Philo of Alexandria

I’m reading in depth about the ancient philosophers and discovering they had far more in common with the Buddha (and vice-versa) than either my old philosophy professors or my Tibetan teachers would care to admit. In fact, I’ve learned that Siddhattha, who later became the Buddha, was very possibly schooled in Taxila — an outpost of the Greek empire established by Alexander the Great — where he would certainly have encountered Greek thinking.

Among ancient philosophers, Philo of Alexandria is one of the most ignored –  possibly because he was a Jew. He lived from 20 BCE to 50 CE. Curiously, the first people to take notice of him were the early Christians — daring, iconoclastic Jews — who were actually a far cry from present-day church people. Anyway, no belief (or disbelief) needed: here is the human mind at its best.

“Every person – whether Greek or Barbarian – who is in training for wisdom, leading a blameless, irreproachable life, chooses neither to commit injustice nor return it unto others, but to avoid the company of busybodies, and hold in contempt the places where they spend their time – courts, councils, marketplaces, assemblies – in short, every kind of meeting or reunion of thoughtless people. As their goal is a life of peace and serenity, they contemplate nature and everything found within her: they attentively explore the earth, the sea, the air, the sky, and every nature found therein. In thought, they accompany the moon, the sun, and the rotations of the other stars, whether fixed or wandering. Their bodies remain on earth, but they give wings to their souls, so that, rising into the ether, they may observe the powers which dwell there, as is fitting for those who have truly become citizens of the world. Such people consider the whole world as their city, and its citizens are the companions of wisdom; they have received their civic rights from virtue, which has been entrusted with presiding over the universal commonwealth. Thus, filled with every excellence, they are accustomed no longer to take account of physical discomforts or exterior evils, and they train themselves to be indifferent to indifferent things; they are armed against both pleasures and desires, and, in short, they always strive to keep themselves above passions … they do not give in under the blows of fate, because they have calculated its attacks in advance (for foresight makes easier to bear even the most difficult of the things that happen against our will; since then the mind no longer supposes what happens to be strange and novel, but its perception of them is dulled, as if it had to do with old and worn-out things). It is obvious that people such as these, who find their joy in virtue, celebrate a festival their whole life long. To be sure, there is only a small number of such people; they are like embers of wisdom kept smouldering in our cities, so that virtue may not be altogether snuffed out and disappear from our race. But if only people everywhere felt the same way as this small number, and became as nature meant for them to be: blameless, irreproachable, and lovers of wisdom, rejoicing in the beautiful just because it is beautiful, and considering that there is no other good besides it … then our cities would be brimful of happiness. They would know nothing of the things that cause grief and fear, but would be so filled with the causes of joy and well-being that there would be no single moment in which they would not lead a life full of joyful laughter; indeed, the whole cycle of the year would be a festival for them.”

Philo Judaeus, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, Yedidia or Philo the Jew, was an Hellenistic Jewish Biblical philosopher born in Alexandria. More information here.

Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

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