79 - To the Lighthouse: Philo of Alexandria

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We put the Philo in philosophy this week, as Philo of Alexandria reads the Bible through the lens of Middle Platonism.



Further Reading

Philo’s works are available in a single-volume English translation: C.D. Yonge, The Works of Philo (Peabody, MA: 1993), and in numerous volumes of the Loeb series from Harvard University Press.

• A. Kamesar (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Philo (Cambridge: 2009).

• J. Mansfeld, “Philosophy in the Service of Scripture: Philo’s Exegetical Strategies,” in J.M. Dillon and A.A. Long (eds), The Question of “Eclecticism” (Berkeley: 1988), 70-102.

• G. Reydams-Schils, “Philo of Alexandria on Stoic and Platonist Psycho-Physiology: the Socratic Higher Ground,” Ancient Philosophy 22 (2002), 125-47.

• D.T. Runia, Philo and the Timaeus of Plato (Leiden: 1986).

• S. Sandmel, Philo of Alexandria: an Introduction (New York: 1979).

• K. Schenck, A Brief Guide to Philo (Louisville: 2005).

• H.A. Wolfson, Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Cambridge, MA: 1948).


Theophilus on 8 May 2012

Light in a Fog


While your presentation is illuminating as usual, I fear the terrain you are covering with Philo is somewhat clouded, specifically with regard to the term "logos." Philo was inconsistent in his use of this term which I guess is to be expected from a mystic.But I would like to cut through this fog if possible.

The Stoics seemed to have elevated this term to a divine, even vital status, using "logos spermatikos" to indicate the generative principle that extends throughout the universe. Philo then makes it personal, referring to "logos" as the "first-begotten Son". This was very attractive to early Christian apologists who conveniently forgot Philo's allusion to the begetting of a second, sustaining power.

The question I have is: "To what extent is a philosopher or theologian granted such speculative license?" Plato himself seemed to indulge in speculation more loosly teathered to logic in the Timaeus. While I notice that Whitehead, in the name of "coherence", seems to grant a wider range to speculative philosophy than other contemporary philosophers, I wonder if, at the end of the day, this is more a matter of aesthetics. As with any good work of art, to what extent are we willing to suspend disbelief to embrace a more expansive, albeit vague, vision?

As instructor, what advise might you offer to keep more mystic-minded students grounded in the sensible realm as they hone their logical skills?

In reply to by Theophilus

Peter Adamson on 8 May 2012

Philo and mysticism

Actually I'm not sure I agree with your characterization of Philo as a "mystic" -- this is a word we need to use carefully. It's also applied frequently to Neoplatonists, and again I object to that (I may touch on this when I get to Plotinus). Like many philosophers in the Judeo-Christian tradition(s) he recognizes limits on our ability to grasp God but my impression was that he is pretty confident in using Platonist theories to expound a theory of the divine nature and the relation of God to the world. So he's not more mystical than, say, Eudorus of Alexandria (about whom we know a lot less, admittedly). This has implications for your point about "logos"; my impression was that the logos for Philo is simply the divine ideas insofar as they relate to and help shape the created world. So it plays a similar function to the Stoic god, perhaps (which was also called logos). I think there's a danger of reading back the Christian concern with the second person of the Trinity onto Philo here, as you imply. He also by the way talks about a female principle in his allegorization of the creation process, something I didn't quite manage to get into the podcast, in part because I'm not sure I understand it very well!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Theophilus on 10 May 2012

Mystery Solved


Concerning the description of Philo as a mystic, I refer to a remark in Kenneth Schenck's "A Brief Guide to Philo" where he writes "The word mystic is unfortunately a somewhat ambiguous term at present...The term ... does not adequately describe Philo, although it seems to address an important element of who he was. ... When he described the experience of the realm beyond the world of the senses, he frequently did employ mystical language. Yet the language must be read within the appropriate bounds." (p.6) In light of this clarification I accept your caution and withdraw my accusation of Philo as a "mystic."

