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Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century AlexandriaPhilo's 'Therapeutae' Reconsidered$

Joan E. Taylor

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780199291410

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199291410.001.0001

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(p.349) Appendix I Partial Translation of Philo of Alexandria, De Vita Contemplativa

(p.349) Appendix I Partial Translation of Philo of Alexandria, De Vita Contemplativa

Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria
Oxford University Press

This translation by Joan Taylor translates the relevant parts of De Vita Contemplativa on the basis of the Greek text of Philo given by F. H. Colson, Philo ix (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1941), 112–68. For textual issues and alternative translations, see Colson's notes. Summaries of portions of the text left untranslated appear in italics within brackets.

1. I have discoursed on Essenes, who were zealous for and who worked hard at the active [philosophical] life, excelling in everything or—at least to say it more moderately—in most parts. Going on directly, and indeed carrying on in accordance with the plan [of my subject] I will say what is required about those who embrace contemplation [as a philosophical lifestyle]. I will not add [anything] of my own for the sake of making [my account] better, which is customary for all the poets and chroniclers to do for want of good [historiographical] practices, but will absolutely go about [telling] the actual truth, even though I know the most skilled speaker would grow weary of telling it [like this]. But nevertheless we must persevere and fight on to the end, for the superlative virtue of the[se] men should not be a reason to strike dumb those who rightly think that nothing good should be passed over in silence.

2. The intention of the philosophers is immediately apparent by the name [given to them], for they are truly called ‘[devoted] attendants’,1 male and female, either because they profess medical skill [to attend/treat the sick] better than in the cities, for that [of the cities] attends bodies alone, while theirs [attends] souls which have been conquered by terrible and nearly incurable diseases, which are inflicted by pleasures and desires and griefs and fears, by covetous acts and follies and unrighteousness, and the countless multitude of other passions and evils—or else because they have been instructed by Nature and the sacred laws to attend [as cultic servants] the Being who is better than a Good, purer than a One, and older than a Monad.

3. Who among those who profess piety is worthy of comparison? (3–9: Discusses comparisons: people who revere the elements; worshippers (p.350) of heavenly bodies; worshippers of demi-gods; worshippers of different images; worshippers of Egyptian gods.)

10. But these people indeed infect with foolishness not only their own compatriots, but also those [living in regions] nearby, and they remain incurable for they are incapable of sight, the most vital of the senses. And I talk not of the body, but [the sight] of the soul, which alone gives knowledge of truth and falsehood.

11. But the [devotedly] attending type of people, who are beforehand taught always to see, desire the vision of the Being, and would pass over the sun perceived [by sense] and never leave this company leading to perfect happiness.

12. And those who are going about [devoted] attendance, not from custom, or from advice or recommendation of anyone, but because they are seized by a heavenly passion—just like the Bacchic revellers and Corybants—are inspired until they see the object of desire.

13. Then through their longing for the deathless and blessed life, they consider their mortal life to have already ended, and they abandon their belongings to sons or daughters or even other relations, voluntarily giving them an advance inheritance, while those who do not have close family [give] to companions and friends. For it is right that those who have readily received the seeing wealth should leave behind the blind [wealth] to those who are blind still in mind.

14. The Greeks sing the praises of Anaxagoras and Democritus, because, smitten by longing for philosophy, they let the[ir] property be grazed by sheep. I admire the[se] men indeed, this being superior to money. But how much better are those who do not let creatures consume the[ir] property, but set [right] the needs of people—relatives or friends—so from wanting they are made wealthy. For that action [of Anaxagoras and Democritus] is inconsiderate—in order that I not say ‘mad’ of men that Greece admired—but this [of benefiting relatives and friends] is sober, and examined with good sense above measure.

15. (Writes about how Democritus inflicted poverty on his own relations.)

16. How much better and more wonderful then are those who are driven by impulses for philosophy no less [ardent than Democritus and Anaxagoras], but who have preferred magnanimity to carelessness, giving away their belongings, but not wasting them, in order that both others and themselves would benefit. On the one hand they supply [people] ungrudgingly with resources, and on the other they [benefit] themselves in the [life] of philosophy.

