God in Pagan Thought
GOD IN PAGAN THOUGHT
The concept of God in primitive religions has been the subject of considerable dispute. Suffice it to say that the evolutionary theory whereby all primitive peoples are regarded as slowly developing from an initial polytheism toward a gradual monotheism has met with sufficient modifications in actual case studies as to have fallen somewhat out of favor. In addition to belief in a plurality of spirits, many primitive groups give evidence of a belief in a high god, in the sky or at a great distance, supreme, uncreated, molder of the present world, but often somewhat remote, and not regarded as interfering much, if at all, with the lives of men. Such a high god appears early in the creation myths of such peoples as the Australian aborigines and primitive Indians.
Primitive Religions. From Egypt come more sophisticated accounts of creation, with the self-emergence of the creator-god Atum and his organization of a preexisting chaos represented by four pairs of primordial
"gods." A cosmogony is effected by Atum's production from himself of another four pairs of gods who represent air and moisture, earth and sky, and the creatures of this world. In the so-called Memphis Theology, an attempt is made to go behind these physical terms to an account that stresses internal thought and external utterance as the process of creation, although the originator of the process, the Memphite god Ptah, is equated with the primeval waters out of which Atum emerged.
In Mesopotamian myth there is a gradual overcoming of the powers of chaos, culminating in the decisive victory of the god Marduk, a later version of the storm god Enlil, and himself to be replaced by the god Assur in subsequent accounts, when the power of Assyria had become dominant.
The Sumerian, Egyptian, and Assyro-Babylonian myths are of considerable interest to Hebrew scholars, and their literary forms provide parallels with the Book of genesis. More information on this subject is found elsewhere, as also on the Indian concept of Brahman and the origins of jainism, buddhism, and hinduism. Space limits the scope of this article to a survey of Greek thought.
Pre-Socratic Thought. The Babylonian, Egyptian, and Hittite myths are not without parallels in the earliest Greek cosmogonies, as found in Homer, Hesiod, Pherecydes of Syros, and the Greek lyric poets. The account of Oceanus as a broad stream encircling the earth and as the "begetter of gods" and the story of the mutilation of Ouranos by Kronos strongly suggest common sources. Again, the paramount figure to emerge from a succession of deified cosmic constituents is the god of thunder and lightning, Zeus, on a par with the storm gods Enlil and Marduk.
The pre-Socratic philosophers present no sharp break with the mythologists and cosmogonists who were their forerunners. They are representative of a gradual change toward processes of discursive reasoning in accounting for physical phenomena. Thus the view of Thales that the earth rests on water or that water is the principle of all things and that "all things are full of gods" has obvious parallels in Egyptian creation myths and in the typical Mesopotamian attitude to the surrounding physical world. To his first principle, the "Indefinite," Anaximander applies the Homeric epithets reserved for the gods, i.e., "eternal (or immortal) and free from old age." For Anaximenes "air" or "mist" was divine and the source of all the gods. Thus the Milesian thinkers closely identified their prime cosmological constituents with the divine, apparently while continuing their adherence to the gods of traditional religion.
With Xenophanes of Colophon and heraclitus of ephesus, however, one meets with some outspoken criticism of accepted religious belief and practice. Xenophanes criticized the concept of the gods in Homer and Hesiod as anthropomorphic, and their behavior as immoral. In their place he posited one God, completely unlike mortals, who moves all things by the thought of His mind. Heraclitus, on the one hand, identified God with the Logos, or principle of balance in all things, and with cosmic fire or Zeus; on the other hand, he criticized the excesses of superstition and obscenity in traditional cults.
Other thinkers, such as pythagoras and parmenides, do not seem to have made any explicit equation between their first principles or view of reality and any divinity. empedocles personified the cosmic forces of love and strife and made Aphrodite prior to the other gods, but he was sharply critical of the anthropomorphism and cruel bloodshed embodied in religious mythology. anaxagoras made the important contribution of considering that the whole cosmological process is controlled by a transcendent Mind, which he termed "infinite" and "self-ruled," but did not explicitly describe as "divine." Finally Diogenes of Apollonia reverted to the notion of "air" as the basic substance, but this "air" is both intelligent and divine.
In summary, these pre-Socratic thinkers tended to identify God with their primary cosmological principles, much in the tradition of the earlier mythologies, but criticism of traditional religion and refinement of the notion of deity was also current among some of them, as among some of the Greek poets who were their contemporaries. The poets had received from Homer and Hesiod the notion of Zeus as a god of justice and retribution, along with less edifying stories about the Olympian deities. All of this was accepted more or less uncritically by Pindar; but especially with the Greek tragedians problems of human suffering, in particular fortuitous suffering on the part of the innocent, and questions of conflicting obligations in the moral order became paramount. There was a deep interest in human pride and in the workings of divine justice. The idea of the supreme deity was exalted and criticism of the inconsistencies of traditional religion became evident.
Greek Religions. Before going any further with this account, it is necessary to stress that the distinctive views of the Greek philosophers on God represent the thought of only a select minority. Throughout the period from the seventh century b.c. to the fourth century a.d. the various Greek communities lived a life that included social and personal religious worship, centered around a traditional plurality of gods, with special local cults and various modifications and accretions over the centuries, as well as the various equations made with Roman deities in the late republic and under the empire. The traditional Olympian gods, as established by Homer and Hesiod and hymned by later Greek poets, continued to be objects of worship, with Zeus assuming the role of father figure. The ecstatic worship of Dionysos, the cult of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis, the teachings of orphism, the consultation of Apollo at Delphi, and the religious brotherhood of the Pythagoreans were more particular manifestations of the religious spirit in close association with individual figures and localities. Alongside the legalistic and ritualistic relationship between the god and his worshiper ran an element of personal devotion and the desire to achieve purification of the soul by initiation into the mysteries, or even to achieve ecstatic union with the deity. This vast area of religious belief and practice provided a constant background to the views of the Greek thinkers. [see greek philosophy (religious aspects).]
Socrates and Plato. With socrates, one finds a belief in the conventional plurality of gods going hand in hand with references to "God" or "the god" in the singular. Socrates was too wise a man to think that human reason could settle every question; some matters were beyond it and needed the help of divine guidance (Xen. mem. 1.1). The final passage of Plato's Apology contains references to both "gods" and "God," and Socrates's last words in the Phaedo, "Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; do not neglect the debt but pay it," are no doubt meant to show his careful observance of traditional ritual.
In the writings of plato the role assigned to God gradually becomes more prominent. The Ideas, including the Idea of the Good, are universals or natures, whereas God is a being having a nature in a supreme degree. He is thus not to be confused with the Ideas, nor does he appear to be the cause of them, in spite of Republic 597, where for the sake of comparison God is said to have wrought the Ideal Bed. As the demiurge or "creator" of the Timaeus, it is his function to take over the chaos of disorder and reduce it to order, but he is limited by "necessity" and has to work with materials not created by him. The world soul and the heavenly bodies are also divine, although in a lesser degree. Man as the microcosm is to achieve happiness by regulating his actions on the model of the universe. This is what "becoming like to God as far as possible"—originally a reference to righteousness and wisdom (Theaet. 176A)—tends to become in the Timaeus, and this cosmic view of religion is emphasized in the Epinomis. Yet God is not merely some impersonal cosmic principle, but a person who is good and providential, the cause of good but not of evil, with whom a relationship of love may be cultivated (Leges 716). Indeed in some sense man's highest purpose is to be God's plaything (Leges 803C–E).
Certainly the overall impression given by Plato's writings is an atmosphere of great reverence for the divine, an exalted notion of it, and a strong desire for assimilation to it in some intimate personal relationship. To be more precise than this would be to state explicitly what Plato merely hints at implicitly.
Aristotle. There may be something of an evolution in the theology of Aristotle. Fragments of his early dialogues give evidence of an argument from the degrees of being for the existence of God, an argument from the order within the universe, and arguments from human experience in dreams, premonitions, and inner presentiment. There may be some traces of a divine providence in the early theory of star souls endowed with sight and hearing, and in the Eudemian Ethics the ultimate norm of human action is the service and knowledge of God. In several texts, however, Aristotle links nature and the divine and so paves the way for Stoic insistence on "life according to nature." In his later emphasis on cosmic religion, Aristotle undoubtedly follows the lead given by Plato in his Timaeus and Laws. God becomes the "Unmoved Mover" of the Physics, as required by current astronomical theories, a pure Intellect who moves the outermost sphere by desire, the desire finding realization in the perfection of circular movement as an imitation of the eternal "thinking upon thinking." God is identical with eternal life, because the actuality of thought is life, and this life is most good and self-sufficient. He is His own well-being, whereas man's good lies outside himself. Each of the heavenly spheres requires its own unmoved mover to account for its particular motion; what relationship exists between the Prime Mover and these other unmoved movers is not clear. There are traces in Aristotle of an interest in mystery religions and of a personal approach to God, but the main emphasis in his treatises is on a cosmic principle removed from any preoccupation with the universe or the men in it.
