Religion and Philosophy: Overview
Religion and Philosophy: Overview
264-476: Religion and Philosophy: Overview
What is Religion?. What we might call religion appeared along with homo sapiens sapiens in the Paleolithic era, about fifty thousand years ago. These people left signs of belief in some supernatural reality beyond the physical experience. They buried their dead together with personal belongings such as jewelry, weapons, and clothing. They also painted pictures of animals they hunted on the walls of caves and ritually preserved the remains of animals they killed and ate. We deduce from these remains that early human hunters identified with the animals they killed, that they felt anxiety about killing and eating “one of their own,” and that they tried to restore them to life. Early religion therefore seems marked by concern with hunting, food, death, and a wish to restore the dead to life. We do not have enough evidence to speak about the origins of religion, however. Nor can we speak of the purpose of religion, for that assumes that religion was deliberately invented; we can only observe its features and qualities. But we can say that it is universal: wherever we find human beings, we find religion too. We might even define man as homo religiosus. The elements of religion are also universal: prayers and hymns, sacrificial offerings, sacred places, and images of divine beings. We must try to account for the universality and common structure of religion. The answer to this search lies in the way human beings, regardless of time, place, or race, live together.
Religion is Communal. We tend to think now that religion is mostly a private matter, between an individual person and his or her god or gods. But when we consider religion as practiced from the most remote antiquity, we must note first that religion is communal that is, religious acts belong to communities, not to isolated individuals. Religion is shared—first by families and kinship groups, then it is extended to include others not related—thus creating a kind of artificial family. Religion is one of the most important ways by which human beings organize themselves into societies. It seems to do this by forming a system of mutual responsibilities and privileges around the common concerns of food, death, and preservation of life. Religion assures an individual of receiving a proper funeral by requiring him or her to attend to these duties for others, and it involves community members in the hunting, gathering, and preparing of food through the ceremonial sharing of a meal. We might say that religion defines a family and a community by establishing customs and standards of right action. These customs and standards allow us to live together productively in relative peace.
Religion is Ceremonial. We also tend to think that religion is mostly a matter of personal belief. But again, when we look at religion over the long span of time and consider its universal qualities, we see that it is also essentially ceremonial, for group participation requires outward signs of inner belief. An individual’s religious beliefs are complex; we often hold conflicting views simultaneously, and our thoughts change greatly over the course of our lives. The individuals within a group of people celebrating a religious rite may have different ideas about the reality behind the ritual, but they participate in the same actions. And this too is a critical point: one’s personal beliefs vary and change, but a group’s ceremonies tend to remain quite constant. In fact, a community’s religious identity is practically the same thing as the ceremonies they perform. Thus, it is important for these rituals to be taught to each succeeding generation and in such a way that they tend to be performed with little change. Participation in religious acts binds individuals to a group, one generation to the next. Such rituals become traditional, carefully passed from age to age, and shape the group’s idea of itself over a long period of time.
Religion is Conservative. Religion therefore is conservative and necessary in maintaining a society’s stability; it tends to promote a society’s success. In any community there is political strife; there are hostilities, enmities, and jealousy. Feuds between individuals may escalate to involve clans and may threaten the society’s survival. But religious obligations and traditional standards of behavior tend to keep societies from destroying themselves over temporary or individual issues. It does so by constant reference to the society’s common, age-old acts of worship, its religious duties. Ritual also serves to distinguish the different roles of a society’s members, such as male and female, young and old, parent and child, and to give each role its honor. Religion is no guarantee of order, but it does tend to preserve order.
Religion at Rome. If we keep in mind that religion is essentially communal, ceremonial, and conservative, we can understand more easily why Sallust (86-35 B.C.E.), an historian of the time of Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.E.), called the Roman people religiosissumi mortales, the most religious beings. It is also necessary to understand that in the Romans’ view of themselves every civic act had a religious justification. Elections, meetings of the Senate, declarations of war, a general’s decision to commence battle—all these and more began with sacrifices, prayers, vows, and the consultation of the will of Jupiter Best and Greatest, the supreme god of the Roman people. If these acts were correctly performed, and if the permission of Jupiter was obtained for a given act, then, in effect, the Romans, under the leadership of their public officials and military commanders, were carrying out the will of the gods. That is a powerful force in the creation of an empire.
