The Greek Philosophers' Search for the Meaning of Life Illuminated by the Divine Revelation of Christian Theology
This is the way,
beloved, in which we find our Savior, even Jesus Christ, the High Priest of all
our offerings, the defender and helper of our infirmity. By Him we look up to
the heights of heaven. By Him we behold, as in a glass, His immaculate and
most excellent visage. By Him are the eyes of our hearts opened. By Him our
foolish and darkened understanding blossoms up anew towards His marvelous
light. By Him the Lord has willed that we should taste of immortal knowledge,
'who, being the brightness of His majesty, is by so much greater than the
angels, as He hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than
Clement of Rome martyred circa 96/ 100AD
The First Epistles of Clement to the Corinthians XXXVI
Greek philosophy was born in the 7th century BC when Greek thinkers began to seek a deeper understanding of the nature of the world. Thales of Miletus, philosopher and scientist (640-546BC) is considered to be one of the fathers of philosophy (1). Tradition credits him with the introduction of mathematical and astronomical science into Greece, knowledge he gained and expanded from his travels in Egypt where it is told that he calculated the height of the pyramids by measuring their shadows against a man's shadow at the same time of day (2). From his experiments in Egypt grew the logical study of geometry as a deductive science and the development of several theorems which became the foundation of Greek geometry [later expanded by Euclid] (3). In addition. his studies in astronomy established it as a separate science, freeing the study of the cosmos from its origins in oriental astrology and mysticism. He successfully predicted an eclipse of the sun on May 28, 585BC, probably based on his knowledge of Egyptian records (4). As far as his other theories of the cosmos were concerned, Thales believed that the world and all that existed came from water, theorizing that the earth was a flat disk which floated on the flat side of the interior of an endless expanse of water (5). A few centuries later, the great Macedonian scholar Aristotle would come to describe Thales' view as materialistic since Thales believed that every particle of the world was alive, and that matter and life are inseparable and one (6). Thales believed there was an immortal "soul" in plants and metals as well as in animals and men. He believed the vital power changed form but never died and there was no essential difference between being alive and being dead. When challenged on this theory and asked why he chose life over death, he answered, true to his beliefs, "Because there is no difference" (7). Thales is credited by other Greek philosophers of later generations with being the first who wrote on physiology, the science of nature and the principle of the existence and development of life (8).
Pythagoras of Samos (born circa 570BC) shares the credit with Thales for introducing philosophy into the Greek world. He is also credited with inventing the word "philosopher," claiming to be only a "lover of wisdom" (philosophos) and not a "wise man" (sophos) (9). He practiced both mathematics and mysticism but the Pythagoreans are most often identified as philosophers who were mathematically inclined in their pursuit of truth. Professor Will Durant writes: "Pythagoreans were more interested in the numbers in the world's recipe than in the ingredients themselves"(10). However, the intellectual influence of Pythagoras in the fields of mathematics, music, and mysticism was strong throughout the classical age. He founded a philosophical community known as "the Pythagorean Order" which became the prototype of many such institutions (11). It was as much an intellectual and religious community as it was a center of scientific study. Some of the "community rules" resembled not only Christian monastic communities founded in the Middle Ages but the mysterious 1st century BC-AD religious community at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered: the members own property in common, lived under community rules which were both ascetic and ceremonial, and observed a rule of silence within the community.
From the origins of Greek thought, the ancients were concerned with the possibility of an afterlife and the nature of a human soul. Most of the earliest philosophers adopted a materialistic view of the nature of the human soul. Anaximenes and Anaximander believed the soul consisted in air; Parmenides and Heracleitus believed the soul consisted of fire (12). Pythagorean doctrine embraced the theory that the soul is both spirit and immortal. It was believed after death the body corrupted but the soul did not. The soul migrated and eventually possessed another body, perhaps even an animal body. Like Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism [born in approximately the same period, the mid 6th century BC in the kingdom of Nepal], the Pythagoreans believed the purpose of life was to receive release from reincarnation through living a life of perfect virtue (13).
Thales' work was carried on by his disciple Anaximander (611-549BC) who proposed as his first principle that a vast Indefinite-Infinite, aperion in the Greek (14)'an un-measurable mass possessing no specific qualities but which developed by its own inherent forces, became all the varied realities of the cosmos. Anaximander proposed that this impersonal and eternal "Infinite" was the only definition of "God" and from this characterless "Infinite" was generated an endless succession of new worlds which evolve and come finally come to an end (15). Anaximander believed this unidentifiable "Infinite" was the only eternal and unchanging thing in the cosmos as opposed to the constantly changing things of the material world.
Anaximander differed with his teacher Thales in his understanding of the earth which he conceived as a cylinder freely suspended in the center of the cosmos, equidistance from all things with the sun, moon and stars revolving around the earth. He believed in its earliest stage that the earth was in a fluid state but external heat from the sun dried the seas and land formed with the evaporation forming the clouds. He postulated that the living organisms of the earth developed gradually over time in states, emerging from primeval moisture to fishes and as the drying increased, to their present forms. He constructed a model of the movement of the planets, the succession of the solstices, equinoxes, and seasons and with Hecataeus established geography as a science by creating the first known map of the inhabited world (16).
