Philo Of Alexandria

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


From the moment the conquering Alexander chalked out its boundaries with white flour, Alexandria was an international city. Its excellent Mediterranean harbours and good roads into the Egyptian interior invited Phoenician, Cretan, Greek and Jewish merchants as well as Libyan and Nubian traders to its markets. In time, its fame spread beyond the Pillars of Heracles in the West and the Indus river in the East. Alexandria grew into a metropolis at once brilliant and decadent, the focus of philosopher and adventurer alike. Its wealth supported the pursuits of leisured classes, both those seeking pleasure and indulgence and those who sought to cultivate the soul. Under a succession of Graeco-Egyptian kings, the great Library flourished with its college of science. The Pentateuch was translated into the Greek, the second Platonic Academy arose to rival its Athenian parent, and the Gospel According to St. John was written. Every religion and philosophy found its way to Alexandria, where a hundred schools contended and yet lived side by side. As Oriental thought poured into this vibrant matrix and the sterility of recent Greek thought gave way, a sort of philosophical libertinism found an appeal for many unprepared for mental self-discipline. Others, eager to test their minds on the most difficult issues, discerned in the same admixture a transcendent logic and brilliance of insight. Sectarian religions were compelled to confront the force and profundity of other views and accept a de facto tolerance. Some who found the welter of Alexandrian life distracting became gnostic contemplatives on the farther shores of its great lake. To live in Alexandria was to be deeply influenced by the forces of the world, for Alexandria was the universal, if not ideal city – a microcosm of the world.

Philo Judaeus was born in Alexandria about 30 B.C. and lived there until his death around 40 A.D. Descended from a wealthy, prominent and sacerdotal family which had long been rooted in Alexandria, he freely imbibed from the educational milieu, excelling as a student of both Judaic studies and Greek philosophy. Though little is known of his life, since he preferred to write about ideas rather than himself, it seems that he was often active in civic affairs. When the Roman prefect Flaccus attempted to ingratiate himself with the mad emperor Gaius Caligula by setting up statues of the deified emperor in the synagogues of Alexandria, Philo though advanced in years, headed a deputation to Rome in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the sacrilege. The assassination of Caligula shortly thereafter and the subsequent enthronement of the more even-handed Claudius resulted in a peaceful resolution. Although Philo frequently addressed the moral and social problems of the day, the greater portion of his extensive writings was purely philosophical and religious, for these concerns commanded his attention and commitment from early youth to the end of his life.

Philo's lasting contribution lies principally in his method, rather than its object. He was not the first to attempt to draw Greek and Judaic thought together. Over a century earlier, Aristobulus had appealed to several suspect Orphic poems in an attempt to elucidate Judaic scripture, insisting upon the necessity of allegorical interpretation. But Aristobulus was mainly concerned to demonstrate the derivative nature of Greek philosophical thinking, and he made no attempt to treat it with either respect or understanding. The pseudepigraphical Wisdom of Solomon had distinguished wisdom – as a mode of divine action in the world – from the simple essence of deity, thus allowing for the pursuit of wisdom while pointing to the unknowability of the Absolute. Yet this scripture was exhortatory and did not set forth the principles necessary for gaining access to that wisdom. Philo, on the other hand, blended reverence for the revealed character of the Torah with a profound confidence in the value of Greek philosophical method, especially Platonic teaching. While he could not completely universalize Judaism, he anticipated the true eclecticism of Ammonius Saccas sufficiently to win recognition in his own time as the first teacher of Alexandrian Theosophy. Ironically, his influence on later Jewish thought was eclipsed by his unintended service to Christian apologists from Augustine to Aquinas.

