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Philosophical Haiku

Philo of Alexandria (c.20BCE-c.50CE)

by Terence Green

Wisdom in Logos
God’s handmaid, philosophy
Sacred, Nature speaks

Philo of Alexandria

Philo was the leading Jewish philosopher of the Hellenistic Age. A prominent member of the Jewish community of Alexandria, he was an able spokesman on behalf of his people, and was brave enough to represent them before that blood-thirsty psychopath, the Roman Emperor Caligula.

Much of Philo’s philosophical work centred on responding to Moses as a divinely inspired sage. Tradition has it that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. Philo tried to demonstrate that Moses’s ideas were the ultimate source of the wisdom of the ancient Greeks.

Getting to know God isn’t easy, Philo said, mainly because he doesn’t occupy any place or space, is incorporeal, and is entirely self-sufficient, and thus has no need for relationships with us (you certainly wouldn’t catch him on any social media). Still, we can come to know God through his Word or Reason – both are translations of the Greek Logos – which we can access through our own limited minds (Philo borrowed this idea from the Stoics). Likewise, if we look at nature, we see God’s handiwork everywhere: the intricate, the magisterial, the all-but-unfathomable connections that bind all things together, speak with one voice of the glory of God. This idea was later taken up with much enthusiasm by the natural theologians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially the Anglican divine, the Rev. William Paley. In this way, philosophy can be a sort of servant to theology, helping us to approach Holy Truth. Indeed, although he had virtually no impact on later Jewish philosophers, Philo was a big hit with the mediaeval Christian philosophers.

Philo also taught that while God created the world in six days, this shouldn’t be seen as a poor effort on His part (What? It took how long?), because in fact everything was created simultaneously, and time only began with the cosmos itself.

© Terence Green 2021

Terence Green is a writer, historian, and lecturer who lives in Eastbourne, New Zealand.

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