Does Ancient Religious Philosophy MATTER?
Ebook: The Ancient Theologians
Dear Classical Wisdom Members,
“Few subjects in Philosophy have so consistently engaged the interests of the contemplative minds through the centuries as the question of divine power.
“Does a supreme being exist? What unseen forces govern the universe? If a divine power does exist, what is its nature? What is the nature of our relationship to it?
“Does a divine power care about the affairs of mankind, or does it ignore us completely? And as a practical matter, how should we go about investigating this recondite and elusive subject?”
I don’t think there would be a single reader among us who has not at one point or another asked at least one of the above questions. Of course, being the sort that is committed to the classics, to wisdom and the truth, this should come as no surprise.
While the responses will inevitably vary across time and space, the purpose and practice of the investigation is what we concern ourselves with today. After all, we would be remiss to not address such an essential question...
But as always, we like to tackle the premise first (and in excellent time for tomorrow’s live event On the Nature of the Gods)... so today’s Member’s In-depth article does just that. Please enjoy Van Bryan’s Does Ancient Religious Philosophy MATTER?, below.
Classical Wisdom Society Members:
This article comes from our Members Only Ebook “The Ancient Theologians” - which looks at the religious philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, Xenophanes, Epicurus, Seneca, and Cicero. You can access at the end of the article for a deep dive (including the original texts) of this important topic.
All the best,
Founder and Director
P.S. If you haven’t already registered, make sure to do so now for our excellent conversation On the Nature of the Gods, taking place tomorrow (Thursday Sept 14 at Noon EST). It is a unique opportunity to see Stoicism cross examined, as well as Epicureanism and Skepticism.
Cicero takes to task all the ancient philosophies and their approach to religion (something that really pissed off a lot of people both then and throughout the ages). Quintus’ brand new translation - which was released this month - makes this seminal text extremely readable and enjoyable and will give the thoughtful lots to think about.
Does Ancient Religious Philosophy MATTER?
By Van Bryan
Why bother with ancient religious philosophy? With such a plethora of topics to discuss, why would we decide to compile an anthology that examines a topic such as religion? What was the reason?
Well...there are actually two reasons.
As pointed out by our colleague, Ben Potter, it was the religious traditions of the ancient Greeks, more than anything else, which cemented and solidified the idea of a unified classical Greek culture. We must remember that while ancient Greece shared a common land mass and language, they were not one people. Many of the city-states considered themselves independent entities, and the citizens would have been insulated as a result.
The only true common denominator, then, was the religion of the age, which centered on the Olympian deities. It was the worship of the gods, the rituals, prayers and sacrifices that truly unified the ancient Hellenic civilization and gives us an idea of a singular, unified classical Greek culture.
Moreover, religion in the ancient world was no laughing matter. In fact, a few noted classical figures met their end because they either insulted, or otherwise disturbed, the religious sensibilities of the age.
Socrates, for instance, was accused, among other things, of believing in strange gods. In Athens, 399 BC, this was a serious accusation. In this case, the father of Western philosophy was found guilty and executed by way of hemlock poison.
Although a little less plausible, we also hear the legend of Aesop, the author of the famous fables, who supposedly stole from the temple at Delphi and was thrown from a cliff as recompense.
Paradoxically, while religion in the ancient world was something of a cultural staple, the religion of the early classical Greeks did not have the structure or the dogma that modern religious institutions possess.
Again, Ben Potter hits the nail on the head when he writes...
“...they (the ancient Greeks) had no codified or dogmatic faith – they had nothing recognisable to the mainstream religions of today and would have been much harder pressed to answer a question like: ;what do worshippers of Hera believe?’ or ‘what does your faith teach?’ than if a modern devotee were similarly quizzed.”
What this means is that the early classical philosophers had no structured codex, no organized religious doctrines from which to work from. The closest we come to finding any set of doctrines that laid out the “ground rules” for the popular religion of the age is within the epic works of Homer and Hesiod, where the gods are described as anthropomorphized, often bickering, deities.
And as we will see in the selections to follow, many of the ancient thinkers spent their time pointing out egregious inconsistencies surrounding the Olympian deities.
Plato is our first author to do so. In The Euthyphro, the question is raised “what is piety?” The answer given by the dialogue’s namesake is that that which is loved by the gods and that which is pious are one in the same.
However, it is Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, who points out that Homer describes the gods as constantly bickering. The gods, in short, do not always agree. It would make sense to conclude then that the gods are capable of loving different things. If that which is pious is that which is loved by the gods, but the gods are never unanimous on what they love, how can we possibly know what is pious?
The characters in the dialogue continue on to attempt to reconcile this inconsistency, but the fact that such a discrepancy existed in the first place goes to demonstrate the frailty and disorder of the ancient Greek religious beliefs.
Because there was no “ground floor”, no set religious doctrines from where the ancients could start, this meant that the classical thinkers often went about with their theological inquiries, if not completely in the dark, then with dimmest of lighting. This makes their work, their arguments for or against the divine, all the more impressive and worthy of sharing with you, our reader.
The other reason Classical Wisdom Society decided to compile such an anthology as this is because of the profound effect that these early philosophers had on the development of Western theological thought.
Whether you yourself are religious or not, there is no denying that religion in our modern age still plays a major role in the lives of many people. Some estimates place the percentage of people in the world who consider themselves religious somewhere around 80%.
With such a large percentage of the population being effected by such a thing as faith, it might be of interest to us, the classical reader, to see how the ancient thinkers contributed to the development of these pervasive institutions.
Philosophical and religious thought in the ancient world can often be thought of as two, mostly parallel lines marching forward through the centuries. These lines of thought are mostly parallel because, throughout the centuries, philosophical inquiry has often dipped into the realm of religion, and religion, likewise, regularly borrows from philosophy. In these instances, the lines blur.
They are hardly the only schools of thought, philosophical, religious or otherwise, that existed in the vast realm of ancient history. However, for the purpose of this anthology, I mean specifically to draw attention to the Hellenic philosophies and the undeniable influence they had on the development of the most dominant faith in the Western world-Christianity.
It is these instances, where the waters of Greek philosophy and early Christian thought muddle, which the truly dedicated classical reader will find of great interest.
After all, at Classical Wisdom, we believe that a truly fulfilled life always finds time to include an understanding of the classics and the undeniable influence they had on the development of Western society. In this instance, we can see how the classical philosophies helped shape and hone one of the foremost faiths in the world.
So, which classical works inspired or influenced early theologians?