Early Christian Sources of Platonic Geometry: Augustine (1)

Ambrose presumably had less need for Latinizers because of his own knowledge of Greek. It was partly this and his enthusiasm for Greek thought, both classical and Christian, and in particular the Platonists whom he regarded as the ‘aristocrats of thought’ that contributed to his standing as one of four Doctors of the Western Church.
In addition to adapting Basil’s Hexaemeron,
he eagerly collected other Greek works, especially those of Origen, from whom he acquired his own understanding of allegory. Ambrose’s contact with the Greek world evidently made his sermons the most progressive in the West and it was into this environment that Augustine (354-430) arrived in 384.

Symmachus, the Prefect of Rome and one of the leading pagans of his day, had recommended Augustine for the post in rhetoric at the court of Milan. On his arrival from Rome, however, Augustine soon fell deeply under the influence of Ambrose and his sermons. In just two turbulent years he had contemplated withdrawing from the world with a band of amateur philosophers; he had been introduced to various Neoplatonic writings in the translations of Victorinus, including probably the Enneads of Plotinus; then
having turned to Simplicianus who particularly impressed him with the earlier conversion of Victorinus, Augustine underwent his own conversion; and, following a breakdown, he penned four Dialogues during his convalescence which marked his arrival as a Christian Platonist thinker, teacher and writer.

It is of crucial importance to this study that his massive output, together with his command of classical and Christian thought and his ability to conduct an argument derived from personal reflection, ensured his place along with Gregory as the foremost authority for the Latin Church in the tenth century and either side of it.
Being comprehensive in span, his writings are concerned not only with purely theological interpretations of scripture and the Christian revelation but with Christian philosophy as well. In this he reveals the Platonic underpinning of his own thought, particularly that related to the universe, harmony and numbers, to the extent that he is credited with transmitting to the medieval Church the best account of Plato’s teaching, thereby securing its acceptance by the Church.
Among the first of the early Dialogues was De ordine. Another Platonic work, De musica,
was started a year later in 387 along with his treatise De quantitate animae. After an interval of ten years his Confessiones,
compiled over a period of four years, also contains an exposition of Platonic metaphysics. This was overlapped by his treatise De Trinitate which was written between 399 and 419. During this time he commenced his greatest undertaking, De civitate Dei,
a work of twenty-two volumes which was perhaps the most widely read of all books early in the middle ages apart from the Bible itself. It was written throughout the years 413 to 427, with what can be considered the Platonic volumes of the work, VIII-XI, coming over two years from 415. Finally, as he was nearing the end of De civitate Dei,
he issued his Retractationes in about 427.

It needs to be borne in mind, however, that since Augustine’s search for truth had already caused him several revisions, the views expressed in this huge collection of writings are neither uniform nor unchanging. For example, De ordine is a treatise dealing with the liberal arts as the path leading to comprehension of the universal order. It shows that their evolution was rational because it was orderly and it concludes with a generous tribute to Pythagoras. This and the predominance accorded the liberal arts were subsequently moderated, though by no means actually retracted, in his Retractiones. De musica, on the other hand, constitutes a six-volume work on rhythm that was meant to be complemented by a further six on melody. The first five serve as an introduction to Book VI which places number and music in a cosmological scheme that is essentially Platonic and reflects material in Timaeus. The work as left by Augustine largely follows a Greek treatise on music written in the second century by Aristides Quintilianus.
However, the Platonic content of De musica and the early Dialogues which it followed was shortly to be put into perspective in Confessiones as being but a preparation, albeit a necessary one, for understanding the Christian mysteries. This was a similar conclusion to Clement’s, yet the importance of Platonism was hardly diminished thereby, for it is abundantly evident from his later De civitate Dei that the discipline of Platonic thought and the basic precepts of its natural philosophy remained indispensable for such an understanding.

However, this did not place Platonists beyond criticism, especially those who found the idea of the Incarnation of the Son of God profoundly distasteful. Augustine recalled Simplicianus recounting how one Platonist had maintained that the quotation, “The Word was in the beginning of all things, and the Word was with God”, should be displayed in gold in every church. This was sufficient, it was argued, and some could not accept the Christian sequel that “The Word was made flesh”. Porphyry in particular was repelled by the suggestion that the Word, as Christ Incarnate, should appear as a body from a woman, bleed on the Cross and become resurrected. This earned Augustine’s dismissal:

But god, the great teacher, became of no account in the eyes of the proud [Porphyry and the Platonists] simply because “the Word became flesh

De civitate Dei X.29

I read there that the Word, God, “was born not of the flesh, but of God”. But, that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” – I did not read that there that “in due time He died for the ungodly” and “that Thou didst not spare Thine Only-begotten Son, but didst deliver Him up for us all” – that is not there.

Confessiones V.II.9.14

That all gods should be worshipped, as urged by Plato, was also repudiated by Augustine together with the doctrine of metempsychosis. Porphyry was again criticized for upholding both these teachings along with Origen who, as recently as 400, had been criticized at a council in Alexandria for some of his

Despite these differences, it can be seen that the two traditions remained essentially compatible. This was still partly explained by the belief that Plato may have learnt some scripture in Egypt,
a belief based on what was taken to be internal evidence as, for example, when Augustine compares Timaeus with Genesis:

“In the beginning God made heaven and earth. But the earth was invisible and unformed, and there was darkness over the abyss, and the spirit of God soared above the water (Genesis 1.1f)”. Now in the Timaeus, the book in which he writes about the creation of the world, Plato says that God in that work first brought together earth and fire (Timaeus 31B); and it is obvious that for Plato fire takes the place of the sky Plato goes on to say that water and air were the two intermediaries whose interposition effected the junction of those two extremes
(Timaeus 32B). This is supposed to be his interpretation of the biblical statement: “The spirit of God soared above the water”.

De civitate Dei VIII. 11

And when God declared, “I am He who is ” (Exodus 3,14), it was the “truth Plato vigorously maintained and diligently taught”. Augustine’s own exegesis of Plato’s moral philosophy acknowledged that, to Platonists, the highest good was to be found not in the mind or body, but in God, and that goodness, being equated with virtue, is only to be found through knowledge of God.”

[Platonists] acknowledge a God who transcends any kind of soul, being the maker not only of this visible – heaven and earth, in the familiar phrase – but also of every soul whatsoever, a God who gives blessedness to the rational and intelligent soul – the class to which the human soul belongs – by giving it a share in his unchangeable and immaterial light.

De civitate Dei, VIII.1

Platonists assert that the true God is the author of the universe, the source of the light of truth, and the bestower of happiness.

De civitate Dei VIII.5

His synthesis of the two traditions appears as effortless as Clement’s had been.

The philosophy that is true has no other function than to teach what is the First Principle of all things – Itself without beginning, – and how great an intellect dwells therein, and what has proceeded therefrom for our welfare, but without deterioration of any kind. Now, the venerated mysteries teach that this First Principle is one God omnipotent, and that He is tripotent, Father and Son and Holy Spirit.

De ordine II.5.6

In his expositions of the cosmos, the elements, the liberal arts and the understanding of numbers, it may be seen that Augustine again very much continues the teaching of Clement.

But what are the higher things ? Where there is no time, because there is no change, and from where times are made and ordered and changed, initiating eternity as they do when the turn of the heavens comes back to the same state, and the heavenly bodies to the same place, and in days and months and years and centuries and other revolutions of the stars obey
the laws of equality, unity and order. So terrestrial things are subject to celestial, and their time circuits join together in harmonious succession for a poem of the universe.

