Saturday, February 10, 2007

Philo of Alexandria

My second column for the Or Adam newsletter focused on Philo of Alexandria:

Philo Judaeus, better known as Philo of Alexandria, lived from around 20 B.C.E to 50 C.E. in Alexandria, Egypt and is often identified as the first Jewish philosopher. Like Maimonides, who comes a millennium after him, Philo was interested in reconciling Jewish and Greek thought. Unlike Maimonides, Philo is more heavily influenced by Plato and the Stoics rather than Aristotle. Many of Philo's writings on the existence and nature of God, the creation of the world, and the virtues are similar to the doctrines of Platonic and Stoic thought.

Philo's importance to Jewish philosophy is relatively minor. He is not the touchstone or innovator of Jewish thought that Maimonides is. Philo's philosophical view of Judaism was not widely accepted in his lifetime or later. He did, however, have an important, though sometimes disputed, influence on the development of Christianity. There is, according to some scholars, reason to think that he influenced Paul and some other writers of the Gospels.

So in what sense is he a Jewish philosopher? First, the focus of much of his attention is on the biblical ideas; and in particular, on Moses and the foundations of the Law. Second, Philo sought to show that Greek philosophy provided the best means by which to understand Torah and its law.

Philo's importance to secular Judaism is, like many of the Jewish philosophers this column will look at, indirect. Philo had no intention, and would likely be appalled at, rejecting or sidelining God. He is, nonetheless, interesting from a secular humanistic perspective because he was one of the first Jewish thinkers to explicitly use reason and philosophy to grapple with the sacred Jewish texts. By placing reason at the center of his methodology for understanding the world, Philo helps to make possible secular humanism.

Sources: Jewish Philosophy by Norbert Samuelson; A History of Philosophy, Vol 1 by Frederick Copleston; Wikipedia, and The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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