Saturday, September 10, 2011


Wendy Elgersma Helleman, The Feminine Personification of Wisdom: a Study of Homer's Penelope, Cappadocian Macrina, Boethius' Philosophia and Dante's Beatrice. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2009. Pp. xiv, 336. ISBN 9780773446663. $119.95.

Reviewed by Beert Verstraete, Acadia University (

Version at BMCR home site

Women and what might be called the feminine have been, and still are, associated, whether pejoratively or not, with the passions, feelings, and emotions in many cultures, both past and present. The association is still, and too often, a commonplace in the Western world. It was no different in Greco-Roman antiquity and in the Middle Ages of the west. But, as is well demonstrated by Dr. Helleman's thought-provoking and exemplarily researched and organized study, the stereotype was not immoveable, and exceptional women might be eulogized for such virtues as rationality, prudence, self-control, moderation, and piety. Indeed, throughout Greek and Roman literature, and continuing into the Christian literature of late antiquity and of the Middle Ages of the West, there runs a veritable if modest current of hagiography of women who, whether real or fictional, are singled out for excellences associated more typically with the male of the species. Such valorization of women's virtues could be powerfully sustained, whether explicitly or implicitly, through the use of feminine personification or allegory; this is the theme of Helleman's work. The monograph draws on Helleman's earlier papers on this subject but impressively widens their chronological and thematic scope, starting with the Odyssey's Penelope and ending with Dante's Beatrice. Additionally, the much larger format of this publication allows Helleman to explore questions of literary form, especially those raised by (feminine) personification and its close companion, allegory. Indeed, much (pp. 8-30) of chapter one, "Philosophy, Allegory and Feminine Personification," is devoted to these. Here the fundamental distinction is made between interpretive and compositional allegory. The allegorization of Penelope by later schools of philosophy obviously represents the former type and is studied in detail in the second chapter, while chapters 3-6, devoted to the works of Gregory of Nyssa, Boethius, and Dante respectively, foreground compositional allegory of the highest order. Helleman observes that "[f]or the past two centuries allegory has been rather out of fashion as a literary device" (8). "Allegory was specifically repudiated with nineteenth century Romantic literary theory, both as a strategy for composition, and in exegetical or interpretive work" (8). The preference was for symbolism. However, in contemporary postmodern literary theory there is a renewed "appreciation of allegory as a poetic and literary device, certainly as an interpretive principle" (9). Helleman offers a detailed exposition in ch. 1 of allegory and its subtype "personification allegory" (16), and then starts to explore the literary and philosophical ramifications of feminine personification and allegory to represent Wisdom and Philosophy.

The widespread feminine personification of Wisdom in classical antiquity and during the middle ages was aided by the fact that not only in Greek and Latin, but also in Hebrew, the word "Wisdom" was grammatically feminine, but Helleman agrees with Barbara Newman "that the traditional view of grammatical gender as determinant of gender in personification is no longer tenable" (21). Can we assume that divinity was invested in feminine figures such as Wisdom and Philosophy, so that, at least in a Judaeo-Christian milieu, they might be seen as overleaping the bounds of patriarchal monotheism? Newman speaks here of an "imaginative theology" (23). Helleman, however, sees no radical questioning, even implicitly, of monotheism.

The allegorical treatment of Penelope in Greco-Roman antiquity is the subject of chapter two. The allegorizing took two forms, one focused on Penelope's stance towards her suitors, the other on the story of her weaving of her father-in-law's shroud; for the latter we have only one source, the twelfth century Eustathius' collection of Scholia on the Odyssey, whereas the former is found in such postclassical authors as pseudo- Plutarch and Diogenes Laertius. To give one example in the better represented form of allegorizing: the suitors' lack of success with Penelope and their subsequent turning to her maidservants "represents efforts of students who stop before taking up study of philosophy, contenting themselves with mere preparatory subjects (enkuklia paideumatia)" (34); this interpretation is attributed by Diogenes Laertius to the Cyrenaic Aristippus. Helleman provides abundant detail with respect to the allegorical interpretations of Penelope, including the philosophers and philosophical schools where they originated, and the profound paedogogical and psycho-ethical ramifications of this allegorizing in philosophical writing. Clearly in this tradition Penelope is idealized, ultimately as Lady Philosophy, far beyond the Homeric Penelope.

