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Philo to Hephaestion.

sexta-feira 25 de março de 2022

Hours with the mystics; a contribution to the history of religious opinion

Philo   to Hephaestion.

I am beginning to recover myself, after all the anxiety and peril of our embassy to Caligula. Nothing shall tempt me to visit Rome again so long as this Emperor lives. Our divine Plato   is doubly dear after so long an absence. Only an imperative sense of duty to my countrymen could again induce me to take so prominent a part in their public affairs. Except when our religion or our trade is concerned, the government has always found us more docile than either the Greeks or the Egyptians, and we enjoy accordingly large privileges. Yet when I saw the ill turn our cause took at Rome, I could not but sigh for another Julius Caesar.

I am sorry to find you saying that you are not likely to visit Alexandria again. This restless, wicked city can present but few attractions, I grant, to a lover of philosophic quiet. But I cannot commend the extreme to which I see so many hastening. A passion for ascetic seclusion is becoming daily more prevalent among the devout and the thoughtful, whether Jew or Gentile. Yet surely the attempt to- combine contemplation and action should not be so soon abandoned. A man ought at least to have evinced some competency for the discharge of the social duties before he abandons them for the divine. First the less, then the greater.

I have tried the life of the recluse. Solitude brings no escape from spiritual danger. If it closes some avenues of temptation, there are few in whose case it does not open more. Yet the Therapeutae, a sect similar to the Essenes, with whom you are acquainted, number many among them whose lives are truly exemplary. Their cells are scattered about the region bordering on the farther shore of the Lake Mareotis. The members of either sex live a single and ascetic life, spending their time in fasting and contemplation, in prayer or reading. They believe themselves favoured with divine illumination—an inner light. They assemble on the Sabbath for worship, and listen to mystical discourses on the traditionary lore which they say has been handed down in secret among themselves. They also celebrate solemn dances and processions, of a mystic significance, by moonlight on the shore of the great mere. Sometimes, on an occasion of public rejoicing, the margin of the lake on our side will be lit with a fiery chain of illuminations, and galleys, hung with lights, row to and fro with strains of music sounding over the broad water. Then the Therapeutae are all hidden in their little hermitages, and these sights and sounds of the world they have abandoned, make them withdraw into themselves and pray.

Their principle at least is true. The soul which is occupied with things above, and is initiated into the mysteries of the world, cannot but account the body evil, and even hostile. The soul of man is divine, and his highest wisdom is to become as much as possible a stranger to the body with its embarrassing appetites. God has breathed into man from heaven a portion of his own divinity. That which is divine is invisible. It may be extended, but it is incapable of separation. Consider how vast is the range of our thought over the past and the future, the heavens and the earth. This alliance with an upper world, of which we are conscious, would be impossible, were not the soul of man an indivisible portion of that divine and blessed Spirit. Contemplation of the Divine Essence is the noblest exercise of man ; it is the only means of attaining to the highest truth and virtue, and therein to behold God is the consummation of our happiness here.

The confusion of tongues at the building of the tower of Babel should teach us this lesson. The heaven those vain builders sought to reach, signifies symbolically the mind, where dwell divine powers. Their futile attempt represents the presumption of those who place sense above intelligence—who think that they can storm the Intelligible by the Sensible. The structure which such impiety would raise is overthrown by spiritual tranquillity. In calm retirement and contemplation we are taught that we know like only by like, and that the foreign and lower world of the sensuous and the practical may not intrude into the lofty region of divine illumination.

I have written a small treatise on the Contemplative Life, giving an account of the Therapeutae. If you will neither visit me nor them, I will have a copy of it made, and send you. Farewell. [NT: Philo   gives an account of the Therapeutae referred to in the letter, in his treatise De Vita Contemplativa.]