Prelude: Christianity’s Greek Inheritance

Christianity very quickly spread from the disciples and its Judaic roots to the Gentile world around the Mediterranean Sea. Although it was subject to Roman rule, the root of that civilization remained Greek. It was through that background that Paul appealed to the Athenians and their “unknown god.” It was the Greek notion of logos (meaning “word”) to which John appeals in the first verse of his Gospel: “In the beginning was the word.” How Platonic!

The following is my understanding of Greek philosophy in a nutshell. The height of that philosophy was expressed in Plato and Aristotle. As the church later developed, it rationalized its beliefs through the language and tools of Greek philosophy. In Christianity that was the root of scholasticism: supporting church doctrine with Greek logic. While Augustine castigated Manichaeism, he found the Greek philosophers acceptable – not just acceptable, but anticipating Christian dogma. In the spirit of Paul revealing to the Athenians that their “unknown God” was revealed in Jesus, Augustine implicitly posits that Christianity was the fulfillment of Greek philosophy. As I have noted,  Christians attributed to Jesus a number of names that had previously been attributed to Caesar.  Likewise, the reader may recognize a number of Christian doctrinal terms that were common to Greek philosophy. The following is my chronological summary of Greek philosophy:

The Milesians examine the nature of the world, spirit and matter:

Ionia produced Homer who poetically described the activity of the gods in the lives of humankind, propelled by a capricious fate. Hesiod in the eighth century B.C. still saw Zeus in control, but not capriciously as did Homer; rather, for the good of mankind. This first inquiry of the Greeks into the nature of being in the world took a mythological-religious form.

In the seventh century B.C., Milesians began to ask “What is this world really like?” One of the first issues in that inquiry was, “How can we explain the process of change in the world?” Thales (624 546 BC) noted that although matter appeared like many different things, there is nonetheless a basic similarity among them: water. While water addressed substantive similarities of some matter, it did not explain the power that drove action and change involving matter. Thales explained that with the notion that “all things are full of gods”. He reasoned that since a magnet can move iron, it must have a soul, a manifestation of the presence of the gods. Thales’ great contribution to philosophy was to shift the basis of thought from inherited mythology to scientific inquiry.

Anaximander, a younger contemporary of Thales, born about 610 B.C., believed that water was only one specific substance among many. The primary substance could not be finite, as matter in its specific forms was finite. For him, the source was an infinite and indeterminate fund of matter called the Boundless. From this all matter in the world derived, and to the Boundless all matter would return at the end through atonement (“at onement”).

Anaximenes (585 528 B.C.) combined Thales’ notion of a primary, concrete substance with Anaximander’s concept of the Boundless. For Anaximenes that primary substance was air. It is both boundless and in eternal motion, but it also has concreteness which one can feel as in the wind. For Anaximenes, all substance derived from air through “rarefaction” and “condensation”. This completed the Milesian view of the world.

Pythagoras’ and the Eleatic Philosophers’ examination of mind, choice and reason:

Whereas the Milesian philosophers were men of action and therefore practical, on Samos, a nearby and larger island, Pythagoreans developed its contemplative, detached side of philosophy. Emphasizing the theoretical, they developed a mathematical tradition of science. Pythagorean philosophy spread from Samos throughout the Greek world. Its effects were profound. It was through such theoretical, mathematical methods that Einstein developed his theory of relativity. The mathematical development suggested and predicted effects to Einstein, such as the bending of light about large objects like the sun. It also suggested the effect of motion upon time. It was not until many years later that these theories were empirically demonstrated.

Pythagoras, whose active philosophic life was in 525 500 B.C., extended the distinction between the changeable actual and the permanent, pervasive real. For him the idea of the actual had more permanence than the actual to which it referred: things actually consisted of numbers. Pythagoras’ interest in mathematics was infused with religion. He elevated intellect over feeling, in reaction to the emotional religious excesses of the Dionysian rites. The chief god of the Pythagoreans was the rational god Apollo. It is this association of religion with reason, which marks Western religions and distinguishes them from the Eastern mystical religions.

