Western
Philosophy

Top
About course
Housekeeping
Schedule
Gallery
Themes
Stories
Online Readings

Wildman's
Weird Wild Web

Home
Links
Jokes
Other Courses

Hellenistic Philosophy (300BCE-200CE)

[The following includes the (slightly expanded) text of Andrew Irvine's lecture on Hellenistic Philosophy (Sep. 24, 1998). It also includes some pieces from 1997 TA Mike Bone's lecture on the same topic.]

Contents

Introduction [Irvine]
Timeline of the Hellenistic Era [Irvine]
Cynicism
[Irvine]
Skepticism
[Irvine]
Epicureanism
[Irvine]
Stoicism [Irvine]
Freestyle Reflections [Irvine]
References
[Irvine]
Middle Platonism [Bone]
Influences of Hellenistic Philosophy on Christianity [Bone]
Ciccarelli Creation: Immortal, Invisible...

Introduction

What are we talking about?

Hellenism (or Hellenization): the official and unofficial promotion of supposed Greek ideals in the organization of personal life and civic accomplishment.

Hellenistic philosophy is a name for a variety of philosophical options which flourished in the period from the life of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) to the late 2nd century CE. Even before Alexander began his conquest of the known world in 336 BCE, Greek culture had spread through the Mediterranean region. Indeed, Alexander was Macedonian, a nationality related to but self-consciously distinct from the Greeks. He was himself a Hellenized person, not least thanks to his tutor, Aristotle. Alexander saw Hellenization as a desirable imperial policy, firstly because he believed Greek culture to be the best available and, secondly to build cohesion in his rapidly expanding dominion. To this end, he established a number of conquered cities as ‘Greek’ cities. These cities were intended as centers of colonial settlement and transformation into the image of Greek cultural and political order.

Note that they were images of the Greek model—not the thing itself, if we may recall a Platonic attitude. At Alexander’s death, colonization was far from settled. Economic and social divisions were immense. The Hellenistic culture of the empire did not capture the idealized former splendor of Greece. Hellenistic culture accentuated lowest common denominators among its many diverse citizens and subjects, in a bid to maintain some peace and facilitate day to day life. So, for instance, the educational ideals of Greek paideia were adopted but most Hellenized folk spoke only koine Greek, a simplified language (and the language of the New Testament)—if they spoke Greek at all. Political crisis was usual, creating an environment of insecurity for ordinary people, people whose parochial cultures were already under threat from the homogenizing influence of colonial rule. It was a culture that ran on patronage, on ‘who knew whom.’ Secret societies, professional clubs and mystery cults were popular means of creating communities where people shamed by their deep sense of dislocation and anonymity could receive a measure of honorable recognition.

Philosophy was one strategy for steadying oneself. When I say ‘philosophy,’ though, don’t think of highly refined systematic achievements linked to a Plato, or Aristotle. The schools of Plato and Aristotle had lost prestige as a result of their increasingly specialized pursuits, seemingly so detached from the everyday concerns that motivated Socrates and their own founders. Many people were impatient with speculation and relied more on what their senses could tell them. People required philosophies that were portable, easily learned, and plainly engaged with the fortunes and misfortunes of everyday life. Eclecticism and syncretism characterize Hellenistic culture as much as Greek domination.

Religion in the Hellenistic world, like philosophy, was a field of mix-and-match. For example, by the time of the birth of Jesus, Hellenization had already reshaped Jewish culture. Small groups like the zealots violently resisted colonization while the Herodian kings, ruling as clients of the emperor, clearly preferred Greek culture to the Jewish heritage. Most Jews lived life as participants in both cultures. Thus the Hellenistic world was the world of the first Christians. To understand this world—at least a few of its philosophical options—is a major step towards understanding the development of Christian thought. This is not to say that Christian thinkers were entirely determined in their thinking by Hellenistic philosophy. However, their expectations, problems and answers are profoundly shaped under the influence of Hellenistic philosophy.

