15 October, 2007


In the middle of Plato's treatise on the creation of the world, the Timaeus, the Demiurge—for centuries readily identified with the Christian God—divides up the fabric of the World Soul into strips, which he then fastens together:
The entire compound was divided by him lengthways into two parts, which he united at the centre like the letter X [chi], and bent into an inner and outer circle or sphere [kuklos], cutting one another again at a point over against the point at which they cross.
Plato is describing the universe as two circles with a common centre, at right angles. (He then adjusts this and has the second sphere at a non-right angle to the first—on the exact process, see Taylor's commentary.) The two circles meet at two points, each of which resembles the Greek chi, a cross. And the two circles are the circles of the Same and Different—the Same is the circle of the fixed stars, and the Different the circle of the planets, which moves in an opposite direction. This is the Greek origin of all those astronomical cycles and epicycles that remained almost unchallenged until Copernicus.

Bernard of Chartres, the twelfth-century Neoplatonist best known for the maxim ascribed to him by his pupil John of Salisbury—We are but dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants—composed a commentary on the Timaeus in about 1110, using the partial translation made by Calcidius in the fourth century. For Bernard, Plato is writing by involucrum, by the principle of allegory. Per diuisionem significantur duo motus animae: unus rationalis, alter irrationalis. By 'division' is meant two movements of the soul: the one rational, the other irrational. Just as the fixed circle turns smoothly from east to west, and back to east, so the rational soul moves from its Creator, to a consideration of earthly matters, and back to the Creator. The planetary circle turns from west to east to west, returning constantly from the Creator to earthly matters.


Some time in the second quarter of the second century AD, a Samaritan Neoplatonist named Justin converted to Christianity; his work is the earliest (still extant) serious body of Christian literature following the New Testament. In about 150 AD, Justin Martyr, as he is now called, composed his First Apology, online here. Chapter 60 wrestles with Plato's Timaeus.
And the physiological discussion of the Son of God in the Timæus of Plato, where he says, "He placed him crosswise in the universe," he borrowed in like manner from Moses.
This is a bit of a stretch—but delightfully so! The Demiurge, really a sort of careful artisan in Plato, becomes the Christian God, and the World Soul becomes the Son of God. The joining of soul-strips in a chi becomes the crosswise placing of Christ. As in, yes, the Crucifixion. The Moses part is even more far-fetched: 'Moses, by the inspiration and influence of God, took brass, and made it into the figure of a cross, and set it in the holy tabernacle, and said to the people, "If ye look to this figure, and believe, ye shall be saved thereby".' Moses does no such thing: he has a serpent, not a cross (Num 21.8). (And in case you're wondering, the Septuagint has a serpent too.) The point is that Plato gets his ideas about the universe from Moses—the author of the Pentateuch—who in turn is only foretelling the crucifixion. 'It is not, then, that we hold the same opinions as others, but that all speak in imitation of ours'.

When you think about it, this is a clever gambit. Justin is addressing Antoninus Pius, the cultivated Roman emperor, and adoptive father of Marcus Aurelius. If you were a literate intellectual of the second century Greco-Roman world, chances are you were a Platonist of some stripe. All philosophical traditions of the period, including Stoic and Peripatetic, traced themselves back to Plato. And so when Justin argues not only that his Christianity is compatible with Platonism, but moreover that it preceded and inspired Plato, he is one-upping the philosophical fashions of his milieu.

The Holy Cross thus becomes a symbol uniting pagan and Christian thought. The Cross is also treated in Chapter 55: here Justin argues that its symbolic importance is revealed by its morphological recurrence throughout human life. He does not use phrases like 'morphological recurrence', of course.
For consider all the things in the world, whether without this form they could be administered or have any community. For the sea is not traversed except that trophy which is called a sail abide safe in the ship; and the earth is not ploughed without it: diggers and mechanics do not their work, except with tools which have this shape. And the human form differs from that of the irrational animals in nothing else than in its being erect and having the hands extended, and having on the face extending from the forehead what is called the nose, through which there is respiration for the living creature; and this shows no other form than that of the cross.
The Cross is here almost an object of visual, visionary obsession, appearing again and again, informing all that it touches with a Christian spirit. The faith is given not just in Scripture, but in Nature itself.