The Pythagoreans found in scientific and mathematical thought a mode of life that, more than any other model, was “pure.” Through mathematical thought one could be liberated from thinking about particular things to thinking, instead, on the permanent and ordered world of numbers.

To the Milesian concept of primary matter, Pythagoras contributed the idea of ideal form. Here was the root of Greek idealism, that belief in perfect forms of which the worldly appearances are but imperfect imitations. Pythagoras believed that the basic unit was the single point, that all motion can be analyzed in terms of points, and that all ideal shapes can be realized by connecting those points.

In medicine the Pythagoreans looked upon the body as they would a musical instrument. For them, bodily health was the attunement of the body in a harmony of opposites such as hot and cold, wet and dry, and a balance of specific elements, which we would now call biochemicals. The Pythagorean view centered on the dynamic relationship of balanced forces.

Anaximander dealt indirectly with the issue of change and the power behind it with his notion of the “indeterminate boundless.” It was not until Heraclitus’ in about 504 501 B.C. that the concept of change was directly addressed. For Heraclitus “all things are in flux” through fire. His thought contributed to twentieth century philosophies of change and becoming. In brief, he believed fire was the basic reality, the primary substance, and the principle of change itself. Fire is simultaneously a deficiency and a surplus: it must constantly be fed and it constantly gives off something in the form of heat, light, smoke and ashes. An important aspect of his philosophy, only much later empirically demonstrated, was that in this process of change, nothing is lost: all that changes is form.

To fire Heraclitus added the concept of reason as the universal law. Change in the world is directed from above by God’s universal reason. The most real thing of all is the soul, and through the soul mankind participates in God’s universal reason, or universal law. For Heraclitus, apparent conflicts were not in need of atonement by return to the Boundless, but rather, apparent conflict concealed the possibility of rational agreement through attunement of opposite tensions, “like that of the bow and lyre.” Indeed, in his theory, insofar as fire represented the power of emotion and universal reason the power of intellect, he provided the basis for a balanced view of human personality.

Parmenides, born early in the fifth century B.C. in Elea in Southern Italy (hence Eleatic), said that if there is a single substance behind all things, there can be no change at all: change is an illusion. Whatever exists “must be absolutely, or not at all.” He also held a peculiar notion which remained with the world through the time of Descarte: “You will not find thinking without being to which it refers.” Plato derived many of his ideas from Parmenides. They met when Parmenides visited Socrates in Athens.

The Eleatic philosophers, Pythagorean in heritage, emphasized the logical relationship of ideas, and they distinguished between appearance and reality. Whereas modern scientists test appearances, and are slow to come to a conclusion until a hypothesis has been tested against empirical data, the Eleatic philosophers began with a stated observation, considered that the thought could not exist except that it had a corresponding object. They then clarified and expanded the idea by logically connecting arguments. Noting the inexactitude, indeed the paradoxes, of sensation and observation, they held that to get to the truth, thought is more reliable than sensation.

Zeno (b. 489) expressed the unreliability of sense by the example of a single millet seed which falls to the ground apparently without a sound, and yet half a bushel of seeds falling makes a distinct sound. He concluded there must also be a sound when one falls. Rather than looking for means of measuring and determining the extent of the minute phenomena his reasoning said existed, Zeno concluded that sense is deceiving, and it cannot be trusted. Even motion, Zeno held, was an illusion, or at least a relative concept. Thought was the only reliable means of knowing the world. And through logical analysis Zeno demonstrated the paradoxes contained in the Pythagorean view of the world as divisible and many. His ideas also influenced twentieth century philosophy.

Empedocles (490 to 430 B.C.) was a synthesizer, and he wrote his philosophy in the form of poetry. Being is not One but many, he said, and it is the many which are changeless and eternal. He held that there are four elements: water, air, fire and earth. The forces behind change, which drive it, are Love and Strife, Harmony and Discord.

In Anaxagoras (500 428 B.C.) we find the first distinct and formalized Greek Dualist: mind separated from matter. The harmonized structure and operation of the world can be explained only by a being with knowledge and power, a being above the world, directing the world. Matter eternally existed in mass, which was then “separated” through the power of the mind (Nous) in a rotary motion causing a vortex.

