Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

Philo, On Greater and Lesser Vision of God

leave a comment »


PHILO OF ALEXANDRIA, in On Rewards and Punishments (De praemiis et poenis), distinguishes two modes by which the devout soul may see God.  One is by the familiar ‘ladder’ of ascending from contemplation of God’s goodness, wisdom and providence as manifest in Creation (cf. Plato, Symposium 201–212).  The second, more exalted kind, is associated with a direct union of God granted by grace.  This contrast is prominent in the history of Christian mysticism, and it’s interesting to see how earlier it appears in Philo (who, of course, is also writing two centuries before Plotinus). Leading up to this passage Philo has reiterated his often-made distinction between three types of holy souls:  the Taught (symbolized by Abraham, one who seeks to learn wisdom from created things, science, and human culture); the Self-taught (symbolized by Isaac, one who acquires wisdom and virtue by following the adage, know thyself); and greatest of all, the Practicer (symbolized by Jacob, the ascetic who uses all available means and discipline in a dedicated quest for holiness).  To Jacob alone is granted the highest ‘vision’ of God — and for this reason he is also called Israel, which, according to Philo, means ‘seeing God.’

[36]
VI. After the self-taught, the man enriched by his natural gifts, the third to reach perfection is the Man of Practice who receives for his special reward the vision of God. …

[37]
In his former years the eyes of his soul had been closed, but by means of continuous striving he began though slowly to open them and to break up and throw off the mist which overshadowed him. For a beam purer than ether and incorporeal suddenly shone upon him and revealed the conceptual world ruled by its charioteer. [see Plato, Phaedrus 246a− 257b]

[38]
That charioteer, ringed as he was with beams of undiluted light, was beyond his sight or conjecture, for the eye was darkened by the dazzling beams. Yet in spite of the fiery stream which flooded it, his sight held its own in its unutterable longing to behold the vision.

[39]
The Father and Saviour perceiving the sincerity of his yearning in pity gave power to the penetration of his eyesight and did not grudge to grant him the vision of Himself in so far as it was possible for mortal and created nature to contain it. Yet the vision only showed that He is, not what He is.

[40]
For this … cannot be discerned by anyone else; to God alone is it permitted to apprehend God.

VII. Now the fact that He is, which can be apprehended under the name of His subsistence, is not apprehended by all or at any rate not in the best way. Some distinctly deny that there is such a thing as the Godhead. Others hesitate and fluctuate as though unable to state whether there is or not. Others whose notions about the subsistence of God are derived through habit rather than thinking from those who brought them up, believe themselves to have successfully attained to religion yet have left on it the imprint of superstition.

[41]
Others again who have had the strength through knowledge to envisage the Maker and Ruler of all have in the common phrase advanced from down to up. Entering the world as into a well-ordered city they have beheld the earth standing fast, highland and lowland full of sown crops and trees and fruits and all kinds of living creatures to boot; also spread over its surface, seas and lakes and rivers both spring fed and winter torrents. They have seen too the air and breezes so happily tempered, the yearly seasons changing in harmonious order, and over all the sun and moon, planets and fixed stars, the whole heaven and heaven’s host, line upon line, a true universe in itself revolving within the universe.

[42]
Struck with admiration and astonishment they arrived at a conception according with what they beheld, that surely all these beauties and this transcendent order has not come into being automatically but by the handiwork of an architect and world maker; also that there must be a providence, for it is a law of nature that a maker should take care of what has been made.

[43]
These no doubt are truly admirable persons and superior to the other classes. They have as I said advanced from down to up by a sort of heavenly ladder and by reason and reflection happily inferred the Creator from His works. But those, if such there be, who have had the power to apprehend Him through Himself without the co-operation of any reasoning process to lead them to the sight, must be recorded as holy and genuine worshippers and friends of God in very truth.

[44]
In their company is he [Jacob] who in the Hebrew is called Israel but in our tongue the God-seer who sees not His real nature, for that, as I said, is impossible— but that He is. And this knowledge he has gained not from any other source, not from things on earth or things in Heaven, not from the elements or combinations of elements mortal or immortal, but at the summons a of Him alone who has willed to reveal His existence as a person to the suppliant.

[45]
How this access has been obtained may be well seen through an illustration. Do we behold the sun which sense perceives by any other thing than the sun, or the stars by any others than the stars, and in general is not light seen by light? In the same way God too is His own brightness and is discerned through Himself alone, without anything co-operating or being able to co-operate in giving a perfect apprehension of His existence.

[46]
They then do but make a happy guess, who are at pains to discern the Uncreated, and Creator of all from His creation …. The seekers for truth are those who envisage God through God, light through light.

Source: Philo, On Rewards and Punishments (De praemiis et poenis) VI.36−VII.46 (tr. Colson)

Bibliography

Colson, F. H. Philo in Ten Volumes, Vol. 8. Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA, 1939.

Louth, Andrew. The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys. Oxford, 1983 (repr. 2003); Chapter 2, Philo.

Ryu, Bobby Jang Sun. Knowledge of God in Philo of Alexandria. Mohr Siebeck, 2015. (Dissertation).

Winston, David. Philo of Alexandria: The Contemplative Life, The Giants and Selections. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1981. (pp. 124−153 collects Philonic excerpts on knowledge of God.)

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: