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Philo of Alexandria on the Soul and Universal Truth
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-05-26 07:46:13
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Philo of Alexandria, also known as Philo Judaeus or Philo Alexandrinus, is perhaps the most intriguing of the classical philosophers, for he is something of a maverick comparable in modern times to Emmanuel Levinas. Like Levinas, he was a Jew by both birth and upbringing and had a thorough knowledge of both Greek culture and Jewish culture which he could masterfully navigate and synthesize. We owe it to the early Christian theologians if some of his works have come down to us. Most of them are philosophical essays dealing with important themes of biblical thought but also describing his views on the subject.

Those works include the following: On Abraham, one of the biographies of biblical figures, whom Philo believed demonstrated by virtuous behavior universal types of morality. This work can be seen as a precursor to Kierkegaard’s figure of Abraham. Every Good Man is Free, which had a sequel, now lost, titled Every Evil Man is a Slave. Here Philo argues that good men who are not enslaved by greed, ambition for power, and lust are intrinsically free men. Hypothetica, one of a series of historical-apologetic writings; a rationalistic version of Exodus, giving an account of Moses and a summary of Mosaic law contrasting its rigor with the relative laxity of gentile laws.

Philo’s family, of a sacerdotal line, was one of the most influential of the populous Jewish colony of Alexandria in the first century A.D. Philo’s brother Alexander Lysimachus was steward to Anthony’s second daughter and married one of his sons to the daughter of Herod Agrippa. Philo after receiving a complete education in the laws and national traditions of Judaism, followed with the Greek plan of studies: grammar with the reading of the poets, geometry, rhetoric, dialectics, regarded as preliminary preparation for philosophy. A glimpse at his works will quickly reveal a thorough knowledge of Greco-Roman culture, especially of Plato and the then prevailing stoical theories, which he put to the service in the defense of Judaism. Philo’s reading of the Old Testament, and in particular the Book of Moses, takes an unmistakable Platonic turn, especially the Plato of the Timaeus.

In Philo’s view, man is created by God, first as a form in the mind, the logos of God, and next as a corporeal being possessed of an incorporeal soul. Being so constituted, man is “border-dweller, situated on the borderline between the divine and the non divine.” Philo claims that the corporeal body belongs to the world, the mind to the divine. Following Plato’s tripartite account of the soul Philo maintains that the two parts of the soul, the rational and the irrational are bound together by the spirit. The Logos has an origin, but as God's thought it also has eternal generation. It exists as such before everything else all of which are secondary products of God's thought and therefore it is called the "first-born."

The Logos is thus more than a quality, power, or characteristic of God; it is an entity eternally generated as an extension, to which Philo ascribes many names and functions. The Logos is the first-begotten Son of the Uncreated Father: "For the Father of the universe has caused him to spring up as the eldest son, whom, in another passage, he [Moses] calls the first-born; and he, who is thus born, imitating the ways of his father, has formed such and such species, looking to his archetypal patterns". We learn that in the final analysis the Creative Power is also identified with the Logos. The Creative Power is logically prior to the Regent Power since it is conceptually older. Though the powers are of equal age, the creative is prior because one is king not of the nonexistent but of what has already come into being. These two powers thus delimit the bounds of heaven and the world.

The Creative Power is concerned that things that come into being through it should not be dissolved, and the Regent Power that nothing either exceeds or is robbed of its due, all being arbitrated by the laws of equality through which things continue eternally. The positive properties of God may be subdivided into these two polar forces; therefore, the expression of the One is the Logos that constitutes the manifestation of God's thinking, acting.

According to Philo these powers of the Logos can be grasped at various levels. Those who are at the summit level grasp them as constituting an indivisible unity. At the two lower levels, respectively, are those who know the Logos as the Creative Power and beneath them those who know it as the Regent Power. The next level down represents those limited to the sensible world, unable to perceive the intelligible realities. At each successively lower level of divine knowledge the image of God's essence is increasingly more obscured. These two powers will appear again in Plotinus. Here Undefined or Unlimited Intelligible Matter proceeds from the One and then turns back to its source. The Logos is the bond holding together all the parts of the world. And as a part of the human soul it holds the body together and permits its operation. In the mind of a wise man thoroughly purified, it allows preservation of virtues in an unimpaired condition. "And the Logos, which connects together and fastens every thing, is peculiarly full itself of itself, having no need whatever of any thing beyond"

All of the above is of course anathema to the bizarre reductionistic scientific atheistic materialistic modern view that locates the mind and even the spirit and the very self of man in the atoms making up his body (we are made of the stuff of the stars would proclaim Carl Sagan) or perhaps the brain’s neurons if not in his intestines or even his colon, as some over-inspired author has averred in the recent theme series “On Me” in this very magazine. Philo, as well as Plato, would consider them as cave dwellers unable to perceive what is real from mere appearances, at the lowest level of understanding, limited to the sensible world and unable to even faintly perceive intelligible realities.

Be that as it may, the resemblance with Greek philosophy does not end there. Combining the Plato of the Republic with Aristotle, Philo holds that the telos (ultimate purpose) or goal of man is to become like a god, to reach out to the divine in contemplation and so return, as far as possible, to his divine source. Moreover, Philo, being heavily influenced by the Stoics, is eager to emulate their use of allegory to provide a philosophical exegesis of the scriptures. He writes that the scriptures should not be read literally but as containing hidden truths, waiting to be discovered by those with the patience and the will to discover them.

As already mentioned Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenized Jew, is a powerful figure in Western Civilization. He spans two cultures, the Greek and the Hebrew. When Hebrew mythical thought met Greek philosophical thought in the first century it was only natural that someone would try to develop speculative and philosophical justification for Judaism in terms of Greek philosophy. Thus Philo produced a synthesis of both traditions developing concepts for future Hellenistic interpretation of messianic Hebrew thought, especially by Clement of Alexandria, Christian Apologists like Athenagoras, Theophilus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen. He may have influenced Paul, his contemporary, and perhaps the authors of the Gospel of John and the Epistle to the Hebrews. In the process, he laid the foundations for the development of Christianity in the West and in the East, as we know it today.

Philo's primary importance is in the development of the philosophical and theological foundations of Christianity. The church preserved the Philonic writings because Eusebius of Caesarea labeled the monastic ascetic group of Therapeutae and Therapeutrides, described in Philo's The Contemplative Life, as Christians. Jerome (345-420 C.E.) even lists him as a church Father. Jewish tradition was uninterested in philosophical speculation and did not preserve Philo's thought. According to H. A. Wolfson, Philo was a founder of religious philosophy, a new habit of practicing philosophy. For Philo, Greek philosophy was a natural development of the revelatory teachings of Moses.

All of the above leads to the question of how far Philo was an original thinker. The answer to that question lies in the realization that Philo is more than a mere synthesizer of Greek and Jewish wisdom. Like Levinas in modern times, his ultimate aim was to show that what is most valuable in Western Greek thought is already present in Judaism and its received wisdom. And here lies his paradox, in the fact that he exerted a great influence not so much on his fellow-Jews but upon many early Christian scholars and probably on the first great father of the Church Augustine, not to mention the humanists later on (Petrach, Erasmus, Dante) who believed that nothing human is foreign to the Christian vision which believes in the Incarnation or the conjunction of the divine and the natural, and that grace far from rejecting nature and reason builds on them to then transcend them.

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Peter L. Griffiths2012-10-26 19:45:35
Philo Judaeus is the link between the ancient Greek philosophies and the Jewish history. His nephew Marcus was the first husband of Berenice who in my opinion wrote most of the New Testament based on intensive Greek and Jewish history obtained from Philo.

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