Philo believed in the revealed nature of the Torah without qualification, holding that its contents had unquestionable truth. For Philo, Moses was the Judaic Plato. Yet it pained him to see sacred scripture used as a basis and justification for intellectual exclusiveness and aggressive sectarianism. Plato, he thought, was equally the Greek Moses, and such divine teachers could not be in fundamental disagreement on any issue. The heart of scripture would not be found in its national philosophy – aimed at a particular people with particular needs during a certain time in history – but rather in its symbolic and allegorical meaning. Therefore, Philo believed it must be possible to harmonize the seemingly divergent teachings of different schools. His attempts to harmonize Judaic and Greek thinking are illustrated in his conception of God, his treatments of idea, will and knowledge, and his explanation of the six-day creation found in Genesis. While the Pentateuch is ostensibly concerned with three great patriarchs, whose lives and historical legacies culminate in the emergence of Moses, for Philo the more fundamental theme concerns three types of men: Abraham symbolizes the human being who knows God through learning, while Isaac comes to the threshold of deity through inspiration, and Jacob achieves a living relationship with the divine in the practice of the ascetic life. These three types are united in "the most pure mind" and the "lover of virtue", who is symbolized by Moses.

Though the Torah characterizes God as going to and fro, as having hands and walking, Philo held that these anthropomorphic depictions could not possibly be literally true. They are a necessary accommodation to the thinking of sensuous man who cannot readily conceive abstractions without the intermediary medium of representations. Such statements are true in that they convey a sense of the majesty and sovereignty of deity, but since God is ever-existent and bodiless, they cannot satisfy the mind which prefers intelligibility to images. Philo recorded that the Tetragrammaton was not pronounced in his time, being too sacred, just as Cicero had noted that Hermes possessed a name that no man dare utter. Deity is utterly invisible, imperishable and eternal. As the most universal of all beings, deity is that to which the predicate 'being' most truly belongs, and since its being is absolute, unlike anything in the world or the world itself, it must be thought of as completely separate from the world. To the extent that God can be known, it must be through the exercise of reason. But in the purest sense of the concept, even with the unwavering use of reason, one can only know that God is: God's esse is ever incomprehensible. Names and qualities attributed to deity are symbolic and figurative, indicating the divine by negation and exclusion of lesser features, but in no way providing any positive content to the idea. Philo parallels the Hindu doctrine of Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahma, the first, without qualities, merging with Parabrahm, and the latter, with qualities, an object of the highest understanding. A recent application of Philo's point is Paul Tillich's concept of 'God behind God' – the idea that whatever might be said or thought of deity is only the mask which hides the Ever-Unknowable.

The world is the work of deity. Being incorporeal and eternal, God cannot have any direct contact with matter in any form. God's wisdom constitutes the divine operation which creates and pervades the universe. This wisdom is the Logos, the activity of deity and the seat of divine ideas. The Logos manifests in the world as divine reason revealing itself. As divine potency, it is the first-begotten of God, neither eternal nor born like other creatures, while as the manifest activity of God it is the son of God's wisdom (sophia). Within the Logos and as differentiations of it are all ideas, the essences of things, and thus the Logos is the Idea of ideas, the most universal entity, transcended only by deity. The Logos is both the agency through which God gives rise to the world and the representation of the world before God. In this dual function as divine potency and mirror, the Logos is the Paraclete for the world.

If God alone is eternal, then there must be two creations, each of which can be subdivided into ontological phases. The sempiternal Logos is the Wisdom of God and therefore might be called the Divine Mind (nous). As pure potentiality, the ideas destined to become the essences of the manifest universe pre-exist as the thoughts of God.

For God, being God, assumed that a beautiful copy would never be produced apart from a beautiful pattern, and that no object of perception would be faultless which was not made in the likeness of an original discerned only by the intellect. . . . He first fully formed the intelligible world, in order that He might have the use of a pattern wholly God-like and incorporeal in producing the material world.

As the manifesting activity of deity, the Logos draws upon nous for the ideas which are then deployed in matter to produce objects of perception. This requires that matter also pre-exist and yet not be eternal. Deity is behind all. While pre-cosmic spirit and pre-cosmic matter arise to be joined by Logos, cosmos emerges as the order of ideas in the Divine Mind unfolds in matter. Philo is the first philosopher to use the expression 'the intelligible world' in contrast to the sensible world, and it is precisely because the pre-existing ideas are ordered that reason may come to know that God is. The whole-hearted cultivation of reason through philosophy is therefore critical to knowing the divine. The highest stage of philosophy is the intuition of deity – sudden, certain and the fruit of discipline – which comes through divine illumination. Philo often found that after much seemingly fruitless thinking on a problem, the solution would dawn on him suddenly like a light kindled in his consciousness. Reason is not incompatible with revelation, but leads to revelation which must be understood through reason.