Timeline of the Hellenistic Era

Imperial Politics Philosophy & Religion
400 399 Death of Socrates
BCE
347 Death of Plato

Alexander the Great 356-323

323 Death of Diogenes the Cynic
322 Death of Aristotle
300 341-270 Epicurus
3rd century Early Stoa (Zeno)

3rd century Roman ascendancy

200

Maccabean revolt
in Judea 167

2nd-1st centuries Middle Stoa
100
Rome acquires Syria
and Judea 63
Octavian proclaimed
Caesar Augustus 27

Roman Empire

0 c. 20 BCE-50CE Philo
c. 6 BCE-c. 30 CE Jesus
c. 32-58 Paul’s Christian career

Destruction of Jerusalem 70

c. 50-c. 130 Epictetus
100 1st-2nd centuries
Late Stoa
c. 100-165 Justin Martyr
161 Marcus Aurelius (Stoic) made emperor
200 c. 160-225 Tertullian
204-270 Plotinus
300
313 Conversion of
Emperor Constantine

Widespread Philosophical Terms, Convictions, and Habits

We will consider four philosophical options: Cynicism, Skepticism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism. Each of these philosophies partook of a philosophical milieu that influenced Christian thinkers, too. Certain terms, convictions, and habits of mind were ‘in the water,’ so to speak:

Terms—topics of debate

Here are a number of key terms:

  • Logos (Word or pattern or reason): A word seemingly brimming with potential to identify important features of human life and of the cosmos. Marvelously versatile, or a weasel word?
  • Theos (God): Is there something worthy of worship at the heart of reality? Is it one thing or many? Is the divine well disposed toward humans?
  • Physis (Nature): The root of our words, ‘physics,’ ‘physiology.’ How does the world work? Is it mechanical or spiritual? How do we work? Concern with the great world around us and the little world of our bodies.
  • Psyche (Soul): Do we live on after death? What is most important about human beings?
  • Tyche (Luck, Providence, Fortune, Fate): When things seem to happen erratically, or when things go bad, can we believe in a greater pattern? How ought we bear fortune and misfortune?
  • Ousia (Substance): What is the basic stuff of things? Is it constant? What characteristics does it have?
  • Ethos (habit, character): What is a good person? How can we become good?

Convictions

  • That the world (cosmos) as a whole needs an explanation
  • That there is an ultimate reality that would enable such an explanation
  • That reason may be unreliable, let alone sensations
  • That reason is a key to understanding what human beings are
  • That reason can help determine the good life and good society

Habits of mind

  • Rational argumentation
  • Testing proposed explanations of the cosmos against observational evidence for adequacy and completeness
  • To look to philosophical heroes of the past

Cynicism

1. Summary

This movement got its name from kuon, ‘dog,’—a reproach denoting shamelessness, audacity. However the word was also often applied to faithful or watchful servants of the gods.

Founded by Diogenes of Sinope (d. 323 BCE). Click here for a picture.

Conceived as philosophy in action: ‘What good is philosophy if it never moves you to criticize your comfortable habits and actually change yourself for the better?’ Cynicism was conceived of as a way of life unbeholden to social convention or political demand, that is, a life lived according to nature. (This phrase is a recurring theme in debates among the Hellenistic philosophies.) For Cynics, nature is the opposite of society’s conventions and norms. All that the ordinary social herd is interested in is getting on in this world. They flatter, they beg, they posture. Such people think that they are better if they can throw a big fancy party! ‘How shallow! How fleeting! How ridiculous!,’ say the Cynics. These people have lost touch with nature. All they’re doing is becoming slaves to notoriously fickle tyche. Nature doesn’t require that we do any of these things. Social conventions, then, are nothing but bad habits, that damage the soul.

In contrast, the good life is lived according to nature, and it is a life of self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency can be realized through training (ascesis). By practising to live unfettered by social expectations, a person can discipline the soul to the point that it does not suffer in the face of tyche. (Cf. Hamlet’s ‘slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune.’) This achievement is described as apatheia, ‘indifference to suffering.’

