Skip to main content

Greek Philosophy (Religious Aspects)


Two viewpoints respecting philosophy are in evidence from the 5th century b.c. to the end of antiquity. On the one hand, philosophy was regarded as a subject in higher education that should receive the attention of students completing their course in rhetoric and interested, to some extent at least, in metaphysical and ethical questions. The tenets of the various philosophical schools were examined in a sterile manner, and in the end many students took refuge in skepticism. For the majority of the educated class, philosophy remained a fashionable subject for discussion rather than a really vital one affecting their lives and conduct. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius undoubtedly wished to develop a more serious attitude toward philosophy when in a.d. 176 he established four chairs of philosophy at Athens, thus giving official recognition and support to the teaching of Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism.

On the other hand, philosophers themselves, beginning with Socrates and Plato, had insisted that philosophy should be concerned with all aspects of life if it was to form men useful to the state and capable of living a happy life, to say nothing of earning the rewards of an existence beyond the grave (cf. Plato, Republic 497C498C). This text alone suffices to suggest that Greek philosophy presented religious aspects during its history.

Main Religious Aspects . The religious aspects of Greek philosophy can be illustrated by four general views: 1. The philosopher as superior being, He can be considered a divine messenger and a miracle worker. His death can resemble that of a martyr, and he can become the object of worship as a hero or god. 2. The philosopher as teacher and missionary. The philosopher conforms his life to his principles, separating himself from the world and its possessions. He goes about preaching his doctrine and tries to convert others. He may become even a founder or member of a kind of pagan monastic community. 3. Philosophy as a school for life. Among intellectuals, especially, it often held the place occupied by religion in modern times. Conversion to philosophy often signified a radical change in values and the beginning of a new existence. 4. Philosophy as an explanation of the world and a way of salvation. It offered its adherents a clear and certain explanation of the world. For some centuries philosophers were the only men who pondered over the composition of the universe and its laws. At times it taught a way of salvation, in rivalry with or parallel to that presented by religions. The philosopher was a physician who took care of souls, and he was sometimes capable of achieving a mystical union with God.

It must be understood, however, that these different aspects are not found in all periods and at the same time in all the philosophical systems. They evolved gradually, and it is important to be precise with respect to the date at which any particular philosophy is being studied. However, it is not absolutely necessary to examine the teaching of each sect in detail throughout its history for two reasons. On the one hand, complex reactions of one system on another entailed syncretism respecting certain points of doctrine; and on the other, in the case of each sect, there were periods of decline followed by periods of renewed vitality.

Important Historical Facts . In the perspective of primary concern to this article, four historical facts must be explained and emphasized:

Major Interest in Moral Questions. From the time of socrates, there was a current that, according to Cicero, "forced the descent of philosophy from heaven to earth" (Cicero, Tusc. disp. 5.4.10) or, in other words, assured the priority of moral questions over metaphysical problems. This current was the chief factor in the success of Stoicism in the Roman world to the end of the second century a.d. The moralists of the Roman period were not really attached to any precise system. The maxim"hidden life" was adopted with enthusiasm by the Platonists and the Pythagoreans, and, although it was Epicurean, the Platonists attributed it to Pythagoras. The inscribing of Epicurean thoughts on tombstones became a common custom. Seneca admired the counsels of Epicurus as much as those of the Stoics, and Epictetus used to warn his disciples not to devote too much study to Stoic logic and physics, as he considered these subjects useless for the improvement of morals. Marcus Aurelius did not think that moral precepts should be changed according to one's belief in Providence or atoms, and Cicero's De officiis does not contain a word on Stoic physics. Thus, the ideal of human wisdom, divested of all social, political, or metaphysical complications, exercised a great influence not only on thinkers in the last period of antiquity, Christian as well as pagan, but also on those in the modern world, for Descartes returns repeatedly to the Stoic theme of philosophical resignation.

Common Agreement on World and World Order. In the first centuries a.d., philosophical and religious systems, however diverse, were in accord in their view of the world and the order of its parts. The universe was an organized whole, in which each part had its place as in a living organism; the universe was conceived of as finite and harmoniously arranged, a worthy object of religious contemplation, a model of order and regularity, to which all have the duty to conform their conduct. This vision of the universe was first presented by Plato in his Timaeus, and was accepted by Aristotle, who proclaimed the eternity of the world. The Stoics emphasized the living character of the universe, maintaining that it was inhabited by a soul that extended into all its parts. The doctrine of universal sympathy made the parts of this universe members, as it were, of the same body, and thus gave the Stoics a foundation for their astrological predictions and other forms of divination. Finally, Plotinus made a synthesis of earlier systems. He excluded the demiurge, but he did not exclude the intelligible model. He retained the world soul, but he was at pains to show that this soul was not an absolute principle, and he put the transcendence of the Aristotelian intellect above the immanent soul of the Stoics. [See J. Moreau, L'Idée d'univers dans la pensée antique (Turin 1953)].