Reacting to Anaxagoras’ dualism were the atomists, Lucippus and Democritus. They were materialists. They determined that the nature of things consists of an infinite number of particles or units called atoms, indestructible and therefore eternal, each fully contained and containing no spaces: completely hard and indivisible. Nature consists of space (a receptacle) and atoms.

Although there is great similarity between the Pythagorean notion of infinite points and the atomists’ concept of atom, the two were worlds apart. Whereas the Pythagoreans saw the idea of number as exemplary of the spiritual world within, above and beyond the physical, for the atomists there was no place in their world view for purpose or design; there was no need for a creator or a designer. To them matter simply is, and what is “ought to be.”

Democritus extended materialism to view thought, not as separated from the material, but as a product of the motion of atoms. He also examined ethics, which stretched the limits of materialism. He urged moderation in all things, the goal being cheerfulness. But there is not much to examine in ethics if one is committed to a materialistic view in which reality is mechanically determined. The logical conclusion of such a view is that one’s actions cannot be within one’s control, and under such a view “ought” can have no real meaning.

The Sophists and Man’s Relationship to the World: Positive Law:

From the issue of “What is the world?” philosophy proceeded to ask “How Does It Run?” The Next Step Was to Ask, “How Do I Relate to it?” We can see the seeds of this inquiry in Democretus’ examination of ethics. The Sophists took it further. They began with the issues of “What is man?,” “What is man’s relation to the world?” and “What can man know about it?”

The philosophers who inquired into the nature of the world could not come to a consensus on its nature. The Sophists, whose name means “intellectuals,” were confronted with many contradictory theories, and they came to suspect any statement about truth. When they turned their study to that of various cultures, they were struck with the differences. They became skeptical about the possibility of obtaining any absolute truth upon which one can act with assurance. Recognizing the diversity in human society, they turned their attention to the practical.

The Sophists were the first formal educators. They performed a valuable service of teaching men to present their ideas clearly and to effectively accomplish a desired goal. Rhetoric was their primary skill: the ability to convince others of one’s own ideas to one’s own advantage. Being practical men, they charged a fee for their teaching services. Further, they sought out the rich as their students.

Because of their bent toward skepticism and practical advantage, they soon became ridiculed for leading young men from respected families to a skeptical view of the world which was destructive of traditional values and guided by self-advantage. Socrates, himself, was one of their students, but his poverty soon prevented further study with them.

With the Sophists we first have a formal answer to the question of our place in the world. It was stated by Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.” With such a view, there is no need for gods. Indeed, Protagoras discouraged any discussion of theology:

About the gods, I am not able to know whether they exist or do not exist, nor what they are like in form; for the factors preventing knowledge are many: the obscurity of the subject, and the shortness of human life.

As to human law, Protagoras taught that it was not based upon nature, but upon mere convention, which will vary with the culture. Mortimer J. Adler described Protagoras’ position in his book, Six Great Ideas, p. 202:

Fire burns alike in Greece and in Persia, they said, but the laws of Greece differ from laws of Persia because they are wholly matters of convention, with no natural basis. Hence what is just and unjust, or right and wrong, is one thing in Greece, and quite another in Persia.

Protagoras maintained, nonetheless, that although laws are a matter of convention, they should be obeyed by everybody because they are the best that can be had within that convention. Other communities may have different laws. That does not mean they are better, but only that they are different. Even Protagoras’ view of religion was more agnostic than atheistic: one cannot have any certain knowledge about the gods, but that should not prevent one from worshiping the gods. In fact, it is good that young men should honor tradition, albeit merely convention, because that contributes to stability in society.

For Protagoras, knowledge is relative to persons and their circumstances. Likewise moral judgments are relative. The real question is what practical use can one make of knowledge.
Gorgias took Protagoras’ skepticism to its logical extreme, and concluded that:

1. nothing exists,
2. if anything exists, it cannot be comprehended, and
3. even if it were comprehensible, it cannot be communicated.

With such a position, philosophical inquiry must cease. Gorgias turned to rhetoric. If nothing exists, but if one can nonetheless act within the world, one may as well act in one’s self-interest. Having rejected the possibility of knowing truth, it was but a short step to reject ethics altogether: the notion that private ends justify the means. The only real issue in such a scheme of things is the power to carry out the plan. The inevitable conclusion of this view is moral nihilism.