Religion and Government. This importance of religion does not mean, however, that the Romans practiced “theocracy,” a government of priests devoted exclusively to governing for religious purposes. Educated Romans certainly understood the difference between politics and religion; the question for them was more a matter of what relationship existed between these two institutions. In the United States we have become used to an ideal of “separation of church and state,” that is, that government will not involve itself in matters of religion. To the Romans this separation would have seemed insane. The orator and philosophical essayist Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.) wrote:
Our ancestors wanted the same persons to be responsible for the cult of the immortal gods and for the most important affairs of state; in this way the best and most outstanding citizens might preserve our religion by their good political administration, and preserve the state by their wise management of our religious affairs. (Cicero, On His House 1.1)
Cicero elsewhere argued that religion was the foundation of the state, an opinion expressed by many other Roman writers. They all agree that the Romans’ painstaking attention to every detail of ritual, prayer, and ceremony was what made the Roman people worthy of empire. Polybius, a Greek historian of the third to second centuries B.C.E., agreed, though he was more matter-of-fact in his opinion:
The respect in which the Roman constitution is most markedly superior is their behavior towards the gods. It is, I think, the very thing that brings reproach amongst other peoples that binds the Roman state together: I mean their superstitiousness. For nothing could exceed the extent to which this aspect both of their private lives and of their public occasions is dramatized and elaborated. Many would find this astonishing. To me at least it seems clear that all this has been done for the sake of the common people. For if you could form a state entirely out of wise men, then perhaps it would not be necessary to adopt this course. But since the mass of every people is fickle and full of lawless desires, irrational anger and violent impulses, it is essential that they should be restrained by invisible terrors and suchlike melodramas. That is why I do not accept that the ancients were acting irrationally or at random when they introduced the notion of the gods or ideas about the terrors of Hades; it is rather our contemporaries who are being rash and unreasonable in banishing these. (Polybius, Histories 6.56.6-12)
Religion and Politics. The Romans were skilled at using religion to gain political advantage. For example, Julius Caesar, after he had defeated his political rivals in a bloody civil war and assumed dictatorial power, dedicated in triumph a temple to Venus Genetrix, or Venus the Mother, in 46 B.C.E. Romans generally considered themselves descendants of Venus through the Trojan hero Aeneas, her son by a mortal man. In particular, Caesar claimed direct personal descent from Venus through Aeneas’s son lulus, the legendary founder of the Julian family. Caesar had this temple built right next to the Senate House, the center of Roman political activity. In doing so, he made it clear that, by the will of the divine mother of the Roman race and his own ancestor, he was entitled to assume full and personal control over Rome and its empire. To worship Venus Genetrix was virtually to worship—certainly to venerate—Julius Caesar. There are many other such examples, both before and after Caesar’s time.
Religion and Citizenship. Did the Romans cynically exploit religion for political ends? From our perspective, maybe, but not necessarily from theirs. To be a Roman citizen meant chiefly to worship the gods of the Roman people and to receive the protection of those gods in turn. The public religion was a “civic polytheism,” that is, that the number and variety of gods not only reflected the various backgrounds of the people but united them. The long-lasting success of the Roman empire was due, as they themselves recognized, to the way their religion organized them into a cohesive society; it justified their political and military acts and preserved their customs and values. From this point of view it is easier to understand why Rome was hostile to such foreign religions as Judaism or Christianity, which forbade their members from participation in the Roman public religion. But it is also easier to see how important that religion was in making one coherent whole out of all the many races and cultures that made up the Roman empire.
Kinds of Evidence. That having been said, however, an important question must now be asked: how can we know if the Romans really were the “most religious beings?” What evidence supports the claim that religion was so important in the Roman world? After all, religion exists only in the moment: prayers vanish on the wind, and beliefs are intangible. We need something more concrete and permanent by which to evaluate their claim. We have two kinds of evidence for Roman religiosity: literary and physical.
Literary Evidence. It is essential to bear in mind that Roman religion was not a “scriptural” religion. Unlike most modern “revealed” religions such as Christianity, Islam, or Judaism, it did not have a body of sacred writings that served to conduct a community of believers in living their lives. In that sense, at least, ancient Roman religion did not have a literature. But precisely because of its ceremonial, communal, and conservative nature, Roman religion produced—even required a body of what we would consider technical writings. The most important of these writings came to be known as the annales maximi, “The Yearbooks of the Pontifex Maximus,” that is, of the chief priest of one department of the public religion. According to our sources, the Pontifex Maximus would each year mount a painted white board, or album, on an outside wall of the Regia, the office of the pontifical priesthood in the Roman Forum. On this board would be painted all the important events of each year: election of public officials, military matters, and important religious occurrences such as prodigies and omens, and what official actions were taken concerning them. Their style was simple and matter-of-fact, not what is generally thought of as “literary.” These yearbooks eventually became the standard reference for Roman historians. While the yearbooks themselves no longer survive, the religious portions of these records were preserved in later historical works. Livy, an historian of the first century B.C.E. under Augustus, the successor to Caesar and the first emperor (63 B.C.E. to 14 C.E.), is a leading example of this method of historical writing. Livy is an invaluable source of information about religious institutions and actions before Rome had a written history.
