Philo: Philosophy as the Handmaiden of Theology

The phrase “philosophy is the handmaiden of theology” was famously adopted by medieval Christian thinkers. It is usually attributed to the medieval thinker Peter Damain. The point of this post is not to examine what is meant by philosophy or theology as used in this phrase, but to tell the origin of the metaphor of the handmaiden. I will write about its use by medieval thinkers and its recent adoption by positivists in another post.

Consider the following passage from the Old Testament.

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived.

Genesis, 16:1–4 (NSRV)

Many would be familiar with Sarah and Abraham (rather than Sarai or Abram). God gives them these names at Genesis 17: 5No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham. … 15God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.”

For the average Christian today, this passage would be offensive. It was seen as problematic even in ancient times. Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish thinker of the first century CE (born c. 30 BCE), sought to give an allegorical explanation of the passage.

Naturally, then, virtue [αρετή, aretē] will employ no minor kind of introduction, but grammar, geometry, astronomy, rhetoric, music, and all the other branches of theoretical study. These are symbolized by Hagar, the handmaid of Sarah, as I shall proceed to shew. For Sarah, we are told, said to Abraham : “Behold, the Lord has shut me out from bearing. Go in unto my handmaid, that thou mayest beget children from her.” In the present discussion, we must eliminate all bodily unions or intercourse which has pleasure as its object. What is meant is a mating of mind (νου, nou) with virtue. Mind desires to have children by virtue, and, if it cannot do so at once, is instructed to espouse virtue’s handmaid, the intermediate education [μέσην παιδείαν, mesēn paideian]. (translation modified)

Philo, On Mating with the Preliminary Studies, 11–12.

According to this explanation, the mind (nous, Abraham) wishes to attain virtue (aretē, Sarah). But it is not yet ready to do so. Therefore it must espouse (as in betroth, taking the literal sense of “spouse”) virtue’s handmaid, i.e. intermediate education (mesē paideia, Hagar). As we can see, the human characters are turned into allegorical symbols.

Philo was a Greek speaking Jew who was deeply learned in the Greek philosophical tradition. In presenting this explanation, he is drawing on Greek philosophy. Indeed the notion of allegorical explanation itself was well known.

The word nous had been, by Philo’s time, an important philosophical concept for more than four centuries. It was first articulated by the pre-Socratic thinker Anaxagoras. Simplicius, who flourished in the sixth century CE, reports: He [Anaxagoras] held that mind (nous) is unlimited and self-ruling and has been mixed with no thing, but is alone itself by itself…And it has control over all things that have soul, both the larger and the smaller.

Aretē also had occupied Greek philosophers for centuries. At the beginning of one of Plato’s most important dialogues, Meno (after whom the dialogue is named) asks Socrates: Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue [aretē] can be taught, or is acquired by practice, not teaching? (70a) Aristotle writes in his Nicomachean Ethics: It is the active exercise of our faculties in conformity with virtue [aretēn] that causes happiness (1100b9–11).

Mesē is the adjectival form of mesos which means “middle” or “between”. The most famous use of this word is Mesopotamia, literally, between or in the middle of rivers. The rivers being the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Paideia referred to what we might call education or instruction or study. Specifically there was a programme of εγκύκλιος παιδεία (enkuklios paideia [the source of the term “encyclopedia”, and the phrases “well-rounded education” and “all-round education”!]) which can be interpreted “as a circle of disciplines through which the student had to pass. The idea of the circle was supposed to stress the uniform character and the interrelationship of these disciplines” (Heinrichs 1968, p. 442). The disciplines are, according to Philo’s list, grammar, geometry, rhetoric, astronomy, music and other theoretical studies.

[DIGRESSION: Cicero calls these, perhaps for the first time, the liberales artes or, as we say today, the liberal arts.

Under manner of life should be considered with whom he was reared, in what tradition and under whose direction, what teachers he had in the liberal arts [artium liberalium magistros], what instructors in the art of living, with whom he associates on terms of friendship, in what occupation, trade, or profession he is engaged, how he manages his private fortune, and what is the character of his home life.”

De Inventione 1.25.

Cicero makes this statement while discussing the various attributes of persons which orators should care to know while constructing, hence the name of the text On Invention, speeches. The manner of life is one of the attributes. In any case, the idea of the liberal arts would develop substantially over the centuries and become the basis of learning. The trivium consisting of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric would be followed by the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

See the following 12th century “circular” image in which the seven liberal arts are personified.

