Torre de Babel



§ 27 – Jewish-Alexandrian Schools

 Of the philosophers of the Jewish-Alexandrian school we speak of Aristobulus (160 B.C.), who appears to have been the first to combine Jewish and Greek conceptions, and of Philo Judæus, a (Jewish) theologian of Alexandria, who flourished in the first part of the first century A.D., and, like Aristobulus, combined Jewish and Greek conceptions. Alexandria was at this time a meeting-place for the whole Mediterranean world, and a natural point of syncretism, also, for the ideas of that world.


Aristobulus held that the world is ruled by a divine power (not God but a «potency» of God), and that God is extra-mundane, visible only to reason (νούς).

«In interpreting the [Jewish] seven days’ work of creation, Aristobulus interprets, metaphorically, the light, which was created on the first day, as symbolizing the wisdom by which all things are illumined, which some of the Peripatetic philosophers had compared to a torch; but, he adds, one of his own nation (Solomon, Prov. viii. 22 seq.?) had testified of it more distinctly and finely, that it existed before the heavens and the earth. Aristobulus then endeavors to show how the whole order of the world rests on the number seven»(1).

Philo Judæus: General Attitude (2)

Philo built up a philosophical system out of material borrowed from the Greek philosophers and treated in the spirit of the Hebrew, or, rather, Oriental conception of God as the sole being and as remotely transcendent above the world. Naturally, therefore, he treats the logic and physics of the earlier philosophers (so far as these divisions of philosophy are concerned with mundane things and are within the general range of human intelligence) as of comparatively slight consequence, and converts philosophy into higher theology.

Theory of Knowledge

Philo agrees with the Sceptics (Academicians) as to the inability of the human mind to attain to knowledge of the real, but instead of adopting their theory of probability, makes knowledge possible as a «gift» from God, a revelation. This knowledge comes to man when in a certain state of soul denominated «enthusiasm,» a «reposeful divine rapture,» in which the soul, liberated from sense and absorbed in itself, is fructified by God. In such a revelation is contained for man the knowledge of the probable ground of things: God is too high above human thought to be clearly apprehended by it even in a state of «enthusiasm». Man may by his own effort become capable of such a revelation, worthy of such a gift, through philosophic thought; the revelation itself is a gift. Philosophy is the highest form of human knowledge strictly as such. Other sciences, i.e., grammar, rhetoric, geometry, etc., are but limited in power: they are merely propædeutic to the higher wisdom. They have value as media between sense and reason, but true knowledge is given not in sense-perception nor in demonstration, but in » immediate intuition,» an activity or condition of the soul in which there is no cooperation of bodily activity. Knowledge of the individual object is the lowest form of knowledge, the highest form being concerned with the highest genus, being. Of being, however, we only know that it is, which is practically all that we know of God as he is in himself.


According to this theory of knowledge, God is the sole self-existent being, without properties, unmixed, higher than virtue and science, than beauty and goodness; he has no name, is unknowable, simply is. And yet he is, if we must ascribe to him attributes, immutable, supremely happy, supremely good, universal reason, supra-sensible light; he is (like the Prime Mover of Aristotle) above and out of the world; present in it by his power, not by his substance, or essence.

The Logos

The middle term between God and the world, i.e., his power, lies in his energies, or potencies (which, though attributes, are distinct from him), which are emanations from him, and the totality and unity of which is the Logos (λόγος), or Word. The highest of these is creative power, second is the «ruling potency,» third, the «fore-seeing,» fourth, the «law-giving,» etc. These are to be conceived as personal activities and, perhaps, beings (like the Ideas of Plato). Though God is the creator, the Logos is ruler, his minister, and «Second God». As related to both God and the world, the Logos (Word) has a double nature, which may be symbolized by an inward thought and an expressed thought in their union, or interrelation. The Logos (sometimes designated as Sophia) is thus an image of God and the archetype of the world, or, adopting the terminology of Plato, whom Philo here in a manner follows, the Logos is the Idea, the Idea of Ideas, the «place» (τόπος) of Ideas, the supra-sensible world. The Ideas (or potencies), whose place and totality the Logos is, are ministering powers, angels, differing in degree of excellence and together constituting a hierarchy. When not illumined by the light of God, man may be illumined by that of the angels. The supra-sensible world, though gradated down to the sensible, is quite distinct from it.

