Philo (20 BC - 50 AD), known also as Philo of Alexandria (gr. Φίλων ὁ Ἀλεξανδρεύς), Philo Judaeus, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, Yedidia and Philo the Jew, was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher born in Alexandria, Egypt.
Philo used allegory to fuse and harmonize Greek philosophy and Judaism. His method followed the practices of both Jewish exegesis and Stoic philosophy. His work was not widely accepted. "The sophists of literalness," as he calls them, "opened their eyes superciliously" when he explained to them the marvels of his exegesis. Philo's works were enthusiastically received by the early Christians, some of whom saw in him a cryptic Christian. His concept of the Logos as God's creative principle apparently influenced early Christology. To him Logos was God's "blueprint for the world", a governing plan.
Arguments have been put forth that Philo is actually the founder of Christianity by virtue of his combination of Jewish theological ideas and those present in the Greek mystery religions, a combination of which would appear much like Christianity. Whatever the followers of Jesus were like before Philo's writings became well known, it's possible they seized upon his precepts and incorporated them into the essays that became the New Testament. Bruno Bauer was a key proponent of this argument.
The few biographical details concerning Philo are found in his own works, especially in Legatio ad Gaium ("embassy to Gaius"), and in Josephus. The only event in his life that can be determined chronologically is his participation in the embassy which the Alexandrian Jews sent to the emperor Caligula at Rome as the result of civil strife between the Alexandrian Jewish and Hellenized communities. This occurred in the year 40 CE.
Josephus' comments about Philo are so brief that we can quote them here in full:
Our remaining information about Philo is based upon his own writings. Philo himself claims in his Embassy to Gaius to have been part of an embassy sent by the Alexandrian Jews to the Roman Emperor Caligula. Philo says he was carrying a petition which described the sufferings of the Alexandrian Jews, and which asked the emperor to secure their rights. Philo gives a detailed description of their sufferings, in a way that Josephus overlooks, to assert that the Alexandrian Jews were simply the victims of attacks by Alexandrian Greeks in the civil strife that had left many Jews and Greeks dead. Philo says he was regarded by his people as having unusual prudence, due to his age, education, and knowledge. This indicates that he was already an older man at this time (40 CE). Philo considers Caligula's plan to erect a statue of himself in the temple of Jerusalem to be a provocation, saying, "Are you making war upon us, because you anticipate that we will not endure such indignity, but that we will fight on behalf of our laws, and die in defence of our national customs? For you cannot possibly have been ignorant of what was likely to result from your attempt to introduce these innovations respecting our temple." In his entire presentation he implicitly supports the Jewish commitment to rebel against the emperor rather than allow such sacrilege to take place. This reveals Philo's identification with the Jewish community. [Embassy to Gaius, Chapter 28-31, Yonge's translation (online)].
In Flaccus, Philo tells indirectly of his own life in Alexandria by describing how the situation of Jews in Alexandria Egypt changed after Caius Caligula became the emperor of Rome. Speaking of the large Jewish population in Egypt, Philo says that Alexandria "had two classes of inhabitants, our own nation and the people of the country, and that the whole of Egypt was inhabited in the same manner, and that Jews who inhabited Alexandria and the rest of the country from the Catabathmos on the side of Libya to the boundaries of Ethiopia were not less than a million of men." Regarding the large proportion of Jews in Alexandria, he writes, "There are five districts in the city, named after the first five letters of the written alphabet, of these two are called the quarters of the Jews, because the chief portion of the Jews lives in them." Other sources tell us that Caligula had been asking to receive the honors due to a god. Philo says Flaccus, the Roman governor over Alexandria, permitted a mob to erect statues of the Emperor Caius Caligula in Jewish synagogues of Alexandria, an unprecedented provocation. This invasion of the synagogues was perhaps resisted by force, since Philo then says that Flaccus "was destroying the synagogues, and not leaving even their name." In response, Philo says that Flaccus then "issued a notice in which he called us all foreigners and aliens... allowing any one who was inclined to proceed to exterminate the Jews as prisoners of war." Philo says that in response, the mobs "drove the Jews entirely out of four quarters, and crammed them all into a very small portion of one ... while the populace, overrunning their desolate houses, turned to plunder, and divided the booty among themselves as if they had obtained it in war." In addition, Philo says their enemies, "slew them and thousands of others with all kinds of agony and tortures, and newly invented cruelties, for wherever they met with or caught sight of a Jew, they stoned him, or beat him with sticks". Philo even says, "the most merciless of all their persecutors in some instances burnt whole families, husbands with their wives, and infant children with their parents, in the middle of the city, sparing neither age nor youth, nor the innocent helplessness of infants." Some men, he says, were dragged to death, while "those who did these things, mimicked the sufferers, like people employed in the representation of theatrical farces". Other Jews were crucified. Flaccus was eventually removed from office and exiled, ultimately suffering the punishment of death. [Flaccus, Chapters 6 - 9 (43, 53-56, 62, 66, 68, 71-72), Yonge's translation (online)].