Source: Wikimedia Commons (Link)


In another statement of the allegorical interpretation, Philo explains:

For before this time, when he [Abraham] was not yet perfect [τέλειος, teleios], but even before his name was changed, he gave his attention to subjects of lofty philosophical speculation [μετέωρα εφιλοσόφει, meteora ephilosophei]; and she [Sarah], knowing that he could not produce anything out of perfect virtue [αρετής τελείας, arētes teleias, i.e. Sarah herself], counselled him to raise children out of her handmaid, that is to say out of encyclical instruction [παιδείας τής εγκυκλίου, paideias tēs enkukliou], out of Hagar.

Philo, On Allegorical Interpretations, 3.87.

Perhaps Philo got this image, but not the idea of allegorical interpretation, from a Stoic. In the Anthology, compiled in the 5th century CE, Johannes Stobaeus reports the statement of Aristo of Chios who flourished in the 3rd century BCE.

Aristo of Chios maintains that those who waste their effort with the propaedeutic disciplines [ἐγκύκλια μαθήματα, enkuklia mathēmata] but neglect philosophy, resemble the suitors of Penelope, who when they failed to win over the mistress mingled with the handmaidens.

Anthology, 3.109 (translation by Heinrichs 1968, p. 444)

Aristo is referring to the many misadventures of the maids of Penelope who sleep with her suitors. (Penelope is the wife of the Greek hero Odysseus who, after the ten year battle at Troy, is forced to spend another ten years navigating the Mediterranean on his way back home to Ithaca). An example below:

Scornful they heard: Melantho, fair and young,

Chiefly derides: regardless of the cares
Her Queen endures, polluted joys she shares
Nocturnal with Eurymachus …
(Odyssey 17.367–73, trans. Alexander Pope)

Clement of Alexandria, a theologian of 2nd and early 3rd centuries CE, would follow Philo is this interpretation of Genesis 16 specifically and the connection between philosophy and the Christian faith generally. In his Stromata (Miscellanies), he begins the fifth chapter usually titled “Philosophy, the Handmaiden of Theology” in the following manner.

Accordingly, before the advent of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness. And now it becomes conducive to piety; being a kind of preparatory instruction [προπαιδεία, propaideia] to those who attain to faith through demonstration. …Perchance, too, philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For this was a schoolmaster to bring “the Hellenic mind,” as the law, the Hebrews, “to Christ”. Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected [τελειούμενον, teleioumenon] in Christ.


Albert Heinrichs, “Philosophy the Handmaiden of Theology,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 9 (1968), 437-50.

Hent de Vries, “Philosophia Ancilla Theologiae: Allegory and Ascension in Philo’s On Mating with the Preliminary Studies (De Congressu Quaerendae Eruditionis Gratia),” trans. Jack Ben-Levi, The Bible and Critical Theory 5, no. 3 (2009): 41.1–41.19.

Malcolm de Mowbray, “Philosophy as Handmaid of Theology: Biblical Exegesis in the Service of Scholarship,” Traditio 59 (2004): 1–37,

Alexander Pope, The Odyssey of Homer: Books XII–XXIV, ed. Maynard Mack, vol. 10, The Poems of Alexander Pope (London: Methuen, 1967).

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library 73 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961).

William Wilson, The Writings of Clement of Alexandria: Vol. 1, Ante-Nicene Christian Library 4 (Edinburgh, 1867).

Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Inventione, trans. H. M. Hubbell, in Cicero: Vol 2, Loeb Classical Library 386 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960).

Michael D. Coogan ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Patricia Curd, Anaxagoras of Clazomenae: Fragments and Testimonia, text and translation with notes and essays, The Phoenix Presocratics 6 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007).

Philo of Alexandria, Allegorical Interpretations, trans. F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker, in Philo: Volume 1, Loeb Classical Library 226 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).

Philo of Alexandria, On Mating with the Preliminary Studies, trans. F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker, in Philo: Volume 4, Loeb Classical Library 261 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985).

Plato, Meno, trans. W. R. M. Lamb, in Plato: Volume 2, Loeb Classical Library 165 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952).

William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952).

Gulielmi Dindorfii, Stromatum I–IV, Clementis Alexandrini Opera, vol. 2, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1869).

Otto Hense, Libri Duo Posteriores: First Volume, Ioannis Stobaei Anthologium, vol. 3, 4 vols. (Berlin: Apud Weidmannos, 1894).

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