Mystic Element in Pagan Philosophy. At the beginning of the Christian era, there was present, in the very heart of Hellenism, a body of ideas that can be called mystical. There are echoes of them in Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch, and Philo, and, among modern scholars, the name of Posidonius long sufficed to explain them. P. Boyancé has shown, however, that, while this current was opposed to the clearest teaching in the systems dominating thought after Aristotle, it had its roots in an idea found in philosophy itself, an idea connected with the social organization among the guilds of the Muses. The conception of music as having power to free and purify, a concept fundamentally ancient and Greek, played an essential role in the appearance of mystical ideas [see P. Boyancé, Le Culte des Muses chez les philosophes grecs (Paris 1937)].

Vogue of Religion in Second Century. In the 2d century a.d., the vogue for religion was evidenced at all levels of culture. The masses gave themselves over to Oriental and Egyptian cults and embraced magic with enthusiasm. Philosophers found in Plato the strongest encouragement to fuse philosophy and religion, so that the religious spirit among educated people in this period was colored by Platonisma Platonism, it must be admitted, that was rather questionable and spiritless. In the literature of the age, texts repeatedly proclaim the identity of religion and philosophy. For Maximus of Tyre (a.d. 125185), philosophy is man's sole faculty for prayer (Disc. 5.8). According to Apuleius, in commenting upon Plato (De Platone 2.7; 2.23), justice, queen of the virtues, is often identified with holiness, and the last word of wisdom is "Follow the footsteps of God." See M. Caster, Lucien et la pensée religieuse de son temps (Paris 1937). All Greek philosophy was hardly summed up in Neoplatonism, but that school did finally bring together all the religious forces of paganism, and it did last as long as ancient Greek culture itself, i.e., down to the 6th century.

Philosopher as a Superior Being

Veneration of the philosopher as a superior being and his deification are apparent in several schools. The best-known examples are Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato.

Deification of Pythagoras . from the age of Aristotle, Pythagoras was regarded as a miracle worker who became renowned for numerous prodigies and prophecies (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1398b). It may be surmised that he was honored as a hero. In any event, the Pythagoreans played an important role in the development of hero worship (Boyancé, op. cit., 223247). According to Aristoxenus (4th century b.c.), they thought of heroes as disembodied souls and as intermediaries between God and mortals. From the end of the Roman Republic, study of astral eschatology by intellectuals increased (see Cicero's Dream of Scipio ), and the subject was influencing public opinion. The name of Pythagoras was connected with that of the Pythian Apollo, and this alone was enough to reveal his divine mission and put into relief the Apollonian origins of his teachings (Diogenes Laertius, Vita Pyth. 8.21). His disciples called him divine, and, while not wishing to make him a god in the strict sense, they regarded him as belonging to an intermediate category between the divine and the human Aristotle, Fragments 187).

By the 1st century b.c. there was no longer any doubt about the divinity of Pythagoras, and his house at Metapontum (in Sicily) had become a temple in which he was worshiped (see Pompeius Trogus ap. Just. 20.4.1718). His legend was continually enriched, and its progress can be easily traced from Heraclides Ponticus (c. 390310 b.c.) to porphyry and Iamblichus. The Life of Pythagoras by Iamblichus, followed by the detailed account of the subject's virtues, inaugurated a type of biography that was destined to become a vogue (see Marinus's Vita Procli, 5th6th centuries). The Pythagoreans claimed they had a supernatural knowledge (gnosis ) and had no need of proof beyond the word of the master; "He said it" (ατòςφα), was an affirmation that could not be questioned (see Cicero, Nat. deor. 1.5.10).

Among the later Pythagoreans, special mention should be made of P. Nigidius Figulus, a friend of Cicero, who devoted himself to astrology and assumed a prophetic role, and Apollonius of Tyana, the famous miracle worker and seer. Both gloried in being Pythagoreans and prided themselves on their divinely inspired prophecies.

Religious Veneration of Socrates, Plato, and Others . Pythagoreanism undoubtedly should be regarded as a religion supported by philosophy rather than a religious philosophy proper. But similar phenomena are found in Platonism.