Anaximander's pupil Anaximenes further developed Thales and Anaximander's ideas and parted from them to form the principle that all elements were produced from the air by rarefaction which produces fire, or by condensation which formed wind, clouds, water, earth, and finally stone (17). He believed the soul, which was a wind or air, held matter together so the air, or pneuma [a Greek word which can mean "wind", "breath", or "spirit"] is the pervasive force of God (18). This was a theory which would be embraced and developed by the Greek Stoic philosophers and would be purified by the revelation to the Old Covenant Church as God's spirit, the divine ruah who sustains life and by New Covenant Christianity as the 3rd person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit who both gives and sustains life (19).
Heracleitus of Ephesus in Asia Minor (born 530 BC) like most of the Greek philosophers sought to find the "Infinite One" behind the many, the one unity behind the chaos of existence. He did not ask simply what things made of but how things come to be what they are. His philosophy, concentrated in a mere 130 fragments from copies of his books, is among the most significant products of the ancient Greek mind (20). Heracleitus developed three principles: fire, change, and the tension of contraries which formed his concept of God and soul. By these 3 principles Heracleitus raised question: "How are permanence, change, eternity and time related to each other?" (21).
First he developed the theory that "all things are one" and found his answer to that "one" in Divine Fire. Everything, according to Heracleitus, was formed by eternal and ever changing fire, either in fire's descent through progressive condensation into moisture, water and earth; or in its ascending path from earth to water to moisture to fire, an endless cycle in which "all things are one." Scholars disagree as to whether he was speaking symbolically or literal or both. He identified fire with soul and with his concept of God, fire as both energy and life-force. Fire is an image that would be associated with God the Holy Spirit in Christian doctrine.
Although Heracleitus found constancy and unity in his concept the eternal fire he also postulated that nothing was static in the cosmos, in the human mind, or in the soul. His second principle was the eternity of change: nothing "is"'everything "is becoming" what it will be (22). The quote attributed to him is "You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are ever flowing on you;" and "we are and we are not" (23). Heracleitus reasoned that river, like everything else that is part of the cosmos, is constantly changing the water flowing over one's feet one minute is not the same water flowing over one's feet the next moment. Humans live a short span of time and then they die, all part of the constant state of motion in a changing universe.
The third element of Heracleitus' philosophy is the unity of opposites: the world grasped by man's senses (sight, hearing, taste, etc.) was in a continuous state of change. Everything is in stages of fluctuation, moments of ever-changing "Fire" with all things in opposition formed of a pair which is necessary to the meaning and existence of the other: "God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, surfeit and hunger;" and "good and bad are the same; goodness and badness are one"; "life and death are the same; so are waking and sleeping, youth and age" (24). Heracleitus' theory of the Divine Fire was passed down to the Stoic philosophers finds it's Christian expression in the fire as a manifestation of God, the fire of the Holy Spirit, the divine fire of God's wrath, and the final destruction of the heavens and earth at the end of time as we know it [i.e. see Genesis 19:24; Exodus 3:2; 19:18; Deuteronomy 4:24, 36; Isaiah 33:11-14; Malachi 3:2; Matthew 3:8-12; 18:8-9; 25:41; Mark 9:22-49; 2 Peter 3:12; Revelation 20:9-15].
Heracleitus expanded his understanding of this force of "Divine fire" to be coupled with the concept of the cosmic "fire" of "Logos/Reason." Before Heracleitus the Greek word "Logos" was the common Greek expression for the written or spoken word, but from the time of Heracleitus' expanded understanding of the term "Logos," Greek philosophers attached to the word the deeper expression of human reason, including the reasoning capacity of individuals or applied to a universal principle of order and beauty. Heracleitus proposed that the concept of universal "Logos/Reason" is allusive and most humans never succeed in grasping the rational fire that governs the cosmos (25). In answer to the question "Is the Logos God?" Heracleitus replied "The one thing that alone is truly wise is both unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus"'meaning perhaps that the cosmic "Logos" was divine but not to be identified with any one of the Greek Olympian deities, and he had only distain for those who "offer prayers to these statues here, as if one should try to converse with houses; such men know nothing of the real nature of gods" (26). But he also wrote: "This world, the same for gods and men, no one has made; but it is an eternal fire, kindling in fixed measure, and fixed measures going out" (27).
Xenophanes, the skeptic, rejected Thales, Heracleitus, and Anaximenes' theories of water, air, and fire as the source of all life. He maintained the basic element was earth and that the earth reached down below to infinity: "all things are from earth and in earth all things end" (28). His theory finds its true expression in Sacred Scripture in the curse of Adam after the fall in Genesis 3:19 "For dust you are and to dust you will return" [Genesis 3:19]. Xenophanes was the first to observe and record the fossil record (29). He was one of the first Greek philosophers to attack the notion that the only fundamental difference between the Greek gods and mankind was that men die while the gods live forever. He believed that men fashioned the pantheon of Greek gods in their own image with all their virtues and vices, and Xenophanes offered the concept of monotheism, believing "There is one god, supreme among gods and men, resembling mortals neither in form nor in mind. The whole of him sees, the whole of him thinks, the whole of him hears. Without toil he rules all things by the power of his mind" (30). He reasoned there could only be one God because a supreme deity must be the most powerful of all things. A supreme God must have always existed and must have brought all the cosmos and natural world into existence. He envisioned God as a living being but not an organic being: "He sees as a whole, he thinks as a whole and he hears as a whole" (31). He also envisioned God as having no physical contact with the world or anything in it, a remote and aloof God, governing all there is with his mind. Being a skeptic, he of course even challenged his own beliefs, finding it difficult to accept that God was either finite or infinite. He is not the first monotheist. His theories are predated by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, by Akhenaton in Egypt and by Moses and the children of Israel. What is interesting is that he presents his theory of monotheism not as a divine revelation, as the other monotheists mentioned, but as the result of rational thought and argument.