Stoicism and Epicureanism. The Stoics followed the emphasis in the later Plato and Aristotle on cosmic religion, while at the same time they looked back to Heraclitus. For them God is the active principle in the universe, the Logos, Fate, but also a creative fire, immanent and material in the sense of not separable from matter. The Logos contains within itself the seminal grounds of all things. God is also called Zeus and "Nature," as the law of the universe and universal providence. Other gods are admitted as names for the different aspects of the world. (see stoicism.)
For epicurus, perhaps influenced by Aristotle's Unmoved Mover, God is a living, incorruptible, and blessed being. Epicurus rejects popular theology as attributing to the gods qualities and characteristics incompatible with their nature. They are not concerned with the universe or with human affairs, since freedom from toil and disturbance are necessary prerequisites of happiness. In any case the universe contains so much evil that it could not be a work of the gods. Man is aware of the gods by means of fine mental images or effluences that come to him from them in sleep. They are an example for him to imitate in achieving tranquillity of soul. The wise man marvels at their nature and disposition, tries to draw near it, and even desires to achieve contact and union with it. Thus he is a friend of the gods, and they of him. Epicurus admits the gods of popular religion, suitably purified from superstitious notions, and even many deities besides. (see epicureanism.)
Later Greek Thought. The last century b.c. and the first two centuries a.d. were a period of conflation in Greek thought. The resurgence of interest in Plato's dialogues and Aristotle's treatises resulted in attempts to harmonize their views on God on the part of the Middle Platonists, who adopted the ways of negation, eminence, and analogy in speaking of the deity, and described the Platonic Ideas as the "thoughts of God." It remained for plotinus to bring this process to its culmination, but he was not an adherent of popular religion. He was more the philosopher of optimistic rational contemplation than a religious person. He refers to his supreme principle, the One and the Good, as "God" almost incidentally and uses both neuter and masculine pronouns with reference to it. The second hypostasis, "Nous," is referred to as "God" somewhat more readily. Yet the culmination of the soul's return is undoubtedly a personal and mystical union in the highest degree. porphyry says that Plotinus actually attained this state four times while in his company.
The tendency to make God ineffable and totally transcendent, evident even among the Middle Platonists, was pushed much further by the Gnostics, Hermetic writers, and later Neoplatonists. Faced with the task of reconciling Greek thought with a strictly monotheistic and creationist theology, the Arab thinkers who followed in the footsteps of the later Neoplatonists and Aristotelian commentators were the first, apart from St. Augustine, to build up a body of thought describing God's essence, causality, and relation to the world and men in philosophical terminology. The Christian medieval theologians and philosophers owe them a debt far greater than is generally appreciated. (see neoplatonism; patristic philosophy.)
Yet, throughout the long history of Greek thought, the notion of a strict monotheism does not seem evident. In company with other, more primitive peoples, the Greeks preserved a tradition of belief in a plurality of gods, with a special position assigned to Zeus as "high god." The tendency to deify cosmic forces carried over from mythology into rational thought. In addition, some of the foremost Greek thinkers produced concepts of supreme metaphysical entities, hardly personal at all, whose identification with the deity is somewhat casual, although the notion of the deity itself underwent considerable refinement.
See Also: religion; greek philosophy.
Bibliography: f. m. cornford, From Religion to Philosophy (New York 1912). w. w. jaeger, The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers, tr. e. s. robinson (Oxford 1947). r. k. hack, God in Greek Philosophy to the Time of Socrates (Princeton 1931). w. k.c. guthrie, The Greeks and Their Gods (London 1950). e. r. dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley 1951). a. m. j. festugiÈre, Personal Religion among the Greeks (Berkeley 1960); La Révélation d'Hermès Trismégiste, 4 v. (Paris 1944–54); Epicurus and His Gods, tr. c. w. chilton (Cambridge, Mass. 1956); Contemplation et Vie contemplative selon Platon (2d ed. Paris 1950). f. solmsen, Plato's Theology (Ithaca 1942). p. merlan, "Aristotle's Unmoved Movers," Traditio 4 (1946) 1–30. a. h. armstrong and r. a. markus, Christian Faith and Greek Philosophy (New York 1962).
[w. h. o'neill]