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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.

 

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/