Perhaps you have some difficult visualising all these objects, supposedly cruciform. In which case, you're in luck. Now, we have no surviving manuscripts illuminating Justin, at least not to my knowledge. But we do have a charming little book by the Flemish scholar Justus Lipsius, first published in 1594, entitled De Cruce, or On the Cross. In 1.9 he illustrates the patristic sources for the Crux Immissa or the standard transverse cross we readily visualise today. Jerome's commentary on Mark is quoted:
Ipsa species Crucis, quid est nisi forma quadrata mundi? Aues quando volant ad athera [sic], formam Crucis assumunt. Homo natans per aquas, vel orans, forma Crucis visitur.

What is the shape of the Cross, unless it is the quadrate form of the world? When birds fly through the air, they assume the shape of the Cross. A man, swimming through the water, or praying, seems to have the form of the Cross.
Then Minucius Felix is quoted.
Signum sane Crucis naturaliter visimus in naui, cum velis tumentibus vehitur, cum expansis palmulis labitur, & cum erigitur iugum, Crucis signum est: & cum homo porrectis manibus Deum pura mente veneratur.

Truly, we naturally see the sign of the Cross in a ship, when it moves with swollen sails, when it glides with oars outstretched, and when the yoke is erected, it is a sign of the Cross; and also when man venerates God with hands aloft and a pure mind.
Then Maximus Taurensis is quoted. Most of this, like Minucius Felix, is a repeat of Justin and Jerome, but he adds a little bit:
Caelum quoque ipsum huius signi figura dispositum est. Nam cum quatuor partibus distinguitur, Oriente, Occidente, Meridiano, ac Septemtrione, quatuor quasi Crucis angulis continetur.

The sky, also, is arranged by the figure of this sign. For when its four regions are distinguished, East, West, South, and North, it seems to contain the four ends of the Cross.
Then Justin Martyr is quoted, from the above passage. And then, finally, we get a nice picture, illustrating all of the analogies from Justin, Jerome, and Maximus. Here is the more attractive 1594 version (from this online copy):

And here the ugly 1595 version (from here):

In the following chapter, Lipsius 'proves' that Christ was crucified on the transverse cross, and not on a Crux Simplex or upright stake. (It was this chapter, incidentally, that the Jehovah's Witnesses who compiled the New World Translation failed to read, when they claimed that Lipsius supported their wacky notion that Christ was crucified on a stake. Catholics quickly got hold of the book, and as soon as they'd mastered enough Wheelock to read the damn thing, were able to point and jeer at the Witnesses' incompetence.) Here, Lipsius starts playing around with the notion of the cross having four points. Sedulius is quoted, from the fifth book of the fifth-century neo-Vergilian epic Carmen Paschalis (Easter Song):
Neue quis ignoret speciem Crucis esse colendam,
Quae Dominum portauit ouans, ratione potenti,
Quatuor inde plagas quadrati colligit orbis.
Splendidus auctoris de vertice fulget Eous,
Occiduo sacrae labuntur sidere plantae,
Arcton dextra tenet, medium leua erigit axem.

For who but knows the Cross we should revere
Which joyful bore the Lord: He gathered here
The symbolled Quarters of the World’s great Sphere.
The Orient shineth from His Head supreme—
Beneath His feet the Vesper planets beam,
And either Pole at either hand shall seem.
This is not my translation, but the rendering of George Sigerson from 1922. I believe there is a pun in the word plagas, here translated 'Quarters', but with the additional meaning of 'wounds'. Sigerson (1836-1925), a patriotic Irish polymath and translator of Charcot, has this to say about the above lines of Sedulius, who was probably Irish himself:
Usually, as in English, men speak of north and south, east and west; children at school are taught that by facing the sun at noon-day they look south, with back to the north, and left and right hands to the east and west respectively. But the terms of the Irish language indicate quite a different position. In Irish, the same word designates both the right hand and the south; the left and the north are named alike; whilst 'behind' and 'west' are identical. . . Thus the symbolism of the Cross, as given by St. Sedulius in the fifth century, which seems strange to modern readers, would appear quite natural and familiar to the Irish-speaking peasant of to-day.
You see, human beings did not stop reading what they wanted to read when the Middle Ages suddenly came to a halt, somewhen between 1350 and 1650. When Sir Thomas Browne dropped his double A-side, Hydriotaphia / The Garden of Cyrus in 1658, he was still playing silly buggers with cross imagery.
Where by the way we shall decline the old Theme, so traced by antiquity of crosses and crucifixion: Whereof some being right, and of one single peece without traversion or transome, do little advantage our subject. Nor shall we take in the mysticall Tau, or the Crosse of our blessed Saviour, which having in some descriptions an Empedon or crossing foot-stay, made not one single transversion. And since the Learned Lipsius hath made some doubt even of the Crosse of St Andrew, since some Martyrologicall Histories deliver his death by the generall Name of a crosse, and Hippolitus will have him suffer by the sword; we should have enough to make out the received Crosse of that Martyr.