Priestly Records. There were several public priesthoods, each responsible for a different area of the people’s religion. They each kept records of their activities, such as election of priests, ceremonies performed, and, in the case of the more important priesthoods, decisions they made on technical questions of religion or advice they gave to the Senate on such occasions. These decrees and responses probably formed a large part of their archives. They tended to be conservative, for they established precedents or examples to follow in similar instances in the future. For a Roman the mos maiorum, “the way of our ancestors,” was always the surest guide to right action. In no area was this more important than in religion.
Handbooks. These priestly records in turn served as the source for unofficial technical handbooks on religious practices. It is important to remember the words of Cicero. Roman religion, with a few notable exceptions, did not have a special caste or class of hereditary priests. The very same men served simultaneously as lawmakers, generals, and priests. In fact, almost all important religious acts undertaken on behalf of the Roman people were performed not by priests but by elected public officials. It might be the case that these men also belonged to one or several priesthoods, but they performed sacrifices, vows, gave games, dedicated temples, and took auspices as magistrates, not as priests. As such, they needed to have a convenient source of information on the correct wording of a certain prayer, or the correct procedure to carry out a sacrifice, and so on. For this purpose they kept handbooks, derived and excerpted from the priestly archives. These works in turn tended to become more generally available to educated private Romans.
Authority on Religion. Cicero again deserves special notice for his interest in Roman religion. In addition to revealing much about the details of Roman public religion in his letters and speeches, Cicero also wrote, among his philosophical works, two that concern us: On Divination and On the Nature of the Gods. These books treat the subject of religion more from a theoretical and intellectual point of view, but they give us an invaluable and intimate look at the sometimes conflicting attitudes of a traditional Roman who is also a well-educated and rational thinker. Cicero is especially important for another reason: from the age of fifty-three until his death ten years later, he was a public augur and knowledgeable about augural matters.
Antiquarian Writers. Finally, the Romans’ great interest in their traditions led to the composition of what is called antiquarian literature, in which certain public institutions, including religion, were systematically collected and treated. An important example of this kind was the Investigations of Human and Sacred Things by Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 B.C.E.), one of ancient Rome’s greatest scholars. This work exists now only in the form of excerpts and quotations found from later writers, but enough remains to give us an idea of the interest in religious antiquities among educated Romans. Other such examples are the much later Attic Nights, by Aulus Gellius (born circa 125 C.E.), and the Saturnalia, by Macrobius (third-fourth centuries C.E.), which attest to the popularity of matters of pagan religious ceremony long into the Christian era. Their sources were indirect: histories, such as Livy’s, poetry, and religious handbooks. Still, they often preserve important information.
Inscribed Evidence. Epigraphy includes inscriptions (records carved on stone or bronze), calendars, and coins; in fact, calendars and coins are only special kinds of inscriptions. We have some two dozen ancient Roman calendars, mostly in fragmentary form, including one from the time before Caesar undertook a major reform of the Roman calendar in 45 B.C.E. These works are important because they tell us how the Romans regulated the passage of time by observing annually recurrent holidays. They also record changes in Roman religion, the addition of new gods, and so on. Coins tell us about the importance of priesthoods and the political aspect of public religion, and they often give us miniature illustrations of temples that no longer exist.
Art and Architecture. Roman art and architecture are temples, shrines, statues or sculptures of the gods, and especially frescoes and mosaics that preserve many important details of sacrifice, worship, and ritual. By studying the archeology of a temple we can learn a great deal about how the cult of a particular god or goddess changed—or remained the same—over long periods of time. We can learn much about the rituals of sacrifice and priestly costumes from sculptures such as those on the Altar of Peace constructed by Augustus. Statues tell us something about how Roman people imagined their gods and how closely they were identified with the Roman people as a whole. But it is important to note that, wherever possible, literary evidence must be supported by physical evidence, and vice versa. Relying on one or the other source exclusively can lead to misunderstanding.