Cynics were noted for their bold speech and ‘shameless’ behavior. (E.g. legend has it that Alexander visited Diogenes to ask him whether he could do anything for him. Diogenes replied, ‘Yes. Get out of the way. You’re blocking the sunlight.’ Some of Diogenes’ successors were even earthier, defecating and urinating in public to demonstrate the hollowness of convention.)

2. Relevance to Christian Theology

Was Jesus a Cynic? Consider the parable concerning where to sit at banquets, or the encouragement not to worry (Matt. 6: 25-34), or the story of the rich fool (Luke 12: 13-21), Jesus’ example of service (Luke 22: 24-27). Well-known scholars including John Dominic Crossan and Burton Mack advocate this view.

Asceticism became an extremely important feature of early Christian piety.

Skepticism

1. Summary

The basic intuition of Skepticism was that the likelihood of being able to achieve certain knowledge about any of the topics of philosophical concern listed previously was slim. Far better to own up to this, and seek ‘tranquillity and happiness through suspension of judgment’ (Sharples, 9).

Pyrrho of Elis (c. 365/360-275/270 BCE) was the first celebrated Skeptic. He was said to have accompanied Alexander to India. His philosophical position was that we can only know how things appear to us, and we can’t rightly resolve disagreements as to what appears. This is all very disturbing. Wouldn’t it be better just to suspend judgment and live according to probable opinion and custom?

Skepticism divided into two streams: Pyrrhonian and Academic skepticism. The latter school (late 4th to late 2nd centuries BCE) especially directed its efforts against Stoicism. It is called Academic Skepticism because it was the official philosophy taught at the Academy during the third and second centuries BCE. (If you listen carefully, you might hear Plato spinning in his grave.) Skepticism endured as a philosophical position into the 3rd century CE.

Skeptics aimed to undermine the supposed certainties of all their other philosophical competitors. While this might seem to limit it to making only a negative contribution, Skepticism did at least provide a voice for humility and tolerance, even if the Skeptics themselves did not always practise those qualities.

2. Relevance to Christian Theology

It is difficult to trace any direct lines of influence. However, Skepticism as a philosophical position perhaps has some sympathy with Tertullian’s challenge, ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ Skepticism celebrates the diversity of opinion (pistis, on Plato’s divided line—the word that is translated in the New Testament as ‘faith’). Perhaps in some matters faith is what we should hold to, instead of grasping for rational knowledge. Indeed, maybe faith is better than reason. This is a position known as fideism.

Epicureanism

1. Epicurus

Epicureanism was named after its founder. The philosopher Epicurus was born in Samos to a family of Athenian colonists. He lived from 341-270 BCE. Click here for a picture.

Epicurus’ philosophical career began, so the story goes, when his teacher came to the line in Hesiod’s Theogony (l. 116), ‘First of all Chaos came to be,’ and could not explain to him how chaos came to be. Only a fraction of his writings have survived. Some in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers. Some buried in volcanic mud in the Italian village of Herculaneum, destroyed by Vesuvius in 79 CE. Some in opponents’ writings, and lastly inscribed upon a 2nd century CE stoa in present-day southern Turkey. His writings are very obscure, but it is possible he did not intend to write for a general public.

Epicurus founded ‘The Garden,’ in Athens, in 307/306. This gathering place became the prototype of Epicurean associations. Epicurus admitted women (including courtesans) and at least one slave to his circle. This fact, together with the Epicurean disdain for political affairs, brought ridicule upon Epicurus and his followers. However, even their enemies grudgingly admired their cultivation of friendship. After his death, Epicurus’ followers celebrated his memory at a monthly feast, much as early Christians began to commemorate Jesus of Nazareth in their communal meal. His teaching spread rapidly. Famous Epicureans include Colotes, of the original circle, who wrote ‘That the Doctrines of the Other Philosophers Actually Make Life Impossible,’ Lucretius, author of On Natural Reality, and Cassius of ‘lean and hungry look,’ who conspired in the assassination of Julius Caesar (!).