De musica VI. 11.29

In this is contained the original sense of universe as unus versus,
namely one that is turning.

From him derives every mode of being, every species, every order, all measure, number and weight he has not left them without a harmony of their constituent parts, a kind of peace.

De civitate Dei V.11, paraphrasing Wisdom 11.20

there is nothing which is not brought into being by him, from whom comes all form, all shape, all order …

De civitate Dei XI. 15

However, understanding the orderliness of the creation and what a Christian’s attitude towards it should be was naturally difficult, particularly following the shock of the sack of Rome in 410 which prompted the writing of De civitate Dei. In achieving such an understanding, Augustine evidently differs somewhat from Clement for, whereas Clement excluded the uneducated from the path to knowledge, Augustine seems prepared to include anyone even at the risk of holding back the educated.

If only the weak understanding of the ordinary man did not stubbornly resist the plain evidence of logic and truth! The result is that we are forced very often to give an extended exposition of the obvious …

De civitate Dei II. 1; see also VII. Pref.

In all these branches of study, therefore, all things were being presented to reason as numerically proportioned Then, reason gained much coinage and preconceived a great achievement; it ventured to prove the soul immortal. It treated diligently of all things. It came to feel that it possessed great power, and that it owed all its power to numerical proportions. Something wondrous urged it on. And it began to suspect that it itself was perhaps the very number by which all things are numbered, or if not, that this number was there whither it was striving to arrive But, false images of the things which we number drift away from that most hidden something by which we ennumerate, snatch our attention to themselves, and
frequently make that hidden something slip away even when it has been already in our grasp.

De ordine II. 15.43

If a man does not yield to these images, and if he reduces to simple, true and certain unity all the things that are scattered far and wide throughout so many branches of study, then he is most deserving of the attribute learned. Then, without being rash, he can search after things divine …

De ordine II.16.44

Open though this may be for anyone to attempt, Augustine both warns of the difficulties that lie ahead and at the same time describes the milestones that must be attained in order to succeed:

… no one ought to aspire to a knowledge of those matters without that twofold science, so to speak – the science of right reasoning and that of the power of numbers.

De ordine II.18.47

only a rare class of men is capable of using [reason] as a guide to the knowledge of God or of the soul; either of the soul within us or of the world-soul.

De ordine II.11.30

If you have a care for order you must return to those verses, for instruction in the liberal arts produces devotees more alert and steadfast and better equipped for embracing

De ordine I.8.24

But since all the liberal arts are learned partly for practical use and partly for the knowledge and contemplation of things, to attain the use of them is very difficult except for some very gifted person who even from boyhood has earnestly and constantly applied himself.

De ordine II.16.44

Autore: Nigel Hiscock
The Wise Master Builder. Platonic Geometry in Plans of Medieval Abbeys and Cathedralsl
: Ashgate
Luogo: Aldershot
Anno: 2000
Pagine: 64-69

Centri sacri e Microcosmi (2)

Questa bipartizione simbolica dello spazio spirituale sottintende i principali percorsi rituali o liturgici, e gli itinerari mistici; questo è l’essenziale. Sfortunatamente non possiamo dilungarci sulle rappresentazioni psicologiche connesse a questi passaggi, né sui valori religiosi che possono risvegliare o sviluppare. Per rimanere all’interno della prospettiva di questo studio, ci contenteremo di presentare a titolo d’illustrazione complementare, il caso particolarmente limpido dei tamburi magici che gli sciamani delle regioni dell’Aitai usano nelle loro cerimonie religiose. Si può agevolmente analizzare il rapporto con gli esempi di bipartizione simbolica che abbiamo presentato: le due zone del cielo e della terra sono separate da una frontiera orizzontale, in vista di una rappresentazione rituale: è un ingresso, allo stesso titolo del portale delle nostre chiese, come i gradini o i cancelli dei nostri santuari.

Tamburo magico di sciamano, Altai (Asia Centrale)

Nella figura, il cielo è attraversato dalle costellazioni rappresentate sotto forma di animali e cavalieri (in alto, sulla destra, possiamo scorgere il cavaliere di Venere con la stella in mano); sopra la fitta striscia di separazione stanno le creature terrestri: vegetali, rettili, tartarughe (?), quadrupedi, uomini.

I giochi rituali di numerosi popoli sono fondati su questa bipartizione, che si pone già nell’ordine liturgico. Ancora ai nostri giorni, un gioco degli Indiani Fox dei Grandi Laghi si svolge su un’area circolare orientata e divisa in due zone, la Terra e il Cielo; si disputa fra un campo di morti e uno di vivi; il nostro gioco del mondo gli assomiglia un poco. Il gioco della pelota della civiltà maya, e molti altri, usano lo stesso simbolismo cosmico per un passaggio rituale, dalla terra al cielo. Siamo alle origini fondamentali ed universali della psicologia religiosa; l’arte sacra che riesce a tradurla in realtà colpisce l’uomo intimamente. Per cercare di raccogliere alcune nozioni essenziali che sono state presentate, finiremo giustapponendo alcune immagini e alcuni testi. A questo scopo, ci serviremo largamente della Topografia Cristiana di Cosma lndicopleuste.

Il Tempio di Gerusalemme. Mosaico della Theotokos, Monte Nebo

La figura ci offre una perfetta sintesi che servirà da punto di partenza. Questo mosaico della cappella della Theotokos sul Monte Nebo è databile al V (o VI) secolo; rappresenta il tempio di Gerusalemme. È una rappresentazione più simbolica che realistica. Illustra in modo meraviglioso i mutamenti attraverso cui si è passati dalle descrizioni bibliche del Tempio, che lo dispongono secondo tre sale rettangolari orizzontalmente contrapposte (il portico, il Santo, il Santo dei Santi), ad una costruzione la cui struttura simbolica è essenzialmente ricondotta al complesso quadrato-cerchio, senza curarsi di precisare se questo piano si sviluppa in orizzontale o in verticale. In questo modo si prepara la feconda ambiguità che costituirà la norma nelle chiese medioevali, con il loro duplice tragitto navata-abside e cubo-cupola. In questo mosaico si verifica il processo di incastro caratteristico dei simboli: all’interno del grande Tempio appare un micro-Tempio omologo e con la stessa struttura. Questo piccolo tetrastilo rappresenterebbe il tempio di Gerusalemme prima della distruzione della città nel 70 d.C.; sotto il suo colonnato centrale si è creduto di riconoscere una porta che si apre sul Santo dei Santi; qui, ancora, la nozione di centro sacro trova un’espressione parlante. Questa struttura era poi ugualmente caratteristica di quella pietra simbolica del Tempio che era stata l’Arca dell’Alleanza che vi era custodita.

Rappresentazione dell’Arca dell’Alleanza, Dura Europos

L’Arca racchiudeva in sé ciò che Israele aveva di più sacro; era inoltre il trono sul quale si rendeva presente Iahvè. Dopo la distruzione del Tempio e la perdita dell’Arca, questo doppio ruolo fu trasferito alla Legge, alla Thorah,
i cui rotoli attireranno tutta la venerazione che un tempo Israele portava al Tempio e all’Arca. L’armadio della Thorah sarà rappresentato sotto la stessa forma dell’Arca e del Tempio, poiché questa forma era stata riconosciuta come il migliore ricettacolo del sacro, delle cose più sante, segno della loro stessa santità.

