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Philo of Alexandria and Platonist Psychology

John Dillon
p. 163-169

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  • 1 The full form of this theory only emerges, in extant literature, in Iamblichus’ Vita Pythagorica (...)

1Philo of Alexandria is, as we know, a remarkable literary and intellectual phenomenon. Imbued though he is with Greek culture, both literary and philosophical, Philo also seems to have experienced, at some time in his early manhood, a “conversion” to his ancestral Jewish religion and culture which leaves him determined not to reject the Greek philosophical tradition as something alien, but rather to “reclaim” it, by arguing that in fact Moses is the originator of philosophy, as can be demonstrated by the application of (Hellenic) methods of allegorizing to his writings (sc. the Pentateuch), and that he passed on this wisdom to the Greeks, in particular through the agency of Pythagoras, who will have communed with certain followers of Moses during his peregrinations in search of wisdom around the Eastern Mediterranean in the late sixth century BCE1.

  • 2 Only the Atomists, Epicureans and (except for special purposes) Sceptics are excluded from this con (...)

2This may appear to us a magnificently fantastic effort of oneupmanship on Philo’s part – even if a fitting riposte to Greek cultural chauvinism – but it undeniably led to the production of a large corpus of creative and extremely interesting allegorical exegesis of the LXX version of the Pentateuch, which issues in much creative philosophizing. What is at issue in the present context is Philo’s psychology, which is a particularly interesting aspect of his overall enterprise. In psychology, as in all other areas of philosophy, Philo is particularly indebted to the Platonic tradition, in the form in which he became acquainted with it. This is essentially the revived dogmatic Platonism propounded early in the first century BCE by Antiochus of Ascalon, which involved large-scale adoption of Stoic formulations (on the basis of Antiochus’ view that the Stoics were after all the truest heirs of the teaching of Plato), overlaid by a Pythagoreanizing, transcendentalist turn from Antiochus’ rather immanentist and materialist take on the tradition which we may associate with the position of Eudorus of Alexandria (fl. c. 40 BCE), who is nearer, both chronologically and geographically, to Philo himself. As we shall see, Philo permits himself a certain degree of latitude in his accounts of the structure of the soul, since he views the whole tradition descending from Pythagoras, including not only Plato and the Old Academy, but Aristotle and the Stoics, as valid, if slightly inadequate, heirs of Moses2, but basically his psychology is explicable as an interpretation of contemporary Platonism. I will address in turn the topics of the nature and structure of the soul, and of its immortality.

Nature and Structure of the Soul

3Philo observes the basic Platonist bipartite division of the soul into rational (logikon) and irrational (alogon) parts, as we can see from such passages as Leg. All. II 6 and Spec. Leg. I 333. In the former, which is an exegesis of Gen. 2:18 « Then the Lord God said: “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” », in explaining in what sense Eve is « later-born » and a « helper », where Eve stands for the irrational part of the soul, and Adam the rational, or “leading” part, Philo says:

  • 3 He has just described the heart as a sort of foundation for the body, a Stoic idea.
  • 4 Philo here employs the normal Stoic term for the rational part of the soul, which he equates with n (...)
  • 5 This is once again a Stoic reference. Zeno and Chrysippus had declared the passions to be kriseis, (...)

In just the same way3, it is thought, the leading element (hegemonikon)4 of the soul is older than the soul as a whole, and the irrational element (alogon) younger. The irrational element is sense-perception (aisthesis) and its offspring, the passions (pathe), especially if they are not regarded as judgements of ours (kriseis hemeterai)5. The “helper”, then, is later-born and, of course, created.

4In Special Laws I 333 a similar division is made between the rational (logikon) and the irrational elements, the former of which is identified with nous, while the latter is said to be divided into the five senses.

  • 6 Though of course the influence of Republic IV and of the myth of the Phaedrus are also present. The (...)

5At Special Laws IV 92, however, we find the specifically Platonic tripartite division of the soul, specifically as set out in the Timaeus (69e ff.)6:

It was this (sc. disapproval of desire) which led those who had taken no mere sip of philosophy, but had feasted abundantly on its sound doctrines (sc. the Platonists), to the theory which they laid down. They had made researches into the nature of the soul and observed that its components were three-fold, reason (logos), spiritedness (thymos) and desire (epithymia). To reason, as sovereign, they assigned for its citadel the head as its most suitable residence, where are also set the stations of the senses, like bodyguards of their king, the intellect (nous). (trans. Colson, slightly adapted)

  • 7 Cf. also Leg. All I 11, Heres 232-233 (where he actually manages to relate the sevenfold division t (...)

