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COSMIC GODS AND PRIMORDIAL

CHAOS IN HELLENISTIC AND ROMAN PHILOSOPHY:


THE CONTEXT OF PHILO’S INTERPRETATION OF
PLATO’S TIMAEUS AND THE BOOK OF GENESIS

John Dillon

Introduction

In view of the particular perspective of this conference, it seems appro-


priate to me to approach the theme that I have been assigned from the
point of view of a thinker who, while thoroughly steeped in the biblical
and wider Jewish tradition, is yet thoroughly alert to the latest tenden-
cies in Hellenic philosophy, and that is Philo of Alexandria.
In the work with which he inaugurates his exposition of the Jewish
Laws, the De opificio mundi, Philo, as we know, expounds the higher sig-
nificance of Moses’ account of divine cosmogony in the first chapter of
Genesis with a constant eye on the Timaeus of Plato. Such a statement is
no longer news, especially after the magisterial investigations of David
Runia;1 what still does merit some discussion, however, is precisely what
interpretation of the Timaeus Philo is working with, and the answer to
that is not simple at all. It is the investigation of this question which will
lead us, I hope, to a more accurate view of how the relations between
an active, or demiurgic, principle and a passive, primordially chaotic,
material principle were understood in the later Hellenistic and early
Roman Imperial period.

1 In his monograph Philo of Alexandria and the Timaeus of Plato, Leiden 1986, and,

more recently, in his contribution to the Philo of Alexandria Commentary series, Philo
of Alexandria: On the Creation of the Cosmos according to Moses; Introduction, Translation and
Commentary, Leiden 2001
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1. Plato and Aristotle on (pre-)cosmic chaos

All later Platonist speculations about the creation of the world take their
start from certain key passages of Plato’s Timaeus, so we may take our
start from a consideration of them. First, Timaeus 28B:2
So concerning the whole heaven or world (οραν ς = κσμος)—let us
call it by whatsoever name may be most acceptable to it—we must ask
the question which, it is agreed, must be asked at the outset of inquiry
concerning anything: has it always been in existence, without any source
of becoming; or has it come to be, starting from some beginning (0π2
0ρχ+ς τινος 0ρξμενος)? It has come to be (γγονεν).

Here the crucial word is γγονεν, ‘it has come to be’. Ever since Aris-
totle launched a criticism of Plato, presumably initially in oral dispu-
tations, ridiculing the postulate that something which had a beginning
could be deemed to have no end, it had been a concern of members of
the Academy, beginning with Plato’s former associates, and immediate
successors, Speusippus and Xenocrates, to deny that Plato meant the
Timaeus creation account to be taken literally (see also Tieleman, this
volume, §2). Their formula seems to have been that Plato presented
it in this form simply ‘for purposes of instruction’ (διδασκαλ.ας χριν).3
This position in turn comes under attack from Aristotle, at De caelo
279b32 ff.:4
The defence of their own position attempted by some of those who hold
that the world is indestructible but generated, has no validity. They claim
that what they say about the generation of the world is analogous to
the diagrams drawn by mathematicians: their exposition does not mean
that the world ever was generated, but is used for instructional purposes
(διδασκαλ.ας χριν), since it makes things easier to understand, just as the
diagram does for those who can watch it being constructed.
But the analogy, as I say, is a false one. In the construction of geometrical
figures, when all the constituents have been put together, the resulting
figure does not differ from them; but in the expositions of these philoso-
phers the result is not the same as the components, but rather produces
an impossible situation; for the earlier and later assumptions are contra-

2I borrow here the translation of F.M. Cornford, with minor alterations.