Armadio della Thorah. Reliquiario ebraico in vetro dorato

L’esposizione di Filone ci aiuta a comprendere ciò che questa forma evocava profondamente. Oltre alle usuali interpretazioni, che abbiamo segnalato sopra e che si sono tramandate, appare in quest’opera un nuovo elemento. Egli abbandona la divisione tripartita (orizzontale) del Tabernacolo (il Tempio), che seguiva le componenti dell’universo (cielo-terra-mare); andando al di là del mondo fisico, estende il simbolismo all’aldilà. Il Tempio di Mosè diventa il quadro rituale nel quale cose spirituali (Idee) e cose materiali si oppongono o coesistono come due mondi eterogenei che si dividono il santuario: il Santo e il Santo dei Santi. Il Santo è la parte esterna del tabernacolo, il Santo dei Santi quella interna. «Il velo separa l’Interno dall’Esterno; l’Interno è sacro e veramente divino; l’Esterno, per quanto sacro sia, non ne ha la stessa natura e neppure una simile. In questo modo sono rappresentate le parti mutevoli del mondo sublunare, soggette a variazioni, e la parte celeste, nella quale non c’è né avvenimento (caret casu)
né cambiamento, ed è attraverso il velo che sono separate fra loro» (Filone). Come il velo nel tabernacolo, il firmamento, nell’universo, costituisce la frontiera fra il sensibile e lo spirituale: «Il demiurgo, opponendo al cielo intellegibile ed incorporeo il cielo sensibile e corporeo, gli diede il nome di firmamento» (Filone). «I due mondi, quello visibile e quello invisibile, si distinguono per l’antitesi del caduco e dell’immutabile, del creato e dell’eterno» (Wolska).

L’esegesi cristiana riprenderà il discorso di Filone. Non solo Origene, nel suo commento allegorico all’Esodo, dirà che «il tabernacolo è una rappresentazione del mondo intero», ma anche altri autori (Clemente d’Alessandria, lo pseudo-Crisostomo, Teodoreto di Cirro), sulla linea di Filone, dopo aver esposto il simbolismo cosmico del Tempio mosaico, spiegheranno che il mondo fisico, a sua volta, non è altro che un luogo di passaggio simbolico offerto allo spirito in cerca di più alte realtà. A questo stadio, l’esposizione si riduce alla spiegazione di una bipartizione radicale. Tornano continuamente due termini antitetici: επουρανια e επιγεια, le cose celesti e quelle terrestri, ciò che fino a questo momento abbiamo chiamato il Cielo e la Terra.

In questi autori si constata che il simbolismo del Tempio mosaico è omogeneo e coerente nelle sue diverse applicazioni: cosmica, ontologica e anche messianica (poiché la salvezza è un passaggio da una delle due zone all’altra); il simbolismo è fondato sulla bipartizione del tabernacolo. D’altra parte è chiaro che, per loro, la forma simbolica del tabernacolo non pretende di essere una rappresentazione realistica della struttura del mondo così come essi la concepiscono: per Filone, come per Clemente, il mondo è una sfera… «Cosma, invece, trasformò il simbolo in realtà fisica. Secondo lui, la forma e la divisione del tabernacolo sono indici sicuri della forma e della divisione spaziale dell’universo.

Universo secondo la Topografia cristiana di Cosma Indicopleuste

Questo è rigorosamente diviso in due, in vista delle sue multiple destinazioni: trono del visibile e dell’invisibile, contenitore della condizione celeste e di quella terrena, teatro dell’opera di salvezza che comincia sulla terra e che si compie nello spazio superiore dell’universo» (Wolska).

Ancora una volta, cogliamo nel vivo quella che si potrebbe chiamare l’autonomia del pensiero simbolico, con lo straordinario potere che ha di riformare o reinventare, quando sia necessario, ciò che vuole vedere, e la stabilità del modello immaginario al quale si rifa imperturbabilmente, come l’ago calamitato si orienta sul Nord.

Autore: Gerard de Champeaux; dom Sebastien Sterckx
I simboli del medioevo
: Jaca Book
Luogo: Milano
Anno: 1988
Pagine: 159-164

Vedi anche:

Early Christian Sources of Platonic Geometry: the Latin Encyclopedists

In the foregoing sections, it has been shown that the passage of Platonic and Neoplatonic thought from Alexandria to Asia Minor and the Greek Fathers produced writings of sufficient importance that they were immediately to find their way to the West, reaching not only Ambrose in Milan but Rome as well, whence the teachings of Origen were to spread in the translations of Rufinus. In the meantime, however, Neoplatonism had already reached Rome with the arrival of Plotinus in 244.

It was Plotinus’s pupil, Porphyry (233-c.300), a leading Neoplatonist himself, who edited the work of his master and whose own writings included commentaries on Timaeus and apparently the Elementa as well. Writing in Greek though living in Rome, he was to be highly regarded by Augustine as a pagan philosopher, though this was a tribute Augustine was to qualify because of Porphyry’s anti-Christian stance, manifest for example in his treatise Adversus Christianos.

Marius Victorinus, who taught rhetoric in Rome and became a Christian convert in the middle of the fourth century, translated writings of Plotinus and other Neoplatonists into Latin which may have numbered among the works of Victorinus recorded by Alcuin at York. He was in touch with
Simplicianus, the priest in Milan who prepared Ambrose for baptism the year before the latter became bishop of that city in 374.

At about the time of Victorinus’s conversion, Chalcidius was producing his celebrated Timaeus translation and commentary, copies of which, as already stated, were a necessary possession for all medieval libraries of note.
This was in spite of the text ending prematurely at a point which immediately precedes Plato’s treatment of the elements and the regular solids. Nevertheless, the work remained the most important of all Platonic sources for the Latin middle ages.

This was followed by two more Platonic works of hardly less importance, namely the Commentarii in Ciceronis Somnium Scipionis of Macrobius and Martianus’s De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. Macrobius’s Commentarii,
second only to Chalcidius’s, was written late in the fourth century or early in the fifth based on a lost commentary on Timaeus by Porphyry. Yet it is less a commentary than an encyclopedia of Neoplatonism illustrated with diagrams. Its starting-point is Plato’s Republic,
Cicero’s original work also being entitled De republica,
and it is with Scipio’s Dream that he ends it as an obvious counterpart to Plato’s Vision of Er. Martianus’s De nuptiis was approximately contemporary, being written between 410 and 439, and uses the allegorical marriage between Philology and Mercury as a setting for summarizing the seven liberal arts, in which each appears personified as a bridesmaid at the wedding.

Whilst Somnium Scipionis is among the works most frequently referred to in early medieval manuscripts and is itself among the most common manuscripts from that time, so De nuptiis was perhaps the most widely used schoolbook, its popularity during the ninth and tenth centuries being matched by that of Somnium Scipionis possibly from early in the tenth. Their influence in transmitting Plato’s cosmology was second only to Chalcidius partly as a result of expositions of number theory that deal not only with numerical relationships but with their powers as well, the attributes of the Pythagorean decad for example and the discovery of his musical ratios being relayed extensively in medieval literature. This is not to say that the transmission was exact and unvarying since tradition was always open to interpretation and development. For example, Plato’s and Clement’s concept of 7 planets revolving around an eighth, which is Earth, becomes in Somnium Scipionis 7
planets revolving within an eighth which is an all-encompassing celestial sphere. This is composed of 5 zones. Because justice is even-handed, to Clement it was represented by 4, by Martianus 2 and by Macrobius 8. 7, being a virgin number, is identified with Pallas Athene. In De nuptiis, 9 is also a perfect number and signifies the Muses. Nevertheless, it seems fair to say that these are additions to, not an undermining of, the basic precepts, for these remained those of Pythagoras and Plato as recognized by Martianus.

