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Graeco-Roman Influence
On Christianity

Christianity appeared on the European soil in the early decades of the first century CE. It is only in the beginning of the fourth century CE that the Bible was compiled finally. The oldest known fragment of the New Testament, a scrap of papyrus, Codex of John’s Gospel, copied about 130 CE is now in Manchester. Paul’s Letters and Synoptic Gospels are, perhaps, a few decades older.

Thus, we find that the first three centuries of our present era are a period of socio-religious and political interaction between the Christian society and the Roman Empire and its people and culture. Apart from the general background of the Graeco-Roman culture, these three centuries were the period when Greek thought, in the form of Platonism and Neoplatonism, was the chief ideological and cultural influence. The Roman Emperors had their own religious system under which the Emperor was the representative of God on earth. Another notable feature of this cultural field was Later Stoicism of which Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) was the chief exponent. These three centuries being the formative years of Christian thought and theology, it is quite necessary to give the background of Greek philosophers and culture and their discernable influence on the Christian religion and its development. This was particularly so, because, as seen already, there had been unfortunate animosity between the Sadducees, the chief carriers of the Judaic religion, and the Christians. And this hostility plagued the history of Europe for quite some centuries.

Greek thought has had a long and varied history. While philosophies of Plato, later followed by Plotinus and Aristotle, form its two main branches, there is hardly a varient system which has not had its exponent and adherents among the Greeks, especially during the later periods of its history. Since many aspects of Christian thought show clear reflection of the Greek systems, especially of Plato and Aristotle, it would be helpful to have a broad glimpse of Greek thought and world-views.

When philosophers like Plato and Aristotle appeared, the heydays of Greek life were, to an extent, past. The Empire of Alexander was a later phenomenon which was not considered to be a product of the thought of Plato, or Aristotle whose student he was. The socio-political thought of earlier Greeks and the views of Plato, as reflected in his Utopia, are primarily related to the world of island or city states. It was the model of Sparta, and not of an Empire or a universal state, that influenced the thinking of these Greek philosophers. On the religious side, we shall, therefore, begin with Orphism and Pythagoras, whose other-worldly thinking influenced the views of Plato and other Greek thinkers to a marked extent.

Irrespective of whether or not Orphism is Egyptian in origin, there is no doubt that its influence on Greek religious and mystic thought has been quite substantial. The system involves the worship of Dionysus and assumes the existence of God and immortal souls which transmigrate. The soul is dealt with according to its deeds here in this world. Life is considered “pain and weariness.” “We are bound to a wheel which turns through endless cycles of birth and death.” The spiritual world, or Heaven, was the true realm with which communion was possible. Since the world was regarded as a burden, the system suggested renunciation, withdrawal, and asceticism. Vision or experience of the spiritual world was possible through ecstacy invoked by drink and dance. Actually, it would seem to be a legacy of the cult of Dionysus which employed passionate mystic methods for stimulating ecstacies or communion with the spiritual world. It was this spiritual experience or revelation which was the source of real knowledge. “The way in which, out of his (Dionysus or Bacchus) worship, there arose a profound mysticism which greatly influenced many of the philosophers, and even had a part in shaping Christian theology, is very remarkable, and must be understood by anyone who wishes to study the development of Greek thought.”1 “Among Greek philosophers, as among those of later times, there were those who were primarily scientific and those who were primarily religious; the latter owed much, directly or indirectly, to the religion of Bacchus. This applies especially to Plato, and through him to those later developments which were ultimately embodied in Christian theology.”2 The Orphic system promised to lead one to eternal bliss of the soul after it was released from the torments of the world. The system is, thus, basically other-worldly and accepts withdrawal and ascetic methods, the world being a burden.

Pythagoras (580 - ? BC)
Pythagoras was a reformer of Orphism. For him, the visible world is false and illusionary, a hazy medium in which heavenly light is obscured by the mist and darkness of the world. As he believes in the fundamentals of Orphism, he too is other-worldly and ascetic in his methods. Strangely, however, he is also scientific and mathematical. He carried out and promoted intellectual activities, but accepted the reality of only the mystic and the spiritual world. Significantly, the two streams in the thought of Pythagoras, namely, mystical and intellectual, have continued almost throughout the Greek thought, especially during its early period.