3We are so informed by a scholiast on De caelo 279b32ff. (= Speusippus, frg. 61a,
ed. L. Tarán), who tells us that ‘Xenocrates and Speusippus, in an attempt to support
Plato, declared that Plato had not held that the cosmos was generated (γενητς), but
ungenerated, claiming that it was generated for the sake of instruction, in order to
make the process more easily grasped and perspicuous.’
4 I borrow here the Loeb translation of W.K.C. Guthrie, with minor alterations.
cosmic gods and primordial chaos 99

dictory. They say that order arose from disorder,5 but a thing cannot be
at the same time in order and in disorder. The two must be separated
by a process of generation involving time. In geometrical figures, on the
other hand, there is no separation by time.
Here Aristotle makes an effort to undermine the geometrical analogy
proposed by his former colleagues in the Academy. Three straight lines,
for example, he would argue, when taken separately, are not in their
nature antithetical to the existence of the triangle for the formation of
which they are combined; but the pre-cosmic chaos described by Plato,
which his Demiurge has to take in hand and bring to order, is the very
antithesis of that order.
This argument is ingenious, but not, I think, compelling. The point
that the Platonists would make is that there never was a pre-cosmic
chaos, so that all that Plato is describing is a feature of the world as
it now is, which is an irreducible element of disorder and imperfection
that is inseparable from the formation of a physical realm, and which
the creative World Soul, or Cosmic Intellect—or whatever we want to
make of the demythologized Demiurge—cannot entirely eliminate.
These, at any rate, were the first shots in a very long campaign,
the reverberations of which certainly reached the ears of Philo in first-
century BCE Alexandria. Before going any further, however, let us look
also at Timaeus 30A, to which Aristotle has alluded above:
Desiring, then, that all things should be good and, so far as might be,
nothing imperfect, God took over all that is visible—not at rest, but in dis-
cordant and unordered motion (οχ (συχ.αν ?γον 0λλ$ κινο/μενον πλημμελ%ς
κα 0τκτως)—and brought it from disorder into order, deeming that the
former state was in every way better than the latter.
On the literal level, we are certainly here presented with the scenario
of a pre-cosmic chaos, and this scenario is returned to later in the
work, at 53A, where we find a description of the effect on what is
now called the ‘Nurse of what comes to be’ (γενσεως τι νη), or
‘Receptacle’ ( ποδοχ, πανδεχς), of the imposition of the basic triangles
and geometrical figures, which are the mode in which the Forms are
projected upon it by the Demiurge in the mythical account:
In this same way (sc. as corn is shaken about in winnowing-baskets) at
that time the four kinds (i.e. the elements) were shaken by the Recep-
tacle, which itself was in motion like an instrument for shaking, and it
separated the most unlike kinds farthest apart from one another, and

5 A reference to Timaeus 30A, to be quoted presently.


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thrust the most like closest together; whereby the different kinds came to
have different regions, even before the ordered whole consisting of all of them came
to be. Before that, all three kinds were without proportion or measure.
Fire, water, earth, and air possessed, indeed, some vestiges (@χνη) of their
own nature, but were altogether in such a condition as we should expect
for anything when God is absent from it.

Here we have a vivid picture of a pre-cosmic chaos being brought to


order by the action of a Creator. However, I am on record elsewhere6
as suggesting that there is much that is odd, and even incoherent, about
this description, which led me then to conclude that Plato means us to
deduce that it is not to be taken literally, and I would hold to that today,
despite some vigorous disputation with colleagues in the interval. What
Plato here presents us with, after all, is something of a contradiction
in terms. We have previously learned that what we thought of as the
four basic elements are really composed of combinations of triangles
(forming four of the five basic Platonic bodies), which derive from the
forms in the Paradigm; but now we seem to see some kind of ‘traces’
(@χνη) or prefigurations of these already in the Receptacle, sloshing
around in a random and chaotic way—but yet, it would seem, also
beginning to sort themselves out into heavier and lighter (though not
in a way that will ever come to anything). But what could these ‘traces’
possibly be? And how could they begin to sort themselves out, without
such a process developing to some conclusion?
My solution is that Plato means us to ask ourselves these questions,
and to conclude (as did his immediate followers) that there was never
a pre-cosmic stage in the world’s creation, but rather that the material
substratum, by its very nature, produces a certain degree of distortion
in the combination of the elemental bodies which the cosmic Intellect,
despite its creative power and benevolence, cannot entirely overcome,
and that is what produces our imperfect world.

