The Lamp of the Body is the Eye

This phrase is usually interpreted as a metaphor where the eye is likened to a lamp.

But what if it is the other way around?

The standard reading

In the typical reading, it seems obvious that the physical eye is being likened to a lamp.

The eye shows us what is around us in the same way a lamp lights up our surroundings.

It seems straightforward. So what is the purpose of the metaphor? Is Jesus giving opthalmological advice?

The lamp of the body is the eye, if therefore the eye is clear the whole body will be full of light.

If “lamp” is the metaphorical component, then “eye” should be the literal component…but since no one thinks he was talking about literal eyes, the standard interpretation is that he’s referring either to the “mind’s eye” and hence to clear-mindedness, or “single-mindedness towards God”.

In the standard view, this passage is a metaphor within a metaphor, and it’s not entirely clear what is being said. Since the next immediate passage refers to an eye that is “evil” and a body that is full of darkness, the whole framing is reduced to “don’t be evil.”

In this reductionist ethical context the metaphor doesn’t add much value. He might as well have said “good and bad are like light and darkness, be good rather than bad, ok?” Or at best: “being good is like having good eyesight, and being bad is like having some kind of eye disease that makes you go blind.”

Rethinking the metaphor

So what if it’s the other way around instead? What if “lamp of the body” and “light” refer to something concrete and real that is then elaborated on via the metaphor of the eye?

The lamp of the body is like the eye…

If so, what is the lamp of the body?

The lamp of the body is that which “lights up” our bodies. It is what we call consciousness or the mind.

In this sense, consciousness is like an eye – the mind’s eye. We can direct it, we can focus it.

This eye can be “clear”, from the Greek haplous which literally means “without folds” and is often translated as simple or single.

And if it is single, the whole body will be full of light.

In other words, if you make your consciousness single, it will fill your whole body.

The final line warns that:

If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

Which doesn’t make literal sense since darkness and light are opposite.

It’s another metaphor. What it refers to is that consciousness, the light within us, is not “all or nothing”.

Rather there are degrees of concentration or intensity to it.

This is something attested to universally by contemplatives and meditators from all traditions: the “normal” mind or consciousness can become imbued with a higher or more intense or more pure consciousness.

The light within us can be full of light, or it can be (comparatively) darkness.

To those who have some, more will be given, and to those who have nothing even the little that they have will be taken away.

Am I right?

This whole passage is either a moderately esoteric teaching about contemplation or an unnecessarily complicated metaphor about being a good person.

I prefer the former interpretation because it makes more sense to me. People with exposure to meditation or contemplative prayer should see what I’m getting at.

I haven’t found many others espousing the same interpretation, perhaps because esoteric or mystical perspectives on scripture tend to be either deeply private and idiosyncratic or heterodox.

But this passage is one that has always called to me, and I’m increasingly aware that my need to justify my point of view with seemingly objective or impartial reasoning doesn’t serve me.

So take it or leave it. It makes perfect sense to me.

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4 thoughts on “The Lamp of the Body is the Eye

  1. So a metaphor for perception?
    It makes sense in the surrounding context of the sermon on the mount, which instructs inner attitude rather than outward behaviour.
    The idea that darkness is intangible is fairly recent.
    Even so, in terms of colour, darkness (shade) is added to hue to get different colours. That the eye adds tint, tone, and shade as a lamp might is a logical next idea.

    • I’m not sure what you mean about darkness being intangible. You mean that darkness is not a thing itself, but rather the absence of light?

      Perception, more or less. Consciousness is still not understood, and in a premodern worldview I think they tended to look at it as a thing in itself, or as a property of the “spirit” that animates us.

      Whatever we might call it, it’s clear that there’s something that makes us different from an inanimate object, and subjectively we possess an interior world, which could be metaphorically described as a light in the darkness.

      For contemporary reference points, see “philosophical zombies” and the hard problem of consciousness.

      IIRC, since it seems plausible that the human body and brain could operate on determinist physical/biological causation, couldn’t there be such a thing as a “philosophical zombie” who functions like any other human but without a qualitative subjective experience?

      It seems that consciousness is something more than simply response to stimuli, such that we can imagine this “zombie” being who responds to stimuli but has no consciousness.

      In that sense we might say that the zombie is “dark” inside, whereas we have a “light” in us. Or at least I do, dunno about you guys ; )

      The philosophical efforts to define and narrow down this consciousness are tricky. See Mary’s Room thought experiment: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knowledge_argument#Thought_experiment

      Premoderns like Aquinas didn’t really talk about consciousness per se, for them it seemed to be inseparable from the knowing intellect…ie. the intellect ‘knows’ by apprehending the form of objects perceived.
      I tried to nut it all out a few years back but Aquinas was too obscure for me and I gave up.

      So reverting to premodern theories, they all tend to be dualist, positing a soul or spirit of which this “inner light” is a property…the inner light of consciousness is that by which we perceive the external world via our senses.

      Sorry for rambling….head cold, plus thinking too much these days gives me a headache :/

      • My ‘Tangible darkness’ refers to the (Augustine’s?) concept of evil being the absence of good (privatio boni), rather than a thing in itself. It also refers to the second part of the quote, “… how great that darkness.”

        Prior to the formulation of optics as a science there’s no reason why darkness would not have been considered something real, and not the absence of light.

        Similarly to how you add black paint to change the shade of a colour, your eye – or perception – can add shade to your reality. This is not as easy to visualise if you treat darkness as the absence of lightness.

        • Oh, I see what you’re saying. Yes, that would make sense too.

          On a side note, I think the idea of darkness as the privation or absence of light is quite old. Aristotle mentions it in his “De Anima”:

          “Light seems to be the contrary of darkness; and the latter is the privation of this quality in the transparent.”

          Though he doesn’t think light a ‘substance’ on its own but rather a quality of something he calls ‘the transparent’.

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