.  Even more original and noteworthy is his opinion that the population of our inner city may be very large, containing not merely a few, or a few dozen or hundred, but “multitudes” of inner citizens.  He explains this by implicating human innate knowledge of Platonic Forms — a fundamental and emblematic principle of Platonic psychology, developed especially by Plotinus and later Neoplatonist philosophers.  The traditional Platonic view is that human beings have a divine spark in their soul, an image of God and/or God’s consciousness, and that this spark includes knowledge of every principle, form or relationship.  Jones seems to suggest that, even if this vast knowledge is unconscious, it spawns an unfathomably complex and numerous population of thought structures which interact, and which require some form of governance to avoid conflict and ensure harmony.  If that is indeed his meaning, then this could easily be his most important original contribution to philosophy.

Where did Jones get the idea to interpret the Republic allegorically?  Possibly from that consummate allegorical exegete, Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BC – c.50 AD), whose works would have certainly been known to him, either directly or from the writings of Platonist colleagues like Alexander Wilder.  Philo allegorically interpreted the Pentateuch, his rule being that every figure and event corresponds to something in the human psyche.  Philo’s views, though he himself was somehat forgotten, were enormously influential in shaping subsequent Christian allegorical interpretation of Scripture.

Another possible influence is Swedenborg, who, like Philo, subjected the Bible to extensive allegorical interpretation; there were many Swedenborgians in Jones’ circle of contacts.  Swedenborg, incidentally, was himself almost certainly influenced by Philo:  his brother-in-law, Erik Benzelius the younger, was one of the foremost Philonists of his time and worked with Thomas Mangey in the production of the first critical edition of Philo’s works (Williams-Hogan, p. 211).

Curiously, Jones was of the opinion that Laws was not written by Plato, but by a satirist.  Jones’ fellow American Platonist, Tayler Lewis (1845) had earlier opined that, in contrast to the allegorical nature of the Republic, Laws was Plato’s literal attempt to design a just political state.  Why it occurred to neither of them (or nobody else, as far as I can tell) that Laws too is an allegorical work is unknown.


N
THE JUDGMENT of the thoughtful and the critical, the Republic of Plato has been regarded as his greatest achievement. Accepting this estimate as just, the question is before us: in what consists this claim, that in this we have the greatest work of a man who in universal human opinion ranks among the very first of men: What is its merit? … What was the aim in the author’s mind? What did he undertake to do in the framing and constitution of this work?

As the first step in this enquiry we will assume hypothetically that he did not attempt to conjecture and frame for mankind a model Social-Polity, a model Political-State. The hypothesis that he thought himself submitting to mankind a model Political-State was seized upon and used against him by his own contemporaries, and countrymen, such as could not, or did not reach the plane of his thought…. The presupposition, that we have, or can have the key to Plato — the philosopher — from critics and expositors who have not in their mental constitution the philosophic capacity to reach the plane of his thought and theme, is only misleading….

To-day, the universal eminence of Plato in the judgment of mankind is attributable to the essential ideal order and quality of his thought; eminent itself in that it is grounded in the identification of Ideas, Essential Forms, as the first principles of things known and knowable.

Plato therefore as Philosopher is always Ideal, Essential, in his subject and aim. History, Biography, Art, Social Sciences, Political Science, Moral Science, Institutions, Laws, Government, are no where found to be the theme, and end of his contemplations. But Spirit, Life, Causes, First Principles, Essence, Idea, and thence the generations of the mutable and transient orders of things.

Returning to the question, however, namely: What was the aim of the Philosopher in the production of this work, — it is assumed that “The Politeia” — ”The Republic,” as translated — is a Soul Polity, and not a Social Polity: and that the healthy perfections of the Soul are rooted in the Idea and principle of Justice. And as to the mode and process of searching for and identifying this principle and cause, we must find its form and essence in the interior life of the Soul, and not in the conventionalities and notions and workings of an external political State. (pp. 255−257)

THE AIM then of the philosopher is not to invent a model State, but to discover rather the Model-Soul — the [individual] Soul in realization of Justice in itself — a state of Health and Righteousness, and Savedness, — and true life on the one hand, and on the other the contrariety, namely, the soul in realization of injustice in itself, a state of disease, impurity, and wretchedness, and destitution of all true life.

In the next place then, — after what method does the Philosopher propose to pursue the investigation? What manner of discourse does he propose to institute? … says Socrates:

“… the Inquiry we were attempting was no trifling one, but one as appears to me, suited for clear seeing (clairvoyant) persons.”

“Since then,” said I, “we are not very expert, it seems proper to pursue some such mode of investigation of it, as if some one should order persons not very sharp sighted, to read small letters at a distance! and then discover to them the same letters large elsewhere and in a large field; it would then appear desirable, me thinks, first to read these, and then to examine the less, as it is found that these are the same.”

“We will first then, if you please, inquire in what manner it exists in States; and then we will in like manner examine it in the individual, attentively observing the similarity of the greater to the idea of the less.” [Republic 2.368]

Justice in States is assumed to be a similitude of justice itself — an objective likeness; justice itself is subjective, ideal, essential, causal, celestial in God, and psychic in man; while its political existence is phenomenal.