Socrates. From the day that the oracle at Delphi told Chaerephon that Socrates was the wisest of men, Socrates began to question his fellow citizens about the principles governing their conduct; he considered this inquiry a mission assigned to him by the god at Delphi. He was aware of signs that warned him against certain actions (Plato, Apol. 31 AD) and could experience a kind of ecstasy (cf. Plato, Symp. 175 AB). All antiquity venerated Socrates almost as a divine being.

Plato. Plato in turn was honored as a hero, doubtless not long after the eulogy delivered by Speusippus. Speusippus had related in his Life of Plato that wise men from the Orient had built an altar to the master. This homage was connected with the number of years in Plato's life, namely, 81, the Apollonian number obtained by multiplying the number of the Muses (9) by itself. Legends at once arose on the Apollonian birth of Plato, and, thus, like Pythagoras, he was deified after his death.

Epicurus. Even the most irreligious of the philosophers adored their founder as a god. Undoubtedly, as Boyancé assumed (op. cit. ), the Epicurean school remained a religious society, and Epicurus became the object of a formal cult in both Greece and Rome. Epicurus had provided by will for annual commemorations of his birth, and four centuries later, according to Pliny the Elder, they were still being celebrated (Pliny, Hist. nat. 35.2.5). Although the Epicureans did not believe in the survival of the soul, they offered to it the customary sacrifices. They even venerated the physical features of Epicurus, and, again according to Pliny, they had images of him in their bedrooms and carried his effigy on the stones of their rings. This veneration really had a very precise spiritual meaning, for Epicurus had counseled his disciples: "Act always as if Epicurus were looking at you."

Other Examples. These are the most important examples, but there are many others. For Cercidas, Diogenes the Cynic (c. 400329 b.c.), 100 years after his death, was a celestial being. Epictetus (c. a.d. 55c. 135) became the object of a cult. celsus believed that Orpheus, Anaxarchus, and Epictetus were men truly worthy of homage. The Carpocratians, a Gnostic sect, kept images of Christ beside those of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle (see Irenaeus, Adversus haereses 1.20.4). Porphyry did not hesitate to attribute a thaumaturgic power to Plotinus, stating that he was aided by a demon (Vit. Plot. 10). Iamblichus, finally, is represented as one inspired, living among the gods, causing spirits to appear in fountains, and giving rise to the belief that when he prayed his garments took on a beautiful gold color, and his body was raised 10 cubits above the ground. In short, he was a wonder-worker (see Eunapius, Vit. soph. 458).

All the schools are not represented, but Pythagoreanism, Platonism, Epicureanism, and Neoplatonism furnish the chief witnesses. Two schools, in particular, were more concerned with the exact sciences than with religion, namely the Skeptics and the Peripatetics. The Skeptics especially were accused of ruining thought and morality. The Emperor Julian forbade his priests to read Sextus Empiricus, the famous Skeptic philosopher of the 2d century a.d. The school of Aristotle studied nature objectively and avoided the temptation of mixing magic with the natural sciences.

Philosopher as Teacher and Missionary

The pagan priest did not preach. However, philosophers, beginning with Pythagoras, taught or preached their doctrines, especially to their followers or disciples.

Pythagoras and Plato . Despite the skepticism of A.J. Festugière ["Sur une nouvelle édition de la Vita Pythagorica de Jamblique," Revue des études greques 50 (1937) 470494], Iamblichus's description of the "rule" of the Pythagorean community would seem to be substantially reliable. The group of converts around T. Statilius Taurus, by whose order the Pythagorean basilica at Rome was built, deserves special mention. See J. Carcopino, La Basilique pythagoricienne de la Porte Majeure (Paris 1927). Plato conducted his school in the gardens of the Academy at Athens and admitted only selected listeners. So far as is definitely known, he was the first philosopher to attempt to frame political constitutions and to become an advisor to princes. Aristotle became the tutor of Alexander the Great, and Alexander's successors in the Hellenistic kingdoms had philosophers as consultants or advisors. See, e.g., F. Ollier, "Le philosophe stoïcien Sphaeros et l'oeuvre réformatrice des rois de Sparte Agis et Cléomène," Revue des études grecques 49 (1936) 536570.

Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus . Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism, experienced a revelation while listening to Ammonius Saccas, and became a convert to philosophy. He followed the lectures of his master for 11 years and agreed to keep the teachings secret (Porphyry, Vit. Plot. 3)a proof that they were considered to be concerned with the whole spiritual life. Plotinus attracted a number of enthusiastic disciples, among them Amelius, who followed his instruction for 24 years, and Porphyry, who introduced beginners to the study of logic and wrote numerous commentaries on Plato and Aristotle. Plotinus encouraged his disciples to ask questions and conducted his lectures in an informal and friendly manner.

