Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE – c. 50 CE), A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE – c. 50 CE), A Perspective

Who was he? He was a first century religious thinker resembling St. Augustine in 4th century and St. Aquinas in 13th century. He was sometimes known as Philo Judaeus or Philo Alexandrinus. He was an odd fish in classical philosophy. Somebody actually read the title of this chapter as ‘philosophy of Alexandria’. I can read it as ‘love of Alexandria’. He was a Jew not only through birth but the way he was raised. His reputation is based on his philosophical commentaries on the scripture. His family, of a priestly line, was one of the most powerful of the thickly populated Jewish colony of Alexandria. His brother by the name of Alexander Lysimachus was steward or an administrator of finances and property to Anthony’s second daughter, and married one of his sons to the daughter of Herod Agrippa, whom he had placed under financial obligations. He got Jewish education and studied the laws and national tradition. However, he also perused the Greek educational project: grammar as well as reading of the poets, geometry, rhetoric and dialectic, which he considered to have paved his way toward studying philosophy. His writings show he had a firsthand knowledge of the stoical theories in which he was superior. He was influenced by Plato’s thoughts and Stoics. He used his tremendous knowledge of Greco-Roman culture and thought to defend Judaism. Being spatially laser focused on the book of Moses, his philosophy, however, never received recognition by his Jewish contemporaries. Apparently his work was mainly preserved for the future generation by early Christian philosophers.

Nonetheless, Philo’s reading of the Old Testament, and especially the book of Moses is influenced by Plato’s philosophy.  He was more fascinated by what he studied in Plato’s ‘Timaeus’ than his later writings.

According to Philo, human is created by God, first as a form in the mind- or Logos-of God, and later as a corporeal being with an incorporeal soul. Think for a moment as to what he is saying to us. We’re created by God in time while He is out of time and space. We have a history, because we were created in time. But what is time? It has no substantiality, namely it is non-existent, because our five senses cannot detect it. For the Hindus it is an illusion. Is not God creating and destroying us at every moment? If this were the case, then we and the world have not come into existence at one time. In other words, we have been around since eternity. We’re eternal beings. Did Philo read what Aristotle said that almost got Thomas Aquinas into trouble with the Pope? What does he mean by ‘first as a form in the mind’? Whose mind? Who said God has a mind? This all started with Descartes. Is he referring to Plato’s Forms? By the term ‘Logos’ we think of the Gospel of John. In the beginning was the Word or Logos and was with God and was God and then became flesh and came among us. (Not exact quote)

An architect has a form of a building in mind and then he comes up with the blue print before it becomes a reality. Is this what he was thinking about? But God is not like us. This is called ‘Anthropomorphism’. In the Qur’an, the scripture of the Muslims, God says even an ant thinks God has two antennas on His head. We have ‘mind’ and still don’t know what it is. However, speaking of God’s mind, I believe, it is not what Philo had in mind. Besides he knew there was no distinction between soul and the body for the early Hebrews. This is not like salt and water mixed. When God created Adam He gave him the gift of His Spirit. Spirit was not soul. Soul is created but not Spirit. Soul and body were one reality, which later on became ‘mind’ in the West. I’m afraid by saying ‘human is a corporeal being possessor of an incorporeal soul’ doesn’t make any sense. We need to clarify these issues before we get to the heart of Philo’s philosophy.

Human, therefore, is made such that he or she is ‘a border-dweller, situated on the borderline between the divine and the non-divine’. He  must be saying human is made of God’s Spirit and the earth. We know this fact when God blew His Spirit into the earth. What we call ‘soul’ is one with the earth. We all have heard the expression ‘mother earth’. Let us think that Spirit here is male and the earth is female. In other words, we’re half Spirit and half the earth. This doesn’t have to be exact half. Though we’re in this world, we’re not of it. This was the message of ‘Axial age’. A great recent philosopher came up with it. Many outstanding luminaries, perhaps 500 to 600 years B.C said that we’re like trees, our roots are in the ground and our branches are reaching the sky.