It is likely that Philo only visited the Temple in Jerusalem once in his lifetime.
As Heinze shows ("Die Lehre vom Logos in der Griechischen Philosophie," 1872, pp. 204ff), this doctrine touches upon the Platonic doctrine of ideas as well as the Stoic doctrine of the γενικώτατόν τι and the Neo-Pythagorean doctrine of the type that served at the creation of the world; and in the shaping of the λόγος τομεύς it touches upon the Heraclitean doctrine of strife as the moving principle. Philo's doctrine of dead, inert, non-existent matter harmonizes in its essentials with the Platonic and Stoic doctrine.
His account of the Creation is almost identical with that of Plato; he follows the latter's Timaeus closely in his exposition of the world as having no beginning and no end. Like Plato, he places the creative activity as well as the act of creation outside of time, on the Platonic ground that time begins only with the world. The influence of Pythagorism appears in number-symbolism, to which Philo frequently refers.
The Aristotelian contrast between δύναμις and ἐντελέχεια (Metaphysics, iii.73) is found in Philo, De Allegoriis Legum, i.64 (on Aristotle see Freudenthal in "Monatsschrift," 1875, p. 233). In his psychology he adopts either the Stoic division of the soul into eight faculties, or the Platonic trichotomy of reason, courage, and desire, or the Aristotelian triad of the vegetative, emotive, and rational souls.
The doctrine of the body as the source of all evil corresponds entirely with the Neo-Pythagorean doctrine: the soul he conceives as a divine emanation, similar to Plato's νοῦς (see Siegfried, Philo, pp. 139ff). His ethics and allegories are based on Stoic ethics and allegories.
Philo made his philosophy the means of defending and justifying Jewish religious truths. These truths he regarded as fixed and determinate; and philosophy was used as an aid to truth, and as a means of arriving at it. With this end in view Philo chose from the philosophical tenets of the Greeks, refusing those that did not harmonize with the Jewish religion, as, e.g., the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity and indestructibility of the world.
Philo bases his doctrines on the Hebrew Bible, which he considers as the source and standard not only of religious truth but in general of all truth. Its pronouncements are for him divine pronouncements. They are the words of the ἱερὸς λόγος, ϑεῖος λόγος, ὀρϑὸς λόγος uttered sometimes directly and sometimes through the mouth of a prophet, especially through Moses, whom Philo considers the real medium of revelation, while the other writers of the Old Testament appear as friends or pupils of Moses.
Although he distinguishes between the words uttered by God, as the Decalogue, and the edicts of Moses, as the special laws, he does not carry out this distinction, since he believes in general that everything in the Torah is of divine origin, even the letters and accents.
The Hebrew Bible had not been canonized at the time of Philo, and the extent of his knowledge of Biblical books cannot be exactly determined. Philo does not quote Ezekiel, Daniel, Canticles, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, or Esther. Philo regards the Bible as the source not only of religious revelation, but also of philosophic truth; for, according to him, the Greek philosophers also have borrowed from the Bible: Heraclitus, according to "Quis Rerum Divinarum Heres Sit" § 43 [i.503]; Zeno, according to Quod Omnis Probus Liber, § 8 [ii.454].
The two interpretations, however, are not of equal importance: the literal sense is adapted to human needs; but the allegorical sense is the real one, which only the initiated comprehend. Hence Philo addresses himself to the μύσται ("initiated") among his audience, by whom he expects to be really comprehended.
