Mythology to Philosophy

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Mythology to Philosophy



The previous lecture concluded with this quote: “The Greek philosophers “held that the universe is an intelligible whole. In other words, they presumed that a single order underlies the chaos of our perceptions and, furthermore, that we are able to comprehend that order” (Frankfort, p. 251). Philosophy began as a way of exploring and trying to understand the world. We don’t know where philosophy actually began, therefore, books must start with the Greeks. We will talk about the evolution of Greek thinking in this lecture, but it won’t be until our next lecture that we really start exploring the Greeks and their philosophy. First, it is necessary to situate the beginning of philosophy in the context of our first glimmerings of thought about the world. The problem is that we don’t have written texts for very much of human history. The best estimation then is that philosophical thought started out as religious thought and it is preserved in the mythologies and scriptures of the world. We will touch on the tribal religions in the context of Greek religion below.

In this lecture, we are going to explore some of the first breakthroughs in human thinking that we are able to study. One of the first things that stands out is that many major movements started around the same time. This is sometimes called the Axial Age, and that is where we will begin. Following that, we will explore the world of Greek religion, which gave birth to Greek philosophy.  We will conclude with a look at the origins of the Bible. Why study the Bible in a philosophy class? First, you will simply be introduced to it. The the Bible has had an amazing influence on Western culture and philosophy, so much so, that you can’t separate them very easily. This is a course in Western philosophy, and you should keep in mind that the Bible has influenced more people, for good or ill, depending on your point of view, than has any philosopher. It is also good to study the Bible from a philosophical point of view rather than only from the religious point of view. The philosophical approach gives us different tools, tools that we will be using throughout this course. So off we go to what is often called the Axial Age.

The Axial Age

The Axial Age represents a major change in the way humans were to forever-after view themselves. Karen Armstrong writes: “The Axial Age marks the beginning of humanity as we know it” (Buddha, p 11). What could she mean by such a statement? We should first define our terms: what exactly is the Axial Age? The Axial Age refers to a period of time from about 800 b.c.e. to 200 b.c.e. It is a term first coined by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers to describe the coincident appearance of several major world religious and philosophical founders.

This new way of thinking about life was not located in just one area but throughout the world: from China, to India, to the Near East, to Greece. All of this took place before anything resembling a communications network that would centralize the probable origin of such ideas. Instead, these new ideas about what it means to be human seemed to have popped out in a number of places at around the same time. We must remember that a few hundred years in ancient times is like a few decades now. We are talking about a very rapid change.

Who are some of the figures we will be learning about? The major Axial Age figures include Confucius and Lao Tzu in China, the formation of the Upanishads by anonymous seers in India, as well as the birth of Buddhism.  In the Near East, we have Zoroaster in Persia and Isaiah in Israel, and in Greece we have the birth of the modern intellect by the founders of Western philosophy represented by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. We will discuss each of these three important philosophers in the next unit.

What can we know about the origins of this Axial Age? There is no definite answer to why all of this happened at this specific time, but we know from a study of history that this was a very powerful time in the world when so many changes were underfoot. My own best thoughts on this time period I shared in my last lecture on the evolution of consciousness. That is, after tens of thousands of years of living in what we could call a mythological consciousness, the mind of humans was about to take the leap into rational consciousness. Remember, rational consciousness is the consciousness of philosophy, as we know it today.

From a Story Focus to Rational Focus

We will not review the evolution of consciousness in detail again, but it is important to touch base with what may possibly have happened. From what we know, people had been satisfied with certain answers about the nature of the universe and the meaning of life for a long, long time. These are the people who accepted the religious answers that were offered to them by their families and culture. Suddenly, there were people who were no longer satisfied. They were looking for something more. A case in point would be the story of the Buddha. As a young man, the Buddha was protected from suffering. He was sheltered and spoiled and everything was done by his father to keep him happy and concerned with only this world and its immediate satisfactions. But the Buddha learned about suffering, and especially about death. And this changed everything. He wanted to know the answer to why we suffer and why we die. Can you see a glimmer of philosophy being born?

He looked where any of us would look for the answers, that is, to the common cultural and religious answers available to him in his day. But what he found did not satisfy him. This is the difference. There is a different demand and he decided to go out on his own. And this is our first clue. Mythological consciousness is group consciousness and philosophical consciousness is individual consciousness.

Any generalization like that needs to be kept in perspective, but it nonetheless helps us put the differences into a map that works. When we look back at the first religions, they were about the group. What tribe you belonged to mattered more than who you were. What was of interest was not personal survival, but the survival of the group. With the birth of philosophy came a new interest in the individual, including interest in whether there was something in the individual, like a soul, that could survive the death of the body. Rather than accept the answers of the group, there was a need to question everything and find things out for oneself.