Historical Growth. The evidence we have, taken all together, documents the history of Roman religion. It is not a perfect history, unfortunately; many questions must remain unanswered until we acquire more evidence. Still, we do have enough information for a good outline with considerable detail in some areas. We can see fairly clearly that Roman religion developed over a long period of time through the alternate tendencies of continuity and change. This religion was extremely traditional, but it also had to serve the needs and purposes of real people in real times of changing circumstances. As Rome’s political power grew to become an empire all around the Mediterranean Sea and all of western Europe, the people of Rome acquired new gods, symbols of their world domination. There was therefore an extraordinary increase in their pantheon. Gods came and went, but ceremonies tended to stay the same. For example, a traditional rite would be adapted to accomodate a newly adopted deity, or the basic structure of a public holiday would be modified to serve the cult of the imperial families in later Roman history, or the ancient priestly titles of the pre-Christian religion would be applied to Christian priests and bishops. In fact, the Pope, head of Roman Catholicism, is still called Pontifex Maximus.
“Original” Roman Religion?. Can we find an “original” Roman religion? Can we peel back all the historical layers to get down to the authentic religion? Some great scholars have tried, but with only limited success. They began with the evidence of the calendars. They noted that some gods’ names and holidays are written in larger letters, and that these gods tended to be those worshiped throughout Roman history. Their theory was that some deities were “native-born,” others “newcomers,” and that each group was worshiped differently from the other. But other scholars observed from literary and physical evidence that there was never any such distinction in the Romans’ Own ideas about their gods.
Early Latins and Rome. We know from physical evidence that from the late Bronze Age, about 1000 B.C.E., an ethnic group called the Latini inhabited the broad plain known as Latium,“The Wide Place,” in central Italy. They spoke a common language and were loosely united under a common worship of luppiter Latiaris, “Jupiter of the Latin People,” who allegedly lived on the top of the Alban Mountain, about fifteen miles southeast of the later site of Rome. Rome itself began to emerge as a permanent Latin settlement during the mid eighth century B.C.E., agreeing pretty well with the legendary founding of Rome by the hero Romulus on 21 April 753 B.C.E. It was inhabited by several groups of people, probably shepherds who lived in palisaded hill-forts on rocky outcrops of the Apennine Mountains, the hills of Rome.
Importance of the Forum. The early inhabitants of “Rome” deposited their dead in a marshy low-lying area between these hills—the later Roman Forum. The oldest layer of graves was of cremated dead, followed in later times by inhumed, or buried, corpses. The different burial customs do not necessarily indicate a change in religious beliefs, however. The remains also reveal that essentially the same rites were performed over the graves: the sacrifice of a pig, the consumption of a ritual meal by the family of the deceased, and offerings of grains and vegetables. This area, then, served as a common village burial ground for hundreds of years. The Forum and the hills overlooking it would later become the religious heart of the city, the place for all the most important temples and ceremonies. If you stood in the center of the Forum you would be entirely surrounded and looked down on by all the most powerful gods of the Roman people. Eventually, it became illegal to cremate or bury anyone within the pomerium, the sacred limit of the city, especially in the Forum. In a way, we can say that the whole city within this sacred limit became a holy area. Thus, it was highly significant that Julius Caesar, after he was assassinated on 15 March 44 B.C.E., was cremated in the Forum and, when he was declared a god, that a temple was established on the site of his cremation.
Religious Diversity. Throughout Roman history we find repeated testimony of the willingness of the Romans to accept new ways and new people into their society. Early legends of the founding of Rome speak of the first citizens as runaway slaves, thieves, and refugees from other nations. The early inhabitants of the new city were soon joined by people from neighboring Italian tribes, who no doubt brought with them their ancestral religious practices. For example, Roman foundation legends (though probably not systematically composed until the mid third century B.C.E.) speak of the earliest period of Rome’s history, the Monarchy or Regal Period (753-509 B.C.E.), as a series of seven kings, each bringing religious institutions to the new community from their different ethnic backgrounds. Romulus, the Alban founder, instituted the practice of taking auspices. His successor, Numa Pompilius, was a Sabine who is said to have established the calendar, the cult of Vesta, the priesthood of the pontifices, and so on.
