The Sun and the Chariot: The Respublica and the Phaedrus as Rival Platonic Models of Psychic Vision and Transformation in Philo

In his lectures at the Hebrew Union College, Logos and Mystical Theology in Philo of Alexandria, David Winston articulated and defended a position on Philo’s understanding of mystical vision of God that he entitled “light by light, God by God” (Praem. 46). Winston claims that for Philo, (1) only knowledge that God exists is possible—one cannot see his essence; and (2) the highest vision of God humanly attainable is the vision of the Logos. On Winston’s view, Philo’s position, which finds later corroboration in the writings of the Neoplatonist Plotinus, is rooted in Plato’s account of the vision of sunlight in Resp. 507c–509b. While Winston’s thesis accurately describes a prominent tradition present in Philo’s thought, several Philonic pericopae that he discusses, especially Leg. 3.97–103, fail to fit this model. In Leg. 3.101, for instance, Philo’s Moses requests to see God’s form (idea) in itself. Philo furthermore suggests that the most highly initiated soul seeks this vision of God not reflected by the divine Logos, who is at best God’s shadow, but sees God’s form directly. In this paper, then, I will argue that Leg. 3.97–103 should not be understood as another example of “light by light, God by God” but as an alternative pattern of Philonic mystical vision, one which draws not primarily on the Respublica but on Plato’s mythic account of the charioteer’s vision in Phaedr. 246a–257b. In particular, Plato’s argument in Phaedr. 253b5–7 that the mind sees the form (idea) of the god that it follows and that such vision facilitates human ethical mimesis should be seen as the primary Platonic intertext guiding Philo’s contemplative and ethical vision in this text. The naturalistic account of vision in Resp. 507c–509b and the mythic account of vision in Phaedr. 246a–257b thus stand as two rival Platonic models, contesting for authority in Philo’s oeuvre.