36. Logos: from the Stoics to Philo of Alexandria

Philo of Alexandria played an important role in marrying Greek thought with Jewish theology, examining God's existence via the logos.
Philo of Alexandria

Let’s continue our journey from Heraclitus’ idea of Logos to St. John’s application of the Logos to the Son of God.

In post 35, I discussed how the Stoics took Heraclitus’ idea of the logos and expanded it to include the idea of eternal recurrence – the continual destruction and rebirth of the entire universe.1 The logos, a physical entity, was the ordering principle that guided this process.

So much did logos order the universe, that the Stoics saw a strong determinism woven into its fabric.2 In summary, the Stoics handed down a logos that was reformulated from what they received from Heraclitus. Their logos was a strongly rational principle that guided the entire universe in a deterministic manner.

The Nature of the Universe

The Stoics believed in the eternality of the universe and the logos was a part of that universe. Since, as Parmenides said, something cannot come from nothing, that left no other option than the universe had always existed, albeit in continual cycles of destruction and rebirth (i.e., eternal recurrence).

Also in post 35, I discussed how Plato and Aristotle wrestled with the problem of how the universe came to be. Aristotle’s transcendent “unmoved mover” provided motion but really had no reason to create or be involved with a universe that it was completely separated from.3 Plato’s demiurge solved that problem by being immanently involved with the world, but it created a new problem of the infinite regress. In short, the problem of the eternality of the cosmos – one that Greek philosophers wrestled with from the time of the Presocratics, through Plato and Aristotle, up until the Stoics – illustrated that the “problem” of creation still had yet to be solved.

The Transcendent, According to Anaximander, Plato, and Speusippus

I previously discussed the importance of Anaximander’s designation of the arche in the more abstract concept of the infinite or the apeiron. This separated him from all of the other Presocratics whose versions of the arche were mainly physical elements, with Heraclitus being the other notable exception. In this way, Anaximander laid the foundation for the concept of the transcendence of God. Plato developed this further with his ideas of transcendent Forms, which included the good as the highest form.

Plato’s nephew and student, Speusippus (407-339 BC), took over the academy after Plato’s death.4 According to Plato’s students, Plato had an unwritten teaching – the one and the dyad. The interaction between the two was responsible for all of reality. This was possibly Plato’s way of solving the problem of the one and the many. The one was the source of unity and the dyad, multiplicity.

Speusippus broke with what would become traditional Platonism and completely separated the one from the dyad. He placed it above intellect and even above the concept of being itself, thus freeing it from the idea of principle itself. The one, then, was the cause of goodness and being and everything else. But since the one was a simple singularity, the dyad was still responsible for the multiplicity found in the universe.

Lest we be mistaken, Speusippus’ concept of one being the cause of everything does not mean that the one created anything. Being a cause and being a creator are two different things. Speusippus saw the universe as “eternally generated.”5 This is different from the Judeo-Christian belief that the universe had a beginning and was created ex-nihilo. Nevertheless, the concept of eternal generation was incorporated by the church fathers to describe the Son of God as being “eternally begotten” or “eternally generated.” So even though the Christian church disagrees with the idea of the eternality of the universe, the philosophical concept of “eternal generation” became extremely important in formulating the doctrine of the Trinity.

Speusippus broke ground in developing the concept of transcendence, taking it to new heights, if you will. His idea of transcendence was Anaximander’s concept of the apeiron on steroids. He took Anaximander’s and Plato’s concepts and developed the idea of “utter transcendence.”

It seems like these thinkers realized that in order for the universe to make sense, there had to be a transcendent entity. But how this transcendence and the immanence and multiplicity of the universe fit together was still quite a mystery.

Philo of Alexandria

Philo of Alexandria (20 BC – 40 AD) was a Hellenized Jewish philosopher who lived at a time when Greek philosophical thought met Jewish religious thought.6 It is only natural that when two major bodies of thought interact, someone will try to work out a synthesis between the two, and Philo was just the one to do it.

Philo was a person of means who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, the largest Jewish community outside of Palestine. Hellenized Jews were Jews who lived with the Gentiles outside of Palestine, spoke Greek, and used the Greek translation of the Scriptures, which was called the Septuagint.