The Etruscan Contribution. Later kings, the Tarquins, were Etruscan, and of a different ethnicity entirely. The first Tarquin king had the Forum drained by means of a sewer, thus making the ancient cemetery a real city center, but keeping its sanctity intact. Other kinds of augury, especially the observation of lightning and the entrails of sacrificed animals (haruspicy) were added to Roman religion from the Etruscans, as were gladiatorial contests—originally a funeral custom. Servius Tullius, ethnically a Latin but raised in the household of the Etruscan kings, is said to have brought the goddess Diana from her ancient Latin sanctuary of Aricia in the Alban hills and to have established her in a new temple on the Aventine Hill in Rome. By so doing he increased Rome’s authority over other Latin states. The last of these kings, Tarquinius the Arrogant, established the cult of Jupiter Best and Greatest on the Capitoline Hill. Though the Romans forcibly removed this Tarquin from the throne and set up a republican government in 509 B.C.E., they still maintained his religious institution for a thousand years thereafter.
Influence of Individuals. This long process of bringing gods to Rome also served to heighten the prestige of individuals and families within Rome’s ruling elite. For example, in 204 B.C.E., during Rome’s desperate struggle against the Carthaginian general Hannibal, a goddess from Asia Minor, the Great Mother of Gods, was brought to Rome through the personal initiative of Publius Cornelius Scipio, who at that time was Rome’s leading general in the war against Carthage. This was a very public confirmation, not only of Rome’s extension of power into the far Greek East but especially of the importance of the Scipios in Roman politics at that time. This process continued with the adoption by Augustus of Apollo as his personal protective deity. The public worship of Apollo developed into a close identification with the worship of the emperors and their families—another example of a private cult becoming public. Rome had long had interest in Egypt, which became the private province of the emperors from the time of Augustus. This acquisition led to the spread of Egyptian cults, especially those of the gods Isis and Serapis, throughout the Empire, largely by soldiers in Rome’s armies. We might say that this process culminated in the adoption by the emperor Constantine (272-337 C.E.) of Christianity. His successors made the new religion the “official” one of the whole Roman world. Gradually the ancient pre-Christian gods disappeared, but many elements of the traditional religion were absorbed into Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity.
Greek Influences. From the earliest times, perhaps well before Rome was a unified city in any sense, the Greek hero-god Herakles, known to the Romans as Hercules, was worshiped at his Greatest Altar in another forum, the Cattle Market, between the Palatine Hill and Tiber River. According to his mythology, Herakles, as he was driving the magical cattle of Geryon back to Greece from the otherworldly Red Island, killed the monster Cacus near that spot. Soon after the Republic was established, the Greek god Hermes, called Mercurius by the Romans, was included among the people’s gods, as were Ceres, Liber, and Libera, the Roman names for the Greek deities Demeter, Dionysus, and Kore, a few years later. At that time Greek civilization, especially in Athens, was nearing its highest point. It was Rome’s Etruscan kings who had developed commercial and political contacts with the Greek world. Though Rome would not reach such a height for another four hundred years, the adoption of Greek gods was a way for the young Republic to assert itself as an emerging power to be recognized in the larger Mediterranean world. Later, during its wars with the African city of Carthage throughout the third century B.C.E., Rome adopted many other gods from Greece. In this way Rome increased and demonstrated her influence over Greek cities, especially those in southern Italy and Sicily, whose loyalty shifted continually between Rome and Carthage.
Greek Myth and Roman Religion. Here we must distinguish between Greek mythology and real Roman religion. The culturally advanced Greeks were distantly related to the Romans. Both peoples belonged to what is called the Indo-European family, a race of people who originally spoke dialects of the same language and shared essentially the same religious systems. The Greeks maintained the traditional Indo-European mythology, including stories of the gods’ adventures among themselves and mortals. In general, Greek myths were more closely related to actual Greek religion. The Romans, on the other hand, converted many of those myths into their early political history. Properly speaking, we have no Roman mythology. Varro tells us, furthermore, that there was not even a statue of a god in Rome until almost two hundred years after the city was established. Much later the Romans adopted Greek gods and goddesses into their religion and consciously imitated the Greeks in their art and literature, especially in poetry of the first centuries B.C.E. and C.E. What is important to note is that the Greek myths do not represent what most Romans thought about their gods, nor do they tell us much at all about how the Romans practiced their religion.
