Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: On the Contemplative Life

Philo of Alexandria was the outstanding Jewish philosopher of the period during which the Jewish nation came under the influence of Hellenistic culture. Very little is known of his life. It is estimated that he was born around 20 B.C.E. It is also known that he led a deputation of Alexandrian Jews to Emperor Caligula in Rome to petition him to call a halt to the Roman persecution of Judaism. Philo received the education of an upper-class Greek, seems to have known little Hebrew and to have gained his knowledge of Judaism only by attending synagogue services and by observing the life of the Jewish community around him in Alexandria.

In his youth he wrote some purely philosophical treatises, and in old age two pieces of apologetics defending the Jews and describing their persecutions. But the greater part of his interest was taken up by the interpretation, in terms of Hellenistic culture and for Hellenized readers, of Jewish Law and tradition. Here he tried to reconcile Judaism with Platonic and Stoic ideas and the rationalism of Greek philosophy in general. Philo’s thought is, hence, filled with contradictions and inconsistencies; and in the end he had more, much more influence upon such Christian sages as Clement and Origen than upon Jewish thinkers coming after him. Once the Jews withdrew themselves definitely and uncompromisingly from Hellenism, the fruits of the work of such Hellenized Jews as Philo were automatically excluded.

Philo’s treatise “On the Contemplative Life,’ which we publish in shortened form below, has aroused much controversy. A 19th-century German scholar, Lucius, thought it to come both from another hand and a later age than Philo’s, arguing that it was in reality the description of a primitive Christian community. Lucius succeeded in winning many scholars over to his opinion, but since his time the textual criticism of Conybeare and Wendland, backed up by such reliable testimony as that of E. R. .Goodenough of Yale and Hans Levy, have served to turn the tide the other way, and the bulk of responsible opinion now maintains Philo’s authorship of the treatise.

Philo presents the Therapeutae as a counterpart to the sect of the Essenes, whom he had described elsewhere. Whereas the Essenes represent the practical ascetic life, one of action, the Therapeutae represent the contemplative ascetic life. In so far as Judaism never favored a radical split between contemplation and action, it could be said with some plausibility that the Therapeutae already manifested a quietist tendency in the Jewish life of that time which Christianity was shortly to capitalize upon more than Judaism.

The present translation is by F. H. .Colson and is taken from volume IX of the Loeb Classical Library’s edition of Philo’s complete works. The excerpt is published here by permission of the Harvard University Press and William Heinemann, Ltd. of London—ED.

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The vocation of these philosophers is at once made clear from their title of Therapeutae and Therapeutrides, a name derived from therapeuo, either in the sense of “cure,” because they profess an art of healing better than that current in the cities which cures only the bodies, while theirs treats also souls oppressed with grievous and well-nigh incurable diseases, inflicted by pleasures and desires and griefs and fears, by acts of covetousness, folly and injustice and the countless host of the other passions and vices: or else in the sense of “worship,” because nature and the sacred laws have schooled them to worship the Self-existent who is better than the good, purer than the One and more primordial than the Monad. Who among those who profess piety deserve to be compared with these? . . .

[They] settle in a certain very suitable place which they regard as their fatherland. This place is situated above the Mareotic Lake on a somewhat low-lying hill very happily placed both because of its security and the pleasantly tempered air. The safety is secured by the farm buildings and villages round about and the pleasantness of the air by the continuous breezes which arise both from the lake which debouches into the sea and from the open sea hard by. For the sea breezes are light, the lake breezes close, and the two combining together produce a most healthy condition of climate.

