Episode 56: The First Western Esotericist: Philo of Alexandria

(This episode is another of our series of Episodes Recorded in Exotic Locations, having been put to tape at the Centre for the Study for the Platonic Tradition at Trinity College, Dublin. What better place?)

With Philo of Alexandria, a great many of the threads followed by the podcast up to this point come together in a new way of thinking which we can only call western esotericism. Philo was an elite, highly-educated Jew of good family from Alexandria, living in the first century CE. He embraced simultaneously his Jewish identity and religion alongside (or rather, as an expression of) an esoteric, perennialist Platonism embracing many elements of Stoic and Neopythagorean thought.

We discuss his role in western esoteric history (placing him at the beginning of western esotericism proper), some of the primary esoteric elements of his thought, and some of his philosophic ideas. It is difficult to do justice to a thinker with as much to offer as Philo has in a single episode, which is why we are devoting three episodes to the great Alexandrian, but, to listeners unfamiliar with Philo, this episode should be enough to blow minds on its own. Judaism used to be really … well, esoteric.

Works Discussed in this Episode:

  • Dillon, J., 1977. The Middle Platonists: A Study of Platonism 80 BC to AD 220. Duckworth, London. Citing p. 156.
  • Josephus on the embassy to Caligula: Antiquities xviii.8, § 1; cf. xix.5, § 1; xx.5, § 2.
  • Philo: Cosmic ascent: Opif. 23.70-71:

And, winged once again, [nous is] raised up and, having surveyed the airy region and its vicissitudes, it is borne higher to the æther and the celestial orbits, and joins in the circling dances of the planets and the fixed stars according to the perfect laws of music ( κατὰ τοὺς μουσικῆς τελείας νόμους) . Following the love of wisdom which leads it, having overtopped the entire sensory reality (τὴν αἰσθητὴν οὐσίαν πᾶσαν ὑπερκύψας ), there it longs for the noetic [reality]. And having contemplated in that place the paradigms and ideas of the sensory things it saw here – surpassing beauties – it is possessed by a sober drunkenness and divinely inspired like the mystic celebrants, and is filled with another desire and a better longing. Led by this toward the high summit of the noetic realm, it seems to approach the great King himself. And while it longs to see, pure and unmixed rays of thronging light pour forth like a swollen stream, so that the eye of the discursive mind (τὸ τῆς διανοίας ὄμμα ) is dizzied by their radiance.

Philo pretty straightforwardly states that souls reincarnate: Somn. i 137-139 (the last extant book of the Allegorical Commentary on Genesis). On the strict privileging of esoteric knowledge in Philo, which draws rhetorically on both Judaic tradition and the Hellenic mysteries, see collection of testimonia at Casel, O., 1919. de philosophorum graecorum silentio mystico. A. Toepelmann, Giessen, 74-78. God’s total transcendence in Philo: see e.g. Opif. I.8[51]. His ineffability: see e.g. Post. 13 ff.; Spec. I 37; Somn. i 67; Leg. ad Gaium 6.

  • Sells, M., 1994. Mystical Languages of Unsaying. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  • Wolfson, H. A., 1947. Philo. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  • Yli-Karjanmaa, S., 2015. Reincarnation in Philo of Alexandria. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA.

Recommended Reading:

For a handy list of the abbreviations used for Philo’s many works, and the Latin titles traditionally attributed to them, see below this section.

For a handy resource for reading Philo, the Loeb Classical Library 12-volume edition of Philo is in the public domain and available online.

  • Borgen, P., 1997. Philo of Alexandria: An Exegete for His Time. Brill, Leiden.
  • Cohn, L.; Wendland, P. & Reiter, S. (Ed.), 1896-1930. Philonis Alexandrini opera quæ supersunt. Georg Reimer, Berlin.
  • Goodenough, E. R., 1986. An Introduction to Philo Judaeus. University Press of America, Lanham, MD.
  • Kamesar, A. (Ed.), 2009a. The Cambridge Companion to Philo. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Kamesar, A. (2009b). ‘Biblical Interpretation in Philo’. In: Kamesar, A. (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Philo, Cambridge University Press.
  • Mayer, G., 1974. Index Philonicus. De Gruyter, Berlin/New York, NY.
  • Royse, J. R. (2009). ‘The Works of Philo’. In: Kamesar, A. (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Philo, Cambridge University Press, 32-64.
  • Sandmel, S., 1979. Philo of Alexandria: An Introduction. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, NY.
  • Schwartz, D. R. (2009). ‘Philo, His Family and His Times’. In: Kamesar, A. (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Philo, Cambridge University Press.
  • Williamson, R., 1989. Jews in the Hellenistic World: Philo. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

A Handy Table of Philonic Titles:

These are the abbreviations and Latin titles used in the old Loeb edition and translation. There is a lack of standardisation with regard to the abbreviations in scholarship on Philo, so that, for example, we might find ‘Abr.’ in this book, ‘De Abr.’ in that, ‘de Ab.’ in the next, and so on.

Abr. = De Abrahamo.
Æt. = De Aeternitate Mundi.
Agr. = De Agricultura.
Cher. = De Cherubim.
Conf. = De Confusione Linguarum.
Cong. = De Congressu Eruditionis gratia.
Cont. = De Vita Contemplativa.
Decal. = De Decalogo.
Det. = Quod Deterius Potiori Insidiari Soleat
Deus = Quod Deus sit Immutabilis
Ebr. = De Ebrietate.
Exs. = De Exsecrationibus.
Fug. = De Fuga et Inventione.
Gig. = De Gigantibus.
Her. = Quis rerum divinarum heres sit.
Jos. = De Josepho.
L.A. i. ii. iii. = Legum Allegoriarum.
Mig. = De Migratione Abrahami
Mos. i. ii. = De Vita Mosis i. ii.
Mut. = De Mutatione Nominum

Opif. = De Opificio Mundi
Plant. = De Plantatione.
Post. = De Posteritate Caini.
Praem. = De Praemiis et Poenis.
Prob. = Quod omnis probus liber.
Sac. = De Sacrificiis Abelis et Caini.
Sob. = De Sobrietate.
Som. I. ii. = De Somniis i. ii.
Spec. = De Specialis Legibus.
Virt. = De Virtutibus.


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