We support our Publishers and Content Creators. You can view this story on their website by CLICKING HERE.
To understand the journey of the human imagination across civilizations and centuries, one must grasp how the utterly fascinating Hellenic invention of the “democratized” concept of moral judgment in the afterlife came into its beautiful philosophical maturity.
And so they came to Rome —Acts IV.
“I was not, I was, I am not, I do not care.” Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo. Man goes back to the nothingness from which he first emerged. This view of life, the basis of Epicurean and Stoic philosophy, became essentially the worldview of pre-Christian Rome.
From the century of Augustus to the end of the Roman Republic, faith in the future life was reduced to a minimum. “Quitting life you quit thy living pain” wrote Epicurus. “For all the dismal tales, that poets tell, are verified on earth and not in Hell.” The poets did in fact agree. “Suns can set and rise again,” wrote Catullus, the poet of first-century Rome, “but we, when our brief light is extinguished, must sleep for an eternal night.”
The transition from the Hellenistic to the Roman Imperial world was for Antiquity a time of massive dissolutions and reconstructions. After the Battle of Actium—the turning point in 31 BC between Rome, the Republic and Rome, the Empire—Hellenism went through an agonized death and a “failure of nerve,” as Franz Cumont, the eloquent historian of the soul, describes in his classic After-Life in Pagan Rome. And by the time of the late Roman republic—beginning around 30 BC—and at the time of the genesis of Christianity, an unrelenting pessimism toward the idea of the afterlife came to overwhelm the religiosity of men. At the same time, it was a wealthy, united world and citizenship was the highest honor the city dweller could obtain. Nonetheless, there was a very dark underside to life that would become the ancient world’s complete moral undoing. The social morality of the Roman State was by then dissipating irretrievably as the culture of excessive slavery and violence had reached a banality-of-evil level of the grotesque by the first century AD. The presence of slaves was enormous, increased by captives taken in war; in some centers in the Roman Empire, their numbers exceeded that of freemen by as many as three to one. Many among those slaves, such as those from Greece, were often of high birth and of a culture far superior to that of their masters, yet stilled owed to them absolute obedience. The Gladiator games were another brutal expression of this decline: introduced in 264 BC, emperors vied with one another in the numbers exposed to slaughter. Caesar put 320 pairs together at once; Agrippa caused 700 pairs to fight in one day; Trajan exhibited 10,000 captives in mutual slaughter across 123 days. Rome’s holiest, the vestals, had seats of honor in the arena, while Claudius liked to witness the contortions of the dying men. And because to continuously view men killing each other grew monotonous, the enterprising Pompey introduced combats of men with wild beasts. Other emperors used dwarfs, female gladiators, and even blindfolded men.
Epicureanism and Stoicism, dedicated to ascetic discipline against hardship, looked at life solely within the context of State citizenship, one focused on the present lot in life and on the power of the State and the State’s control of man’s fate. Two other schools, Skepticism and Neoplatonism, later to peak in the Christian era, followed, arising from the moral confusion of the age. “The moral and emotional exigencies obtaining in the first true Age of Anxiety—the Hellenistic [note: not “Hellenic”] Age—called forth and nourished [these] four great philosophical responses: Epicureanism, Stoicism, Skepticism, and Neoplatonism” wrote Henry Shapiro and Edwin Curley, two great scholars of the Hellenistic Age. While the two most significant, Epicureanism and Stoicism, implied, respectively, the joy of material life and a calm disposition towards life’s difficulties, “the world views of Epicureanism and Stoicism had begun to take on a degenerate, cynical cast.”
Degenerate or not, the two outlooks had a profound effect in Rome. Its adepts in Cicero’s circle were numerous, including Cassius, the murderer of Caesar. Sallust, the great Roman lawyer, went so far as to make Caesar himself affirm, in full Senate, that death, the rest from torment, dispels the ills which afflict mankind, that beyond it, there is neither joy nor sorrow. Men of science were attracted by this theory, with Pliny the Naturalist, holding that neither the soul nor the body has any more sensation after death than before the day of birth, exclaimed: “Unhappy one, what folly is thine who in death renewest life!”
Epicureanism did not only win convinced partisans in the most cultivated circles, but also spread in the lowest strata of the population as is proved by epitaphs expressing unbelief in an after-life. “We are mortal. We are not immortal,” reads one such tomb. This epigraphic formula was engraved especially on the tombs of slaves, who had slight reason for dedication and devotion to life. Gladiators, these impossibly unfortunate human creatures, saw as their duty in the arena the proof of their indifference to death. For them, it was the end of emotional suffering and the term of pointlessness torture. Silver goblets found in Boscoreale near Pompeii, show us philosophers and poets among the dead, and inscriptions urging them to rejoice while they live, “since no man is certain of the morrow.” TO TELOS HDONH —“The Supreme End is Pleasure” is inscripted on the goblets—and Epicurus himself is featured on them. Horace, when he advises us to live from day to day without poisoning the passing hour with hopes or fears for the future, speaks of himself as a “fat hog of Epicurus’s herd.”
Nonetheless, Epicureanism has come down through the ages as meaning “delight” in living rather than the actual sense of pleasure as Epicurus’ meant it. He writes in the Letter to Menoeceus:
Thus when I say living I do not mean the pleasures of libertines or the pleasures inherent in positive enjoyment as is supposed by certain persons who are ignorant of our doctrine and who are not in agreement with it or who interpret it perversely. I mean, on the contrary, the pleasure that consists in freedom from bodily pain and mental agitation. It the result of sober thinking, namely investigations into the reasons for every act of choice and aversion and elimination of those false ideas about the gods and death which are the chief source of mental disturbance [emphasis added].