17. (Care of money and possessions consumes time, cf. what Hippocrates said: ‘Life is short but art is long.’ Injustice/unrighteousness is bred by thought of the means of life and making money, and righteousness is furthered by the opposite.)

(p.351) 18. Then when they have rid themselves of their belongings, no longer enticed by anything, they flee away without turning around, leaving behind brothers/sisters, children, wives, parents, numerous relations, friendly companions, and the native areas in which they were born and raised, since the attraction of familiar things indeed has a great power to entice.

19. And they do not move into another city, like the unfortunate or worthless slaves who beg to be sold by their owners, exchanging masters, not procuring freedom for themselves. For every city, even the best governed, is full of noise and innumerable disturbances which no one who has ever once been led by Wisdom can endure.

20. Outside [city] walls, they pass their time in cultivated or uncultivated land, pursuing solitude, not because they are practising any contrived misanthropy, but because the custom of mixing with dissimilar things is [something] they know [to be] unprofitable and harmful.

21. Now then the type of people [I describe] is in many parts of the inhabited world, for it was necessary that perfect good be shared by the Greeks and the Barbarians. But in Egypt, in each of the ‘nomes’ as they are called, it is superabundant, and especially around Alexandria.

22. The best of them from anywhere set off as to a homeland settlement, to a very suitable place which is above Lake Mareotis, lying upon a flattish, low hill, very well situated, because of safety and temperate air.

23. The safety is supplied by the encircling dwellings and villages. And the continual breezes which arise from both the lake which flows into the sea and the open sea nearby [result in] the pleasant temperature of the air. For those [breezes] of the sea are slight, but those [coming] up from the lake are stronger, so the mixture creates a very healthy climate.

24. The little houses of those who have come together are very frugal, providing shelter against the two most urgent things: against the blazing [heat] of the sun, and the chilly [cold] of the air. They are neither close together, like those in the towns—for close neighbourbood is troublesome and displeasing to those who are zealous for solitude and pursue it—nor far apart, because of the sense of community they adhere to and [also] in order that, if robbers make an attack, they may help one another.

25. In each there is a sacred room, which is called a reverence-place and place-for-one, in which they solitarily perfect the mysteries of the holy life. They take nothing [into it]—no drink, no food, nothing necessary for the needs of the body—but [only] laws, oracles declared through prophets, hymns, and other [writings] which increase and perfect understanding and piety.

26. Always then, without forgetting, they keep the memory of God. So indeed in dreams nothing else is dreamt of apart from the beauty of (p.352) the divine attributes and powers. In fact, many [of them] call out the famous decrees of the sacred philosophy in [their] sleep while dreaming.

27. They are accustomed to pray twice every day, at sunrise and sunset. When the sun rises they ask for a ‘fine day’, the ‘fine day’ being [that] their minds will be filled with a heavenly light. In the second instance they pray that the soul, being entirely relieved from the disturbance of the senses and being in its own council and court, may follow the way of truth.

28. The entire interval from morning until evening is for them an exercise, for they philosophize by reading the sacred writings and interpreting allegorically the ancestral philosophy. They consider the words of the literal text to be symbols of Nature which has been hidden, and which is revealed in the underlying meaning.

29. They have also the writings of men of old, those who began the school. They left behind many [written] recollections of the form of the interpretations [they used]. These [writings] are sort of like models used [by the group] in order to imitate the method of the practice [of allegorical interpretation]. Therefore, they do not contemplate [scripture] only, but also compose psalms and hymns to God in all kinds of metres and melodies which they have to write down in dignified rhythms.

30. So each of them separately, alone by themselves, practises philosophy for six days in the above-mentioned places-for-one. They do not cross over the main door [of the dwelling] or even see it from a distance. But they come together as a common group on the seventh days, sitting in order of ‘age’, with the proper figure, ‘having the hands inside’: the right hand in between chest and chin, and the left hand lowered along the thighs.

31. The most senior person (presbutatos), who is very experienced in the doctrines, then comes forward and discourses, with a composed appearance and quiet voice, and with reason and thoughtfulness. He does not show cleverness with words like the rhetors or the current Sophists, but closely examines the accuracy in the thoughts, and interprets [these] so that they do not sit at the points of the ears, but come through the hearing into the soul, where they remain secure.