[. . .]

Of this Figure Plato made choice to illustrate the motion of the soul, both of the world and man; while he delivereth that God divided the whole conjunction length-wise, according to the figure of a Greek X, and then turning it about reflected it into a circle; By the circle implying the uniform motion of the first Orbs, and by the right lines, the planetical and various motions within it. And this also with application unto the soul of man, which hath a double aspect, one right, whereby it beholdeth the body, and objects without; another circular and reciprocal, whereby it beholdeth it self. The circle declaring the motion of the indivisible soul, simple, according to the divinity of its nature, and returning into it self; the right lines respecting the motion pertaining unto sense, and vegetation, and the central decussation, the wondrous connexion of the severall faculties conjointly in one substance. And so conjoyned the unity and duality of the soul, and made out the three substances so much considered by him; That is, the indivisible or divine, the divisible or corporeal, and that third, which was the Systasis or harmony of those two, in the mystical decussation.

And if that were clearly made out which Justin Martyr took for granted, this figure hath had the honour to characterize and notifie our blessed Saviour, as he delivereth in that borrowed expression from Plato; Decussavit eum in universo, the hint whereof he would have Plato derive from the figure of the brazen Serpent, and to have mistaken the letter X for T.
Naturally, if you've never read The Garden of Cyrus, you must immediately desist from your leisurely perusal of the Varieties, and devote your next hour to a study of its manifold richnesses. Browne has both Justin and Bernard, and a thousand other crosses, lozenges and quincunxes, from the most marvelous texts, and from the variety of the natural world. He is especially good on plants, if you like that sort of thing.

Human beings did not even stop reading what they wanted to read after 1658. We've already seen what patriotism (or should that be 'patrickotism'?) can do to an erudite Irishman. But think also of Justin's 1885 editor, Philip Schaff, who in his introduction exclaims:
And in spite of Gallios and Neros alike, the gospel was dispelling the gross darkness. Of this, Pliny's letter to Trajan is decisive evidence. Even in Seneca we detect reflections of the daybreak. Plutarch writes as never a Gentile could have written until now.
Seneca, that is, who throughout the Middle Ages was believed to have corresponded amicably with St. Paul. And Plutarch, whose De sera numinis vindicta allegedly demonstrates the influence of the Gospel. Later, A. E. Taylor's 1928 commentary on the Timaeus would be denounced by Francis Cornford (in the excellent Plato's Cosmology, 1937) as merely a 'Christianization of Plato'. Christians, like Plato and the rest of the classical pagans before them, have always needed to make analogies. It is a way of dealing with absurd doctrines. It is a way of making sense of that from which sense cannot be made. I write that last line as a chiasmus, so called because it resembles in structure the shape of the Greek letter chi.

I too, it seems, need analogies.


John Emerson said...

Have you seen On the Shoulders of Giants by Robert Merton? Lots of nice stuff. He was a sociologist but it is amusingly written.

James F. McGrath said...

What a remarkable blog you have here! What a wide range of reading and interests it represents. I'll be adding you to the Google Reader feed on my own blog, since I suspect many of its readers would be delighted to encounter your posts.

Conrad H. Roth said...

John: No, I haven't read it. I'll check it out.

James: Thanks.

growingupartists said...

Just glad to know I'm not completely insane. I'll do my best not to stalk you...

Michael said...

