Philo of Alexandria’s Views of the Physical World. WUNT 2 309. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011. Pp. xii + 299. 978-3-16-15640-6. $147.50 paper.
Charles A. Anderson, Lecturer in New Testament and Biblical Languages at Oak Hill College in London, examines “Philo of Alexandria’s ambivalent, seemingly contradictory claims about the ethical status of the sensible world” (p. 1). This revision of his Cambridge University Ph.D. thesis, written under the supervision of Markus Bockmuehl, contends that the solution is to see his views multiperspectivally. This approach positions Philo’s views of the physical world in-between those evident in Israel’s scriptures and those of the ancient philosophers, ultimately seeing them as negative. This lexical-semantic reading of the Philonic corpus is quite convincing with regard to the way it establishes the presence of both positive and negative discourses concerning the physical word. Furthermore, Anderson’s exhaustive treatment of φύσις represents a key contribution from this densely and convincingly argued monograph.
Chapter 1 notes the deficiencies in previous attempts to address this question and concludes with brief discussions concerning the socially-conditioned nature of cosmological reflection and the contextualized methodological approach used in this study. Chapter 2 sets the context by surveying the genre and organization of Philo’s writings in which Judaism and Hellenism interpenetrate. Anderson contends that the “Allegory of the Law” and the “Exposition of the Law” had two different audiences (p. 18). The former was for advanced readers, while the latter was for beginners. These disparate audiences account for the different perspectives on the sensible world (p. 22). With regard to Hellenism and Judaism, Philo sees them as compatible with ideological precedence given to Judaism, though with regard to the physical world, Philo diverts from both in significant ways. Chapter 3 lays out the study of Philo’s negative terminology for the physical world by analyzing οὐσία, ὕλη, γένεσις, and γενητός; here the world is hostile and alienated from God. However, in chapters 4-6, Anderson’s study of κόσμος and φύσις indicate that when Philo used these terms he linked the sensible world closely to God.
Chapter 7 addresses the implications of such seemingly contradictory views. Philo’s understanding of the differing ways humanity seeks God accounts for this divergence. For those seeking God in the higher way, the world is an obstacle and no longer serves a positive purpose; however, for those seeking God through the lower approach, “the sensible world has genuine value—it is the means by which they come to know God” (p. 167). Chapter 8 organizes Philo’s multiperspectival view of the ethical status of the physical world and coheres closely to the lexical findings of the earlier chapters: οὐσία, ὕλη, γένεσις, and γενητός, with their focus on the material world present a pessimistic view, while κόσμος and φύσις point to God as creator and ruler over the same domain. Anderson ultimately concludes, however, that Philo’s view prioritizes “the pessimistic outlook” (p. 185). Chapter 9 provides a conclusion to the study by highlighting its findings and noting the ways Philo’s negative views compare with the views of other ancient writers. Particularly helpful here is the discussion of Paul’s cosmological discourse. As noted by Anderson, this was one of his original interests (p. 2). One hopes that he will soon revisit this topic, since his work has profound relevance for understanding the context of Paul’s cosmological discourse. Anderson has provided a thoroughly convincing argument, though some may be unconvinced by his reliance on Alan Mendelson’s multiperspectivalism. That minor point aside, Anderson offers a plausible solution to the problem of Philo’s apparent contradictory perspectives on the physical world.