The author of the following Treatises was, as the title by which he is generally known imports, of Jewish extraction, and a descendant of the sacerdotal tribe of Levi. He is spoken of by Josephus as one of the most eminent of his contemporary countrymen, and as the principal of the embassy which was sent to Caligula to solicit him to recall the command which he had issued for the erection of his statue in the temple at Jerusalem. The embassy was unsuccessful, though the death of the emperor saved the sacred edifice from the meditated profanation; but we see that Philo suffered no diminution of his credit from its unsuccessful result, since, at a subsequent period, his nephew, Tiberius Alexander, married Berenice, the daughter of King Agrippa.
The date of his birth and that of his death are alike uncertain; he speaks of himself as an old man when the embassy to Rome took place; and the treatise in which he gives an account of it was apparently written in the reign of Claudius, who succeeded Caligula A.D. 41, and reigned nearly fourteen years. His chief residence was at Alexandria, which at that period was, next to Athens, the most celebrated seat of philosophy in the world, and which had long been a favourite abode of the learned Jews. On one occasion he mentions having visited Jerusalem; and this is all we know of his personal history.
In his religious opinions he appears to have been a Pharisee, to the principles of which sect some portion of his fondness for allegorical interpretation may perhaps be owing. It was, however, rather to his philosophical labours that his celebrity among his contemporaries and his notoriety at the present day are mainly owing. He was so devoted a follower of the great founder of the Academic school, that it appears to have been a saying among the ancients that, "either Plato Philonises, or Philo Platonises." And there are many doctrines asserted in the following treatises which can be clearly traced to the principles and even to the extant works of the son of Ariston; and it is in consequence of this tendency that he is spoken of as the first of the Neo-Platonists, that is to say, of that school which attempted to reconcile the doctrines of the Greek, and more especially of the Academic, philosophy with the revelations contained in the sacred scriptures, while, at the same time, he transferred into the Platonic system many of the opinions which he borrowed from the East.
According to the manner of the Eclectics, however, he mingled with his Platonism many doctrines derived from other schools, and those of Pythagoras in particular, to such an extent, that Clemens, of Alexandria, calls him a Pythagorean not recollecting that Aristotle tells us, that the Academy harmonized in very many points with the philosophy of Cortona. In many points, again, especially in the supremacy which he assigns to virtue, he betrays an inclination to the principles of the Stoics. The attempt to reconcile the heathen philosophy with the Bible was not altogether new. As early as the time of Ptolemy Lagus, many Jews had been settled in Alexandria; and, at the period when Philo flourished, they are supposed to have formed half the population of that city-the splendid library of which opened to the learned men of their nation those stores of Greek wisdom and eloquence with which they were previously unacquainted; and as they could not fail to be struck with the truth of many of the principles which they found laid down in those works, it was not unnatural that, being also formerly convinced of the divine origin of their own scriptures, they should endeavour to reconcile two systems, both of which appeared in so great a degree to rest on the same foundation. The truth of their own books they knew to proceed from divine revelation; that of the Greek philosophers they looked upon as an efflux more or less remote from that revelation, and the pride of human intellect led them to endeavour to display their superior penetration by discerning a hidden sense in their own scriptures, which should contain the germ of the Greek philosophy.
Of all the writers of this school the most eminent was Philo, and his works are highly interesting as showing us the manner in which the Sophists of his age and national sought to appropriate the Greek philosophy by an allegorical interpretation of the works of Moses, which they thus represented as containing all the principles which the Greeks subsequently expanded into the precise doctrines of their several sects. Accordingly, he represents Jehovah as a single uncompounded Being; unchangeable, eternal, incomprehensible, the knowledge of whom is to be looked upon as the ultimate object of all human efforts. He teaches that visible phenomena are to lead men over to the invisible world, and that the contemplation of the world so wonderfully and beautifully made proves a wise and intelligent Cause and creator of it. Having adopted, however, the Epicurean doctrine, that nothing can be produced out of nothing, he also assumed the existence of a mass of lifeless matter, passive and primeval, destitute of quality and form, but containing within itself the four primary elements; and of this mass, he looked upon the Spirit of God as the divider and fashioner into distinct shape.
Matter again he conceived as something subordinate to, and at the same time resisting, the divine arrangement, and in this latter character as the source of all imperfection and evil. Moreover, not having arrived at any just notion of the Deity as the immediate cause of the existence of the world, he assumed the existence of an intermediate cause which he called the Logos; and he also imagined an invisible world, appreciable only by the intellect, as the pattern of the visible world in which we live; carrying out his theory so as to give an outline of that doctrine of emanations, which at a later period was elaborated and fully developed by the Gnostics.
The treatises contained in the present volume refer to the books of Moses. At the beginning of the first, that on the Creation of the World, he intimates that his object is to show how the law and the world accord with one another, and how the man who lives according to the law is as such a citizen of the world. For Moses, as he remarks in his treatise on the life of that prophet, demonstrates in his history that the same Being is the Father and Creator of the universe, and the true lawgiver of the world; and accordingly, that whoever follows his laws is adapting himself to the course of nature and living in harmony with the general laws of the universe; while again, the man who transgresses those laws is punished by the operations of nature, such as floods, fire from heaven, and such means.
In his treatise on the Laws, he divides them into what he looks upon as unwritten laws, that is to say, the living patterns of a blameless life which the scripture sets before us in Enoch, Noah, Abraham, etc., and particular laws in the narrower technical common acceptation of the word.
In the other treatises, he deduces an allegorical meaning from the plain historical account of Moses, which serves him as the foundation for his philosophical system.
In all these works he exhibits profound and varied learning, showing himself deeply versed in Greek literature of every age and description, and of considerable skill in the sciences of music, geometry, and astronomy. His style is clear, and even though he may at times be open to the charge of an over-refined subtilty, it is impossible to deny him the praise of acuteness and ingenuity, set off to their best advantage by neatness of language and felicity of expression.
For the Christian reader these treatises have a peculiar interest from the ample materials which many of them furnish for the illustration of St. Paul's Epistles; materials so copious and so valuable that an eminent divine of the present day has pronounced an opinion (referring probably more especially to the treatises on the Sacrifices of Abel and of Cain-on the Different Incidents in the Life of Noah-on Abraham-on the Life of Moses-on the Ten Commandments-and on Providence) that all the other ancient commentators on the Scriptures put together have not left works of greater value for that most important object. It is even asserted by Eusebius that he formed an acquaintance with St. Peter while at Rome but that statement is generally looked upon as wanting confirmation. From his treatise against Flaccus, and in that which refers to his embassy to Rome, we likewise derive information with respect to the condition of the Jews in the time of our Saviour, and to the manner in which they were treated by the Roman governors, which supplies much incidental corroboration of some of the historic allusions contained in different parts of the New Testament.
The text which has been used in this translation has been generally that of Mangey.
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