“During this period, men and women became conscious of their existence, their own nature and their limitations in an unprecedented way. Their experience of utter impotence in a cruel world impelled them to seek the highest goals and an absolute reality in the depth of their being. The great [Axial] sages of the time taught human beings how to cope with the misery of life, transcend their weakness, and live in peace in the midst of this flawed world” (Buddha, p.11).

While the differences between religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism, as well as Greek rationalism, are great, the similarities that they share are truly amazing. We will look at these soon. First we must note that “it was only by participating in this massive transformation that the various peoples of the world were able to progress and join the forward march of history” (Buddha, p.11). The beginning of everything we consider modern and a part of the great philosophy studied in this class had its roots during this age.

Why was the Axial Age not more universal? Why did it occur only in China, India, the Near East, and Greece (and then only a few people) for quite a long time? Why wasn’t it sponsored by the great civilizations of Sumer and Egypt? Can we trace the stirring of an Axial age in Egypt when there was an attempt at monotheism? Why weren’t the people of the Americas and Africa involved in this awakening of a new consciousness?

We don’t have the answers to these questions. All we do know is that “in the Axial countries, a few men sensed fresh possibilities and broke away from the old traditions. They sought change in the deepest region of their beings, looked for greater inwardness in their spiritual lives, and tried to become one with a reality that transcended normal mundane conditions and categories. After this pivotal era, it was felt that only by reaching beyond their limits could human beings become most fully themselves” (Buddha, p.12).

The World Gone Awry

While we don’t have a lot of information about what life was like for people before the historical era, which only goes back about 3000 years b.c.e., we do see that they all share certain stories about the way things were. “All over the world, in every culture, these ancient days were depicted in mythology, which had no historical foundation but which spoke of lost paradises and primal catastrophes” (Buddha, p.12).

We see a version of this story in the Bible when humans existed in a garden and God walked with them in the cool of the evening. There was no sense of division and, we are told, no sense of good and evil. All of this would occur after “the Fall.” What was this fall? Psychologically it seems to be the birth of self-consciousness, the individual soul.  It was noble because it was new, but frightening because it was separate.

Children both seek and hide from the growing separation they feel from their parents. They want to do things on their own and grow up, and yet for a long time they keep looking back to make sure that mom or dad is watching them. It seems to me that what we can study on an individual level was happening on a cultural level. The human race was growing up.

“In almost every culture, the myth of this primal concord showed that human beings continued to yearn for a peace and a wholeness that they felt to be the proper state of humanity. They experienced the dawning of self-consciousness as a painful fall from grace. A conviction that the world was awry was fundamental to the spirituality that emerged in the Axial countries” (Buddha, p.13). While the expressions of this displacement differed in the different mythologies, the sense that something was wrong was shared.

For example: “The Greeks saw life as a tragic epic, a drama in which they strove for catharsis and release. Plato spoke of man’s separation from the divine, and yearned to cast off the impurity of our present state and achieve unity with the Good. The Hebrew prophets of the eighth, seventh, and sixth centuries felt a similar alienation from God, and saw their political exile as symbolic of their spiritual condition. The Zoroastrians of Iran saw life as a cosmic battle between good and evil, while in China, Confucius lamented the darkness of his age, which had fallen away from the ideals of the ancestors. In India, [the Buddha] and the forest monks were convinced that life was “dukkha”: it was fundamentally awry, filled with pain, grief, and sorrow” (Buddha, pp. 13-14).

I think we can all relate to this. Even those of us who have a relatively good life here in the United States know that our good fortune could be snatched away from us in one horrible moment. Nature, which had been so loved by the tribal people of the world, was now seen as a problem. This too is seen in the Adam and Eve story, when the garden becomes a place of sweat and toil and death. What happened?

“Nobody has fully explained the sorrow that the fueled Axial Age spirituality” (Buddha, p.14). Perhaps it was the change from hunting and gathering and small groups to large cities and agriculture. Perhaps it was the invasions of the Indo-Aryans. Perhaps it was some cosmic disaster that ended traditional ways of life. What we do know is that the pre-Axial religion was very different from what was to emerge.

For example, ancient religions “were based on acceptance of the status quo, involved little speculative thought about the meaning of life and saw sacred truth as something that was given and unchangeable; not sought but passively received” (Buddha, p.16). You did not seek out the great questions; rather you memorized the great answers you already had been given, perhaps before you even had any questions. Fidelity to the past was much more important than anticipation of the future. All of this changed, however, and now we will look at some of these changes.