Bertrand Russell’s tribute to Pythagoras :

“The combination of mathematics and theology, which began with Pythagoras, characterised religious philosophy in Greece, in the Middle Ages, and in modern times down to Kant.”
“I do not know of any other man who was as influential as he was in the sphere of thought. I say this because what appears as Platonism is, when analysed, found to be in essence Pythagoreanism. The whole conception of an eternal world, revealed to the intellect but not to the senses, is derived from him. But for him, Christians would not have thought of Christ as the Word; but for him, theologians would not have sought logical proofs of God and immortality.”3

Socrates (469 ? - 399 BC)
Socrates remains the most glorious character in Greek history. He believed that the supernatural world was more real than the world of senses, and that the soul was immortal. Therefore, his entire approach was other-worldly and strongly ascetic. For him, God was good and he devoted his life to teaching knowledge of the good. It was his firm belief that true knowledge would enable persons to act virtuously and that it was only ignorance which made man sin. The intellectual strain in Greek thought has always led to the emphasis that knowledge would improve human conduct. Socrates had loyalty both to his conscience and to the Laws of the State. In the face of death, he displayed superhuman courage and spurned the offer to flee from prison. Up to the end, he was calm and cool, without any fear of death, which he thought might be a greater good than life itself. As he considered the spiritual world to be real, he was certain that after death he would be in the company of gods, and even of great persons like Homer. The idea of other-worldliness, and of consequent deliverance from this bad world, was so strong in the Greek mind that he asked his companion, Crito, to give a cock to Asclepius which was an offering or sacrifice made at the time of one’s death in token of one’s deliverance from this mundane world. Socrates was a strange combination of a saint and a loyal citizen of the State. His teachings had a deep ethical, rational but other-worldly bias. His fundamental emphasis was on justice and free thinking in this world, which he felt would lead to virtuous life. He was a martyr for the virtue of free thought and seeking knowledge of justice and truth. Few persons can live according to the logic of their convictions as did Socrates. And this is what gave a strong Socratic bias to the entire Greek thought, especially concerning its mysticism, immortality of the soul, other-worldliness and asceticism. Politically, he was opposed to democracy which he felt could not lead to justice and free ethical and intellectual living. No honest man, he felt, could live long in politics. Despite his other-worldliness, he held the belief, which was shared by most Greeks including Plato, that evil exists because of ignorance. For, no one commits a wrong knowingly, and, therefore, imparting knowledge of the good was the best way to improve human conduct and bring about justice in the world. This belief would seem to explain the continuous presence of a strong strain in Greek life for promoting knowledge, discipline and education, even though the ascetic other-worldliness of its mystic thought existed side by side with it.

Plato (427 ? - 347 ? BC)
Despite the intellectual greatness of Plato, there is a distinct imprint of Socrates on his thought. For Plato, there is a God and the eternal world of ideas which is the archetype of the created world. God did not create the world, but only arranged it and He alone can undo it. The soul is immortal, but the present world is illusory and cannot be compared to the supernatural world of ideas which alone is real and eternal. For Plato, there is a dualism between the soul and the body; eternal ideas and sensible objects; reason and sense perceptions; reality and appearance; and real knowledge and opinion. For him, it is the body that drags the soul to the world. The soul is, thus, unhappy and confused in the sensible world. It can be happy only while in contemplation of eternal things; and in this state, it gains real wisdom. Wisdom for Plato is not rational knowledge, but it is a “vision,” of “truth,” or “good.” His ascetic other-worldliness is also evident from the fact that for him true knowledge can only be about the “ideas,” and that all empirical knowledge obtained from sense perceptions is just opinions, and, therefore, not fully reliable. As such, the body is doubly evil since it hinders true knowledge of the eternal or spiritual world of Absolute Good and Absolute Beauty, gained only through spiritual or mystic experience. The body needs purification so as to have knowledge of eternal things, which could be had only through contemplation and not through sense perceptions. His approach is primarily mystic, with an ethical bias. Full knowledge of things eternal can be had only after death. For, it is then alone that the soul is completely free from the clouding and distracting influence of the body and its senses. The soul can never be at home in this world — since it belongs to the other or eternal world of spirituality. The influence of Orphism and Socrates is quite evident. For correct thinking, bodily pleasures have to be avoided. For having true knowledge, therefore, contemplation or mystic vision was essential. Therefore, the philosopher had to be exempted from worldly labour, since he was to deal with matters relating to the soul only. Plato felt that the philosopher had to play the role of a guide or superman, who had not only to know the truth and have a clear vision of it, but was also obliged to impart that knowledge to others. It was a strange contradiction both in Socrates and Plato that while they were other-worldly, they clearly emphasised the role and duty of the philosophers to teach knowledge to the people. So much so that Plato believed that if a virtuous man did not become a philosopher, he would become a bee in his next birth. He believed in transmigration and thought that those who live a bad life in this world would become women at the time of their next birth. It was a strange combination of other-worldliness and worldliness. The fundamental reason was the clear dichotomy between the eternal and the empirical worlds assumed by Greek thought. Mystical tendency was the strongest in the philosophy of Plato. And this, with the views of Plotinus, formed later the very base of most of the Christian thought and theology. Like Socrates, Plato exhibited a strong ethical bias and faith in the importance of education. For, if men were properly taught, trained and disciplined, vice and conflict could be avoided in the world. May be, because of the narrow world of the City State in which Socrates and Plato lived, they had the fallacy that it was out of ignorance that people committed crime and that the wise were always virtuous. They ignored the human experience that it is the ego of man which leads to difference in personal, class and national interests and conflicts, and that egoistic pleasures and prejudices could be more devastating than worldly pleasures.