6Philo also feels free, however, if it suits the scriptural passage with which he is dealing, to utilise the Stoic division into the hegemonikon (“ruling element”) and the seven physical faculties, i.e. the five senses along with the faculties of speech and reproduction, e.g. at On the Creation of the World 117, where is engaged in extolling the Hebdomad, and a group of seven dependent on a monad is what suits his book7:

Since things on earth are dependent on the heavenly realm through a natural affinity, the principle of the seven, which began on high, has also come down to us and made its presence felt among the mortal kinds. To start with, the part of our soul separate from the ruling element (hegemonikon) is divided into seven, into the five senses, the organ of speech, and finally the reproductive part. Just as in puppet shows, all these are manipulated by the ruling element through the nerves. Sometimes they are at rest, at other times they move, each producing its own appropriate disposition and movement. (trans. Runia, slightly adapted)

7We must note here that for the Stoics, the soul is actually, despite these distinctions, a unitary essence, as it is not for Philo, and to this extent he is subordinating the Stoic division to the Platonist one.

  • 8 Besides the passage quoted above, cf. also Leg. All. II 24 and Cher. 58-60.

8At Questions on Genesis II 59, on the other hand, we find a tripartite division which is more Aristotelian than Platonic, distinguishing, as it does, the three parts as the nutritive (threptikon), the sense-perceptive (aisthetikon), and the rational (logikon). All this, however, need not be seen as chaotic eclecticism on Philo’s part. For him, each of these divisions expresses some aspect of the truth, but the basic principle remains the division into rational and irrational. When it comes down to it, the spirited element and the passions are to be linked together in opposition to the reason (as indeed they are in both Plato’s Phaedrus – as horses versus charioteer – and Timaeus). One of Philo’s basic allegories, after all, is that of Adam as the human nous and Eve as aisthesis8, the union of which two is required for the human intellect in the body to function.

A Doctrine of Two Souls?

9A more substantial inconsistency in Philo’s thinking, however, would be a distinguishing, not of two or three, or even seven or eight, parts of the soul, but of two souls. Such a distinction does indeed seem to occur at places in his works, but even here the contradiction is more apparent than real. Philo becomes involved in this distinction, apparently, in response to certain Biblical passages, notably Gen. 9: 4, Lev. 17:11 and 14, and Deut. 12:23, where we find the statement that « the blood is the life ». As someone deeply affected by Platonism, Philo could not accept this at face value. The rational soul is an immaterial entity, so Moses must be referring to some kind of lower soul, or life-principle. The essence of this may be agreed to be blood, even as the essence of the rational soul is immaterial pneuma. At QG II 59 (on Gen. 9:4), we find a strong distinction being made between the rational part (meros) of the soul, whose substance is divine pneuma, and the nutritive and sense-perceptive parts, whose substance is blood, and in this connection a distinction is made between the veins and the arteries, the latter of which contain a preponderance of pneuma, and only a small amount of blood, whereas the veins, having more blood than pneuma, are the seat of the lower parts.

  • 9 See my paper « How does the Soul direct the Body, after all? Traces of a Dispute on Mind-Body Relat (...)

10What may be in the back of Philo’s mind here is the theory of Aristotle, in De partibus animalium 736b27 ff., concerning the function of what he calls the “innate spirit” (symphyton pneuma), present in particular in the blood about the heart, which constitutes a sort of conduit between the passive intellect, itself an immaterial entity, and the nerves and sinews of the body, and initiates purposive action. Some such doctrine as this is behind the later Platonist doctrine of the “vehicle” of the soul, of which we have evidence otherwise only from the second century CE, but which may well have been already being bandied about in Platonist circles in Philo’s day. Certainly there had been active speculation, ever since the period of the Old Academy, as to the precise mode of interaction between (immaterial) soul and (material) body – a problem that does not seem to have concerned Plato himself9.

Immortality of the Soul

11At any rate, some such theory as this would seem to have been of assistance to Philo in resolving an awkwardness resulting from the Biblical assertion that « the soul is the blood ». At Det. 82-83, again, we find what are initially called two dynameis or “powers” of the soul, the vital (zotike), or life-principle, and the rational, but they quickly begin to sound like separate entities, the life-principle being “mortal”, and the rational principle immortal:

  • 10 Pneuma, of course, could be taken to mean “breath”.

