Think Piece

Instruction and Allegory: How Neoplatonism Shaped the Reader’s Mind

by guest contributor Nikolas Churik

By Nikolas Churik

The question of education recurs throughout the Platonic corpus and the work of its later readers and commentators. This blog post examines one aspect of the debate on education, namely the type of education necessary as preparation for a proper comprehension of inspired poetry. Such “proper” comprehension, in fact, entailed the ability to understand the underlying message of a poetic text, thus pointing towards the distinction between textual surface and the deeper meanings existing beneath it. Although the topic may appear quite circumscribed, it pertains to a perennially fraught issue among the intellectual followers of Plato: whether it was permissible for an untrained mind to read the works of Homer or Hesiod.  While epic poetry long held pride of place in education, especially in its earlier stages, it also came to constitute a cause of concern as its imageries and stories had the potential to capture and “corrupt” the imagination of young “impressionable readers.” Thus, the cultivation of practices for “deeper reading” allowed for interpretive frameworks that promoted controlled engagements with poetic texts by restraining the mental faculties and training readers in virtuous interpretation. The defensive and generative methods of reading produced through these negotiations between text and meaning had long lasting influence on western interpretive practices. Their legacy surfaces throughout the Middle Ages, in, for example, the works of Michael Psellos and John Tzetzes, into the Italian Renaissance, among the likes of Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, and well into the work of modern critics, such as Walter Benjamin and Paul de Man.  

The question of whether an adherent to Platonism may benefit from reading Homer was addressed by many writers, but, among extant sources, it received its most thorough treatment from Proclus (the so-called Successor). Based on remarks in the Republic, the issue of reconciling epic poetry, which depicted the gods in many morally questionable affairs, with Platonic ideals required a solution. Although Socrates himself makes use of Homeric poetry and imagery in the Apology and in other works, the criticism of bards in the Ion and the seemingly absolute prohibition against immoral poetry in the Republic seemed necessarily to seal poetry’s fate in the world of the Platonists.   

Members of several philosophical schools offered solutions to the issue, often either by claiming that the worst examples of the gods’ behaviors were interpolations or by employing various kinds of allegory to neutralize these apparent misdeeds. Scholiasts to Homer, in particular Aristarchus, often labeled passages that they deemed improper (aprepes) to be interpolations, added after the poem’s original composition. By allegorizing the offending scenes (especially, but not only, the Theomachy and the adultery of Ares and Aphrodite), readers like Cornutus (a Stoic) and Heraclitus (whose philosophical commitments are somewhat unclear, but who is apparently anti-Platonic) made the gods into representations of the natural or spiritual worlds. As clever as many of these readings were, they did not, substantially, help to solve the more vexing question of Plato’s relationship to poetry and myth as a whole. This was due to the fact that even while addressing individual scenes, they did not create a systematic approach to the entire corpus. Even if the moral issues were resolved, greater stakes remained for followers of Plato.

A more robust and systematic approach appears in the work of later Neoplatonists. Porphyry, though perhaps not the first to write such an essay, offers the earliest extant and complete work on reading a scene of Homer allegorically, his On the cave of the Nymphs. He performs, in fact, the key -though rather counterintuitive- interpretative move, whereby passages, whose surface meanings seem self-contradictory or uncharacteristic of the poet, imply the existence of deeper meanings. The obscurity of the passage, already suggested by the description of the Nymphs’ cave as “lovely and misty” (Odyssey 13.103), moves the exegete to dig more deeply into the text’s meaning. The process of identifying loci with layers of meanings according to their difficulty offered a framework that was replicable for later readers. From this perspective, the points where Homer’s work was most unsettling were precisely those where he was at his most inspired.

The resolution of the tension between the Platonic idea and epic poetry for the Neoplatonists continued to develop. Proclus, among the most productive and best-preserved philosophers of Late Antiquity, offered an advanced solution for the problem. Although he appears (according to his own claims) to follow his teacher Syrianus, only a few of whose works survive, Proclus provides a detailed and sophisticated rapprochement. Proclus divides poetry into three classes: divinely inspired, scientific, and mimetic. The highest form, that which is divinely inspired, assists in the elevation of the soul and its connection to the One. The poems of Homer, he argues, are in fact inspired, and although they are not suitable as the first texts children read, they may be read with profit and to a good end.

Because the Homeric epics are divinely inspired, they may be read allegorically. They have meaning, “an unspoken doctrine,” that reveals deep truths about the cosmic order, but this sense is not apparent from a plain, surface-level reading. The apparent meaning may, indeed, lead the untrained and uninitiated reader astray by suggesting to them some immorality or impossibility on the part of the gods. Instead, one must learn to apprehend the deeper meaning through instruction and spiritual guidance. Although the process towards understanding is teachable, some, even after learning and purifying themselves, may still not be able to comprehend all of the mysteries contained in poetry (a poetic text?) and achieve proper union with the One—because not everyone is as receptive or capable. Proclus offers some suggestions on how one might reach the necessary state for a proper understanding of myths.   

Reproducing Plato’s argument, Proclus writes,

He indicates that he attacks Homer’s myth-making as neither educational nor well adapted to the unformed and innocent character of young people and he demonstrates how myth’s hidden and secret good requires some kind of mystical and divinely inspired act of intelligence (noêsis). Ordinary people though, failing to grasp Socrates’ arguments and falling short of the intended         meaning (dianoia) of the philosopher, denounce this kind of myth in its entirety. (Kroll 79.18-26, translation Baltzly, Finamore, Miles, p. 189).

