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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Dovid Campbell

Philo’s Torah of Daily Experience

Updated: Jul 16, 2023

Philo of Alexandria’s writings feel surprisingly modern for a philosopher who lived over two thousand years ago. Although he had a major impact on the development of religious philosophy, it is his insight into human nature that has endeared him to readers throughout history. For me, Philo’s willingness to share and grapple with his personal experiences as a Jew in the cultural metropolis of Alexandria make him a relevant and inspiring voice. Philo encourages us to find the marvelous within the mundane.

Alexandria offered its citizens everything they might want – the Great Library of Alexandria was a global intellectual hub, and the city was buzzing with cultural attractions and amusements. Home to numerous synagogues and study halls to accommodate its booming Jewish population, Alexandria was exactly the type of place where a young Jewish philosopher could either thrive or lose himself. Philo’s autobiographical writings show us how he navigated and even embraced this tension, and he can inspire us to do so as well.

Ringside Seats

Philo apparently enjoyed a good boxing match, known as pancratia in Greek. But unlike the other spectators, he didn’t come to root for his favorite fighter or cheer for a knockout. In the boxers’ courage and resilience, Philo found a model for his own inner struggles:

“I have already once observed in a contest of pancratiasts how one of the combatants inflicted blows with hands and feet, all well aimed, and omitted nothing that could lead to his victory, but then exhausted and weakened ultimately quit the arena without the crown, whereas the one receiving the blows… gave no ground in the face of the blows, but by his patient and steadfast endurance reduced the strength of his adversary until he had attained complete victory. Much the same, it seems to me, is the situation of the virtuous man; his soul well fortified through firm reasoning, he compels the one who acts with violence to sink in exhaustion, sooner than himself submit to do anything contrary to his judgment” (Prob. 26-27).

Philo recognized that victory often depended more on endurance than on skill. If a fighter refused to back down, he could overcome a much better fighter. Philo took a lesson from this for his own moral development.

In another passage, Philo contrasts how a slave and a boxer endure a beating. While the slave is helpless and surrenders himself to his punishment, the boxer “shakes off the blows raining on him with either hand, and turning his neck this way and that, he guards against blows, or… tightening and constricting himself, he compels his adversary to launch his hands into empty space” (Cher. 81).

Philo urges us to approach our difficulties in life like a boxer. We cannot stop the blows from coming, but we can change how we orient ourselves to them. We might find that many of them miss us entirely.

A Night at the Theater

Philo’s interests extended beyond athletics to the realm of art and culture. He recorded the following after a trip to the theater:

“Recently, when some players were putting on a tragedy and reciting those lines of Euripides – ‘The name of freedom is worth all the world; If one has little, let him think it much’ – I saw the entire audience rise in a burst of enthusiasm on tiptoe, and outshouting the actors with continuous exclamations, combine the praise of the maxim with the praise of the poet” (Prob. 141).

Most of us can hardly tolerate someone whispering during a movie, but Philo was moved by the audience’s outburst. Euripides’ words reminded them how precious freedom can be, and Philo recognized in their response the universality and power of this idea.

Elsewhere, Philo recalled a performance that produced dramatically different responses within a single audience. A particular piece of music led to intense emotion in some, complete indifference in others, and even disgust for a few individuals who left the theater (Ebr. 177). While some ideas strike us with their universal truth, we are still subjective individuals with unique tastes.

Philo seems to have watched the audience as much as he watched the play, and this was the key to his ability to transform casual entertainment into philosophical reflection. He learned to notice not only what people were experiencing but how they were experiencing it. And there was no better practice for this than sitting in a packed theater.

Yearning for Solitude

Philo eventually became a leader in Alexandria’s Jewish community, and he felt the weight of that responsibility. He describes being hurled “into the vast sea of civil cares” and thanks God that “though overwhelmed by the surf I am not swallowed up in the deep” (see Spec. 3.1-6).Philo was not being dramatic – we know that Alexandria’s Jewish community endured incredible hardships during Philo’s life. It was only natural for him to seek solace in some momentary solitude:

“I have myself often left kinsmen, friends, and country to come into the wilderness to reflect on something worthy of contemplation and gained nothing from it, but my mind scattered or bitten by passion withdrew to matters of a contrary sort. There are times, however, when I have a collected mind amidst a huge crowd. God has routed the mob thronging my soul and has taught me that it is not differences of place that effect good and bad dispositions” (LA 2.85).

Very often, we imagine that we would be at peace if only we could escape some situation or circumstance. And while it’s certainly true that environment has an effect, Philo realized that his inner peace wasn’t dependent on his environment, and his withdrawal from society had been counterproductive.

We live in a time of unparalleled access to casual entertainment, and it sometimes feels like this entertainment either holds the keys to our happiness or is ruining our life. Philo recognized this challenge and noticed our tendency to either become immersed or withdrawn from society. But these are extremes, and Philo – the consummate Jewish philosopher – sought a place of balance. It is in this place that we are capable of finding moral courage in a boxing match, shared humanity in a theater, and profound calm in a bustling crowd.

*Translations of Philo by David Winston, with slight amendation based on LCL edition.


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