In truth, I more admire Philo for his willingness to wrestle with language and apply the precise terms of Greek philosophy to the more poetic allusions of Hebrew scriptures. D.T. Runia in "Philo and the Timaeus of Plato," also on your reading list, notes that: "The task of Greek philosophy for Philo is...to supply a language of reason which allows the commentator to understand the wisdom contained in the Law." (p.538)

Concerning the seeming ambiguity between feminine and masculine principles that you mention, one plausible explanation I've come across attributes this to a grammatical problem that Philo runs into when he associates virtues which are feminine with powers which are masculine in Greek such as "sophia" and "logos". But he certainly deserves the credit for trying to logically contain such expansive or speculative ideas.


In reply to by Theophilus

Peter Adamson on 10 May 2012

Mysticism etc

Hi Bill,

Ok, I think I agree with you and Schenck's comment about the mystical language -- with the caveat that, as I say, the word "mystical" needs to be used carefully since it isn't obvious what it means. (I tend to think a good definition is that a mystic believes that some things transcend thought and/or language, in which case "mystical language"  threatens to be a contradiction in terms.) That quote from Runia sums Philo up beautifully, which is unsurprising because Runia is one of the greatest scholars of Philo's thought.


Roman Prychidko on 9 May 2012

middle platonism

Hi Peter taking of middle platonism and allegorical interpretations here one for you.

Stuck in the middle with you.
A platonsit through and through.
A nomad and dyad from many to one to,
From finite to infinite thats your crew.

Medeival and ancient philosophy changeing places.
Yet the shoes of the new have familiar faces.
Neo Platonism purged if its pagan laces.
Leaving Christianity foot to begin to walk its paces.


In reply to by Roman Prychidko

Peter Adamson on 10 May 2012

Philosophical poetry

Hi Roman,

You may have started something here... history of philosophy poetry! I'll see what I can come up with (but probably keep it to myself).



In reply to by Peter Adamson

Roman Prychidko on 10 May 2012

Hi Peter you are right there

Hi Peter you are right there is a gap in the cultural scene one that I am hoping to address. I have been following your podcasts from the begining and have verse for every single one . Its an attempt to draw in the layman as well as the specialist into a whole new world. A prism of multi dimesionalism. Or as Sartre would have it a flashlight illuminating parts of the world it visits. I know it sounds pretetious but what can you do if you want to be yourself.

Natalia Doran on 23 May 2012


Is it just me, or is Plato's "eternal living creature" in the Timaeus a lot closer to the Logos of the 4th Gospel than Philo's logos? The former is a person with an independent intelligence, in so many Platonic words begotten of the Father, whereas the latter is merely a combination of the thoughts of God?

In reply to by Natalia Doran

Peter Adamson on 25 May 2012

Plato's "logos"

That's an interesting thought. I guess a potential disanalogy is that the Demiurge "looks to" the Forms (including Living Being) in making the cosmos, but doesn't "beget" them (in fact it looks like he is causally independent of them and they of him, though Neoplatonist readers would disagree with me about that!). In the Neoplatonists you do have the idea of logos as something begotten, because the word is used for images of Forms that are emanated into lower levels of reality.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Natalia Doran on 27 May 2012


Thank you for clarifying my confusion: "father" and "begets" do refer to the living creature that is the world, not the eternal Living Being that is the model. So do you think that Plato's eternal Living Being has greater hypostatic autonomy that Philo's Logos?

Natalia Doran on 23 May 2012

men and women

Why is this a problem? Man is mind, woman is senses, with all that follows from it in terms of unity and diversity. But woman is not pleasure - I have to stop sitting at your feet for just one instance, Peter, in order to say that - woman is senses, neutral, not negative. The serpent in pleasure, always bad (says Philo).

