Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Passion of Eve and the Ecstasy of Hannah: Sense Perception, Passion, Mysticism, and Misogyny in Philo of Alexandria, De Ebrietate 143-52

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Passion of Eve and the Ecstasy of Hannah: Sense Perception, Passion, Mysticism, and Misogyny in Philo of Alexandria, De Ebrietate 143-52

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

As is well known, Philo of Alexandria has a fairly negative view of women; he has even been accused of espousing a "virulent misogyny."1 His negative attitude is especially evident in his recurring feminine characterizations of sense perception and passion. According to Philo's reasoning, the senses resemble women in a number of ways: they are passive, prone to deception, and the source of debilitating emotions and sinful pleasures (Opif 165-66; Leg. 2.6, 50; QG 1.46). The passions are similarly portrayed as feminine and inimical to virtue (Det. 28; Sacr. 103). And just as the masculine mind must control the feminine senses and emotions for a person to function properly, so also women, if they wish to advance in virtue and wisdom, must be controlled and led by men into a figurative transformation of their femininity, one involving the suppression of the "womanly" senses and emotions and the acquisition of masculine "reasoning power" (Ebr. 59-60; Legat. 319-20).

A notable exception to this thoroughgoing androcentrism is found in Philo's allegorical interpretation of the biblical account of Hannah's prayer for a son (1 Samuel 1), in his treatise On Drunkenness (143-52). In this text, Philo not only accords Hannah his most profound spiritual experiences-Bacchic ecstasy, sober intoxication, and the vision of God-but in the process portrays her as a sensuous, impassioned, and adept female mystic. Furthermore, she almost entirely escapes the grasp of Philo's misogynist presuppositions. Though on two occasions she briefly acquires masculine attributes, her sensual and passionate mystical praxis, which predominates in Ebr. 143-52, suggests a deliberate feminine characterization. This exceptional text therefore affords us a rare opportunity to mitigate Philo's misogyny and, along with it, his largely negative attitude toward the senses, emotions, and embodied existence.

I. The Female Personification of Sense Perception and the Sensual Hannah

Philo's negative view of women is only slightly offset by the fact that they fail to populate his thought-world significantly. As Dorothy Sly notes, "unless Philo is in a situation where he is forced to notice women as people, his tendency is to operate in a male world."* 2 One of the most common contexts in which Philo does take note of women is in his recurring feminine characterization of sense perception. Philo is a committed Platonist, particularly with regard to metaphysics and anthropology, and sense perception occupies a central place in his philosophical program. Further, as a committed interpreter of the "sacred oracles of Moses," Philo believes the inspired account of humanity's origins to be foundational for understanding human nature. Therefore many of his discussions of sense perception occur in the context of allegorical interpretations of the Garden of Eden account, wherein "mind corresponds to man, and the senses to woman" (Opif 165; cf. Leg. 3.50; Post. 177; Migr. 100; Fug. 208; QG 1.25, 37,47; 2.49; 3.3).

The reach of this allegory, however, extends beyond the garden and functions etiologically. Eve, commonly referred to as "the woman," is representative of all women; conversely, all women "naturally reflect the essential characteristics of the first woman."3 It is therefore not surprising to find that Philo allegorically equates a number of women with sense perception, including Hagar (Post. 137), Lot's wife (QG 4.52), Rachel (Post. 135), and Miriam (Leg. 2.67). Despite the variety of contexts from which it arises, the contours of this allegory remain remarkably consistent, which is especially noteworthy given Philo's flexibility in handling so many other issues. In fact, Sharon Lea Mattila contends that "Philo's gender categories are among the most rigid and consistently applied principles of his thought."4 Moreover, Philo's views on gender are almost perfectly interwoven with his philosophical views about sense perception. …

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