Iamblichus, according to Eunapius (Vit. soph. 455), had a large following and exercised a kind of fascination on his hearers. That he must have played the role of a director of souls is indicated in the extracts from his moral epistles preserved in Stobaeus. One of his correspondents compares him to Aesculapius; he was regarded as a savior-god of Hellenism in peril. See J. Bidez; "Le philosophe Jamblique et son école," Revue des études grecques 32 (1919) 2940.

Cynics . Socrates, as it has been noted, carried out his apostolate in a quite different fashion from those already mentioned. In this respect, the true successors of Socrates were the Cynics, with Diogenes as their ideal type. They formed a part of the street scene. Throughout antiquity they were seen traveling about, in short mantles, with long hair and beards, barefoot, with staff in hand and knapsacks on their backs. Everyone heard their simple talks interspersed with witticisms and jokes, and witnessed their capricious and histrionic conduct. They enriched the public squares with their character sketches and sonorous diatribes. St. Augustine mentions them along with the Platonists and Pythagoreans as the sole survivors of paganism. From the outset they created a tradition of public preaching, which had an influence on a famous New Testament incident: when the philosophers heard St. Paul debating in the synagogue, they brought him to the Areopagus so that he could explain his ideas publicly.

Undoubtedly there were many charlatans among the Cynics; however, their unselfishness, their call to human brotherhood, and their promise of a better future made a deep impression. One of the greatest converts was the famous orator Dion Chrysostom (c. a.d. 40-after 112). He regarded himself as a vigilant physician of souls, and he fulfilled his mission with evident sincerity. His Cynicism was closely related to Stoicism. Cf. L. F. François, Essai sur Dion Chrysostome, philosophe et moraliste cynique et stoïcien (Paris 1921).

Stoics . Stoicism lasted at least five centuries (from the 3d century b.c. to the end of the 2d century a.d.), but only late Stoicism, represented especially by Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, is well known through complete extant writings. That was the age also when Stoicism was concerned almost exclusively with preaching and moral meditation. The Stoic philosopher became a spiritual director. For a long time at Rome, private instruction was given to the sons of great houses by a philosopher in residence, and leading statesmen regularly attached such persons to themselves as friends and counselors. Let it suffice to mention as examples: the association of Metrodorus with Aemilius Paulus, of C. Blossius with Tiberius Gracchus, of Panaetius of Rhodes with P. Scipio, of Athenodorus of Tarsus with Cato of Utica, of the Stoic Diodotus with Cicero, of Athenodorus and Theon with Augustus, and later, of Rusticus with Marcus Aurelius.

Yet the real center of Stoicism in the 1st century a.d. was the family. Tacitus was at his best in describing the death scene of Thrasea Paetus, who, after conversing with friends and relatives in his gardens, withdrew to his bedchamber, opened his veins, made a libation with his blood to Jupiter the Liberator, and died with his eyes fixed on the Cynic Demetrius (Tacitus, Ann. 16.3435). Seneca did not limit his activity to a single family, but became the guide of Paulinus, Marcellinus, Serenus and Lucilius. He made the letter the medium of psychological and moral consultation, and he gave advice in the manner of a private physician (see Seneca, Epistles 22.1). His contemporary, Cornutus, played a similar role, and the poet Persius has described this beloved master [Sat. 3.66; 5.3444; see R. Chevallier, "Le Milieu stoïcien à Rome au premier siècle après Jésus-Christ," Lettres d' humanité 19 (1960) 534562].

Epicureanism . Epicurus founded a kind of community fired with a great urge to win souls, and his influence spread not only over Greece and Italy but even over barbarian lands (see Cicero, De fin. 2.15.49). He addressed himself to both intellectuals and the masses, and included women and slaves among his disciples. As the Christian Lactantius said many centuries later, he invited all men to accept his philosophy (Div. inst. 3.25.4). The famous 2d-century inscription of Diogenes of Oenoanda in Asia Minor, with its detailed presentation of Epicurean principles, gives an excellent idea of the form and spirit of Epicurean propaganda. [See Paulys Realenzyklopädie der Klassischen Altertumwissenschaft, Suppl. 5 (1931) 153170].