In reply to by Natalia Doran

Peter Adamson on 25 May 2012

Philo on women

Hm, I should check the text again but I'm pretty sure that in at least one passage Philo says explicitly that Eve represents pleasure, because she seduces Adam. It may well be right though that he thinks of the female as relating to sensation -- I'm not sure that would be "neutral" actually. Remember he's a Platonist and would see the senses too as a possible source of seduction away from our true goal which is virtue and ultimately an understanding of the intelligible (i.e. God, in his case). The senses would also relate closely to pleasure of course.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Natalia Doran on 27 May 2012

Philo on women

Though intimidated by the "Hm", I will still venture to say that Philo builds his whole allegorical interpretation of the man/woman Genesis story on the idea that man stands for mind and woman for sensation, e.g. Allegorical Interpretations II 5, 7-8, 24, 25-30, 35-36, 38 onwards; Allegorical Interpretations III 55 onwards. References from Younge's translation. And serpent for pleasure.

Pleasure does attach itself first to the senses (the serpent seduces Eve first), and through the senses to the mind, which then becomes the slave rather than the ruler (cf Plato's tripartate soul and the rightful rulers), but senses are in themselves neutral and pleasure wicked (Allegorical Interpretations III 61,67).

Joy, though, is not the same as pleasure, and is good.

Man can also stand for heaven and woman for earth, but I really cannot think of any instance where woman would be pleasre.

In reply to by Natalia Doran

Peter Adamson on 28 May 2012

Philo on Eve

Hello again -- The "hm" was supposed to indicate doubt on my part as to whether I'd made a mistake, and rightly so! I had a look at the text again today and you are definitely right. Eve consistently represents sensation and not pleasure; and as you say the serpent is pleasure. However I still think that the portrayal of Eve in Allegorical Interpretations is rather negative, simply because sensation itself is glossed negatively. For instance Philo calls it the cause (aitia) of pleasure, I think, and speaks of the serpent of pleasure as being specific to Eve/sensation. So I think there is still a clear idea that Eve/sensation is seducing Adam/reason to succumb to pleasure, without being identified with pleasure as you so rightly say. Thank you for the correction, I will fix this in the script! (Which matters because it will I hope be a book later on.)


In reply to by Peter Adamson

Natalia Doran on 29 May 2012

Philo on Eve

Sensation seems to have one foot in the soul, and one in the body. When seen as a passable aspect of the soul, it is OK, but inasmuch as it is part of the material body, it is not OK.

I always wonder why Philo's God created the material world in the first place. The only explanation of his that I came across is "for contrast", but that sounds like banging your head against the wall because it feels so good when you stop.

In reply to by Natalia Doran

Peter Adamson on 29 May 2012

Why does God create?

Yes, of course this becomes a long-running difficulty later in Neoplatonism and the various medieval traditions. Does he ever refer to the part of the Timaeus where Plato says that the Demiurge is not envious? That could help: the idea would be that God wants to give the perfections that He has more eminently or in Philo's case wants to instantiate the perfect divine ideas, out of generosity.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Natalia Doran on 30 May 2012

Why does God create?

Yes, the Timaeus quote does appear in On the Creation, (21), and is very helpful.

Another consideration might be that Philo's God, like Plato's Creator, imposes order on pre-existent matter, and, in His goodness, does the best He can with very unpromising chaotic raw material.

But how shocking for a Platonic philosopher to have two first principles, and for a Jew to worship a God constrained by Necessity!

Shocked of Roehampton.

Matthew on 4 June 2012

greek term question.

Hey Peter. How do you spell the greek term at 2:18? And where might I read more about that tradition?

In reply to by Matthew

Peter Adamson on 4 June 2012

Healing the myths

Hi -- it's therapeia muthôn. I took this point from the essay on Philo as a Biblical exegete in the Cambridge Companion to Philo so that would probably be a good first port of call. George Boys-Stones has done some good work (see his Post-Hellenistic Philosophy) on how philosophers in this period dealt with their literary/mythical classics, e.g. Cornutus the Stoic. Incidentally I'll be interviewing him on early Christian philosophy later!

Glenn Russell on 8 December 2012

Moses the source of all true philosophy?

I went back to listen and study your podcasts starting with Thales. I’m up to #79. Really great. Thanks so much for all this, Peter.

