Hans Lewy's Sobria Ebrietas (1929)

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billd89
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Hans Lewy's Sobria Ebrietas (1929)

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Sobria ebrietas: Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der antiken Mystik. By Hans Lewy. Giessen: Topelmann, 1929. 175 pages.

In German, now at the Internet Archive.

Shirley Jackson Case's review in The Journal of Religion, Jul 1930, Vol.10, No.3 , pp.412-416:
The mysticism of Philo is the principal theme in still another recent study on the history of ancient mysticism by a young German scholar. The discussion falls into two divisions: first, a study of the origins of Philo's conception of "sober intoxication" and, second, a history of the influence of this notion in patristic literature down to Augustine. Present uncertainty regarding the genesis of Philo's mysticism, and the influence of the emotional experience within early Christianity, make welcome a new investigation in this field, especially by a student who acknowledges that his inspirations have been largely derived from the previous work of such scholars as Norden, Reitzenstein, and Bousset. An examination of Philo's language leads to the conclusion that his thought was distinctly mystical in character. The state of sober intoxication was attainable only through a union of the purely spiritual side of man with the divine, and presupposed an ascetic type of life on the part of one who would realize the experience. It was an act of the divine favor bestowed directly upon the worthy man, or else mediated through the agencies of Logos and Wis­dom. Turning to a consideration of analogous notions among the Greeks, one finds there a sharply defined picture of divine possession to explain the phenomena of ecstasy and inspiration. Also the "divine drunkenness" of the Dionysus cult offered a parallel experience, from which the Gentiles had developed a definite doctrine of a divine indwelling in both prophets and poets. Philo and his Greek contemporaries were alike inclined to account for the personalities of unique individuals on the theory of "divine men," the classical example of such for both Jews and Greeks being the prophet through whom the divine spirit speaks. But the Philonic notion of "sober intoxication," which is sharply contrasted with physical drunk­enness, represents a closer fusion of ascetic and intellectual interests, the more immediate antecedents of which are found in the Graeco-oriental religious movement known as Gnosticism. Philo is, in fact, to be re­garded as an exponent of this movement, whose beginnings are contem­porary with his activity (p.90). Philo's imagery passed over into Chris­tianity through the mediation of Origen and his successors in the East and Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine in the West.

Emile Bréhier Revue des Études Grecques, Vol. 44, No. 205/206 (Avril-Juin 1931), pp. 238-239
The expression νηφάλιος μέθη, "sober drunkenness", which Philo of Alexandria often uses to designate the state of the soul which "drinks in, as he says, the divine words", is part of that set of metaphors, so common, which assimilate religious life to a spiritual banquet, by some memory of an actual ritual banquet. M. L., who first of all gathers and analyzes with great care the passages where Philo uses the expression, shows that, in spite of the frequent use of metaphors of this kind in the language of the Greek mysteries and in that of the Old Testament, one does not find there anywhere, with its own stamp of originality, this connection of opposites: sober intoxication. On the other hand, the comparison of a passage of the De Vita Contemplativa with the Hermetic writings, on the one hand, with a hymn of pseudo-Solomon, which dates from the 2nd century AD {??}, and finally with a passage of the Pistis Sophia, led him to think that the expression, although belonging personally to Philo in its precise form, was nevertheless suggested to him by the circles whose thoughts these various texts express. Now, according to M. L., who faithfully follows the inspiration of Reitzenstein, all these texts belong to the same group, which the author of the Poimandres calls "gnostics".

Mr. L.'s construction certainly raises several very delicate questions; the texts he cites are all later than Philo, and it must be admitted, in order to use them (one recognizes here the spirit of Mr. Reitzenstein's work), that they merely reproduce much more ancient authors. Moreover, the kinship that is established between the Therapeuts described by Philo in The Contemplative Life, the Hermetists, the authors of the Hymns of Solomon and those of Pistis Sophia, by labeling them all under the term Gnostic, does not appear with evidence; for example, one can ask in what sense the Therapeuts of Philo are "Gnostics", and M. L. has a hard time finding expressions in The Contemplative Life that correspond to gnosis. Gnosticism becomes a category so broad, so vague, that it no longer designates a precise historical reality.

The author is much more at ease in the second part of his work, where he deals with the history of the Philonian expression in patristic literature up to the fourth century and finds the expression sobria ebrietas in the Confessions of Saint Augustine: let us quote in particular the very penetrating pages (p. 114 ff.) devoted to the interpretation of the Last Supper.


