Probably over 99% of otherwise well-educated people have never heard of Philo. Most who see the name will think it is talking about someone’s dog. Even those who are familiar with him will wonder what he is doing in a list of Jewish ideas on the meaning/purpose of life. He was a philosopher, and a Greek one at that. Jewish sources, both ancient and modern, simply never quote him. Beyond the pale or not, what is he doing here?
The answer is that he belongs here – in this list and in this category. Almost unnoticed, he became one of the most influential early thinkers in western religion, with his doctrines forming the basis for core elements of both Judaism and Christianity. Perhaps more than anyone else, he was a bridge between the ancient world of the Bible and the post-Biblical world of Christianity, rabbis, and a more spiritual image of God. Philo may have been the only philosopher to span the chasm that existed between the two great Eastern Mediterranean worlds of the late Biblical era – the Greeks and the Jews. His philosophy was unquestionably Greek, but his religion was absolutely Jewish. It is a bit of a tragedy that neither side really readily admits him into their ranks.
Philo was born around 20 BCE and died about 70 years later. This puts him at the tail end of the second temple period. It also puts him squarely into the period in which Christianity sprang out of nothing from its hidden Jewish roots. Thirdly, he was late a contemporary of Hillel, probably the primary builder of rabbinic Judaism. But he spent his entire life in Alexandria, a Jewish and Greek center in Egypt. He was never a part of the temple-centered society of Israel. Nor was he in on the developments of rabbinic Judaism of that time.
But his philosophical thought is well known. Over 40 of his works are in existence and widely translated. He considered the Bible to be the supreme guide to godly wisdom. He considered Moses to be the epitome of the philosopher. These two divergent disciplines – Biblical Judaism and Greek philosophy – were two sides of a coin to Philo. One revealed the truth of God via His direct word. The other represented the mind of man - the supreme creation and the only creation capable of imitating the mind of God - paving its own path to truth through philosophical inquiry.
Of special interest is his use of the confusing term Logos to describe God’s thought process in creating and guiding the world. God, to Philo, was totally distinct from the material world and any association of God with the world was heretical. Hence he must allegorize all Biblical references to God’s physicality and even direct interaction with the world. For intermediaries he uses both angels and the Logos. Logos has been translated in many ways, most commonly as ‘word’, ‘reason’, or ‘idea’. Philo understood the Logos as God’s primary spiritual method of interacting with the world. It was the philosophical equivalent of the Rabbinic Hebrew term shechina, or divine presence. It was God’s word that became real through creation and divine intervention. In introducing this idea into Judaism, it split God into a revealed or ‘immanent’ side, and a hidden or ‘transcendent’ side. This would become central feature of Jewish mysticism. It also became a crucial component of the Christian concept of Jesus as a persona of God.
Among the countless issues Philo examines is the creation story. Not surprisingly, the creation of man plays a central role in his scheme. In his work ‘On the Creation’ he offers four answers to an important question: why man was created last. The following, from section XXV, is his first answer:
‘And some may inquire the cause why it was that man was the last work in the creation of the world. For the Creator and Father created him after everything else as the sacred scriptures inform us. Accordingly, they who have gone most deeply into the laws, and who to the best of their power have investigated everything that is contained in them with all diligence, say that God, when he had given to man to partake of kindred with Himself, grudged him neither reason, which is the most excellent of all gifts, nor anything else that is good; but before his creation, provided for him every thing in the world, as for the animal most resembling Himself, and dearest to Him, being desirous that when he was born, he should be in want of nothing requisite for living, and for living well; the first of which objects is provided for by the abundance of supplies which are furnished to him for his enjoyment, and the other by his power of contemplation of the heavenly bodies, by which the mind is smitten so as to conceive a love and desire for knowledge on those subjects; owing to which desire, philosophy has sprung up, by which, man, though mortal, is made immortal.’
Well, for one thing, we have to give him credit for answering his question. Man was created last so that he would have everything ready for his use. There are two ‘objects’ with which man was provided – the material and the spiritual. The material is described as those things that are ‘requisite for living’ and are ‘the abundance of supplies which are furnished to him for his enjoyment’. The spiritual is the power of reason ‘which is the most excellent of gifts’ and is ‘for living well’. Between these two categories man would have everything he needs for living the life that was intended for him as ‘the animal most resembling Himself and dearest to Him’. The question that Philo addressed may not be the most pressing question out there, but Philo has probably given about as clear an answer to it as anyone. What has all this to do with our big question?