You mentioned here how Philo said Moses is the source of all true philosophy. I can’t imagine Greek philosophers agreeing with him. Is there any recorded reaction to this claim?

Back in college where I studied philosophy, I didn't hear any of my professors note that Moses is the source of all true philosophy!


in esse on 10 May 2013

Best source on Philo?

Dear Peter,

I think you might've overlooked perhaps the most important secondary source on Philo: Wolfson's two volume work (Harvard Univ. Press).

In reply to by in esse

Peter Adamson on 10 May 2013


Yes, you're right, I'll add it. Probably overlooked it because I tend to look for newer stuff all else being equal (given that you can trace back to older bibliography that way) but that is definitely worth having on there.

LUCAS on 14 February 2016

Philo and Plato

This is one of my favorite of all the previous 78 podcasts.  Very interesting how you traced the development of the theory of the forms through Philo's identifying forms with the OT God.  Also, the identification of God as Logos in line with the greek traditions of identifying Logos with forms or logic or first principles.  I'm looking forward to getting to your Augustine podcasts to see this further developed.  

As I'm sure you are aware, the prologue to the gospel of John gives a lot of discussion to the Christian Logos doctrine.  Do you think John was aware of Philo's writings?

In reply to by LUCAS

Peter Adamson on 14 February 2016

Philo and John

Great, glad you enjoyed this episode! As for Philo and the Gospel of John I've never seen that suggestion, and I tend to assume the answer is no - I guess that Philo's (extensive) influence on Christian theology only comes in some generations later.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

LUCAS on 16 February 2016


Thanks for the response.  Some Christian philosophers (Gordon Clark and Ronald Nash, to name two) have suggested that John was giving his own Christianized Logos doctrine.  It seems like Philo was very Platonistic, whearas I'm not aware of any other blatantly Platonistic tendencies in John's writings (except maybe his emphasis on the intellect).  I don't suppose John was all that familiar with the philosophical ideas of his Greek predecessors, but it seems to me that John 1 - in identifying the Logos as being God, as the true light which enlightens every man, and as Jesus - might be leading us to believe that he is contrasting his Logos doctrine with the Logos doctrines of some of his contemporary pagan neigbors.  Do you have any thoughts on that or have you ever heard of any theories like that?

In reply to by LUCAS

Peter Adamson on 18 February 2016


Well, I have to admit that this is really not my area of expertise - you may have noticed I gave the gospels themselves a pretty wide berth in the podcast! So all I can say is that your suggestion isn't implausible but I don't know of any literature developing that idea in detail. Maybe someone else can help if they see your comment.

Steve on 17 May 2020

Philo and Judaism

I know Philo had a great influence on Christain thinkers. You mention his influence on Judaism, but didn't spell that out. Could you say more about that? Did he influence rabbinical Judaism or the Essenes? 

In reply to by Steve

Peter Adamson on 17 May 2020

Philo and the Jews

Oh interesting question. I actually think that Philo was much more influential on Christians than Jews, at least in philosophy, because his works were not translated into Arabic and most of the action in the middle ages for Jewish thought, as we saw, was in the Islamic world. Plus Philo wrote in Greek not Hebrew. But whether there is much of Philo in late antique Jewish religious culture, I am not sure to be honest. Maybe others can enlighten us here!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Steve on 17 May 2020

More on Philo

I looked at the Stanford EP after I wrote, and it confirmed my suspicion about this:

"One of the major paradoxes for his posterity is that his work was ignored by Jews and saved by Christians, some of whom thought that he was himself a Christian. In 233 CE the entire corpus was brought to Caesarea, a city that became the main center of its transmission, though some papyri suggest the circulation of at least some of his treatises in Egypt." 

I think that works in Greek and Latin didn't get paid much attention by the rabbis, leaving aside any issues of theological or legal orthodoxy. I seem to recall that it was Christians who preserved Josephus' works, because of the light they cast on NT history, but that Jews didn't read him in the middle ages. 

I'd need to check on the Essenes, who had their own allegorical ways of reading Torah, but I don't think they read Greek works either. 

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