The Philosopher then proposes to take the phenomenal, conventional manifestation as a letter and symbol of the subject idea; its similitude with the real form affording a vehicle apt for discourse, in which we are to look attentively, from the similitude to the subject idea itself. (pp. 259−260)

platonist-exemplar

The Platonist (1881−1888) and Bibliotheca Platonica (1889−1890) were published by Jones’ friend and colleague, Thomas Moore Johnson.

THE PARABLE, and fable, and allegory and myth, are each different modes of discourse by means of representatives. And the more exalted the nature of the subject the more mythic must be the representative, that is the more mystic the subject, the more must the representative scenic form violate the literal ordinary consistencies. The law of this order of speech requires that things and animals, and men, and institutions, shall speak and act, and work in various violations of the consistency, and the literal truth of their natural history.

Plato then proposes to constitute a State or commonwealth whose fashion and working shall be so framed as that the mind shall find in it transitional facility, a looking from the symbol to the thing symbolized, from the speech to the thing spoken of — Justice in the commonwealth, is the ostensible manifestation, the phenomenon of Justice itself.

Plato then proposes to search for the Idea, Justice itself, whose intrinsic power worketh righteousness in the Soul and in the State as its effects: and he initiates the mythic State as a mode of investigation and search.

Justice in idea, and essence and cause is not to be found in the actual social institutions. In these are the plane of its manifestations and effects only.

It was no part therefore of Plato’s design to surmise, and submit for the adoption of mankind a model political state. This matter as an aim lies rather in the province of the politician and Statesman, than in that of the philosopher. And whether or not the Greeks already had as much common sense and science about that, as mankind have since, or ever will arrive at, it consists not with the range of Plato’s thought as Philosopher, nor with the common sense and judgement of Plato, or any other noteworthy man, to present to mankind such a formula for a practical system of human society.

This then is a Mythic State regarded in the letter, which in much of its fabrication and working, intentionally violates the common sense and the common plan, and the common proprieties of the mere social and political institutions — as much in the Greek, as in the English and American social manners and tastes and judgments and facts; and not more so than in our own Mythic use of Israelitish and Roman and Scandinavian, histories and Biographies, and occurrences — and many other like uses in our oracular, and Poetic and Philosophic customs of speech. (pp. 260−261)

AND NOW what say we? Is it possible or not? Is it probable or not, that the Greek was enlightened to see and know, that the justification [JU: making righteous] of the Soul is the salvation of the Soul, for this and for all worlds and experiences, present, past, and future. And was it therefore perceived by this embodiment of their wisdom, that the most worthy and exalted service he could devote himself in, would be the revival and and establishment of this central truth in the mind and spirit of his countrymen and of his age.

And let us then have done with all this improbable and silly notion about a figmentary political State — which both as a theme and a performance is so inconsistent and unequal in form and tone and dignity and quality and worth, with the general character of his thought, as to require the most damaging exceptions and apologies for gross errors and puerilities, as it must be, while we attempt to read the treatises named the “Republic” and the “Laws” as a model social system devised by the Philosopher. (pp. 263−264)

Meeting of the Plato Club of Jacksonville, Illinois.  (Jones seated left of center, just behind table.)

IN THE Thought of the Greek, as indeed in the Thought of all the enlightened ages, the Soul is assumed to be microcosmic — a comprehension in its constitution of all the principles and forms and powers constitutive of the macrocosm — the great world outside of the Soul. So as that all things, all principles, and all forms and powers constitutive of the great outside world exist also in strictest counterpart within the soul of man. And this is the ground and reason of man’s capacity to be conscious of and to form knowledge of all things from Deity to the atom.

And the awakening to the consciousness and the knowing of these elements and factors of his being and existence is the experimental process and history, of all the educations and disciplines of the actual life; man could not know that which is foreign to and not himself unless there should exist the counterpart to it within himself.

— multitudes of intellections, of thoughts, of reasons, of understandings of judgments; and multitudes of sensations of affections, of desires, of motives, of aims, of will and deeds. Within is , and these are necessarily related in rational order and process and harmony and peace, or in chaotic order and process and strife and tumult.

Hence there exist within the Soul order and harmony and peace and health and plenty and divine joy; and there exist also in the Soul contentions and strifes and tumults and riots and wars and pestilence and famine and deadly dearth of good. He who does not know this has not begun to know himself.

And these actors in the Soul are distinguished as masculine and feminine in all oracular and philosophic terminology — in all epic and dramatic method the intellectual and rational principles of the mind are masculine, while the sentient principles, the affections and emotions and desires are feminine.

And in these several forms of discourse concerning the invisible forms and powers it is customary to designate them as men and women. (pp. 266−267)

MOREOVER, the intellectual, and moral powers are progenitors, and they generate thoughts and affections. These thoughts and affections are sons and daughters. And these all are the men and the women and the children of the world within the Soul.

And if you will believe it there are in this method and these terms of viewing the subject, as many men and women and children and other things in the Soul, as there are outside of it: and ere we exhaust the self knowledge we shall discover that there is as much to do, to effect order and harmony and health and peace and plenty among the men and women and children and things in the Soul, as among the men and women and children in the social state.