Greek Philosophy and Roman Religion. We can also say that the Romans did not have any philosophy of their own; this they likewise learned from the Greeks. Greek thinkers from the sixth century B.C.E. on tried to discover the physical nature of the universe, including the nature of the gods. They sought to find the few essential elements of which all things are composed. On that basis they inquired about the best way for humans to live in order to be happy. Human ethics, they felt, had—or perhaps did not have—something to do with the way the gods had structured the physical universe. Greek thinkers sought the relationship between human reason, or science, and human good.
Roman Attitudes toward Greek Philosophy. The Romans were suspicious of Greek philosophy for a long time; to them it seemed unmanly and a waste of time. Roman contact with Greece became much more intense and permanent during the wars with Carthage, and after about 150 B.C.E. it became more respectable for Roman families to send their sons to cities such as Athens, Pergamum, and Antioch, where they studied for several years in one or several Greek philosophical schools. One might expect that philosophy would have had a harmful influence on traditional Roman religion, making it more rationalistic and secular; but in fact, educated Romans such as Cicero were able simultaneously to maintain both the intellectual views of the gods proposed by Greek thinkers as well as the traditional ceremonies and customs of the ancestral Roman religion. To understand this practice, it is important to remember that ancient religion did not depend as much on dogmatic systems of belief, prescribed in written texts, as modern religions. Still, it is also well to remember that the Romans periodically expelled philosophers from Rome.
The “Pre-Socratic” Thinkers. Socrates of Athens (469-399 B.C.E.) has come to represent an epochal change in the history of Western thought. In fact, the term “philosophy” seems to date from the time of Socrates’ follower Plato; thus, it is erroneous to use it of thinkers before Socrates’ time. Historians of philosophy therefore give the name “PreSocratics” to a dozen or so Greek thinkers who were active before or no later than Socrates. The earliest of these is Thales, who lived in the early sixth century B.C.E., and the latest is perhaps Democritus, who was born around 460 B.C.E. Thus, they represent more than a century of sustained energetic speculation about nature, the gods, and man’s experience and knowledge of reality. In fact, the Pre-Socratic tradition is really a kind of evolved form of Greek myth in a more rational age; many of the Pre-Socratic thinkers wrote in poetic verse.
Pre-Socratic Thought. There is no one “school” of thought among the Pre-Socratics. Most of them were highly original and independent thinkers. We do not have much left of what they wrote; for the most part we have only fragments preserved in the form of quotations by later writers. So it is risky to assume that we know exactly what, for example, Empedocles thought about this or that. Still, we can say that there were a few essential questions that they debated: is the physical universe a unity, or composed of separate elements? If it is a unity, how do we explain the unlimited variety of observable things? If the universe is composed of elements, are these elements in harmony with one another, or in a state of perpetual conflict? Are the physical elements of nature everlasting, or do they perish? Is existence a permanent state, or are there cycles of coming-into-existence and destruction? They were also concerned with what we call epistemology: How do we know what we know? What are the senses, exactly? How does our knowledge correspond to external reality?
Monism vs. Atomism. Gradually, though, we can trace the outlines of two opposite views: monism and atomism. Monism is the belief that all things are really only forms of an original unity, the One. The Atomists, on the other hand, beginning with Leucippus, held that the universe was composed of an almost endless number of tiny elements, atoms or “seeds of things,” out of which everything we observe is composed. Even the senses were only streams of matter. Both schools struggled to discern the relationship between matter and space, or Void. The concept of Void was especially problematic, for it suggested that “Nothing” can be. If there can be Nothing, does that not suggest that the gods are limited, since there is an area of the physical universe where they do not exist? If the gods are limited, what does that mean for human relations with the divine? Are the gods involved in human affairs, or do they belong to another realm entirely?
Pythagoras: Religion and Science. One of the most influential of the Pre-Socratics was Pythagoras (mid sixth century B.C.E.), for he established the idea of “philosophy” as a way of life. To him is attributed a cluster of semireligious ideas, especially that of metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls into new bodies after death, or reincarnation. Followers of Pythagoras formed themselves into communities and lived according to rules of discipline, including vegetarianism. Pythagoras is also closely associated with the discovery of certain principles of mathematics; he and his followers believed that mathematics in nature was the result of the divine creation of the universe. Pythagoreanism, then, was a combination of science, religion, and ethics. He was thus a precursor to the philosophic schools of the fourth century. Most important for our purposes, Pythagoras settled in southern Italy, where his influence was widely spread long before Roman power extended into that area.
