Greek Philosophy and Orthodoxy

Greek Philosophy and Orthodoxy

As I was reading through one of my Church history texts for the Saint Stephen’s program (A History of the Christian Church by Williston Walker, etc.), I found several wonderful summaries of key philosophical “movements” that predated the Advent of Christ and also helped to play a significant role in the way the Church would go about explaining and reflecting on the significance of Jesus Christ as both God and Savior of the world (and indeed, of the whole cosmos).

The book does a great job of “setting up” this discussion by introducing the role of the Philosopher in the ancient, pre-Christian world (Note: this is not the same function of the “philosophy” of the Academy today):

In the Roman-Hellenistic era, ‘philosophy’ was not the name of an academic discipline concerned with a special range of abstract questions. Rather, it denoted the quest for an understanding of the cosmos and of the place of humanity within it — an understanding which was achieved only by participation in a certain way of life and which issued in happiness or beatitude.

Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, p. 9

Rather than being an enterprise for the entirely speculative or merely abstract, the role of a philosopher (and this was not a “job for everyone,” by any means) was to live in such a way so as to achieve the “happiness” their particular discipline advocated. The extent or particularities of this “happiness” was not agreed upon by all philosophical disciplines, however, as Walker notes: “The focal problem which was debated in the Hellenistic age, however, was that of the nature of the ‘happy’ or fulfilled life.” (Ibid, p. 10)  In other words, what did this “fulfilled life” mean for the philosopher (and perhaps, for the rest of the world as well)?

Of course, this all depends upon which philosopher or “school” you were considering. Walker then gives a brief summary of the philosophical schools of Epicureanism, Stoicism and Platonism, and I must say that these are some of the best summaries of their “thought” that I have ever found (as a former University student and graduate in philosophy), if for no other reason then for the fact that they are both concise and directly related to the Christian experience in their descriptions.

On Epicureanism, Walker says of note (ibid., p. 10):

The school of Epicurus taught that pleasure — in the negative sense of absence of mental disturbance (ataraxia) — was the highest human good. The good life is the life which maximizes pleasure by minimizing the pain attendant upon unnecessary desire and anxiety. Thus, paradoxically, the greatest pleasure is attained by a life of quiet, retirement, and restraint: a life characterized essentially by self-control.

This description, of course, bears a great deal of resemblance to the Orthodox Christian notions related to living a quiet and peaceful life (e.g. 1 Thess. 4:11), reducing one’s anxieties and entanglements with the “cares of this world” (St Mark 4:19). Self-control is obviously also a Christian virtue, marked out by a life in the Holy Spirit (and in the Orthodox context, salvation is essentially synonymous with “acquiring the Holy Spirit”).

However, the Orthodox faith differs from this philosophical prescription for “happiness” most significantly in the fact that the Epicureans saw religion as a source of anxiety rather than as a cure. In the Church and through Her mystical life (which is the Life of Christ Jesus), we are both healed and transformed into more complete images of God, having overcome death through the death and resurrection of Christ. The Church is the hospital of the Great Physician and should not be seen as a place of “unnecessary desire and anxiety.”

So while there are some similarities in language and thought here between Orthodoxy and the Epicureans, the overall manner by which one is healed and freed from “mental disturbance” or ataraxia is certainly different.

Next, Walker gives a very nice summary of Stoicism (ibid., pp. 10–11):

Much more influential, especially in the Latin West, was the philosophy of the Stoics with their teaching that the sole human good is virtue or ‘the life according to nature.’ … Like the Epicureans, the Stoics were materialists. Roughly speaking, they conceived the cosmos to be composed out of two kinds of ‘stuff’ or ‘substance’: a passive matter, and the active, fiery ‘spirit’ or ‘breath’ (pneuma) which transfuses matter, forms it, and causes it to cohere. This pneuma functions in the cosmic body much as soul does in the human body; that is, it is the source of life and of harmony. Called ‘God’ or ‘Fate’ or ‘Reason’ (logos), this ‘spirit’ is the indwelling divinity … The human soul, itself rational, is a spark or portion of the divine Reason.

The good for human persons, then, consists in their being fully what they are — that is, in living and acting according to their interior nature and identity, which is logos. Only such a life is the excellent (or, in other words, virtuous) human existence. What is more, only the virtuous life is free, for it alone is within people’s power to achieve, and it alone lets people be truly themselves … dependence on external circumstance alienates the person from himself. It is a sickness of the soul which the Stoics called ‘passion’ (pathos), because the person who is subject to it is passive in relation to influences stemming from outside and to that degree unfree and unfulfilled.

As Walker notes, Stoicism certainly had a great deal of influence on Christian thought, and especially on the various early fathers of the Church.