Meanwhile the august company of the gods… acknowledged [Arithmetic] herself… to be in very truth the procreator of the gods. And the host of philosophers, too, who stood nearby – in particular, Pythagoras, with all his disciples, and Plato,
expounding the cryptic doctrines of his Timaeus – worshipped the lady with words of mystic praise….

Martianus, De nuptiis 803

According to this whole tradition as transmitted, 1 is confirmed as the monad and the generator of numbers. 2, being the first departure from unity, represents discord and is the female number because it lacks a middle term.
3 is male because it possesses a middle term and is therefore the first number that is wholly odd. In other words, because,

1 + 1 + 1=3,

it is the first number comprising a mean and two extremes; it also stands for the triangle and the three divisions of the soul.
By the same reasoning, 4 is the first number wholly even because it is the first consisting of two means; it is the terminal number of the tetrad as well as that of the geometric elements of point, line, plane and solid; it represents the quadrangle and the
4 elements and seasons.

The pentad comes next, the number assigned to the universe. This identification is reasonable, for after the four elements, the universe is a fifth body of a different nature.

Martianus, De nuptiis 735

To this Macrobius adds that 5,

. . . alone embraces all things that are and seem to be

Macrobius, Commentarii, 1.6.19

Yet in conveying Plato’s association of the macrocosm with the human microcosm, Martianus adds that 5 also stands for marriage, being the sum of the male and female numbers, as well as the sum of the human senses. 6 is a perfect number because it is the sum of its parts. In other words,

1 x 2 x 3 = 1 + 2 + 3 = 6

Moreover, it is the product of the male and female numbers and so signifies creation. Because 7 begets no numbers in the decad,
it is virgin; as the sum of 3 + 4, it is the number by which the World-Soul is generated, according to Timaeus;
and, the Moon being the seventh planet, it also relates to the phases of the Moon measured in 7-day periods and the lunar stages of each month.
8 is the first cube and is perfect because it has 6 surfaces.

(10 is) the highest degree of perfection of all numbers…

Macrobius, Commentarii, 1.6.76

It contains within itself all numbers with their varied attributes and degrees of perfection…

De nuptiis 742

Interestingly, it is important to note that Martianus has Geometry preceding Arithmetic at the wedding. Her Book is the longest in the work and contains more geography than geometry, yet it does incorporate a ten-page summary of Euclid’s Elementa. Here a classification of angles, planes and solids leads to a description of how solids are generated from planes. Having described the basic solids, among which are found the pyramid and cube, Martianus concludes with the ‘noble’ figures of the octahedron, dodecahedron and icosahedron. Not surprisingly, geometric thinking finds its counterpart in arithmetic for, just as the sphere is recognized as containing all other figures, and in particular the regular solids, so 10 contains all numbers. And since geometric solids are recognized as being based upon plane figures, this would explain Macrobius’s allusion to 5 embracing all things.
Because 5 is the first figurate number of the pentagon, which is the plane figure of the dodecahedron which signifies the universe, Macrobius seems clearly to be associating 5 directly with the macrocosm, as indeed does Martianus.

Had Augustine written his text-books on the liberal arts, he would undoubtedly have belonged to the encyclopedic tradition of his near-contemporaries Macrobius and Martianus. As it is, his importance for the present study is arguably even greater, not only for transmitting Platonic thought within a theological framework but also for securing thereby its acceptance by the Church. Consequently, his contribution will be considered next.

Autore: Nigel Hiscock
The Wise Master Builder. Platonic Geometry in Plans of Medieval Abbeys and Cathedralsl
: Ashgate
Luogo: Aldershot
Anno: 2000
Pagine: 61-64

Early Christian Sources of Platonic Geometry: Basil and Gregory

Basil (c.329-79) read philosophy and rhetoric in the young capital of the Eastern Empire, Constantinople, before continuing his studies in Athens with, among others, Julian, the apostate emperor of the Byzantines. It was only later in life, in 364, that he was ordained priest and only seven years before his premature demise that he was consecrated metropolitan of his native Caesarea, whereupon he made his younger brother Gregory (c.335-c.95) bishop of Nyssa. Before his ordination, Basil had spent some time as a hermit studying Origen and when Gregory stayed at his brother’s cell he too studied ‘his master Origen’ along with everything Basil had learned in Athens. On Basil’s death, Gregory came into his own as a churchman and teacher to the extent that he became known as the ‘Father of Fathers’. In 381 he was summoned by the Emperor Theodosius to the Second Oecumenical Council in Constantinople, as a result of which he was recognized as a principal interpreter of the emergent orthodoxy of the Eastern Church.

Of chief interest to this study is Basil’s Hexaemeron, a series of sermons on the 6 days of Creation delivered morning and evening during Lent to a congregation of workmen. As he acknowledges,

I know that many artisans, belonging to the mechanical trades, are crowding around me. A day’s labour hardly suffices to maintain them; therefore I am compelled to abridge my discourse, so as not to keep them too long from their work.

Hexaemeron III.1

Although the sermons are systematically arranged, the final homily which should have described the creation of man seems to end prematurely and was supplemented by Gregory’s treatise De hominis opificio. Such was the importance of Hexaemeron that its teaching quickly spread to the West.
Ambrose produced an adaptation of it which was soon translated into Latin by Eustathius in about 440 and, whether or not this was the work of Basil’s already noted on Alcuin’s shelves at York, a vernacular abbreviation of Hexaemeron was produced in Anglo-Saxon in 969 by Aelfric. As has been remarked elsewhere, the circulation of shortened versions of texts can usually be taken as evidence that such texts had become standard reading. In addition to manuscripts of several of Gregory’s writings surviving from the tenth century onwards, including no less than three of De hominis opificio from the tenth century itself, this same work had already been translated into Latin by John Scotus in the previous century.

At first sight Basil appears largely to repudiate classical philosophy as he recounts how one theory about the origin of the universe became supplanted by another.

Those who have written about the nature of the universe have discussed at length the shape of the earth … all these conjectures have been suggested by cosmographers, each one upsetting that of his predecessor. It will not lead me to give less importance to the creation of the universe, that the servant of God, Moses, is silent as to shapes … Shall I then prefer foolish wisdom to the oracles of the Holy Spirit? … It is this which those seem to me not to have understood, who, giving themselves up to the distorted meaning of allegory, have undertaken to give a majesty of their own invention to Scripture …

Some have said that heaven is composed of four elements … Others have rejected this system as improbable, and introduced into the world, to form the heavens, a fifth element after their own fashioning. There exists, they say, an aethereal body which is neither fire, air, earth, nor water, nor in one word any simple body … But yet another speaker arises and disperses and destroys this theory to give predominance to an idea of his own invention. Do not let us undertake to follow them for fear of falling into like frivolities; let them refute each other, and, without disquieting ourselves about essence, let us say with Moses ‘God created the heaven and the earth’. Let us glorify the supreme Artificer for all that was wisely and skillfully made … Because … the objects which on all sides attract our notice are so marvellous, that the most penetrating mind cannot attain to the knowledge of the least of the phenomenon of this world.

Hexaemeron IX.1, I.11

Basil seems intent here on keeping the minds of his workaday congregation upon simple devotion. He lived, after all, at the time of violent religious disputes such as those caused by Julian’s apostacy and Valens’s Arianism, and
both needed to be answered by an insistence on orthodoxy, particularly concerning the Holy Trinity, rather than by raking over old arguments about classical cosmogony. In fact, it was Basil himself who has been credited with precipitating the end of the Arian dispute, to be ratified soon after his death at the Council of 381 in the presence of his brother. Given the determination to hold the line on orthodoxy which this indicates, Basil is hardly likely to have encouraged cosmological speculation from his own pulpit, especially since he considered such matters to be above the heads of his artisan audience. Certainly the tradition of teaching he inherited from Clement and Origen of knowledge being reserved for the educated, leaving faith to the uneducated, would seem to support this. Indeed, it will be shown that the early Church actually developed its liturgy in a way that protected its innermost secrets from the uninitiated.