The Epicurean school must have had a formal organization somewhat like that of a monastic order, with novices subject to the counsels of the older and more advanced members. See M. N. De Witt, "Organization and Procedure in Epicurean Groups," Classical Philology 31 (1936) 205211. This life in common had an important educational value that Seneca emphasized by saying that this contubernium had made great men out of the disciples of Epicurus (Epistles 6.6.). Epicureanism sought to give peace to the soul by overcoming certain fears, especially that of death, and found no better means than fostering friendship. It had a long life, and its continued influence in their time provoked the repeated attacks of Plutarch and Galen. At the beginning of the 4th century, Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, still considered it necessary to refute Epicurus in a book, On Nature. The Emperor Julian, however, states that by the middle of that century the sect had died out.

Philosophy as a School for Life

In the Imperial age all the philosophies more or less agreed on the practical answers to apply to the problems of existence. From the moment a man became a philosopher he knew that he must bear pain, scorn death, be patient with sickness, keep an untroubled soul, and content himself with the happiness achieved through a virtuous life. These five rules are summarized, for example, in the five books of Cicero's Tusculans. About 140 b.c., the Stoic Panaetius wrote a treatise On Duty. This treatise inspired Cicero in the first two books of his De Officiis; and Cicero's work, in turn, inspired St. Ambrose to write a Christian treatise under the same title.

Epicureans . In spite of widespread rumors that the Epicureans were debauched, Epicureanism actually required an exacting morality. The peace that they offered could be achieved only by imposing a strict discipline over physical desires, and by rejecting all that was neither natural nor necessary. A man could turn to Epicureanism if he were seeking to free himself from the burden of human miseries. Epicurus deserves recognition for developing a fine sense of interior contemplation and harmony within the soul. It is against this background that the conversionssometimes transitoryof men like Maecenas, Horace, or Vergil, can be explained. [See P. Boyancé, "L'Épicurisme dans la société et la littérature romaines," Lettres d'humanité, 19 (1960) 499516].

Cynics . The Cynic sect experienced a revival in the 1st century, probably as a reaction against the luxury of Rome and political oppression. Cynicism refused to take seriously either family or state conventions. In social relations this attitude was demonstrated by their outspokenness; they had to be self-sufficient and unencumbered with material goods. The wise man lived by reason, and knew no other happiness than its realization through hard effort. Above all, Cynicism despised the body. Although their sect was founded on pride in human strength, the Cynics had a strong feeling of the baseness of man under the sway of his body, and an equally strong feeling that happiness was possible for the man who was able to make his soul prevail. A distinguishing feature of their doctrine was its conciseness. Their philosophy of life was so simplified that their ideal could be realized by a man in his lifetime.

Stoics . Stoicism was distinguished from Cynicism, from which it derived, by its scientific work; when this work passed into its second plane of interest, the Cynic base reappeared. Moreover, the attitude of the Stoic wise man had changed: pride, and the paradoxical proclamations concerning the royalty of the wise man, had given place to a certain humility. The wise man must neither hurt nor scandalize people. Panaetius had repeatedly advised his followers to be polite; the Stoic must not be insulting, pedantic, or dirty (Epictetus, Discourses 3.2.89). For Epictetus, the origin of philosophy was the awareness of human misery and the passionate desire to overcome it. Yet, in spite of all, Stoicism retained its taste for a certain pedantry, tortuous reasoning, and detailed interrogations.

Although undeniably eclectic, the teaching of the Stoics remained rigid in its morality and seems to have ignored true charity; egotism and pride were essential elements. The Stoic ethic achieved its end in mysticism by a resigned acceptance of natural laws and submission to destiny. The same was later true of the Neoplatonists.

Philosophical Resignation and Courage . The philosophers quite often showed examples of resignation and courage in their personal lives. Socrates, the first martyr to wisdom, was a perfect model of courage before death, furnishing antiquity with an almost inexhaustible theme. Philosophy was often looked on with suspicion and its practitioners exiled or put to death. About the year a.d. 65 the Stoics Musonius Rufus and Cornutus were exiled; in 71, under Vespasian, all philosophers were banished from Rome; in 85, Domitian had Maternus, Rusticus Arulinus, and Herennius Senecio executed (Dion Cassius, Hist. Rom. 66.1219; 67.13). In 93, the same emperor again banished the philosophers from Italy. Epictetus thereupon retired to Epirus and opened a school at Nicopolis. There were probably religious motives behind the banishment, as the Stoics appeared to violate the official religion. It was also possible to confuse their doctrine with certain foreign cults. An Oriental seer, e.g., the Egyptian Chaeremon, proclaimed himself a Stoic (Martial 11.57).

