Philo, Epicurus, and the soul

Greek and Roman Philosophy after Aristotle

Edited by Jason L. Saunders

The Free Press, 1966, 371 pages

 

Jason L. Saunders’ book is a collection of philosophical and religious writings from Epicurus in the fourth century BCE through the early writings on Christianity, until Tertullian (160-230 CE). Some thoughts ring true today; others do not; most show disagreements on significant subjects.

 

For example, Philo of Alexandria, Egypt (about 20 BCE-about 40 CE), was one of the first Jews who interpreted the Hebrew Bible according to the philosophy of the third century BCE Greek pagan Plato. Later, other Jews, such as Maimonides (1138-1204) insisted that the understanding of the world by Aristotle is correct. Philo introduced the concept of reading the Bible allegorically, did not say that a literal reading is wrong, but emphasized allegory so frequently and counter intuitively that the early rabbis decided to ignore his writings, writings that made a considerable impact upon Christianity. In his “On the Account of the World’s Creation,” for example, Philo speaks about Moses writing the Bible, not God, and contends that God created the world in six days, even though He could have done so instantly: “Six days are mentioned because for the things coming into existence there was a need of order. Order involves numbers, and among numbers by the laws of nature the most suitable to productivity is six…the perfect number.” Thus, Philo explains that God created in six days to clarify that the world is filled with order. Besides being a rather forced interpretation, Philo ignored the fact that seven is the significant number in the creation story, the Sabbath. Philo was also wrong about six being the perfect number. As I showed in my book “Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets,” in the chapter “The Significance of the Number Seven”: “The number seven was used frequently in virtually all known cultures because ancient humans mistakenly saw it as the basic number in nature and supposed that it could affect humans.” I gave over a hundred examples, such as: the ancients were able to see only seven heavenly objects other than the stars; they visualized the human body as comprising seven parts, head, two arms, two legs, and an upper and lower trunk of the body; they recognized seven stamped on human faces in two eyes, two ears, a nose, mouth, and head.

 

Another interesting fact among many in the book, concerns Epicurus. This philosopher was maligned by Jews and Christians because he stated that there is no proof that a god or gods exist. He was mocked for saying that humanity’s ultimate goal is pleasure. But the critics didn’t read his definition of pleasure. Epicurus wasn’t condoning indulgencies; just the opposite. He lived a simple life. He suggested that people should “direct every preference and aversion toward securing health of body and tranquility of mind, seeing that this is the sum and end of a blessed life. For the end of all actions is to be free from pain and fear, and, when once we have attained all this, (there is) no need to go in search of something that is lacking, nor look for anything else by which the good of the soul and the body will be fulfilled.” He extolled a simple tranquil life that avoids pain and fear. This sounds good. But the avoidance of the stress of learning results in ignorance and separating from society to live tranquil lives ignores Aristotle’s insight that “man is a social animal,” and humans have a duty to help, despite difficulties, to improve society.

 

Another concept in this book is the soul. Today Christians and Jews are convinced that there is a soul. Yet the Hebrew Bible doesn’t mention it. The Greeks introduced the idea. Aristotle defined soul as the body’s life forces, such as the digestive and respiratory systems and the mind. Stoic writers pointed out: “The theory of the soul is much disputed by nearly all the ancients….the Stoics say it is a breath hot and fiery,” some say it can be generated and destroyed, others that it is immortal. Thus when people speak about the soul today, they probably don’t know exactly what they are talking about.

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