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52 Posts

Posted - 19 Mar 2008 :  20:45:52  

Dear George and dear all,

Due to my very busy schedule, I have not been able to post on this forum for a while. Yet I will try to find some more time to bring in my modest contribution to these very fruitful discussions.

I have recently written a paper taking for subject the essence of Greek philosophy. Doing research, I came across several readings, the most interesting of which was certainly by Gregory Vlastos, whom I shall quote at length in this post.

Vlastos begins, in analyzing the genesis of philosophy, with these words: "When one reads the Presocratics with open mind and sensitive ear, one cannot help being struck by the religious note in much of what they say. Few word occur more frequently in their fragments than the word 'god.'"

In order to understand those words, one must first go back even before Thales of Miletus, in fact, to the origins of human thought. Most, if not all, Modern thinkers have seen in Greek philosophy a triumph of Reason over "faith" or irrationality. Yet, this picture emerges as not only inaccurate, but as misunderstanding philosophy itself. In order to understand the essence of philosophy, it is necessary to go back to what we call mythology. Myths are the collective memory of a people explaining the creation of the world, the creation of mankind, and the creation of that people and its destiny. They link mankind in general, or a people in particular--whether the people of Athens, of Thebes, or the Jewish people--to its glorious past. This common pattern emerges in every "myths" that we encounter: the Gilgamesh epic, Hesiod's Theogony, or, for our concern, the Book of Genesis. All have one theme in common: created by gods or God, men of the present have fallen from a Golden Age. Myths, therefore, attempted to define this Golden Age, where men stood and whither they were heading.
We can, therefore, rightly attribute the birth of Greek thought not to Thales or Socrates, but to the poet Hesiod. In his "Theogony," Hesiod not only sorts out the relationship between the Olympian gods from "the quarrelsome anarchy of the Homeric pantheon," but he also attempts to outline a broad cosmogony and even cosmology, and defines the Golden Age in which men lived like gods ( www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/ancient-greece/hesiod-works-generations-men.asp). The Theogony, then, is a moment in Greek thought when mythology was clarified and made certain for people of the future, as part of a larger religious quest.

We can thus link mythology to what the Greeks called φύσις, which originally meant the generation, evolution, and final stage of a thing. Myths go back in time to search for the origin--ἀρχή--of things as a way to understand the present cosmos.

When Thales and the Ionian philosophers began their inquiries, they did not dispell the "primitive" and "irrational" to substitute it for a more "rational" or scientific form of thought. Reading Orpheus, Anaximander, Parmenides or Heraclitus, we see that they all take as their object "the origin of the world, the nature of the gods, the destiny of man." Yet, Vlastos emphasizes that their approach to these questions were decidedly different from that of the earlier theogonies. "Greek philosophy," he said," is based on the faith that reality is divine. It was in truth an effort to satisfy what we call the religious instinct." Mythology had attributed the virtues of Wisdom and Justice to Zeus; the philosophers saw those virtues embodied in nature (φύσις) itself. Henceforth, we see that a shift did indeed occur in Greek thought. But this shift, which we can call a revolution, was not a turn from faith and irrationality to science and rationalism but a transfer of divine attributes to nature. "Alone among the Greeks and other Mediterranean peoples, the Presocratics transfered the name and function of divinity into a realm conceived as a rigorously natural order." Calling them "scientists," hence, is to make a hasty anachronism in the history of philosophy. Their concern was with the origin of things: water for Pythagoras, the boundless for Anaximander, air for Anaximenes.

Why this shift occured at all remained somewhat unclear, but traditional religion is partly responsible. The concept of the soul as "shadow" of man appealed little to a higher understanding of the self. Consequently this understanding was sought in nature rather than the traditional gods.

This religious philosophy reached its climax in Plato, to paraphrase M. Morgan. With Plato, the goal of all human aspirations becomes to merge with the One, God. Philosophy had become a way of life with a divine goal, much like Buddhism at about the same time. The theory of the transmigration of souls, the escape from the cycle of rebirths, the merge with the divinity, achieved through asceticism and other rules, all stem from the religious feelings of a thinker who hinted at truth.