When we look a little deeper in this paragraph we see some fascinating things. The creation of man is described as ‘when he had given to man to partake of kindred with Himself’. Man’s creation was to enable man to interact with God. Man was not created to enjoy himself, or to build a better world, or to help out others, or to make himself a better person. Those may all be very noble pursuits, and may be included somewhere in Philo’s works as important things to do. But they aren’t the reason man was created. The real reason was for man to become in some way, one with God. Man is ‘the animal most resembling Himself and dearest to Him’. So God wanted a creation that could pursue the elusive and exclusive goal of ‘kindred with Himself’. What are the requirements for this goal?
This is where the spiritual enters the picture – to live well. Philo’s spiritual world centers around ‘reason, which is the most excellent of all gifts’. The specific example Philo gives of the gift of reason is in ‘contemplation of the heavenly bodies’. We may not be so intrigued by them today, but 2000 years ago they were the ultimate mystery. Apparently tied to set paths, they demonstrated a hidden order that pointed at nothing less that the mind of God. This was the spiritual power behind the natural world. This was the Logos at work, the force that Philo elsewhere calls the near blasphemous title ‘the second God’, or perhaps even worse, ‘the first born of God’. To understand the message of the Logos firsthand was to understand God.
Why is it that the paths of the heavenly bodies that were so significant in ancient times have become so irrelevant in recent years? To the ancients, their movement was the clearest evidence possible for spiritual entities. The stars and the planets had intelligence and possessed souls. Their motion was the window into the highest form of knowledge. ‘Love and desire for knowledge’ is the precise meaning of the world philosophy. To Philo there was no greater goal than to try to know, and no greater reward than to know. He goes so far as to state that this reward was nothing less than immortality.
To know something of the way God worked was to be ‘kindred with Himself’. Man’s creation in the image of God refers to his ability to contemplate. To make the most of that ability was to enhance and refine that image until it came as close as possible to its source. Contemplation was being like God. We are mortal animals but we possess immortal souls. When we magnify the soul and enable it to soar to the heights that it came from, it attains its true purpose – which is to achieve the immortality that lies within it. It is a little sad that this path to immortality is closed to us now, probably never to be reopened. We understand knowledge but we do not love it. We can no longer revere it as a mirror on which one side is the human mind and the other side is God.
Bringing up the topic of achieving immortality today is a surefire way to raise eyebrows. Nobody is thinking about achieving immortality through the use of the mind. The mind is for figuring stuff out and for enjoying life. It’s certainly not the human version of God or a ticket to immortality. The closest anybody can come to achieving immortality today is to make the big time as a celebrity. It’s a far cry from the Bible and Philo. Is there any hope for us scientific-minded practical techies? Have we forever relegated ourselves to artificial lives filled with plastic and predictability? We may get things done a heck of a lot easier but we sure don’t feel any kindred with God. Does anybody even care about this loss? For those who haven’t quite lost the sense of wonder and mystery, there is hope. There is always something else out there that hasn’t been trivialized into an exercise for a computer, something that demands nothing less than pure human intelligence, an open imagination, and a healthy dose of respect and wonder for the infinite depth that lurks in creation. Contemplation, not calculation, is the path through that looking glass.
A little contemplation never really hurt anybody. It may be difficult at first to get into the swing of things, but there are plenty of things out there to contemplate and plenty of opportunity to do it. It’s just a matter of taking the time, putting in the energy, not settling for shortcuts, and not selling out to the instant gratification of the Internet. The world, nature, the mind, the universe, beauty and truth, joy and sorrow, life, death, love and hatred, good and evil – there is an infinite wealth of things to contemplate and to contemplate again. It is our path to immortality.
Food for Thought
There is still a lot of thinking going on out there, perhaps more than ever. But somehow it doesn’t seem like the type of thing that Philo would have called ‘a love and desire for knowledge’. How do we find those untainted things to contemplate and how do we get our computer-dependent brains back into real contemplation?
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