32. This common reverence-place into which they come together on seventh days is a double enclosure: one part is set apart for men, and the other [is set apart] for women. For indeed also women customarily participate in listening [like the men], having the same zeal and purpose.

33. The wall between the areas rises upwards from the ground up to three or four cubits in the form of breastwork, but the upper section going up to the roof is wide open. [This arrangement is] for two reasons: so that the modesty which is becoming to the female nature be preserved, and so that, by their sitting in earshot, everything is easily audible, for nothing obstructs the voice of the speaker.

(p.353) 34. They first lay down self-control as a certain foundation stone of the soul [and then] they build the other virtues [on it]. None of them would ever eat food or drink before sunset, since they have decided that philosophizing is appropriate to the light [of day], but the needs of the body [are appropriate] for the darkness [of night]. They have allotted one to the day and a small part of the night for the others.

35. And some—for whom the yearning after knowledge has settled more completely—do not think of food for three days. Others are so [busy] enjoying themselves relishing the doctrines abundantly and lavishly supplied by Wisdom that in fact they hold out for twice the time, and only after six days taste necessary food. They are accustomed to live on air, just like the race of grasshoppers are said [to do]; their song, I guess, makes the lack tolerable.

36. They consider the seventh day to be something all-sacred and all-festive, thinking it worthy of special honour. [On this day], after the care of the soul, they also nurture the body, just as they of course also release the cattle from their continuous labour.

37. However, they do not eat anything expensive, but plain bread with a seasoning of salt which the more extravagant flavour with hyssop. Drink for them is running water [from a stream or spring]. For since Nature has made hunger and thirst mistresses over us mortal types of people, they appease them away, not laying favour on them, but [eating and drinking] the necessary things without which life could not be [sustained]. On this account, they eat just so as not to be hungry, and they drink just so as not to be thirsty, avoiding [complete] satisfaction as an enemy and plotter against both soul and body.

38. As for the two forms of protection—clothing and housing—we have already spoken concerning housing: that it is undecorated and rough, each one built only for urgent things. Clothing is likewise very simple. [It is made] for a defence against cold and heat, and consists of a cloak of woolly skin in winter, and an exomis or linen cloth in summer.

39. They entirely practise simplicity [of life], knowing pride is the origin of falsehood, and simplicity of truth, each [state—truth and falsehood—] having the essential nature (logos) of [being] a spring. For the many forms of evil [flow] out of falsehood, and the abundant forms of good, both human and divine, flow out of truth.

40. I wish also to speak of their common meetings and the cheerful pastimes of symposia, in contrast to the dining pastimes of others. (41–58: Discusses how other sorts of people get drunk and rave like dogs, argue, fight, mutilate people, and sleep. He expresses disapproval of the expensiveness of banquets, the type of banquets ‘prevalent everywhere’ in which there is ‘Italic expensiveness and luxury emulated by both Greeks and Barbarians who arrange things for ostentation rather than for festivity’ (48) and the practice of having effeminate male slaves to wait on the (p.354) table. He notes two symposia in which Socrates took part, Xenophon's and Plato's, that people may point out as being better.)

58. But even these compared with the [banquets of] others, that is of those of us who embrace the contemplative life, will seem a joke. (58–63: In Xenophon's banquet there are flute girls and entertainers, and in Plato's banquet the talk is all about sensual love.)

63. For all these enticing things, which are able by the novelty of thought to distract the ears, are superfluous to the students of Moses, who, having learnt to love truth from first youth, despise [these pastimes at symposia], and they continue on [undeceived].

64. So since these well-known symposia are full of nonsense, themselves self-disgraced—that is if anyone does not pay heed to mere opinion and the wide report about them which now may purport [them] to be successful—I will contrast [them with the symposia] of those who have dedicated their personal lives and themselves to the understanding and contemplation of the facts of Nature, according to the sacred instructions of the prophet Moses.

65. First of all, these people assemble on [every] seventh seventh-day, holding in awe not only the simple number of seven, but also the square [of it]. For they know its purity and eternal virginity. And it is also the eve of the great special day which the number fifty has been assigned; fifty being the most holy and natural of numbers, since it is the square of the right handed triangle which is the origin of the composition of the whole universe.

