I was writing about Greek thought in my previous post, but in this one I want to delineate some lines of development.
Greek thought had a crises when the Greek city-states lost power. The Greek philosophers had a strong civic sense. Debates happened in public and this was the pride of the culture. A philosopher had great respect and great influence. Philosophy and politics went hand in hand. Also, it was a democratic society where everyone participated. There were no standing armies. When there was a war, every able-bodied person fought. The city-state was upheld by philosopher and common person alike.
This all changed during the Alexandrian Age which was a period of empire-building. The average person wasn’t as connected to the workings of politics and philosophy was something for the elite. The philosophers practiced now in schools. Furthermore, Greek thought itself became less directly involved in politics and the sharp focus of the Greek mind became divided by a vast multi-culturalism. And yet this was a time of immense innovation. There was less certainty as society had become more complex. To balance out the probing of the Greek mind was the centralizing power of Egyptian religion. The Egyptians were great synthesizers and this helped guide Greek thought into the wider world (and some have theorized that this was the main mythology at the heart of the early Gnostic-Christian movement). Out of this mix (or maybe clash would be more appropriate) came Hellenism.
I should add that Eastern thought was also an influence during this historical period. I know that Hindus and Buddhists were known as these religions had travelled widely during those tulultuous times. Easterners were also great philosophers and synthesizers, but they weren’t the dominant voice of the culture and so their influence has mostly been forgotten (although some, including early Christians, have speculated that the Therapeutae were the earliest Christians and some have further speculated the Therapeutae might’ve been Buddhist or Buddhist-influenced).
A similarity between Egyptian and Eastern mythology was the heavy use of astrology and astro-theology. Actually, these were heavily used in many of the cultures at that time. For example, Judaism apparently was largely built upon astrological mythologies. Astro-theology was one of the biggest forces of synthesis across cultures because it was a common language that transcended regional differences. The other major synthesizing system was Neo-Platonism which is better remembered today. Christians were influenced by both astro-theology (Christ was often referred to as Sol) and Neo-Platonism (Christ was also often referred to as Logos), but the former wasn’t spoken about as openly… although a number of early church fathers wrote about Christianity’s similarity to (and in some cases origins in) sun worship, often all the while denouncing it as the product of Satan.
The reason these synthesizing systems were needed is because Greek tradition had splintered. Intellect had become separated from emotion, science from religion, individuality from imperialism.
The Greek tradition promoted rationality and this became a force unto itself. There were two main strains of rational philosophy within Hellenism: Epicureanism and Stoicism. Stoics promoted a strong moral sense rooted in Natural Law and denounced the passions. In the Roman era, the Stoics would influence Christianity and many Stoics converted to Christianity. Some of the supposed sayings of Jesus are actually traditional Stoic sayings. The Stoics and Christians were so similar that the earliest observers couldn’t tell them apart. Based on this, some have assumed that Christianity was simply a Judaized form of Stoicism. This is entirely possible as many Jews had Hellenistic educations, Philo being the most famous example and Philo being the one who wrote about the Therapeutae. By the way, Philo helped to popularize Jewish thought through his fame. His style was so similar to Plato that there was a saying about whether Philo Platonizes or Plato Philonizes. Philo’s allegorizing of Jewish scripture set the stage for Christianity.
In contrast to the extreme rationalism of Greek philosophy, most people still had a need for religious experience and social ritual. The Mystery religions filled this need (including the needs of many dispersed Jews who partook of the Mysteries). These Mystery religions were a mix of cultures. They heavily used astrological symbolism, but also Neo-Platonism. Some of the Mystery religions took on more philosophical forms. Two of these, Hermeticism and Orphism, were major influences on Gnosticism-Christianity. Orphism is particularly interesting because, along with Orphic mythology (wine, twice-born, etc.), the images of Dionysus/Bacchus were borrowed by Christians. There is even a Roman coin with Dionysus/Bacchus on one side and Yaheweh on the other. Anyways, the solar mythology of the savior figure comes out of the Mystery religions. Scholars have written thousands of pages about the similarities between Jesus and the other solar deities (e.g., Buddha, Krishna, Osiris).
The Alexandrian Age was a part of the larger Axial Age. All of the religions of the ancient world were experience transformations. This was also the time of the Jewish Reformation which was when they were finalizing their scriptrues and also being influenced by Hellenism. The great world religions mostly formed during this time. The religions of the Roman period such as Christianity are considered a later blooming of the Axial Age. The Axial Age includes the entire thousand year reign of Graeco-Roman culture, after which the early Middle Ages (formerly known as the Dark Ages) began.
The Romans took this whole mess and confusion and brought some formalized order to it. The profusion of philosophies and religions caused the Greek thought to lose some of its potency. The Romans weren’t as innovative, but they did continue the tradition of diversity. The legalistic mind of the Roman Empire brought a slight dogmatic element. Traditions became formalized and any new tradition would have root itself in an older tradition. Christians were influenced by many traditions, but they had to choose one that would give them legitimacy. The Jewish prophecy of Messiah served as a useful foundation, and Judaism was further useful as Philo had made it respectable. Unfortunately, the Roman tendency to formalize that helped to save Hellenism included a tendency towards dogmatism. As the Empire declined in later centuries, Catholicism came to fully embody this dogmatism and the Catholics nearly destroyed what the Romans had tried to save.
After this, the Graeco-Roman tradition continued to survive in the East which included Islam. Enough of this tradition survived in the West that Graeco-Roman writings were welcomed when they were re-introduced almost a thousand years later. The humanism that came before Christianity was revived and Christians started to remember their own moral origins.
Filed under: history | Tagged: Catholicism, Christianity, Gnosticism, Graeco-Roman, Hellenism, Judaism | 1 Comment »