A special method is requisite for determining the real meaning of the words of Scripture; the correct application of this method determines the correct allegory, and is therefore called "the wise architect.
As a result of some of these rules of interpretation the literal sense of certain passages of the Bible must be excluded altogether; e.g., passages in which according to a literal interpretation something unworthy is said of God; or in which statements are made that are unworthy of the Bible, senseless, contradictory, or inadmissible; or in which allegorical expressions are used for the avowed purpose of drawing the reader's attention to the fact that the literal sense is to be disregarded.
He has special rules that direct the reader to recognize the passages which demand an allegorical interpretation, and which help the initiated to find the correct and intended meaning. These passages are such as contain: (1) the doubling of a phrase; (2) an apparently superfluous expression in the text; (3) the repetition of statements previously made; (4) a change of phraseology—all these phenomena point to something special that the reader must consider. (5) An entirely different meaning may also be found by a different combination of the words, disregarding the ordinarily accepted division of the sentence in question into phrases and clauses. (6) The synonyms must be carefully studied; e.g., why λαὸς is used in one passage and γένος in another, etc. (7) A play upon words must be utilized for finding a deeper meaning; e.g., sheep (πρόβατa) stand for progress in knowledge, since they derive their name from the fact of their progressing (προβαίνειν), etc. (8) A definite allegorical sense may be gathered from certain particles, adverbs, prepositions, etc.; and in certain cases it can be gathered even from (9) the parts of a word; e.g., from διά in διάλευκος. (10) Every word must be explained in all its meanings, in order that different interpretations may be found. (11) The skillful interpreter may make slight changes in a word, following the rabbinical rule, "Read not this way, but that way." Philo, therefore, changed accents, breathings, etc., in Greek words. (12) Any peculiarity in a phrase justifies the assumption that some special meaning is intended: e.g., where μία ("one") is used instead of πρώτη ("first"; Gen. i.5), etc. Details regarding the form of words are very important: (13) the number of the word, if it shows any peculiarity in the singular or the plural: the tense of the verb, etc.; (14) the gender of the noun; (15) the presence or omission of the article; (16) the artificial interpretation of a single expression; (17) the position of the verses of a passage; (18) peculiar verse-combinations; (19) noteworthy omissions; (20) striking statements; (21) numeral symbolism. Philo found much material for this symbolism in the Hebrew Bible, and he developed it more thoroughly according to the methods of the Pythagoreans and Stoics. He could follow in many points the tradition handed down by his allegorizing predecessors.
Philo determines also the values of the numbers 50, 70, and 100, 12, and 120.
Philo, again like Plato and the Stoics, conceives of matter as having no attributes or form; this, however, does not harmonize with the assumption of four elements. Philo conceives of matter as evil, on the ground that no praise is meted out to it in Genesis ("Quis Rerum Divinarum Heres Sit," § 32 [i.495]). As a result, he cannot posit an actual Creation, but only a formation of the world, as Plato holds. God appears as demiurge (Greek: craftsman) and cosmoplast (Greek: universe molder).
Philo frequently compares God to an architect or gardener, who formed the present world (the κόσμος ἀισϑητός) according to a pattern, the ideal world (κόσμος νοητός). Philo takes the details of his story of the Creation entirely from Genesis 1, the Elohist account. He assigns an especially important position to the Logos, which executes the several acts of the Creation, as God cannot come into contact with matter, actually creating only the soul of the good. The philosophical term Logos (word, reason) parallels the Hebrew phrase "word of God" ("dabar Yahweh"), which the Hebrew Bible portrays as bearing God's message, especially to his prophets.
Sensibility has its seat in the body, and lives in the senses, as Philo elaborates in varying allegoric imagery. Connected with this corporeality of the sensibility are its limitations; but, like the body itself, it is a necessity of nature, the channel of all sense-perception. Sensibility, however, is still more in need of being guided by reason. Reason is that part of the spirit which looks toward heavenly things. It is the highest, the real divine gift that has been infused into man from without ("De Opiticio Mundi," i.15; "De Eo Quod Deterius Potiori Insidiatur," i.206); it is the masculine nature of the soul. The νοῦς is originally at rest; and when it begins to move it produces the several phenomena of mind (ἔνϑυμήματα). The principal powers of the νοῦς are judgment, memory, and language.