Ambiguity in this passage over the fifth essence being ether still seems unabated for, although Basil appears to dismiss it here, when dealing elsewhere with God’s command, ‘Let there be light’, he refers to it as a matter of course.

Up it sprang to the very aether and heaven. In an instant it lighted up the whole extent of the world … For the aether also is such a subtle substance and so transparent that it needs not the space of a moment for light to pass through it … With light the aether becomes more pleasing …

Hexaemeron III. 3

Here it is surely the fifth essence, being distinct from the elements and yet associated with heaven. Later in the same homily, the implication again must surely be that ether is the substance surrounding the 7 planets which therefore fills the universe.

These circles, they say, carried away in a direction contrary to that of the world, and striking the aether, make sweet and harmonious sounds, unequalled by the sweetest melody …

Hexaemeron III.3

That such matters may sometimes be implied is clear from his treatment of the elements:

… ‘In the beginning God made heaven and earth.’ … Thus, although there is no mention of the elements, fire, water and air, imagine that they were all compounds together, and you will find water, air and fire, in the earth … Do not ask, then, for an enumeration of all the elements; guess, from what Holy Scripture indicates, all that is passed over in silence.

Hexaemeron 1.7

The underlying view here seems clearly to be Platonic as well as Christian, as it is when Basil deals with the divine order and the sensible and intelligible worlds.

… ‘In the beginning God created.’ What a glorious order!

It appears, indeed, that even before this world an order of things existed of which our mind can form an idea, but of which we can say nothing, because it is too lofty a subject for men who are but beginners and are still babies in knowledge. . . . The Creator and the Demiurge of the universe perfected His works in it, spiritual light for the happiness of all who love the Lord, intellectual and invisible natures, all the orderly arrangement of pure intelligences who are beyond the reach of our mind and of whom we cannot even discover the names.

Hexaemeron I.2, 5

You will finally discover that the world … is really the school where reasonable souls exercise themselves, the training ground where they learn to know God; since by the sight of visible and sensible things the mind is led, as by a hand, to the contemplation of invisible things.

Hexaemeron I.6

This anagogical doctrine of the path that leads from the sensible to the intelligible, or from the material to the spiritual, was not only a logical corollary of Plato’s world of Forms but, of importance to this study, it also justified religious art and architecture, as Suger was to write in explaining the design of his abbey of St Denis in the twelfth century.

Gregory’s completion of his brother’s Hexaemeron seems similarly Platonic.

Now all is beautiful and good that is closely related to the First Good … If, then, … that which is truly good is one, and the mind itself also has its power of being beautiful and good, in so far as it is in the image of the good and beautiful, and the nature, which is sustained by the mind, has the like power, in so far as it is an image of the image, it is hereby shown that our material part holds together, and is upheld when it is controlled by nature; and on the other hand is dissolved and disorganized when it is separated from that which upholds and sustains it, and is dissevered from its conjunction with beauty and goodness.

De hominis opificio XII.11

Although, like his brother, Gregory sometimes appears to refute a conventional Platonic doctrine, it reappears later albeit in slightly altered
guise. For example, in referring to humans as a microcosm of the universe, he

… how unworthy of the majesty of man are the fancies of some heathen writers, who magnify humanity as they supposed, by their comparison of it with this world! for they say that man is a little world, composed of the same elements with the universe.

De hominis opificio XVI.1

Yet when he answers:

In what then does the greatness of man consist, according to the doctrine of the Church? Not in his likeness to the created world, but in his being in the image of the nature of the Creator.

De hominis opificio XVI.2

surely he is simply equating Creator and created with Origen’s own distinction between the intelligible and sensible worlds. His description of rational man certainly appears purely Platonic:

Now since man is a rational animal, the instrument of his body must be made suitable for the use of reason …

De hominis opificio VIII.8; cf. Plato, Timaeus 44D

Likewise, in another treatise, Plato’s world of Forms lies just beneath the surface as Gregory celebrates the liberal arts as the path to virtue. A virtuous man is one who,

… has been led to the apprehension of a Master of the creation; he has taken the true Wisdom for his teacher, that Wisdom which the spectacle of the Universe suggests; and when he observed the beauty of this material sunlight he had grasped by analogy the beauty of the real sunlight….

Has a man who looks at such spectacles procured for himself only a slight power for the enjoyment of those delights beyond? Not to speak of the studies which sharpen the mind towards moral excellence, geometry, I mean, and astronomy, and the knowledge of the truth that the science of numbers gives, and every method that furnishes a proof of the unknown and a conviction of the known, and, before all these, the philosophy contained in the inspired Writings, which affords a complete purification to those who educate themselves thereby in the mysteries of God.

De infantibus praemature abreptis 377-8

Once again it may be seen that the doctrines of Plato and Clement are conveyed in the importance given by Gregory to education and purification as preparations for the ‘apprehension of a Master of the creation’ and ‘the spectacle of the Universe’. Part of this apprehension is to be gained in the understanding of numbers:

… number is nothing else than a combination of units growing into a multitude in a complete way … accordingly, in order that we may be taught by Holy Scripture that nothing is unknown to God, it tells us that the multitude of the stars is numbered by Him, not that their numbering takes place as I have described, [for who is so simple as to think that God takes knowledge of things by odd and even, and that by putting units together He makes up the total of the collective quantity?] … For to measure quantity by number is the part of those who want information. But He who knew all things before they were created needs not number as His informant. But when David says that He ‘numbers the stars’, it is evident that the Scripture descends to such language in accordance with our understanding, to teach us emblematically that the things which we know not are accurately known to God.

Contra Eunomium librum II 293

Autore: Nigel Hiscock
The Wise Master Builder. Platonic Geometry in Plans of Medieval Abbeys and Cathedralsl
: Ashgate
Luogo: Aldershot
Anno: 2000
Pagine: 56-61

Simbolo e allegoria nell’ermeneutica medievale (6)

Che la distinzione eriugeniana tra allegoria tipologica e simbolo interessi un nodo fondamentale del pensiero cristiano, lo suggeriscono ancora i testi di Dionigi e in particolare un passo della IX Lettera, in cui egli distingue nel cristianesimo una tradizione esoterica e una tradizione essoterica:

Duplice — egli scrive — è la tradizione dei teologi: l’una occulta e segretamente trasmessa, l’altra invece manifesta e più facilmente conoscibile. E l’una ha carattere simbolico e iniziatico (τὴν μὲν συμβολικὴν καὶ τελεστικήν), l’altra invece filosofico e dimostrativo (τὴν δὲ φιλόσοφον καὶ ἀποδεικτικήν): e l’ineffabile è intrecciato con ciò che è effabile. E questo persuade e vincola a sé la verità di ciò che dice (καταδεῖται τῶν λεγομένων τὴν ἀλήθειαν), quello invece opera e pone in Dio per mezzo di iniziazioni che non si possono insegnare. Del resto, nemmeno per quanto riguarda i riti che introducono ai misteri più santi, gli iniziatori sia della nostra tradizione che di quella posta sotto la Legge si sono astenuti da simboli a Dio convenienti. Ma vediamo angeli pieni di ogni santità misticamente offrire, attraverso enigmi, le cose divine, e lo stesso Gesù parlare della scienza di Dio in parabole e trasmettere i misteri divini sotto la figura di un banchetto.

