Philo Judaeus (fl. 20 BCE–40 CE)

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(fl. 20 BCE40 CE)

Philo Judaeus, the Jewish Hellenistic philosopher, was the son of a wealthy and prominent Alexandrian family. Philo was well educated in both Judaism and Greek philosophy. Little is known about the actual events of his life except that in 40 CE the Jewish community of Alexandria sent him as the head of a delegation to Emperor Caligula to seek redress from the wrongs which the Gentile population inflicted upon the Jews. His Legacy to Gaius tells the story of this mission. Although he also wrote moral and philosophic treatises on problems then current, the main bulk of his writings are philosophic discourses on certain topics of the Hebrew Scripture. In content they are, on the one hand, an attempt to interpret the scriptural teachings in terms of Greek philosophy and, on the other, an attempt to revise Greek philosophy in the light of those scriptural traditions.

The scriptural teachings with which Philo set out to revise Greek philosophy contained certain definite conceptions of the nature of God and his relation to the world but only vague allusions to the structure and composition of the world. In dealing with the latter, therefore, he felt free to select from the various views of Greek philosophers whichever seemed to him the most reasonable, although occasionally he supported the selection by a scriptural citation. In dealing with the conception of God, however, he approached Greek philosophic views critically, rejecting those that were diametrically opposed to his scriptural traditions and interpreting or modifying those which were plastic enough to lend themselves to remolding.

God, Platonic Ideas, Creation

Of the various conceptions of God in Greek philosophy, Philo found that the most compatible with scriptural teaching was Plato's conception, in the Timaeus, of a God who had existed from eternity without a world and then, after he had brought the world into existence, continued to exist as an incorporeal being over and above the corporeal world. But to Plato, in the Timaeus, besides the eternal God, there were also eternal ideas. Philo had no objection to the existence of ideas as such, for he held that there was a scriptural tradition for the existence of ideas. But he could not accept the eternity of the ideas, for, according to his scriptural belief, God alone is eternal. By a method of harmonization that had been used in Judaism in reconciling inconsistencies in Scripture, Philo reconciled the Timaeus with the scriptural tradition by endowing the ideas with a twofold stage of existence: First, from eternity they existed as thoughts of God; then, prior to the creation of the world they were created by God as real beings. He may have found support for the need of such a harmonization in the many conflicting statements about the ideas in Plato's dialogues.

The ideas, which in Plato are always spoken of as a mere aggregation, are integrated by Philo into what he terms "an intelligible world," an expression that does not occur in extant Greek philosophic writings before him. Then, following a statement by Aristotle that the "thinking soul" (that is, nous), "is the place of forms" (that is, ideas), Philo places the intelligible world of ideas in a nous, which, under the influence of scriptural vocabulary, he surnamed Logos. Accordingly, he speaks also of the Logos as having the aforementioned two stages of existence.

For the same reason that he could not accept the view that the ideas are eternal, Philo also could not accept the view commonly held by contemporary students of Plato that the preexistent matter out of which, in the Timaeus, the world was created was eternal. But as a philosopher he did not like to reject altogether the reputable Platonic conception of a preexistent matter. And so here, too, he solved the difficulty by the method of harmonization. There was indeed a preexistent matter, but that preexistent matter was created. There were thus to him two creations, the creation of the preexistent matter out of nothing and the creation of the world out of that preexistent matter. For this too, it can be shown, he may have found support in certain texts of Plato.

In the Timaeus, Plato describes the creation of the world as an act that God "willed" (βουλήθη ), and similarly the indestructibility of the world is described by him as being due to the "will" (βούλσις ) of God. Presumably, by will in its application to God, Plato here means the necessary expression of God's nature, so that the creation of the world, and of this particular world of ours, was an act that could not be otherwise; and similarly the indestructibility of the world is something that cannot be otherwise. Philo, however, following the scriptural conception of God as an all-powerful free agent, takes the will by which God created the world to mean that had God willed, he could have either not created the world or created another kind of world. And similarly, if it be his will, he can destroy the world, although, on the basis of a scriptural verse, Philo believed that God would not destroy it.