Each one of us, according to the most basic division, is two in number, an animal and a man. To either of these has been allotted an innate power (syngenes dynamis) akin to the qualities of their respective life-principles, to the one the power of vitality (zotike), in virtue of which we are alive, to the other the power of reasoning (logike), in virtue of which we are reasoning beings. Of the power of vitality the irrational creatures partake with us; of the power of reasoning God is, not indeed partaker, but originator, being the fount of archetypal reason (logos). To the faculty which we have in common with the irrational creatures blood has been given as the essence; but to the faculty which streams forth from the fount of reason spirit (pneuma) has been assigned; this not being just air in motion10, but rather a sort of impression and stamp (typon kai kharaktera) of the divine power, to which Moses gives the appropriate title of “image” (eikon, Gen. 1:26), thus indicating that God is the archetype of rational nature, while man is a copy and likeness – not the living creature of double nature, but the highest form in which life shows itself, which is termed intellect and reason. (trans. Colson, slightly emended)

  • 11 « Asomatos: Nuances of Incorporeality in Philo », in C. Lévy (ed.), Philon d’Alexandrie et le langa (...)

12Here, interestingly, even the rational soul is not presented as being immaterial, but rather as being composed of pneuma; but, as I have argued elsewhere11, for Philo the pneuma of which the Logos and the heavenly bodies also are composed is not to be regarded as “material” in the sense proper to the other sublunary elements, but is to be assimilated to the aither of Aristotle and the “craftsmanly fire” (pyr tekhnikon) of the Stoics, as belonging to the active principle within the universe. As for the life-principle, at On Flight and Finding 67, it is seen as that part of the soul which God handed over to the “helpers” to create, which, in imitation of Plato’s Timaeus 41e, is termed the “mortal” part. The true man is to be identified with his mind in its purest state, of which God by himself is the creator (ibid. 71). For Philo, it is only this latter soul, or part of the soul, which is endowed with immortality, while the lower or “mortal” soul disperses on the death of the individual. At QG III 11 (an exegesis of Gen. 15:15 « But thou shalt go to thy fathers with peace, nourished in a good old age »), we find a interesting statement of this doctrine:

Clearly this indicates the incorruptibility (aphtharsia) of the soul, which removes its habitation from this mortal body and returns as if to the motherland from which it originally removed its habitation to this place. For when it is said to a dying person, « Thou shalt go to thy fathers », what else is this than to represent another life without the body, which only the soul of the wise man ought to live?

13It might be concluded from such a passage as this that the soul is fully immortal, in the Platonist sense, rather than being created by God for subsequent immortality, in the Judaeo-Christian sense; it is, after all, referred to as « returning as if to the motherland ». Such in any case would be a natural conclusion from Philo’s distinction between the creation of man « in the image (of God) » at Gen. 1:26 and man « formed of dust from the ground » at 2:7, since this would seem to imply the creation (even though timelessly) of a pure human soul or intellect, prior to its embodiment; but it is not quite clear, in fact, from such a passage as Opif. 134, whether he is envisaging the creation of individual pure souls, or simply of a generic intelligible archetype of Man:

He shows here (sc. at Gen. 2:7) that there is a vast difference between the man being fashioned now and the one that was created before « in the image of God ». The one moulded now is perceptible by the senses, participates in quality, is a compound of body and soul, either male or female, by nature mortal. The one created « in the image » is a sort of idea or genus or seal (sphragis), intelligible, immaterial, neither male nor female, by nature imperishable.

14This certainly envisages, primarily, an archetypal Man as a Form among the thoughts of God. There is no need, however, to postulate a pre-incarnate existence for individual souls, and so no problem about re-incarnation, which is not a doctrine of which Philo would approve. One does, on the other hand, have, I think, to envisage individual logoi emanating from the Form of Man to join with the appropriate matter, to become individual men (and women). That is rather different, however, from postulating pre-existent individual souls.

15A question may also be raised as to whether Philo envisages personal immortality for all embodied souls, or only for those of the wise. From such a text as Questions on Genesis I 16, one might conclude that he denied immortality to the souls of evil, or even ignorant, individuals:

The death of good men (spoudaioi) is the beginning of another life. For life is twofold: one is with corruptible body, the other is without body and incorruptible. So that the evil man « dies by death » (Gen. 2:17) even while he breathes, before he is buried, as though he preserved for himself no spark at all of the true life, which is excellence of character. The decent and good man, however, does not « die by death », but, after living long, passes away to eternity, that is, he is borne to eternal life.

  • 12 Such as Xenocrates, for example, cf. fr. 15 Heinze = 216 Isnardi Parente; and, later, Numenius, who (...)
  • 13 Cf. also Somn. I 151; II 133.

16One might reasonably conclude from this that the soul of the evil man perishes on death, and enjoys no personal immortality. If this seems a harsh conclusion, one may perhaps take consolation from the fact that Philo seems to have no use for a concept of Hell. For him, indeed, as for many Platonists12, it is this sublunar realm that is actually the Hades of the poets. At Heres 45, for example, he refers to ordinary mortals as « skulking in the caverns of Hades », and, a little later (78), as « partaking in things earthly and nurtured on the things in Hades »13. It may be that he envisaged the souls of the great majority of the unenlightened as simply dissolving back into the atmosphere, without leaving any immortal trace, good or bad. Such a view would be very much in line with contemporary and later Platonism, though starkly opposed to that of later Christianity.