Plato believes that time, heaven and the world were created simultaneously. But the soul is from the eternal world. Souls are of two kinds; the immortal soul, the abode of which is the head; and the mortal soul, the abode of which is the breast. The latter is concerned with bodily emotions.

Despite the dichotomy of his thought and its other-worldliness, Plato shows a strong interest in the world by writing his philosophies and Utopia. It is true that his Utopia is modelled, to an extent, on the practices that had existed in Sparta, where children from 7 to 16 were given common training and were disciplined and categorised for their future work as soldiers or otherwise. Plato too divides men into four classes, namely, guardians, soldiers, common people and the slaves. Since he believes himself to belong to the upper class of guardians and philosophers, he never thought in terms of human equality. Government had to decide for which category a person was fit. Once the classification was done, each class had to be multiplied separately because of genetic differences, though some mobility between the classes was permitted on the exhibited talent of a child. Wives were to be common and children were to be segregated soon after birth, so that they did not know who their parents were. Plato spurned the use of gold and silver coins and also of private property. For Plato, justice meant conformity with the law and everyone doing his assigned work in the class fixed. The socio-economic and political aims of the system were stability, avoidance of famine, and success in war. The practicality of Plato’s system has always remained a moot point. It is well-known that in practice, as the guide of the Prince of Syracuse, he failed and had to escape from the State to save himself.

Plato’s personality was without doubt versatile. But there was a strong mystical and ethico-religious streak in his world-view. He believes that good is that which is in harmony with the Will of God. But it is given to only a few philosophers to see that light. Apart from the basic other-worldliness indicated above, the flaw in his thought is the mingling of intellectual and conceptual vision with mystic vision. Notwithstanding all this, it is true that no other person has so profoundly influenced Greek, Christian and Western thought as has Plato. The unfortunate part is that the dichotomy and other-worldliness in his approach have also affected the Christian thought.

Aristotle (384 - 322 BC)
For Aristotle, God is the first cause of everything. As against the view of Plato and Christians, he believes time and motion of things have always been there. Substances are of three kinds; first, sensible and perishable, like things of matter; second, sensible and non-perishable, like stars; and, third, non-sensible and non-perishable, like soul. Each object is constituted by form and matter. Actually, it is the form of a thing which gives it existence and identity. Form is not just the shape of a thing. For Aristotle, it has almost a metaphysical existence. All changes are due to giving greater and greater form and variation to matter. Entities are evolving towards a greater and higher degree of form. While Plato’s ideas are mathematical, Aristotle is biological and teleological in his concepts. God is the fundamental cause of all activities. Aristotle believes both in necessity and purpose. He suggests that we should love God and try to be like Him, since all movement or progress is because of the love of God. But strangely, like Spinoza, he believes that God does not love man. Aristotle has a dual sort of concept about the soul of man. The soul in the body perishes with it, but there is a mind-part of the soul which does not perish with the body and is immortal. This part of the soul, however, never directs the body nor guides it in performing practical things in life. The timeless and rational part of the soul exists independently — it only speculates and contemplates. It is the irrational soul that moves and directs the body and dies. The irrational soul divides, but the rational soul unites and contemplates. The immortality of the soul is not personal; it partakes of the Divine. Accordingly, Aristotle does not seem to believe in the transmigration of the soul, though he does say that women are weak, and cowardly persons become women in their next birth. The Greek bias against women is there. An important concept of Aristotle is that we should love God, and try to be like Him; which is, in fact, an activity of greater and greater form, evolving towards God and becoming more and more like Him. Like Plato and other Greek thinkers, Aristotle too emphasised the superiority of the contemplative activity, without necessarily a corresponding activity in the empirical field. This continues to be a flaw in all other-worldly systems. For Aristotle too, the activities of the body have no meaning and are perishable. But, without the idea of personal immortality and transmigration of the soul, there cannot be any adequate incentive for moral activity in the social field. This fault is a natural consequence of other-worldliness of Greek religion and thought, which consider the world to be evil or second rate and the body to be an impediment in the way of spiritual progress and vision of things eternal. Seen logically, there is an internal contradiction in his thought, because if ideas of perishability of the body and the guiding soul are correct, the very concept of purpose or teleology becomes lost and meaningless. On the other hand, Aristotle also believes that once the soul becomes perfect, it ceases to be personal. This idea is virtually the same as the concept of nirvana or merger in the Indian religions where, once a superman reaches the highest level, he ceases to be active.