Laws of Nature, Miracles, Providence

The scriptural conception of God as an all-powerful free agent is extended by Philo to the governance of the world. Finding scriptural support for the belief in causality and in the existence of certain laws of nature current among Greek philosophers, except the Epicureans, Philo conceived of God's governance of the world as being effected by intermediary causes and by laws of nature which God had implanted in the world at the time of its creation. He even tried his hand at classifying the laws of nature that happen to be mentioned by various Greek philosophers. But in opposition to the Greek philosophers, to whom these laws of nature were inexorable, he maintained that God has the power to infringe upon the laws of his own making and create what are known as miracles. These miracles, however, are not created arbitrarily. They are always created with design and wisdom for the good of deserving individuals or deserving groups of individuals or humankind as a whole, for, to Philo, God governs by direct supervision not only the world as a whole but also the individual human beings within the world.

To express this particular departure of his from the generality of Greek philosophers, Philo gave a new meaning to the Greek term πρόνοια, "providence." To those Greek philosophers who made use of this term it meant universal providence, that is, the unalterable operation of the inexorable laws of nature whereby the continuity and uniformity of the various natural processes in the world are preserved. To Philo it means individual providence, that is, the suspension of the laws of nature by the will and wisdom and goodness of God for the sake of human beings whose life or welfare is threatened by the ordinary operation of those laws of nature. With this conception of individual providence, Philo takes up the discussion of the human soul.

Soul and Will

On the whole, Philo's conception of the soul is made up of statements derived from various dialogues of Plato. He distinguishes between irrational souls, which are created together with the bodies of both men and animals, and rational souls, which were created at the creation of the world, prior to the creation of bodies. Of these preexistent rational souls, some remain bodiless but others become invested with bodies. The former are identified by Philo with the angels of Scripture. Having in mind certain passages in Plato where such unbodied souls are identified with the popular Greek religious notions of demons and heroes, but knowing that Plato himself and also Aristotle and the Stoics dismissed these popular notions as mere myths, Philo says that the angels of Moses are what philosophers call demons and heroes, but he warns the reader not to take the existence of angels as mere myths. With regard to the preexistent rational souls that become embodied, he says, following Plato, that they are equal in number to the stars and are to be placed in newly born human beings whose bodies are already endowed with irrational souls. Again following Plato, Philo says that the irrational souls die with the bodies, whereas the rational souls are immortal. But he differs from Plato in his conception of the immortality of the soul. To Plato, the soul is immortal by nature and is also indestructible by nature. To Philo, immortality is a grace with which the soul was endowed by the will and power of God, and consequently it can be destroyed by the will and power of God if it has proved itself unworthy of the grace bestowed upon it.

A similar revision was also introduced by Philo into the Greek philosophic conception of the human will. In Greek philosophy, a distinction is made between voluntary and involuntary acts. But since all the Greek philosophers, except the Epicureans, believed in causality and in the inexorability of the laws of nature, for them the human will, to which they ascribed the so-called voluntary acts, is itself determined by causes and is subject to those inexorable laws of nature which govern the universe, including man, who is part of it. To all of them, except the Epicureans, no human act was free in the sense that it could be otherwise. The term voluntary was used by them only as a description of an act which is performed with knowledge and without external compulsion. To all of them, therefore, there was no free will except in the sense of what may be called relative free will. To Philo, however, just as God in his exercise of individual providence may see fit to infringe upon the laws of nature and create miracles, so has he also seen fit to endow man with the miraculous power to infringe upon the laws of his own nature, so that by the mere exercise of his will man may choose to act contrary to all the forces in his nature. This conception of free will is what may be called absolute free will.


Philo also revised the philosophic conception of human knowledge, including the philosophic conceptions of man's knowledge of God. Human knowledge, like all other events in the world, including human actions, is, according to Philo, under the direct supervision of God. Like all other events in the world, which are to Philo either natural, in the sense that they are operated by God through the laws of nature which he has implanted in the world, or supernatural, in the sense that they are miraculously created by God in infringement upon those laws of nature, so also human knowledge is either natural or supernatural, called by Philo "prophetic," that is, divinely revealed.

Under natural knowledge, Philo deals with all those various types of knowledge from sensation to ratiocination that are dealt with by Greek philosophers, especially Plato and the Stoics. He presents prophetic knowledge as a substitute for that type of knowledge that in Greek philosophy is placed above the various senso-ratiocinative types of knowledge and is described as recollection by Plato, as the primary immediate principles by Aristotle, and as the primary conceptions by the Stoics. Like all miracles, prophetic knowledge is part of God's exercise of his providence over individuals, groups of individuals, or humankind in general. An example of prophetic knowledge due to God's exercise of his providence over individuals is Philo's account of his own experience: Often, in the course of his investigation of certain philosophic problems, after all the ordinary processes of reasoning had failed him, he attained the desired knowledge miraculously by divine inspiration. An example of prophetic knowledge due to God's exercise of his providence over a group of individuals, as well as over humankind in general, is Philo's recounting of the revelation of the law of Moses.

Human Knowledge of God

Corresponding to the two kinds of human knowledge are two ways by which, according to Philo, man may arrive at a knowledge of Godan indirect ratiocinative way and a direct divinely revealed way. Philo describes the indirect way as the knowledge of the existence of God which the "world teaches" us, and he deals with the various proofs for the existence of God advanced by Greek philosophers. Most acceptable to him is the Platonic form of the cosmological proof in the Timaeus, inasmuch as it is based on the premise of a created world. He modifies the Aristotelian form of the cosmological proof so as to establish the existence of a prime mover, not of the motion of the world but of its existence. He similarly modifies the Stoic proof from the human mind to establish the existence not of a corporeal God immanent in the world but of an incorporeal God above the world.

In his discussion of the direct way of knowing God, however, Philo makes no mention of the Stoic proof of the innateness of the idea of God. His own direct way of knowing God he describes as a "clear vision of the Uncreated One." But as he goes on to explain it, this direct way of knowing God is only another version of the various indirect ways of knowing him and is similarly based upon the contemplation of the world. The difference between the indirect and direct ways is this: In the case of the various indirect ways, both the knowledge of the world and of the existence of God derived therefrom are attained laboriously by the slow process of observation and logical reasoning; in the case of the direct way, both the knowledge of the world and of the existence of God derived therefrom are flashed upon the mind suddenly and simultaneously by divine inspiration.

But the knowledge of God that may be gained by either of these two ways is, according to Philo, only a knowledge of his existence, not a knowledge of his essence; for as Philo maintains, "it is wholly impossible that God according to his essence should be known to any creature." God is thus said by him to be "unnamable" κατόνομαστος ), "ineffable" ρρητος ), and "incomprehensible" κατάληπτος ). This distinction between the knowability of God's existence and the unknowability of his essence does not occur in Greek philosophy prior to Philo. In fact, in none of the extant Greek philosophic literature prior to Philo do the terms unnamable, ineffable, and incomprehensible, in the sense of incomprehensible by the mind, occur as predications of God. Moreover, it can be shown that both Plato and Aristotle held that God was knowable and describable according to his essence. Philo was thus the first to introduce this view into the history of philosophy, and he had arrived at it neither by Scripture alone nor by philosophy alone. He had arrived at it by a combination of the scriptural teaching of the unlikeness of God to anything else and the philosophic teaching that the essence of a thing is known through the definition of the thing in terms of genus and specific difference, which means that the essence of a thing is known only through its likeness to other things in genus and species. Since God is unlike anything else, he is, as Philo says, "the most generic being" (τ γενικώτατον ), that is, the summum genus, and hence he cannot be defined and cannot be known.

As a corollary of this conception of the unknowability and ineffability of God, it would have to follow that one could not properly speak of God except in negative terms, that is, in terms which describe his unlikeness to other things. But still Scripture repeatedly uses positive terms as descriptions of God. All such terms, explains Philo, whatever their external grammatical form, whether adjectives or verbs, are to be taken as having the meaning of what Aristotle calls property, and the various terms by which God is described are to be taken as mere verbal variations of the property of God to act, in which he is unlike all other beings. For to act is the unique property of God; the property of all created beings is to suffer action.

Theocratic Government

Philo widened the meaning of the conception of natural law in its application to laws governing human society. To Greek philosophers, with the exception of the Sophists, this application of the conception of natural law (or, as they would say, law in accordance with nature) meant that certain laws enacted by philosophers in accordance with what they described as reason or virtue were also in a limited sense in accordance with nature, that is to say, in the mere sense that they were in accordance with certain impulses, capacities, rational desires which exist in people by nature. The Greek philosophers assumed, however, that no law enacted for the government of humans, even when enacted by philosophers in accordance with reason and virtue, can be regarded as natural law in the sense of its being fully in harmony with the eternal and all-embracing laws of nature by which the world is governed. Philo agrees with the philosophers as to the limited sense in which enacted human law may be regarded as natural law but argues that a law revealed by God, who is the creator of the world (as, to Philo, the law of Moses was), is fully in harmony with the laws of nature, which God himself has implanted in the world for its governance. To Philo, therefore, natural law came to mean a divinely revealed law.