More important in Philo's system is the doctrine of the moral development of man. Of this he distinguishes two conditions: (1) that before time was, and (2) that since the beginning of time. In the pretemporal condition the soul was without body, free from earthly matter. Without sex, in the condition of the generic (γενικός) man, morally perfect, i.e., without flaws, but still striving after a higher purity. On entering upon time the soul loses its purity and is confined in a body. The nous becomes earthly, but it retains a tendency toward something higher.
Philo is not entirely certain whether the body in itself or merely in its preponderance over the spirit is evil. But the body in any case is a source of danger, as it easily drags the spirit into the bonds of sensibility. Here, also, Philo is undecided whether sensibility is in itself evil, or whether it may merely lead into temptation, and must itself be regarded as a mean (μέσον). Sensibility in any case is the source of the passions and desires. The passions attack the sensibility in order to destroy the whole soul. On their number and their symbols in Scripture see Siegfried, l.c. pp. 245 et seq. The "desire" is either the lustful enjoyment of sensual things, dwelling as such in the abdominal cavity (κοιλία), or it is the craving for this enjoyment, dwelling in the breast. It connects the nous and the sensibility, this being a psychologic necessity, but an evil from an ethical point of view.
According to Philo, man passes through several steps in his ethical development. At first the several elements of the human being are in a state of latency, presenting a kind of moral neutrality which Philo designates by the terms "naked" or "medial." The nous is nude, or stands midway so long as it has not decided either for sin or for virtue. In this period of moral indecision God endeavors to prepare the earthly nous for virtue, presenting to him in the "earthly wisdom and virtue" an image of heavenly wisdom. But man (nous) quickly leaves this state of neutrality. As soon as he meets the woman (sensibility) he is filled with desire, and passion ensnares him in the bonds of sensibility. Here the moral duties of man arise; and according to his attitude there are two opposite tendencies in humanity.
The worst consequence of this moral death is, according to Philo, absolute ignorance and the loss of the power of judgment. Sensual things are placed above spiritual; and wealth is regarded as the highest good. Too great a value especially is placed upon the human nous; and things are wrongly judged. Man in his folly even opposes God, and thinks to scale heaven and subjugate the entire earth. In the field of politics, for example, he attempts to rise from the position of leader of the people to that of ruler (Philo cites Joseph as a type of this kind). Sensual man generally employs his intellectual powers for sophistry, perverting words and destroying truth.
The biblical patriarch Abraham is seen by Philo as the symbol of man leaving sensuality to turn to reason. Philo holds that there are three methods whereby one can rise toward the divine: through teaching, through practise (ἄσκησις), and through natural goodness (ὁσιότης).
Philo holds that there are several types in the Bible representing the perfect stage. It appears in its purest form in the biblical patriarch Isaac. Isaac is perfect from the beginning: perfection is a part of his nature (φύσις); and he can never lose it (αὑτήκοος καὶ αὑτομάϑης). With such persons, therefore, the soul is in a state of rest and joy.
Philo's doctrine of virtue is Stoic, although he is undecided whether complete dispassionateness (άπάϑεια) or moderation (μετριοπαϑεῑν) designates the really virtuous condition. Philo identifies virtue in itself and in general with divine wisdom. Hence he uses the symbols interchangeably for both; and as he also frequently identifies the Logos with divine wisdom, the allegoric designations here too are easily interchanged.
The Garden of Eden is "the wisdom of God" and also "the Logos of God" and "virtue." The fundamental virtue is goodness; and from it proceed four cardinal virtues—prudence, courage, self-control, and justice (φρόνησις, ἀνδρία, σωφροσύνη, δικαιοσύνη) — as the four rivers proceeding from the river of Eden.
An essential difference between Philo and the Stoics is found in the fact that Philo seeks in religion the basis for all ethics. Religion helps man to attain to virtue, which he can not reach of himself, as the Stoics hold. God must implant virtue in man. Hence the goal of the ethical endeavor is a religious one: the ecstatic contemplation of God and the disembodiment of souls after death.