We have heard much of that internecine warfare between the sensual and the spiritual powers in man, and we have heard also of that peace within which passeth all understanding, and we have heard also that he that ruleth his own spirit is mightier than he that taketh a city: and these things will be greatly magnified in our appreciations ere we shall have solved the problems of life.

And it is here within the Soul, and of these populations of the Soul, that the Soul Polity of Plato’s “Republic” must be understood: and into this must we look if we would see and know the kingdom of the Heavens. It will be found within us, or not at all.

To be saved from our selfishness, to be saved from our sins, to be made just is a chief business of life, and it is not accomplished as some may imagine. (p. 268)

Chapel classroom at the Concord School of Philosophy, where Jones was a featured instructor.

THE MAN must know himself, a labor much declined. He must know himself in his intellectual and moral principles and powers, in his own thoughts and affections and ambitions and desires and passions and will and way. And more than this, he must establish his Intellectual and moral powers as guardians and rulers over his animal nature. In this guardianship his intellectual and moral forces must be a unit — the house must not be divided against itself. His intellectual faculties whose function it is to see and to know what is right and true and good, and his moral powers of feeling and knowing and believing what is right and true and good must watch together, and walk together and work together and fight together against all invading enmities and foes, if he would establish and maintain the celestial order and rule in the commonwealth within. These are the relations of the Mythic men and women and children treated of in the Republic of Plato.

The Soul that is unconscious of, and uninformed of these conditions and reasons of divine order and peace and is actually void of them….

A divine polity within the Soul, then, a “kingdom of Heaven within you”, is thus seen to be the Politeia which Plato seeks to disclose and establish in the view and belief of his fellow-men. And what lower order of theme — what less important subject should most probably engage the best thought, and the labor of producing the greatest work of the life of a man so eminent in the discussion of the problems of the inner nature of man and of the world.

But so far the investigation has reached merely some characterization of the fruits — the productions of the influx of a regenerating principle in the Soul, and still the question recurs —how does it come to pass? “We were inquiring,” says Plato, “into this — what is the nature of justice; and we were in quest also of the perfectly just man, how he became so, and what was his nature if he really exists.” [Republic 5.472]

With us, the natural history of the working of this principle and the production of these fruits, most briefly outlined are, that by means of ordeal, and a quickening unto reminiscence, of the goods of the Father’s house — determination to arise and go to the Father, and through confession and obedience and duty and service and love of good and truth and beauty and purity the Soul shall reach the best abode. All which is the reversal and contrariety of the career of dissipation and sin — the strewing of the portion of goods in riotous living — the delights of sensuality.

But man is a moral free agent, and this history must be initiated in the motions of his own mind and will. He must voluntarily turn his mind and heart in contemplation and desire of what is most divine. He must arise and open his door and admit the gentle angelic stranger who stands without knocking, knocking, and waiting that he may be admitted; and straightway shall he be led in the way of all truth and duty and service. (pp. 269−270)

I HEARD a very eminent and very orthodox Christian clergyman affirm that Plato was a regenerate man in the Christian idea of the term. No man can so frame and amplify such views and discourse of these doctrines of life without the most profound experimental acquaintance with this subject. (p. 273)

Bibliography

Anderson, Paul Russell. Hiram K. Jones and Philosophy in Jacksonville. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (19081984), vol. 33, no. 4, 1940, pp. 478–520.

Anderson, Paul Russell. Platonism in the Midwest. Philadelphia: Temple University, 1963.

Bregman, Jay. The Neoplatonic Revival in North AmericaHermathena, no. 149, 1990, pp. 99–119.

Jones, Hiram K. Key to the Republic of Plato. Bibliotheca Platonica, vol. 1, no. 4 (Nov.−Dec. 1890), pp. 255−273.

Pitner, T. J.; Black, C. E.; Norbury, F. P. Obituary: Dr. Hiram K. Jones. Illinois Medical Journal, vol. 5 (June 1903−May 1904), pp. 173−174.

Pontiac, Ronnie. The Platonist on Sunset Blvd: Part 1: Hiram K. Jones the Western Wonder. Newtopia Magazine. January 15, 2013.

Lewis, Taylor. Plato Contra Atheos: Plato Against the Atheists.  New York: Harper, 1845.

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

Uebersax, John. The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul. Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology. 29 August 2014. Accessed 17 July 2017.

Uebersax, John. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic.  Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology. 30 December 2015. Accessed 17 July 2017.

Uebersax, John. Psychopolis: Plato’s Inner Republic and Personality Theory.  Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology. 12 January 2017. Accessed 17 July 2017.

Williams-Hogan, Jane. The Place of Emanuel Swedenborg in Modern Western Esotericism. In: Eds. Antoine Faivre & Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion. Leuven: Peeters, 1998. (pp. 201−252).

To cite:  Uebersax, John.  Hiram K. Jones’ allegorical key to Plato’s Republic.  Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology.  19 July 2017.  Accessed <day month year>.  https://satyagraha.wordpress.com/2017/07/07/jones-republic/