This widened conception of natural law led Philo to answer the question raised by Greek philosophers as to what was the best form of government. To both Plato and Aristotle no form of government based upon fixed law can be the best form of government, and Plato explicitly maintains that the best form of government is that of wise rulers who are truly possessed of science, whether they rule according to law or without law and whether they rule with or without the consent of the governed.

Against this, Philo argues that the best form of government is that based upon fixed law, not indeed upon manmade fixed law, but upon a divinely revealed fixed law. In a state governed by such a divinely revealed law, every individual has his primary allegiance to God and to the law revealed by God. Whatever human authority exists, whether secular, governing the relation of person to person, or religious, governing the relation of humanity to God, that authority is derived from the law and functions only as an instrument of the application of the law and its interpretation. Such a state, whatever its external form of government, is really ruled by God, and Philo came near coining the term theocracy as a description of it; the term was actually so coined and used later, by Flavius Josephus. But Philo preferred to describe it by the term democracy, which he uses not in its ordinary sense, as a description of a special form of government in contradistinction to that of monarchy and aristocracy, but rather as a description of a special principle of government, namely, the principle of equality before the law, which to him may be adopted and practiced by any form of government.


In the course of his attempt to analyze the laws of Moses in terms of Greek philosophy, Philo injects himself into the controversy between the Peripatetics and the Stoics over the definition of virtue. Guided by scriptural tradition, he sides with Aristotle in defining virtue as a mean between two vices; hence, in opposition to the Stoics, he maintains that virtue is not the extirpation of all the emotions, that some emotions are good, that there is a difference of degree of importance between various virtues and various vices, and that the generality of human beings are neither completely virtuous nor completely wicked but are in a state which is intermediate between these two extremes and are always subject to improvement. He maintains, however, that by the grace of God some exceptional persons may be born with a thoroughly sinless nature.

Following Plato and Aristotle, both of whom include under the virtue of justice certain other virtues which they consider akin to justice, but guided also by scriptural tradition, Philo includes under justice two virtues that are entirely new and are never mentioned in any of the lists of virtues recorded under the names of Greek philosophers. Thus, on the basis of the scriptural verse (Genesis 15:6) that "Abraham had faith (πίστευσεν ) in God and it was counted to him for justice (δικαιοσύνην )," Philo includes "faith" (πίστις ), which he takes to mean faith in the revealed teachings of Scripture, as a virtue under what the philosophers call the virtue of justice. Similarly, because the Hebrew term edakah in Scripture is translated in the Septuagint both by δικαιοσύνη, "justice" (Genesis 18:19) and by λημοσύνη, "mercy," "alms" (Deuteronomy 6:25, 24:13), Philo includes "humanity" (ϕιλανθροπία ), in the sense of giving help to those who are in need of it, as a virtue under the philosophic virtue of justice. But on the basis of Scripture only, without any support from philosophy, he describes also "repentance" (μετάνοια ) as a virtue. In Greek philosophy, repentance is regarded as a weakness rather than as a virtue.

His scripturally based conception of free will as absolute led Philo to give a new meaning to the voluntariness of virtue and the voluntariness of the emotion of desire as used in Greek philosophy. Both Aristotle and the Stoics, using the term voluntary in the relative sense of free will, agree that virtue is voluntary, but they disagree as to the voluntariness of the emotions. To Aristotle, all emotions are involuntary, except the emotions of desire and anger, the latter of which by the time of Philo was subsumed under desire; to the Stoics, all emotions are voluntary. Philo, however, using the term voluntary in its revised sense of absolute free will, maintains that in this revised sense the term voluntary is to be applied, as in Aristotle, to virtue and to the emotion of desire.