2. On Nature and the Cosmos

Epicurus modified the materialistic philosophy of the 5th century bce atomists, Leucippus and Democritus. Everything is composed of matter, more specifically, of atoms moving in a void. For the most part, they move in regular ways. Their principal movement is to fall down in straight lines. (How ‘down’ can be identified in a void is a problem that the Epicureans did not clarify.) However, occasionally atoms ‘swerve.’ From these irregular movements, atoms began to collide and clump together. and the universe we know through our senses began to form. The movements and interactions of atoms suffice for a complete explanation of the world. The swerve is also the basis of Epicurus’ defense of free will.

Even our knowledge of these things is the result of collisions between atoms. Knowledge comes from sense experience. For example, I see a tower because the tower constantly sheds thin films of atoms. If a film hits my eyes, I see the tower. If I repeatedly have such experiences, I become accustomed to the tower. A sort of complementary pattern of atoms forms within me. Epicureans called these patterns ‘expectations’ or ‘anticipations.’ The anticipations will help me to recognize movements and aggregations of atoms I might encounter in the future.

Now, if all knowledge comes from direct encounters between atoms, why do people make mistakes? The Epicurean answer is that sense experience, as sense experience, is always true. If I see pink elephants, I really do see pink elephants. However, I also then need to judge whether quite different atomic films are somehow being confused: is there a possibility that atoms from my bottle of wine are jumbling up the anticipations in my brain, say? Falsehood, then, has nothing to do with the senses. Falsehood results from hasty judgment, from an inappropriate confidence in reason.

If sense experiences are the only avenue of knowledge, then the feelings of pleasure or pain produced by contact with these atoms are the only meaningful gauge of good and evil. The situation is like so: we experience the world through our senses, we may even be able to occasionally predict things, but just as often our reason misleads us and we get whacked across the head by tyche. Human beings may reason, but that does not imply there is a grand plan behind all that we experience in the world.

3. Ethics

Epicurus takes this absence of a cosmic purpose to mean that pleasure is the only good. Indeed, pleasure is the meaning of the good. The Greek word translated as ‘pleasure’ is the root of the English word, hedonism. Hedonism is the view that pleasure is the highest good.

P. H. DeLacy sets out the implications of Epicurus’ hedonism:

Like all other atomic compounds, men come into being when the necessary conditions have been met. They have no creator and no destiny. Their good is pleasure, their highest good a life of secure and lasting pleasure. United by no bond of nature, they form alliances for mutual advantage, and they acquiesce in the restraints of law and government as a protection against injury by their fellows. (DeLacy, 4)

The popular misconception is that Epicurean ethics consisted in advocating no-holds-barred self-indulgence. The truth is very different. Although the official Epicurean position was that pleasure was the highest good, Epicurus did have some sense that pleasures could and should be evaluated on a scale. The chief criterion was whether pleasure would be fleeting, and accompanied with pains, or enduring and steady in intensity. Eating until you throw up is probably not a pleasure worth experiencing; worthy pleasures allow the soul to remain calm and untroubled. Often, abstention and moderation are the best ways to enjoy such serenity.

4. What about Other People?

The best way to achieve serenity of soul is to withdraw from the confusion of the mass of society, and surround yourself with fine friends. Thus, Epicurus’ Garden was a haven, an oasis, where a select circle could take pleasure in peaceful surroundings and decorous company.

5. Religion

As DeLacy notes, the Epicureans held that the world has no creator. The Gods exist, we know, because people sense their images, especially in dreams and other unusual states. However the Gods are so fine that their images are easily damaged or distorted. We cannot decide what they are like simply on the basis of our senses. However, an appropriate use of reason tells us that they must be blessed and serene, exemplifying the state of soul to which we should aspire. But the Gods have no concern with our world and us at all. They are enjoying blissful detachment, rather like the Buddha does in Southeast Asian Buddhism. So don’t bother them with prayers for parking spaces. All you will do is aggravate yourself, causing yourself pain.

