Philo and the Four Worlds

Philo and the Four Worlds
James Scott Trimm

According to the Jewish tradition known as Kabbalah, as one approaches Ayn Sof (the Infinite One) one passes through four worlds.  These four worlds are based on the four stages of the process of creation, each of which exists outside the dimension of time and thus they all are to be passed through as one approaches Ayn Sof.

These four worlds, or four stages of creation are laid out in the Tanak in the book of Isaiah:

All that is called in My Name, for My Glory (K’vod),
I have created (Beri’ah) it,
I have formed (Yetzirah) it,
And I have made (Asiyyah) it.
(Is. 43:7)

The four worlds are known as the World of Atzilut (emanation) ; the World of Beri’ah (creation), the World of Yetzirah (formation) and the World of Asiyyah (action).

When the Infinite One created the universe, His work of creation followed these four stages. Since all but the last of these worlds exists, like YHWH, outside the dimension of time, as one approaches YHWH from this world, one must pass though the upper three worlds which stand as stages of this world, or worlds of their own, between this creation and the Creator.

The First Century Jewish Writer Philo of Alexandria also writes about the Creation as unfolding in stages corresponding to other “worlds”. And while Philo is commonly understood of speaking of two worlds, a closer examination will show that Philo actually subdivides each of these two worlds into to two, so that Philo’s system actually has four worlds as well.

Philo writes of two worlds,

We must mention as much as we can of the matters contained in his account, since to enumerate them all is impossible; for he embraces that beautiful world which is perceptible only by the intellect, as the account of the first day will show: (16) for God, as apprehending beforehand, as a God must do, that there could not exist a good imitation without a good model, and that of the things perceptible to the external senses nothing could be faultless which wax not fashioned with reference to some archetypal idea conceived by the intellect, when he had determined to create this visible world, previously formed that one which is perceptible only by the intellect, in order that so using an incorporeal model formed as far as possible on the image of God, he might then make this corporeal world, a younger likeness of the elder creation, which should embrace as many different genera perceptible to the external senses, as the other world contains of those which are visible only to the intellect. (17) But that world which consists of ideas, it were impious in any degree to attempt to describe or even to imagine: but how it was created, we shall know if we take for our guide a certain image of the things which exist among us. When any city is founded through the exceeding ambition of some king or leader who lays claim to absolute authority, and is at the same time a man of brilliant imagination, eager to display his good fortune, then it happens at times that some man coming up who, from his education, is skilful in architecture, and he, seeing the advantageous character and beauty of the situation, first of all sketches out in his own mind nearly all the parts of the city which is about to be completed–the temples, the gymnasia, the prytanea, and markets, the harbour, the docks, the streets, the arrangement of the walls, the situations of the dwelling houses, and of the public and other buildings. (18) Then, having received in his own mind, as on a waxen tablet, the form of each building, he carries in his heart the image of a city, perceptible as yet only by the intellect, the images of which he stirs up in memory which is innate in him, and, still further, engraving them in his mind like a good workman, keeping his eyes fixed on his model, he begins to raise the city of stones and wood, making the corporeal substances to resemble each of the incorporeal ideas. (19) Now we must form a somewhat similar opinion of God, who, having determined to found a mighty state, first of all conceived its form in his mind, according to which form he made a world perceptible only by the intellect, and then completed one visible to the external senses, using the first one as a model. (On Creation 15b-19)

So this presents two worlds, one of incorporeal ideas, perceptible only to the intellect, and a corporeal world perceptible to our senses.

However these two worlds may be further divided. Philo says of the incorporeal world, that it is “an incorporeal model formed as far as possible on the image of God.” (On Creation 17)

And of the corporeal world Philo says:

(8) But Moses, who had early reached the very summits of philosophy, and who had learnt from the oracles of God the most numerous and important of the principles of nature, was well aware that it is indispensable that in all existing things there must be an active cause, and a passive subject; and that the active cause is the intellect of the universe, thoroughly unadulterated and thoroughly unmixed, superior to virtue and superior to science, superior even to abstract good or abstract beauty; (9) while the passive subject is something inanimate and incapable of motion by any intrinsic power of its own, but having been set in motion, and fashioned, and endowed with life by the intellect, became transformed into that most perfect work, this world. And those who describe it as being uncreated, do, without being aware of it, cut off the most useful and necessary of all the qualities which tend to produce piety, namely, providence: (On Creation 9-9)

So that the corporeal world is composed of a stage or world that is merely a “passive subject inanimate and incapable of motion by any intrinsic power of its own” but which “became transformed into… this world” when it was “set in motion, and fashioned, and endowed with life by the intellect,” (On Creation 9)

This means that Philo of Alexandria actually presents four “worlds” or “four stages of creation”: The image of Elohim, the incorporeal model formed as far as possible on the “image of God”. A corporeal “passive subject” and “this world” which is “set in motion.”

Philo’s Four Worlds correspond exactly with the Four Worlds of Kabbalah! This tells us that either the Four Worlds as taught in Kabbalah are either derived from Philo of Alexandria, or that (more likely) both Kabbalah and Philo of Alexandria are referencing a very ancient Jewish tradition of the “Four Worlds” that dates back at least to the First Century, but possibly much, much further into ancient times.

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