Chapter three, "Macrina: the Combat of Reason against the Passions," is focused on two works by Gregory of Nyssa, Vita S. Macrinae and De Anima et Resurrectione. The former is essentially a biographical eulogy by Gregory of Nyssa of his saintly, ascetic sister Macrina, who is represented as the embodiment of the highest aret√™. It is illustrative of the fact that "Christian biography owes more to martyrology and the gospels rather than to traditional historical biography of the ancient world" (60-61). Indeed, "[m]artyrdom provided a watershed between the asceticism practised by Christians and non-Christians" (63). The motif of heroic struggle, above all against the base passions in the shadow of death, runs through all martyrology—here Helleman again provides abundant illuminating detail; and while Macrinais not literally martyred, "her death is celebrated as a type of martyrdom" (63). De Anima et Resurrectione, "features Macrina's confidence in the face of death" (71), and the heroic ethos that imbues her is reaffirmed. Macrina appears to waver between the radically negative Stoic approach to the passions and the far more moderate Platonic understanding. This has puzzled other commentators, but Helleman, drawing on the situational context of this dialogue, namely Macrina on her death-bed, underlines that Macrina moves towards a very positive view of the human person, wherein life for the Christian can be regarded as "purificatory pilgrimage" or an "education in Christ" (78). De anima et resurrectione is thus a dialogue rich in philosophical and theological implications. "Himself a bishop, Gregory bestowed a great honor on his sister in calling her the 'teacher' (h√™ didaskalos)" (93).

The feminine personification of wisdom reaches a lofty height in Boethius' masterpiece, rightly called by Helleman "one of the great classics of late ancient and early medieval literature" (95), namely the Consolation of Philosophy, which is the subject of the following two chapters, "Lady Philosophy: Human and Divine," and "Lady Philosophy: Excellent Physician of the Soul." After a biographical sketch of Boethius' life and career, chapter four takes up the question of the literary genre of the Consolation, which has been classified e.g. as Menippean satire, because of its prosimetric form. I agree with Helleman that the Consolation transcends straightfoward generic classification and that "in terms of genre Boethius was a trailblazer, pursuing new and innovative use of traditional and philosophical forms in communicating the kind of wisdom needed to take him through his predicament in prison" (102). Much of chapter four is focused on the fundamental question of what Lady Philosophy represents allegorically. On this question, too, Helleman offers a comprehensive and careful consideration of previous scholarship, where some have understood Lady Philosophy as a representation of human reason, others of the divine Nous, the mind of God. She concludes, provisionally at this point, that "the Consolation appears to maintain a double identity of Lady Philosophy, without completely resolving the two aspects" (133). At the same time, Helleman underlines the pervasive importance of "the Neoplatonist context for Boethius' work" (134). "…Neoplatonism (from the third century on) evidenced a remarkable revival of interest for Homeric and epic literature together with a strong inclination to allegorize mythical literary figures" (134). The question of literary and philosophical prototypes, whether pagan, Jewish, or Christian, for Lady Philosophy is pursued in the next chapter.

