Opusculum philosophica: Philo
An examination of the lives and teachings of three philosophers; part one: Philo Judaeus
In this new series of articles we aim to examine the lives and teachings of three prominent philosophers who flourished during the early centuries of the Christian era. These are Philo (ca. 20 B.C.-50 A.D.), a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher from Alexandria; Epictetus (ca. 50-135 A.D.), the Greek Stoic philosopher; and Proclus (ca. 412-485 A.D.), the most authoritative philosopher of late antiquity who played a crucial role in the transmission of Platonic philosophy to posterity. You may recall that we discussed his ideas in the second of our series of articles on esoteric philosophy, of which this three-part investigation is an extension and continuation. Guest writer, Greg Wade explored some of Epictetus' ideas in the afterword to his article on the Mirror of Accountability published in 2020. We will now consider the writings of all three philosophers in greater depth, beginning with Philo and following on with Epictetus and Proclus in the next two parts of this investigation.
In the sidebar commentary to our Homepage we say that: "Theoretically, most of us admit the duty of thorough and open-minded enquiry into the truth of any important statement before believing it. In practice, no duty is more universally neglected." It follows from this that it should be the constant aim of all sincere seekers to discover Truth in every direction, no matter if such Truths are incomplete in some way or other, or have been concealed or distorted, such as we find in the Bible and other sacred texts. Those of you who have carefully studied our previous series of articles on esoteric Philosophy, Tibetan Buddhism, the Corpus Hermeticum, and our Occult Studies Course, will have gained a good understanding of the Laws and Principles of Occult Science and should be able to sort the chaff from the wheat in the teachings of our three philosophers. If you haven't read these articles now is the time to do so if you wish to reap the greatest benefit from this investigation.
Philo, also called Philo of Alexandria and Philo Judaeus, was an influential Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who flourished in Alexandria, in the Roman province of Egypt, in the early years of the Christian era, during the reigns of the emperors Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius. One of the major paradoxes for his posterity is that his work was ignored by Jews but saved by Christians, some of whom thought that he was himself a Christian. In the year 233 A.D., what remained of his work was brought to Caesarea, now in Israel. Although this city became the main centre of the promulgation and transmission of his writings, some papyri have turned up in Egypt.
Philo's writings are generally divided into five main categories:
- Allegorical commentaries (39 treatises)
- Twelve treatises of exposition of the law (12 treatises)
- Questions and answers on Genesis and Exodus (6 treatises)
- Four historical and apologetic treatises (4 treatises)
- Five philosophical treatises
It is the first, third and fifth categories which most interest us as occultists, for these contain the most esoteric of Philo's teachings. With the exception of a few references to the Bible, his five philosophical treatises could well have been written by a pagan philosopher. The first thing we notice as we peruse his writings is that his is not a novel philosophical system. There is nothing new in Philo's conceptions and speculations. He comes at the end of a long line of illustrious predecessors, many of whom we mentioned in our series of articles on esoteric philosophy. The fact that he is now regarded as the most distinguished of such writers owes more to the preservation of his writings than to his accomplishments as a philosopher. As we shall see later, neither his method of allegorical interpretation or his theology are new. In short, Philo is first and foremost an 'apologist' for the ideas of his predecessors in philosophy on the one hand, and the prophetic traditions of Judaism on the other. Many of his writings are a defence of Jewish mythology, doctrine and prophecy, not as we might suppose, interpreted in the clear light of Neoplatonism, but rather according to the muddy waters of Hellenistic theology. That is to say in the twilight of the cultured Alexandrian religio-philosophy of his times which, we need hardly add, retained very little of the occult truths taught by Plato and his successors.
Philo's interest for the student of occultism, then, does not lie in his originality, which he never possessed, but in his exposition of the ideas of others which, but for their preservation by him, would have been lost to posterity. But here we encounter a serious obstacle which was and remains a stumbling block for anyone without occult knowledge or training who wishes to understand Philo. As a thinking philosopher, the Alexandrian was confronted with the difficulty that a literal reading of the ideas about God, the Cosmos and Man to be found in the scriptures of Judaism were so crude, anthropomorphic and repugnant compared to the elevated thinking of the enlightened philosophy of his Greek contemporaries, that he found it impossible to claim any verisimilitude for them. This same difficulty confronts thinking seekers today who, dissatisfied by a literal reading of the Bible, dismiss it as a work of implausible myths and superstitions long since debunked by material science. In doing so, they throw the baby out with the bath water—a mistake Philo was anxious not to make in his investigation of Judaism.
