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Allegorizations of the Active and Contemplative Lives in Philo, Origen, Augustine, and Gregory
This paper examines the allegorical interpretations given to several Scriptural pairs as they relate to the idea of the active and contemplative lives in Philo, Origen, Augustine, and Gregory. As will be shown, Augustine combines elements found in the two previous writers to form his allegory of the two wives of Jacob as representative of the active and contemplative lives.
In Philo, most of the essential elements of later Christian thought on the active and contemplative lives are already present. The superiority of the contemplative life is given at the beginning of his treatise on it: "I have discussed the Essenes, who persistently pursued the active life and excelled in all or, to put it more moderately, in most of its departments. I will now proceed at once in accordance with the sequence required by the subject to say what is needed about those who embraced the life of contemplation" (De Vita Cont. 1 ). The idea that the contemplative life follows upon the active is also present here, and is elaborated elsewhere: "... infants have one place and full grown men another. The one is named ascetic training and the other is called wisdom... For what life is better than a contemplative life, or more appropriate to a rational being?" (De Migr. Abr. 9 ). Both the active and contemplative lives are virtuous, but the contemplative is the more mature and fuller expression of the life of wisdom; it should, however, only be practiced once the former has been used as a training ground.
Philo allegorizes Leah and Rachel in several related ways in his works (cf. Sly, 163-74). At one point he identifies Rachel with bodily beauty, Leah with beauty of the soul: "Thus Rachel, who is comeliness of the body, is described as younger than Leah, that is beauty of the soul. For the former is mortal, the latter immortal, and indeed all the things that are precious to the senses are inferior in perfection to beauty of soul, though they are many and it but one" (Sob. 12). Elsewhere Leah is effortless, perfected virtue, while Rachel is active, combative virtue fighting against the temptations of the sensory world:
Thus one of the lawful wives is a movement, sound, healthy, and peaceful, and to express her history Moses names her Leah or 'smooth'. The other is like a whetstone. Her name is Rachel, and on that whetstone the mind which loves effort and exercise sharpens its edge. Her name means 'vision of profanation', not because her way of seeing is profane, but on the contrary, because she judges the visible world of sense to be not holy but profane, compared with the pure and undefiled nature of the invisible world of the mind. (Congr. 25)Later in the same passage, Philo identifies Leah with the reasoning and Rachel with the unreasoning faculties of the soul: "For since our soul is twofold, with one part reasoning and the other unreasoning, each has its own virtue or excellence, the reasoning Leah, the unreasoning Rachel. The virtue we call Rachel, acting through the senses and the other parts of our unreasoning nature, trains us to despise all that should be held of little account" (Congr. 26-27).
Since Philo consistently takes Leah as representing the superior or perfected virtue that should be practiced after the lesser has been achieved, he must at some point deal with the fact that Leah was married to Jacob before Rachel. He does this in a passage where he identifies Leah with philosophy and Rachel with lower practical learning, ingeniously blaming the reversal on Laban:
"It is not so in our place," [Laban] says, "to give the younger in marriage before the elder" (Gen 29:26). For Laban thinks that he should maintain the order of time.... But the Practiser of Wisdom, knowing that the timeless also exists in nature, desires what is younger first and the elder afterwards. And the laws of human character as well as of nature agree with him in this.... And therefore to this day the lovers of true nobility do not attend at the door of the elder sister, philosophy, till they have taken knowledge of the younger sisters, grammar and geometry and the whole range of the school culture.... But Laban with his sophistry will have it otherwise, and wishes us to wed the elder first, not that we may possess her in security, but that afterwards snared by the love-charms of the younger sister, we may abandon our desire of the elder. (Ebr. 47-50)In this passage Philo goes to some length to bring the pair into line with his teaching that the active life should be practiced and perfected before turning to the higher life of philosophy and contemplation.
In all these allegories, although Philo never specifically interprets the two sisters as representing the active and contemplative lives, in his images he comes very close, associating Rachel with the lower and earthly qualities of sense perception, activity, irrationality, and practical learning, while Leah represents the spiritual qualities of soul, virtue, reason, and philosophy. Throughout his exegesis, Leah represents the superior and more spiritual of the qualities that the soul or practitioner of wisdom (Jacob) must wed to himself.