Philo was drawn toward the idea of transcendence as was being formulated by Greek thought.7 Maybe Greek philosophy and Hebrew revealed religion weren’t that far apart. After all, the Hebrews had the name of YHWH, which was so sacred that attempting to pronounce it was forbidden. This same God, with an unutterable name, also forbade the Jews to make images of Him for His nature was indescribable. The Greeks, with their idea of transcendence, really seemed to be describing the inscrutable God of the Hebrews.

In reality, even though there were similarities, there were marked differences. The inscrutable God of the Hebrews could, nevertheless, be described using analogy and metaphor. He saves people with “His mighty outstretched arm” and He “rides on His chariot.” He also is a God who interacts with His creation. He is a Father who takes care of His children. These points would put Philo at odds with the Rabbinic scholars of his day in applying the ideas of Greek transcendence to the Jewish God.

Philo’s Idea of the Nature of God

This seems like it would have been a real dilemma for Philo of Alexandria. How was he to reconcile Greek thought and the Hebrew concept of God? The answer is by separating the concepts of God’s essence and existence. According to Philo, God’s existence could be described in terms as stated above, but His essence, on the other hand, could not be described at all.8 So in order to reconcile Greek and Hebrew thought, Philo had to separate two concepts that should not be separated – namely, God’s essence and existence.

Later scholars like Thomas Aquinas were definitive on this matter. In answering the question – whether essence and existence are the same in God – St. Thomas states the following:

“Therefore it is impossible that God in His existence should differ from His essence. Existence must be compared to essence, if the latter is a distinct reality, as actuality is to potentiality. Therefore, since in God there is not potentiality…it follows that in Him essence does not differ from existence.”9

Regardless of this error, Philo was on the right track. Like his predecessors, he was seeking to reconcile God’s transcendence and immanence. Jewish revelation and Greek thought were closer to becoming reconciled.

God’s Essence Verses His Existence, According to Philo

In differentiating God’s existence from His essence, Philo developed the concept, found in predecessors such as Plato, of apophatic theology, which is a theology of denial. It is also known as the via negativa or the “negative way.”10 Apophatic theology basically states that since God is inscrutable, we can only describe Him in terms of what He is not rather than positive affirmations of what He is.

The concept of the via negativa would go on to have a long life in philosophical and theological thought, stretching into medieval theology. It was utilized by the Christian Neoplatonic philosopher Pseudo-Dionysius and the Jewish philosopher Maimonides. Some say that the idea of via negativa really started with Philo.

Philo stated that God’s essence is single and one. Therefore He cannot be described in any positive way. We can only describe God in a negative way. For example, “God is not like us; He is not a man.” We cannot put God in any class or categorize Him. We cannot place God in any genus or species category. Only God can utter positive statements about Himself since He alone has accurate knowledge about Himself.

God’s essence is single and therefore, according to Philo, its property is one that is denoted by acting. He stated, “Now it is an especial attribute of God to create and this faculty it is impious to ascribe to any created being.” God’s act of creating sets Him apart from His creation. And this is where Philo transitions into a discussion concerning God’s existence.

Philo’s Concept of Logos and God’s Existence

According to Philo, God’s creative act is a manifestation of His thinking, which is accomplished by His logos. The logos is God’s image. The logos created the universe. It made the universe after its own image, which in turn is the image of God. The universe then became the image of the image of God or, as Philo put it, “the idea of ideas.”11 So even though God is hidden, His existence is made manifest through His image, the logos, and through the universe that it created, which we can perceive with our senses.

The logos then becomes the connecting point between God’s hidden essence and His revealed existence. If Philo were to divide God’s existence and His essence, then there had to be a commonality between them or else God would be divided and not single, thus destroying Philo’s concept of God as one.

Philo’s solution to this dilemma was to incorporate the Stoic idea of the logos that they developed from Heraclitus. Even though Philo’s doctrine of the logos and how it related to God was complex, his logos did become a vehicle by which we can perceive God’s existence with our senses, even though we cannot comprehend His essence.

Philo the Mystic

For those thinkers who espouse the via negativa in relation to God, the door to experience the oneness of a God that we cannot comprehend is through mystical experience. Philo of Alexandria was a mystic. He stated that only those who are at the highest level of awareness can experience God in this way. But one must be aware that there is a difference between experiencing God and understanding His essence.