Although the Sophists were severely criticized by many Greek philosophers that followed, they had a vital role in the development of philosophical thought. They developed notions of grammar, logic, and dialectic. And they contributed to the educational level of the Greeks. As Will Durant noted in The Story of Civilization, II The Life of Greece, p. 364, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle would not have been possible without them.

Socrates and Plato:

Socrates criticized the extreme skepticism of Sophistry. Whereas the Sophists said the truth cannot be known, Socrates sought out Truth. Samuel Enoch Stumpf describes Socrates’ approach to truth in his book Philosophy: History and Problems, at page 36:
As he pursued his mission, Socrates devised a method for arriving at truth, linking knowing and doing to each other in such a way as to argue that to know the good is to do the good, that “knowledge is virtue.”

Socrates’ method was dialectic. It implicitly recognized the dynamic nature of knowledge which required a dialogue among several people in the examination of an idea. Through dialogue, through the contributions and questions of the various parties to it, Socrates was confident that each party would clarify those ideas, and that a clear statement would result. The truth could be coaxed out of progressive corrections of an idea and its statements. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he concluded. For him, knowledge sought the permanent elements remaining after the facts had changed or vanished.

In Socrates we also find an early example of civil disobedience. Although Socrates denied the charges brought against him of introducing new religious practices in the place of the state religion and of corrupting the youth, he was found guilty. He could have chosen voluntary exile, but he chose instead to accept the consequences. That is the core of civil disobedience, and it finds its roots in Natural Law: there is a natural order, a natural goodness, in the world which exceeds the limits of our own selves and interests, and to which a contribution may be made in self-sacrifice. By remaining, he became an example for that society, an inspiration for the continued life and improvement of that society.

Socrates’ student, Plato, is perhaps the most famous and inspirational of all philosophers the world has known. Plato also argued against the skepticism of the Sophists by teaching that there are two worlds, the dark world of the cave and the bright world of light. Knowledge which is based upon the real is secure. In his allegory the cave is where men live from childhood, chained. They can only see and can only know what is suggested to them by the play of shadows cast upon the cave’s wall from persons walking before the fire. They never see the persons or the objects they carry. Nor are they aware that the shadows are mere shadows and not the objects themselves. All they know are the shadows, and they consider the shadows to be real.

But if a prisoner were to be freed, he would see the real. And were he to return thereafter to the dark cave, he could never see the shadows as before. His fellow prisoners would consider his sight to have been ruined. Plato suggests most of mankind dwells in the cave. It is the function of education to lead us out of the cave and into the world of light. But the educated person must not remain in the world of light. Rather, upon their conversion by education from appearance to reality, the educated must return to the cave and participate in the life and labors of the prisoners.

Whereas the Sophists were lead by the flux of life to skepticism, Plato sought out the unchangeable real before the shadows of appearance. This led him to the doctrine of Forms or Ideas. For him the Ideal is the Form or Idea of the object which is above the world, changeless and eternal, of which the objects of this world are poor imitations or copies. Moreover, visible things change, whereas Ideas such as Good and Beauty are timeless. Ideas therefore have more being than things. Knowledge is not concerned with mere appearances, but with the realm of being that truly is. What really is the essential nature of things, from which we can judge good or beauty in the world of appearances? In such a view, the “is” of the Ideal ought to be imitated in this world.

For Plato, concerned with the ideal above the world, it was natural to posit the notion of creation in which the Demiurge or God used the Forms to fashion particular things. Thus existence emerged from the “mind of God.” Related to this, Plato developed the concept of the soul which is eternal, and in which resides both the rational and irrational parts, good and evil, the possibility of forgetfulness and disorder. It is the function of morality to help recover man’s lost sense of inner harmony when the appetites of, and stimuli to, the body have overcome reason. To restore the soul to harmony requires knowledge and virtue. Knowledge is the view of the real. Virtue is knowledge of the true consequences of all acts, so that it fulfills in each part of the soul that which is the nature of each part to do.


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