The Stoic emphasis on the pneuma that both forms and causes matter to cohere and as “the source of life and harmony” — even being known as logos — is inescapably linked to the Johannine teaching that Jesus Christ is the Divine logos of God (St John 1). It would be inescapable for a Greek person in the first or second century to hear the words of this Gospel and not make a connection between the Stoic belief and that of the beloved Apostle — that is, that Jesus Christ is the Incarnate God-Man and logos, and that He is the God who both created all things and holds all things together.

More than this, it would be clear that the “spark” of logos (what Saint Justin the Philosopher, i.e. Justin Martyr, called the spermatikos logos) within each of us is part of what makes us true “images of God.” It would also emphasize the fact that we are bound together not only with Christ but with one another (and indeed, with the whole of creation, giving us a unique place in the cosmos with a responsibility to both preserve and protect that creation).

To live in accordance with one’s “interior nature and identity, which is logos,” then (in the Stoic sense) could be identified with the Orthodox Christian emphasis on controlling one’s “passions” (pathos) and being transformed more and more into the image of God that is within us — the divine “seed” of logos. If we are subject to external circumstance and the vain things of this life, we are living according to this pathos rather than according to logos. This sounds like it was lifted straight out of the writings of the desert fathers (as found in the Philokalia, for example), albeit with a different understanding of how one can control the passions and to what end (union with God and becoming “partakers of the Divine nature,” cf. 2 Peter 1:4 — i.e. salvation).

Finally, Walker discusses the philosophy of Plato (p. 11):

The teaching of Plato was based ultimately on his distinction between that-which-is (Being) and that-which-comes-to-be (Becoming). Searching for the true basis of order in the moral, political, and natural realms, Plato discerned it in the system of Ideas or Forms — the models or originals of empirical reality. These Forms were characterized by two essential qualities. First, they were seen simply to be, unchangeably, self-identically, and hence eternally. Second, they were seen to be intelligible, capable of being grasped by mind. In contrast to this realm of Being and Intelligibility, Plato saw the visible world of immediate experience as a realm of continual Becoming — a world about which it was impossible to have stable knowledge because it was always slipping through one’s mental fingers.

These two realms of Being and Becoming, however, were not in Plato’s view divorced. The empirical world images and participates in the eternal world of Being. That it does so, moreover, is owing to the activity of living, self-moving soul, which is a denizen of both spheres. As soul contemplates and internalizes intelligible Being, confirming its own life to that truth, it orders and harmonizes the world of Becoming, so that the temporal order becomes ‘a moving image of eternity.’

This distinction between “Being” and “Becoming” is seen perhaps most explicitly in the way the Orthodox Church understands the sacraments or “Mysteries.”  From the standpoint of the Eucharist, specifically, the bread, wine and water are — in the context of the Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy — in a state of “Becoming.” In other words, they are “moving images of eternity” that allow us to partake of the eternal God in the temporal present; we partake of the eschatological Wedding Feast of the Lamb in this present, evil age.

The Eucharist, as a divine Mystery of the Church, is ordering and harmonizing this present world (and us Christians) to be conformed to the eternal; to the sphere of “Being”; to the heaven of heavens and the very presence of God. While the bread, water and wine remain in our present, sinful perception to be but bread, water and wine, in the Mystery they are transformed before our eyes — or rather, our eyes are transformed to see them rightly. As an Orthodox priest prays during Saint Basil’s Anaphora, show this bread to be the precious Body of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

A major part of the mystical aspect of our Faith is learning to see the world around us as it truly is; that is, as it is in eternity, and in the eyes of God. Ascesis helps one in this endeavor, and the temporal barriers of this world are broken down in the process. For example, this is why one might see wild animals (such as bears) taking kindly to monastic elders — a bit of the future age has broken into the present wherever these holy men might dwell, where there is no more enmity between mankind and God’s creation.

Incidentally, this “removal of the veil” (apokalypsis or “apocalypse”) between eternity and the present age is a major theme in the New Testament and the “end of the age” (i.e. the end of the “old order” and especially of the old covenant, cf. St Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews) is a predominant theme in the Divine Liturgy as well. In fact, one could say that the Divine Liturgy serves the purpose of reigning in the apocalypse, as the barriers between heaven and earth are removed in the celebration of the Eucharist.

Had he lived in the days of Christ and His Apostles, I think Plato would’ve felt very much at home in this way of thinking. Many have speculated that he was a “Christian before Christ,” and he is even depicted as a “prophet” of the Incarnation in many Orthodox frescoes and iconography. Some of the early Church fathers, such as Justin Martyr, have also speculated that Plato was influenced by the Hebrews and their Scriptures. Whatever the case may be, we must certainly be appreciative of the “worldview” that Plato and his later followers (e.g. Middle Platonism) introduced prior to the Incarnation, as the way was paved for the Gospel to spread like wildfire throughout the known (Greek-speaking) world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *