there are only a couple of places in Philo’s sprawling corpus that he interacts directly with the notion of “demons:” the most important of these being his De Gigantibus, a short commentary on Gen 6:1-4. as a distant second, we have a passing comment in his treatise on dreams (and also prophetic inspiration), De Somniis – which goes only so far as corroborate an equation between the greek “daimons” and biblical angels he makes in the former. in a couple of scattered places, he also makes a couple of very brief allusions to the devil and possession / exorcism, but these are not especially substantial, nor are they sufficiently detailed to draw much from.
fortunately, the De Gig gives us a lot to work with; in fact, a patient reader could use it as a lens to construct a fuller demonology from Philo’s broader corpus, given the points of intersection it gives us with his theology of created spirits, his theory of inspiration and interpretation, and his psychology. this goes beyond the scope of these brief notes, however — for the time being, i want to just make a few comments on the demonology of the De Gig itself.
it’s worth noting, first of all, that Philo seems to be completely unaware of enochic literature or enochic traditions. i’m sure that some scholar, somewhere has managed to make a connection by squinting in just the right way. but you’d think, if undeniably there are points of contact, Philo would be a bit more transparent about it. more than that, Philo seems to be operating with a much narrower canon of Scripture: his commentaries cover only the five books of Moses, and draw sporadically from the Psalms. whether this is an intentional oversight, or an accident of what they happened to have in his synagogue library, we cannot determine absolutely on textual grounds. given his caliber of thought and scholarship, however, it seems unlikely that he would have been isolated from the rest of the jewish community and the trends of his day — and accordant with those interactions, he would have had some familiarity with the associated texts. his selection, accordingly, likely reflects a belief that the Torah is primarily and properly “inspired,” and everything else is really just commentary. all of this is just speculation, however — who knows how Philo himself thought this through. and in any case, such speculations would stray quite far from the point.
Philo begins by establishing that virtue presupposes its opposite – or at least some great background of mediocrity against which it might shine – and accordingly, for the virtue of Noah to be made manifest, wickedness had to multiply extensively across the face of the earth. here is already a kind of implicit theodicy with perhaps a Jobian resonance, although what Philo has phrased sounds more like the philosophers obsession with the virtuous man than that of the student of the Scriptures. in any case, a demonology could be founded on this principle, which is probably how this comment came to headline Philo’s thoughts on this passage. the corrupt mass of humanity doomed to die later in the flood serve their purpose as a “dark mirror” for Noah, his family, and all their virtues; as such, they are the most explicitly “demon-like” being in the passage (in the sense that they are unambiguously vicious) — though Philo does not dwell on this point.
confirming the stoic leaning of his thought on the matter, Philo continues by offering a psychological commentary on the second part of 6:1 – “daughters were born to them:” the begetting of women signifies the descent into the passions and the accordant beginning of “womanlike” attachment and vice, rather than “manly” virtue. by contrast to the debased production of “daughters,” Noah is mentioned as producing only “sons,” signifying his uprightness in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.
this is the first of several psychologizing allegories that Philo offers in these verse: similarly, the descent of the angels represents the attachment of the wicked to the “mortal” daughters of self-indulgent pleasure, rather than the divine daughters of reason, knowledge and virtue,
in the psychologizing vein of Jung, Wink, Kelsey, we might latch on to these sections as central, and use this feature as the pivot around which we interpret the whole of Philo’s demonological system. but while Philo is strongly psychologizing here, he is not merely psychologizing. Philo very plainly preserves a coordination between the soul, the city (less explicitly in this passage) and the cosmos which has more depth than merely a free play of symbols a psychologizing reading might want to overlay. what Philo advocates, moreover, has a strongly ascetical bent, tying in to Philo’s larger interest of presenting Judaism as “true philosophy.” and we might wonder if it might be this feature of his thought that caused him to be so carefully preserved and read by christians over the centuries.
so much, then, for the psychological aspects of Philo’s demonology: what about his demonology proper? Philo begins this line of thought, not by identifying the origin of demons (the enochic strategy), but by arguing that some such beings as “angels and demons” ought to exist. for this purpose, he draws on the “pleroma” argument: the earth has “earth creatures” (viz, terrestrial animals), the waters have water creatures (fish, etc), the heavens are full of heavenly creatures (the stars), fire begets fire creatures (but mostly only in Macedonia) — so there must be another category of beings that inhabit the air. because of their affinity with the air (wind, spirit, breath), they are invisible to the eyes, but nevertheless have been endowed by God with a special vitality; indeed, they bear the “seeds of life” (and here Philo defends his point by noting the various sorts of potentially salubrious, potentially destructive effects of various “winds.”) this argument is common among the middle platonists: you’ll find Plutarch, Maximus of Tyre, and Apuleius all saying similar things.
Philo gives no indication that the demons might be “fallen angels” — indeed, quite the opposite. “if you realize that souls and demons and angels are but different names for the same one underlying object,” Philo tells us, “you will cast from your mind that most grievous of burdens, deisidaimonia” — which we should take to mean something on the negative side of the spectrum of piety, religion, superstition. (the Loeb translation (LCL 267:452) interpolates “fear of the demons,” which i like for clarity, though it may go a bit too far.)
emphatically, angels and demons are not morally distinguished. demons are not evil angels: Philo labors to make the point that either angels or demons can be either good or evil, just as either a soul can be good or evil. “The common usage of men is to give the name of “demon” to bad and good demons alike, and the name of the “soul” to good and bad souls. And so, too, you will not go wrong if you reckon as angels, not only those who are worthy of the name, who are as ambassadors backwards and forwards between men and God and are rendered sacred and inviolate by reason of that glorious and blameless ministry, but also those who are unworthy of the title.” he substantiates this by noting that the Scriptures do speak of “evil angels” in, for instance, ps 77:49 (and examples could be multiplied).
“what the philosophers call demons, the Scriptures call angels.” Philo, then, is evidently writing in a period before demons had been properly “demonized;” they are for him still ambivalent intermediary beings. this is especially interesting given that Philo must be living right on the cusp of that shift. in reading the NT, there is no danger that a reader might come the impression that demons are anything other than malevolent: the demons are minions of the Evil One, opposed to Christ and his Father and all that is good and holy, seeking only to kill, and steal and destroy (jn 10:10). the apologists beginning with Justin Martyr would continue to push this logic, solidifying in the Christian mind an equation between demons, fallen angels, and pagan deities.
of course, in some ways this shift was already underway in Plato’s critical tolerance of the old cultus; as philosophy popularized and spread, it was really only a matter of time before the energy poured into the old cults withered away – even if some of the mythology persisted (although, as it turns out, it was supplanted – unlikely though this may have seemed to Philo’s pagan contemporaries). Philo offers a philosophically “chaste” image of the spirits: they do not need to be propitiated with bloody sacrifices, elaborate rituals, and fragrant odors: they are simply “there” as one of the phenomena of the created order.