In Proclus’s presentation, there are two levels which must be distinguished. The first is what Plato’s text claims, and the second is what the masses (mis)understand. As offered here, the primary issue with Homer’s poetry is its unsuitability for the youth, who have not yet received instruction and who cannot yet perceive the poetry’s deeper meaning. When he writes that poetry is not “educational,” he means that it is not fitting for early and fundamental education. Such works should not be the first sources from which a child should learn. Children have not gone through the requisite “formation” of properly training their souls and minds. Without such training, they cannot even begin to comprehend the hidden and unspoken (as noted above) good of the texts. Second, the masses miss Socrates’s point and assume that all mythic poetry must be dismissed. As this passage suggests, and as others make clear, full comprehension is not open or available to everyone.

Continuing to probe the specifications that Plato’s Socrates gives for the use and appreciation of poetry, Proclus observes broadly,

These are matters that Socrates says it is impractical for young people to hear about, but nonetheless it is fitting that those who are able to comprehend the truth about the gods on the basis of mythic symbols should investigate and be spectators of them in secret. … Mysteries and initiatory rites also have an effective component in these [properties or divine tokens] and through these they introduce visions that are complete, stable and simple for initiates to see – visions which young people, and to a much greater extent, people of immature character, are not receptive to. (Kroll 83.7-25, translation Baltzly, Finamore, Miles, p. 193).

People who are capable of comprehension should not only absorb the meaning, but also search after it and come to a more complete understanding of the mysteries and rites. It is important to note the addition of “in secret”: these truths and practices are reserved for the initiated. This fact is expanded upon shortly thereafter. All of the things that are misleading or difficult for the uninformed are complete, stable, and clear for initiates. He returns to age as a limiting factor—the young simply have not yet had the requisite instruction. But he adds a further qualification. People who are “young in character” are not receptive at any age. If there is a fundamental issue with the person’s personality (we might say), regardless of their age (and therefore their level of instruction), they will not have nor be able to attain the proper degree of comprehension. This character flaw arises when a person does not learn how to act nobly, how to emulate those who do, and how to feel revulsion at all that is base and shameless. The internalization of such actions brings about the development of virtue, which leads to a personal enactment of good and proper deeds, founded on one’s own instincts and habits rather just on imitation and emulation.

Despite establishing that instruction is necessary to understand and appreciate mythic poetry, it remains to be understood exactly what education does for a person. On that subject Proclus contends,

Whoever among us has evicted from his soul what is childish or juvenile, brought order to the unbounded impulses of the imagination, and promoted intellect to be the leader his own life, this is the person who would enjoy the best circumstances for sharing in the visions (theama) that have been concealed within these sorts of myths. However, someone who still stands in need of education or symmetry in his moral character could not undertake the contemplation of these things safely. For it is necessary that one should not bring anything from the material [realm] below to the mystical conceptions (noêma) of the gods, and it is also necessary that someone still racked by the motions of the imaginative faculty should not rush into apprehensions (epibolê) that are clearly visible to intellect. (Kroll 80.24-81.3, translation Baltzly, Finamore, Miles, p. 190).

In describing what one needs to overcome in order to share fully in the hidden visions of myth, the first two items (the childish and the juvenile) appear almost tautological based on the preceding discussion. Children and youth cannot understand the true, deeper meanings of myth because they are childish and youthful. The subsequent items, however, reveal further issues. The “unbounded impulses” and “movements” related to the imagination must be reined in. Restraint of the passions allows for the mind to be in full control of a person’s actions and practices. Moreover, concerns from the material world below have no place among mystical conceptions in the realms above and thus must be pared away. Lower concerns cloud the unrestricted vision of these myths because a mind, concerned with everyday affairs, cannot participate fully in higher levels of thought and knowledge. The ability to do so comes from balance and stability in character, brought about by continued education, offering a life guided by the mind rather than the body and its passions or even the spirit alone.

In sum, the plain text of inspired myth is misleading to the unguided mind, and a reader cannot comprehend its truest meanings without thorough instruction and proper training. Instruction, comprising the actions and words of the teacher, prepare the character and intellect of the student. Education is thus a process that removes material and worldly concerns and allows for the mind to return to and reunite with the divine. Although not without significant political implications, this strong focus on interior life could also eventually domesticate socially disruptive ideas. After all of this, the student may read inspired poetry and gain its full profit. Through an intensive and long-term course of instruction, the student may become an able reader who can preserve traditional literature through subtle, philosophical insight. It was not just for the sake of preservation, however, that such reading was practiced. Careful allegorical reading, in the end, was able to extract deeper meanings from a text, thus offering lessons on the structure of the universe. Ultimately, such textual insights would organize human society.

Nikolas Churik is a fourth year PhD Candidate in the department of Classics at Princeton University. His dissertation focuses on allegory in late antique Greek literature, particularly in the fourth and fifth centuries. He received a BA from the College of the Holy Cross, an MA from the University of Notre Dame, and spent a year at Leiden University on a Fulbright grant.

Featured Image: Great Colonnade at Apamea, Syria. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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