The Sophists. Into this arena of searching enquiry entered a generation of men known generally as the “Sophists.” They came to Athens primarily from Greek colonial cities on the west coast of Asia Minor, southern Italy, and Sicily. Like the Pre-Socratics (in fact, some of the Sophists are included among the Pre-Socratics), they formed no single homogeneous “school” of thought. Most of them gave lessons in rhetoric, the art of speaking persuasively to achieve legal and political success, but their interests varied widely. Several of them, especially Protagoras and Gorgias, seem to have challenged prevailing moral views.
Uncommon Philosopher. Socrates was not really a philosopher in the common sense. He did not conduct a school where he taught a system of philosophical principles, nor did he leave any written work. But he had a profound influence on aristocratic young Athenian men of his day. This is important to note, because Athens at this time was at the peak of its cultural and political majesty. What we know of Socrates comes chiefly from the works of his followers Plato (circa 429-347 B.C.E.) and Xenophon (born circa 430 B.C.E.), who wrote their works after Socrates’ death. From these we learn that Socrates, in reaction to the challenges posed by certain Sophists, began a life of intense self-examination and the critical scrutiny of the ideas of others. Socrates had heard from an acquaintance that the god Apollo, through his human spokeswoman the oracle at Delphi, had said that “Socrates of Athens was the wisest of mortals.” Not knowing how that could be, Socrates went about the city of Athens conversing with men such as the Sophists, who had a reputation for being wise and knowledgeable. In these conversations, or dialogues, Socrates would question the other person closely about the subject of which he claimed to be an expert. They were not debates, for Socrates himself did not take a given position in an argument. He put every idea of the other person to demanding tests of consistent logic and rational principles. This style of teaching and learning by conversation is still called the “Socratic Method.” Socrates often exposed that in fact these experts were frauds, that they knew nothing. Socrates concluded that he must be the wisest of mortals after all, if only because he alone knew that he knew nothing.
Socrates’ Daimonion. Naturally, Socrates offended many Athenians by his lifestyle and his often embarrassing examinations of others’ ideas. He was finally tried on charges of introducing new gods to Athens and of corrupting the youth of the city. We have a version of the speech he made in his self-defense in Plato’s Apology. In it he explains how, in the course of his life, he had learned to listen to an inner voice within him, a daimonion or divine spirit, which must also be in every man. It was this daimonion, he said, that drove him incessantly to search out the truth of all things, though it might mean incurring others’ disfavor. He did not mean to disobey the laws; but this inner voice spoke a higher law, which we must obey. The unexamined life, Socrates said, is not worth living for a hujury, which then sentenced him to death. After conversing, as always, with his friends, Socrates drank a cup of hemlock poison and passed away.
Plato and the Academy. Socrates had many aristocratic young followers, including the brilliant Plato (circa 429-347 B.C.E.). Plato imitated Socrates to a certain extent, retiring from the active political life of his city and devoting his life to the pursuit of wisdom, philosophia. But he formalized what was only casual in Socrates, for he established a permanent school of philosophic inquiry. He would meet his students in the sacred grove of the Athenian hero Akademos; thus, Plato and his followers and their characteristic thoughts are known as the Academy, from which we derive the term. His students ranged in age from the late teens to early middle age. Plato’s writings, as mentioned, are in the form of dramatic dialogues, most (but not all) involving Socrates in conversation with others. These talks concern, in one form or another, the right way for human beings to live in order to be happy. Plato never introduces himself as a participant in these dialogues, so it is difficult to learn from them exactly what Plato himself actually thought. Plato invites the reader to engage in an ongoing and never-completed discussion about what the highest values are, convinced that there are such values and that they are objective and knowable, though there may never be one simple, clear definition of them. Plato is most closely identified with a certain idealism: the things we observe in our reality are but images of original, divine, and perfect “forms” that we cannot see in this life. Plato’s struggle was to discover what the highest good in each thing is, so that one can live one’s life according to a principle of moral priorities. We make ourselves unhappy, he might say, by putting lesser things, such as money and physical pleasure, ahead of things that are really most important. The scholarchs (or heads) of the Academy continued in an unbroken line from Plato until the first century B.C.E.; the influence of the school may be seen in the philosophical writings of Cicero.
