[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.]
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 modelnot the thing itself, if we may recall a Platonic attitude. At Alexanders 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, dont 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 worldat least a few of its philosophical optionsis 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
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:
Termstopics of debate
Here are a number of key terms:
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).
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 societys 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 theyre doing is becoming slaves to notoriously fickle tyche. Nature doesnt 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. Hamlets 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. Youre 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.
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 cant rightly resolve disagreements as to what appears. This is all very disturbing. Wouldnt 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 Tertullians challenge, What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Skepticism celebrates the diversity of opinion (pistis, on Platos divided linethe 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 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 Hesiods 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.
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.
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 dont 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. Ive mentioned the meal commemorating Epicurus, and the concept of friendship as a devoted but highly selective relationship. Was Pauls 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 Lords 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 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 Im 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 youre most likely to have heard of. There was Seneca (4 BCE - 65 CE), Neros tutor who committed suicide on Neros 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 directionsbut God has got it together. There is a pattern to it all, despite what Epicureans will tell you. There is a grand plannoa 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.
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 worldsupremely 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 persons 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:
Many Stoics practised a really quite marvelous devotion to the logosusually 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,
Natures 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 Monteverdis LIncoronazione 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. Pauls 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 theologythat 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, Gods 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 Pauls 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 ones 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 timeespecially in Catholic thinking since it was less affected than Protestantism by Kants 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 Constantines conversion in particular). Christianity assumed the place of Stoicism because, as a philosophical ethic, it was an able usurper of the older philosophys 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.
Here are a couple of freestyle reflections on the significance of Hellenistic philosophies for contemporary Christian theology:
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. LIncoronazione 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.
2. Philo of Alexandria (25BCE - 40CE)
Philos 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.
[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.
2. Explains Christianitys 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.
3. Provided strategies for communicating the Christian revelation to the Greco-Roman world.
4. Offered concepts tailor-made to explain Gods relation to the world.
"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.
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