If all that is so, however, we have to find some other acceptable mean-
ing for the apparently blunt and uncompromising γγονεν of Timaeus
28B; and in fact this is a task to which Platonists in the generations
after Plato’s death did turn themselves. Plainly, if γγονεν does not have
its normal meaning, it must have some other, more rarefied, one. Much
later, in the mid-second century CE, we find evidence, from the Pla-

6 ‘The Riddle of the Timaeus: Is Plato Sowing Clues?’, in: M. Joyal (ed.), Studies in

Plato and the Platonic Tradition: Essays Presented to John Whittaker, Aldershot 1997, 33–37.
cosmic gods and primordial chaos 101

tonist Calvenus Taurus, of a set of fully four non-literal meanings that


had been attached by his time to this word,7 but we have evidence
that such speculation goes back to the Old Academy. The first man
attested8 to have composed a commentary (of whatever degree of com-
prehensiveness) on Plato is Crantor of Soli, the associate of Polemon,
the third head of the Academy, in the early years of the third century
BCE. On this question, Proclus (In Platonis Timaeum commentaria I.27.8–
10, ed. E. Diehl) gives us the following information:
Commentators on Plato such as Crantor9 declare that the cosmos is
‘generated’ (γενητς) in the sense of being produced by a cause other
than itself (Aς 0π2 α#τ.ας ?λλης παραγμενον), and not self-generating nor
self-substantiating.
We may conclude from this, I think, that there was already in the
Academy in Crantor’s time a fairly thorough-going exegesis of the
Timaeus based on the assumption of a non-literal interpretation of the
creation account. What this then leaves us with, in effect, is an active
cause, which may be interpreted as a demiurgic Intellect, or rational
World-Soul, and a passive, ‘material’ principle, which is eternally being
moulded and ordered by the active principle. The product of this
process, the physical world, is genêtos only in the sense of being the
eternal consequence of this process, as opposed to arising by some
spontaneous activity, such as the whirl and progressive linking together
of atoms—as in the Democritean scenario which Plato so disliked.
We find confirmation that this was how Plato’s doctrine was viewed,
not only from within the school, from a doxographical report relayed
by Cicero,10 which David Sedley11 has persuasively argued to emanate

7 For a discussion of these, see my The Middle Platonists, London 1996 (Revised ed.

with a new afterword; 19771), 242–244.


8 By Proclus (In Platonis Timaeum commentaria I.76.1–2, ed. E. Diehl). Proclus is a late

and not entirely reliable authority, but he cannot have had no reason for making this
assertion, and we do in fact have a number of quite detailed comments by Crantor on
the Timaeus preserved by other sources, notably Plutarch.
9 Proclus here employs the formulation hoi peri X, ‘those about X’, but this very

often means no more than the man himself, so that we do not need to postulate a
‘school’ of Crantorians.
10 In Academica I.24–29, where M. Terentius Varro is presented as setting out the

doctrines of the ‘Old Academy’.


11 In his important contribution to the 2000 Symposium Hellenisticum in Lille, ‘The

Origins of Stoic God’, in: D. Frede and A. Laks (eds), Traditions of Theology: Studies in
Hellenistic Theology, Leiden 2002, 41–83.
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from Polemon, but also from no less an authority than Theophrastus,


in his Epitomes of Physical Doctrines. First Polemon, or ‘the school of
Polemon’:
The topic of Nature, which they treated next, they approached by divid-
ing it into two principles, the one the creative (efficiens = ποιητικ), the
other at this one’s disposal, as it were, out of which something might be
created. In the creative one they deemed that there inhered power (vis =
δ/ναμις), in the one acted upon, a sort of ‘matter’ (materia = λη); yet they
held that each of the two inhered in the other, for neither would matter
have been able to cohere if it were not held together by any power, nor
yet would power without some matter (for nothing exists without being
necessarily somewhere).12 But that which was the product of both they
called ‘body’ (corpus = σ%μα) and, so to speak, a sort of quality.13