Conclusion

17Philo, then, constitutes an interesting example of the creative appropriation of Platonist psychology in the service of a different theological system. Partly, at least, under the influence of the type of Platonism which he inherited, which was broadly, as I have said, that of Antiochus of Ascalon, as modified by Eudorus of Alexandria, he is hospitable to certain concepts of Stoicism, such as the Logos of God (which does away with the need for a World Soul), and the sevenfold division of the human soul (when the exigencies of exegesis demand it), while the awkward issue of reincarnation, which is an inseparable feature of the Platonist doctrine of an immortal soul, he simply elides (as does such a later Christian Platonist as Origen), while seeming to entertain the notion of some degree of pre-existence for the individual human soul. The troublesome scriptural assertion, on the other hand, that « the soul is the blood », he finesses into a postulation of something like the later Platonist “pneumatic vehicle”. There is much in Philo, then, that both reflects contemporary Platonist doctrine and seems even to anticipate later developments in Platonism.

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Bibliographie

Dillon (John), The Middle Platonists, 80 B.C to A.D. 220, Duckworth, London-Ithaca, 1977 (second edition 1996), ch. 3, esp. 174-178.

—, « Asomatos: Nuances of Incorporeality in Philo », in Lévy (Carlos), ed., Philon d’Alexandrie et le langage de la philosophie, Brepols, Turnhout, 1998, 99-110.

—, « How does the Soul direct the Body, after all? Traces of a Dispute on Mind-Body Relations in the Old Academy », in Frede (Dorothea) and Reis (Burkhart), edd., Leib und Seele in der antiken Philosophie, De Gruyter, Berlin – New York, 2009.

Runia (David T.), On the Creation of the Cosmos according to Moses, Introduction, translation and commentary, Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, 2001.

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Notes

1 The full form of this theory only emerges, in extant literature, in Iamblichus’ Vita Pythagorica (§§ 14-15), composed in the late third century CE, but it is certainly much older than that, and some form of it must lie behind Philo’s position.

2 Only the Atomists, Epicureans and (except for special purposes) Sceptics are excluded from this consensus, as not recognizing a providential divinity, or a purposeful universe.

3 He has just described the heart as a sort of foundation for the body, a Stoic idea.

4 Philo here employs the normal Stoic term for the rational part of the soul, which he equates with nous, or the logikon. Cf., however, e.g. Congr. 26, where he uses simply logikon.

5 This is once again a Stoic reference. Zeno and Chrysippus had declared the passions to be kriseis, albeit distorted ones (SVF I 205-215; III 377-390).

6 Though of course the influence of Republic IV and of the myth of the Phaedrus are also present. The distribution of the parts of the soul about the body, however, is distinctive of the Timaeus. For a tripartite division, cf. also Leg. All. III 115-117, where the tendency to conflict between the three parts is stressed. At Abr. 29-30, however, we find a sixfold division of the irrational part, the procreative faculty being omitted, since his exegesis (of the six days of the working week contrasted with the Sabbath) calls for a total of seven rather than eight.

7 Cf. also Leg. All I 11, Heres 232-233 (where he actually manages to relate the sevenfold division to the Circle of the Other at Tim. 36d) and QG II 12.

8 Besides the passage quoted above, cf. also Leg. All. II 24 and Cher. 58-60.

9 See my paper « How does the Soul direct the Body, after all? Traces of a Dispute on Mind-Body Relations in the Old Academy », in D. Frede and B. Reis (eds.), Leib und Seele in der antiken Philosophie, De Gruyter, Berlin – New York, 2009.

10 Pneuma, of course, could be taken to mean “breath”.

11 « Asomatos: Nuances of Incorporeality in Philo », in C. Lévy (ed.), Philon d’Alexandrie et le langage de la philosophie, Brepols, Turnhout, 1998, 99-110.

12 Such as Xenocrates, for example, cf. fr. 15 Heinze = 216 Isnardi Parente; and, later, Numenius, who attributes to Pythagoras the doctrine that Hades is the whole area between the earth and the moon (frs. 32, 34-35 Des Places).

13 Cf. also Somn. I 151; II 133.

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John Dillon, « Philo of Alexandria and Platonist Psychology », Études platoniciennes [En ligne], 7 | 2010, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2015, consulté le 19 août 2017. URL : http://etudesplatoniciennes.revues.org/635 ; DOI : 10.4000/etudesplatoniciennes.635

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