Unknown artist — Alexandria in the time of Philo — speculative reconstruction
The Achilles' heel of Allegory
The primary tool Philo employed to overcome these difficulties was allegory. But this brought with it further problems, for the allegorical interpretations he relied upon were coloured by the philosophical and religious environment of his times, and not by the unchanging and imperishable laws of Occult Science. This, as we shall see, is the main reason why he went astray in many of his deductions and conclusions. He never stopped to enquire whether the writers of the ancient documents he studied intended their narratives to be taken as myths embodying an esoteric meaning; much less did he ask himself whether they had borrowed the myths of other nations and incorporated them into a history of their own patriarchs and other notables. This, as we saw in our investigation of the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, was the fate of much of the Corpus Hermeticum. Philo neatly sidestepped these difficulties by entirely eliminating the fallible human element, and assumed that the ancient authors had acted as impersonal, passive instruments of Divine inspiration.
In this he erred, for however faithfully Philo clung to this assumption he was unable to maintain it in the face of the doctrinal contradictions he encountered in the books of Moses. He got over the difficulty by making a threefold classification of inspiration: (1) The Sacred Oracles "spoken directly of God by His interpreter the prophet"; (2), those prophetically delivered "in the form of question and answer"; and (3), those "proceeding from Moses himself while in some state of inspiration and under the influence of the deity." Such wriggling and quibbling was the inevitable result of Philo's unshakeable conviction that Moses wrote the Pentateuch from the first to the last word under the direct inspiration of the Almighty. Similar sophistry is still employed today by those rabid evangelicals who proclaim with unblushing gusto that the Bible is the literal word of God, despite incontrovertible evidence that it is the work of man, or rather many men. Yet the fact that Philo admitted the great philosophers of Greece into his pantheon of the Holy (though never allowing them the pre-eminence of Moses!) reconciles us to a large extent to his errors.
The philosophy of Philo
Speaking of the philosophers he admired, Philo said that "these men are the most excellent contemplators of nature and all things therein. They scrutinise earth and sea, and air and heaven, and the natures therein, their minds responding to the orderly motion of moon and sun, and the choir of the other stars, both variable and fixed. They have their bodies, indeed, planted on earth below; but for their souls, they have made them wings, so that they speed through aether, and gaze on every side upon the powers above, as though they were the true world-citizens, most excellent, who dwell in cosmos as their city; such citizens as Wisdom hath as her associates, inscribed upon the roll of Virtue, who hath in charge the supervising of the common weal." Later on he writes: "Such men, though but few in number, keep alive the covered spark of Wisdom secretly, throughout the cities of the world, in order that Virtue may not be absolutely quenched and vanish from our human kind." Now these are true teachings worthy of Plato himself and we agree with them with all our heart, as we are sure our regular readers will too.
In regard to secrecy—which misunderstood principle we have written about elsewhere on our website—Philo said: "Empty not your Treasure-house of Wisdom before the profane." He further states, also rightly, that the Divine Spirit does not remain among the many, though it may dwell with them for a short time. This is only too true, alas, and never more so than today. The Divine Spirit never refuses a single sincere plea for nourishment; it is the masses who refuse the Divine Spirit. In another place he says: "But in order that we may describe the conception and birth-throes of Virtues, let bigots stop their ears, or else let them depart. For that we give a higher teaching of the mysteries divine, to Mystai who are worthy of the holiest rites of all. And these are they who, free from arrogance, practise real and genuine piety, free from display of any kind. But unto them who are afflicted with incorrigible ill—the vanity of words, close-sticking unto names, and empty show of manners, who measure purity and holiness by no other rule than this, for them we will not play the part of Hierophant."