What we have here, then, is a doxographical version of what would


seem to be the later Academic version of the doctrine of the Timaeus,
suitably demythologized. That this was accepted even in the Peripatos
as being Plato’s true doctrine is borne witness to most interestingly by
no less an authority than Theophrastus, in the work mentioned above:14
After these (sc. the earlier philosophers of nature) came Plato, prior to
them in reputation and ability, though later than them in date. He con-
cerned himself chiefly with first philosophy (sc. metaphysics), but also
attended to the visible world (τ$ φαινμενα), taking up the enquiry con-
cerning nature. Here he wished to make the principles two in num-
ber, one underlying things as matter, which he calls the ‘all-receptive’
(πανδεχς), the other being the cause and source of movement, and this
he attaches to the power of God and of the Good.

This is a most interesting little passage, for the assumptions that it


makes. First, we may note that the material principle is identified
with the Receptacle of the Timaeus, here given one of the titles that

12 This seems to be a deliberate reminiscence of a passage from the Timaeus, 52C:

‘Everything that exists must necessarily be in some place (Bν τινι τπCω)’—pointing to
the origin of the doctrine contained in this passage.
13 Cicero is apologising here for coining the neologism qualitas to render the Greek

ποιτης, in its turn a neologism of Plato in the Theaetetus, 182A, coined to describe
what it is that an active principle (ποιο"ν) brings about in a passive principle—in this
case a sense-organ. However, it would seem that, in the later Academy, helped by
a perceived etymological connexion between ποιο"ν and ποιν or ποιτης, this term
became generalized as a description of forms in matter; and that is how it is being used
here.
14 Quoted by Simplicius, In Aristotelis physicorum libros commentaria IX, p. 26.5–15, ed.

H. Diels, Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca = Theophrastus, frg. 230, ed. W.W. Forten-
baugh et al.
cosmic gods and primordial chaos 103

it is accorded in Timaeus 51B;15 then, that the Demiurge seems to be


identified with the Good of the Republic, as a first principle of all things.
This would imply, it seems to me, that the Paradigm, which in the myth
of the Timaeus is presented as being external to the Demiurge, and,
if anything, prior to him, must in fact be simply the contents of his
intellect. It is further assumed here, it seems to me, that the process of
interaction between the active and passive principles is eternal; there is
no question of the creation of the world in time.

2. Philo’s interpretation of the ‘Timaeus’

It is such a scenario as this that Zeno of Citium and the Stoic School
inherited from the Academy of Polemon. They gave it a further materi-
alist, immanentist twist, but it is in turn a de-materialized, transcenden-
talized, and Pythagoreanized version of this that descends to Philo of
Alexandria, through, perhaps, the mediation of some such figure as his
fellow-Alexandrian and older contemporary Eudorus.16 In his De opificio
mundi, as I stated at the outset, he is concerned to apply this version of
the Timaeus to the creation account at the beginning of Genesis.
The LXX version, which is what Philo is working with, does, as
you recall, present a rendering of the original we ha-aretz haytah tohu
wa bohu as ( δ* γ+ ,ν 0ρατος κα 0κατασκε/αστος (Gen 1:2a), ‘and the
earth was invisible and unstructured’, a form of expression which lends
itself more readily to philosophical reinterpretation (see also Noort, this
volume, §1, and Van Kooten, §1.2a). What Philo wants to make of
this is in fact thoroughly philosophical, though he is certainly much
concerned to stick closely to the text of Moses. Above all, he is opposed
to the theory (which is that of Aristotle and the Peripatetic School)
that the cosmos is eternal and uncreated. This, for him, sets up the
cosmos as co-ordinate with God, and seriously derogates from God’s
omnipotence and providential control of it (see also Van den Berg, this
volume, §4). He lays out his position initially in §§ 7–9:17

15 Aristotle too, we may note, has no hesitation about identifying the Receptacle of

the Timaeus with his own concept of Matter, e.g. at Physica IV.2, 209b33ff.
16 On Eudorus, see my account in The Middle Platonists, 114–135. We cannot, how-

ever, it must be said, put our finger with certainty on any point of contact between
Eudorus and Philo.
17 I borrow here the translation of David Runia, Philo of Alexandria: On the Creation of

the Cosmos, with some modifications.