The houses of the society thus collected are exceedingly simple, providing protection against two of the most pressing dangers, the fiery heat of the sun and the icy cold of the air. They are neither near together as in towns, since living at close quarters is troublesome and displeasing to people who are seeking to satisfy their desire for solitude, nor yet at a great distance because of the sense of fellowship which they cherish, and to render help to each other if robbers attack them. In each house there is a consecrated room which is called a sanctuary or closet and closeted in this they are initiated into the mysteries of the sanctified life. They take nothing into it, either drink or food or any other of the things necessary for the needs of the body, but laws and oracles delivered through the mouth of prophets, and psalms and anything else which fosters and perfects knowledge and piety. They keep the memory of God alive and never forget it, so that even in their dreams the picture is nothing else but the loveliness of divine excellences and powers. Indeed many when asleep and dreaming give utterance to the glorious verities of their holy philosophy. Twice every day they pray, at dawn and at eventide; at sunrise they pray for a fine bright day, fine and bright in the true sense of the heavenly daylight which they pray may fill their minds. At sunset they ask that the soul may be wholly relieved from the press of the senses and the objects of sense and sitting where she is consistory and council chamber to herself pursue the quest of truth. The interval between early morning and evening is spent entirely in spiritual exercise. They read the Holy Scriptures and seek wisdom from their ancestral philosophy by taking it as an allegory, since they think that the words of the literal text are symbols of something whose hidden nature is revealed by studying the underlying meaning.

They have also writings of men of old, the founders of their way of thinking, who left many memorials of the form used in allegorical interpretation and these they take as a kind of archetype and imitate the method in which this principle is carried out. And so they do not confine themselves to contemplation but also compose hymns and psalms to God in all sorts of meters and melodies which they write down with the rhythms necessarily made more solemn.

For six days they seek wisdom by themselves in solitude in the closets mentioned above, never passing the outside door of the house or even getting a distant view of it. But every seventh day they meet together as for a general assembly and sit in order according to their age in the proper attitude, with their hands inside the robe, the right hand between the breast and the chin and the left withdrawn along the flank. Then the senior among them who also has the fullest knowledge of the doctrines which they profess comes forward and with visage and voice alike quiet and composed gives a well-reasoned and wise discourse. He does not make an exhibition of clever rhetoric like the orators or sophists of today but follows careful examination by careful expression of the exact meaning of the thoughts, and this does not lodge just outside of the ears of the audience but passes through the hearing into the soul and there stays securely. All the others sit still and listen, showing their approval merely by their looks or nods.

This common sanctuary in which they meet every seventh day is a double enclosure, one portion set apart for the use of the men, the other for the women. For women, too, regularly make part of the audience with the same ardour and the same sense of their calling. The wall between the two chambers rises up from the ground to three or four cubits built in the form of a breastwork, while the space above up to the roof is left open. This arrangement serves two purposes; the modesty becoming to the female sex is preserved, while the women, sitting within ear-shot, can easily follow what is said since there is nothing to obstruct the voice of the speaker.

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They lay self-control to be as it were the foundation of their soul and on it build the other virtues. None of them would put food or drink to his lips before sunset since they hold that philosophy finds its right place in the light, the needs of the body in the darkness, and therefore they assign the day to the one and some small part of the night to the other. Some in whom the desire for studying wisdom is more deeply implanted even only after three days remember to take food. Others so luxuriate and delight in the banquet of truths which wisdom richly and lavishly supplies that they hold out for twice that time and only after six days do they bring themselves to taste such sustenance as is absolutely necessary. They have become habituated to abstinence like the grasshoppers who are said to live on air because, I suppose, their singing makes their lack of food a light matter. But to the seventh day, as they consider it to be sacred and festal in the highest degree, they have awarded special privileges as its due, and on it after providing for the soul refresh the body also, which they do as a matter of course with the cattle, too, by releasing them from their continuous labour. Still they eat nothing costly, only common bread with salt for a relish, flavoured further by the daintier with hyssop, and their drink is spring water. . . .

As for the two forms of shelter, clothes and housing, we have already said that the house is unembellished and a makeshift constructed for utility only. Their clothing likewise is the most inexpensive, enough to protect them against extreme cold and heat, a thick coat of shaggy skin in winter and in summer a vest or linen shirt. . . .