The Axial Impulse

“This deeply conservative spirituality [of tribal religion] sought security in a reality that was timeless and changeless. It was completely different from the new Axial ethos. One need only think of Socrates, who was never content to accept traditional certainties as final, however established they might be. He believed that instead of receiving knowledge from the outside each person must find the truth within his own being. Socrates questioned everything, infecting his interlocutors with his own perplexity, since confusion was the beginning of the philosophical quest. The Hebrew prophets overturned some of the old mythological certainties of ancient Israel: God was no longer automatically on the side of his people, as he had been at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. He would now use the Gentile nations to punish Jews, each of whom had a personal responsibility to act with justice, equity, and fidelity. Salvation and survival no longer depended on external rites; there would be a new law and covenant written on the heart of each of the people. God demanded mercy and compassion rather than sacrifice. Axial faith put the onus on the individual” (Buddha, pp. 17-18).

The Axial sages saw suffering as we still do today. “But the truth that they sought enabled them to find peace, despite cruelty, injustice and political defeat. We need only recall the luminous calm of Socrates during his execution by a coercive state. The individual would still suffer and die; there was no attempt to avert fate by the old magical means; but he or she could enjoy a calm in the midst of life’s tragedies that gave meaning to existence in such a flawed world” (Buddha, p.18).

What had changed? How were they able to find this serenity amidst all of the troubles of being a human being? If we can answer these questions, then not only might we understand their genius, but we might find practical help for ourselves.

The key is to see that “the new religions [and philosophies] sought inner depth rather than magical control. The sages were no longer content with external conformity but were aware of the profound psychic inwardness that precedes action. Crucial was the desire to bring unconscious forces and dimly perceived truths into the light of day. For Socrates, men already knew the truth, but only as an obscure memory within; they had to awaken this knowledge and become fully conscious of it by means of his dialectical method of questioning. Confucius studied the ancient customs of his people, which had hitherto been taken for granted and had remained unexamined. Confucius wanted to make explicit ideas that had previously been merely intuited, and put elusive, half-understood intimations into clear language. Human beings must study themselves, analyze the reasons for their failures and thus find a beauty and order in the world that was not rendered meaningless by the fact of death” (Buddha, pp. 18-19). Do you see how this changed everything for these people?

No longer could you rely on the authorities. Now you had to stand on your own two feet. If these changes have anything to do with the changes that we all go through in our own personal development, then we see this like the painful awakening of youth, as they realize with excitement, but also fear, that they must grow up and become independent.

“The Axial sages scrutinized the old mythology and reinterpreted it, giving the old truths an essentially ethical dimension. Morality had become central to religion [and philosophy]. All were convinced that there was an absolute reality that transcended the confusions of this world–God, Nirvana, the Tao, Brahman–and sought to integrate it within the conditions of daily life” (Buddha, p 19). And perhaps must importantly, they did not keep this knowledge secret, but shouted it out from the housetops.

Confucius traveled and taught, the Buddha spent 45 years teaching and modeling his dharma, Zoroaster preached across Persia to the poor and to Kings. Socrates was so public that his teaching became an issue of contention, and he was put to death.  Of course, most of us are familiar with the Hebrew prophets and all of the ruckus that they stirred up! These Axial sages were motivated by the urge to spread the word of individual awakening and individual responsibility. This was the good news of the Axial period. Could it be an accident that this is the period of time when philosophy appears?

Axial Age Reflections

We can’t be sure what caused all of this, but as you know by now, I think it was the stirring of a new level of consciousness in humanity. And what was the cause of this? I speculate that these changes are actually inherent in our nature, hardwired, so to speak. For example, none of us could know the day puberty would hit us, but we knew it would come when the time was right. We know that it happens at different ages, and there are quite a variety of times when it will actually come. But within these parameters, we also know it will come. It won’t come at 5 and it won’t come at fifty and it usually comes around the early teenage years. What if there are little timers that go off in human consciousness just when things are ready, just like in the human body and puberty? What if the changes we see only in certain parts of the world eventually catch up with the entire world? In cosmic time (even geological time), that is no difference at all, just like two boys hitting puberty two years apart. Seems like a lot at the time, but it really isn’t. So perhaps a timer went off in humanity, and willing or not, we were thrown into humanity’s adolescence. But that is just speculation.

As long as we are speculating, it might be interesting to speculate on what is next. Some people feel that we are currently in a new Axial Age. I wonder! And others look at the European Enlightenment as yet another example of an Axial Age. If these changes are hardwired into us, is there anything we can do to facilitate the process, so that these changes are smoother?