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There are some people who, having more admiration for the cosmos
that for its maker, declared the former both ungenerated and eternal
(0γνητς τε κα 0.διος), while falsely and impurely attributing to God
much idleness. What they should have done was the opposite, namely be
astounded at God’s powers as Maker and Father,18 and not show more
reverence for the cosmos than is its due.
Moses, however, had not only reached the summit of philosophy, but had
also been instructed in the many and most essential doctrines of nature
by means of oracles (χρησμο.).19 He recognised that it is absolutely neces-
sary that among existing things there is on the one hand an active cause
(δραστριον α@τιον), and on the other a passive element (πα ητν), and
that the active cause is the absolutely pure and unadulterated intellect
of the universe, superior to moral excellence (0ρετ), superior to knowl-
edge, and even superior to the good and the beautiful itself.20 But the
passive element, which of itself is without soul and unmoved,21 when set
in motion and shaped and ensouled by the intellect, changed into the
most perfect piece of work, this cosmos.
This serves to situate Philo interestingly within the philosophical milieu
of his time. He is well aware of the controversy over the eternity or
otherwise of the world,22 and he knows what he is opposed to. But what
position precisely does he take up? Obviously, for him, the world has
to be in some sense ‘created’, since only that is consistent with God’s
omnipotence. But in what sense? Simple creation out of nothing at a
point in time is not, I think, an option for anyone trained in Greek

18 A reminiscence, of course, of Plato’s terminology at Timaeus 28C3.


19 Presumably a reference to his experiences of direct communication with God on
Mt. Horeb and elsewhere.
20 The reference here must be, not to God himself (though in Philo’s Platonist mod-

els it would have been), but rather to his Logos—a concept that Philo has borrowed
from Stoicism, or rather Stoicizing Platonism. That being the case, this sequence of
‘negative-theological’ utterances has posed problems for interpreters. I think that all
Philo can mean, unless he is getting carried away by his own rhetoric, is that the Logos
is superior to any individual Form, as being the whole of which they are the parts.
21 Philo—in line here with the Stoics, and very possibly with the later Academy

as well—does not, then, wish to impute to Matter, or the Receptacle, any disorderly
motion of its own. For Philo, this would accord it too much of an identity. It also
indicates his discomfort with the idea of a pre-cosmic chaos. In § 23, admittedly, he
describes it as ‘unordered, devoid of quality, lacking life, dissimilar, full of inconsistency,
maladjustment and disharmony’; but all this does not, I think, add up to having a
disorderly motion of its own.
22 As witnessed also by that curious piece On the Eternity of the World, which is best

seen, I think, as one half of a controversia, of which Philo may or may not have ever
composed the other half. The doctrinal position seems to be derived most immediately
from a work of the second-century Peripatetic Critolaus. At least it shows that Philo is
thoroughly abreast of the arguments on this issue.
cosmic gods and primordial chaos 105

