Judean, Persian, and Indian wisdom: Philo on the freedom of Essenes and Kalanos (early first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judean, Persian, and Indian wisdom: Philo on the freedom of Essenes and Kalanos (early first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified September 13, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=7154.

Ancient author: Philo of Alexandria, Every Good Man is Free 71-97 and Philo, Hypothetica 11 (link).

Comments: Philo of Alexandria was a Judean (Jewish) philosopher settled in Egypt who was well-trained in Stoic and Platonic philosophy and who expressed his understanding of Judean ancestral customs in relation to Greek philosophy. In this passage of his work on the nature of true freedom, Philo brings forward a number of “barbarian” examples of peoples living in accordance with philosophy and freedom. He mentions the Persian Magians and the Indian naked wise men (or: gymnosophists) but then goes into depth about Judean Essenes as a group and, somewhat less extensively, about the Indian naked wise man Kalanos (on which also see Diodoros, Library 17.107.1 and Strabo, Geography 15.1.68). Wise barbarian traditions associated with Aristotle and the peripatetics also sometimes group together Indian and Judean wise men (e.g. link). It is noteworthy that Philo himself here groups Judeans under the rubric of wise “barbarians.” The Essenes are presented in a typical ethnographic manner in a posture of an outsider (i.e. Philo does not play up the fact that he himself is Judean), but as ideal philosophers.

I also include here the alternative description of the Essenes which appears in Philo’s Hypothetica (as preserved by Eusebius’ Preparation for the Gospel). Although placing Essenes in the context of barbarian wisdom is not the focus of that version, the posture of ethnographic description remains to some degree.

Later on, Philo wrote what he considered a sequel to one of these two descriptions of Essenes in the form of an ethnographic explanation of the contemplative lifestyle of the (Judean) Therapeutists settled in Egypt (link).

Source of the translation: F.H. Colson, Philo, volume 9, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1941), public domain (copyright not renewed), adapted by Harland.


Every Man is Free

[True wise men in the minority but attested in Greece and among barbarians]

(71) Having then in us such potentialities, should we not blush to denounce the entire descent group (genos) of humanity as lacking in wisdom, wisdom which the bellows could kindle into a blaze like the spark which smoulders in the firewood? Yet these things for which we should strive eagerly, things so closely akin to ourselves, so truly our own, we treat with great slackness and constant indifference and in this way destroy the germs of excellence, while those things in which deficiency were a merit we desire with an insatiable yearning. (72) Consequently land and sea are full of rich people, the distinguished and the men of pleasure, but there are few people who are wise, just, and virtuous. However, although this group is small, it is not absolutely non-existent.

(73) For this we have the testimony, both the Greek and the barbarian. In the Greek world, the sages known appropriately as the seven sages flourished. We would expect that both before the seven and after them, others had their day, though the memory of the more ancient ones has vanished in the lapse of many years and is dimmed in the case of those whose lives are still recent through the widespread neglect of their contemporaries.

[Associations of wise men in Persia, India, and Palestinian Syria]

(74) In the barbarian world, where there are those who spread the message by words and actions, we find large associations of men of the highest excellence. Among the Persians there are the Magians, who silently research the facts of nature to gain knowledge of the truth and through visions clearer than speech, give and receive the revelations of divine excellence. Also in India there are the naked wise men (gymnosophists) who study ethical as well as physical philosophy and make the whole of their lives an exhibition of virtue.

[Customs of the Essenes as ideal wise men]

(75) Palestinian Syria, too, has not failed to produce high moral excellence. This is where a considerable part of the very populous people (ethnos) of the Judeans live, including (it is said) certain persons called Essenes, numbering more than four thousand. They are given this name – which is, I think, a variation of hosiotēs (holiness), although the form of the Greek is inexact – because they have shown themselves especially devout in the service of God, not by offering sacrifices of animals but by resolving to sanctify their minds. (76) The first thing about these people is that they live in villages and avoid the cities because of the lawlessness which has become customary among city dwellers. For the Essenes know that associating with people in the city would have a deadly effect upon their own souls, like a disease brought by a pestilential atmosphere.

Some of them labour on the land and others pursue such crafts that align with peace and so benefit themselves and their neighbours. They do not hoard gold and silver. Nor do they acquire large plots of land because they desire revenues from such properties. Instead, they provide only what is needed for the necessary requirements of life. (77) For while they stand almost alone in all of humanity in being moneyless and landless by deliberate action rather than by lack of good fortune, they are considered exceedingly rich because they reckon that being content with only a little is an abundance of wealth, which is true. (78) As for darts, javelins, daggers, helmets, breastplates or shields, you could not find a single manufacturer of them. Nor, in general, will you find any person making weapons or engines or any work concerned with war. In fact, you will not find any person engaging in pursuits of a peaceful kind that easily lead to bad behaviour, for they do not have the slightest idea about trade either wholesale or retail or shipping. Instead, they send the causes of desiring things that belong to others off in disgrace. (79) Not a single slave is to be found among them, but all are free, exchanging services with each other. They denounce the owners of slaves, not merely for their injustice in doing violence to the law of equality, but also for their impiety in annulling the statute of nature, who mother-like has born and raised all men alike. Nature has created them genuine brothers, not in mere name, but in reality, though this kinship has been confused by the triumph of dangerous pursuit of material things, which has brought estrangement instead of affinity and enmity instead of friendship.