6. Relevance to Christian Theology

Many scholars have said that the influence is minimal. Perhaps this is so in terms of strictly intellectual influence. In terms of practice, though, there are at least overlaps. I’ve mentioned the meal commemorating Epicurus, and the concept of friendship as a devoted but highly selective relationship. Was Paul’s criticism of the Corinthian congregation meant to correct Epicurean tendencies among some of the believers?:

When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one becomes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! (I Cor. 11: 20-22.)

Or consider Epicurus’ unusual ascetic ideal of pleasure. Perhaps we find an Epicurean influence in early Christian martyrology. Some Epicureans went so far as to say that the wise man could be perfectly happy even when undergoing bodily torture!

Stoicism

1. Origins

Stoicism got its name from the stoa, or ‘portico,’ where its first great thinker taught. Stoicism began with Zeno of Citium (ca. 336-264), a Cypriot who moved to Athens and became a student of the Cynic philosopher, Crates. Zeno began to teach his own doctrines around 300 BCE. The movement had 3 phases: early, middle, and late (Roman) Stoa. Refer to the timeline for the periods when each phase flourished.

The account I’m about to give distorts as much as it clarifies Stoic philosophy because I am conflating material from these periods, which had quite distinct emphases. The focus is on the last phase (1st and 2nd centuries CE), during which ethical concerns predominate, but the Stoic ethics is strongly connected to concerns about the nature of the world, for which we need to learn about the earlier Stoic movements. Roman Stoics are also the Stoics you’re most likely to have heard of. There was Seneca (4 BCE - 65 CE), Nero’s tutor who committed suicide on Nero’s demand., Epictetus (50-130 CE), was born a slave in the imperial household and eventually was exiled for his teachings. Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) got to be emperor in 161. The period of the Roman Stoa is also the period when Christianity is learning to crawl and eventually to get on its feet.

2. On Nature and the Cosmos

According to the Stoics, the world is strictly material, and ultimately composed of fire (hearkening back to Heraclitus). However, this material has two principles. One, the passive, proceeds from divine activity and will be resolved back into God in a cosmic conflagration. This is an unending cycle. The second principle of the world is active. It is God. The Stoics held that this active principle is equally well named as logos, pneuma, world-reason, and world soul. It is essential to note that this principle is immanent to the world. This means that cosmology = theology. God is neither separate from, nor different in being from, the world. Rather, God is the most cohesive aspect of the world. This sounds fairly technical and abstract but it has some very immediate implications. For instance, your average Hellenistic Joe Schmoe feels his life running away from him in fifty directions—but God has got it together. There is a pattern to it all, despite what Epicureans will tell you. There is a grand plan—no—a perfect plan, behind the seemingly haphazard affairs of life, a logos.

Unfortunately, as the world is entirely material and perfectly ordered it is also thoroughly determined. Thus, it is also correct to name the divine as fortune. The earlier Stoics put a brave spin on this, and said that the plan evidenced divine providence, a reassuring God. Later Stoics, who must have been a bit discouraged by suicides, exiles and the like, thought that the plan was more like an impersonal, implacable fate.

3. Ethics

If everything is determined, what sense does it make to ask, how can I be good? The Stoics made sense of the question in the following way. God, the logos, is a logos spermatikos, i.e. ‘a seed-bearing word.’ The seeds of the logos are, like their progenitor, active in the world—supremely in human beings. Human beings may, by their reason, participate in divine life.

If we apply our reason, we can discern that every thing and event, inasmuch as it is merely matter, is good. They are merely following their nature, ordained in the divine logos. Note how different this is from the Cynic concept of nature. For them, nature is simply opposed to convention. For Stoics, it is deeply principled. (Copleston, 395.)