In the beginning Greek philosophy was physical, Greek philosophers looked upon the material world and asked the question what was the irreducible constituent of all things they could preserve with the senses. This line of thought produced the materialism of Democritus (460-360BC) who determined "in reality there is nothing but atoms and space" (32). This was one of the main streams of Greek thought. It fell out of favor for a time in Plato's day but reemerged in the materialism of the Epicureans (342-270) (33).
A second stream of Greek philosophy developed Protagoras and the Sophists. The Sophists were roving teachers of wisdom who turned away from the material world to look within themselves, focusing on man's thoughts and nature. The Sophists divided into two schools of thought; the first was those who argued that nature was fundamentally noble and the civilization of man bad, having corrupted the natural equality of men through class-made institution and that man made decrees were invention of the elite to enslave the weak. The other school claimed that nature is outside of good and evil and that by nature all men are unequal and morality is an invention of the weak to limit the superiority of the strong (34).
The legendary Protagoras of Abdera who belonged to the second school, is one of the most renown of the Sophists and is credited as the first to categorize language and to distinguish the genders of nouns and the tenses and moods of verbs (34). His most famous saying: "man is the measure of all things; of things that are, that they are; of things that are not, that they are not" (35) reflects his uncertainty concerning the existence and influence of a higher power. In his first public address in Athens he announced: "About the gods, I cannot be sure whether they exist or not, or what they are like to see; for many things stand in the way of the knowledge of them, both the opacity of the subject and the shortness of human life" (36). He claimed he could successfully argue on either side of any question and trained his students to be prepared to argue either side of a legal dispute (37). He rejected the concept of a "natural law" and proposed that there was no definitive code of justice or moral truth these, he taught, were only the inventions of society (38).
It is at this time in the history of man that one of the greatest minds of any age strolled on to the fertile plain of Greek thought. The mentally great but physically unimpressive Socrates lived in Athens in the mid 5th century BC, circa 469BC (39). He wrote no books and yet more than any other Greek philosopher who preceded him Socrates changed Greek thinking forever. His philosophy only survives in the works of his students (40). Unlike his predecessors Socrates was more concerned with nature of man rather than nature of the world; he taught only one thing is certain, man himself (41). He believed one can only know the purpose of life by search for accurate definitions and clear thinking by asking questions. He saw ideas as causes and realities and relentlessly asked such deeply probing questions as: (for example) what is meant by honor, virtue, justice, and truth? Can truth ever be known is one man's truth another man's truth?
For Socrates the human soul was a rational and moral consciousness which must be guarded and tended carefully as the most precious part of man. Socrates collected students and taught them in the Athenian Agora, asking them questions about what constituted that most allusive human attribute, human excellence. It was said of him that in prying into the depths of the human soul by his incescent demand for accurate definitions that he asked more questions than he answered, muddling men's minds and producing confusion and unrest. But it was during the era of Socrates that Athens emerged on the world stage as the center of social and cultural creativity, a place in history which no other city has yet succeeded in surpassing. Unfortunately, Socrates radical approach to seeking the deeper truth concerning the nature of man by prying into the depths of the human psyche with statements like "know thyself" led to misunderstanding, suspicion and jealousy. He refused to offer sacrifice to the pantheon of Greek gods, believing in one God and hoping that death was not the end of existence. He was accused of being impious, of leading the youth of Athens astray, and was condemned to death (42)'like many of the great Jewish prophets and future Christian saints, rejected and martyred by the society which produced him.
In the 4th century the city of Athens continued to be the center of Greek thought. Plato (427-345 BC), acknowledged as the most famous student of the great Socrates, founded The Academy in Athens, the forerunner of all medieval and modern universities, which he established as a place where the study of science and philosophy were studied as a basis for a career in public service (43). For Plato the soul, man's true essence, possessed three parts: reason, appetite and between them the spirit or "the willing faculty that should be obedient to reason against appetite" (44). In Plato man's feelings are not ignored but are validated, becoming the emotional and aesthetic impulse which contributes with man's intellect to lead the soul from the simple awareness of earthly beauty upwards to the awareness of the higher beauty of moral ideals and virtues; however, he also identified the paradox of the conflict between the individual's pursuit of pleasure and self-interest as opposed to the greater moral and social good (45). Addressing Socrates' question "What is Knowledge" Plato does not answer this question but concludes that knowledge only comes from true judgment, which must be coupled with logos, the ability to "reason" and give an account or explanation of one's judgment. He embraced the vision of the "Supreme Idea" or "Changeless Idea of the Good", Plato's concept of God, in which beauty coalesces with truth and goodness, visible not with the human senses but through the mind. In Plato's view God was both the sole power and the soul of the world, moving and ordering all things. The Neo-Platonists of the 1st century AD would call Plato's concept of the "Changeless Idea" the Logos /Divine Wisdom of God (46).