Even under the worst emperors, philosophers stood for the affirmation of virtue and taught people how to die gracefully. The death of Thrasea Paetus has already been mentioned. Seneca reports the peaceful death of Julius Canus (Dialogues 9.14.79), and the example of Rubellius Plautus can be added. One of his freedmen advised him to resist the order to die sent by Nero, but the philosophers Coeranus and Musonius persuaded him to prefer death (Tacitus, Ann. 14.589). Seneca himself died nobly (ibid. 15.623). Epictetus, while a slave, suffered without complaining. There should be no cause for wonder at the declaration of Marcus Aurelius that philosophy is necessary to accept death (Med. 12.5).

Ethics was based on a psychological analysis, which, for example, creates the charm of Seneca's Letters to Lucilius. Among all philosophers the practice of asceticism is evident. E. Bréhier noticed, even in Plotinus, what he called alarming symptoms of fatigue and nervous weariness [ Plotinus: Ennéades (2d ed. Paris 1954) 1.8]. When Porphyry knew Plotinus, bad eating habits, intellectual overwork, and lack of sleep had impaired his health. "A man must reduce and weaken his body he will even want to have the experience of suffering" (Ennead 1.4.14). This sentence, taken from one of the last writings of Plotinus, goes beyond Stoic indifference because it actually reaches the point of desiring pain. See L. Robin, La Morale antique (Paris 1938).

Explanation of the World and Way of Salvation

Even after Socrates had given philosophy the essential goal of knowing man's inner nature, and positive sciences had developed outside philosophy, philosophers continued to search for the inner nature of things. Some who, it seems, like the physicians, must have remained detached from metaphysical speculation more than others, often continued to devote themselves more or less to philosophy. The Methodist School, for example, claimed that it followed Zeno. The extraordinary and complex activity of Apuleius shows clearly the compromises that continued to befall science. This is perhaps one of the reasons that can be given for the astonishing fact that the Romans contributed practically nothing to ancient science. Science and philosophy were borne along on the mystical current that was the chief phenomenon of the 2d century a.d. Men were more preoccupied with their salvation than with scientific knowledge of things; they sought only an explanation of the world with a view toward salvation and decided to use the least rational means to achieve the saving vision. This grave deterioration of Greek thought was occasioned by the development of the mystery religions and Oriental cults.

Stoics . Religious feeling among the Stoics came from a rational conception of the universe. They achieved the paradox of teaching a religious philosophy combined with materialism. In fact, this philosophy became entirely religious when the later Stoics spoke of God as a personal being, as Providence. Zeno of Citium was a pantheist and a materialist; to him the world and God were one. God, who is fire, was the active element in the world, the rational and organizing force. From him emanated the gods of the stars, the divine forces of nature, heroes, and even man's reason. Stoicism thus furnished a material explanation of polytheism. Since the gods originated in the manner indicated, they were not eternal, and would be reabsorbed into the Whole at the time of the world conflagration. Stoicism kept the spiritual life absolutely separate from any religious interference. The purpose of man, they believed, was to live in conformity with nature, to accept fate, and to live according to reason as manifested by nature, and through its impetus, which is virtue. See A. Jagu, Zénon de Cittium (Paris 1946).

Consequently, when the distinction between soul and body was sharpened by philosophers like Epictetus, ancient monistic materialism was practically at an end. The germ of dualism, which Posidonius had introduced, began to develop; and the mystic tendency, to assert itself. The soul, feeling itself exiled in the body, sought to rejoin the divinity of which it was a spark. Stoicism thus became colored by Platonism and Pythagoreanism. Marcus Aurelius, through his bent for contemplation, was on the way to achieving Neoplatonic ecstasy.

The soul of the Stoic was sustained by the conviction that God loved it and watched over it, that He had created the world for man, and that His providence was perpetually concerned with the world. All this was a bold development and interpretation of ancient fatalism. The messengers of Providence were spirits, as were the gods of the popular legends. By adoring them with proper understanding, the Stoic rendered homage to God; the wise man was thus a sort of priest.

M. Spanneut has shown the influence of Stoicism among the Fathers of the Church [Le Stoïcisme des Pères de l'Église de Clément de Rome à Clément d'Alexandrie, (Paris 1957)]. Even without considering the purely moral aspects of Stoic influence, such as the points on which there was general agreement among the sects (cosmology has been mentioned) and the clearly related influence of Neoplatonism, the Stoic influence appears to have been profound. In their theodicy, the Fathers owe the idea of an intimate link between God and the world to the Stoics. In physics, they appreciated the monism of the early Stoics, and consequently became receptive to the idea of a universal kinship and a cosmic sympathy among all things. The most intellectual among them took the trouble to read Soranus or Musonius for themselves, and then used their ideas, incidentally, without mentioning their names.