All this is excellent advice of the right sort. But when Philo talks about Rituals, Sacrifices, and so on, we part company from him to follow better paths. For in neither public Ritual, and even less in sacrifices to God, is there any Truth whatsoever. Think about it. What can we possibly sacrifice to God that has not been previously filched from the earth except our lives, which are not ours in any case since they too, are the gift of God. Need we quote the Bible here? "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man" (Matthew 15:11). In other words knowledge and wisdom are gained through the purity and goodness of our thoughts, words and deeds, not in external rites and sacrifices. As we may read in The Book of Fo by Dr E. V. Kenealy, reviewed among our recommended occult books:
Neither in the highest heavens;
Nor in the earth, nor in the waters, nor in the air;
Nor in fire, nor in any element;
Can the spirit escape the consequences of its acts.
It cannot be forgiven;
It must purify itself;
It cannot be atoned for or redeemed;
It must purify itself; it must purify itself;
Sacrifice cannot make it beautiful; it must purify itself;
Offerings or prayers brighten it not;
It must purify itself; it must purify itself."
Moreover, in approving participation in public rites, Philo contradicts his own injunctions about secrecy. This is one example among many of the dichotomy in his mind to which we referred earlier. Although Philo never tells us in so many words that he had been initiated into the Divine Mysteries, his approach to them was in the main correct, and it is for this reason that we are discussing him and his teachings with you. An example of this perspicacity is found in his recognition of the difference between physical and spiritual sight. About this he says rightly: "Now the power of sight of the souls of the many and unrighteous is ever shut in, since it lies dead in deep sleep, and can never respond and be made awake to the things of nature and the types and ideas within her. But the spiritual eyes of the wise men are awake, and behold them; nay, they are sleeplessly alert, ever watchful from desire of seeing." Plato, in his famous Allegory of the Cave, states the same eternal truth in different words.
In another place in his writings Philo provides us with a most remarkable and correct teaching of the 'moulded' and the 'made' man based upon one short verse in Genesis. To save you looking it up, here is that verse. See what you can make of it without our or Philo's help. "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7). Does it not strike you that there are two kinds of 'men' referred to in this verse? One is 'moulded' from the dust of the ground (the earth), the other 'made' of the Spirit. Philo interpreted this verse as follows: "The moulded man is the 'sense-perceptible' man and a likeness of the intelligible type, the earthly man. But the man 'made' in accordance with God's form is intelligible and incorporeal and a likeness to the archetype, so far as this is visible. And he is a copy of the original seal. And this is the Logos of God, the first principle, the archetypal idea, the pre-measurer of all things. For this reason the man who was moulded as by a potter was formed out of dust and earth, in respect of the body. And he obtained a spirit when God breathed life into his face. And the mixture of this nature was a mixture of the corruptible and the incorruptible. For that which is in accordance with the archetypal form is incorruptible, coming from an invisible nature, from that which is simple and pure, and therefore beautiful."
Here we have our old friends the lower and Higher Minds! Astonishing is it not? And thousands, nay, millions have read this verse without reaching the conclusions that Philo did nearly two thousand years ago. This is why writers like John Temple exhort seekers after truth to study the Bible rather than the latest book on so-called 'magic' to roll off the presses or yet another re-hash of the teachings of some contemporary occult luminary. And although we do not know whether Philo was an Initiate he nonetheless correctly differentiates between the lower mind or self (the human body), and the Higher Mind or Self, the archetypal seal and the image of God, which God breathed or sent forth into the moulded man, contrary to the mere animal into which God does not breathe an image of Himself. So in Philo's discourse, though the words may differ, we have a great occult truth, preserved over all those past ages, to be like a Light and a Beacon to future generations of seekers.
The Divine Mysteries
The whole of Philo's expositions revolve round the idea that the truly philosophic life is an initiation into the Divine Mysteries. Thus, in connection with the Alexandrian community of the Therapeutae mentioned in our afterword, he tells us that: "in every cottage there is a sacred chamber, which is called semneion and monasterion in which, in solitude, they are initiated into the mysteries of the solemn life." In speaking of the injunction that those who calumniate divine things should be removed from the most holy places and punished, our Hellenistic Jewish philosopher declares wrathfully: "Drive forth, drive forth, ye of the closed lips, and ye revealers of the Divine Mysteries, the promiscuous and rabble crowd of the defiled—souls unamenable to purification, and hard to wash clean, who wear ears that cannot be closed, and tongues that cannot be kept within the doors [of their lips]—organs that they ever keep ready for their own most grievous mischance, hearing all things and things not lawful [to hear]." The explanatory interpolations in square parenthesis are ours.