Plato's attempted to meld the theories of past Greek philosophers into his own unique amalgam of Platonic philosophy. He accepted Heracleitus' concept that the world grasped by human senses was in a continuous state of change and yet he loved order and longed to fix in place what he believed to be beneficial to society. From Parmenides Plato accepted the belief that the object of knowledge must be something immutable and grasped by the mind and not by the senses. He also adopted the Pythagorean doctrine that the soul is immortal and undergoes a series of incarnations.
In his book The Republic Plato attempted to answer Socrates' question "what is justice?" He proposed the "justice" is a state of harmony or right ordering of the parts of the soul in the individual and of classes in a state. He concludes that justice would be a simple matter if men were simple creatures, but men are not content to live a simple life and greed, competitiveness, jealousies and class distinction erode the reach for justice within society. Every city, he concludes, is in reality two cities at war: the city of the rich and powerful and the city of the poor and disposed. But justice is never really the ultimate goal of these two extremes for even if they were to trade places, the later would assume all the vices of the former. Plato will conclude that only three things are worthwhile in life: beauty, justice and truth. Four hundred years after Plato's death a Roman governor will turn to a Jewish prisoner called Jesus of Nazareth and ask in the Socratic tradition: "What is truth?"
In Laws, his longest work written late in his life, Plato crystallizes his years of intellectual searching, affirming the need for man to believe that the whole cosmos is divinely regulated by a higher Law and modifying his earlier work The Republic, with an ocean of laws covering every aspect of human life. Plato united into one philosophy the thoughts of previous Greek thinkers to understand the world as a whole and to understand the essence of man as related to that whole. He developed the idea of matter and form, which would influence later Catholic theologians especially St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.
Plato's successor was Aristotle, a brilliant Macedonian from northern Greece [384-322 BC] who came to Athens to become a student in Plato's Academy circa 15 years after the death of Socrates. He began his long association with Plato at age 17 and for 20 years flourished as Plato's pupil and colleague. Aristotle believed the human soul was a prisoner of its fleshly body and is only freed upon physical death. Like other Greeks without the belief in the hope of a bodily resurrection, Aristotle had a morbid view of life, stating "It best for all men and women not to be born; and next after that, the best option for humans is, once born to die as quickly as possible" (47).
Stoicism became the successor of this accumulation of Greek thought in the 4th century BC. The philosophical school of the Stoics was founded by Zeno of Citium and takes its name from the Stoa Poikile in the Athenian Agora, a long wall fronted by colonnades opened to the public square were Zeno taught his disciples (48). Stoicism is based on a materialistic pantheism inherited from the work of Heracleitus in 500BC. As expressed by the Stoics, a divine "Logos" or "Intelligent Reason" related to fire fills the cosmos as God or Moira, "Fate," and impacts man in the form of human reason (49). For the Stoics this divine element provided the power for all life which is very different from the Judeo-Christian concept of God as a separate, unchangeable deity who created the cosmos by the power of His word. According to the Stoics, it is necessary for man to comprehend the workings of this natural principle or "law" and learn to live in harmony with it. Stoic physics taught the natural order of things according to a universal reason or "Logos". Stoic physics was defined as the study of nature and nature for the Stoic is identified with God. Since Nature is a divinely designed system, man's main goal in life should be to live in accord with Nature. The Stoics believed that because society is natural for human beings, a virtuous man, in his desire to be in harmony with Nature/God, should play a role in society and aspire to social virtues in order to contribute to a harmonious community, but to do so man must harness his passions and rule over them or his passions, unchecked, will rule over him. They also recognized that the practice of religion provided a necessary morality and conceived of the harmony of the world in relation to man's willing surrender to the divine will of Nature/God in obedience to moral law, and in fulfilling one's destiny in life, and they expressed their belief in a supreme deity as the Logos Spermatikos, the "Seminal Reason" or "fertilizing wisdom" of God (50).
Zeno was succeeded by the poet philosopher Cleanthes as head of the Stoa [331-232BC]. It was during the time of the Stoic School of Philosophy that the Greeks erected an altar to "the Unknown god" in Athens, and it was the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes who St. Paul quoted in his sermon at Athens (51) when he attempted to reveal to the Greeks that the god they sought but worshipped in ignorance at the altar of the "Unknown god" was the God of the Jews and Christians [Acts 17:22-34].
Chrysippus succeeded Cleanthes as the leader of the Stoic school (232-206). He differed from his predecessors in believing that a divine pneuma [a Greek word meaning "breath," "wind," or "spirit"] not fire was the vital principle of life in plants and animals. He believed that both the human soul and mind were composed of this divine breath and that God must be a physical force for if God and the human soul were not themselves matter they could not impact the material world (52). His theories of the nature of God would be corrected, refined and articulated through the power of divine inspiration by St. John the Apostle who in the first century AD would identify God as pure spirit and the third person of the Most Holy Trinity as the divine pneuma, the Holy Spirit who both gives and sustains life (53).
For the Stoic philosophers, virtue as obedience to nature became a central theme. They regarded the world as an organic ordered whole animated and directed by an active intelligence which they identified as "god" and a passive principle, matter. The true end of human activity was for the Stoic a life in harmony with nature. Humanity was seen as a universal brotherhood in which freedom was attained by detachment from the passions of the world. As with Socrates and his pupil Plato, the Stoic philosophers believed "virtue is knowledge," and virtue/knowledge was defined as the only "good." The truly wise man must possess all the virtues of courage, temperance, justice, etc. and be indifferent to external circumstances which have no true meaning for him.
Later in the period of the Roman Empire, Stoicism became almost entirely focused on orderly conduct and practice and was the prominent philosophy during the time of Christ. The Roman Senator Seneca was the founding father of the Imperial Stoa in Rome (54). Both the freed slave-philosopher Epictetus [banished by the Roman Emperor Domitian in 89AD] and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius [ruled160-180AD] were inheritors of the philosophy of Seneca, and like Seneca both are remembered for their writings on moral philosophy (55). However, Aurelius' views on virtue and morality did not prevent him from becoming a merciless persecutor of Christians (56), prosecuting them on the charge of cannibalism, a capital offense, because Christians insisted they were literally eating the flesh and drinking the blood of their God Jesus of Nazareth. The first Christian philosopher, Justin Martyr, was murdered during his reign circa 165AD (57).
The Greek philosopher's concept of God, if He existed, was that God was unknowable. In any event if God existed He would not have anything to do with matter, a philosophy contrary to Hebrew and Christian understanding of creation and God's intimate associate with the "good" of created matter. Jesus Christ would use and transform matter in His gift of the sacraments as a means of dispensing God's grace to a humanity starving for the infusion of God's divine life.
As the Greek philosophers' quest for God developed over the centuries the concept of a governing order or creator was expressed as "Logos," a divine reason which controlled the natural order. The 1st century AD Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, the best known product of the Jewish school of philosophy in Alexandria, Egypt, tried to reconcile the Hebrew concept of the Supreme God with Greek concept of "Logos." The Stoic notion of "Logos" or reason in nature became for the Old Covenant inspired writers of the Book of Wisdom in the 2nd /1st century BC and for Philo [20BC-50AD] the interpretation the Divine Reason or the Wisdom of God personified. Philo wrote that it is through Divine Wisdom as Logos that God creates and governs all things in creation (58).
Philo was fortunate to be able to have access to the great Library of Alexandria, which contained the works of all the great Greek thinkers from the time of the 5th century BC. He and other Jewish scholars from that center of Greek culture attempted to reconcile other doctrines of the Greeks, especially Plato's Academic philosophy, with the revelations of God contained in the Hebrew Scriptures (59).He was so devoted to Plato that an ancient saying described his philosophy as either Plato Philonises, or Philo Platonises (60). He is also described as a Neo-Platonist, that school of thought which made the attempt to reconcile the philosophy of the Academic philosophy with the revelations of God in Sacred Scripture by applying Greek philosophy through an allegorical interpretation of the works of Moses. But Philo was also rather eclectic in his writings, mingling his Platonism with the philosophy of the Sophists and the Epicureans, and especially to those doctrines of Pythagoras, to the extent that in the 2nd century AD, St. Clement of Alexandria, head of the famous Catechetical School in Alexandria, called Philo a Pythagorean.
The devoutly Jewish Philo represented Yahweh as a single uncompounded Spirit, being eternal and unchangeable, the sum of all knowledge. He wrote that visible phenomena are meant to guide man to the invisible, that the marvelous and beautiful in nature prove the existence of an intelligent cause and Creator. However, it is in Philo's expression of the "Divine Logos" [logos being the Greek work for reason/word, spoken or written] that he is remembered as one of the most influential Jewish philosopher-theologians of the 1st century AD. He saw God's impact on the Cosmos as the "Divine Logos" or "Divine Reason/Wisdom." A contemporary of Jesus Christ, and writing perhaps a decade or two before the writing of the 4th Gospel, Philo took the Old Testament's books of Proverbs and Wisdom's personification of the wisdom of God, and elevated this concept to express "Wisdom" as "Logos," as the person of God, the divine Creator of the world (61).
Greek Philosophy Illuminated by Divine Revelation:
Through the writings of St. John the Apostle, St. Paul and later in the continued explanation of the revelation by Fathers of the Church like St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo
Two fertile streams of thought flowed out from this rich reservoir of ancient Greek philosophy: the naturalistic and the mystical. The naturalistic stream had its first great thinker in Thales and trickled down through Anaximander, to Xenophanes and Protagoras, Hippocrates and Democritus to Epicurus and Lucretius. The mystical stream had its source from Pythagoras and continued to flow and influence Parmenides, Heracleitus, Plato, and Cleanthes and was transmitted to the Egyptian Plotinus [205-70AD], the founder of Neo-Platonism in his concept of the existence of a supreme immaterial force which he identified as "the Good" or "the One", as expressed by Plato. This fertile stream finally found its Jewish and Christian expression in Philo of Alexandria and St. Paul in their efforts to meld Jewish philosophy with Greek philosophy.
