Monday, September 02, 2013

Philo, Augustine, and Ambrose on the Temptation in the Garden

According to Philo of Alexandria, in the De opificio mundi, the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is a model of temptation in general. As he puts it, "these things are not mere fabulous inventions, in which the race of poets and sophists delights, but are rather types shadowing forth some allegorical truth, according to some mystical explanation" (56). The serpent is pleasure. Having no feet, it slithers on its belly; it eats in the dust; and it poisons with its teeth. The person who pursues pleasures exhibits all of these qualities: intemperance keeps him looking at the ground, he feeds not on heavenly things but on earthly things, and he bears with him the poison of immoderate indulgence. The serpent in the garden is said to have spoken with a human voice because pleasure inspires its slaves to defend it against any legitimate criticism.

The serpent dares not take on Adam directly however; he approaches by way of Eve. Eve's role in the story is as a symbol of sensibility, while Adam's is that of reason. Thus pleasure works to ensnare sensibility first, and through it to cajole reason. Or to put it in other words, it makes use of the dependence of reason on sensibility in its interaction with the world (59):

For we must altogether not be ignorant that pleasure, being like a courtesan or mistress, is eager to meet with a lover, and seeks for panders in order by their means to catch a lover. And the sensations are her panders, and conciliate love to her, and she employing them as baits, easily brings the mind into subjection to her. And the sensations conveying within the mind the things which have been seen externally, explain and display the forms of each of them, setting their seal upon a similar affection. For the mind is like wax, and receives the impressions of appearances through the sensations, by means of which it makes itself master of the body, which of itself it would not be able to do, as I have already said.

The result is inevitable: travail for sensibility and much labor with little gain for reason.

The same interpretation is dealt with at greater length in the Legum allegoriae. Mind requires sensibility and sensibility requires mind; the serpent, pleasure, comes between them and by means of this mutual dependence brings them both down; it brings death to the garden, which is nothing other than vice.

This interpretation of the temptation in the garden as a representation of temptation generally had a considerable amount of influence. We find it in St. Ambrose's work On Paradise; Ambrose is directly influenced by Philo, who is mentioned by name in the commentary, and whose interpretation is taken up entirely:

We stand by the conviction held by one who preceded us that sin was committed by man because of the pleasure of sense. We maintain that the figure of the serpent stands for enjoyment and the figure of the woman for the emotions of the mind and heart. The latter is called by the Greeks aisthesis . When according to this theory, the senses are deceived, the mind, which the Greeks call nous , falls into error. Hence, not without reason the author to whom I refer accepts the Greek word nous as a figure of a man and aisthesis as that of a woman. Hence, some have interpreted Adam to mean an earthly nous.

In Ambrose the serpent is the Devil, but he is the Devil insofar as he tempts us to gratify ourselves indulgently, and thus is also a symbol of pleasure, for precisely the same reasons given by Philo. The serpent attacks Eve because she did not receive the command directly from God; she heard it from Adam. But she too represents sensibility for Ambrose: thus the moral law is not directly found in sensibility but received by it from reason.

A similar interpretation is found in Augustine in De Trinitate, with a very Augustinian adaptation. As is often the case with Augustine, he reduces the distance between man and woman as symbols. Rather than represent reason outright, Adam in Augustine's version represents reason insofar as it is capable of contemplation, and Eve also represents reason, but insofar as it is capable of action. Thus Adam is speculative reason and Eve is practical reason. As man and woman are one flesh, so understanding and action are one mind. In what looks very much like a direct reference to Ambrose, he explains why he thinks his interpretation is better (XII.xiii):

Nor does it escape me, that some who before us were eminent defenders of the Catholic faith and expounders of the word of God, while they looked for these two things in one human being, whose entire soul they perceived to be a sort of excellent paradise, asserted that the man was the mind, but that the woman was the bodily sense. And according to this distribution, by which the man is assumed to be the mind, but the woman the bodily sense, all things seem aptly to agree together if they are handled with due attention: unless that it is written, that in all the beasts and flying things there was not found for man an helpmate like to himself; and then the woman was made out of his side. And on this account I, for my part, have not thought that the bodily sense should be taken for the woman, which we see to be common to ourselves and to the beasts; but I have desired to find something which the beasts had not; and I have rather thought the bodily sense should be understood to be the serpent, whom we read to have been more subtle than all beasts of the field.

In other words, Eve interpreted to be sensibility is only imperfectly regarded as a helpmeet or companion of Adam; interpreted as practical reason or rational desire, she is undeniably a fit help: practical reason helps speculative reason to rise up to contemplate the things of God. From this point, however, the basic structure of the argument is much the same. This structure will be widely accepted as the general account of temptation, and its Augustinian roots sometimes recognized (to give just one example, Aquinas, who does not rely on it very much, mentions it in the sed contra of ST 2-2.165.2). The temptation in the Garden is, in concrete form, taken to be a general account of temptation.

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