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Re: Hans Lewy, 'Selections' (1946) - On Philo Judaeus

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The Introduction to his ‘Selections From Philo' or Philo Judaeus Philosophical writings (1946) is signed “Hans Lewy, Jerusalem, 1945”. In fact, Lewy fell deathly ill in Late July and his colleague Hans Jakob Polotsky (who had studied under a different set of teachers) edited/translated? this work for English-language readers after Lewy’s death. This material (essays?) is therefore somewhat older but probably dates from the early 1940s, when Palestine was British and many Jewish scholars were not yet 'Israeli'.

Together w/ classmates Ludwig Edelstein, Hans Jonas, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and Elias Bickerman, Hans Lewy {Yochanan Levi} studied under Richard Reitzenstein, Wilhelm Bousset, Eduard Norden, Werner Jaeger, and other contemporary professors at Berlin and Heidelberg in the 1920s. As with his classmates - Lewy's work is both representative of and derivative from the German Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, his own teachers' theory. It is therefore no coincidence to see Gnostic-Hermetic ideas syncretized so audaciously, so creatively, to a re-imagined Alexandrian Jewish culture of the First C. AD by the Weimar generation of scholars. This is an important and recognizable hallmark of these German-Jewish intellectuals, also evident in the Edelsteins' eventual best-seller: an extraordinary synthesis of the Hermetica and Philonica, which proved to be a veritable 'recovery torah' for millions.

Among other seminal works of his peer group, Lewy's analysis is probably the most accessible and straightforward expression of the idea that Philo Judaeus was deeply influenced by Hermetic-Gnostic ideas. Although Sobria Ebrietas [1929] is a largely unrecognized milestone, Prof. A.D. Nock at Harvard University wrote an encouraging letter regarding Neo-Platonic theurgy to Lewy in Jerusalem, 1941; he was already well-known in his field internationally. Pope Benedict XVI also wrote of “sober intoxication” (citing Lewy) c.2016?

p.15:
To the group of writings intended for Gentile readers belong also some other tracts, among which the treatise On the Contemplative Life deserve special mention. This gives a description of the life of the Therapeutae, a group of Jewish monks living near the desert of Egypt.


p.18:
We may now proceed to examine more closely those leading ideas of Philo which may be regarded as inner directives of his religious speculation. Philo's basic concept on which his whole view of life rests is the contrast between Spirit and Matter. Man is placed by nature midway between the remote deity, the essence and fountain of pure intellect, and the material substance, the domain of sinful passions. He is linked with the world of Intellect by the higher portion of his soul, reason, and with the physical world by the lower portion of his soul and by his body. The first tries to elevate man towards her heavenly origin, the second drags him down into earthly desires. Man's task is to abandon his lower existence and to rise to God. The way of perfection is Wisdom. The souls of those who have walked in this way during their life-time will return afterwards to heaven; they have gained immortality.

This duality of human nature imposes on man the duty of regarding with complete detachment the material side of life. Not that Philo recommends flight from the world; in theory at any rate, he looks upon the practical life as the prerequisite for the contemplative life. He emphasizes the social duties devolving on man (and he himself fulfilled them, when called upon by his brethren to defend their cause) but the abandonment of sensual perception which he demands for the purpose of concentrating {p.19} the mind on the thought of God comes very close in practice to complete seclusion. He shows a deep sympathy for the solitary lives of the Therapeutae and Essenes, who devoted themselves wholly to the service of God. It goes without saying that he rejects luxury. After the model of Cynic asceticism, he prescribes a simple diet sufficient only to satisfy the barest needs of the body.

The renunciation of the physical pleasures of life is the preliminary condition for a spiritual activity of which the ultimate aim is an intuition of God. The path leading to this goal is philosophy. It is both long and arduous. At first one has to pass through the 'encyclic studies' (the scientific education of the day), which explain separately the various component parts of the universe and form the gateway to the higher knowledge of philosophy. This higher knowledge provides the key for the right apprehension of the universe as a whole, its law and creator, and paves the way for a true self-knowledge. Yet, like the Socratic quest, though with a deeper insight, this philosophic self-examination brings man back to the recognition of his own nothingness, as also of God's omnipotence. Thus philosophy itself declares its abdication in the face of the inconceivable greatness of God. Skepticism becomes, as often, the stepping-stone to mystic exaltation. For, as Philo says, he who wishes to know God, has to abandon himself, or, conversely, only he who despairs of himself is able to know the Infinite. Wisdom renounces its claim to independence and consents to serve as a guide to higher knowledge in which the rational mind submits itself to the divine Will.