I think there is something we can do. Just like we can fight puberty from a state of fear and ignorance or go through it with a measure of humor and grace, so do I think it is possible to learn about our potentials and seek ways to cooperate with them and even facilitate them rather than run from them in fear. Perhaps all of the turmoil we see in the world today is because of the sense that our world is changing and there is not much we can do about it.

The software in the metaphor might help us accept different flavors of the changes that are possible. If we had more time we could talk about how the different Axial philosophies share common points of view, and this is sometimes called the Perennial Tradition. Within these shared categories there is much room for individual change. Perhaps knowing this we can enjoy change rather than suppress it.

Finally, I think we can share a sense of gratitude for the great pioneers of the Axial Age, who struck out for new territory. Perhaps Socrates can be our great model, for we will study him when we come back for next unit. Socrates showed that it is possible to be on the forefront of human evolution while at the same time cherishing life, friends, and goodness, ready at all times to share love and conversation, but always ready to gently and calmly let go! May we all be so fine, open and wise as we too seek the Good, the True, and the Beautiful! Philosophy is the love of wisdom, and it is wisdom about not only the nature of reality, but about how to live in this world on a practical basis, that motivated the great sages and first philosophers of the past. Now it is time to look at Greece more closely, especially in light of what we now know was happening in other parts of the world.

Five Stages of Greek Religion

The thing that makes studying Greek religion interesting is that you get a view of the whole religious journey of humans in just this one area. “There is hardly any horror of primitive superstition of which we cannot find some distant traces in our Greek record. There is hardly any height of spiritual thought attained in the world that has not its archetype or its echo in the stretch of Greek literature that lies between Thales and Plotinus” (Gilbert Murray, Five Stages of Greek Religion, [New York: Columbia University Press, 1925], pp. 15-16, hereafter referred to in the lectures as Murray.)

One way of breaking down all this material into an order we can study, is to divide this subject into five stages. The first stage represents a level of religion that we find all over the world in the past and is still alive in the world today. We know these religions as the Tribal Religions or Nature Religions. Before there was a God or gods, there were sacred animals and forces of nature. This is a time when the earth itself was alive, and there was no separation between the secular and the sacred.

Second, there is the stage of Olympian Religion. This is the religion of Zeus and all the gods we have read about in Greek mythology.

The third stage was the various movements in philosophy during the fourth century B.C.E. that were a response to the failure of both the city-state politically and the Olympian Religion spiritually.

The fourth stage occurred as a response to the failed attempts of Hellenism to make a better world. People turned inward and sought in their souls for what they couldn’t find in the world. In other words, this is the birth of a mysticism that flowered in both Christianity as well as in the philosophy of Plotinus.

The final stage is less a stage than a last attempt to renew and revitalize the Greek religion by Julian, as Christianity was beginning to take over. This attempt failed, but it did reveal how religious beliefs can be adapted to new situations, and also reminds us of the power of these ideas over Western consciousness.

The First Stage: Tribal Religion

We see in the earliest religions a consciousness of death, the ancestors, and sacred forces of nature and animals. Some of the earliest animals worshipped were snakes. We don’t know why, but there is a lot of evidence that the fact that they lived underground and that they threw off their old skin and renewed themselves was considered a sign of resurrection. Early religious people were aware that you place a “dead” seed in the ground and it was reborn as a new plant. Early burial rites may have something to do with this idea.

Another sacred animal was the bull. We see evidence that the bull was used in a religious context all the way back in Minoan times on the island of Crete. “The bull was the chief of magic or sacred animals in Greece, chief because of his enormous strength, his size, his rage, in fine, as anthropologists call it, his Mana; that primitive word which comprises force, vitality, prestige, holiness, and power of magic, and which may belong equally to a lion, a chief, or a medicine man” (Murray, p. 34). This was also the beginning of sacrificial feasts. “You eat the flesh and drink the blood of the divine animal in order to get into you his mana, his vital power” (Murray, p. 36).

Forces in nature, like the wind, were believed to have will and choice. In other words, the wind chose to blow where and when it wanted. In giving human feelings and choices to natural forces, we are beginning to see the presence (or development?) of the gods in human awareness.

As the animals take on more human attributes, people stop worshipping the animals, but you see instead that the gods take on the animal’s attributes. Even the first gods are pictured as partly animal and partly human. You might see, for example, a human body with wings and a raven head. This usually occurred only in this transition period from sacred animal and nature powers into anthropomorphic gods.