Aristotle and the Lyceum/Peripatos. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.), one of the world’s greatest geniuses, was a student of Plato for more than twenty years. After serving as tutor for a while to the young Alexander the Great, Aristotle established his own school in the Lukeion, a precinct sacred to Apollo. They met in the shaded portico of the sanctuary, called the peripatos, or “strolling place”; his school of thought is now generally known as the Peripatetic. Aristotle developed Plato’s theory of objective reality and priorities, that is, that all things can be known, and that, by establishing the highest type of each thing, one can then classify all things in a rational, hierarchical order. This system depends on careful observation of things as they really are and on the ability to make fine distinctions between the qualities of things. Aristotle is associated with the “teleological” method, that is, that everything in nature has an ultimate end or telos toward which its own inner nature, derived from its divine creation, directs it. Knowing the telos of each thing is the only way we can classify things and know the best type of each class; this in turn allows us to organize our knowledge. Aristotle really sought a method of universal or encyclopedic knowledge. He turned his and his students’ talents and energies to collecting data from all areas of experience: biology and other sciences, literature, politics, ethics and morals, and so on. His influence on Western thought has been enormous, and his methods really formed the basis of the modern educational system. As a rhetorician, for example, he profoundly influenced Roman theorists such as Cicero and Quintilian.
Cynicism and Scepticism. Diogenes (circa 412-403 to circa 324-321 B.C.E.) challenged assumptions about customary ethics. As he saw it, man should live closer to his natural state, without laws, nations, marriage, social institutions, and so on. He lived on the street as a beggar and shamelessly performed all natural functions in public. Cynicism is important for two doctrines: “cosmopolitanism,” the belief that the world is one whole entity, that there are no states or countries, and that all men are “citizens of the world”; and “philanthropy,” a natural love of one’s fellow man. These concepts, especially the former, later became essential principles of Stoicism, an influential philosophy in Rome. Pyrrhon of Elis (circa 365-275 B.C.E.) also challenged conventions by reverting to questions posed by earlier Pre-Socratics about the validity of knowledge of reality. Pyrrhon and his followers, known as Sceptics, held that nothing can be known for certain; it is therefore wise to withhold one’s judgment about things.
Epicurus and the Garden. Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.) followed Leucippus and Democritus in the “atomistic” school of thought. According to this view, all nature is composed of atoms falling ever downward through the vacuum of infinite space. As they fall, they bond together randomly to form physical bodies. Even the senses, thoughts and feelings can all be explained as chance collections of atoms. Thus, there is no divine plan of creation. To be wise and happy in this life, one must free oneself from superstitious fears of gods and eternal punishments, and live in such a way as to neither do harm to others nor suffer pain oneself. This belief involves a retreat from active public life. Epicurus bought a large house and grounds in Athens, where he lived with his disciples, an early kind of communism, preceding that of early Christianity by several centuries. His school is therefore often referred to as the Garden. Epicurus’s philosophy found adherents later in Rome, especially among poets, such as Lucretius and Horace. Lucretius even wrote a long hexameter poem, On the Nature of Reality, in which he attempted to explain Epicureanism to a Roman audience.
Zeno and the Stoa. Zeno of Citium (335-263 B.C.E.) used to meet his students in a long covered portico in Athens called the Stoa; thus, the names Stoic and Stoicism. This philosophy belongs much more to the “monistic” view of reality, that is, that all things are part of a Unity and are directed by some divine plan toward some predetermined end. The wise person, then, will employ reason in his observation of physical nature to understand human ethics, the highest kind of study. As it developed, Stoicism came to express the view that each person’s life is determined by fate, and that God’s will pervades all things. The task for man is to accept that fate and divine will and live his life in accordance with them. Divine Providence will reveal its intentions only in the long course of time, in history. Stoicism was brought to Rome by Diogenes of Babylon, his student Panaetius, and the historian Polybius in the 150s B.C.E., and a little later by Panaetius’s student Posidonius, who was also an historian. Stoicism matched well the Romans’ Own view of the divine and of human responsibility to divine will. Stoicism became a powerful intellectual force justifying Rome’s imperial ambitions. There were several important Stoic writers in Rome and Rome’s empire, such as Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Christianity. Elements of traditional Roman religion and Greek philosophy were combined (and still survive) in Christianity. Pagan philosophers such as Socrates, Diogenes the Cynic, Epicurus, and Epictetus all served as models for early Christian saints and martyrs, whose lives, committed to the uncompromising search for truth, were often spent suffering poverty and persecution. The organizational system of priesthoods, and the ritual practices of Roman religion, were taken over when Christianity was adopted by later Roman emperors. It is impossible to understand Christianity without a knowledge of these important antecedents.