However, ethical bias is evident in Aristotle’s thought. Virtues for him are of two kinds, first, intellectual, and, second, moral. The first category is learnt by teaching, and the second category is formed by habit. For Aristotle, justice means only a sense of proportion and balance and not a sense of equality. For him, as also for Plato and most of the Greek philosophers, hierarchy is the norm of social justice and not equality. A son for Aristotle is the property of the father and the slave is the property of the master. A sense of proper pride, like a knightly pride, is a virtue recommended by Aristotle, and not humility and charity. He suggests the maintenance of property, because otherwise the rulers and aristocrats cannot be magnanimous. Unlike Plato, he does not suggest the break-up of the family, since it would be destructive of filial loyalty. In the ethical field, he recommends the achievements of ends, the chief end being happiness. For him, all means that secure the right end are valid. He suggests friendliness and sociability only with people of one’s own class. Aristotle considers intellectual and contemplative activity to be most conducive to progress and happiness and to sharing the Divine. Philosophers are, thus, the best and the happiest and most dear to the gods. Virtue is just an increased activity of form and organisation. It is a common failing of intellectuals that they consider reason a virtue, though like force, it is a neutral tool which can be used both for vice and virtue, for destruction and construction. Like Plato, he also prescribes different kinds of moral codes for each class, as also certain ethical limits for a member of each class that have not to be transgressed. For him, the sufferance of the masses is no evil and he justifies slavery, except that Greeks should not be made slaves. He even suggests war against an inferior nation, especially when it refuses to submit to the superior nation. The necessity to obtain slaves could for him be a good cause to wage a war against another nation.

As a political system, Aristotle recommends monarchy to be the best and aristocracy to be the second best. He supports Machiavellian methods for running the affairs of a state. The hierarchical feeling is so ingrained in him that he suggests that men working for a living should not have the status of citizens of the state. For him, the lives of husbandmen, tillers of the soil, mechanics and labourers were ignoble and non-virtuous. He believes that the higher class, the elite, is legitimately entitled to the best things in life. Considering the class to which Plato and Aristotle belonged, it was natural that they found it difficult to rise above the prejudices of their class, or of the class which supported them. Over the centuries, despite pretensions to the contrary, it has been the common weakness of intellectuals to give moral support to the social system or a class that gives sustenance to their profession or living. Even up to the Middle Ages, Christian priests supported the aristocracy and land-owning class that sustained them. They criticised the charging of interest by the trading class on which they were not dependent. But later, when the trading classes came into power and the Protestant clergy and the Church became dependent on them, the charging of interest came to be considered a valid practice.

Two important facts about Greek life were its support of the hierarchical system of society and almost contempt towards the working class and the slaves. These were, we believe, the result of fundamental dichotomy in Greek thought, wherein only the spiritual and contemplative life was valued and worldly life was downgraded. This dichotomy became so damaging to the Greek world-view that later both the Stoics and the earlier Christians felt that one could lead a virtuous life and reach the House of God without being socially involved. For them, virtuous life had not much of a relation with socio-political activity, social conditions and environment; and one could be virtuous irrespective of evil in society and without the responsibility of reacting against injustice practised against one’s neighbour and fellow beings. Consequently, they thought that a slave could be virtuous and moral, despite the degrading immorality of his social position which he and others accepted. In short, it is under this dichotomy, spiritual growth, unrelated to empirical life, could be achieved in isolation, without reference to or reaction against injustice and immorality in society. The logic of this ethical system may be compared to Ramanuja not allowing Sudras to be admitted to the Vaishnav Bhakti, but permitting them instead only to the path of Prapati or self-surrender. Such moral adjustments are quite common among religio-spiritual or other-worldly systems that remain divorced from, or unresponsive to faults in the socio-political conditions of the times.

Apart from the dichotomy of the Greek world-view and the related other-worldliness of its thought, there is another lesson to be drawn from the above, namely, that intellect alone can never lay down a just ethico-social standard. The reason is that moral life is the end product of two components in man’s psychological functioning, i.e., his discriminating intellect and its intimate and almost dependent link with one’s emotional development. The point is well illustrated by the life of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Socrates refused to flee, when given the offer to escape from prison, because he felt that doing so would be violative of the rationale, system and ethics he had been preaching. But Plato, with hardly any spiritual or intellectual beliefs different from those of Socrates, chose to run away from the domain of the despot of Syracuse, when his life was threatened. Similarly, Aristotle also, when faced with punishment, decided to escape from the area of his work in order to avoid it. The difference in the conduct of Socrates, on the one hand, and of Plato and Aristotle, on the other hand, was not due to differences in their intellectual beliefs, but just followed differences in their emotional equipment and consequent moral development.

Despite the dichotomy of the Greek world-view, both Plato and Aristotle were too serious persons to ignore or lose interest in the life of the world around them. Plato not only had evident faith in the value of education in the socio-political field, and for that purpose detailed his blueprint for an utopian state, but also actually engaged himself as an adviser to the ruler of Syracuse for giving practical shape to his ideas and making the area into a model state. Comparatively, Aristotle was quite matter-of-fact and worldly. This is evident from his theory of teleology which holds out hope of purpose and growth in life.

Later Greek Thought
In the course of time when these masters were off the scene, dichotomy in the Greek world-view had its corroding effect on the vigour and growth of Greek thought and life. It is in the subsequent centuries that appeared the Cynics, the Sceptics, the Epicurians and the early Stoics with their materialism and determinism. These world-views did not hold out much hope for the future of man. The thought of the later periods is hardly of great significance, except that the greater the emphasis on other-worldliness and withdrawal, the greater the decline in the moral tone of Greek society. Ultimately, as we shall find, with the Neo-platonism of Plotinus the dichotomy was completed. For Plotinus believed that the life of contemplation was the only life worth seeking. And it was during those times that chaos and corruption in Greek society were the greatest.