Nella sostanza, è ancora la distinzione di Clemente tra fede e gnosi: ma qui si affacciano ormai gli schemi e la terminologia di Giovanni Scoto. Alla prima tradizione, infatti, Dionigi associa esplicitamente il simbolismo (τὴν μὲν συμβολικὴν) e, dopo un significativo richiamo alle rivelazioni angeliche, menziona come Giovanni Scoto le parabole di Gesù. Egli non chiarisce, invece, quale sia lo specifico carattere ermeneutico della « tradizione manifesta e più facilmente conoscibile » e, più oltre, parla anzi di σύμβολα o di τυπικσύμβολα anche a proposito di quest’ultima: ma le sue connotazioni di esteriorità e di elementarità la avvicinano notevolmente alla fides eriugeniana, e quindi alla prospettiva allegorica che le è connessa. Dionigi prosegue rilevando come i θεολόγοι « considerino taluni argomenti da un punto di vista civile e legale (πολιτικῶς καὶ ἐννόμως), altri invece con purezza e senza mescolanza (καθαρτικῶς καὶ ἀχράντως), alcuni in modo umano e medio (ἀνθρωπικῶς καὶ μέσως), altri invece in modo sopramondano e perfetto (ὑπερκοσμίκως καὶ τελεσιουργικῶς). Talora essi partono dalle leggi manifeste, talora invece dalle norme invisibili, secondo il carattere delle sacre espressioni di cui si servono, delle intelligenze e delle anime: infatti l’intero discorso che sta innanzi ad essi, in ogni sua parte, non racchiude della pura e semplice storia ma, al contrario, una vivificante perfezione ». Non è azzardato ricollegare tutte queste dicotomie a quella, che sarà formulata più tardi da Giovanni Scoto, di allegoria tipologica e simbolismo. Conclude infatti l’Areopagita: « Conviene dunque che anche noi, invece di un’interpretazione volgare (δημώδους) di quelle, penetriamo con santa e rispettosa disposizione dentro ai sacri simboli ».

All’inizio della Lettera, Dionigi aveva ancora più chiaramente stabilito un nesso tra quest’ultima forma, esoterica, di conoscenza e i ‘ simboli dissomiglianti ‘ di cui egli discorreva nella Gerarchia celeste e nel perduto trattato sulla Teologia simbolica: in tale opera, egli rammenta al discepolo Tito,

abbiamo esposto dettagliatamente tutte le rappresentazioni di Dio che si trovano nelle Scritture e che, a molti, paiono essere delle mostruosità (τερατολογίας). Infatti, quando i Padri istruiti nella sapienza segreta rivelano per mezzo di occulti e audaci enigmi la verità divina, mistica e inaccessibile ai profani, le anime non iniziate provano un’impressione di terribile assurdità […]. Ma se qualcuno potesse scorgere la convenienza che vi si nasconde dentro, troverà che tutto ha significato mistico e conforme alla natura divina, che tutto è pervaso di infinita luce teologica.

Soltanto coloro che siano « sinceri amanti della santità », avverte Dionigi, potranno penetrare con l’intelletto adeguatamente predisposto alla contemplazione « verso la verità semplice, soprannaturale e trascendente ogni simbolo (πρὸς τὴν ἁπλῆν, καὶ ὑπερφυῆ, καὶ ὑπεριδρυμένην τῶν συμβόλων ἀλήθειαν) ». L’antitesi di religione esteriore e religione interiore ci riporta perciò, nuovamente, a quella tra simboli dissomiglianti e simboli somiglianti: e si è visto come ai primi pensasse sicuramente anche Giovanni Scoto nel formulare la sua nozione di symbolum come figurazione in cui tutto si riferisce « ad theologiam, quae omnem sensum et intellectum superat ». Ma, mentre in Dionigi (e nelle Expositiones eriugeniane) la dicotomia presuppone ancora un punto di osservazione interno al metodo simbolico, nel Commentarius
Giovanni Scoto sembra volerne allargare le implicazioni teoriche facendola in un certo modo ‘ reagire ‘ con quella di allegoria facti e allegoria dicti che, in lui, vengono così a corrispondere rispettivamente alla fede popolare e alla gnosi iniziatica: la prospettiva ermeneutica e dottrinale che in Dionigi comprende le immagini somiglianti, l’interpretazione ‘ volgare ‘ e la tradizione manifesta o filosofica si precisa polemicamente nel Commentarius eriugeniano come allegoria facti e come esegesi tipologica delle Scritture. La distinzione operata da Giovanni Scoto fra allegoria tipologica e simbolo viene così a investire una fondamentale divaricazione fra due opposti modelli di conoscenza e di cultura, oltre che di interpretazione dei testi sacri. Il suo interesse sta soprattutto nel fatto che in essa riesce a tradursi efficacemente in termini ermeneutici l’antitesi, non soltanto cristiana, tra un sapere rigidamente ancorato a dogmi e a verità e, d’altro lato, una conoscenza ‘ mistica ‘ e interiore che, come quella dei sufi o dei maestri Zen, non sa accontentarsi di alcuna formula definitiva ma si esprime unicamente per negazioni e paradossi: antitesi che è impossibile ridurre a una semplice sfumatura nell’àmbito di quello che oggi si suole chiamare ‘ logocentrismo ‘ occidentale. Attraverso la figura di Pietro, Giovanni Scoto intese senza dubbio legittimare anche la prospettiva dogmatica e allegorica: ma nel cuore stesso della tradizione esegetica ‘ latina ‘, che andava progressivamente accentuando la propria intransigenza metodologica e assumendo un carattere sempre più minacciosamente totalitario, egli seppe dar voce a una diversa e più libera sapienza: quella affiorante da un pensare per simboli che risaliva alle più oscure e inaccessibili correnti del cristianesimo primitivo. La quasi incontrastata vittoria di Pietro nei confronti di Paolo odi Giovanni ne rese, in Occidente, la vita sempre più clandestina e difficile, come valgono a testimoniare le ripetute condanne ecclesiastiche dell’opera di Giovanni Scoto e la diffidenza di cui essa è tuttora circondata presso gli interpreti ufficiali del cristianesimo. Ma, ancora nel nostro secolo e con risonanze che oltrepassano i limiti di una posizione semplicemente religiosa, il suo insegnamento sembra riecheggiare miracolosamente intatto nelle parole di Simone Weil:

La concezione tomista della fede implica un ‘ totalitarismo ‘ soffocante come o più di quello di Hitler. Perché se lo spirito aderisce completamente, non solo a tutto ciò che la Chiesa considera strettamente di fede, ma anche a quello che essa riconoscerà mai come tale, l’intelligenza dev’essere imbavagliata e ridotta a compiti servili.

La metafora di ‘ velo ‘ o di ‘ riflesso ‘ applicata alla fede dai mistici consente loro di uscire da questo soffocamento. Essi accettano l’insegnamento della Chiesa non come la verità, ma come qualcosa dietro cui si trova la verità.

[…] Tutto accade come se, sotto la stessa denominazione di cristianesimo e all’interno della stessa organizzazione sociale, ci fossero due religioni distinte, quella dei mistici e l’altra.

Io credo che la prima sia quella vera […].

(Simone Weil, Lettre à un religieux), Paris, 1974, pp. 44-45.

