The Idea and the Reality of the City in the Thought of Philo of Alexandria

Journal of the History of Ideas 61 (3):361-379 (2000)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Journal of the History of Ideas 61.3 (2000) 361-379 [Access article in PDF] The Idea and the Reality of the City in the Thought of Philo of Alexandria * David T. Runia The theme of my paper is the conception of the city as a social and cultural phenomenon held by the Jewish exegete and philosopher Philo of Alexandria (15 bc to 50 ad). There can be no doubt that the city occupied a central position in his own life. As an inhabitant of Alexandria he was thoroughly immersed in a highly urbanized form of life. From a more theoretical angle the city has an important place in his thought because of what it represents: of all physical products of human activity the city is the largest and most complex (here there is in fact little difference between Philo and us, although there is an obvious difference in scale). It is not my aim to examine Philo's political philosophy, i.e., his views on how the city should be governed, nor his views on the actual political administration of the Roman Empire in his time. These subjects have already been treated with sufficient competence by others. 1 I will argue that, though as an Alexandrian Philo was very much a homo urbanus, he nevertheless reveals a significant ambivalence towards the city. This attitude is related to his dual ideological background (Jewish and Greek), and anticipates developments in later antiquity.As always in the case of Philo, it is necessary to reflect on the methodology that should be used to reach our aim. True to his usual method, Philo nowhere examines the nature of the city in a sustained way. It is necessary to cull statements from many different places in his various works. For his views on living in the city of Alexandria we can examine his historical treatises. A more theoretical perspective is gained from his exegetical and philosophical works; but these, too, are not wholly devoid of topical remarks, such as the famous text in [End Page 361] which he complains that he has had to exchange the contemplative life for immersion in the maelstrom of Alexandrian political life (De specialibus legibus 3.1-6).In the analysis of the numerous texts in which Philo speaks of the city, it would be a mistake to try to compartmentalize his thought too much, i.e., to make a sharp distinction between historical-apologetic and exegetical-philosophical modes of thinking. It is true that Philo devotes the greatest part of his oeuvre to giving exegesis of the Law of Moses. But for him this is far from a merely antiquarian exercise. Philo is convinced of the universal relevance of the Pentateuch for both Jew and Gentile, including those who live in a complex urban environment utterly different from the circumstances of tent-dwelling Patriarchs or itinerant Israelites. The Law, it is assumed, represents the constitution of a Mosaic politeia deserving of universal admiration. So when Philo speaks of the city in his exegesis of Mosaic texts, his remarks may well be relevant to our theme. This applies also to allegorical forms of interpretation. The method of allegory enables him to bring forward the more theoretical and "philosophical" aspects of the theme.It remains a problem that our material consists of a large number of scattered and episodic remarks. These can be assembled together into the shape of a plausible and informative picture, but the aspect of a scholarly construct cannot be entirely avoided. There are compensations in Philo's case through the sheer volume of the material he has left behind. This lessens the chance that we should attribute too much significance to what may be no more than casual remarks. We should, however, have no illusions about the extent to which we can pene-trate behind the facade of his works. These were not written with the motive of disclosing his personal views on a wide scale of issues. The personality of Philo the Alexandrian Jew remains largely hidden from view...

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