Philo asserts that the corporeal body pertains to the world, and the mind to the divine. So the earth is the corporeal body, which pertains to the world. We disagree with the author of this book right here, because he says ‘the mind to the divine’, I believe, as well as the soul. Soul, I claim, belongs to the corporeal realm, which later on was called the mind. I personally think Philo as brilliant of a philosopher he was, he must have said that the Spirit of God belonged to divine and the corporeal body pertains to the world. Plato believed in tripartite reality of the soul. Philo argued that the two parts of the soul, namely, the rational and irrational are tied together by the Spirit. Well, naturally the soul is part of the corporeal body. However, as the Hebrews believed, there’s no distinction not separation between the two that is soul and the earth. We cannot separate the soul from the body, because the person would die. They were never separated to be united. Even now a days, we say, oh poor soul not poor soul and the body. Soul is not incorporeal. It doesn’t matter whether soul is one or two realities. There’s no division between the soul and the body to begin with. This partition entered Christianity through the Greek philosophy. Our soul ages as well as our bodies. The ageless is the Spirit, which is beyond any duality what so ever. In the final analysis we’re a combination of the Spirit of God and the body. I would even go deeper philosophically to say that saying ‘God’s Spirit’ is also not correct, because it indicates duality not Oneness.

God is unique and He is not like us. Even calling God ‘He’ or ‘She’ is wrong. He created us in His image but we have no right to create Him in ours. Now we understand why Buddha rejected all deities along with God in Hinduism. He didn’t refute the existence of the deities and God but people’s perceptions of them. We ought to learn from other Religions without feeling guilty in the process. We need to transcend the differences among Religions to reach the apex of the Ultimate Reality. Religions belong to all of us. There’s no ownership in Religions. At the bottom Religions are very different from one another. But as we move up, their messages become closer till finally there’s only one, according to Huston Smith.

 There’s a resemblance there with Greek philosophy. However, we ought to be careful not mixing up the two. Right from the very beginning Plato regarded the soul as a separate reality whereas the early Hebrews didn’t believe in this division or distinction. The earth for Hebrews was one reality not two. So come to think of it there’s not much of similarity between the two, namely the Greek thought and Jewish belief. Their Gods were different. Even though Aristotle believed in unmoved Mover or uncaused Caused, also pure Form, which he called it God in his theology, which was like the sun attracting everything to it, Jewish God was personal, forgiving and caring. What resemblance are we talking about?

He blended Plato’s thoughts in the ‘Republic’ with a bit of Aristotle’s philosophy to come up with the telos or aim of human being is to become like a god. We’re to reach out to the divine through contemplation and this way we can return as much as possible to the divine source. He was also largely under the influence of the Stoics to the extent that he used ‘allegory’ to come up with philosophical interpretations of the Biblical stories called ‘exegesis’. He maintained that scriptures shouldn’t be read literally, because they possess hidden truths to be discovered by those who’re patient and don’t rush into misinterpretations.

Given this perspective, was he an original philosopher? Well, he was not usual type of philosophers we’re familiar with for sure. He was an orthodox Jew with an intellectual bent for Greek thoughts. He tried to bring together Greek and Jewish wisdom tradition. However, his goal was entirely Judaic. He was not the only thinker in the Abrahamic Religions who faced the Greek thoughts bravely without compromising his faith or so it appeared at first. He made an attempt to show that what are of great values in Greek philosophy already exist in Judaism. By so doing he thought he had come up with a justification and defense of the wisdom of his Jewish culture. Perhaps he knew better than fall into a trap like Spinoza centuries later in the rationalist period. Spinoza was heavily chastised by the Jewish community of his day for his pantheism. Philo seems to have miraculously avoided this destiny. Amazingly he was a popular thinker and influenced Christian scholars who followed his footsteps. Origen, ‘Origenes Admantius’ (185?-254), the Alexandrian thinker and Christian theologian was among them, who lived in second century AD, a century after Philo.

However, Philo didn’t get away easily from trusting the Greek philosophy. Apparently he was heavily influenced by the Geek thoughts to the extent that he hadn’t realized how much he was compromising Judaism. This is something Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century was trying very hard to avoid being under the pressure by the pope. His religious convictions were threatened by the influence of the Greek philosophy. Although no Jewish scholar argues that Philo was taken by this influence, he seems to have been compromised by the Greek thoughts. Let put it this way, he was very lucky he was not excommunicated from the Jewish community.

(Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers, by Philip Stokes)