The Cynics despised things of the world, but they condemned slavery. They were ascetic in conduct, recommended withdrawal, and rejected the institutions of marriage, government, private property and religion. For them, indifference to things and conduct of the world was the right approach. According to the Sceptics, none knew anything, none could know anything and hence all search for knowledge was just vain. Similarly, the Epicurians, who were materialists, also recommended liberation from worldly desires and things. They believed that everyone should pursue one’s own pleasures and the best one could hope for was deliverance from the pains of life. The early Stoics were materialists, and for that matter, determinists. Man was a part of nature, and virtue consisted in being in harmony with it. Good and evil were parts of the same system, and one could not be without the other. There is, however, something great about later Stoicism, especially as expressed by Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) and Epictetus. Like the last flickers of a fading flame, it preached universal love and equality; ethical ideas that have not since been surpassed in their humanitarianism. The great contribution of the later Stoics is that they rejected the hierarchical, sectarian and exclusive thinking of earlier Greeks. They, however, accepted Platonism and the presence of the soul. Marcus believed in the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Everyone was a citizen of the world and slaves were equals of all others, because all men were the children of God. He recommended submission to God. Good conduct was necessary to please Him, and not to please any man on earth. No evil could befall a man doing good. Epictetus felt that everyone had been assigned a role by God and that we should play our part worthily. We should love our enemies as well. This morality, no doubt lofty, could only be other-worldly, unpractical and isolative. Marcus felt that life in harmony with God’s Will was the best. He says, “Love mankind. Follow God. . . . . .the Law rules all.” His thought, presumably because of its principle of non-resistance, was so acceptable to Christians that St Augustine in his City of God follows many of the writings of this Roman Emperor. He also says that we should love even those who do us wrong. These Stoics felt that the sinner harms himself and not the virtuous whom he tries to damage. For virtue is an end in itself. There is a contradiction in Stoic thought, because while they are determinists, they also accept the idea of free will and emphasise the doing of good and being virtuous. They suggest that a sinner’s will is determined and we need not, therefore, blame him for that. The will of the virtuous alone is free, since it partakes of God, Who alone is free. Strangely enough, this thought, while suggesting determinism in the world, also gives hope for progress of man towards virtue and freedom. Stoics felt that without being good and virtuous man cannot be happy. They accepted perception to be useful tool for man. An important Stoic belief was the presence of innate ideas, especially of the principle of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. This law naturally meant equality of man, including slaves and women, and equal freedom for all under the law. This ethics, since it is entirely different from the hierarchical Greek ethics of Plato and Aristotle, is the greatest contribution of Stoics and Emperor Marcus towards human thought. It was taken up by Christianity in the later centuries, and now forms the unquestionable moral force behind the modern ideas of equality before the law, equality of the rights of man, etc. The Stoic principle of non-retaliation and love of one’s enemy as well, became welcome to the Christians because of the doctrine in the Sermon on the Mount. In any case, the streak of other-worldliness in the Stoic thought is evident enough; its emphasis on moral life is considerable, though many of its ideas remained unpractical and without any social impact.

By this time, the decay in the Greek world was spreading, and because of its increasingly other-worldly trend, wise and good men gave up all efforts at improving the world around them, since they had virtually lost hope of doing so. Instead they thought and contemplated only about the next world. This climate may be the reason for Greek thought becoming cynical, sceptical and unpractical. In fact, even the examples of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, who showed a distinct tendency to improve the world, was lost on these good men in the Greek world. It is strange and ironic that in those times the moral standards among Romans were higher than those among the contemporary Greeks, though it was in many ways a Hellenised Roman Empire. The Greek cultural influence on the Romans started declining, and it was this lost moral stature of Graeco-Roman life and the comparatively high ethical standards of the Christian community, coupled with other factors, that later made Constantine accept Christianity as the State Religion.

It is the period of Marcus Aurelius and the moral tone of his ideas and beliefs to which, perhaps, Frazer refers when he laments the social erosion of the Empire by the other-worldly, un-societal and individualistic ethics of the Christians. But the period of Marcus and later Stoics was just a flicker in the thoughts of the Graeco-Roman world that had become increasingly other-worldly. By the time of Plotinus, the trend of other-worldliness and withdrawal from the affairs of the world was the greatest. And the tragedy was that Christianity at that time, as interpreted by its masters, was itself other-worldly, offering no hope and interest in the existing world. It held out prospects of salvation only in the world beyond. The reality was that the socio-ethical trend towards the improvement of the world, as it existed in the earlier Greek thought, and to which Frazer refers, had virtually been lost; and in their other-worldliness there was not much to choose from between the Greek thought of Plotinus and the Christian views. In fact, it was this identity of thinking that made Christian scholars and theologians borrow heavily from the thoughts of this quietist mystic.