But what about suffering and misery, inflicted or undergone? The Stoics recognize that we cannot change fate. However, humans enjoy something like freedom because of our sharing in the logos. Human beings can discern the law of nature and so human beings can submit to it with honor and dignity. On the outside we are constrained, but within we have a choice. (Cf. a dog tied to a cart. It can struggle against the direction it is being taken, but it will still be taken there, and painfully. Or it can choose to follow obediently in the wheel tracks of the cart.) In this way, the threat of moral evil is converted into good.

Such a conversion exemplifies a wise person’s virtue. Virtue is the meaning of the good. Whereas the Cynics trumpeted apatheia, the Stoics considered apatheia no more than a station on the way to the good. Once freed from the vicious passions that threaten logos in us, we may enjoy eupatheia (‘good feelings’) and so be happy.

4. What about other people?

There are two main points to note:

  • All are children of the logos, and potentially happy and wise. This presented a fairly static social ideal. Advancement essentially depends on one’s own reason, and setbacks should not be resisted.
  • The Stoics argue that, since every person has logos, the natural law is a universal law for all people, irrespective of ethnic background and political allegiance. Our true citizenship is not with any particular city and its parochial little customs. We are all citizens of the city of the world—the cosmopolis. The Roman Empire adopts Stoicism as the official ideology, exactly for this view. How else are you going to run an empire that big? The idea of natural law enables the imperial administration to establish basic expectations of civil behavior irrespective of one’s ethnic origins.

5. Religion

Many Stoics practised a really quite marvelous devotion to the logos—usually through the ‘seedlings’ of official imperial cultus.

Cf. from Cleanthes’ ‘Hymn to Zeus,’ in Copleston, 393:

O God most glorious, called by many a name,
Nature’s great King, through endless years the same;
Omnipotence, who by thy just decree
Controllest all, hail, Zeus, for unto thee
Behoves thy creatures in all lands to call.

Or Seneca, in Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Act II, scene II:

My comrade, for many a year I have fortified my spirit
‘Gainst the arrows of Fortune.
Therefore no stroke of fate, however deadly,
Will I take as surprising or unexpected.
If to die you invite me, do not ask me for pardon;
Smiling I accept gladly a gift so glorious….
‘But though today I die,
This is not enough, ‘tis not enough for Nero,
For when one vice is fed, another hungers.
The path to one excess leads on to hundreds,
and it is writ in heaven who tastes of evil has the taste forever.

6. Relevance to Christian Theology

Justin Martyr, a second century Christian apologist, took the idea of the logos spermatikos over wholesale to the cultured citizens of Rome. Justin argued that the divine logos, which had become a human being in Jesus Christ, had always been present in the world through its seeds in every human being. Some people, such as Socrates, had recognized and cultivated the logos in themselves. Therefore, they qualified as ‘Christians’ before the revelation in Christ. Justin was the first person we know of to present Christianity as a philosophically respectable avenue for the educated elites of the empire.

The idea of the logos as supporting a natural law is a basic tenet in St. Paul’s writings (e.g. Rom. 2: 12-16). There are ‘weird’ Gentiles, as Professor Sampley would say, who figured out their obligation to the logos despite never receiving the revealed law of God as the Jewish nation had. Thus, this idea also underlay the development of the ideas of conscience and natural theology—that a sufficiently intimate knowledge of our psyche or of the natural world could reveal the divine will and nature.

The belief in Providence also flowed into Christian explanations of the waywardness of human lives. Although things appear haphazard, God’s foreknowledge of and provision for the way we take through life offers consolation and encouragement to the soul. This trajectory of thought is discernible in the apostle Paul’s notions of bondage to sin: human beings are not free to do as they please but need to be freed from sin in order to become obedient to God. Later Christian discussions about predestination descend from such early Christian adoption of Stoic views on providence. Somewhat related to this point is the idea that execution or martyrdom could actually be an honorable way to die, and moreover an opportunity to demonstrate one’s ascetic virtue. This Stoic attitude was widely admired and it, too, won a place in Christian thinking about persecution.