Philo's concept of the "Logos" as the divine Creator is a concept which both St. Paul of Tarsus and St. John the Apostle would more fully reveal, inspired by the Holy Spirit, as the 2nd Person of the Most Holy Trinity. St. Paul would write in Colossians 1:15-17 that the Creator of the world is the firstborn Son of God: "He is the image of the unseen God, the first-born of all creation, for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and everything invisible.... All things were created through him and for him. He exists before all things and in him all things hold together...," and St. John the Apostle, who according to the writings of the Church Fathers is the inspired writer of the 4th Gospel, would reveal Jesus the Messiah, the Living Logos/Word of God in his Gospel prologue: "In the beginning was the Word (Logos): the Word (Logos) was with God and the Word (Logos) was God. Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him." (62).
These two "streams" of Greek philosophy merged in the great mind of Socrates in the attempt to bring together the complexity of life and is reflected in the continuing work of his famous 4th century BC student Aristotle, in the writing of the 1st century AD Roman philosopher Epictetus, in the 2nd century AD generation of the philosopher/Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and others. But these pagan philosophers sought the purity of Greek thought though the dominant strain which was the pursuit of reason whereas in Christianity it became the pursuit of seeking God through reason coupled with faith [Augustine and Aquinas] and finding Socrates' allusive definition of truth in the reality of Jesus Christ, "the Way, the Truth, and the Life" as revealed the Gospel of St. John 14:6.
Plato sought the idea of God in the pattern in which all creation was formed. The Stoics combined Plato's "Idea" of God into the Logos Spermatikos the "Seminal Reason" or "fertilizing wisdom" of God. The Neo-Pythagoreans made Plato's "Idea" a divine person and Philo of Alexandria united the Greek idea of a divine person with the 2nd century BC Old Covenant concept of divine Wisdom and found the expression of God in the "Logos", a Greek word which carries a double meaning and can be translated as "word" or "reason". For Philo, the divine Logos becomes the Reason or Divine Intelligence/Wisdom of God, a divine principle through which God both created and communicated with man and the natural world. St. John, in his prologue of the 4th Gospel retained Philo's concept of the Divine Logos but transforms the meaning through the revelation of the Logos, the Divine "Word", the monogenes, "the only begotten" Son through whom all things were created. John united Greek thought with the mystical Jewish concept of Divine Wisdom and inspired by the Holy Spirit gave Christianity the concept that the Wisdom of God is a Divine living being, the Word of God made flesh who the covenant people knew as the promised Messiah. It is in Christian theology that the Divine Word revealed His identity in the Incarnation as the Second person of the Most Holy Trinity.
The Greek philosophers' quest for God and the meaning of life often led to contradictory theories and assumptions. However, in Judeo-Christian doctrine, although the revelation of God is gradually revealed over the course of centuries of salvation history from Moses to "the greater than Moses", Jesus of Nazareth, there is no contradiction in who God is or in His relationship to man. He is the One Creator and Redeemer who created man in His image and likeness and who has given mankind the gift of an immortal soul because it has always been God's plan for man to live forever in eternity with Him. This understanding of God is the same from Genesis to Revelation.
In the Greek response to religion one can see the movement from accepting Fate or "Moria" as the ruler of both gods and men to the higher idea of "Law" impacting the order of the cosmos, a law superior to simple human decree which revealed the essential difference between what was "science" and what was "myth." Man only becomes "free" when he recognizes that he is subject to a higher Law. This evolution of thought can be compared to the Old Covenant concept of the Law of Yahweh. The Greeks would see this as the difference between despotism and democracy where as the children of Israel at Sinai discovered that God's love is expressed in His Law which showed man that he need not be wholly subject to his sins, gave man a means to separate himself from sin, and allowed man to live in harmony with God. Paul, of course, reinterpreted this concept in Romans to say that the old law was good for its time but it bound the children of Israel to a kind of servitude to the Law of Moses which could only convict them of their sins and could not give an eternal salvation [Romans chapter 7]. It is in Jesus Christ that we are freed by His sacrifice on the Cross to live the Law of love of God and love of neighbor.
The moral philosophy of the Stoics complemented Christian principles and was expanded by early Christian philosophers who taught the necessity of commitment to living a moral and virtuous life in imitation of Christ. However, it was through the writings of St. Augustine [born 354AD] Bishop of Hippo, that Greek philosophy was expressed in the light of the Gospel of salvation. St. Augustine was one of the greatest of all the early Church Fathers and it is his teaching which has been the dominant influence in Christian thought down through the centuries in the Eastern and Western Rites of the Catholic Church and in Protestantism. His approach to philosophy labeled him a Neo-Platonist. He was profoundly influence by the work of Plato and the contributions of Epictetus [mid 1st century AD], and the idealist Plotinus [early 3rd century AD], the father of Neo-Platonism, (63).