philosophy (see also Tieleman, this volume, esp. §1), and that is surely
true of Philo. Let us turn next to §§26–27, where he tries to work out
an acceptable solution:
When he says that ‘in the beginning, God made the heaven and the
earth’, he does not take the term ‘beginning’ (0ρχ), as some people
think, in a temporal sense. For there was no time before the cosmos,
but rather it either came into existence together with the cosmos or after
it. When we consider that time is the extension of the movement of the
cosmos, and that there could not be any movement earlier than the thing
that moves but must necessarily be established either later or at the same
time, then we must necessarily conclude that time too is either the same
age as the cosmos or younger than it. To venture to affirm that it is older
is unphilosophical.
If ‘beginning’ in the present context is not taken in a temporal sense, it is
likely that its use indicates beginning in the numerical sense (κατ2 0ρι μ ν),
so that the expression ‘in the beginning he made …’ is equivalent to ‘he
first made the heaven.’ It is indeed reasonable that heaven should in fact
be the first thing to enter into becoming, being both best of all created
things and made from the purest substance, because it was to be the
holiest dwelling-place for the manifest and visible gods. Even if he who
made it proceeded to make all things simultaneously, it is nonetheless
true that what comes into existence in a fine way (καλ%ς) did possess
order (τξις), for there is nothing fine in disorder. Order is a sequence
and series of things that precede and follow, if not in the completed
products, then certainly in the conceptions of the builders.23 Only in this
way could they be precisely arranged, and not deviate from their path or
be prone to confusion.
We see Philo here wrestling with what is for him a serious problem. He
is certainly unwilling to give up the principle that the world is created
by God; but his philosophical training alerts him to the problem of pos-
tulating creation at a point in time, with the attendant problem of the
status of a pre-existing chaotic ‘matter’. The device of postulating prior-
ity in order, or dignity, instead of time, will only work if one abandons,
either explicitly or tacitly, the notion that there was a stage when the
world was not, and when the Creator brought it into existence. This is
something that Philo is quite unwilling to do in any explicit way, so we
are left with a conundrum which has exercised the minds of the chief
authorities in the field.24

23 That is to say, even if the whole physical cosmos were created simultaneously,

there would still be a τξις of prior and posterior entities in the guiding plan of the
Creator.
24 Such as, for instance, H.A. Wolfson, Philo: Foundation of Religious Philosophy in
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It seems to me that, if we have to choose, Philo actually comes


nearest to a version of the original defence of Plato’s position put
forward by Speusippus and Xenocrates, which Aristotle criticizes in the
De caelo. Philo, after all, holds (as becomes apparent a little further on
in the De opificio mundi, §§29–30) that what Moses is referring to in Gen
1:1–5 is actually God’s generation (from all eternity) of the intelligible
archetypes of heaven and earth, and other elements of the cosmos, such
as water, pneuma, and light, which are the contents of his Intellect, or
Logos, and which are then (but only in a logical sequence) projected
onto Matter to form the physical cosmos (see also Van Kooten, this
volume, §§1.1 and 1.2). This is a process which strictly takes no time.
Philo is insistent, back in §13, that God did not require six days, in a
literal sense, to create the world, ‘for we must think of God as doing
all things simultaneously (Dμα γ$ρ πντα δρ7ν ε#κ ς εν)’—so really
all we are left with is a notion of logical succession, based on the
relative degrees of excellence of the things created. This presents a
different emphasis from that of the original Academics, whose point
of comparison was rather the construction of geometrical figures, in
which the component lines, say, are logically prior to the completed
triangle, but certainly not superior in dignity. Probably Philo would not
have rejected Crantor’s sense of γγονεν either—certainly the physical
cosmos is dependent upon a higher cause, external to itself—but that is
not the thrust of his argument in the De opificio mundi.

3. Conclusion

There is much more that could be said on this subject, but I hope I
have indicated here both that there had been a good deal of discussion
in the Hellenistic schools, in the wake of Plato’s Timaeus and Aristotle’s
response in the De caelo, as to the logical and ontological status of the
physical world, and that Philo was pretty well acquainted with the ins
and outs of this. Not only his exposition in the De opificio mundi, but the
(hostile) account of Plato’s position, and of Academic defences of it, that
he provides (in his persona as a defender of Aristotle) at the beginning

Judaism, Cambridge, MA 1947, vol. 1, 300–310; David Winston, Philo of Alexandria: The
Contemplative Life, The Giants, and Selections, New York & Toronto 1981, 10–21; Runia, Philo
of Alexandria and the Timaeus of Plato, Leiden, 1986, 287–289; Roberto Radice, Platonismo
e creazionismo in Filone di Alessandria, Milan 1989, 247–250.
cosmic gods and primordial chaos 107

of the De aeternitate mundi (§§13–16), fully demonstrate this. He has to


balance this, however, with his stance as a pillar of the Jewish faith
and of Jewish culture generally, within an Alexandrian milieu, and this
inevitably serves to obscure his position.