Elsewhere in his philosophical writings Philo contends that the four wives of Jacob who gave birth to his twelve sons—Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah—stand allegorically as types of spiritual qualities. There may well be something in this. Indeed, we are sure of it, for the twelve sons of Jacob correspond occultly with the Twelve Tribes of Israel, each of which is connected with one of the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac. The Zodiac itself was anciently divided into four by the astrologers of Egypt and Chaldea, namely, Foundation, Resurrection, Judgement and Consummation. Each division encompassed three Signs beginning with Aries in the first quadrant and ending with Pisces in the fourth. But as this investigation is concerned with the life and teachings of Philo and not esoteric astrology, it is not the time or place to explore these correspondences further, though we hope to do so in a future series of articles on the Royal Art. However, this is not a promise, so please do not write to us about it!
Philo goes on to emphasise the need to protect the Divine Mysteries from profanation: "These things receive into your souls, ye Mystae, ye whose ears are purified, as truly sacred mysteries, and see that ye speak not of them to any who may be without initiation, but storing them away within your hearts, guard well your treasure-house; not as a treasury in which gold and silver are laid up, things that do perish, but as the pick and prize of all possessions—the knowledge of the Cause of all and Virtue, and of the third, the child of both." Here we have a concealed reference to the occult trinity of Father (Cause), Mother (Virtue) and Son, the offspring of Love (the Father) and Wisdom (the Mother), producing Light (the Son or Holy Messenger of God). This continual harping on the divulging of the Mysteries not only shows that Philo considered it the greatest of all crimes, but suggests that he himself had been initiated into them. It is certainly the clearest clue we have to his status as a philosopher.
Philo's conception of the Deity
The notion of God found in Philo's writings is rather more enlightened than we obtain from a literal reading of the Old Testament, or exoteric Judaism. For Philo God is that source which transcends all things and all ideas. It is impossible in a short article like this to collect together and analyse the many writings in which our Alexandrian sage sets forth his views of the Deity, so we will confine our survey to just a few passages to give the reader a general idea of the transcendency of his conception. Philo writes: "What wonder is it if That–Which–Is transcends the comprehension of man, when even the mind which is in each of us, is beyond our power of knowing? Who hath ever beheld the essence of the soul? This Mystery of Deity was, of necessity, in itself ineffable; but in conception, it was regarded under two aspects—the active and the passive causative principles. The Active Principle, the Mind of the universals, is absolutely pure, and absolutely free from all admixture; It transcendeth Virtue; It transcendeth Wisdom; nay, It transcendeth even the Good Itself and the Beautiful Itself. The Passive Principle is of itself soulless and motionless, but when It is set in motion, and enformed and ensouled by the Mind, It is transformed into the most perfect of all works—namely, this Kosmos."
The occultists among our readers will have recognised Spirit and Matter in Philo's two Principles, one positive and active, the other negative and passive, or Male and Female respectively, Father and Mother, the Kosmos itself being the Son, the progeny of both. In this Philo merely echoes the age-old teachings of Occult Science, which were ancient ten thousand, a hundred thousand, and many millions of years ago, having first been formulated and firmly established in Atlantis, from whence they were carried to India, China, Egypt and many other places. Confirmation of Philo's luminous conception can be found in The Secret Doctrine, in which we may read: "Father-Mother spin a web whose upper end is fastened to spirit—the light of the one darkness—and the lower one to its shadowy end, matter; and this web is the universe spun out of the two substances made in one, which is Svabhavat." As we explain in our article on Why Matter matters, Svabhavat is a Sanskrit noun meaning a state or condition where spirit and matter are ONE, only becoming two Principles during manifestation.