Origen seems to have been the first to use the Scriptural pair of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42; John 11:18ff.) as symbolic of the active and contemplative lives (Mason, 25). He does so, however, only in passing, asserting the symbolism and then moving on: "Mary is the symbol of the contemplative life, Martha of the active" (in Ioan. fragment 80; see Mason, 25). The Scriptural figure that Origen does elaborate upon for his thought on the active and contemplative lives is that of Peter at the Transfiguration:
Peter, as one loving the contemplative life, and having preferred that which was delightsome in it to the life among the crowd with its turmoil, said... "It is good for us to be here" (Matt 17:4). But since "Love seeketh not its own" (1 Cor 13:5), Jesus did not do that which Peter thought good.... It is, therefore, the part of a righteous man who possesses "the love which seeketh not its own" to be free from all, but to bring himself under the bondage to all those below that he might gain the more of them. (Comm. Matt. 12.41; cf. Mason, 25: a paraphrase that is misattributed)The point of this figurative interpretation is that the contemplative life, while it may be superior to the active, can be too mesmerizing or seductive to Peter and others who engage in it, and can lead to the neglect of the active life: it must therefore be practiced in concert with an active life of service to others. For Origen, the two are complementary and both are necessary in the Christian life.
As Origen did before him, Augustine also uses Martha and Mary as representatives of the active and contemplative lives, as in Sermons 169 and 104:
Martha chose a good part, but Mary the better. What Martha chose passes away. She ministered to the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless: but all these pass away.... "Mary hath chosen the better part, which shall not be taken away from her." She hath chosen to contemplate, to live by the Word. (Sermon 169, 17; cited by Butler, 160) In these two women, both pleasing the Lord, two lives were figured: the present and the future, the laborious and the and the quiet, the troublous and the happy, the temporal and the eternal. Both are praiseworthy, but the one is laborious, the other leisured. What Martha was doing, there we are; what Mary, that we hope for. (Sermon 104, 4; cited by Butler, 161; cf. Sermons 103, 5; 179, 3-7; de Trin. 1, 20; 12, 22)While Origen did not elaborate on the significance of the pair, Augustine makes his point much more specific: to show that the contemplative life is superior to the active, and the former is eternal while the latter is temporal. The active life, while praised and affirmed, is only a temporary stage and will be practiced only in this life; only the contemplative can be enjoyed in eternity. In this respect, the Martha/Mary pair in Augustine takes on some of the characteristics of the Leah/Rachel pair in Philo, who used that pair to identify the beauty of the soul as immortal, as opposed to the temporal beauty of the body; Augustine similarly takes this New Testament pair to contrast the temporal practice of the active life with the eternal enjoyment of the contemplative.
Like Augustine, Gregory also uses the Martha/Mary pair, combining it with the Leah/Rachel pair, to show that the active and contemplative lives are successive stages, and the latter is the better:
And what is denoted by Rachel but the contemplative life? What by Leah, but the active life?... Whence on the one hand Rachel is beautiful but barren, Leah weak eyed, but fruitful, truly in that when the mind seeks the ease of contemplation, it sees more, but it is less productive in children to God... Accordingly after the embrace of Leah, Jacob attains to Rachel, in that every one that is perfect is first joined to an active life in productiveness, and afterwards united to a contemplative life in rest. For that the life of contemplation is less indeed in time, but greater in value than the active, we are shown by the words of the Holy Gospel, wherein two women are described to have acted in different ways. For Mary sat at our Redeemer's feet, hearing his words, but Martha eagerly prosecuted bodily services.... Now Martha's concern is not reproved, but that of Mary is even commended. For the merits of the active are great, but of the contemplative, far better. (Morals on the Book of Job 6, 61; cf. Butler, 174-75; Mason, 64)Although he uses the allegories very similarly, Gregory does not make the contemplative life eternal and the active temporal, as Augustine had done. Indeed, from his description it appears that the contemplative is more fleeting. The successive stages of development lead to a union of the active and contemplative lives, not a replacement of the former by the latter (cf. Mason, 65-71).