Stoic reliance upon practical wisdom runs directly into Christian ethical thinking, too. While the big-deal situations have clear moral implications, the wise person recognizes that there are many other situations that are neither good nor evil, and therefore call for practical wisdom, or prudence. Again, Paul adopts this idea (e.g. I Cor. 8: 1-13), and it remains a steady stream in the tradition of Christian ethical thought down to our time—especially in Catholic thinking since it was less affected than Protestantism by Kant’s philosophy in the late 18th century.

Cosmopolitanism was an idea en route to the idea of Christendom. The main reason that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire is not that eager Christians managed to convert everybody (even admitting the importance of Constantine’s conversion in particular). Christianity assumed the place of Stoicism because, as a philosophical ethic, it was an able usurper of the older philosophy’s authority. By the late 2nd century CE, Stoic influence was crumbling in a decadent imperial administration. Christian religion gave an energetic new rationale as to why people ought to cultivate the virtues that the Stoics so cherished. Augustine would develop a theological story as to why Christianity was a natural and worthy successor to the old imperial religion in City of God. The idea of citizenship in a single world-city undergirds the medieval idea of Europe as the realm of Christendom, ruled by a single spiritual ruler (the Pope). The ghettoization of Jews in Medieval Europe is a consequence of this idea. The Crusades against a threatening Islamic ‘other’ also demonstrate the force of the cosmopolitan ideal in the imagination of Medieval Christians.

Freestyle Reflections

Here are a couple of ‘freestyle’ reflections on the significance of Hellenistic philosophies for contemporary Christian theology:

  • Supposing that Jesus really did share Cynic sensibilities (considering the stories of his flouting of legal expectations—healing on the Sabbath, for example), might we imagine that his foes shared a more Stoic view of the good life? Such a hypothesis lends bite to Kierkegaard’s claim that Christians would kill Jesus again given half a chance.
  • The ethical habits of Western Christians are steeped in pre-Christian convictions as to what the good life is. As the globalization of Christianity continues, what status ought we to give that heritage in relation to the sometimes quite different ethical heritages of non-western Christians?

References to Works Cited in the Above

Diogenes Allen. Philosophy for Understanding Theology. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985.

Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy, vol. I Greece and Rome. New Revised Edition. Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1960.

Claudio Monteverdi. L’Incoronazione di Poppea. Text by G. F. Busenello. Music attributed to Claudio Monteverdi and Francesco Sacrati. Score edited by Alan Curtis. English singing version by Arthur Jacobs. London and Sevenoaks: Novello, 1989.

Middle Platonism (100BCE-200CE)

[The following material is from a Fall, 1997 lecture by Mike Bone.]

1. A Period of Transition and Ecclecticism

Middle Platonism was a transition state of thought characterized by eclecticism. Unable to overcome conflicts among its various elements through the discovery of a unifying principle, it nevertheless prepared the way for the grand synthesis of classical thought achieved in Neo-Platonism, particularly in Plotinus.

  • 1st century CE (b. 45), Plutarch: "The world was created in time." Further, the absolute transcendence of God is emphasized such that no contact with material reality can be imagined. He then populates the space between with daemonia, powers (not to be confused with demons as found in the New Testament).
  • 2nd century CE, Albinus: The Platonic Ideas become the eternal ideas of God, i.e., the patterns of things.
  • 2nd century CE: Atticus identified the Demiurge of Plato’s Timaeus with the Form of the Good.

2. Philo of Alexandria (25BCE - 40CE)

Philo’s project was to harmonize Greek philosophy with Jewish thought. He wanted to show that both Greek philosophy and Jewish scripture described the same truth. Thus, he selected from Greek philosophy what was most amenable to Jewish thought and allegorized Jewish scripture to remove the taint of anthropomorphism.

