The School of Moses at Table: Sympotic Teaching in Philo’s De vita contemplativa

Philosophers including “Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, Speusippus, Epicurus, Prytanis, Hieronymus and Dio of the Academy” were famous in Antiquity for recording their conversations held at table (c.f. Plutarch, Quaest. conv. 612d-e). In his Questions convivialum, the first century CE philosopher Plutarch (ca. 45-125 CE) adds to this body of literature the documentation of table talks from his lifetime, structured into discussions of 95 questions deemed appropriate at table in order to model philosophically admirable sympotic behavior and sympotic speech. In answering the first question, “whether philosophy is a fitting topic of conversation at a drinking-party” (Quaest. conv. 612e) Plutarch highlights: “Indeed, just as the wine must be common to all, so too the conversation must be one in which all will share and those who propose complex and abstruse topics for discussion would manifestly be no more fit for society than the crane and the fox of Aesop.” (Quaest. conv. 614e). However, his older contemporary, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (ca. 10 BCE– 50 CE) seems not to follow this rule. In De vita contemplative he describes a group of male and female philosophers, called Therapeutae and Therapeutrides, whose banquets are not embellished by jolly conversation but by quietly listening to the unadorned instruction of the group’s leader (Contempl. 75-76). The listeners are not even allowed to applaud spontaneously (Contempl. 77). This paper asks what Philo aimed to achieve by modeling this mode of sympotic teaching and discourse. By contrasting the Therapeutae’s table practice to all kinds of luxurious excess and transgressive behaviors of (sub) elite banqueting in his time (Contempl. 40-56) and criticizing even Xenophon’s and Plato’s choice of guests and conversational topics as inappropriate (Contempl. 57-63), Philo underlines his aspiration to represent an ideal surpassing all other tbale practices in Greece and Rome. I will argue that the Therapeutae’s teaching at table strikingly resembles Philo’s own description of the Jewish synagogue service (c.f. Leg. 2.62-63; Mos. 2.216; Hypoth. 7.13). However, despite their abstinence from shared conversation and wine, the Therapeutae finally achieve the goal of a jolly, ecstatic and inclusive experience at their symposium through singing and dancing (Contempl. 79f; 83-90). This idealized banqueting of the Therapeutae not only characterizes a Jewish sect in rural Egypt but also an ideal banqueting culture open to both genders and all ethnic groups (Contempl. 21) in a manner reminiscent of the legendary Mysians, “the justest of mankind,” of whom Homer once sung (Contempl. 17). Compared to the learned discourses in Plutarch’s Questions convivialum, the striking lack of names, book titles and quotations in Philo’s De vita contemplative, at least with regard to Jewish people and books, can be interpreted as both an universalistic interpretation of Judaism and a criticism of a common manner of teaching at meals that serves primarily to demonstrate the writer’s, speaker’s and reader’s aspiration to membership in a cultural elite.