(80) Regarding philosophy, they abandon the logical part to people obsessed with words and consider logic unnecessary for the acquisition of virtue. They abandon the physical part of philosophy to star-gazers since it is beyond the grasp of human nature, only retaining the part which philosophizes about the existence of God and the creation of the universe. But they study the ethical part of philosophy very industriously, taking for their trainers the ancestral laws, which could not possibly have been conceived by the human soul without divine inspiration. (81) They are instructed in these ancestral laws all the time, but particularly on the seventh days. For that day has been set apart to be kept holy and on it they abstain from all other work and proceed to sacred places which they call “synagogues.” Arranged in rows according to their ages, the younger below the elder, they sit in an orderly way that is appropriate to the occasion with attentive ears. (82) Then someone takes the books and reads them aloud and another person particularly proficient comes forward and expounds what is not understood. For most of their philosophical study takes the form of allegory, and in this they emulate the ancient ways.

(83) They are trained in piety, holiness, justice, domestic organization, communal organization, and knowledge of what is truly good or evil or indifferent. They are trained on how to choose what is right and to avoid the opposite, taking for their defining standards these three things: love of God, love of virtue, and love of men. (84) They show their love of God in many ways: by religious purity consistent and unbroken throughout their lives; by abstinence from oaths; by truthfulness; by the conviction that the deity is the cause of all good things and nothing bad; by their love of virtue; by their freedom from the love of either money or honour or pleasure; by self-mastery and endurance, by frugality, simple living, contentment, humility, respect for law, steadiness and all similar qualities; by their love of humanity; by benevolence and sense of equality; and, by their communal spirit (koinōnia).

Their communal spirit defies description, though a few words will not be out of place. (85) First of all, no one’s house is his own in the sense that it is not shared by all. For besides the fact that they dwell together in small groups (thiasoi), the door is open to visitors from elsewhere who share their convictions. (86) Again they all have a treasury and common disbursements. Their clothes are held in common and also their food through their institution of communal meals. In no other community can we find the custom of sharing home, life and food more firmly established in actual practice. And this is not unexpected. For all the wages which they earn in the day’s work they do not keep as their own property. Instead, they contribute them to the common fund and allow what accrues to be shared by those who wish to use it. (87) The sick are not neglected just because they cannot contribute anything. Instead, they have the cost of their treatment lying ready in the common fund, so that they can meet expenses out of the greater wealth in full security. The elderly are also given the respect and care which real children give to their parents, and they receive from countless hands and minds a full and generous maintenance for their final years.

(88) Such are the athletes of virtue produced by a philosophy free from the needless questioning of Greek wordiness, a philosophy which prepares its students to practise praiseworthy actions, by which the freedom which can never be enslaved is firmly established. Here we have a proof. (89) Many are the rulers who on various occasions have placed themselves in power over the land. They differed both in nature and the line of conduct which they followed. Some endeavour to outdo wild beasts in ferocity to the point of savagery. They tried every form of cruelty. They slaughtered their subjects wholesale or, like cooks, carved them in pieces – limb by limb – while still alive. But they did not stop until justice, who oversees human affairs, visited them with the same disasters. (90) Others transformed this wild frenzy into another kind of viciousness. Their behaviour demonstrated intense bitterness, but they talked with calmness even though the mask of their milder language failed to conceal their resentful disposition. They wagged their tails like venomous hounds, yet produced evils that could not be reversed and left behind them throughout the cities the unforgettable sufferings of their victims as monuments of their impiety and inhumanity. (91) Yet none of these, neither the extremely ferocious nor the deep-dyed treacherous deceivers, were able to lay a charge against this congregation of Essenes or holy ones here described. Unable to resist the high excellence of these people, they all treated them as self-governing freemen by nature and extolled their communal meals and that indescribable sense of communal spirit, which is the clearest evidence of a perfect and supremely happy life.

[Kelanos the Indian naked wise man]

(92) But since some consider that the virtues of large groups are never perfect, but merely grow and improve and then come to an end, we must cite as evidence the lives of good individual men, which are the clearest proof of the existence of freedom. (93) Kalanos [sometimes spelled Karanos] was an Indian by birth belonging to the naked wise men (gymnosophists). Kalanos was regarded as possessing endurance more than any of his contemporaries. By combining virtuous actions with laudable words, he gained the admiration not only of his fellow countrymen but also of people from other tribes and, what is most exceptional, of enemy rulers. (94) Alexander of Macedon wanted to demonstrate to the Greek world a specimen of barbarian wisdom, like a copy reproducing the original picture. So Alexander began by urging Kalanos to travel with him from India with the prospect of winning great fame in all of Asia and Europe. (95) When Alexander failed to persuade, Alexander declared that he would force Kalanos to follow him. Kalanos’ reply was as noble as it was fitting: “What will I be worth to you, Alexander, for exhibiting to the Greeks if, in the process, I am compelled to do what I do not wish to do?” What a wealth of directness there is in the words and far more freedom in the thought.

