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Philo of Alexandria

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Philo of Alexandria
Philo of Alexandria

Philo of Alexandria (AKA Philo Judaeus, Philo the Jew and Yedidia) (c. 20 B.C. - A.D. 50) was a Jewish-Egyptian philosopher of the Hellenistic period, and one of the most important Jewish Philosophers of ancient times.

He tried to fuse and harmonize ancient Greek philosophy and Judaism, using a composite of Jewish exegesis (or interpretation of authoritative texts) and the art of allegory he had learned from Stoic philosophy. Given the similarity of the resulting combination to Christian teachings, some have argued that Philo is actually the "founder of Christianity" and that he strongly influenced the New Testament.


Philo was a Hellenized Jew born around 20 B.C. in Alexandria, Egypt. In addition to his Jewish education, studying the laws and national traditions, he was obviously thoroughly educated in Greek philosophy and culture, as can be seen from his superb knowledge of classical Greek literature. He had a deep reverence for Plato in particular, and clearly had a first-hand knowledge of the prevailing Stoical theories, some neo-Pythagorean works, and at least a passing acquaintance with Cynicism and the moral popular literature.

He appears to have come from a wealthy and prominent family, and to have been a leader in his community, which was at that time the largest Jewish community outside of Palestine. His brother, Alexander Lysimachus, was a very wealthy, prominent Roman government official responsible for collecting dues on all goods imported into Egypt from the East. Philo complained that his official functions even forced him to abandon his studies.

The very few biographical details we have are found in Philo's own works and in those of the 1st Century Jewish historian, Josephus. The only event that can be determined chronologically was his participation (and leadership) in the deputation which the Alexandrian Jews sent to the Roman Emperor Caligula in the year 39 or 40 A.D. in order to ask for protection against attacks by the Alexandrian Greeks, to seek relief from anti-Jewish riots promoted by Flaccus, the Roman governor of Alexandria, and also to complain about the introduction of statues of the emperor into the synagogues.

Although this is the latest known fact in Philo's life, he is assumed to have died around A.D. 50.

Work Back to Top

Philo's works may be divided into expositions of Jewish Law, apologetical works and philosophical treatises. His expositions of Jewish Law include the "The Exposition of the Law" (a treatise covering the creation of the world, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, the laws written by Moses and the laws on general virtues); the "Allegorical Commentary on Genesis" (a systematic application of the method of allegorical interpretation, and the chief source of information on Philo's ideas) and "Questions and Solutions" (a series of questions on each verse of the Mosaic books of the Bible). The apologetical writings include the "Life of Moses" (a résumé of the Jewish Law intended for a larger public), "On Repentance" (a treatise written for the edification of the newly converted), the treatises "On Piety" and "On Humanity", the "Apology for the Jews" (written to defend his coreligionists against calumnies), the "Contemplative Life" (written to cultivate the best fruits of the Mosaic worship), and the "Against Flaccus" and the "Embassy to Caius" (both intended to establish the truth about the pretended impiety of the Jews). His philosophical treatises include "On the Liberty of the Wise", "On the Incorruptibility of the World", "On Providence" and "On Animals".

Philo made his philosophy the means of defending and justifying Jewish religious truths and the scripture of the Hebrew Bible, which he regarded as fixed and determinate. Thus, he used philosophy both as an aid to truth, and as a means of arriving at it, and he selectively chose from the philosophical tenets of the Greeks, conveniently ignoring those that did not harmonize with the Jewish religion.

Given this standpoint, Philo incorporated and combined doctrines from various Greek schools, including the Stoic doctrine of God as the only efficient cause as well as the general Ethics and use of allegories of Stoicism, the Heraclitean doctrine of strife as the moving principle, Plato's exposition of the world as having no beginning and no end, the number-symbolism of Pythagoreanism (as well as its belief in the body as the source of all evil), and the doctrine of the Logos from various elements of Greek philosophy.

Philo's interpretation of the Hebrew Bible is based on the assumption of its two-fold meaning, the literal (adapted to human needs) and the allegorical (the "real" meaning, which only the initiated can comprehend). Thus, a special method is required to determine the correct allegory and therefore the real meaning of the words of scripture. This may involve excluding the literal sense of certain passages of the Bible altogether (e.g unworthy, senseless, contradictory or inadmissible passages). He suggested special rules that might direct the reader to recognize those passages which demand an allegorical interpretation, such as passages that contain the doubling or repetition of a phrase, an apparently superfluous expression, the use of a synonyms or a play on words, even the use of certain participles, adverbs, prepositions, etc.

In Metaphysics, Philo's conception of the matter out of which the world was created was similar to that of Plato and the Stoics, holding that God did not create the world-stuff (which, in its essentially evil nature, resists all contact with the divine), but rather found it ready at hand and acted more as a demiurge (or cosmic craftsman). He frequently compared God to an architect or gardener, who formed the present world according to a pattern of an ideal world. He assigned an especially important position to the "Logos" (similar in nature to the Hebrew phrase "word of God"), which he saw as executing the various acts of the Creation (given that God himself can not actually come into contact with matter), with God creating only the soul of the good. Also following the Stoics, Philo designated God as "the efficient cause", and matter as "the affected cause".

For Philo, sense-perception and sensibility has its seat in the body, but is in need of guidance by reason (that part of the spirit which looks toward heavenly things). He believed that in the pre-temporal condition (before the existence of time), the soul was without body and sex, and free from earthly matter, morally perfect, without flaws, but still striving after a higher purity. Since the beginning of time, though, the soul lost its purity and was confined in an earthly body, although retaining a tendency toward something higher. The body, however, is a source of danger, as it easily drags the spirit into the bonds of sensibility and temptation (sensibility being the source of the passions and sensual desires, which attack the sensibility in order to destroy the whole soul).

Philo's doctrine of virtue is generally Stoic, although he was undecided whether the really virtuous condition required complete dispassionateness or just moderation. He frequently identified the Logos or the Garden of Eden with virtue and divine wisdom. He saw the fundamental virtue as goodness, from which proceed the four cardinal virtues (prudence, courage, self-control, and justice) like the four rivers proceeding from the river of Eden. However, unlike the Stoics, Philo sought in religion the basis for all Ethics.

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