Like Origen, Augustine also uses Peter in his discussion of the active and contemplative lives, though he pairs him with John and gives the symbolism a different emphasis: "The active life is signified by the Apostle Peter, the contemplative by John. The first is wholly carried out here until the end of this world, and there finds an end; the last is deferred, to be completed after the end of this world, but in the world to come it hath no end" (Tract. in Ioan. 124, 5; see Butler, 158; Mason, 33). Whereas Origen used Peter to stress that the two lives are both necessary and one should not be neglected in favor of the other, Augustine uses Peter and John in the same way he used Martha and Mary, to show that the active life is temporal while the contemplative life is eternal.
It is with his allegorization of Leah and Rachel to represent the active and contemplative lives that Augustine combines elements from Origen and Philo into an original and highly influential synthesis (cf. Butler, 159), one that may afford us a rare example of direct influence of Philo upon Augustine (cf. Runia, 330). Philo allegorized Leah and Rachel in several ways, and although he never applies them specifically to the active and contemplative lives, his description of them in many ways comes very close, although it is Leah who is the more spiritual. On the other hand, Origen allegorized Martha and Mary as representing the active and contemplative lives, but did not use the Leah and Rachel pair. Twice Augustine combines elements from these two to form his allegorical interpretation of the two wives of Jacob, once in contra Faustum xxii, 52, and later in de Consensu Evangelistarum i, 8, where he writes,
Furthermore, there are presented to the human mind two virtues, one active, one contemplative.... These two virtues are understood to be symbolized by the two wives of Jacob. I have treated these two as well as I am able and as much as seemed necessary in my work against Faustus the Manichee. "Leah" clearly means "working," while "Rachel" means "the visible first principle." (trans. mine; cf. Butler, 158)Several points should be noted about Augustine's composite allegorization. First, although he used the Martha/Mary pair that he inherited from Origen more frequently (it has indeed been called his "favorite illustration" [Mason, 36]), the Leah/Rachel pair serves to complement the other one rather well. While he uses the Martha/Mary pair to show the superiority and eternity of the contemplative life, Augustine uses the Leah and Rachel pair as Origen had used the figure of Peter at the Transfiguration: to show that the two lives are complementary, with both being necessary, a point that he returns to several times, as in City of God, viii, 4, "To Plato is given the praise of having perfected philosophy by combining both parts [the active and the contemplative] into one" (cf. de Cons. Evang. i, 12; de Civ. Dei xix, 1, 2, 3, 19). Since both sisters were wives of Jacob (who represents the human soul in both Philo and Augustine), they also offered such a complementary relationship: "No one desires this life for its own sake, as Jacob desired not Leah, who yet was brought to him, and became his wife, and the mother of children. Though she could not be loved of herself, the Lord made her be borne with as a step to Rachel, and then she came to be approved on account of her children" (contra Faustum xxii, 52). (Augustine may be stressing Leah's role of bearing children since Christ is descended from her, not Rachel.) The fact that one sister was married first and therefore the relationships were sequential also worked well in the allegory (perhaps, Augustine thought, better than the Martha/Mary or Peter/John pairs). It also determined that it would be Leah who would represent the active life; to this end, Augustine, like Philo, quotes Gen 29:26, though for Augustine this is to show the correctness of marrying Leah first. For Augustine, the active life leads to the reward of the contemplative, as marriage to Leah leads to the reward of the beloved Rachel: "So, in the discipline of man, the toil of doing the work of righteousness precedes the delight of understanding the truth" (contra Faustum xxii, 52). (Augustine may also have been influenced in his choice of Leah as the active life by the earlier allegorizations of Justin and Irenaeus [Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 134; Irenaeus, Adv. Haer.] that identified Rachel with the Church and Leah with Israel; since for the Fathers, the Church is superior to Israel, as Rachel is superior to Leah, so here she must represent the superior life of contemplation.) Unlike the Martha/Mary or Peter/John pairs, the Leah/Rachel pair offers an image for the active and contemplative lives in which they are successive and necessary stages, the second of which is the superior, more beloved, and more divine.
As on so many other points, it is Augustine's synthesis here that has at one and the same time preserved and overshadowed the works of his predecessors. Augustine's interpretation has been so influential that it is clearly seen in Dante's Purgatorio, when he has Leah identify herself:
"If anyone should want to know my name,What has been called "the breadth of [Augustine's] vision and the lyrical exaltation of his language" (Mason, 45) has cast a long shadow indeed.
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