Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


The Alexandrian Movement. The scientific movement in Alexandria, of which mention has already been made, was but a phase of the general intellectual revival which was centered in the capital of Egypt during the last centuries of the old era and the first century of the new. This revival may be said to date from the foundation of the city (332 B.C.) by Alexander the Great, who, owing probably to the influence of Aristotle, always held philosophy in the highest esteem and took a lively interest in the spread of philosophical knowledge. After the division of the Macedonian empire, consequent on the death of Alexander, the Seleucidae in Syria, the Attali in Pergamus, and the Ptolemies in Egypt continued to protect and encourage philosophy. The Ptolemies were especially zealous in the cause of learning, and under their rule Alexandria soon became the Athens of the East, -- the center of the intellectual as well as of the commercial life of the Orient, -- and the point where the Eastern and the Western civilizations met. The famous museum, founded about the beginning of the third century before Christ by Ptolemy Soter, was literally a home of learning, and the no less famous library contained all that was best in Grecian, Roman, Jewish, Persian, Babylonian, Phoenician, and Hindu literature. The protection and encouragement extended to learning by the Ptolemies were continued by the Roman emperors after Egypt became a Roman province.

From this intellectual movement there arose a new phase of philosophical thought, which may be broadly characterized as an attempt to unite in one speculative system the philosophy of Greece and the religious doctrines of the Orient, -- an attempt which was rendered particularly opportune by a variety of circumstances. The Jews had settled in large numbers in Alexandria, and there was constant communication between Alexandria and Palestine, which was at that time dependent on Egypt. The translation known as the Septuagint had brought the sacred books of the Hebrews within the reach of Greek scholars; and Greek philosophy was not unprepared for the task of adjusting itself to the new ideas thus presented to the Greek mind. Indeed, Greek philosophy had reached the point where, its own resources having been exhausted, it welcomed the inflow of new ideas from the East, which had ever been to the Greek imagination the home of the mysterious and the spiritual. Besides, the conviction was gaining ground that Greek philosophy and Oriental religion had a common origin; what, therefore, could seem more natural than that the two should be reunited? Finally, the movement had a practical as well as a theoretical aim: it was hoped that the diffusion of new religious ideas would bring about a reform of the popular religion. At the end of a generation of scepticism such a reform was sadly needed.

In the movement thus broadly characterized as an effort to reform the intellectual and moral life of the time by a synthesis of Greek philosophy and Oriental religion, the religious element was naturally the dominant element, and the philosophy which resulted was more properly a theosophy than a system of philosophy strictly so called. In the stream of theosophical thought we may distinguish two currents: (1) Greco-Jewish philosophy; (2) Neo-Pythagoreanism and Neo-Platonism. In Greco-Jewish speculation Greek philosophy turned to the religious tradition of the East; in the Neo-Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic systems it turned rather towards a mystic enlightenment, a revelation of the Deity to the individual soul.


Greco-Jewish philosophy may be described as an effort to harmonize the sacred books of the Hebrews with the tenets of Greek philosophy. The Jews of Alexandria were steadfast in the belief that their sacred books contained wisdom infinitely superior to the wisdom of philosophers, yet they could neither resist the inroad of Greek culture and Greek philosophy nor refrain from admiring the wisdom of the Greeks. They set themselves, therefore, the task of finding Plato in the law and of finding the law in Plato, being guided in the accomplishment of this purpose by some such principles as the following:

1. Revelation is the highest possible philosophy: it includes what is best in Greek philosophy.

2. The Greeks derived their doctrines ultimately from the Jewish Scriptures, or at least from Jewish tradition.

3. "The difference between the revealed doctrines of the Jews and the philosophy of the Greeks consists chiefly in this, that in the sacred books of the Jews truth is expressed in symbols and figures, whereas Greek philosophy puts the figure aside and sets before us the thought which the figure expressed."{1}

The practical conclusion of all this was the adoption by the Alexandrian Jews of the allegorical method of interpretation.

Aristobulus (about 160 B.C.) was the first to apply these exegetical principles in a treatise of which some fragments are preserved by Eusebius.{2} The first to build on them a system of thought was Philo of Alexandria.


Life. Philo was an Alexandrian Jew. Little is known of his life beyond the fact that in A.D. 40 he was sent to Rome to represent his co-religionists in their contest with Apion.

Sources. Philo's works, composed in Greek, are very voluminous. Besides these writings we have as sources of information the references which Eusebius, and other writers of the early Church make to the teachings of Philo.{3}

General Aim of Philo's Philosophy. It was Philo's aim so to expound the Scriptures as to bring the revealed religion of the Old Testament into agreement with the philosophy of the Greeks and especially with Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism; for to each of these systems he had recourse according as each in turn seemed best suited to the text under consideration. On account of this mixture of different elements it is impossible to find harmony or unity in his philosophical doctrines.