Tavola riassuntiva delle corrispondenze terminologiche in Giovanni Scoto Eriugena

Le corrispondenze qui schematizzate non vanno naturalmente intese come rigorose equivalenze ma come serie di echi e di affioramenti, su piani diversi, delle stesse realtà fondamentali. In particolare ricorderemo che, per Giovanni Scoto, entrambi i tipi di allegoria appartengono sia al Vecchio che al Nuovo Testamento. Per comprendere meglio la tavola, occorre inoltre tener presente che essi corrispondono a gradi o a gerarchie diverse a seconda che vengano intesi come inesplicati o come ormai espliciti: così le due fasi estreme sono rispettivamente caratterizzate dalla massima enigmaticità e dalla totale assenza di simboli, mentre quella intermedia comprende una parte decifrata e una ancora enigmatica. Noteremo infine che, se il passaggio dalla prima alla seconda fase è di carattere storico e segna il compimento delle ‘ figure ‘ in Cristo, quello dalla seconda alla terza è invece un atto essenzialmente spirituale e interiore: « nil ibi est quod secundum historiam intelligatur, sed totum ad theologiam […] refertur».

Autore: Francesco Zambon
Simbolo, metafora, allegoria. Atti del IV convegno italo-tedesco, Bressanone 1976 (Quaderni del circolo filologico linguistico padovano, 11)
Editore: Liviana
Luogo: Padova
Anno: 1980
Pagine: 101-104
Vedi anche:
Simbolo e allegoria nell’ermeneutica medievale (1)
Simbolo e allegoria nell’ermeneutica medievale (2)
Simbolo e allegoria nell’ermeneutica medievale (3)
Simbolo e allegoria nell’ermeneutica medievale (4)
Simbolo e allegoria nell’ermeneutica medievale (5)

Early Christian Sources of Platonic Geometry: Clement of Alexandria (2) and other Greek Fathers

Therefore just as the equation of the law with perfection appears safe so, it seems, can references to law and perfection be equated with 10.

It may also be seen that the meaning of number was as integral to Clement’s universal view as it had been to those of Pythagoras and Plato, the sole distinction between them being that he acknowledged his authority to be biblical as well as Platonic.

They say, then, that the character representing 300 is, as to shape, the type of the Lord’s sign.. Now the number 300 is 3 by 100. Ten is allowed to be the perfect number…

‘The days of men shall be,’ it is said, ‘120 years’ (Genesis 6.3). And the sum is made up of the numbers from 1 to 15 added together.

Stromateis VI. 11

Numbers were not endowed with specific significance arbitrarily. For example, because the Greek letter T served as the numeral for 300 and resembled a cross, 300 became regarded as the Lord’s sign. Yet numbers were also held to be expressions of the divine order because of the order to be found within them. If the tetrad was given importance partly because the sum of the first 4 numbers is 10, then 120 was important partly because it is the sum of the first 15 numbers. Moreover, Clement continues:

On another principle, 120 is a triangular number, and consists of the equality of the number 64, [which consists of eight of the odd numbers beginning with unity], the addition of which in succession generates squares; and of the inequality of the number 56, consisting of seven of the even numbers beginning with 2, which produce the numbers that are not squares.

Stromateis VI. 11

In other words,

64 + 56 = (8 x 8) + (7 x 8) = 120

64 is composed thus:

1 + 3 = 4, + 5 = 9, + 7 = 16, + 9 = 25, + 11 = 36, + 13 = 49, + 15 = 64

where each sum is a square number which, when added to the next odd number in the series, produces the next square number in the series. As for the series of the first 7 even numbers adding up to 56, each sum, whilst being even, is not square.

2 + 4 + 6 + 8 +10+ 12+ 14 = 56

2 + 4 = 6; 4 + 6 = 10; 6 + 8 = 14; 8 + 10 = 18; 10 + 12 = 22

Following this, Clement continues:

Again, according to another way of indicating, the number 120 consists of four numbers – of one triangular, 15; of another, a square, 25; of a third, a pentagon, 35; and of a fourth, a hexagon, 45. The 5 is taken according to the same ratio in each mode. For in triangular numbers, from the unity 5 comes 15; and in squares, 25; and of those in succession proportionally.

Stromateis VI. 11

It can be seen that in this apparently numerical analysis, geometry is clearly implicit. In addition to the importance given to numbers when they relate rationally to each other, the relationship is perceived and expressed in geometric terms, with the concept of figurate numbers standing for square, triangular and polygonal arrangements of numbers, originally in the form of pebble figures. This, together with the inherent order to be found in numbers themselves was to be treated by the Latin encyclopedists and Augustine.

Clement’s successor at the Didascaleon was his former pupil Origen (c.185-c.254) who went on to study philosophy under Ammonius Saccas. He in turn had abandoned an earlier conversion to Christianity and was a Neoplatonist.
One result of Origen’s varied education was a certain flexibility in calling upon the authority of Plato, not invariably, but when it supported his own theological speculations. In a huge output of literature, these were largely a development of Clement’s and organized into his famous treatise, De principiis, which enjoyed particular influence in both the West and the East. Before they caught the attention of Ambrose and others in Italy, Origen’s ideas had spread to Cappadocia reaching the generation of Basil the Great and his brother Gregory of Nyssa and, although some of his ideas were soon to be condemned, his main thesis remained intact.
Ammonius Saccas also taught Platonic philosophy in Alexandria to the Greek Egyptian Plotinus (c.205-70) whose principal contribution lies in incorporating Plato’s thought with Aristotle’s methods and in bringing to this his own theories concerning progressive planes of spiritual existence. As the doctrine of emanation, this was to have a profound effect on mystical thinkers, setting him among the greatest of the Neoplatonists. Care, it should be said, needs to be taken in the understanding of Neoplatonism as a term, since it is comprehensive rather than specific, referring to various individual developments of Platonic thought, some of which are more Christian than Platonic, or more theological than philosophical, or more mystical than intellectual, or vice versa. Despite such distinctions, however, Neoplatonists at the time called themselves Platonists. As for Plotinus, his importance for this study is that in 244 he moved to Rome, where he taught and eventually died, and it was in Italy that Augustine may well have read his essay On Beauty from his Enneads (I, VI).

Autore: Nigel Hiscock
The Wise Master Builder. Platonic Geometry in Plans of Medieval Abbeys and Cathedralsl
: Ashgate
Luogo: Aldershot
Anno: 2000
Pagine: 54-56

L’allegorismo scritturale nel Medioevo

Il passaggio dal simbolismo metafisico all’allegorismo universale non è rappresentabile in termini di derivazione logica o cronologica. L’irrigidimento del simbolo in allegoria è un processo che si verifica indubbiamente in certe tradizioni letterarie, ma quanto al Medioevo i due tipi di visione sono coevi.

Il problema è piuttosto ora di stabilire perché il Medioevo arriva a teorizzare così compiutamente un modo espressivo e conoscitivo che d’ora in poi, per attenuare la contrapposizione, chiameremo non più simbolico o allegorico ma più semplicemente “figurativo”.

La vicenda è complessa e qui la riassumeremo solo per sommi capi (si veda De Lubac, Exégèse médiévale, Paris 1959-64 e Compagnon, La seconde main, Paris 1979). Nel tentativo di contrapporsi alla sopravvalutazione gnostica del Nuovo Testamento, a totale detrimento dell’Antico, Clemente di Alessandria pone una distinzione e una complementarità tra i due Testamenti, e Origene perfezionerà la posizione affermandone la necessità di una lettura parallela. L’Antico Testamento è la figura del Nuovo, ne è la lettera di cui l’altro è lo spirito, ovvero in termini semiotici ne è l’espressione retorica di cui il Nuovo è il contenuto. A propria volta il Nuovo Testamento ha senso figurale in quanto è la promessa di cose future. Nasce con Origene il “discorso teologale”, il quale non è più – o soltanto – discorso su Dio, ma sulla sua Scrittura.