There was another “transitional step, a man wearing the head or skin of a holy beast” (Murray, p. 38). A man, during trance, becomes the animal whose skin he is wearing. He takes on the characteristics, and most importantly, the mana, of the sacred animal. Perhaps this is the earliest manifestation of the gods. Humans take on the characteristics of the sacred and then the sacred takes on human characteristics.

As far as we can tell, early religions did not have the gods and goddesses of later religion. This was a development over a great deal of time or it was a revelation. Those are the two primary sources of religion that we still look toward today. Either religion has slowly developed over time, or it has been revealed from on high. People are still arguing about this one!

Another early version of the gods is the understanding surrounding the idea of the Earth Mother. The earth is a mother. The earth provides for all of our needs. Early tribes were concerned primarily with food, getting it and preparing it. And thus their first conception of the divine was as a female character. “This earth mother is the characteristic and central feature of the early Aegean religions” (Murray, p. 45).

What we have with tribal religion is a concern with survival in a world that was not understood. People could recognize the forces of nature and the animals around them that had more power than they did. They also made the natural assumption that these powers had and expressed will the same way humans did. If I walk somewhere, it is because I decide to do so. If the fire burns the forest, then is this not because the fire decided to do so? And if sacred forces and powers have will, do they not have other human-like characteristics? If the earth provides for all of our needs, is she not like a mother? Transitioning to the belief in gods took a long time, but once it emerged, the gods would always be with us, although in most cases, sooner or later, the many gods would become the one God.

The Second Stage: Olympian Religion

Olympian religion is the religion of the classical myths. Although new in human history, it presents itself as being very old. Many movements make this claim. The Olympian gods represent this new stage of religion (built on the foundation of tribal religion). But who are they and where did they come from?

There is much evidence that the Olympian gods are the gods of the Northern tribesmen who invaded Greece and took over the indigenous people who were involved in tribal religions and, probably, goddess and earth mother religions. Zeus, for example, seems to be a northern sky god who eventually took on more and more of the characteristics of the other gods, and more of their power, until he became the supreme god.

What are these gods like? “The gods of most nations claim to have created the world. The Olympians make no such claim. The most they ever did was to conquer it” (Murray, p. 67). And then what do they do? “They fight, and feast, and play, and make music; they drink deep, and roar with laughter at the lame smith who waits on them. They are never afraid, except of their own king. They never tell lies, except in love and war” (Murray, pp. 67-68).

How were such gods admired and worshipped? They changed over time, so that by the sixth century, much of their shameless behavior had been forgotten. Over time they were idealized and soon were seen as a reformation of tribal religion, which is now viewed as primitive.

How is Olympian religion a reform? Olympian religion accomplished three things: “A moral [purge] of the old rites, an attempt to bring order into the old chaos, and lastly an adaptation to new social needs” (Murray, p. 83). Many of the rites and rituals of tribal religion were brutal, including human sacrifice. Olympian religion was of a gentler persuasion. It conquered the chaos of natural forces and made them personal.

It also brought order into a world that did not yet have any science, as we know it today, to help understand why things happen. Suddenly, power had a personal face to it, and appeal could be made to a reasoning mind. Finally, the Olympian gods appealed to the new social needs of city-states and empires. They were not local tribal gods. They were gods of all of Greece and Hellenic civilization.

And yet they failed in their attempts, and Greek religion is no longer with us in any recognizable form. What happened? For one thing, it was never really able to get rid of the moral problems of tribal religion, because many people remained in tribal cultures and did not live in the city-states. Olympians were not able to reach these people. For another thing, it created even more moral problems. “To make the elements of a “nature religion” human is inevitably to make them vicious. There is no great moral harm in worshipping a thunderstorm, even though the lightning strikes the good and evil quite recklessly. There is no need to pretend that the Lightning is exercising a wise and righteous choice. But once you worship an imaginary quasi-human being who throws the lightning, you are in a dilemma” (Murray, p. 90).

Olympian religion failed to bring satisfactory order to the cosmos, according to some scholars, because it never achieved a final monotheism. Zeus came close, but he never made it. Many of the philosophers actually made that leap, but it was not a successful leap in terms of the everyday people who practiced Greek religion. The philosophers were generally gentle and not dogmatic. They did not insist that everyone believe as they did. In allowing everything, they ended up adding to the confusion between tribal and Olympian religion rather than solving the problem.

Olympian religion also failed to meet the social needs because the city-states were not international. This means that people were primarily identified with their cities rather than with all of Greece. The gods of all Greece did not touch people emotionally the way the city gods (Athena in Athens, for example) touched them.

