The Greek Philosophers
Philosophy and Religion in the Pagan World
In the western world, shaped as it has been by sixteen centuries of Christian and Pseudo-Christian dominance, religion and personal ethics are generally inseparable; however, in the pagan world this connection was far from intuitive. In fact, when a new religious sect calling itself “The Way” arose, worshiping a single, exclusivist god who expected purity, justice, and sobriety of his worshipers, it was downright revolutionary. Every aspect of the pagan world was shaped and dedicated to the worship of its ever expanding pantheon of gods; politics, education, the arts, games and sports, etc., but these deities did not expect morality from their worshipers, instead, the pagan man turned, not to religion, but to philosophy to know how he ought to act1.
Religions were a familial, clan, regional, ethnic, national, or professional identifier; they were a sign of loyalty and community, but philosophy transcended all this. A family’s ethics were not informed by gods, they were informed by philosophy. In this sense, Christianity did not enter the Roman world so much as a religion, but as a philosophy1; to the pagans, the Christian God was a great offense, and counter to everything they thought intuitive, but the pagan philosophers had already unknowingly established inroads for the Christian message2.
Due to the Hellenizing efforts of the Macedonians, the Seleucids and Ptolemies, and finally the Romans, the influence of Greece’s most notable philosophers would spread beyond their intellectual circles, their cities, and even their nation to shape the whole of western thinking. Although ancient philosophers and schools of thought are many, this study will address only four such men and their schools; Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno of Citium, only touching superficially on those aspects of their teachings that have bearing on the history of Christianity.
What can be known of Socrates comes to us from his most notable pupil and chief apologist, Plato, and a few far less favorable contemporary sources.
Socrates put forward an ethical standard, measured by a perfect and immutable supreme entity, and criticized the gods of the Greeks as being an excuse for their worshipers’ misconduct. Interestingly, in his day, Socrates would suffer a great deal of popular and political ill will for his teachings, beginning with a number of lampooning plays and ending with a death sentence2a.
Interestingly, Socrates was condemned as an “atheist” and “corrupter of youth”, two terms which would come into use again when Christians began to spread their gospel.
Despite this, Plato, Socrates’ pupil, defended and attributed much to his late master, and by the first century A.D., Socrates was once again considered a supreme sage2a.
Of Plato’s teachings, two central doctrines stand out as most useful to the early Christians:
- That this realm apparent to us is, in some ways, universally imperfect.
- That there is a higher plane filled with “Forms and Ideas,” that are eternal and perfect. Chief among these “abstract objects” are such things as beauty, goodness, and justice.
Plato taught that when one looks on something good or beautiful, they are seeing a reflection of the true Good or Beauty in the perfect realm3a.
Socrates and Plato in Christian Apologetics
As Christians sought to communicate their faith, one of the many struggles they encountered was in explaining the notion of a single, exclusive God who alone deserves worship and praise. To the Roman mind, it was not only absurd to think there was only one God, it was repugnant. Christians were called "Atheists" and accused of tearing down the very fabric of society.
In response, some Christians endeavored to show that the ancient philosophers, in concluding that all things have a perfect "Form" in a higher plane, they had been led by reason to the God of Christians and Jews, the very definition of that which is good, or loving, or beautiful - The One2.
Aristotle c. 384-322B.C.
Plato’s pupil, and tutor to Alexander the Great, Aristotle’s works were prolific and diverse, however, most notable of his teachings are those that touch on two topics – logic and the senses. Although the full effect of his teachings would not be felt till long after the early era of the church, they served as a counter to the prevalent “Neoplatonism” of late antiquity and the ensuing dark age, and gave rise to humanism, scholasticism, and the sciences.
- Logic: Aristotle’s reflections on logic have served as a basic codification for logical thought. Even after the Great Schism of 1054, Aristotle’s teachings on logic continued to be known and studied in the west as well as the east.
- The Senses: Aristotle taught that the senses were of prime importance in observing and studying reality. As Neoplatonism arose, emphasis shifted away from the senses and toward a more esoteric reflection on the perfect realm and The One. As Christian doctrine already emphasized the revelation of God over the wisdom of man, Neoplatonism became the essentially ubiquitous lens through which Christian theologians saw the world from the time of Justin Martyr on2b. Neoplatonism caused Aristotle’s work on the senses to all but disappear, particularly in the west as the Great Schism developed; however, Aristotle’s teaching was reintroduced in the west once again, largely during the crusades, and was a chief hallmark of Christian humanism, scholasticism, and science.
Zeno of Citium, c. 334-262B.C.
The founder of the philosophical school of Stoicism, the importance of which will be addressed below.
The Hellenistic period (323-30B.C. _ some would say this period stretches to the end of the 3rd century with the rise of Imperial Christianity and the school of Neoplatonism) would see philosophy leave the realm of intellectual elites and become a matter of the people. The catalyst to bridge this gap was the school of Stoicism.
Stoicism was a “popular philosophy”, founded at the beginning of the Hellenistic period, and enjoying resurgence in the Roman period, which bridged the gap between the elite intellectuals of Plato and Aristotle by applying philosophy directly to those things which mattered to every man such as death, suffering, wealth and poverty, power and slavery, etc. - the Stoics defined philosophy, not as a way of thinking, but as a way of life.
Based on Platonism, Stoicism held that the truly free man (the “sage”), was one who was immune to flights of emotion such as envy, fear, sexual or romantic passion, etc. and therefore was immune to misfortune. As misfortune comes to all men, those who are immune to it are truly free, those who are not, are slaves (this represents the most radical view among Stoic philosophers). Later Roman stoics would emphasize that virtue was sufficient for happiness.
Stoicism brought the basic doctrines of Platonism, as well as a pursuit of physical and emotional restraint, to the common man3b.
Stoicism in Christian Apologetics
The school of Stoicism provided two major weapons to the arsenal of early Christians. By bringing philosophy to the common man, it formed a basic system of thought by which people of all nations (in the Hellenized world) could reason together.
Stoicism, with its emphasis on mastering the natural impulses of man, could also provide a category for the Christian teaching of finding freedom while "putting to death The Flesh (sinful desires and worldly pursuits)". Although Christians were still accused of being "haters of mankind," They could still point to the popular school of Stoicism as an example for the reasonable nature of their faith.
Diversity of Christian Perspective
It is important that one not overestimate the use of philosophy for the spread of the church. Philosophy was, of course, used by many in the effort to defend and spread the faith, but the contribution of the philosophers was that they created ‘categories’ for the Pagan world to understand Christianity, such as “The One” who they could see in God; they had given them virtue and restraint that could be viewed as beneficial and even necessary. But to use philosophy had its pitfalls.
To that point, not all Christians viewed philosophy as beneficial, in fact, some, such as Tertullian, felt Philosophy was rather an inroad for heresies and idolatry into the church2c,; as in “What does Athens to do with Jerusalem, what does the Academy have to do with the Church?”4. While others, such as the famed Origen, held that philosophy was beneficial and good as long as it did not stray against the scriptures, the result of his philosophical meanderings could often stretch the bounds of “holding to the scriptures,” and at times outright contradicted them. Given the results of some philosophically minded theologians one can’t help but feel Tertullian was justified in his conviction, particularly in light of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians;
“Where is the one who is wise…where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,”
- 1 Corinthians 1:20-23
- Larry Hurtado, lecture: “Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tb96kYfk628
- Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Vol. I
a. pp22-23, b. pp. 355, 374-379, c. pp. 63
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy _ revised from 1996 edition
- a. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato/
- b. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/
- Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics (sighted from 2c)
For more information on how Greek philosophy became so ubiquitous in the ancient world
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