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I wish also to speak of their common assemblages and the cheerfulness of their convivial meals as contrasted with those of other people. Some people when they have filled themselves with strong drink behave as though they had drunk not wine but some witch’s potion charged with frenzy and madness and anything more fatal that can be imagined to overthrow their reason. They bellow and rave like wild dogs, attack and bite each other and gnaw off noses, ears, fingers and some other parts of the body, so that they make good the story of the comrades of Odysseus and the Cyclops by eating “gobbets” of men, as the poet says, and with greater cruelty than the Cyclops. For he avenged himself on men whom he suspected to be enemies, they on their familiars and friends and sometimes even on their kin over the salt and across the board, and as they pour the libation of peace they commit deeds of war like those of the gymnastic contests, counterfeiting the genuine coin of manly exercise, no wrestlers but wretches, for that is the right name to give them. For what the athletes do in the arena while sober, in the daylight, with the eyes of all Greece upon them in the hope of victory and the crown and in the exercise of their skill, is debased by the revellers who ply their activities in convivial gatherings by night and in darkness, drink-besotted, ignorant, and skilful only for mischief to inflict dishonour, insult and grievous outrage on the objects of their assault. And if no one plays the umpire and comes forward to intervene and separate them, they carry on the bout with increased licence to the finish, ready both to kill and to be killed. For they suffer no less than what they mete to others though they know it not, so infatuated are these who shrink not from drinking wine, as the comic poet says, to mar not only their neighbours but themselves.

And so those who but now came to the party sound in body and friendly at heart leave soon afterwards in enmity and with bodily mutilation—enmity in some cases calling for advocates and judges, mutilation in others requiring the apothecary and physician and the help that they can bring. Others belonging to what we may suppose is the more moderate part of the company are in a state of overflow. Draughts of strong wine act upon them like mandragora, they throw the left elbow forward, turn the neck at a right angle, belch into the cups and sink into a profound sleep, seeing nothing and hearing nothing, having apparently only one sense and that the most slavish, taste. I know of some who when they are half-seas-over and before they have completely gone under arrange donations and subscriptions in preparation for tomorrow’s bout, considering that one factor in their present exhilaration is the hope of future intoxication. In this way they spend their whole life ever heartless and homeless, enemies to their parents, their wives and their children, enemies too to their country and at war with themselves. For a loose and a dissolute life is a menace to all.

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Some perhaps may approve the method of banqueting now prevalent everywhere through hankering for the Italian expensiveness and luxury emulated both by Greeks and non-Greeks who make their arrangements for ostentation rather than festivity. Sets of three or many couches made of tortoise shell or ivory or even more valuable material, most of them inlaid with precious stones; coverlets purple-dyed with gold interwoven, others brocaded with flower patterns of all sorts of colours to allure the eye; a host of drinking cups set out in their several kinds, beakers, stoops, tankards, other goblets of many shapes, very artistically and elaborately chased by scientific craftsmen. For waiting there are slaves of the utmost comeliness and beauty, giving the idea that they have come not so much to render service as to give pleasure to the eyes of the beholders by appearing on the scene. Some of them who are still boys pour the wine, while the water is carried by full-grown lads fresh from the bath and smooth shaven, with their faces smeared with cosmetics and paint under the eyelids and the hair of the head prettily plaited and tightly bound. . . .

Seven tables at the least and even more are brought in covered with the flesh of every creature that land, sea and rivers or air produce, beast, fish or bird, all choice and in fine condition, each table differing in the dishes served and the method of seasoning. And, that nothing to be found in nature should be unrepresented, the last tables brought in are loaded with fruits, not including those reserved for the drinking bouts and the after-dinners as they call them. Then while some tables are taken out emptied by the gluttony of the company who gorge themselves like cormorants, so voraciously that they nibble even at the bones, other tables have their dishes mangled and torn and left half eaten. And when they are quite exhausted, their bellies crammed up to the gullets, but their lust still ravenous, impotent for eating [they turn to the drink]. But why dilate on these doings which are now condemned by many of the more sober minded as giving further vent to the lusts which might profitably be curtailed? For one may well pray for what men most pray to escape, hunger and thirst, rather than for the lavish profusion of food and drink found in festivities of this kind. . . .