Syncretism in Various Philosophies . In the syncretism made by the Romans, Stoicism and Epicureanism were only in conflict with each other as religious systems. Epicureanism recognized the official cults, but only as social conventions. Cynicism, for its part, was not interested in the afterlife. It was opposed to polytheism and to the various cults, and scorned oracles because they denied man's freedom. The Peripatetics merged Providence strictly with the order of the universe. Alexander of Aphrodisias declared that Providence, as generally understood, would be incompatible with the ideas of God and the world, for man would become the end and God the means (De fato 30). He admitted divination, but the gods left men free to use their oracles or not as they chose (ibid. 31). He believed in prayer and magic, but remained fully aware of the majesty of natural laws (ibid. 1617).

Revival of Mystic Aspect of Platonism . The Neoplatonists brought out the mystic side of Plato's doctrine, a Plato seeking, like Plotinus, the foundation of the hierarchy of realities in the intuition of pure being (the Good or the One). A number of texts support this phase of Plato's thought, and the Neoplatonists were the first to make use of them. Plato was unable to speak of the knowledge of the supreme reality without employing the terminology of the mysteries. For instance, in the Symposium, he speaks of the unexpected and immediate knowledge that makes the complete ascent toward the beautiful and that in the Republic attains, in the good, the common cause of the thought and of the realities that it knows. But for Plotinus, intuition of the first cause does not call for intuition of the intelligible world, as if the first were necessarily to draw enrichment from the second. On the contrary, intuition of the intelligible world can arise only through a marked change in conditions. Far from suggesting the intuition of the world of which it is the first cause, the vision of the One causes the man who attains it to forget all else, including himself. Neoplatonism developed out of Platonism when mystical contemplation had been isolated from progressive dialectic, and when this dialectic had become "procession."

The dialectic of Plato perceived in the tangible world deficiencies that did not meet the requirements of the intelligible. The multiplicity of changeable things was organized into species, each with a realizable model, which could be explained only through entities outside itself. These entities were forms that themselves constituted an ordered multiplicity, their order being explained by a higher unity, the form of the Good. In the famous text of the Republic (508b), Plato asserted that the Good, the sun of the intelligible world, was at once producer of knowledge and of being (the same Good that was the object of mystical contact); however, he never developed this theory further.

On the other hand, the constructions that he erects in the Philebus, in the Sophist, or in the Timaeus take their point of departure below the Good in a multiplicity of elements; such as the five types in the Sophist, the four species of being in the Philebus, or the geometrical and arithmetic schemata in the Timaeus. Between the point of arrival in the ascent, the One or the Good, and the point of departure in the descent, the multiplicity of the elements of being, there is a hiatus; so much so that, in Plato, the contemplative life and scientific knowledge remained detached from each other. In other words, there was a mystic Plato and a scientist Plato.

Neo-Pythagoreanism and Its Influence . In the 2d century a.d. the mystic trend of Platonism was subjected to strong contamination, mainly from Pythagoreanism. The best known of its representatives mixed the two doctrines without scruple. Numenius (c. a.d. 150200) considered himself a Pythagorean and extolled the union of Pythagoras and Plato as heirs to the wisdom of the Brahmans, the Egyptians, and Moses. Wishing to keep the idea of God pure, they removed the divinity as far as possible from the material world, although that same divinity, at the time of its creation, had arranged the world by means of number-ideas. Here Pythagorean speculations revealed themselves. This pronounced dualism between God and the world required spirit intermediaries; it saw in the soul a divine particle, and in the body an evil spirit. Through asceticism, the purification of the body and return to God could be hastened. There was a marked development in the role of spirits or demons in Pythagoreanism, a fact that confirms the extent to which its thought was imbued with religious and other influences from the East. Pythagorean monotheism had become very complaisant. The true god, according to Apollonius of Tyana (cf. Eusebius, Praep. evang. 4.13), could be honored only by an uplifting of the soul; but lesser gods were quite satisfied with ceremonies. Furthermore, since most mythological legends had an allegorical meaning [see J. Pépin, Mythe et allégorie: Les Origines grecques et les contestations judéo-chrétiennes (Paris 1958)], the Pythagoreans carefully refrained from criticizing them. The basis of their thought was that man was a god in power. The doctrine of μετενσωμάτωσις, or transmigration, was traditional with the Pythagoreans.