The Sensible World and Matter

The sensible world is a copy and reflection of the supra-sensible. It was created, through the instrumentality of the Logos, out of matter, which is purely corporeal, without form or property, inert, motionless, passive, potential, the source of imperfection in the sensible world, God being author only of that which is good. Matter, it thus appears, is in the system of Philo even more than in earlier systems a necessary, irreducible element.


Between the sensible and supra-sensible worlds stands man. By the world of sense man is seduced from God and put under the rule of material necessity and imperfection, but as a child of the Logos, as a rational being, capable of knowing (in part) and aspiring after divine excellence, he is subject to the law of justice and must be regarded as free. Man’s supreme good is divine contemplation, or «mental peace and repose, and joy in God». This is also his virtue, for in virtue alone goodness lies. In virtue the pleasure of sense has no place and human science has only a subordinate one, virtue being a «gift» from God. The four virtues assumed by Plato are by Philo treated as but (lower) forms of one virtue, viz., «goodness after the pattern of divine wisdom». This wisdom is higher than prudence, which is earthly, merely. Three degrees of virtue are—to begin with the lowest—virtue resulting from (human) science, virtue resulting from an ascetic life, and virtue that is a natural «gift». The two first mentioned are human; the last is divine. These three are interdependent. A fourth kind of virtue is that having as its condition philosophic science; it is, however, a gift, as is natural virtue, with which on this account it is on a level. Other virtues or, rather, perhaps, conditions to virtue, are hope, repentance, and justice.


The most conspicuous historical sources of Philo’s doctrines are the scepticism of the Later Academics, the Platonic theory of Ideas (of which Philo supposed Moses to be the real originator), and the Stoic ethics and physics. He owed much also to the Pythagoreans; was a debtor, indeed, to most of the leading earlier systems in the history of Greek philosophy. His theory of knowledge and virtue as gifts from God is original and distinctive, a new growth in the history of Greek thought. Similar to it, perhaps, may seem Plato’s idea that knowledge is the working of the Idea in man, or that we rise to the Idea of the Good by an act of soul higher than science, and Cicero’s thought that there is in man an innate perception of virtue, God, and immortality. But the extremes of the system of Philo, owing to the Oriental remoteness of God from the world, are so distinctly separated that they are brought together only by an act of speculative imagination, or faith, whereas neither Plato nor Cicero steps outside the sphere of thought, or the conception of the objective organic whole. The point and principle of synthesis in the system of Philo is an unexplained subjective emotion (i.e., aspiration towards God); in the systems of Plato and Cicero it is an intellectual effort to grasp (not passively apprehend) things mentally in their unity. According to Philo, spiritual knowledge is given to man; according to Plato and Cicero, man acquires such knowledge by means of a power possessed by himself, the function of which is just that of seizing upon the thing knowable. (By Plato the existence of such a power is deduced; by Cicero it is, rather, assumed.) Philo’s place is therefore among mystical philosophers; he is a theologian who has based himself upon religious feeling without giving an intelligible account of it and of the process («intuition») by which it reaches its goal, the knowledge of God. It may not inappropriately be added concerning him as a theologian that he practised an unliteral, allegorical interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures (analogous to the Stoic rationalizing of myths), and that because of his belief in the «impurity of matter,» he did not conceive of the Logos as incarnated «nor identify the Logos with the expected Messiah, to which course, nevertheless, he was powerfully moved by the practical and spiritual interest connected with redemption through the Messiah» (3).


(1) Ueberweg’s Hist. of Phil., Vol. I. p. 227.

(2) Ritter and Ueberweg.

(3) See Ueberweg.