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But since the story of these well-known banquets is full of such follies and they stand self-convicted in the eyes of any who do not regard conventional opinions and the widely circulated report which declares them to have been all that they should be, I will describe in contrast the festal meetings of those who have dedicated their own lives and themselves to knowledge and the contemplation of the verities of nature, following the truly sacred instructions of the prophet Moses. First of all these people assemble after seven sets of seven days have passed, for they revere not only the simple seven but its square also, since they know its chastity and perpetual virginity. This is the eve of the chief feast which Fifty takes for its own [i.e., the Feast of Pentecost], Fifty the most sacred of numbers and the most deeply rooted in nature, being formed from the square of the right-angled triangle which is the source from which the universe springs.

So then they assemble, white-robed and with faces in which cheerfulness is combined with the utmost seriousness, but before they recline, at a signal from a member of the Rota, which is the name commonly given to those who perform these services, they take their stand in a regular line in an orderly way, their eyes and hands lifted up to Heaven, eyes because they have been trained to fix their gaze on things worthy of contemplation, hands in token that they are clean from gain-taking and not defiled through any cause of the profit-making kind. So standing they pray to God that their feasting may be acceptable and proceed as He would have it.

After the prayers the seniors recline according to the order of their admission, since by senior they do not understand the aged and grey headed, who are regarded as still mere children if they have only in late years come to love this rule of life, but those who from their earliest years have grown to manhood and spent their prime in pursuing the contemplative branch of philosophy, which indeed is the noblest and most god-like part. The feast is shared by women also, most of them aged virgins, who have kept their chastity not under compulsion, like some of the Greek priestesses, but of their own free will in their ardent yearning for wisdom. Eager to have her for their life mate, they have spurned the pleasures of the body and desire no mortal offspring but those immortal children which only the soul that is dear to God can bring to the birth unaided because the Father has sown in her spiritual rays enabling her to behold the verities of wisdom.

The order of reclining is so apportioned that the men sit by themselves on the right and the women by themselves on the left. Perhaps it may be thought that couches though not costly still of a softer kind would have been provided for people of good birth and high character and trained practice in philosophy. Actually they are plank beds of the common kinds of wood, covered with quite cheap strewings of native papyrus, raised slightly at the arms to give something to lean on. For while they mitigate somewhat the harsh austerity of Sparta, they always and everywhere practise a frugal contentment worthy of the free, and oppose with might and main the love-lures of pleasure. They do not have slaves to wait upon them as they consider that the ownership of servants is entirely against nature. For nature has borne all men to be free, but the wrongful and covetous acts of some who pursued that source of evil, inequality, have imposed their yoke and invested the stronger with power over the weaker. In this sacred banquet there is as I have said no slave, but the services are rendered by free men who perform their tasks as attendants not under compulsion nor yet waiting for orders, but with deliberate goodwill anticipating eagerly and zealously the demands that may be made. For it is not just any free men who are appointed for these offices but young members of the association chosen with all care for their special merit, who as becomes their good character and nobility are pressing on to reach the summit of virtue. They give their services gladly and proudly like sons to their real fathers and mothers, judging them to be the parents of them all in common, in a closer affinity than that of blood, since to the right minded there is no closer tie than noble living. And they come in to do their office ungirt and with tunics hanging down, that in their appearance there may be no shadow of anything to suggest the slave.

In this banquet—I know that some will laugh at this, but only those whose actions call for tears and lamentation—no wine is brought . . . but only water of the brightest and clearest, cold for most of the guests but warm for such of the older men as live delicately. The table too is kept pure from the flesh of animals; the food laid on it is loaves of bread with salt as a seasoning, sometimes also flavoured with hyssop as a relish for the daintier appetites. Abstinence from wine is enjoined by right reason, as for the priest when sacrificing, so to these for their lifetime. For wine acts like a drug producing folly, and costly dishes stir up that most insatiable of animals, desire.