What good did the Olympian religion serve? “Unlike many religious systems, it generally permitted progress; it encouraged not only the obedient virtues, but the daring virtues as well. It had in it the spirit that saves from disaster, that knows itself fallible and thinks twice before it hates and curses and persecutes. It is, after all, a good deal to say, that in Greek history we find almost no warring of [religious] sects, no mutual tortures or even blasphemies” (Murray, p. 95).

Olympian Religion achieved much, but it also failed to be viable. It can best be understood developmentally, that is, as a bridge from tribal religions to the more philosophical and mystical understanding of reality that was soon to be a part of the Greek worldview. It was left for philosophy to pick up the pieces and try to make sense of what did not work.  That is the subject of the next (and third) stage of Greek religion.

The Third Stage: The Great Philosophical Schools

This age could be symbolized by the defeat of Athens by Sparta in 404 B.C.E. This symbolized not only the failure of the city-state, but also the failure of Olympian Religion. Philosophy provided the richest response to that defeat. We will not spend much time on this subject because we will be cover it in detail in the next lecture. It is important to see the great philosophical schools in the context of the development of Greek religion.

With the failure of both politics and religion surrounding them, the great philosophical question became “what is the good?” The search for a good society had begun and would be debated until today, but the hard questions were first asked here in Greece when it was faced with how to move forward. “Plato was disgusted with democracy and with Athens, but he retained his faith in the city, if only the city could be set on the right road” (Murray, p. 108). Two of his largest books, the Republic and the Laws, are his attempt to construct the best society he can imagine. Of course, his great solution could be found in his concept of the philosopher king.

To the question, “What is the good?, there can be two general answers. The first is success and the second is virtue. The “goodness” of success is self-evident until it fails. This is what happened in Athens. It was not success that was a marker of the good life, but to have done one’s best. Virtue became its own reward and its own good.

One of the first philosophical schools was known as the Cynics. We get our word cynical from them because they were known to reject all traditional values (such as marriage, public games, etc.) and searched for the truth from within. “For reason is the god within us” (Murray, p. 118). The cynics’ rallying cry, much like the later Romantics, was “back to nature.” The Cynics were extreme in their rejection of traditional values, and even though they had great power over the popular imagination, they were too radical to embrace a large popular movement. That was saved for the Stoics, who humanized the Cynics’ viewpoint.

The Stoics “denied any value whatever to these earthly things that are not virtue—to health or sickness, riches or poverty, beauty or ugliness, pain or pleasure; who would ever mention them when the soul stood naked before God? All that would then matter, and consequently all that can ever matter, is the goodness of a [person’s] self, that is, of his [or her] free and living will” (Murray, p. 124). Life is like a play, and your job is not to complain about your part but to play it well. The great American philosopher Forrest Gump said, “Life is like a box of chocolates and you never know what you are going to get!”

Another great school of philosophy was the Epicureans. The founder was Epicurus and his “first discovery was that [people] torture themselves with unnecessary fears. He must teach them courage, to fear no evil from either man or God. God is a blessed being; and no blessed being either suffers evil or inflicts evil on others. And as for men, most of the evils you fear from them can be avoided by justice; and if they do come they can be borne. Death is like sleep, an unconscious state, nowise to be feared. Pain when it comes can be endured; it is the anticipation that makes [people] miserable and saps their courage” (Murray, p. 131).

Where the cynics and Stoics talked about virtue for virtue’s sake, the Epicureans talked about a positive happiness that was possible, not just from doing one’s best, but by enjoying the process as well. The enjoyment came from our affectionate relationships with others, in others words, through the experience of friendship and love. His philosophy was often confused with the simple pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. This is another good example of how great ideas get brought down low by those who misunderstand them. Epicurus “says that pleasure, or sweetness of life, is the good; but he never counsels the direct pursuit of it. Quite the reverse.He says that if you conquer your desires and fears, and live simply and love those about you, the natural sweetness of life will reveal itself” (Murray, p. 138).

Finally, before we leave this stage, a brief note on Aristotle. Aristotle represented a way of doing philosophy that would not be nearly as interesting to the common folks as the Cynics, Stoics, and Epicureans, because he was not trying to find a way to escape this world. His rationalism and scientific genius would wait nearly two thousand years to find its home once again in the Western world during the scientific revolution. His school “took the existing world and tried to understand it instead of inventing some intense ecstatic doctrine which should transform it or reduce it to nothingness” (Murray, p. 145).

Philosophy is not simply the world of abstract ideas at this time in history. It is a way of life. Often a philosopher’s disciples lived with or near him and the school existed not just as an academic institution but a religious community and place of retreat and contemplation. It is in this sense that philosophy takes its place as a stage in Greek Religion. Greek religion would all but disappear, but Greek philosophy would continue to influence the world up to present times.

The Fourth Stage: The Mysteries and Mysticism

This stage is marked by the return of the religious mind after its sojourn in philosophy. It is a mindset that downplays the importance of the world in favor of a mysticism that transcends the world. Many thoughtful people face the question: to be in the world or out of the world? Some of you may remember the answer of Jesus: “To be in the world, but not of the world.” That was just one answer among many, and the many answers to this question are the theme of this stage.

You must remember that this is the time of Alexander the Great and Hellenism. The Greek Empire has engulfed the city-state, and thus there is a loss of the standard situation of what could be considered dependable and secure. This mystical stage is marked by a curiosity in Greek thinking that put a great deal of emphasis on subjective thought. There were exceptions of course, especially in Aristotle, but the majority of these religious movements now taking center stage tended to follow Plato rather than Aristotle “in supposing that people could really solve questions by an appeal to their inner consciousness” (Murray, p. 161).

It was during this time that people lost faith in the traditional mythological gods. What did they replace the gods with? They replaced the gods with the idea of Destiny and Chance. These were the great rulers over a person’s life. What affect did this have? It tended to downplay the value of human endeavor. Notice that there is a difference between the ideas of Chance and Destiny. Destiny is intentional whereas Chance is chaotic.

Along with the rule of Fortune or Destiny, came a belief (once again) in the power of the planets and the Sun, and thus was born into the Greek world a love for astrology, which at the time was not separated from astronomy. The study of the sky, it’s laws and patterns, the study of the cosmos, was the study of the gods themselves. To discover and understand the patterns found in the heavens could only help one understand the seeming random things that happened in life. Surely the macrocosm and the microcosm were connected, and only the details needed to be worked out.

Along with astrology, this was also the time of immense growth of the Mystery Religions and groups like the Gnostics and the Essenes in Judaism. These were groups who had a belief about spirituality that was very much tied to the understanding of astrology and astronomy. Basic to that understanding was that the seven recognized planets represented seven spheres, and within each of these spheres, there was less and less freedom and more and more constraint as things hardened into matter; what we know as the material world. The goal was to somehow climb up to and unite with the One God beyond the spheres.

Ultimately, people make this journey through the planets at death, but for those born seekers, there were preliminary steps one could take in preparation and maybe even experience of these realms. For these people, there was the way of initiation. Initiations played a key role in the Mystery Religions and in Gnosticism. The key idea was that one could not simply see God in one’s present state. As we know from the Bible, Moses was told that to see God was to die. One needed to be purified and allowed to gradually glimpse the meaning and power of the universe through a series of steps and stages. Each Gnostic system had its own way of doing this and its own process, but they shared in common a need for gnosis, which means not simply knowledge in the ordinary sense, but salvational knowledge.

If you want to take a journey it is good to have a map. And if you are going on a secret and dangerous journey, you need a map that can only be drawn by those who have gone before. Gnosis was this secret knowledge. Initiation was both an opening and recognition of one’s readiness for the next stage of the journey. This knowledge was not secret in terms of being exclusive but secret in terms of development. A dog cannot understand Shakespeare because he simply does not have the ability to do so. So a child cannot understand calculus until first he learns arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. One must be willing to learn each step in order to make progress to more profound knowledge. And thus the Mystery Religions and Gnosticism were schools of spirituality.

Two words that were used to talk about this gnostic or mystical experience were “ecstasy” and “enthusiasm.”  These are words we still use regularly, but we usually don’t remember their deep religious significance. Ecstasy means to stand outside oneself, to literally get beyond the limitations of the body. Enthusiasm means to be filled with God. Learning to do this was what these mystic schools were all about. You didn’t talk about it publicly because those people not involved in these schools would not understand. Even today we realize that certain subjects are inappropriate to talk about with certain people. For example, how and when to talk to kids about sexual matters is still a controversial subject. In the same sense, talking to the uninitiated was only asking for misunderstanding and ridicule.

This is the time when people were also looking for savior figures. At first these were the Gnostic leaders who could show people the way to God, but before too long, you also had these figures receiving their knowledge from divine mediators who reached across the chasm from God to human to bring this saving knowledge. Before long people were looking to these mediating figures to actually do the work of salvation for them rather than having to take the journey themselves.

This became a real problem in Christianity when there was an argument about the nature of the salvation Jesus brought. Did he save us through his death and resurrection (the orthodox position) or did he merely show us the way we are to find God (the Gnostic position)?  We see this same dispute in Buddhism between those who believe the Buddha taught us how to awaken by following the Eightfold Path and those who see the Buddha as a savior figure and chant his name seeking his help, such as in Pure Land Buddhism, the largest form of Buddhism in the world. It is always fascinating to me to remember that the Greeks first explored many of our current issues!