Già con Origene si parla di senso letterale, senso morale (psichico) e senso mistico (pneumatico). Di lì la triade letterale, tropologico e allegorico che lentamente si trasformerà nella teoria dei quattro sensi della scrittura: letterale, allegorico, morale e anagogico (su cui torneremo in seguito).

Sarebbe affascinante, ma non è questa la sede, seguire la dialettica di questa interpretazione e il lento lavoro di legittimazione che essa richiede: perché da un lato è la lettura “giusta” dei due Testamenti che legittima la Chiesa come custode della tradizione interpretativa, e dall’altro è la tradizione interpretativa che legittima la giusta lettura: circolo ermeneutico quanti altri mai, e sin dall’inizio, ma circolo che ruota in modo da espungere tendenzialmente tutte le letture che, non legittimando la Chiesa, non la legittimino come autorità capace di legittimare le letture.

Sin dalle origini l’ermeneutica origeniana, e dei Padri in genere, tende a privilegiare, sia pure sotto nomi diversi, un tipo di lettura che in altra sede è stata definita tipologica: i personaggi e gli eventi dell’Antico Testamento sono visti, a causa delle loro azioni e delle loro caratteristiche, come tipi, anticipazioni, prefigurazioni dei personaggi del Nuovo. Di qualunque pasta sia questa tipologia essa prevede già che ciò che è figurato (tipo, simbolo o allegoria che sia) sia una allegoria che non riguarda il modo in cui il linguaggio rappresenta i fatti, bensì riguarda i fatti stessi. Si affronta qui la differenza tra allegoria in verbis e allegoria in factis. Non è la parola di Mosè o del Salmista, in quanto parola, che va letta come dotata di sovrasenso, anche se così si dovrà fare quando si riconosca che essa è parola metaforica: sono gli eventi stessi dell’Antico Testamento che sono stati predisposti da Dio, come se la storia fosse un libro scritto dalla sua mano, per agire come figure della nuova legge.

Chi affronta decisamente questo problema è sant’Agostino e lo può fare perché egli è il primo autore che, sulla base di una cultura stoica bene assorbita, fonda una teoria del segno (molto affine per molti aspetti a quella di Saussure, sia pure con un considerevole anticipo). In altri termini sant’Agostino è il primo che si può muovere con disinvoltura tra segni che sono parole e cose che possono agire come segni perché egli sa e afferma con energia che signum est enim res praeter speciem, quam ingerit sensibus, aliud aliquid ex sefaciens in cogìtationem venire («il segno è ogni cosa che ci fa venire in mente qualcosa d’altro al di là dell’impressione che la cosa stessa fa sui nostri sensi»: De doctrina Christiana II, 1, 1). Non tutte le cose sono segni, ma certo tutti i segni sono cose, e accanto ai segni prodotti dall’uomo per significare intenzionalmente ci sono anche cose ed eventi (perché non fatti e personaggi?) che possono essere assunti come segni o (ed è il caso della storia sacra) possono essere soprannaturalmente disposti come segni affinché come segni siano letti.

Sant’Agostino affronta la lettura del testo biblico fornito di tutti i parafernali linguistico-retorici che la cultura di una tarda latinità non ancora distrutta poteva fornirgli (cfr. Marrou, Saint Augustin et la fine de la culture antique, Paris 1958). Egli applicherà alla lettura i principi della lectio per discriminare attraverso congetture sulla giusta puntazione il significato originario del testo, della recitatio,
del judicium, ma soprattutto della enarratio (commento e analisi) e della emendatio (che noi potremmo oggi chiamare critica testuale o filologia). Ci insegnerà così a distinguere i segni oscuri e ambigui da quelli chiari, a dirimere la questione se un segno debba essere inteso in senso proprio e in senso traslato. Si porrà il problema della traduzione, perché sa benissimo che l’Antico Testamento non è stato scritto nel latino in cui egli lo può avvicinare, ma egli non conosce l’ebraico – e quindi proporrà come ultima ratio di comparare tra loro le traduzioni, o di commisurare il senso congetturato al contesto precedente o seguente (e infine, per quanto riguarda la sua lacuna linguistica, egli diffida degli ebrei che potrebbero aver corrotto il testo originale in odio alla verità che esso così chiaramente rivelava…).

Nel far questo egli elabora una regola per il riconoscimento dell’espressione figurata che rimane valida ancora oggi, non tanto per riconoscere i tropi e le altre figure retoriche, ma quei modi di strategia testuale a cui oggi assegneremmo (e in senso moderno) valenza simbolica. Egli sa benissimo che metafora o metonimia si possono chiaramente riconoscere perché se fossero presi alla lettera il testo apparirebbe o insensato o infantilmente mendace. Ma cosa fare per quelle espressioni (di solito a dimensioni di frase, di narrazione e non di semplice immagine) che potrebbero far senso anche letteralmente e a cui l’interprete è invece indotto ad assegnare senso figurato (come per esempio le allegorie)?

Agostino ci dice che dobbiamo subodorare il senso figurato ogni qual volta la Scrittura, anche se dice cose che letteralmente fanno senso, pare contraddire la verità di fede, o i buoni costumi. La Maddalena lava i piedi al Cristo con unguenti odorosi e li asciuga coi propri capelli. È possibile pensare che il Redentore si sottometta a un rituale così pagano e lascivo? Certo no. Dunque la narrazione raffigura qualche cosa d’altro.

Ma dobbiamo subodorare il secondo senso anche quando la Scrittura si perde in superfluità o mette in gioco espressioni letteralmente povere. Queste due condizioni sono mirabili per sottigliezza e, insisto, modernità, anche se Agostino le trova già suggerite in altri autori, ad es. Girolamo (In Matt. XXI, 5) oppure Origene (De principiis, 4, 2, 9 e 4, 3, 4). Si ha superfluità quando il testo si sofferma troppo a descrivere qualcosa che letteralmente fa senso, senza che però si vedano le ragioni di questa insistenza descrittiva. Del pari, secondo Agostino, si procede per le espressioni semanticamente povere come i nomi propri, i numeri e i termini tecnici, che stanno evidentemente per altro.

Se queste sono le regole ermeneutiche (come identificare i brani da interpretare secondo un altro senso), a questo punto occorrono ad Agostino le regole più strettamente semiotico-linguistiche: dove cercare le chiavi per la decodifica, perché si tratta pur sempre di interpretare in modo giusto e cioè secondo un codice approvabile. Quando parla delle parole Agostino sa dove trovar le regole, e cioè nella retorica e nella grammatica classica: non c’è difficoltà particolare in questo. Ma Agostino sa che la Scrittura non parla solo in verbis ma anche in factis (De doctr. III, 5, 9 – ovvero c’è allegoria historiae oltre ad allegoria sermonis, De vera religione 50, 99) e quindi richiama il suo lettore alla conoscenza enciclopedica (o almeno a quella che il mondo tardo antico poteva provvedergli).

Se la Bibbia parla per personaggi, oggetti, eventi, se nomina fiori, prodigi di natura, pietre, mette in gioco sottigliezze matematiche, occorrerà cercare nel sapere tradizionale quale sia il significato di quella pietra, di quel fiore, di quel mostro, di quel numero.

Autore: Umberto Eco
Arte e Bellezza nell’estetica medievale
: Bompiani (Strumenti Bompiani)
Luogo: Milano
Anno: 1994
Pagine: 79-83