Philo About Spirit

Alexandria’s repertoire of the spirit, like that of the Greeks, is very rich. While the early philosophers of the Alexandrian school usually tended toward Stoic pantheism and peripatetic thought, over time they turned to Platonism under the influence of Jewish teachings. This philosophy was re-interpreted by Philo and reconciled and harmonized with the Jewish conceptions of the spirit and life.

The two basic elements in Philo’s philosophy were “God” and “matter.” According to Philo, God is the original light, and all the intellects, spirits, and souls dependent on Him are illuminated by Him. The intellectual forms of things are contained in the Divine Being, and whatever we perceive with our external senses has been created according to these intellectual forms.

Philo defended the idea that the human spirit is a Divine emanation and, therefore, eternal. However, despite being a unitary entity, the spirit is composed of two dimensions: one intellectual or rational, the other, emotive. When one of these two dimensions gains strength, the other is weakened. Philo sometimes adopted the triad of vegetative, emotive, and rational spirits or souls.

Philo was a forerunner of Neoplatonism. The actual founder or expounder of this philosophy was Plotinus (205–270 CE). Based on Plato’s philosophy, Plotinus tried to establish a somewhat eclectic school of thought, but he arrived at some sort of mysticism.

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Plotinus taught the existence of an ineffable, transcendent God, from Whom emanated the Intellect; from the Intellect a Universal Spirit emanated. Both the Intellect and the Universal Spirit are included in the Divine Being.

Neoplatonism also teaches that all people return to the Source. The Source is where all things spring from and is where all things return. The human spirit or soul is a part of the Universal Spirit, and its perfection means its final union with the spirit. Some compare this conception to the “annihilation in the Divine Being” which Muslim Sufism teaches. According to Neoplatonism, the human spirit accomplishes this union by contemplation and acts of spiritual refinement. A spirit turning to God obtains love with these acts and contemplation and is immersed in spiritual pleasures, forgetting all pain and suffering.

According to Plotinus, the spirit is eternal in the sense that it is lost in the Divine Being. This teaching resembles Aristotle’s conception of the spirit’s returning to its origin.

Almost all philosophers—except materialists, who naturally have no right to talk about the spirit—from India to Egypt and Greece have accepted the existence of God and the spirit. They have not denied the metaphysical dimension of existence. Like them, Christian saints and philosophers and Muslim thinkers, although sometimes having displayed some sort of deviance under the influence of certain local cultures, ancient thinkers, or scientific developments, have also accepted the existence of the spirit and expressed views about it and its future.