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The Alexandrian Schools...II...Philosophy

Although it is not possible to divide literatures with absolute rigidity by centuries, and although the intellectual life of Alexandria, particularly as applied to science, long survived the Roman conquest, yet at that period the school, which for some time had been gradually breaking up, seems finally to have succumbed. The later productions in the field of pure literature bear the stamp of Rome rather than of Alexandria. But in that city for some time past there had been various forces secretly working, and these, coming in contact with great spiritual changes in the world around, produced a second outburst of intellectual activity, which is generally known as the Alexandrian school of philosophy. The doctrines of this school were a fusion of Eastern and Western thought, and combined in varying proportions the elements of Hellenistic and Jewish philosophy. Traces of this eclectic tendency are discoverable as far back as 280 B.C., but for practical purposes the dates of the school may be given as from about 30 B.C. to A.D. 529. The city of Alexandria had gradually become the neutral ground of Europe, Asia and Africa. Its population, then as at the present day. was a heterogeneous collection of all races. Alexander had planted a colony of Jews who had increased in number until at the beginning of the Christian era they occupied two-fifths of the city and held some of the highest offices. The contact of Jewish theology with Greek speculation became the great problem of thought. The Jewish ideas of divine authority and their transcendental theories of conduct were peculiarly attractive to the Greek thinkers who found no inspiration in the dry intellectualism into which they had fallen (see NEO-PYTHAGOREANISM). At the same time the Jews of the Dispersion had to some extent shaken off the exclusiveness of,their old political relations and were prepared to compare and contrast their old territorial theology with cosmopolitan culture. Further, when the two sides came to consider the results of their intellectual inheritance they found that they had sufficient common ground for the initial compromise. Thus the Hellenistic doctrine of personal revelation could be combined with the Jewish tradition of a complete theology revealed to a special people. The result was the application of a purely philosophical system to the somewhat vague and unorganized corpus of Jewish theology. The matter was Jewish, the arrangement Greek. According to the relative predominance of these two elements arose Gnosticism, the Patristic theology, and the philosophical schools of Neo-Pythagoreanism, Neo-Platonism and eclectic Platonism.

The members of the school may be enumerated under three heads. (1) The beginnings of the eclectic spirit are, according to some authorities, discernible in the Septuagint (280 B.C.) (see Frankel, Historisch-kritische Studien zur Septuaginta, 1841), but the first concrete exemplification is found in Aristobulus (c. 160 B,C.). So far as the Jewish succession is concerned, the great name is that of Philo in the first century of our era. He took Greek metaphysical theories, and, by the allegorical method, interpreted them in accordance with the Jewish Revelation. He dealt with (a) human life as explained by the relative nature of Man and God, (b) the Divine nature and the existence of God, and, c) the great Logos doctrine as the explanation of the relation between God and the material universe. From these three arguments he developed an elaborate theosophy which was a syncretism of oriental mysticism and pure Greek metaphysic, and may be regarded as, representing the climax of Jewish philosophy, (2) The first purely philosophical phenomenon of the Alexandrian school was Neo-Pythagoreanism, the second and last Neo-Platonism, Leaving all detailed descriptions of these schools to special articles,devoted to them, it is sufficient here to say that their doctrines were a synthesis of Platonism, Stoicism and the later Aristotelianism with a leaven of oriental mysticism which gradually became more and more important. The world to which they spoke had begun to demand a doctrine of salvation to satisfy the human soul. They endeavoured to deal with the problem of good and evil. They therefore devoted themselves to examining the nature of the soul, and taught that its freedom consists in communion with God, to be achieved by absorption in a sort of ecstatic trance. This doctrine reaches its height in Plotinus, after whom it degenerated into magic and theurgy in its unsuccessful combat with the victorious Christianity. Finally this pagan theosophy was driven from Alexandria back to Athens under Plutarch and Produs, and occupied itself largely in purely historical work based mainly on the attempt to re-organize ancient philosophy in conformity with the system of Plotinus. This school ended under Damascius when Justinian closed the Athenian schools (A,D. 529). (3) The eddies of Neo-Platonism had a considerable effect on certain Christian thinkers about the beginning of the 3rd century, Among these the most important were Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Clement, as a scholar and a theologian, proposed to unite the mysticism of NeoPlatonism with the practical spirit of Christianity. He combined the principle of pure living with that of free thinking, and held that instruction must have regard to the mental capacity of the hearer. The compatibility of Christian and later Neo-Platonic ideas is evidenced by the writings of Synesius, bishop of Ptolemais, and though Neo-Platonism eventually succumbed to Christianity, it had the effect, through the writings of Clement and Origen, of modifying the tyrannical fanaticism and ultradogmatism of the early Christian writers.