  • Insistence on divine transcendence led him to affirm logos as the highest intermediary being.
  • Platonic Ideas are located in Logos. Logos is the place of the realm of forms.
  • Logos is God’s instrument in the creation of the world.

Influences of Hellenistic Philosophy on Christianity

[Here we have another account of the influence of Hellenistic philosophy on Christianity, from 1997 TA Mike Bone.]

1. Shaped the world-view in which the NT writers articulated the Christian revelation.

  • The middle platonist conception of a realm between earth and the transcendent God populated by daemonia is the world view behind such New Testament expressions as Eph. 4:8-10.
  • Also, the view of creation by means of forms that are in the mind of God. God created by means of the Logos in whom are located all the Platonic ideas. Thus, John could write: "In the beginning was the Word... Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made." (Jn 1:1,3)
  • Some of the writers at least were familiar with the schools of philosophy. (Acts 17—Paul on Mar’s Hill in Athens speaks with Epicureans and Stoics.)

2. Explains Christianity’s move from being a curious religious phenomenon in a geographically small country to becoming a world religion based in the center of a world empire.

  • Cosmopolitanism meant that Christianity could conceive of itself in terms of the whole of humanity. The initial paradigm of Jew and Gentile gave way to what Clement of Rome would call the third race, i.e., Christians, comprising all of humanity. When the empire faded and the church was left holding the remnants of western civilization, this idea gave way to the concept of Christendom, the identification of civilization with the church universal.
  • Skepticism as a philosophic movement and as an attitude among several schools was the symptom of a general loss of confidence in the power of human reason to discern ultimate reality. In such a situation, revelation becomes very attractive.

3. Provided strategies for communicating the Christian revelation to the Greco-Roman world.

  • Origen’s use of allegory was directly influenced by Philo’s allegorization project.
  • The early apologist’s statement that the Greek philosophers borrowed from Moses was Philo’s move.

4. Offered concepts tailor-made to explain God’s relation to the world.

  • The Stoic idea of natural law becomes divine law as the Jewish meshiach or Christ becomes identified with Logos. To live in accordance with reason is to live in accordance with the truth of God revealed in Christ.
  • Providence was taken lock, stock and barrel over from the Stoics. God has a plan and everything makes sense if we can just discern it. This was Augustine’s move in The City of God. Of course, the problem implicit in the Stoic doctrine of providence is carried right with it into the Christian view of God and that is: how can a good, all-powerful Creator allow evil? This is the problem of theodicy. But while Stoics resignation asserts that since God is beyond suffering we can move above it, the Christian affirmation of salvation is that God paradoxically and redemptively enters into our suffering.

Ciccarelli Creation: Immortal, Invisible...

"Immortal, invisible" by Walter Chalmers Smith exhibits an interesting mix of imagery that illustrates how Greek and Jewish streams of influence were combined in the Christian concept of God, not without some awkwardness. The first two lines show the "Greek" influence, but lines 3-4 and the second stanza seem more Hebraic in concept, using language that points to a personal God (victorious leader; just, good & loving ruler). The third stanza is interesting. It first sets up a contrast between God as source of life and all those that thus live by God, recalling the direction of the development of Christian theological ideas that led to creation ex nihilo, but concludes with a return to the "Greek" focus on ultimate reality as changeless.

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
almighty, victorious, thy great Name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
thy justice like mountains high soaring above
thy clouds, which are fountains of goodness and love.

To all life thou givest, to both great and small;
in all life thou livest, the true life of all;
we blossom and flourish, like leaves on the tree,
then wither and perish; but nought changeth thee.

Thou reignest in glory, thou rulest in light,
thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight;
all laud we would render: O help us to see
'tis only the splendor of light hideth thee.

The information on this page is copyright 1994 onwards, Wesley Wildman (basic information here), unless otherwise noted. If you want to use ideas that you find here, please be careful to acknowledge this site as your source, and remember also to credit the original author of what you use, where that is applicable. If you want to use text or stories from these pages, please contact me at the feedback address for permission.