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Such are the preliminaries. But when the guests have laid themselves down arranged in rows, as I have described, and the attendants have taken their stand with everything in order ready for their ministry, the President of the company, when a general silence is established—here it may be asked when is there no silence—well at this point there is silence even more than before so that no one ventures to make a sound or breathe with more force than usual—amid this silence, I say, he discusses some question arising in the Holy Scriptures or solves one that has been propounded by someone else. In doing this he has no thought of making a display, for he has no ambition to get a reputation for clever oratory but desires to gain a closer insight into some particular matters and having gained it not to withhold it selfishly from those who if not so clear-sighted as he have at least a similar desire to learn. His instruction proceeds in a leisurely manner; he lingers over it and spins it out with repetitions, thus permanently imprinting the thoughts in the souls of the hearers, since if the speaker goes on descanting with breathless rapidity the mind of the hearers is unable to follow his language, loses ground and fails to arrive at apprehension of what is said. His audience listens with ears pricked up and eyes fixed on him always in exactly the same posture, signifying comprehension and understanding by nods and glances, praise of the speaker by the cheerful change of expression which steals over the face, difficulty by a gentler movement of the head and by pointing with a finger-tip of the right hand. . . .

When then the President thinks he has discoursed enough . . . [he] rises and sings a hymn composed as an address to God. . . . After him all the others take their turn as they are arranged and in the proper order while all the rest listen in complete silence except when they have to chant the closing lines or refrains, for then they all lift up their voices, men and women alike. When everyone has finished his hymn the young men bring in the tables mentioned a little above on which is set the truly purified meal of leavened bread seasoned with salt mixed with hyssop, out of reverence for the holy table enshrined in the sacred vestibule of the temple on which lie loaves and salt without condiments, the loaves unleavened and the salt unmixed. For it was meet that the simplest and purest food should be assigned to the highest caste, namely the priests, as a reward for their ministry, and that the others while aspiring to similar privileges should abstain from seeking the same as they and allow their superiors to retain their precedence.

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After the supper they hold the sacred vigil which is conducted in the following way. They rise up all together and standing in the middle of the refectory form themselves first into two choirs, one of men and one of women, the leader and precentor chosen for each being the most honoured amongst them and also the most musical. Then they sing hymns to God composed of many measures and set to many melodies, sometimes chanting together, sometimes taking up the harmony antiphonally, hands and feet keeping time in accompaniment, and rapt with enthusiasm reproduce sometimes the lyrics of the procession, sometimes of the halt and of the wheeling and counter-wheeling of a choric dance.

Then when each choir has separately done its own part in the feast, having drunk as in the Bacchic rites of the strong wine of God’s love, they mix and both together become a single choir, a copy of the choir set up of old beside the Red Sea in honour of the wonders there wrought. For at the command of God the sea became a source of salvation to one party and of perdition to the other. As it broke in twain and withdrew under the violence of the forces which swept it back there rose on either side, opposite to each other, the semblance of solid walls, while the space thus opened between them broadened into a highway smooth and dry throughout on which the people marched under guidance right on until they reached the higher ground on the opposite mainland. But when the sea came rushing in with the returning tide, and from either side passed over the ground where dry land had appeared, the pursuing enemy were submerged and perished. This wonderful sight and experience, an act transcending word and thought and hope, so filled with ecstasy both men and women that forming a single choir they sang hymns of thanksgiving to God their Saviour, the men led by the prophet Moses and the women by the prophetess Miriam.

It is on this model above all that the choir of the Therapeutae of either sex, note in response to note and voice to voice, the treble of the women blending with the bass of the men, create an harmonious concent, musical in the truest sense. Lovely are the thoughts, lovely the words, and worthy of reverence the choristers, and the end and aim of thoughts, words and choristers alike is piety. Thus they continue till dawn, drunk with this drunkenness in which there is no shame; then, not with heavy heads or drowsy eyes but more alert and Wakeful than when they came to the banquet, they stand with their faces and whole body turned to the east and when they see the sun rising they stretch their hands up to heaven and pray for bright days and knowledge of the truth and the power of keen-sighted thinking. And after the prayers they depart each to his private sanctuary once more to ply the trade and till the field of their wonted philosophy.

So much then for the Therapeutae, who have taken to their hearts the contemplation of nature and what it has to teach, and have lived in the soul alone, citizens of Heaven and the world, presented to the Father and Maker of all by their faithful sponsor Virtue, who has procured for them God’s friendship and added a gift going hand in hand with it, true excellence of life, a boon better than all good fortune and rising to the very summit of felicity.

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