Those at a lower level, according to Philo, will understand God through His existence. And, as stated above, this is through beholding His logos that acts on His behalf. Those intellectually understanding and sensibly experiencing the logos will be able to have a knowledge of God in this way.

Finally, there are those so immersed in the sensible world that they have not even an awareness of the logos and so live like brute beasts, immersed in the sensible world only, not understanding that it is an image of God through the image of the logos.

According to Philo, then, the highest level of awareness is mysticism, the second is the philosopher-intellectual, and finally, there is the unaware commoner.

Philo’s Essential Logos

As I mentioned above, without the concept of the logos, Philo’s entire system would have broken down. In order to reconcile Hebrew and Greek thought, he had to make a distinction between God’s essence and His existence. If he stopped there, he would have had a divided God. But without that distinction, he would have not been able to reconcile Greek and Hebrew thought.

Philo’s entire system rested upon the concept of logos. Logos was the eternal idea and the organizing and ordering principle of the universe. The logos was at the same time the idea of God as found in His inscrutable essence and a manifestation of God’s existence as found in His sensible creation. Without the logos, Philo’s system would have been a disunified and contradictory series of ideas and propositions.

This would have all been impossible without Heraclitus’ foundational work in developing the idea of the logos as well as the Stoics’ furthering of that work.

Philo’s Logos as Foundational for Christianity

If you are a Christian who is even somewhat aware of Christian doctrine, you have already probably started to see the connections between Philo’s logos and the New Testament writings of St. John and St. Paul as well as the later development of Christian theology. I will explore this more in the next post, especially how Philo saw the idea of logos not only in Greek thought but in the Hebrew scriptures as well.

Philo laid the foundation for a synthesis between faith and reason, between Hebrew revealed religion and Greek thought. He showed that such a synthesis was possible. His concept of logos was key for this.

It was important in another respect as well: It brought philosophical and theological thought a step closer to reconciling the transcendence and immanence of God as well as its corollary problem of the one and the many or the unity and diversity of the universe. In this way, Philo of Alexandria provided the philosophical and theological tools and vocabulary for the development of Christian thinking.

The following quote is from Philo of Alexandria:

“Learning is by nature curiosity… prying into everything, reluctant to leave anything, material or immaterial, unexplained.”12

Now consider the following question:

Do you think that we have lost the sense of the transcendence of God in the West? And if so, how do you think that the effects of this manifest today in our art, politics, education, etc.? Please leave your comment below.

Footnotes:

  1. S. Sambursky, “The Stoic Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence,” From The Physical World of the Greeks, Macmillan, New York, and Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1956; transl. by Menton Dagut, pp. 198–202, https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-94-010-1727-5_28
  2. Bobzien, Susanne. “Early Stoic Determinism.” Revue De Métaphysique Et De Morale, no. 4, 2005, pp. 489–516. JSTOR
  3. Jones E. Michael, Logos Rising, A History of Ultimate Reality, pp. 182-183, Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020
  4. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Speusippus”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 7 Feb. 2011, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Speusippus
  5. Dancy, Russell, “Speusippus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), section 1 ‘Metaphysics,’ Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/speusippus
  6. Hillar, Marian, “Philo of Alexandria,” Internet Encyclopedia Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/philo
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologica, First Part, “Question 3, The Simplicity of God,” ‘Article 4. Whether essence and existence are the same in God?’ https://www.newadvent.org/summa/1003.htm
  10. Mortley, Raoul. “The Fundamentals of the Via Negativa.” The American Journal of Philology, vol. 103, no. 4, 1982, pp. 429–439. JSTOR
  11. Hillar, Marian, “Philo of Alexandria”
  12. “Philo Quotes and Sayings,” inspiringquotes.us, https://www.inspiringquotes.us/author/9970-philo

Bibliography and Sources:

Aristotle, On the Soul, translated by Fred D. Miller, Jr., Oxford University Press, Oxford World Classics, Oxford, England, 2018

Aristotle, Physics, David Bostock, author, translated by Robin Waterfield, 1st ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2008

Jones E. Michael, Logos Rising, A History of Ultimate Reality, Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020

David, A.P., Plato’s New Measure, The ‘Indeterminate Dyad,’ Mother Pacha, Inc., Austin, Texas, 2011

Hollis, Christopher, The Noble Castle, Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1941

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