Philo similarly gave a new meaning to the philosophic advice that virtue is to be practiced for its own sake. To Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, this advice was meant to serve as a principle of guidance to those who, like themselves, did not believe in individual providence and were not impressed by the explanations offered in the popular Greek religious theodicies as to why virtue is not always rewarded and vice not always punished. The reason underlying this advice was that since there is no certainty as to what external goods or evils would follow the practice of either virtue or vice, it is preferable for man to take his chance on the practice of virtue. This reasoning was presumably based on the common human experience that it is easier for one to induce in himself a feeling of happiness in the misery that may follow a life of virtue than it is to induce in himself a feeling of happiness in the misery, and sometimes even in the joy, that may follow a life of vice.

To Philo, however, the advice to practice virtue for its own sake is based upon his belief that providence is individual; that, despite common observation to the contrary, no virtue goes unrewarded; that acts of virtue are of graded merits; and that the reward is always in accordance with the merit of the act. With all this in the back of his mind, Philo's advice to practice virtue for its own sake (which he expresses in a different context by the statement that man is to serve God out of love and not out of expectation of a reward) means that such a practice of virtue is of the highest degree of merit, and the reward for it, which ultimately is of a spiritual nature in the hereafter, will be in accordance with its merit.

Philosophy of History

Finally, Philo's belief in God as a free agent who acts by will and design in the world as a whole, as well as in the life of individual human beings, has led him to a theo-teleological philosophy of history. Alluding to passages in Polybius's Histories, in which the rise and fall of cities, nations, and countries are explained by analogy to the Stoic conception of cosmic history as a cyclical process which goes on infinitely, by necessity and for no purpose, Philo describes the cyclical changes in human history as being guided by "the divine Logos" according to a preconceived plan and toward a goal which is to be reached in the course of time. The preconceived plan and goal is that ultimately "the whole world may become, as it were, one city and enjoy the best of polities, a democracy." His description of the ultimate best of polities is an elaboration of the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah and Micah as to what will come to pass in the end of days.

This is a brief synopsis of Philo's revision of Greek philosophic conceptions of the nature of God and his relation to the world and man. The historical significance of Philo is that his revision became the foundation of the common philosophy of the three religions with cognate ScripturesJudaism, Christianity, and Islam. This triple religious philosophy, which originated with Philo, reigned supreme as a homogeneous, if not a completely unified, system of thought until the seventeenth century, when it was overthrown by Benedict de Spinoza, for the philosophy of Spinoza, properly understood, is primarily a criticism of the common elements in this triple religious philosophy.

See also Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Emotion; Epicureanism and the Epicurean School; Hellenistic Thought; Jewish Philosophy; Logos; Love; Plato; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Stoicism; Virtue and Vice.


The present article is based upon H. A. Wolfson, Religious Philosophy: A Group of Essays (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), and Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, 3rd ed., rev., 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962).

Philo's writings have been translated in the Loeb Classical Library: Philo, translated by F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker, 10 vols., and 2 supp. vols. translated by Ralph Marcus (Cambridge, MA, and London, 19291962). Selections from Philo, edited with an introduction by Hans Lewy, are available in paperback in Three Jewish Philosophers, edited by Hans Lewy, Alexander Altmann, and Isaak Heinemann (New York: Meridian, 1960).

Works on Philo written from various points of view and of interest to students of philosophy are N. Bentwich, Philo-Judaeus of Alexandria (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1910); Émile Bréhier, Les idées philosophiques et religieuses de Philon d'Alexandrie, 2nd ed., rev. (Paris, 1925); J. Daniélou, Philon d'Alexandrie (Paris, 1958); J. Drummond, Philo Judaeus, 2 vols. (London, 1888); E. R. Goodenough, By Light, Light; the Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1935); Isaak Heinemann, Philons griechische und jüdische Bildung (Breslau, 1932); E. Herriot, Philon le juif (Paris, 1898); C. Siegfried, Philon von Alexandria (Jena, Germany, 1875); M. Stein, Pilon ha-Alexandroni (Warsaw, 1937); and W. Völker, Fortschritt und Vollendung bei Philon von Alexandrien (Leipzig, 1938). See also H. L. Goodhart and E. R. Goodenough, "A General Bibliography of Philo," in E. R. Goodenough, The Politics of Philo Judaeus (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1938), pp. 125348.

Harry A. Wolfson (1967)

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Philo Judaeus (fl. 20 BCE–40 CE)

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