Sunday, June 14, 2009

Ancient Pagans and Theology: did they, or didn't they?

"Traditional European paganism had no theology at all, and the nearest equivalent to it had been provided by the philosophers of the Greek-speaking world."
[Ronald Hutton, in Witches, Druids, and King Arthur]

Saying that ancient Pagans had "no theology at all" is so wildly wrongheaded that it screams out for attention. Imagine if someone were to claim that "Christians have no theology at all, and the nearest equivalent is just some stuff written in Greek and Latin by some old philosopher dudes."

Hutton appears to be employing circular logic that begins and ends at the same place: he assumes that ancient Pagans were stupid and superstitious, therefore ancient philosophers could not have been Pagans, because they were smart and rational, therefore anything written by philosophers cannot constitute Pagan theology, therefore Pagans "have no theology at all", thus proving how ignorant and superstitious ancient Pagans were compared to the far more sophisticated Christians.

Hutton's profound ignorance of and contempt for ancient Paganism prevents him from understanding that the people who invented philosophy and theology were Pagans. Even before Socrates, philosophers like Empedocles and Heraclitus were producing deeply spiritual philosophical writings rivalling Lao Tzu in their inspiring beauty and poetic subtlety:
Wholes and not wholes; brought together, pulled apart; sung in unison, sung in conflict; from all things one and from one all things.
[Heraclitus, fragment B10]

A twofold tale I shall tell: at one time it grew to be one alone out of many, at another again it grew apart to be many out of one. Double is the birth of mortal things and double their failing; for one is brought to birth and destroyed by the coming together of all things, the other is nurtured and flies apart as they grow apart again.
[Empedocles, fragment B17]
Then of course there is Pythagoras, founder of a school of mystical philosophy that played a central role in the development of such (theological) ideas as the transmigration of souls and the World Soul. Pythagoras' religious philosophy was also a profound and pervasive influence on Plato's major theological work, the Timaeus, which is, in fact, named for a Pythagorean philosopher.

And speaking of Plato, one of the most famous passages in all of ancient philosophy comes when Socrates recounts, in the Symposium, what he learned from the priestess/philosopher Diotima concerning Eros. In that speech we hear of a Cosmos with the Gods in Heaven, mortals on Earth, and Daimones (of which Eros is one of the more important - actually blurring the distinction between Deities and Daimones) not merely passively inhabiting the region in between, but actively "binding" everything in the Cosmos together. The universe that Plato describes is a living, conscious, interconnected whole - which is a cosmological point of view still held by most modern day Pagans.

Not just his Timaeus and Symposium, but also Plato's Phaedo, Meno, and Phaedrus are clearly theological works, and very important ones, too. Those dialogues discuss such ideas as the immortality of the soul, anamnesis ("recollection"), and the ascent of the soul - all of this four centuries before Jesus began preaching.

In his The Religion of Socrates, Mark McPherran argues that the teleological cosmology that Xenophon ascribes to Socrates in his Memorabilia, is an accurate depiction of Socrates' own views (see, in particular, section 2 of chapter 5 of that book). Whether that is true or not, there is no question that Plato's cosmology, especially that of the Timaeus, is thoroughly teleological, a fact that T.K. Johansen, in his Plato's Natural Philosophy, sums up very succinctly when he says that, for Plato "the study of cosmology is ultimately motivated by the concern with how to lead one's life." [p. 22] That is, we live in an orderly universe, an idea implicit in the Greek word kosmos, therefore by studying this divinely ordered world around us we can learn how to properly order our own lives. In fact, as Johansen points out, even the world inside of us is ordered in this way: "The view that the kosmos is organized for the best is [in the Timaeus] ... taken right down to the level of human psychology and physiology." [p. 18]

Empedocles, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato are just the tip of the iceberg of ancient Pagan theology. In Plato's own school, Crantor, a student of Xenocrates (who had himself studied directly under Plato), produced a highly influential commentary on the Timaeus, and almost nine centuries later Proclus would compose the last great masterpiece of ancient Pagan philosophy: his own commentary on the Timaeus. Meanwhile in the school of the Stoics (who traced their roots back to Socrates), Plato's Timaeus became the foundation for a far reaching Pagan theology and cosmology based on the concept of a living, orderly, conscious and rational Universe. And in addition there is Plato's most famous student, Aristotle, who coined the term metaphysics. Epicureans also made their contribution to Pagan theology, and in fact it is Epicurus himself who wrote that "There are Gods, knowledge of them is self-evident."


Hylomorphic said...

You've read Robin Lane Fox's Pagans and Christians, I'm assuming?

I don't have it handy at the moment, but I recall that, in addressing this very question, Fox cites a number of oracular pronouncements, especially from Delphi but also (IIRC) from Claros, which respond to theological questions.

The origin of the word "theology" highlights the ridiculousness of claiming that the Greeks had none. Aristotle used the term long before Christianity.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Hylomorphic - thanks very much for the heads up! I read the first edition of Fox's book soon after it came out - at the time a lot of it was way over my head and I didn't retain much. I'll go back and check out those passages.

Darlene said...

Interesting and fantastic post. Much to think about.

I will admit, that I am not versed in philosophy as you are. Many atheists like to use that image of the Epicurean quote of "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?... (etc.)" - compared to the one you just provided, what is the context of this? If there are any books on that discussion, I would gladly love to know.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

The quote that I used is from Epicurus' letter to Menoeceus - which is one of the very few complete writings of Epicurus that are extent. A google search on the names Epicurus and Menoeceus will give you more information, including multiple online English translations.

That other quote is not from Epicurus at all, but from Hume. Hume claims that the statement is a paraphrase of Epicurus, and he based this largely on the very same letter to Menoeceus! That letter, in turn, is quite short and easily read in a few minutes. It says nothing like the bogus quote.

Executive Summary:

1. Epicurus DID say "For truly there are gods, and knowledge of them is evident." This is a word for word direct quote from the English translation of Epicurus' letter to Menoeceus.

2. Epicurus NEVER said "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?... (etc.)", and all those who attribute this to Epicurus invariably provide no precise citation.

3. David Hume DID say: "Epicurus's old questions are still unanswered: Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? then whence evil?"

4. BUT Hume's "sourcing" is bogus because Epicurus never wrote any such thing.

5. Epicurus DID write: "the greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the hand of the Gods." Which DIRECTLY CONTRADICTS what Hume and atheists attribute to Epicurus.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Also see the new post I just put up on the "totally bogus quote from Epicurus"!