66. So then they come together clothed in white, radiant with the utmost seriousness, when a certain person from the ‘dailies’—as it is the custom to call those performing these services—gives a sign. Before they recline, they duly stand in order in a row, with their eyes and hands lifted up to heaven. The eyes have been trained to see things worth looking at, and the hands are clean of income, and are not defiled by any gain. They pray to God that they might meet according to his mind and that their feast will be pleasing [to him].

67. After the prayers the seniors recline following the order of [their] admission. They do not consider as seniors the ones who are old in years and aged, but still they may be regarded entirely as ‘children’ if they have come to love the practice only recently. They are those who from early youth have matured and grown up in the contemplative part of philosophy, which indeed is the most beautiful and godly.

68. Women eat together [here] also. They are mostly elderly virgins. They strongly maintain the purity, not out of necessity, as some of the priestesses of the Greeks [do], but out of their own free will, because of a zeal and yearning for Wisdom, which they are eager to live with. They take no heed of the pleasures of the body, and desire not a mortal offspring, but an immortal one, which only a soul which is loved by God (p.355) is able to give birth to, by itself, because the Father has sown in it lights of intelligence which enable her to see the doctrines of Wisdom.

69. The [order of] reclining is divided, with men by themselves on the right, and women by themselves on the left. Surely no one by chance supposes that [they have] mattresses, which are not in fact expensive but still softer for people of good birth and erudite [conversation] who are trained in philosophy? [No indeed], for [the couches] are rough beds of cheap wood, upon which are altogether frugal strewings of local papyrus, slightly raised at the bend of the arm [so that] they can lean on them. For while they modify the Laconian harsh way of life a little, always and everywhere they practise noble contentment, and they hate with all their might the charms of pleasure.

70. They are not served by slaves. They believe utterly that the ownership of servants is against Nature. For she has given birth to all free, but the unrighteousness and greed of some who zealously seek the source of evil, inequality, have bound [people] up and fastened on the more powerful a power over the weaker.

71. In this sacred symposium, there is as I said no slave, but free people serve, and they fulfil the requirements of servants not by compulson or by enduring orders, but, with voluntary free will they anticipate quickly and willingly [any] requests.

72. For it is not any free people who happen to be [selected] for these services, but the juniors from among those in the assembly. They are chosen on merit with all care, which is fitting for the manner of good character and good birth of those eager to reach the summit of virtue. They are just like real children who are affectionately glad to be of service to fathers and mothers. They consider [the seniors] their parents in common, more closely connected with them than by blood, since, for those who think rightly, there is no closer connection than goodness. And they come in to serve with their tunics ungirt and hanging down so that there is nothing in their appearance to suggest an image of a slave.

73. In this symposium—I know that some hearing [this] will laugh, but they are people who do things worthy of tears and lamentation—wine is not brought in on those days, but [only] the most translucent water. [It is] cold for most of them, but warm for the weaker of the seniors. The table is also free from meat, and upon it [are] loaves of bread, along with a seasoning of salt. There is also hyssop as a relish, ready for those of a more delicate constitution.

74. Just as right reason dictates abstinence from wine for the priests when sacrificing, so also for these [people] for a lifetime, for wine is a drug of foolishness, and many expensive things to eat [just] stir up that most insatiable of animals: desire.75. And such are the preliminaries. Now, after the guests have reclined in the order I have described, the serving people stand in order (p.356) ready to attend. When a silence is established among everyone—‘And when is there not (a silence)?!’ someone might say; but it is even more than before, so that no one ventures to make a sound or even to breathe too forcefully—the president seeks out a certain matter in the sacred scriptures or indeed explains something put forward by someone. He is not at all thinking to put on a good show, for he does not grasp for fame through cleverness in discourses, but rather [has] a desire to perceive certain things more clearly, and, having perceived [them], not to withhold [his perceptions] from those who—even if they are not in fact quite as perceptive as he is—still nevertheless have a similar desire to learn.

76. He rightly goes slowly with the teaching, lingering over and dwelling on it with repetitions, imprinting the thoughts on the souls [of his hearers]. For the mind of those listening is unable to follow the interpretation of one who goes too quickly, and with breathless rapidity, and it fails to comprehend what is said.