Deity is absolutely transcendent, and when represented as the creator of manifest existence, must be considered as absolutely free. Since any idea of necessity depends either upon some logical idea of order or a psychological notion of compulsion, and since God as alone eternal precedes any order or limitation, it is meaningless to suggest that God had to create any world, much less this world. But if this is true, then it is impossible to say that man as a part of the ordered world is free. Yet since man is made in the image of God – a microcosmic mirror of the Logoic macrocosm reflecting That which is beyond cosmos – man occupies by analogy the same sovereign position in the world that God does over the world. Hence man is relatively free: he cannot ignore with impunity the laws of nature rooted in the order of ideas, but he can perversely choose to fight them. Since this is a possibility for the human being, self-restraint and self-consciously determined conduct are necessary. Reason cannot be divorced from life, and so knowledge cannot be divorced from virtue. Philo wrote that in the eastern portion of Eden lay "a garden filled with heavenly virtues which the Gardener caused to spring from out of His own unquenchable Light". Spiritual intuition is achieved only when the human being renounces himself, transcending his finite self-consciousness and resigning himself to the influence of the divine.

Knowledge can be divided into two general kinds, one gained through the empirical and ratiocinative process of the psycho-mental mind, the other gained through the cultivated reason along with the purification of moral life. This second kind is prophetic knowledge and is revelatory in nature. It is the knowledge which Plato called recollection. Knowledge of God is therefore twofold, though the lower ratiocinative knowledge will always concretize deity unless self-abnegation and self-surrender permit a clear vision of the Uncreated One". Hence moral injunctions are important, for they show the way to true humility, as are the commandments of the Torah which also reveal something of the operation of the Logos in the world. Revealed law is therefore the application of natural law – the order of ideas in the human realm. All authority, unless based on pride and presumption and using fear and coercion to maintain itself, derives from these laws. The ideal state is therefore an abstract democracy, which is not some specific form of government enshrined in an ideology, but simply equality before the law. As an essential feature of social institutions, legislation should rest upon natural law which is no respecter of persons, since it depends upon the order of ideas in Nous, the possible activities of deity. Philo might have used the concept of theocracy, had he access to it. It was first used by Flavius Josephus after Philo's death to describe the ideal conception of the Judaic state.

The creation of the universe, central to the Torah, was a primary focus for Philo's harmonizing method. The world, according to the Mosaic account, was created in six days. For Philo, this cannot refer to a temporal sequence, however interpreted, for the Torah opens with the word berîsh�th – 'in the beginning' – intimating an eternal state prior to the creation. "In eternity there is nothing past and nothing future but only present." Time must be a part of the creation. "Time began either simultaneously with the world or after it." The six days of creation indicate an intelligible logical order which specifies ontological priority, "for we must think of God as doing all things simultaneously". The very number chosen shows that a Pythagorean numerical explanation is important. The manifest world is dual – spirit and matter, idea and form, good and evil, light and dark, male and female – and 6 is the number of male and female productivity, being 3 (male) taken twice or 2 (female) taken thrice.

The heavens – not yet the manifest firmament – are created on day one, for 1 is the number of wholeness, the origin of the number series, but not yet that series. This is the divine thought. On the first day incorporeal heaven, invisible earth – darkness and void – were created, along with the essences of water, life-breath and light. Seventh in this creation is the pattern, reflecting the order of ideas, which will become the heavenly luminaries. This ideal world is "all-brightness", for "that pure and undiluted radiance is bedimmed so soon as it begins to undergo the change that is entailed by the passage from the intelligible to the sensibility discerned, for no object of sense is free from dimness". On the second day the corporeal firmament is established in contrast to the world below. The number of duality and division is 2, the number of birth. The third day witnesses the emergence of plants and fructification, for 3 is creativity returning to its source, just as the seed gives rise to the flowering plant that bears fruit containing seed, guaranteeing the immortality of species. On the fourth day – the number of manifest existence and balance in the sensible world – the heavens are ordered so that the world is illumined by sensible light. Light is as critical to the eye as divine illumination is to the mind, and by its power man will see the pattern of heaven and raise those questions which will lead ultimately to prophetic knowledge. All animals appear on the fifth day, for 5 is the number of the senses – sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste – whereby the world is known. And on the sixth day man is created, for 6 is the number of perfection in generation, both male and female and the first product by combination of the two, as well as the five senses taken with the mind.

