3 minute read

Philosophy and Religion in Western Thought

The Early Christian And Medieval Periods, The Early Modern Period, The Eighteenth And Nineteenth Centuries

Before Socrates, speculative thinkers addressed in several ways what would be identified as religious matters in the twenty-first century. Some of them criticized what they deemed to be implausible features of conventional religion: thus Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 560–c. 478 B.C.E.) attacked both the immorality and the anthropomorphism of the poets' depiction of the gods, while Democritus of Abdera (fifth century B.C.E.) provided explanations of the causes of events that were opposed to ideas of divine intention or arguments from design. Several early philosophers further advanced an understanding of the concept of divinity in terms that were opposed to ordinary religious experience. Their efforts were often caricatured by the public imagination as instances of impiety. It is revealing that Aristophanes (c. 450–c. 388 B.C.E.) in his play The Clouds depicted philosophers as promoters of irreligion, and Socrates (c. 470–399 B.C.E.) at his trial was accused of being "completely godless" (to parapan atheos).

With the work of Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 B.C.E.) and Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.), these strategies for addressing the claims of religion were consolidated in ways that did much to determine future discussion. Plato's Socrates defends traditional mythology and participates in civic rituals. He recounts to Phaedrus the myth about Boreas and Orithyia and admonishes those who seek to explain its point naturalistically, and his famous last words to Crito request that a ritual sacrifice be made on his behalf. More formally, however, Plato's dialogues repeatedly turn on a rejection of doubts about the divine (see Laws, book 10), and he provides several arguments against those who deny the existence, nature, or providence of the gods. His most enduring representation of divine action is the account in the Timaeus of the Demiurge who creates the universe out of a benevolent motive.

In the works of Aristotle, criticisms of popular misconceptions of divinity and genuine moments of piety are combined. More important for later thinking about theology, however, are Aristotle's arguments for the existence of a divine prime mover of the universe and his account of that entity. At the end of Physics (book 8) and in Metaphysics (book 12), he argues that the impossibility of an infinite regress in motion requires that there be a fully actualized entity who causes all other motions by being the universal object of desire. In the Metaphysics, Aristotle describes the life of this being as one of "thinking of thinking" (noesis noeseos). Beyond this highly suggestive passage and a few allusions elsewhere, the Aristotelian corpus affords researchers no explicit description of a divine agent.

After the deaths of Plato and Aristotle, their followers widely disseminated their theologies throughout the ancient world and engaged in dialogue with some of the teachings of Stoicism. The Stoic analysis of pain and misadventure was facilitated by a doctrine of divine providence. The Stoics were also very capable natural scientists, and this led to their promulgation of many theories about the origin of the universe. Such physical processes, however, were held to be orchestrated by a divine mind, a mind that could find expression in the civic gods of traditional religion. These three schools—the Platonic, the Aristotelian, and the Stoic—all disputed at great length with the Epicureans, for whom the gods' interventions in human affairs were nothing but a series of malicious fictions. What "gods" the Epicureans did permit were always characterized in terms that made them fully physical and natural, subject to the same laws of generation and corruption, pleasure and tranquility, that conditioned human life. An illustration of the dialectic between these competing views, as well as a resistance to Epicurean doctrines, can be found in Cicero's (106–43 B.C.E.) On the Nature of the Gods (book 1).

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Philosophy of Mind - Early Ideas to Planck length