Category: Persons

Philo of Alexandria: “Athens and Jerusalem”

A Hellenized Alexandrian scholar and philosopher of Jewish descent who produced a peculiar synthesis of the Greek philosophical legacy with Judaic religion as reflected in the Hebrew Bible.

Life and education

Philo was born in Alexandria of Egypt in 15 BC and passed away in the same city in 45 AD. He was a contemporary of Jesus. He was one of the most important Hellenized scholars of the Jewish diaspora.

Philo stands at the crossroads of three cultures: Jewish, Greek and Christian. Although Jewish, apparently he was not well-versed in Hebrew, but had a superb grasp of Greek, which he had naturally studied in depth at Alexandria; having received an encyclical education (grammar, geometry, astronomy, rhetoric, music) he was able to compose in Greek with striking clarity and rigor. He also received a solid philosophical grounding, having studied all currents of Greek thought. In all likelihood, Philo did not propose an eclectic synthesis of all tendencies in Greek thought, from the Presocratics to Posidonius, as it was earlier believed, but was rather an exponent of Alexandrian Platonism, which was deeply influenced, however, by Stoic and Neopythagorean philosophy; finally, we should not overlook the influence Cynic philosophy exerted on him with respect to asceticism and his political theory. Receiving a philosophical education, however, was not an end in itself for Philo, as at some point in his life he seems to have experienced some sort of a conversion, returning to the patrimonial roots of the Judaic tradition.

Philo studied Judaism and the Bible in depth -in the translation of the Seventy- (mainly the Pentateuch) and utilized his philosophical education to launch his major hermeneutical/exegetic project. To describe the relation between encyclical education, philosophy, and theology he resorted to images of successive servile submission, but this did not entail depreciation or discrediting of lower ranks, but a hierarchical appraisal of their importance. Encyclical education is absolutely vital and exists for the sake of philosophy; philosophy, in turn, apart from the importance it holds in its own right, must serve the needs of theology, i.e. Wisdom, which can be attained through the exegesis of the Bible. Philo was the first to use the image of philosophy as the handmaid of theology. He defines philosophy as the science of all things, human and divine, and their causes. The image of philosophy as a handmaid of theology was to be employed in the Middle Ages (by Thomas Aquinas, for instance) to stress the indissoluble link and mutual reinforcement of philosophy and theology. It continues to be used even today.

Fundamental notions

Philo’s great contribution begins with the implementation of allegorical interpretation -as set down by the Stoics- on Biblical texts. This means that the Bible was for the first time systematically treated, like the epics of Homer, as a collection of myths that need to be deciphered to reveal their deeper meaning; for they are composed so as to encourage readers to transcend their literal surface. This method, notwithstanding later variations, was to exert a catalytic effect on Christian hermeneutics. The main themes of Philo’s work, developed in correlation with Greek philosophy, are the following: the transcendental nature of God, the implementation of the Law, and spiritual development. About God, Philo thinks that humans simply know of his existence, while God’s essence remains inscrutable, and thus uncommunicable and unnamed. God is purer and more intelligible than the One; God is also superior to the Monad, which is identified with the intelligible world of the forms. God can only be known by God himself. He is sometimes described as the Nous (Mind) of the world, perfect, pure and immaculate; God also transcends anything associated with the human condition, i.e. virtue, science, the good. He is to be understood as the architect, the creator and providential force in the world, on the basis of the cosmological proof, i.e. the proof that follows from the world’s order, according to Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoic philosophy, as well as the Bible. Apart from a cosmic mind or a world-force, he is also considered to be a personal god, with his singularity, simplicity and uniqueness stressed, which implies a critique of polytheism. The transcendental nature of God becomes relativized by the fact that his powers are omnipresent in the world. These powers afford order, moderation, shape and limits to chaos; they are informed by the God’s Logos, which is the locus of the Ideas (as eternal paradigms and causes of all beings), both the Archetype and the Instrument of creation.

Logos, as the mediator between God and the Cosmos, creates by dividing beings to antithetical pairs; this is a prerequisite of their unity in the context of a cohesive and well-ordered Totality. We can detect here a tendency to autonomize Logos, a process that will be consummated with Christianity. Logos becomes connected with Providence or the Law of Nature that governs the world securing, much like Plato’s Cosmic Soul, its continued existence. This Law of Nature is to be identified with the Law of Moses. By implementing it, one can achieve the restoration of order that has been disturbed by evil. The resolute commitment of the Jews to observing the Law did not constitute some sort of a conventional obligation, but a cosmological duty; for it contributed to the articulation and orderliness of Everything: those living by Moses’ Law, lived, as the Stoics argued, in harmony to nature, i.e. in accordance with God’s will.

Thus, in Philo we witness a reconciliation of Platonic ethico-social life whose aim is “approximation to god as far as possible” with the Stoic telos of being “in harmony with Nature”. This approximation will be correlated with the theoria of the divine, i.e. the soul’s ascent and union with God, sometimes through sober intoxication, and other times through ecstasy, which presupposes relinquishing of the human mind and its substitution by God. Thus, Philo revises either the deeper meaning of mystery cults, or the concept of Platonic mania, and introduces the problematics of mystical theory/theology with which later philosophers and theologians were bound to struggle variously in both East and West.

By combining Pythagoreanism, Aristotelianism, and the Bible, Philo argued that the perfect life cannot be exhausted, as the Stoics held, to virtue in itself, i.e. to intellectual perfection, but must involve the bodily and social aspects of living. This will be further fleshed out by supplementing the four Platonic virtues with equality and philanthropy. Philo’s view that equality is the mother of justice is particularly interesting. The culmination of this line of reasoning is the political dimension of equality, which Philo sees asserted in democracy: it is the most perfect polity, a recollection of life in paradise because it seeks the removal of all inequality between humans.

Because of this, Philo expresses his admiration for the Therapeutae, a Jewish sect of ascetics who lived by Lake Mareotis: in their communities they had effectively abolished the institution of slavery.

Importance

Philo is a prominent figure for being the first scholar who systematically, painstakingly, and successfully attempted to combine Greek and Jewish thought. For this, and notwithstanding the indifference with which the rabbis and the vast majority of Greek philosophers greeted his work, he was positively received by the theologians of Early Christianity and deeply influenced them; they are united by their common vision: an effort to combine, amalgamate, or organically harmonize Greek and Hebrew thought structures creating a novel, self-contained whole. In this context, it is perhaps understandable that his works survived largely because of his Christian readers and that he exerted a powerful influence on the formation of Christian thought, already by the time of the New Testament. He has rightfully been dubbed Philo christianus and described as a “Church Father honoris causa”.

Author: Georgios Scaltsas
  • Boyancé, P. "Études philoniennes." REG 76 (1963)
  • Casemar, A. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Philo. Cambridge, 2009.
  • Dillon, J. The Middle Platonists: 80 B.C. to A.D 220. Ithaka, 1996.
  • Dodd, C.H. The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel. Cambridge, 1953.
  • Hadas-Lebel, M. Philo of Alexandria. A Thinker of Jewish Diaspora. Leiden, 2012.
  • Leisegang, H. "Philon."Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumwissenschaft. Stuttgart, 1941.
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