Philo continues: "It is then clear, that He who is the generator of things generated, and the artificer of things fashioned, and the governor of things governed, must needs be absolutely wise. He is in truth the father, and artificer, and governor of all in both the heaven and cosmos. Now things to come are hidden in the shade of future time, sometimes at short, and sometimes at long distances. But God is the artificer of time as well. For He is father of its father; and time's father is the Kosmos, which manifests its motion as the genesis of time; so that time holds to God the place of grandson. For that this Kosmos is the Younger Son of God, in that it is perceptible to sense. The Son who is older than this one, He hath declared to be no one perceivable by sense but by mind alone. But having judged him worthy of the elder's rights, He hath determined that he should remain with Him alone."
All this is a recapitulation of the cosmogony of Plato and his copyists, proving, as we said at the beginning of this investigation that there is nothing new in Philo's conceptions and speculations. If we knew no better we might imagine that what we have just quoted came from a treatise of Plotinus, Proclus or some other Neoplatonic philosopher. This impression is reinforced by Philo's designation of the Logos as the 'second god', a concept which was hoary with age long before his time. Philo writes: "But the most universal [of all things] is God, and second the Reason (Logos) of God. For it was not possible that anything subject to death [meaning man] should be imaged after the supremest God who is the Father of the universes, but after the second God who is His Reason (Logos). For it was necessary that the rational impress in the soul of man should be stamped [on it] by the Divine Reason (Logos), since God, who is prior even to His own Reason, transcendeth every rational nature; [so that] it was not lawful that aught generable should be made like unto Him who is beyond the Reason, and established in the most excellent and the most singular Idea [of all]." Once again, the explanatory comments in square parenthesis are ours.
From the foregoing it is clear that although Philo calls the Logos the 'second God,' as did the Neoplatonists who came before him and the Gnostics who came after him; this does not make him a polytheist. The Logos is not a being apart from God in Philo's conception, but the Reason of God. We find this same distinction in chapter one of the Gospel of John, verses 1 to 3, which will be familiar to many of our readers. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him [the Word or Logos]; and without him was not any thing made that was made." The interpolation in parenthesis is ours. But this does not make Philo a monotheist in the strict sense of the Mosaic creed either. For Philo knew, as do the occultists, that there are multitudes of 'Gods', if by this we mean entities of various ranks and qualities who rule the Kosmos under the authority of the Logos. Indeed, such is the ABC of Occult Science, as we may read in chapter 11 of The Golden Star which deals with 'The Dwellers in the Celestial Spheres' or higher, spiritual realms of being.
We can think of no better way to end this brief survey of the beliefs and teachings of the Alexandrian philosopher than with his own words. "The road that leads to pleasure is downhill and very easy, with the result that one does not walk but is dragged along; the other which leads to self-control is uphill, toilsome no doubt but profitable exceedingly. The one carries us away, forced lower and lower as it drives us down its steep incline, till it flings us off on to the level ground at its foot; the other leads heavenwards the immortal who has not fainted on the way and has had the strength to endure the roughness of the hard ascent." We feel sure you will agree with this obvious but nonetheless important teaching. In regard to our own line of work—the study of Occult Science—Philo said: "As there is no advantage in trees unless they are productive of fruit, so in the same way there is no use in the study of natural philosophy unless it is likely to confer upon a man the acquisition of virtue, for that is its proper fruit." Had our material scientists followed this wise advice we would not now have to suffer the horrors of atomic bombs, germ warfare, viral pandemics and the many other 'blessings' the inventive genius of science has so generously bestowed upon mankind.
On the other hand Philo assures us that "Wisdom is the most Divine and generous of Mistresses, she never closes her school of thought but always opens her doors to those who thirst for the sweet water of discourse, and pouring on them an unstinted stream of undiluted doctrine, persuades them to be drunken with the drunkenness which is sobriety itself." Though written long after the true teachings of Hermes had been largely forgotten, these fine words of Philo's echo the words of the Master of Masters we have quoted to you so often: "Seek one that may lead you by the hand, and conduct you to the door of Truth and Knowledge, where the clear Light is that is pure from Darkness, where there is not one drunken, but all are sober, and in their heart look up to him, whose pleasure it is to be seen." That 'one', is of course, the Goddess Wisdom, however, and through whomever, She may convey the Holy Truths of God that set us free.
© Copyright occult-mysteries.org. Article published 26 September 2021.