77. The listeners [with eyes and ears fixed] upon him, remain listening in one and the same position. They indicate comprehension and understanding with nods and glances, and [indicate] praise of the speaker with happy expressions and the gradual turning around of the face. [They indicate] incomprehension with a gentler movement of the head, and by pointing with the finger of the right hand. The juniors standing by pay no less attention than the people reclining on couches.

78. The interpretations of the sacred scriptures are through the underlying meanings [conveyed] in allegories. For these men, all the law book seems to be like a living being, with a body made up of literal words, and the invisible mind of the wording constitutes its soul. The soul above all begins to consider the things similar to it. As it were through a mirror of names, it sees the transcendent beauty of concepts which are reflected [there], bringing what is perceived naked into light for those able, with a little reminding, to see the unseen things through the seen.

79. When then it seems to the president that the speech has reached its goal by good aiming, and it seems to the others that the hearing [has also], [there is] clapping from all the audience, who are looking forward to what is still to follow.

80. Then the [president] stands up and sings a hymn composed to God, either a new one of his own composition or some ancient one [composed] by the poets of old, for they have left behind many [songs] in many metres and melodies: hexameters, trimeters, hymns of processions, [hymns] relating to libations, [hymns] relating to the altar, for standing [in a chorus] and for [choral] dancing, well measured out for turning and twisting. After him, in fact, the others according to order take their turn at singing. Everyone else listens in total silence, except (p.357) when they need [to sing] closing lines and themes. For then all men and all women sing aloud.

81. When each person has finished a hymn, the juniors bring in the above-mentioned table, upon which the most all-pure food is [set out]: [loaves] of leavened bread, along with a seasoning of salt mingled with hyssop. This [arrangement] is in deference to the sacred table in the vestibule of the holy Temple sanctuary. For upon this [table] are loaves and salt, without flavouring, and the bread is unleavened, and the salt is not mixed [into the bread].

82. For it was appropriate that the simplest and purest food be allotted to the most excellent portion of the priests, as a reward for services, while others would zealously seek the same [kind of food], but hold off from the [Temple loaves], in order that their betters might have precedence.

83. After the dinner they celebrate the sacred [eve] all night. And the night festival is celebrated in this way. They all stand up together and, first, place themselves in the middle of the dining room in two choirs, one of men and the other of women. The leader and chief is selected for each one as being the most honoured and also most musical.

84. Then they sing hymns to God composed of many metres and melodies, singing all together, then again antiphonically and harmonically, tapping time with hands and feet, engaging in procession, then continuous song, and in the turns and counter-turns of choral dancing.

85. When each of the choirs has sated itself by itself—as in the Bacchic rites they drink the liquor of the god's love—they blend together and become one choir from out of two, a memory of the one established of old by the Red Sea, by reason of the wonderful works there.

86. (Describes the story of the parting of the Red Sea.)

87. Seeing and experiencing this [salvation], which is a work greater than in word, thought and hope, both men and women were filled with inspiration and became a choir singing hymns of thanksgiving to God the Saviour. The men were led by Moses the prophet, and the women by Miriam the prophetess.

88. On this [model] most of all the choir of the [devoted] attendants—male and female—is based. They sing with [canonic] echoes and reechoes, with men having the bass parts and women the treble, combined together, and resulting in a really musical harmonious concord. The thoughts are lovely, the words are lovely, the choral singers are majestic, and the purpose of the thoughts and the words and the choral singers is piety.

89. So they are drunk [in this way] until dawn, with this beautiful drunkenness, with no heavy head or dozing, but [rather] they are roused more awake than when they came into the dining room. Then they (p.358) stand with eyes and their whole bodies [turned] to the east, and when they see the rising sun, they stretch out their hands up to heaven, and pray for a ‘bright day’ and truth and clearness of reasoning. And after the prayers they go back into each their own reverence-place, again to ply their trade and cultivate the use of philosophy.

90. So then let this suffice for matters of the [devoted] attendants who embrace contemplation of Nature and what it contains, and of those living in soul alone. They are citizens of heaven and also world, and are recommended to the Father and maker of all by virtue, which has procured them God's friendship, as a very appropriate reward for their goodness: a gift better than any good fortune and reaching to the very peak of bliss.


(1) For the meaning of the Greek word therapeutai/trides, see Ch. 3.