But his written words are even more durable than his spoken words. In his writing, he set on record clear signs of a spirit which could not be enslaved. The letter he sent to Alexander goes like this:

“Kalanos to Alexander: Your friends urge you to apply violence and compulsion to the philosophers of India. These friends, however, have never even in their dreams seen what we do. Bodies you will transport from place to place, but souls you will not compel to do what they will not do, any more than force bricks or sticks to talk. Fire causes the greatest trouble and ruin to living bodies. We are superior to this; we burn ourselves alive. There is no king, no ruler, who will compel us to do what we do not freely wish to do. We are not like those philosophers of the Greeks, who practise words for a festal assembly. With us, actions match words and words match actions. Actions pass swiftly and words have short-lived power. Virtues secure to us blessedness and freedom.”

(97) Protests and judgments like these may well bring to our lips the saying of Zeno: “You will more readily sink something filled with air than force any virtuous man to do anything against his own will.” For that soul will never surrender or suffer defeat if right reason has braced it with principles firmly held.


Hypothetica (as preserved in Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel)

[Alternative description of the Essenes’ way of life]

11 (1) Multitudes of his disciples has the lawgiver [Moses] trained for the communal life (koinōnia). These people are called Essenes, a name awarded to them doubtless in recognition of their holiness. They live in many cities of Judaea and in many villages and grouped in great societies of many members. (2) Their persuasion is not based on birth, for birth is not a descriptive mark of voluntary associations, but on their zeal for virtue and desire to promote brotherly love. (3) So no Essene is a mere child nor even a youth or newly bearded young man, since the characters of such are unstable with a unpredictability corresponding to the immaturity of their age, but full grown and already verging on old age, no longer carried under by the tide of the body nor led by the passions, but enjoying the veritable, the only real freedom.

(4) This freedom is attested by their life. None of them allows himself to have any private property, either house or slave or estate or cattle or any of the other things which are acquired and gained by wealth, but they put everything together into a common fund and enjoy the benefit of them all in common. (5) They live together formed into societies (thiasoi), an association of companions (hetairia) with common meals, and never cease to conduct all their affairs to serve communal well-being. (6) But they have various occupations at which they labour with untiring application and never plead cold or heat or any of the violent changes in the atmosphere as an excuse. Before the sun is risen they go about their familiar tasks and only when the sun sets do they force themselves to return, for they delight in them as much as do those who are entered for gymnastic competitions. (7) For they consider that the exercises which they practise whatever they may be are more valuable to life, more pleasant to soul and body and more lasting than those of the athlete in so far as they can still be plied with vigour when that of the body is past its prime.

(8) Some of them labour on the land skilled in sowing and planting, some as herdsmen taking charge of every kind of cattle and some superintend the swarms of bees. (9) Others work at the handicrafts to avoid the sufferings which are forced upon us by our indispensable requirements and shrink from no innocent way of getting a livelihood. (10) Each branch when it has received the wages of these so different occupations gives it to one person who has been appointed as treasurer. He takes it and at once buys what is necessary and provides food in abundance and anything else which is required for living. (11) Having this sort of common life and common table every day, they are content with the same conditions. They are lovers of frugality who shun expensive luxury as a disease of both body and soul.

(12) Not only is their table in common but their clothing also. For in winter they have a stock of coats ready and in summer cheap vests, so that anyone who wants may easily take any garment he likes. What one has is held to belong to all and conversely what all have one has. (13) Again if anyone is sick he is nursed at the common expense and tended with care and thoughtfulness by all. If the old men are childless, they are treated as parents of not merely a  numerous but very filial family and regularly finish their life with an exceedingly prosperous and comfortable old age. So many are those who give them precedence and honour as their due and minister to them as a duty voluntarily and deliberately accepted rather than enforced by nature.

(14) Furthermore, they avoid marriage because they clearly discern it to be the sole or the principal danger to the maintenance of the communal life, as well as because they particularly practise chastity. For no Essene takes a wife, because a wife is a selfish creature, excessively jealous and adept at confusing the morals of her husband and seducing him by her continued impostures. (15) For by the fawning talk which she practises and the other ways in which she plays her part like an actress on the stage, she first ensnares the sight and hearing. Then, when these subjects as it were have been duped, she cajoles the sovereign mind. (16) And if children come, filled with the spirit of arrogance and bold speaking she gives utterance with more audacious hardihood to things which before she hinted covertly and under disguise, and casting off all shame she compels him to commit actions which are all hostile to the communal life. (17) For he who is either fast bound in the love lures of his wife or under the stress of nature makes his children his first care ceases to be the same to others. Unconsciously he has become a different man and has passed from freedom into slavery.

(18) Such then is the life of the Essenes, a life so highly to be prized that not only common people but also great kings look upon them with admiration and amazement, and the praise and honours which they give add further veneration to their venerable name.

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