Final Thoughts About Philo

I finished reading Philo today. The last third of the book didn’t particularly grab me—with eighty pages of Philo’s ethical thought, followed by what he had to say about the role Moses and Israel play on the stage of world history. What emerges is that, no matter how splendid his mystical vision may have been, Philo remained very much a man of his time—which is to say, his thought suffers from a harsh dualism, chauvinism, and an almost adolescent assurance of his own rightness. Again and again, Philo lauds the seeker of wisdom who embraces asceticism, indifference to pleasure, commitment to philosophy, and single-minded devotion to seeking a transcendental vision of the divine, far beyond the messy dirtiness of earthly life. Sigh. I know that these are themes I’ll be dancing with a-plenty over the next seventy-five months; Philo simply demonstrates how mysticism’s anti-materialist shadow has been around since the very beginning.

For me, wading through Philo’s increasingly strident work has held up a mirror to the essential contradiction within my own devotion to mysticism. I love the luminous, visionary, devotional dimension of mystical spirituality, and I think that a life oriented toward winning the Beatific Vision sounds like a life well lived. But I am also a child of the 20th and 21st centuries, and I simply find a dualism that privileges spirit over matter, masculinity over femininity, and the mind over the body to be unacceptable and pretty much intolerable. So I’m left wondering: What would a spirituality look like, that combined the intense devotion and meditative practice of John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila with the earthy sensuality of Starhawk or Matthew Fox? To me, that’s a question worth pondering.

I don’t mean to suggest Philo’s ideas are a waste of time. Philo is a splendid stylist, a true visionary, and a worthy figure to stand at the headwaters of the western mystical tradition. Here are just three quotes from the last third of the book:

“It is a mark of great ignorance to believe that the human soul can contain the unwavering, absolutely steadfast excellences of God.” (p. 219) Yeah, this could be seen as just one more example of Philo’s cranky dualism. But it struck me in a different way: not so much as a put-down of humanity, but rather a humbling reminder of the vastness and transcendence of the Divine. Sometimes, I do believe that the postmodern world in its effort to deconstruct dualism, has kept God (or the Goddess) too tied-down to the earth, after all…

“He who in every way acts wisely does all things well; he who does all things well does all things correctly; he who does all things correctly also acts unerringly, blamelessly, faultlessly, irreproachably, and with impunity, and therefore will have the power to do everything, and to live as he wishes, and he who has this power is free.” (p. 248f.) Wisdom leads to freedom. I’m reminded of the verse in the Gospel of the John: “You shall know the truth and it shall set you free.”

… and finally, a simple quote that is more relevant today than ever:

“For what one of the ancients aptly remarked is true, that in nothing does human behavior more nearly resemble God than in showing kindness.” (p. 239)

So at the end of the day, Philo’s work provides an interesting glimpse into the kinds of ideas bouncing around in the world into which Christ was born. The marriage of Jewish and Greek thought fueled most of Philo’s work, and would certainly crop up again as the earliest Christians struggled to get market share in the spiritual bazaar of the “civilized world.” But just as few great artists are best represented by their earliest work, Philo’s mysticism provides only the most subtle of hints regarding the profound insights that would come after him, given voice by the great visionaries and contemplatives who over the centuries would explore the path that he first blazed.

In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Pentecost and Ecstasy
What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.