Plotinus (205 ? - 270 ? CE)
Plotinus, the last well-known philosopher in the line of great Greek thinkers and scholars, is particularly important for his philosophy of mysticism. In his time, the Greek world offered little hope and presented a spectacle of ruin and misery. But, unlike Guru Nanak, Plotinus remained unconcerned with it and turned only to the next world of contemplation and beauty. For him, as for all quietist mystics, the next world was of greater beauty and reality, and for that matter, demanded greater loyalty and allegiance.

Plotinus believes in the spiritual trinity of the One, Spirit, and Soul. One is God, Who transcends Being and All. It is present in all things; It is nowhere, yet there is no place where It is not. It precedes the Good or Beautiful. One cannot be described or defined. Second is Spirit, Mind or Nous, the intellectual principle. All activity or divinity is of Nous, Mind or Logos. It is the Self-vision of One seeing the light by which One sees itself. If we give up self-will, it is possible to see the Divine Mind. But to know the Divine Mind, we must put aside the body and that part of the soul that moulds the body, its senses and desires; and study the soul when it is most God-like. It is then that we could see the Divine Mind or Intellect. Those divinely inspired have the knowledge or vision of it and its presence, though they cannot describe it. Yet, they perceive it inwardly. This vision or knowledge is above reason, mind or feeling, though it confers on man all these powers. When divinely inspired, we see not only Nous but also One.

The Gurus see Him as Hukm, Raza,Command or Will or as Love that is all activity. But He is indescribable.

One cannot speak about that experience; actually all description of that experience is just a subsequent recollection of the event. This Light is from the Supreme; it is the Supreme, and to reach it, is the goal of the soul.

The Gurus in contact with Him or His Command, are all activity; for in their case, the experience of Love gives both command and direction for creative work. The goal of the soul is not merger or passivity after His vision.

The Supreme illumines with Its own Light. This achievement is possible by cutting away from the world and everything. Plotinus had such a vision by contemplation. It is the end achievement, and activity after it is a fall. Plotinus says he had such an ecstacy or vision many a time. One is lifted out of the body and everything in the world, one is assured of communion with the Highest Order and identity with the Divine. Intellect and reason are at a lower level. After the vision, the soul descends and re-enters the body.

The third element is Soul, it is lower than Nous. It is the author of all living things in the world. It is the offspring of Divine Intellect. Soul is in two parts; the inner part connected with Nous and the outer part connected with the world, body, perception and nature. As against Plotinus, Stoics are Pantheistic, because they identify nature with God. For Plotinus, nature is connected only with the outer soul. We are at the lower level when the soul is linked with the world and the body only. It is not linked with Nous and has no vision of it. Unlike the Stoics, Plotinus does not call the world evil, but concedes that it is as beautiful as it could be; though he calls heavenly bodies not only more beautiful, but also superior to man. The soul, when it creates nature, does so from its memory of the Divine. He feels that admiration of the order and beauty of the world uplifts one to God. Matter is created by the soul and has no independent reality. He believes in transmigration. After living one life the soul enters another body — it has to be punished for its sins and errors. During contemplation, the soul is lost in vision and has no memory of its personality. While the soul is lost in the vision of Nous, it remains separate from it and does not merge with it. While a soul is pure, it is in contact with all other souls, but when it enters the body, it forgets its relation with other souls; only a few souls are on occasions in touch with Nous and other souls. The body obscures true vision.

This view is in contrast with the ideas of the Sikh Gurus, who call human birth an opportunity to meet God, and for that matter, a privilege. They do not consider the soul’s entering the body a fall or a degradation.

For Plotinus soul is at its best while in contact with Nous, because then it only contemplates and does not create. The world is a good creative image of the eternal. For Plotinus each is all and all is each. Therefore, every being should see all in every other being, for everywhere there is all. All are mirrored in everything. Sin for him is the result of free will given to men and not because it is a determined world. Plotinus maintained a high level of intellectual activity and exhibited the best standard of quietist morality. While the activities of Plotinus gave rise to scholastic philosophy, yet it made man to look within, because he laid emphasis on contemplation and not on creative activity in the world. He distinctly promoted other-worldliness and withdrawal from the world. For him, while we look in, we see Nous, but outside there is only an imperfect world.

This world-view, starting with Pythagoras, maintained and developed by other Greek philosophers, down to the Stoics and Neoplatonists, was a trend that increasingly promoted other-worldliness, withdrawal, asceticism, subjectivism and contemplation; instead of outward activity, resulting in the rise of moral standards and social responsibility in the empirical world. For Plotinus, virtue alone was important and enough. It could be without reference to social or moral uplift or the improvement of human welfare or institutions. Virtue involved only a virtuous will without relation to the human or social condition.