Apropos of the serpent of Num. 21:8, I note that the American Standard Version to which you link says that it is placed "on a standard," whereas the Authorized Version has it put "upon a pole." The Spetuagint is silent as to its mounting, simply having it set up "epi semeiou," the "epi" being used in the sense for an object or purpose, thus "for a sign," as it is translated in the Vulgate - "pro signo."

The text is therefore completely ambiguous as to the way in which the brazen serpent was mounted by Moses for such display; however, it is often shown in emblems as curled around a standard with a cross-piece. It is thus represented in the furniture of the lodge-room in the conferral of the 25th degree of the Ancient and Accepted (Scottish) Rite of Freemasonry.

Seneca's purported correspondence with St. Paul is new to me, although I knew that St. Paul was supposed to have wept at the tomb of Vergil:

"Ad Maronis mausolæum
Ductus fudit super eum
Piæ rorem lacrimae;
Quem te, inquit, redidissem
Si te vivum invenissem,
Poetarum maxime!"

The fourth Eclogue was of course read during the middle ages as a prophecy of Christ's birth, and Vergil was regarded as a sort of magus.

As for Seneca, he has always seemed to me somewhat of a moralizing old windbag who, long avant la lettre, exemplified what Julien Benda described as the "trahison des clercs." He got what intellectuals who cosy up to tyrants usually do, once the bloom is off the rose. This is a familiar type - all one has to do is to look at the Russian literary world during the reign of Stalin for a variety of modern followers of his example.

Conrad H. Roth said...

That's interesting about the snake on the cross among the Freemasons; presumably there was an early tradition of visualising the snake on a cross-shaped banner (the vexilla or cantabrum, which Tertullian compares to the cross itself).

"Vergil was regarded as a sort of magus."

Do you know Spargo's delightful Vergil as Necromancer?

Seneca: "moralizing old windbag"

Couldn't agree more. A very dull writer, like the rest of the Stoics--Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius etc. Lipsius was actually a Neo-Stoic and wrote a De constantia, which is quite as dull as Seneca himself.

Michael said...

The crucified serpent of the 25th degree is undoubtedly borrowed from emblems used in the illustrations of books of alchemy. One is illustrated, for example, in the "Uraltes Chymisches Werk" attributed to Abraham Eleazar, published at Leipzig in 1760 (Ferguson, vol. I, pp. 4-5). This is said by its editor, Julius Gervasius, to be the book of Abraham the Jew from which Nicholas Flamel learnt how to make the philosophers' stone. Ferguson writes,

"He [Gervasius] tries to ascertain the date at which Abraham Eleazar may have flourished, and the probable truth of the statement that he drew the 'principia' of the art from the copper tables of Tubal-Cain, who transmitted his secrets to posterity both by writing and by symbolic pictures as well. Gervasius, naturally, supports the truth of this statement, and proves, as he thinks, that Tubal-Cain was the first engraver, metallurgist, and chemist..."

No doubt this Gervasius relies for that opinion at least in part upon the work of Olaus Borrichius, whose similar account we thrashed over in a previous discussion. These narratives are similar to those in a variety of ancient masonic "charges," going back to the Regius MS. of c. 1390 and including Sloane MS. No. 3848 dated 1646, which probably is the version used at the initiation of Elias Ashmole and Henry Mainwaring at Warrington in October 1646. The mention of Tubal-Cain alone is enough to suggest a masonic connection.

The crucified serpent alchemically represents a stage in the preparation of the sophick mercury, which is incalescent with gold, can be used to generate a golden "tree," and which after further procedures yields a red powder which was thought to be, if not the stone, then something very close to it. These are all replicable experiments, as Newman and Principe have shown, even though they needless to say do not lead to elemental transmutation.

Symbolically, the crucified serpent resembles the staff of Aesculapius, which is the proper emblem of medicine (rather than the caduceus of Hermes), and as such it alludes to the properties of the stone as an elixir of life, restoring the health of the sick just as the sight of the brazen serpent Moses erected at the command of the Lord restored health to those who had been bitten by the fiery serpents of Num. 21:6-9. Finally, a reference is probably intended to the way in which Christ's sacrifice on the cross delivered sinful man from the power of the Devil - the serpent of Eden - who could therefore, in the odd allegorical way so common in the past, be portrayed as the one who was truly defeated and crucified.

marquetteia said...

Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus are NOT 'dull writers', esp. when compared to Seneca.