Chapter five is outstanding for unfolding a complex, hermeneutically rich portrait and conception of Boethius' Lady Philosophy, who is, among other things, portrayed as an old but vigorous old woman, imbued, perhaps, with immortality, who speaks powerfully of her vast superiority to Fortune and the Muses as a bearer of comfort and consolation, and who, most appropriately, assumes the roles of nurse, physician, teacher and guide. Helleman raises once more the question of Lady Philosophy's ontological status, combined with the important ancillary question to what extent her feminine personification is intrinsic to her status. In this connection, the relationship between Philosophy and Wisdom is of crucial importance. Already in Greco-Roman antiquity the distinction between the two could be blurred, and early medieval authors, too, tended to "neglect or sidestep a clear distinction between 'philosophy' and 'wisdom' as such" (172). Helleman sees the medieval Christian manifestation of this tendency as having "its roots in a view of the unity of wisdom which can be traced especially to Augustine" (173), a view that in turn was founded on the New Testament and the patristic identification of "Christ as divine Wisdom" (173, n. 73). In the holistic Christian understanding of wisdom, of course, there was no room for any of the narrow intellectualism that might stem from philosophy as a purely academic pursuit, and, most importantly, this wisdom also embraced virtues that were regarded as characteristically feminine. The specifically and even elaborately feminine personification of Wisdom had, in Christian circles, its roots above all in biblical wisdom literature, such as Proverbs and the deutero-canonical Wisdom of Solomon. After surveying all the relevant discussions of philosophy and wisdom in Christian, Jewish, and even some pagan (e.g. Neoplatonic) literature, Helleman arrives at the conclusion that "the lady herself [Philosophy] must be recognized as a representative of nothing less than Wisdom herself" (189). Above all, Helleman argues—and here her hermeneutic certainly becomes contestable—we can see in "Lady Philosophy the consolation of divine love" (198). Even further, she concludes that "[a]s a Wisdom figure, Lady Philosophy finds her prototype in Christ" (204). This distinctly and boldly Christian understanding of the meaning not only of Lady Philosophy but of Boethius' Consolation as a whole goes well beyond the interpretations offered by the many scholars who situate this work almost exclusively in the context of its many non-Christian literary and philosophical antecedents; from this point of view, I myself regard it as especially impressive in its numerous references to Roman history. In my own reading, the Consolation is, not surprisingly, a profoundly theistic work speaking eloquently of God and His Providence, but, since it contains no mention of and not even an allusion to Christ, I am reluctant to go any further.

Chapter six, "Dante's Beatrice as Lady Wisdom" explores the rich, far-reaching symbolic dimensions of of "one the most celebrated women in all literature" (208) who, in view above all of the exalted position she occupies as Dante's guide and teacher in the Paradiso can be placed perfectly under the rubric of the feminine personification of wisdom. Contra those romanticist interpretations which emphasize the real, historical Beatrice, Helleman is sympathetic to Dante's later medieval commentators who foregrounded such symbolism and allegorization. At the same time, she does not ignore the historical basis for Dante's Beatrice: "[u]nlike Boethius' Lady Philosophy, the portrayal of Beatrice appears to rest on historical precedent" (208), namely, as he recounts in his highly imaginative and poetic La Vita Nuova, Dante's falling in love as a nine-year old with his age-peer Beatrice—whom he says he always only saw from afar—and the progressive intensification of his love as the years went by, even after her death. We may speak here, with Helleman, of Beatrice's being, obviously completely unlike Gregory of Nyssa's Macrina, "an outstanding object of masculine erotic interest" (208), but this love clearly is and remains of the highest order of Platonic love. Thus, in the Paradiso the exalted Beatrice is closely associated with the Queen of Heaven, Mary; indeed, analogous to Mary, she is a heavenly figuration of Wisdom, and in this important respect, too, becomes a luminous emblem of the mother of God—a theme to which to which Helleman devotes no less than twelve pages (233-245).

As its title indicates, the seventh and concluding chapter, "Revealing the Strands," offers summary and synthesis of many of the ideas developed in the preceding chapters. Crucially to the hermeneutical direction of her entire study, which tends towards a profoundly Christian feminism, in the concluding paragraph Helleman restates her strong inclination in chapters three, four, five, and six— rather speculatively as I have already noted, in the case of the two chapters on Boethius' Lady Philosophy—to link Lady Wisdom with a Christological "Logos theology" (277). In its presentation, Helleman's monograph leaves nothing to be desired. The proofreading has been carefully done, and the index is comprehensive. Each chapter is helpfully divided into a large number of sections, each of which has its own subject heading.

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