We have seen that despite the efforts of men like Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to improve the Greek world around them, the basic dichotomy in the Greek thought and the other-worldliness of its world-view never allowed them to generate enthusiasm, vigour and hope in the Greek life of the times. As it happens among decaying cultures, these centuries of despair and confusion were ultimately followed by the period of Plotinus, when religious men or good men turned away from the ideal of social salvation to that of personal salvation. In history, this has generally been the role and the result of the world-views that suggest or promote other-worldliness and withdrawal. The important fact is that it is the later period of Greek thought, namely of Neoplatonism and Stoicism, that coincided with the first three centuries of the Christian era when Christian leaders and scholars were framing their doctrines and theologies. And there is little doubt that the doctrines and other-worldliness of Platonism, and more particularly of Plotinus and Neoplatonism, deeply moulded and shaped the thought of the Christians. What Plato thought to be the eternal world of ideas, which was to be reached by philosophic contemplation, was for Plotinus, and later the Christians, the beautiful kingdom of God to be enjoyed after death or by a mystical vision of it. It is important to state that it was the world-view of Plotinus and Plato that later became an integral and inalienable part of Christian thought and theology, both being equally mystical and other-worldly. So much so that Dean Inge has emphasised that it is impossible to separate the ideas of Plotinus from the structure of Christian theology; so deeply intimate is the connection between the two. The early Christians, mostly poor Jews, were just men of deep faith without any well-formed philosophical and theological ideas. To fill the gap, they were anxious to raise a rival theoretical structure. It is indeed the philosophies of these two scholars that have not only influenced the Christians and their world-view, but also supplied them the constitutional elements and doctrines of their system. Plotinus is a landmark. While on the one hand, he represents the culmination of the era of Greek other-worldly thought starting with Pythagoras, on the other hand, he forms a model and a trendsetter for the pioneers of Christian thought and ethics. Theologians like St Augustine, Christian philosophers, saints, preachers and mystics broadly followed the view of Neoplatonism. Thus, the other-worldliness of thought and the downgrading of the world continued unabated.

While Plotinus represents mystic and intellectual activity of the highest order, beauty and quality, his is also the era when the human conditions of the Greeks were at its lowest ebb. Evidently, the sublimity of the thought of Plotinus hardly had any visible impact on the moral conditions of the society. This we believe was due to the basic dichotomy in the Greek thought.

We have briefly indicated the elements and trends of Greek religious thought from the time of Pythagoras to the period of Plotinus. Broadly speaking, the fundamental features of this world-view are (1) Timeless reality of the spiritual world; (2) Comparative unreality of the present world; (3) The eternal character of the soul; (4) Other-worldly approach to the empirical world, which was regarded as second rate, illusory, a burden or even evil; because in working through it, one can never have the highest vision.

Accordingly, this view involved ascetic withdrawal that emphasised only contemplative activity of the mind. Evidently, this thinking was perfectly logical in view of the system initiated by its philosophers and good men. By definition, all these systems were dichotomous, creating a clear division between the life of the spirit and that of the world. Preference was always for the former and withdrawal was sought from the empirical world. The ascetic other-worldly approach, starting with Pythagoras, continued increasing till the time of Plotinus, who almost completely discarded interest in the worldly life, especially after the attainment of spiritual vision. For him, after the vision of God or Nous, interest in the world was a fall. This is what Bergson says of Plotinus : ‘He went as far as ecstacy, a state in which the soul feels itself, or thinks it feels itself, in the presence of God, being irradiated with His light; he did not get beyond the last stage, he did not reach the point where, as contemplation is engulfed in action, the human will becomes one with the Divine will. He thought he had reached the summit; in his eyes, to go further would have meant to go downhill. This is what he expressed in language of rare beauty, yet which is not the language of thorough-going mysticism.’ ‘Action,’ he said, ‘is a weakening of contemplation,’ therein he remains faithful to Greek intellectualism, he even sums it up in a striking formula; and, at any rate, he did contrive it to impregnate it with mysticism. In short, mysticism in the absolute sense in which we have agreed to take the word, was never attained by Greek thought.” For, prophetic or activity mystic union involves being charged with unlimited energy, vision and direction in order to be the instrument of God, carry out His Will or mission in the world. For, this is what prophets of the world have done. We quote a hymn of the Ninth Guru saying : “My power has returned; my bonds are loosened and all the doors are opened unto me. Says Nanak: O Lord, everything is in Thy Power, Now be Thou with me.”4