After all the rest, Moses tells us that man was created after the image of God and after His likeness (Genesis, I, 26). Right well does he say this, for nothing earth-born is more like God than man. Let no one represent the likeness as one to a bodily form; for neither is God in human form, nor is the human body God-like. No, it is in respect of the Mind, the sovereign element of the soul, that the word 'image' is used; for after the pattern of a single Mind, even the Mind of the Universe as an archetype, the mind in each of those who successively came into being was moulded. It is in a fashion a god to him who carries and enshrines it as an object of reverence; for the human mind evidently occupies a position in men precisely answering to that which the great Ruler occupies in all the world. It is invisible while itself seeing all things, and while comprehending the substances of others, it is as to its own substance unperceived.

The seventh day is the completion of creation, "for it is the festival, not of a single city or country, but of the universe, and it alone strictly deserves to be called 'public' as belonging to all people and the birthday of the world". Its number is 7, for 7 alone cannot be begotten by doubling or tripling any number in the decade nor beget a number in the decade.

For this reason other philosophers liken the number to the motherless virgin Nike, who is said to have appeared out of the head of Zeus, while the Pythagoreans liken it to the chief of all things: for that which neither begets nor is begotten remains motionless. . . . There is only one thing that neither causes motion nor experiences it, the original Ruler and Sovereign. Of him 7 may be fitly said to be a symbol.

The whole account of creation is an ontophany, revealing certain truths about deity and the universe. Deity alone is eternal, and ultimately one, though the Logos is so universal that from a human perspective it is a god and its potencies are gods. The world came into being, and as an image of the divine it is derivatively also one. Finally, there is a divine plan – the foresight of deity – which unfolds ontologically in the creation and psychologically through the successive generations of human beings. That plan is understood logically and intuitively by those who resign themselves to the divine through adherence to its laws rooted in nature. Nature, in turn, is the manifestation of the Logos which is both deity in motion and the Paraclete.

Moses assigned to the body its proper tasks and similarly to the soul what falls to its share, and his earnest desire was, that the two should be waiting to relieve each other. Thus, while the body is working, the soul enjoys a respite, but when the body takes its rest, the soul resumes its work, and thus the best forms of life, the theoretical and the practical, take their turns in replacing each other. The practical life has six as its number alloted for ministering to the body. The theoretical has seven for knowledge and perfection of the mind.

Philo's harmonizing methodology aided his successors in their attempts to reach the core of all religions and philosophies. At the same time, he divested Judaic thought of its separatist stance by exhibiting the universal character of its teachings and the symbolic nature of all scripture. His ideas provided the basis for early Christian theology – though his meaning was often inverted – and pointed to an authentic eclecticism which could enable the soul to soar into the realm of a transcendental understanding of divine unity, mirrored in the interdependence of all things in the world.

When be realizes perfectly that all things whatsoever in nature are comprehended in the ONE, be attains to the Supreme Spirit. This Supreme Spirit, O son of Kunti, even when it is in the body, neither acteth nor is it affected by action, because, being without beginning and devoid of attributes, it is changeless. As the all-moving Akasa by reason of its subtlety passeth everywhere unaffected, so the Spirit, though present in every kind of body, is not attached to action nor affected. As a single sun illuminateth the whole world, even so doth the One Spirit illumine every body, O son of Bharata. Those who with the eye of wisdom thus perceive what is the difference between the body and Spirit and the destruction of the illusion of objects, go to the supreme.