Augustine agreed with Plato that the objects and the unfolding historical events of this created world pre-existed in the divine mind of God "as the plan of a building is conceived by the architect before it is built" (64). He taught that eternal truths have their source in God who supplies "light" to the human mind, as expressed in the Gospel of St. John [1:9; 3:19; 8:12; 12:46], and enables man to understand the characteristics of the changelessness of God and the necessity of exercising true judgments and moral virtues; a holy God must "father" holy children. He applied these Platonic influences in his approach to the study of Sacred Scripture in distinguishing between the literal meaning of the Scriptural text and the spiritual meaning. Like Philo of Alexandria Augustine saw the importance of the role of allegory in the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. He saw the interpretation of Scripture as being of two senses: the literal and the spiritual, defining the "spiritual" meaning of Scripture as consisting of a hidden supernatural truth mystically signified beyond the mere words of the text (65).
Augustine and other earlier Christian and Jewish philosophers taught that the human soul was immortal (66) and represented the innermost aspect of man and that which is of greatest value [2 Maccabees 6:30; Matthew 10:28; 16:25-26; 26:38; John 12:27; 15:13; Acts 2:41], as a number of the early Greek philosophers taught. However, unlike Pythagoras and others, Christian doctrine taught that the human soul did not exist prior to human conception but was created immediately by God at the moment of conception. There was no duality of body and soul but a unity of soul and body'"it is because of the spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature" [CCC# 365]. Christian doctrine agreed with Pythagoras, Plato and others that the soul does not perish upon the physical death of the body but defended the startling revelation that the human soul will eventually be reunited with its body at the final Resurrection [CCC# 366; 686; 988-90; 999-1000; 1004; 1015-17; Matthew 22:28-30; Acts 23:6; Acts 24:15; 1 Thessalonians 4:16; 5:23; 2 Maccabees 12:43-45; Apostle's Creed; Nicene-Constantinople Creed]'a concept which the Greeks ridiculed when they heard St. Paul preach in Athens in Acts 17:32.
In his approach to understanding the role of matter and of good versus evil, Augustine also applied Platonic principles. He taught that all things are created by God; therefore, all created matter must be good (67). Matter may be used by man for an evil purpose but matter has no inherent evil in it and evil has no intrinsic reality and no meaning apart from its relation to a good. He taught that the ascending degrees of what is good found in creatures are ultimately found united in the Supreme Good, which is God. This is the kind of logic and reason that Plato would have understood and appreciated.
Augustine and the Christian philosophers also recognized the hidden truth in Anaximenes' ideas concerning the pneuma of God ["air/wind", "breath", or "spirit"], and the similar theories embraced and developed by the Greek Stoic philosophers, that the pneuma is the pervasive "life-giving" force of God. Divine revelation would reveal that it is the divine "wind" or "spirit of God who is the 3rd person of the Most Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit who is the origin of life, both giving and sustaining all life on earth: "It belongs to the Holy Spirit to rule, sanctify, and animate creation, for he is God, consubstantial with the Father and the Son...Power over life pertains to the Spirit, for being God he preserves creation in the Father through the Son." (68).
Augustine, unlike many of the Greek philosophers, saw no tension between faith and reason, taking as the source of his teaching on faith and reason a passage from Isaiah 7:9 from the Greek Septuagint translation which reads: "Unless you will have believed, you will not understand" (nisi credideritis non intelligetis), which Augustine interpreted to mean that faith must precede one's understanding or understanding will be either flawed or without substance (69).
St. Augustine's greatest work may be City of God. This work contains his philosophy of history in which he answers those pagans who accused Christianity of being responsible for the invasion of the Vandals and the decline of the Roman Empire by showing that Christianity includes and transcends all the values and virtues of the ancient pagan culture and that Rome's demise would be on account of past and continuing sins which result in injustices (70). Like Plato he asserted that there can be no "great city" without perfect justice and the only perfect justice is that which is found in the spiritual city which is promised to all who practice the justice of Jesus Christ, the promised heavenly Jerusalem [Hebrews 11:10, 16; 12:22; Revelation 21:1- 27].
Christianity never intended to destroy paganism and all things pagan but to enlighten and transform pagan mankind's search for God into the theology of truth and the universal liturgy of the New Covenant people of God, taking the pagan world out of the darkness of their search for God and into the light of Jesus Christ. Christianity adopted the Greek language as the vehicle by which to spread the Gospel of salvation. The old ideas of Greek philosophy gasped with an infused breath of new life in Christian oriented theology, and the concept of freedom and the order of law became an expression of the true Christian freedom, according to the doctrine of the New Covenant Church, freedom in living the Law of Love, love of God and love of neighbor through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. He who is the eternal One, the Divine Reason/Logos the ancient Greeks for centuries sought in vain, He has been found, for Greek and Jew alike, the resurrected Jesus Christ, our universal Savior and Redeemer.