God, the first cause, is the starting point of Philo's system. He is above all created things. From His works we know that He exists, but what He is is above our comprehension; He transcends all predicates, except the predicate of Being, ho on, which He applied to Himself: "I am who am." Nevertheless, since men will speak of God after their own fashion, He is called One, Unbegotten, Unchangeable, Free, Independent of all things.{4}

The World. The Stoics taught that the world is God: Philo teaches that it is the work of God. It is not eternal; it was made, in time, by God, who wished, by creating, to manifest His goodness. God, being supremely immaterial, did not create the world by His own immediate action; He had recourse to the intermediate agency of certain powers (dunameis), which are described at one time as Divine Ideas and at another as agents, souls, angels, and demons. All these powers are comprehended in the Divine Logos.

The Logos. This is one of the peculiar tenets of Philo's philosophy. Philo might have taken the Platonic term Idea to designate the Logos, for his notion of the Logos is more akin to the Platonic world of Ideas than to any other notion in Greek philosophy. He chose the word Logos, however, because of the biblical use of the term in the expression "Word of God," and because of the Stoic use of it in the phrase logos spermatikos. Indeed, the Logos in Philo's philosophy corresponds to the Stoic concept of a world-soul as well as to the Platonic world of Ideas; for just as in man there are the extrinsic word and the indwelling reason, so in the Divine Logos we may consider the logos endiathetos, or aggregate of Ideas in the divine mind, which is divine wisdom, and the logos prophorikos, or world-soul, which is divine power pervading all things and giving life to all.

The Logos, then, is the first begotten of God, the Son of God, a God, but not God Himself. Its principal function is that of mediation: like the high priest, it stands between the Creator and the creature. Philo, however, fails to determine in any definite manner what the Logos is in itself: the obscurity, the vacillation, the apparent contradiction of the expressions which he employs, show how vague is his concept of the nature of the Logos, although he has a definite concept of its function.

Anthropology. In his doctrine concerning man Philo distinguishes the ideal man, made to the image and likeness of God, and the man of our own experience, in whom he makes a further distinction of rational and irrational natures. At times he elaborates this distinction still further, teaching that there are eight different natures in man. In speaking of the rational soul, he renews the Pythagorean doctrine of transmigration, the Stoic doctrine of the kinship of the soul to God, and the Platonic doctrine of the soul's preexistence. The soul of man does not differ from the angelic nature, In punishment for some original sin it was degraded to a union with the body, which is its prison, its grave, the source of all its ills and all its misery.

Theory of Knowledge. Philo distinguishes three faculties of Cognition aisthêsis, which has for its object the concrete and sensible; logos, which is the reasoning faculty; and Nous, which is the faculty of immediate contemplation of intellectual truths. Contemplation, then, is the highest kind of knowledge; by it only can man attain absolute certainty. It is not, however, like reason and sense, dependent on the natural powers of the mind; its light is a light from above, an illumination which God alone can give, and which He gives through the Logos to those who pray for it. This doctrine of mystical illumination leads to the ethical doctrine of mystical ecstasy.

Ethics. The body is constantly inclining the soul towards sin. Man's first duty is, therefore, to free his soul from the trammels of the body, to rise above the world of sense, to acquire the apathy which the Stoics inculcated. His next duty is to rise from reason to contemplation, until the soul at last becomes one with the Divine Wisdom, and man and God become united in mystical ecstasy. In this ecstatic union consists the supreme happiness of man. Philo, true to his Oriental instinct, places contemplation above action; above the cardinal virtues, which belong to the active life, he places confidence in God, piety, penance, and contemplative wisdom. The possessor of this wisdom, the truly wise, is truly free: wisdom rescues him from the dominion of matter.

Historical Position. Despite the inconsistency of many of his doctrines, Philo exercised a considerable influence not merely on the Gnostics of the first centuries of the Church but also on the Jewish opponents of Scholasticism during the Middle Ages. The most characteristic qualities of his philosophy are its spirit of mysticism, its ethical quietism, and its psychological and ethical dualism -- the separation of body and soul, the sources of evil and of good in man.

{1} Stöckl, Lehrbuck der Geschichte der Philosophie (Münster, 1870; Mainz, 1888). I, 183; English trans. (Dublin, 1887), p. 161.

{2} Pr. Ev., VII, 14, etc.

{3} For bibliography, cf. Ritter and Preller, op. cit., p. 489; Suidas, op. cit., art Philon.

{4} For authorities, cf. Ritter and Preller, op. cit., pp. 491 ff.

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