Sunday, June 24, 2012

New Directions for This Blog

The most important component of any blog is the content, which attempts to communicate information to the reader specific to the subject orientation of the site, but no blog can be successful unless the author finds ways to stimulate his readers and get them to return to the site.

There is a great deal of information that comes along with the words, such as images, maps, and charts that help frame the content of the postings and behind the article content sits the publications which act as source materials for the content.

I have recently been working to expand access to my background materials as a way to provide readers a pathway to more information, when  they want to go deeper into the subject matter. The tools for this new effort are Goodreads and Facebook.

For those of you not familiar with Goodreads -- you should be. This site collects lists of books by subject and includes member reviews of those books. You can put your own library up there as a contribution or just read what others have to say about books you’re interested in. Another feature allows you to search for booksellers who have the book and buy it right in Goodreads. You can also join any one of a variety of forums on different topics where members openly discuss issues that matter to them.

I have 136 of the books in my Goodreads booklist including about 80 books on the ancient world. Every book I use for my postings gets added to my booklist there.

To make supplementary materials available, I have created a Facebook page for the blog which you can see at:

Here I will be adding all of the image materials from the articles I post, including charts, artifacts, and maps of the ancient world -- located in the photo section organized by category. Not all of the materials are up there yet but I’m working on it. Take a look and see what you think.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Stoic-Christian Connection

We have been discussing the development of Stoicism as the leading Hellenistic philosophy so that we might look at its relationship to Christianity -- the theory being that Christianity has some Stoic ideas in it.

Think of the way early Christian leaders (circa 100 A.D. and beyond) viewed their situation. They believed in Jesus as the Messiah, based on the Gospels and the teaching of Paul, but those beliefs were missing a substantive philosophical framework, or more correctly a theology, that could be taught and defended. The only way to overcome this lack of structure was to create it.

But there is a problem with creating this framework -- objectivity. How do men living in a Hellenistic world permeated by Stoicism develop a Christian theology without being influenced by Stoicism? Only with difficulty it turns out. As discussed in a previous post, the Christian apologists had two adversaries: splinter religious groups like the Arians and Gnostics and more seriously the classic Greek philosophers who enjoyed centuries of wide acceptance. The reputation of the Greeks was too strong to dismiss out of hand, so many Christian thinkers made peace with the Greeks, either my attributing Christian beliefs to them or finding Christianity in their philosophy.

My source book for this discussion is The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition by Jaroslav Pelikan. Professor Pelikan was an eminent scholar in the history of the Catholic Church and Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale from 1972-1996. He wrote a five volume set on the Catholic tradition including the work cited above which serves as volume one.

Pelikan cites the closing of the Greek philosophical school by Justinian in 529 A.D. as the triumph of the church over pagan philosophy. Or as Gibbon put it,

“this was a time when Christian theologians superseded the exercise of reason, resolved every question by an article of faith, and condemned the infidel or skeptic to eternal flames.”

We start by highlighting the most famous work of Boethius (executed 522 A.D.) called Consolidation of Philosophy. This paradoxical work attempts to reconcile Greek philosophy and the Christian religion. The paradox derives from the fact that the book reads like its writer is a secular philosopher and not a devout Christian. Pelikan accuses Boethius of pressing reason to the boundaries of faith.

Pelikan also suggests that the triumph of Christianity over Greek philosophy was “Pyrrhic” because the victory by the former included the absorption of some of the tenets of the latter.

Let’s look at the example of transubstantiation. The fourth Lateran council of 1215 A.D. decreed that the sacrament of the altar .. the bread is substantiated into the body of Christ. Substance in this case is no more than the metaphysics of Aristotle as laid out in his fifth book on that subject. As Aristotle says, “A substance is not predicated of a subject but everything else is predicated of it. That which, being present in all such things as are not predicated of a subject, is the cause of its being, as the soul is of the being of an animal.” It follows then that if you are using Aristotle’s definitions, then you are embracing Aristotle. It’s not surprising that this issue has been cited as an example of the problem of “Hellenization of Christianity.”

Indeed, Christian doctrine still bears the marks of pagan philosophy which is the price paid for the triumph over it. How high a price? We need to look no farther than the apologists to answer that question.

Extremists labeled many of the theologians of the early church hellenizers, a purposeful derogatory sobriquet. They said of Origen, “While his manner of life was a Christian, contrary to law he played a Greek, and introduced Greek ideas.” They were critical of his kinship with the Greek philosophers regarding the immortality of the soul.

The same can be said of Tertullian. Unsure of the characterization of the soul in the scriptures, he called upon the Stoics to help him explain it as a spiritual essence.

And Clement of Alexandria describes virtue as “a will in conformity to God and Christ in life, rightly adjusted to life everlasting.” This is basic Stoic metaphysics.

Now we can see how the Greek philosophers in general (Plato and Aristotle) and the Stoics in particular were able to influence Christian theology. This influence was undoubtedly caused by:

1. The longstanding assimilation of Stoicism into Hellenistic thought and its subliminal influence over those living at that time.

2. The lack of a philosophical foundation in the Christian religion which was originally built solely on the facts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

3. The thought processes of early Christian theologians whose intellects required examining all fundamental ideas, even those originating from the pagan enemy.