The Fifth Stage: The Olympian Religion Renewed

In many ways you could make a strong argument that the fifth stage of Greek religion is Christianity, which was soon to take the Greek world over completely and suppress all other movements. Christianity was gaining in popularity and sophistication. Constantine had stopped the persecutions and made Christianity not only legal but also his favored religion. However, the other religions were not yet illegal, and Christianity was not yet the official religion of the Roman Empire. The fifth stage can be studied as the pagan reaction to Christianity as it tried to take a last stand under the emperor Julian.

Julian wanted to bring back the gods who had been rejected, but he did so in a way that would honor all that both mysticism and philosophy had discovered since the time of Olympian religion. “To Julian the one great truth that matters is the presence and glory of the gods.” He knew people could no longer relate to them literally as before so he taught: “No doubt they are ultimately one; they are ‘forces,’ not persons, but for reasons above our comprehension they are manifest only under conditions of form, time, and personality, and have so been and worshipped and partly known by the great minds of the past” (Murray, p. 220).

This is the key to understanding Julian. He wanted to honor the past by going beyond literal belief and finding the deeper truth discovered by the Greeks and suppressed, he believed, by the Christians. In order to get to this deeper truth, the past would need to be reinterpreted. For example, in the past, “worship may be mixed up with all sorts of folly, all sorts of unedifying practice. Such things must be purged away, or, still better, must be properly understood… and the myths that shock the vulgar are [only] noble allegories to the wise and reverent” (Murray, p. 220).

The myths speak in mysteries and allegory. They are there to make us think! “The myths by their obvious falsity and absurdity on the surface stimulate the mind capable of religion to probe deeper” (Murray, p. 223). For example, Julian concluded that myths and rituals are an “expression of the adventures of the Soul seeking God” (Murray, pp. 223-224).

Julian made a noble attempt to restore the old faith under a new cover and with a deeper understanding, but it seems it was too little too late. Christianity was bursting forth and would soon triumph over the old creeds even as it used much of Greek philosophy and mysticism to explain itself to the Roman world. Why did Julian fail? Who can explain why some ideas last and others pass away? Perhaps the ideas of Julian simply did not touch the masses of people.

It was fine for philosophers and intellectuals to reinterpret all the myths and rituals of the past, but the majority of the people would not be able to relate. For them, Christianity was a myth which had come alive. The story of the dying and rising God that they had heard all of their lives was suddenly claimed to not be mythological but historical. The salvation offered was not for the few who could understand or be initiated, but for the many who could believe, and the love and community offered was not an ideal to hope for but a living reality in the Christian communities who did in fact, take care of the poor and helpless as well as one another.

Greek religion would disappear, but Greek philosophy is here to stay. Before we take that next step, let us take a slight detour and try to understand the place of the Bible in the Western heritage.



We have covered a lot of ground on seemingly different subjects. You may be wondering why we tackled so much.  Let me remind you that this lecture was simply to provide background and context to the rest of this course. The birth of Western philosophy did not happen in a vacuum. With the Axial Age we saw that something amazing was happening all over the world as people began to ask questions that had never been explored before, as far as we know.

Then we traced the thought of Greek religion, and we saw that it moved through five stages. Many of these stages represent the journey of all of humanity as it has moved from tribal and mythological ways of knowing to rational and scientific ways of knowing.

What we must not forget and keep in mind continually is that we share a common human nature. Part of being human is to have questions about the nature of reality and the meaning of life. To love the questions and to seek answers is the path of the sage. Sages show us how to pursue and love wisdom. Since the love of wisdom is the true meaning of philosophy, we have come full circle to where we started in the first lecture and therefore, this seems like a good place to stop until the next lecture.

In the next unit we will explore the world of Greek philosophy. “See” you there!


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Karen Armstrong, Buddha, [London, England: Penguin, 2001]

Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction [New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1984]

Michael D. Coogan, Editor, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Third Edition [New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001]

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Henri Frankfort et al., Before Philosophy, [Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1946]

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Thomas Merton, Opening the Bible, [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Fortress Press, 1970]

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Bruce Waller, Coffee and Philosophy, [New York, New York: Pearson, 2006]

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Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, [Boston: Shambhala, 2000]

Ken Wilber, The Eye of Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad, [Garden City, New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1981]

Ken Wilber, Up From Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution, [Garden City, New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1981]

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Last Updated on April 25, 2020 by