However, from Pythagoras down to Aristotle, there was another significant trend in the earlier Greek thought as well. For, there was a distinct emphasis on the life of the intellect and the belief that by education and discipline, life on earth could be improved. Pythagoras made important advances in the field of mathematics and rational activity. Socrates spent a lifetime to educate the youth in rational and free thinking. Plato also showed a marked interest in the world and a sense of social responsibility in writing his Utopia. True, his model was only for a small area or state, but he proposed a system for an entire community, its education, training and social structure so that it could cater to the chief problems of society, namely, of food, security, cohesion and stability. He joined the State of Syracuse in order to implement his thoughts on the ground. But as centuries moved on, there was a clear loss of earlier balance and a declining interest in the world for acceptance of social responsibility. At the time of Plotinus, as against the spiritual pursuits, worldly activity was considered a waste and a distraction. Thus, we find that for centuries the Greek empirical world came to be increasingly neglected, being no concern of the good or spiritual men. The result was that in the third century CE, there was a lamentable contrast between the ugliness of the socio-moral life of the Greeks and the beauty of the quietist-mystic thought of Neo-Platonists. It is evident that from the time of Pythagoras to Plotinus the increasing dichotomy in the world-view of the Greeks had become its settled component, resulting, on the one hand, in the chaotic misery of the Greek society, and on the other, in the primary emphasis on a life of contemplation of the spirit as laid down by Plotinus, who, while single-mindedly pursuing his spiritual course, showed hardly any concern for the empirical world or for the conditions of the Greek society.

There is another related factor that cannot be ignored. Whatever be the reasons, the Greek society was never universal in its approach, nor did it ever suggest or promote universal equality. On the other hand, by and large, both the Greek and the Roman thought accepted and promoted social hierarchy and slavery. Whatever be the period of history, maintenance of inequality resulting in social tensions can never lead, in the long run, to cultural or social cohesion or even to political stability. True, as in the case of Marcus Aurelius, ideas of universalism and equality were given out. But such ideas were just brilliant intellectual shooting-stars that leave no residue. For, they never assumed the shape of a cultural ethos of the society or even of deeds. Because, as we find, Graeco-Roman society was basically a hierarchical or elitist society wherein slavery was approved and national and class values were enforced from the top in the form of discipline. These values never became part of the ethos of the people. As against it, the Judaic values of nationalism and its ethics had permeated the Jew masses far more pervasively than the Greek elitist values had been owned by its people. On the other hand, it is the other-worldliness and quietism of Greeks, as Spencer says, that had influenced the mystic and quietist sects of Judaism.

In fact, the main strength of the Christian society that enabled it to struggle successfully against the Empire was its ethics and social cohesion as a community. For, in reality, the Christians had hardly an established elite or an intellectual group to lead them. Rather it was, perhaps, their lack of a clear ideological understanding that led the budding Christian scholars to be willing to borrow and own the declining ideologies of the Greeks and Plotinus. How far in later years it affected the positive ideology of Christ is indeed a matter of opinion. But, there is little doubt that the clear other-worldliness of the thought of Plotinus was incorporated or reflected in Christian theology by men like St Augustine, its theologians, mystics and preachers.

So, Fraser and Gibbon are firmly right in saying that Christian thought was other-worldly and could hardly have a healthy influence on the declining ethos of the Graeco-Roman culture. But, they are equally wrong in believing that Christian thought, in any way, eroded the life-affirming Graeco-Roman culture. Rather, the truth, it would seem, is that it is the other-worldly ideology of the Greeks and Plotinus that affected adversely the emphatically this-worldly ideologies of Moses and Christ. When the structure and historical impact of the thoughts of Moses and Christ are seen, in comparison with the impact of the world-views of Plato and Plotinus, the above conclusion would seem inevitable. For, it is undeniable that from the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the situation in the first centuries of our era had changed radically and by the time of Plotinus, dichotomy in the Greek world was deep and complete.

We have given a brief outline of the position of the Greek thought and culture when it had an interaction with the Christian society of the first centuries of our era. Undoubtedly, in those times, Christianity itself was quite other-worldly and had a world-view that was certainly and clearly incapable of raising the social cohesion and morale of the Roman society. Nor could Christianity, in any way, adversely affect the social conditions or cohesion of the Graeco-Roman society that had, as seen by us, itself become other-worldly, and for that reason, impoverished in vigour and socio-moral stamina. Both in its thought and social structure, Graeco-Roman society was clearly hierarchical. Large scale slavery was a sanctioned fact of life, as also the gap between the aristocracy or the land-owning classes and the tillers of the soil and tradesmen, whom Aristotle regarded as unfit for being given the status of citizenship. True, universal ideas of Marcus were great in their sublimity. But the social conditions in the Empire were far from conducive to their growth. As it happens, spiritual and moral ideas, beyond the reach of the common people to grasp and practise, unless demonstrated by a prophet with a mission, hardly make a social impact. Broadly speaking, the Graeco-Roman society was itself on its socio-cultural decline when Christianity appeared in Europe.

One lesson of our brief surveys of the Judaic and Greek religious history is that the doctrine of other-worldliness and withdrawal is such an enervating influence that in the course of centuries it inevitably saps the religious zeal and energies of a society leading to almost complete dichotomy in its life.


This Chapter is based on :
Bertrand Russell’s; A History of Western Philosophy
W.T. Stace’s; A Critical History of Greek Philosophy

1. Russell, Bertrand; pp. 34-35.
2. Ibid; pp. 36-37.
3. Ibid; p. 56.
4. Guru Granth Sahib; p. 1429.



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