Plotinus and Neoplatonism . The change that Plotinus made in Platonism had connections with Gnostic speculations. Plotinus did not reject hypostases or lower steps of divinity, nor allegorical myths; nor did he exclude the names or the myths of polytheism. The One could be called Uranus, the Intelligence, Cronus, and the Soul of the World, Zeus. But both his metaphysics and his conception of the inner life were original. He believed that the life of suprasensible principles, the One, Intelligence, the Soul, was independent of the sensible world. All teaching suspected of assigning human feeling or attributes to these divine beings was rejected. Plotinus gave no place to astrology, although he did not deny the influence of the stars. He showed the magicians and the astrologers that their techniques could succeed only in the sensible world, which was subject to determinism. It was not right that divine being should depart from its proper character. Plotinus likewise condemned the Gnostic theory of salvation (Ennead. 2.9; 2.3). Man should not wait for God to bend down to him; rather, man should ascend to God. On the other hand, it is not by freeing oneself from nature, but by uniting with it, that the soul can rise above material things. The inner life above all consists in coming out of itself. It is not the life of an individual soul that is isolated, but the innermost life of all things. The peak of the inner life is complete ecstasy, a union with the One, in which the feeling of unity alone persists, without any further distraction. [See M. de Gandillac, La Sagesse de Plotin (Paris 1952)].

An episode related by Porphyry is very instructive in this regard. When Amelius wanted to lead Plotinus to the sacrifices that formed a part of the ceremonies for the new moon, he received this answer: "It is for the gods to come to me, not for me to go to them" (Vit. Plot. 10). This is not really in contradiction to what has just been said, but it shows the gap that separated Plotinus from his disciples and that widened further with Iamblichus.

Before the time of Iamblichus (c. a.d. 250c. 325) the Chaldean oraclesa sort of higher form of magic was considered only as a second-rank instrument of initiation. See S. Eitrem, "La Théurgie chez les néoplatoniciens et dans les papyrus magiques," Symbolae Osloenses 22 (1942) 4979. Iamblichus was the first to raise this theurgy to the point of regarding it as the true means of bringing souls to God. See J. Bidez, "Le Philosophe Jamblique et son école," Revue des études grecques 32 (1919) 2940. Bidez supposed that the Neoplatonists had organized genuine mysteries, but this is a hypothesis only. There is no solid reason for believing that the hymns of Proclus (c. a.d. 410484) served any other purpose than to furnish intellectual entertainment at the meetings of the school. In any case, from this time on, philosophy is completely merged with some form of religion. The African Martianus Capella (early 5th century a.d.) in his Marriage of Mercury with Philology described the apotheosis of mystical knowledge, and reconstituted beneath "the Abyss of the Father" a whole pantheon of gods presiding over the intellectual world: a triad, seven astral divinities, a Virgin-Fountain, powers "beyond," the Flower of Fire, and Primordial Truth. All this is done as if polytheism were going to be reintroduced into the framework of monotheism.

See Also: cynics; epictetus; epicureanism; greek philosophy; neoplatonism; neo pythagoreanism; plato; platonism; plotinus; stoicism.

Bibliography: h. i. marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity, tr. g. lamb (New York 1956) 206216. a. d. nock, Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo (New York 1933). g. bardy, La Conversion au christianisme durant les premiers siècles (Paris 1949) 46649. p. aubin, Le Problème de la "conversion": Étude sur un terme commun à l'hellénisme et au christianisme des trois premiers siècles (Paris 1963). a. e. taylor, Plato: The Man and His Work (6th ed. London 1949; reprinted 1955). m. pohlenz, Die Stoa: Geschichte einer geistigen Bewegung, 2 v. (2d ed. Göttingen 1955). a. jagu and m. spanneut, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932) 4.1:822849. n. w. de witt, Epicurus and His Philosophy (Minneapolis 1954). d. r. dudley, A History of Cynicism from Diogenes to the 6th Century A.D. (London 1937). a. h. armstrong, An Introduction to Ancient Philosophy (London 1947) 175204. p. merlan, From Platonism to Neoplatonism (The Hague 1953). p. courcelle, Les Lettres grecques en Occident de Macrobe à Cassiodore (new ed. rev. Paris 1948) 336, 195209. h. a. wolfson, Religious Philosophy: A Group of Essays (Cambridge, Mass. 1961).

[p. langlois]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Greek Philosophy (Religious Aspects)." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 19 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Greek Philosophy (Religious Aspects)." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (August 19, 2018).

"Greek Philosophy (Religious Aspects)." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 19, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.