Dates (most dates are approximate and may vary according to scholar):
1000BC: -David conquers Jerusalem
970 BC: -Solomon succeeds David as King of Israel
930 BC: -The Kingdom of Israel splits into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms
722 BC: -Assyrians conquer the Northern Kingdom of Israel
640 BC: -Birth of Thales
570BC: -Birth of Pythagoras
587/6 BC: -Babylonians conquer Southern Kingdom of Judah; the exile begins
585 BC: -Thales predicts the first eclipse
549 BC: -Anaximander dies
538 BC: -Edict of Cyrus of Persia allows exiles to return to Judah
525 BC: -Anaximenes dies
530 BC: -Heracleitus born
470 BC: -Xenophanes dies
469 BC: -Socrates born
427 BC: -Plato born
387 BC: -Plato's Academy founded
384 BC: -Aristotle born
345 BC: -Plato dies
336-23 BC: -Conquest of Asia Minor, the Levant, and Egypt by Alexander the Great
323 BC: -Death of Alexander the Great
322 BC: -Aristotle dies
263 BC: -Cleanthes becomes head of the Stoa
167-64 BC: -Revolt of the Maccabees against their Greek oppressors
164 BC: -Reestablished Kingdom of Judah under the rule of the Maccabees and later the Hasmonean Kings
155 BC: -Chrysippus becomes head of the Stoa
63 BC: -Roman conquest of the Levant. Judah becomes the Roman province of Judea
44 BC: -Julius Caesar assassinated
37 BC: -Herod (the Great) the Idumean, becomes the Roman client king of Judea
3/2 BC: -Jesus of Nazareth is born
10 AD: -Saul of Tarsus born (St. Paul)
28 AD: -Jesus of Nazareth begins His ministry
30 AD: -Jesus the Messiah dies, is Resurrected and Ascends to Heaven
-God the Holy Spirit possess the New Covenant Church on the Jewish Feast of Shavuot (Pentecost)
42 AD: -St. Peter in Rome
50 AD: -Philo of Alexandria dies
52 AD: -St. Paul preaches in Athens
54-68 AD: -Nero is Emperor of the Roman Empire
60?66 AD: -St. John writes the 4th Gospel
66 AD: -Beginning of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome
67 AD: -Sts. Peter and Paul martyred in Rome
70 AD: -Jerusalem and the Temple in Jerusalem destroyed by the Romans
161 AD: -Marcus Aurelius becomes Emperor
165 AD: -Justin, the first Christian philosopher, is martyred by the Romans
205 AD: -Plotinus is born
-St. Clement of Alexandria writes the Stomata
313 AD: Edict of Milan recognizes Christianity as a religion protected by the Roman Empire.
354 AD: St. Augustine born
(1). The Story of Philosophy, page 63
(2). Ancient Philosophy, page 4
(3) The Life of Ancient Greece, pages 136-7
(4). The Philosophers of Greece, page 16
(5). Ibid, pages 12-13
(6). The Life of Greece, page 137
(8). Ibid, 138
(9). Ancient Philosophy page 9
(10). The Life of Greece, page 161
(11). Ancient Philosophy, pages 30-32, 139-41
(12). Ibid, pages 229-32
(13). Ibid, pages 10; 229-31
(14). Ibid, page 7
(15). The Philosophers of Greece, page 20-21
(16). Ibid, page 21-23]
(17). The Story of Philosophy, page 63; Ancient Philosophy, page 8
(18). The Philosophers of Greece, page 28-29; Strong's Exhaustive Concordance # 4151, Greek index page 72]
(19). Catechism of the Catholic Church #s 703; Strong's # 7307 Hebrew Lexicon
(20). The Life of Greece, page 147
(21). The Philosophers of Greece, page 45
(22). Ibid, page 45
(23). Ibid, page 46
(24). Ibid, page 45
(25). Ibid, page 46
(26). The Life of Greece, page 146
(27). The Greek Philosophers, page 49
(28). Ancient Philosophy, page 11
(29). Ibid, page 11
(30). The Life of Greece, page 167-8
(32). The Story of Philosophy, page 64
(33). Ancient Philosophy, page 101
(34). The Story of Philosophy, page 3
(35). Ibid, page 29
(36). The Philosophers of Greece, page 117
(37). Ancient Philosophy, page 29
(38). The Philosophers of Greece, page 117
(39). Ibid, page 118
(40). Ancient Philosophy, page 33
(41). Ibid, page 33]
(42). The Story of Philosophy, page 6
(43). Ibid, page 9
(44). The Life of Greece, pages 511-113
(45). The Philosophers of Greece, page 166
(46). The Life of Greece, pages 515-519
(47). Ibid, pages 516
(48). Ibid, page 533
(49). Ibid, pages 316, 651
(50). Ancient Philosophy, page 98
(51).The Life of Greece, pages 652-653
(52). Ancient Philosophy, page 98; 105
(53). Ibid, pages 98-100
(54). Catechism of the Catholic Church #703 quoting the Troparion, Morning prayer of the Byzantine liturgy, Sundays of the second mode.
(55). Ancient Philosophy, page 107
(58). One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, page 59
(59). The Works of Philo, page xiv (Introduction)
(61). Caesar and Christ, page 501
(62). The Works of Philo, page 502
(63). The Gospel According to John 1:1-3 [also see John 1:4'14]
(64). The Essential Augustine, page 136; Caesar and Christ, pages 494; 607
(65). The Essential Augustine; quoted from Confessions Book xi
(66). The Age of Faith, page 70; The Essential Augustine, page 223;
Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, volume 3: Augustin: "Doctrinal Treatises, page349
(67). The Essential Augustine, "The Soul's Ascent to God" 10.27, page 127
(68). The Essential Augustine, " All Bodily Natures Are Good," 4, page 100
(69).The Age of Faith, page 72
(70). The Essential Augustine, page 19
(71). Ibid, page197
Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2007 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.