Plato was to give Greek philosophy its final aspect. Here, we see how this aspect remained present in Christianity. Many of the Church Fathers felt comfortable with philosophy precisely for this reason; Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, to cite but the most important, have always defended and protected philosophy. We must note also that Christianity involved a certain asceticism, much like many of the earlier philosophical schools. In Christianity the final development of this religious quest that the Greeks had begun with Thales and the Ionian philosophers had reached its end.



615 Posts

Posted - 20 Mar 2008 :  08:10:15  


Nice to hear from you Laellius; it's an honour to us that you've stolen some time to write this post. Since you refer to Vlastos I'd like to offer a link if someone wants to read the article; it is an emule link : Theology and Philosophy in Early Greek Thought (pdf).

Although not usually, it does happen from time to time and arrive at Elpenor people who are surprised by this "mixture" of ancient Greek and Christian thinking. Recently a friend from Canada had a hard time to understand how faith and reasoning can co-exist, and in the end he did not understand it. On the other hand, although the texts are numerous enough to support it, he was not able to understand how Plato goes above reasoning.

By itself this attitude testifies that these people betray first of all the reasoning that they admire, since, in order to deny Christianity they don't hesitate to ignore all arguments that show how ancient philosophy was not only theological, but also theological in ways that are not confined in reasoning.

Why this? Why such an aversion to faith? They think that faith is "obsolete", "old fashioned"? They think that modern and "smart" people should not have any relationship with faith? I don't understand. All civilizations had God at the center of their development, or at least some sort of "higher dimension" of existence, above this mortal one; we are the first age, the first civilization on earth, that wants to be satisfied without God, even to be compromised with death and accept it as something natural!

To return to Vlastos, I don't see why he emphasizes so much the role of Hesiod. Already in Homer is said that "the mortals inhabit an infinite earth". Not only the divine physis of the reality is present in Homer, but also criticism of traditional beliefs, not to mention the very discussion of men with gods! Also, I wouldn't say that most important among the Fathers who were familiar with ancient philosophy were Justin and Clement. Certainly the most important were Origen, the Cappadocians (Basil and the two Gregories), Maximus and Dionysius, and among them the most decisive influence upon the Church to embrace ancient Greek literature was exercised by the Cappadocians.

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52 Posts

Posted - 24 Mar 2008 :  21:28:32  


σᾶς εὐχαριστῶ!

Vlastos wrote a passage that I find rather intriguing. Here is the larger excerpt:

"To moralize divinity was not their [the Presocratics] main, and certianly not their unique, contribution. Pindar and Aeschylus here labor in the same cause as Xenophanes and Heraclitus: and the Hebrew prophets were doing the same a good two centuries before Xenophanes,and with a passionate intensity unequaled by any Greek philosopher or poet. But the world of Pindar and Aeschylus is thick with magic of every description. The prophets of Israel and Judah fought a valiant rear-guard action against wizards, necromancers, and sooth-sayers. But they lacked the conceptual equipment to see that magic was not only a religious impropriety but a sheer impossibility; and they never cleared their mind of the notion of miracle which is the intellectual foundation of magic. Miracle remained a permanent feature of Hebraic as of Greek, and, later, Christian piety."
(Studies in Greek Philosophy, Vol. I).

Do these lines suggest, as it seems, that miracles are irreligious, because they are the foundation of magic, and therefore the propriety of a lower form of religious beliefs? Can we attribute these words to the fact that Vlastos, though Greek, came from a Protestant background, and so believed that miracles no longer belonged to this world after the Incarnation?

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615 Posts

Posted - 25 Mar 2008 :  02:25:44  


In any case, miracles are not at the center of faith, although sometimes want to occupy such a place. That a miracle is "sheer impossibility", as Vlastos says, I believe there is no proof. Thus here Vlastos exposes his own faith, not a criticism, and I'm not even sure that this is protestant. My sense is that Protestants deny (some of) the Church mysteries, for known reasons, but not the unforseen miracles.

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