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(c. 20 B.C. — after 40 A.D.)



Philo was born of a noble family in Alexandria, where he studied Judaic theology and Greek philosophy. He acted as an ambassador on a mission to the Roman Emperor Gaius Caligula in 40. Little else is known of his life.



[1] [See especially On the Maker of the World.] Philo's primary aim was to reconcile philosophy with theology [a]. Where the scriptures conflicted with philosophy, he said they should not be disregarded but that allegorical interpretations should be attempted. He conceives of God as pure being, eternal, simple, free and transcendent — beyond Good and Beauty [b]. From Eternal Ideas as His own thoughts God created Ideas as real immaterial entities and then the world of sensible things as copies of these Ideas [c]. Ideas in both these two stages are contained within Reason (logos) [d], though it is not always clear whether for Philo this logos is independent of God or an aspect of Him. Sensible things are also material and as such they are the creation of a pre-existent matter which is itself created directly by God [e]. Corresponding to the two levels of the logos there are in man the faculty of reason and its expression in the spoken word. Philo says further that there are other intermediary beings or 'powers' (dunameis) in the logos [f], such as providence, creativity, and will, though again it is unclear whether these are independent existences or functions of the Ideas and attributes of God; this depends on the status of the logos. By means of His providence (pronoia) God can will to suspend the otherwise rigid deterministic laws of Nature [g][g] if, in His goodness, He deems it to be to man's benefit. Philo also subscribed to a mystical view of numbers [h].



[2] According to Philo man has both an irrational soul, created with the body, and a rational soul created by God [a] when he made the world but before he created bodies. Irrational souls perish with the body at death. God decides whether or not a given rational soul is worthy to be immortal [b]. He can likewise, if he so wishes, enable man to act against the laws of his own nature. Man's freedom can therefore be said to be absolute — though subject ultimately to the will of God [c].



[3] Man's knowledge is under God's control and is either natural — acquired through the senses or reason — or supernatural ('prophetic') [a]. Philo thinks the latter is superior and takes the place of Plato's 'recollection' or of the first principles and primary conceptions sought by other Greek philosophers. Knowledge that God exists can be gained by reasoning from Nature (for example, the cosmological argument), or by direct 'intuition' of the world as intimately linked with God. Knowledge of God's essence, however, is not possible [b].



[4] Morality and human law are grounded in God's revealed law and are therefore in harmony with the laws of Nature He has ordained to govern the world [a]. Philo sees this as providing the basis for human government in society. Under the law all men are equal. Virtue is central in his ethics and should be followed for its own sake as an expression of the love of God. But Philo allows that there are different kinds and degrees of virtue, for example, faith, humanity, and repentance, which are subsumed under justice [b]. He also says that virtue should take account of the emotions [c] — not all of which are bad — and aim at a balance between extreme vices [d]. He regards both virtue and desire as voluntary, that is, free.



Philo's significance lies in his attempt to reconcile the Jewish scriptures with Greek philosophy through the introduction of a number of original concepts — the duality of Ideas in God's mind and as created realities; the creation of a pre-existent matter from which the world was supposed to be fashioned; an absolutist view of free will; a distinction between God's existence (provable) and essence (unknowable); an expansion of the list of virtues; and an assimilation of natural law to divine revelation. Not surprisingly these innovations give rise to philosophical difficulties. For example, God's essence being supposedly unknowable no doubt accounts for Philo's equivocation concerning the logos. Does it have independent existence or is it but an aspect of God? Likewise are the 'Powers' distinct entities or divine attributes? Philo's rigid dualism of soul and body, his apparent downgrading of the sensual side of man, his 'otherworldliness', and his conscious turning away from participation in social life might all suggest a certain imbalance or onesidedness in his philosophy. Nevertheless Philo's system paved the way for Neoplatonism and thereby contributed to the intellectual foundations of Islam and Christianity as well as Judaism — though to what extent is disputable.



Philo: On the Maker of the World; On the Eternity of the World; On Providence; That Every Good Man is Free; and other writings. There are translations in H. Lewy, A. Altmann, S Heinemann (eds), Three Jewish Philosophers. His complete works are also available in the Loeb Classical Library edition.


Dillon, J. M., The Middle Platonists.


E. R. Goodenough, An Introduction to Philo Judaeus.

S. Sandmel, Philo of Alexandria: An Introduction.





[1a] Philosophy and theology — reconciliation






[1b] Transcendent God



[3a 5b]



[1c] Creation of Ideas and the world    Plato [1b c 5a-d f]


[1d] Ideas, Reason (Logos), and God






[1e] Matter and the sensible world    Plato [5a 5b]


[1f] Hierarchical cosmos — intermediary beings



[2a b 3a 5f]



[1g] Providence and laws of nature — by God's fiat    Posidonius [1c]


[1h] Number mysticism    Pythagoras [1a]


[2a] Soul — rational and irrational    Plato [9a d]


[2b] Immortality






[2c 1g] Freedom (absolute)







Knowledge — sensory and supernatural

   Plato [6a b 7b e]


[3b] God's existence — proofs; his essence not knowable








[4a; cf 1g] Natural law (and God's fiat)    Posidonius [1c]


[4b] Virtue for its own sake; many virtues — faith, humanity (all as aspects of justice)



[11c 11d 12a 14b]

[18c 19c]


[4c] Virtue and emotion



[11b g]



[4d] Balance between vices    Aristotle [19b]