PhiIo's meditations on the process by which God is apprehended form one of the most fascinating chapters of his theology. The human mind is able to know only God's existence, not His nature, and even this neither by sensible perception nor even by logical reasoning, but by intuition. For the Godhead, as the absolute and perfect Being, is limited by no attribute and can be reached by mystical illumination only. In order to prepare itself for this final illumination the human mind must free itself of all earthly desire and ascend not only beyond the pale of the sensible world, but also above the highest sphere of the ideas which fringe the Absolute Being. When it has come near the Presence of God, bright beams of a spiritual light issuing from His hidden dwelling-place and representing His virtues irradiate the soul, fill her with its ineffable beauty, produce a 'fine frenzy', a sort of 'sober intoxication', and {p.20} dazzle her mental eye so that it cannot discern the Face of the Inconceivable. The mystical consummation is, thus, a state of highest strain, emotion, delight and ignorance. Philo spares no effort to bring home to his readers the full beauty of this beatific vision. His descriptions of it are inspired with a glowing enthusiasm, and are perhaps, apart from certain passages of Plotinus, finished and impressive accounts of mystical experience preserved in ancient Greek literature. One of the symbols used by him as an illustration of this kind of vision is the cloud which covered Mount Sinai wrapping God from sight, and into which Moses ascended in order to speak with the Attainable …

{p.22} The system of thought which we have thus sketched is neither Greek nor Jewish. It is, strictly speaking, not a doctrine at all, but a kind of atmosphere, the theoretical reflex of a mystical religion. It is to be noted that kindred ideas recur with infinite variety of form and emphasis among all the religious communities of later antiquity. They range from magic concreteness and mythical fancy to the most abstract speculation. They emerge in the formula of the magicians, in the symbolic rites of the Mystery-Religions (from which Philo borrowed many terms), in the fantastic {p.23} rhapsodies of the Gnostics, in the lofty teachings of the philosophic schools, and in the esoteric ramblings of the Christian theologians. They are the changing face of a catholic religiosity, the last and most fascinating creation of the religious genius of pagan antiquity, begotten of the dualistic consciousness of later Greece and the Orient - not the Old East with its realistic imagination, but a Hellenized Orient which has gone through a fruitful crisis of self-examination. As this new body of thoughts was not a definite system but the spontaneous expression of a new sense of reality, it possesses neither a distinct native country nor a genealogical tree; it has only representatives who try to give expression to this common mysticism. Philo of Alexandria is one of its earliest known spokesmen; and since it was Alexandria that produced the most conspicuous members of this community of the spirit-Gnostics, Hermetics, Fathers of the Church, and … we are bound to suppose that this city, the melting-­pot of cultures and creeds, was one of the main centres of this religious movement. Like the other religious communities of this time, Judaism also felt the impact of this spiritual force, which did not succeed in penetrating into the central position (the monistic citadel resisted firmly), but which settled down on the borders of its domain. There is no doubt that in the time of Philo something like a Jewish Gnosticism began to appear and that its secret teachings had much in common with those of the Alexandrine theosopher. The sects of the Essenes and even more the Therapeutae, with which Philo had strong sympathies, belonged to this group. We do not know if there was any personal exchange of ideas between them. In any case, Philo is linked indirectly with the main trend of Jewish mysticism which was carried on by esoteric tradition until the Middle Ages, when the 'Kabbalah' used the remains of that tradition for the building up of its own systems of theosophy.

Obviously, "spiritual activity of which the ultimate aim is an intuition of God" is nothing less than Gnosis. If Philo avoided that term directly, his silence suggests it was already problematic, c.25 AD - a spooky word to alienate his audience. While cautious, seemingly aware it was a controversial opinion (against Martin Buber and who else?), H. Lewy does state his belief that Jewish Gnosticism existed in Philo's day. This idea has a very definite lineage from the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, for as E. Bréhier has told us: "Mr. Lewy ... faithfully follows the inspiration of Reitzenstein."
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