At the end of the day, our discussion becomes esoteric because the "Pyrrhic" character of the Christian victory over pagan philosophy was forgotten long ago. Those elements formerly Greek stand today as Christian dogma.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Chronology and Theology of Stoicism

In the previous post we briefly discussed Stoic philosophy and hinted at a kinship with Christian philosophy. Now we will describe Stoicism in more detail and explain its standing in Eastern Europe and Asia during the time of Jesus.

The above chronology provides a snapshot of Stoic history. Of course the word Stoic comes from the meeting place of Zeno and his followers – the Stoa (covered porch) in the center of Athens. But Zeno was not from Athens. He was born in Citium, a town in southwest Cyprus. Immersed in philosophy from a young age, Zeno migrated to Athens in 311 B.C. at the age of 22. There he studied with the Cynic Crates, Polemo, head of the Academy, and the Megaric philosopher Stilpo. Finally rejecting Platonic metaphysics, Zeno launched his own school around 300 B.C.

There were three components to Zeno’s philosophy: ethics, physics, and logic. His ethics came from Cynic morality, physics from Plato’s Timaeus, and his logic  was a self-developed view of argument and theory of knowledge. Zeno believed that impressions could lead human beings to the external truths that help them understand the world.

By the time of Zeno’s death in 262 B.C. Stoicism had become the dominant Hellenistic philosophy. But with his death came a period of uncertainty among his followers, who did not know what direction to take. Because their mentor was more of an inspiration than systematic thinker, they began to distill Zeno’s teachings into dogma in an effort to create a formal structure for the philosophy. They called themselves “Socratics” and admired the life of their great predecessor.

But then a new leader arose, Chrysippus, a man who may have been greater than Zeno. He was inspirational but at the same time thoroughly analytical. At first Chrysippus was unhappy with the direction of the Stoic school based on doctrinal arguments with the school’s leader Cleanthes, but when the latter died in 230 B.C, Chrysippus became the leader. He helped create structure for Zeno’s beliefs and defended them without reservation. When Chrysippus died in 206 B.C. another leaderless period began.

By the middle 2nd century, the school was led by Antipater, who pushed for recognition of the relationship between Stoicism and Platonism. The common ground identified with the Academy would influence Stoic thinking for all of the future.

At this point in the chronology, I note an event that took place in the middle of the second century – I label it Stoic ambassadors to Rome. On this occasion, representatives of the Stoic school and the Academy traveled to Rome to protest a fine imposed on Athens for its sack of Oropus. During their visit, the Greeks lectured in sold out pavilions and overwhelmed the Romans with their intellectual power. This ignited a permanent interest in Greek philosophy in general and Stoicism in particular which lasted until the end of the empire.

By the late second century, Athens’s role as the center of Stoicism began to wane. The last Athenian leader, Panaetius, died in 110 B.C. without a successor. Posidonius, his pupil, opened a new school in Rhodes.

As the influence of Athens dimmed, the Stoic schools in Rhodes and Rome grew to replace it. By the end time of the Roman republic we see Stoics exerting great influence over Cicero and Brutus. Later Augustus hired Athenodorus to act as his philosophical advisor.

The peak for Roman Stoic thought was reached when Seneca, advisor to Nero, became the leader of the Roman Stoics. Seneca’s death removed the champion, but the belief system carried on through the time of Marcus Aurelius.

Our best sources for Stoic theology are Cicero and Sextus who wrote extensively in the first century B.C. What was this theology? Fundamentally, the Stoics sought to address three issues: 1) proving that the gods exist, 2) explaining the nature of the gods, 3) showing that the world is governed by the gods.

Many proofs are offered for the existence of god – most notably the ordered universe proving the existence of a creator with a guiding hand. Stoics also believed that atheism must be false because, if it were true, that would mean that man, with all his faults, is the highest being in the universe -- an illogical conclusion.

With respect to the nature of the gods, the Stoics provide a definition:

God is an immortal living being, rational, perfect and thinking in happiness, unreceptive of anything bad and provident with regard to the cosmos and the things therein. But he is not of human form. He is the demiurge of the whole and as it were the father of all things, both in general and insofar as the part of him is concerned which pervades all things, and which is called by many names, corresponding to its powers.

Both Zeno and Chrysippus claimed that the cosmos is the substance of god.

Next we turn to the problem of the world governed by gods and the implications of fate. This is the age old problem – if the gods have created a world that is pre-determined, then man has no control over things that happen to him,  is life still worth living?

To the Stoics, God as fate determines everything including setting the example for what is morally good. There is no separation between the divine and practical world. Both are operated by the same principles. Man can develop an understanding of God and the cosmos through divination – the subtle communication of God to man, but divination results from contemplation.

God operates through man via the Pneuma or divine essence. For an inanimate object, Pneuma is its physical properties, but in man Pneuma is the essence of reason which allows him to operate autonomously and interact with his environment. So the Stoics attempt a balance between the predetermined world created by God and the flexibility man can create through his individual personality.

Now that we have looked at some basic theology, how do we view Stoicism at the time of Jesus?

The Romans have been criticized for adding nothing to Stoic philosophy and his criticism is largely valid. Even in the case of Ethics where they spent most of their energy, the Romans concentrated more on the interpretation of Zeno and Chrysippus than they did on any new ideas.

Stoicism in the first century  A.D. was not a refined or reinterpreted version of the original, but a continuation of its founder’s ideals. The impact on Christianity, then, was mainly due to its penetration of Hellenistic culture over three centuries prior to its time. For those who embraced Stoicism at the time of Jesus, Christian philosophy appeared as a kindred belief system once it had gained the form of dogma.