Epicurus had taught that the soul, which was composed of atoms, was disintegrated at the moment of death. The vital breath, after being expelled, was, he said, taken by the winds and dissolved in the air like mist, even before the body was decomposed. “This,” wrote Cumont, “was so ancient a conception that Homer had made use of a like comparison, and the idea that the violence of the wind can act on souls as a destructive force was familiar to Athenian children in Plato’s time.” As Plato deduced the persistence of the soul after death from its supposed previous existence—Plato’s idea of the “transmigration of the soul”—so Epicurus drew an opposite conclusion from ignorance of our earlier life, and, according to him, the conviction that we totally perish can alone ensure our tranquility of spirit by delivering us from the fear of eternal torment.
It is noteworthy that in the writings left to us by the Epicureans there is hardly an allusion to the immortality of the soul. When they speak of what comes after death there is question only of funerals and posthumous glory: the greatness of the hero immortalized in battle. “We see how the perplexity in which men struggled,” continues Cumont, “when they thought of psychic survival, gave earthly immortality a greater value in the eyes of the ancients. It was for many of them the essential point because it alone was certain.”
Stoicism, the other great system that shared its dominance of minds in Rome, sought on the contrary to reconcile these beliefs with its theories. Stoicism, normally attributing Zeno (340-265 BC) as its founder, maintained that souls, when they leave the corpse, subsist in the atmosphere and especially in its highest part which touches the circle of the moon. But after a longer or less interval of time they, like flesh and bones, are decomposed and dissolve into the elements that formed them. A tombstone in Moesia reads: “I was once composed of earth, water, and airy breath, but I perished, and here I rest, having rendered all to the All. Such is each man’s lot. What of it? There, whence my body came, did it return, when it was dissolved.”
The Stoic poet Lucretius, in his melancholy and captivating work On the Nature of Things, also speculates on the soul:
We know not yet the soul
How ‘tis produced
Whether body born, or else infused
Whether in death breathed out into the air
She mix confusedly with it and
Perish there; or through
Vast shades and horrid silence go
To visit Brimstone caves and pools below
When man has reached the term of his fate, he is subsumed by the universe, just like the stars, which will be extinguished in the universe. Any resistance to the supreme law of the universe is in vain; any rebellion against order is impious.
The great virtue taught by Stoicism is that of submission to the fatality which guides the world, of “joyous acceptance of the inevitable.” With its stringent emphasis on virtuous living and on 1) the primacy of virtue as man’s chief end; 2) the duty of self-control, and 3) the reign of moral law, Stoicism, one immediately thinks, has much in common with Christian teaching. Indeed, the Stoic idea of conscience informed by the divine reason as the guide of life is not very much different from Christian ethical teaching. The echo of a Stoic idea that the world was created out of fire and would be dissolved by fire is found in II Peter 3:10; it is also in parts of the letters of Paul. Yet it was a creed of despair and it despised the Christian virtues, which spring from the belief in the love of God. “It is not easy to believe that the gods possess any underground dwelling where the souls collect,” wrote Pausanias in his Description of Greece. Stoic determinism also found support in the traditions of astrology, which originated in Babylonia and were transplanted to Egypt and then the Graeco-Latin world from the second century BC onwards, propagating, like Stoicism, a fatalistic conception of the universe. According to this astrology, all physical phenomena depended absolutely, like the character of men, on the revolutions of the celestial bodies. All the forces of nature and the very energy of intelligence acted in accordance with an inflexible necessity; worship had no object and prayer no effect. The very basis of religion had been negated.
Judaism in Rome, meanwhile, was a very closely knit but removed community. Did the Romans have any use, any interest in the moral teachings of Judaism? Were Epicureanism and Stoicism so manifestly influential that Judaism was hardly recognized? Not entirely so. While persecutions took place, it appears as if on a whole Jews were integrated within the top levels of political culture and were allowed their own business freedom. But Judaism itself would not have much of an influence. The Eastern-bred “mystery religions,” described further down, did appear to have an impact on Judaic belief, and the latter books of the Old Testament take on a lighter tone, one suggesting an afterlife. But this new “tone” of those Books was a Hellenistic influence-that is to say, derived from as a direct cause from the Alexandrine conquests in the Middle East.
Thus, by the first century BC the birth was seen, or rather re-birth, of mystic movements that claimed to give, by direct communication with God, the certainties which Reason could not supply. There appeared in the Graeco-Roman world a profusion of the so-called mystery religions—pagan precursors to Christianity reaching back into the Persian-Egyptian notions of the afterlife and gaining intellectual ground in the Eastern Mediterranean world. As noted just above, the Hellenistic version—that is, as it appeared from the time of Alexander the Great onwards—would play a significant role in influencing Judaism’s gloomy neutralism toward the afterlife. Orphism was but one of hundreds of these other-worldly cults that appeared in the Hellenistic East and simultaneously in the Rome of the late Republic and the Empire. From India to Britain, they “were fermenting like yeast, bewitching tens of thousands with the promise of vicarious atonement and even personal immortality.” For example, the pagan myth of Cybele, exported from Phrygia (today’s Anatolia) to Rome, centered on resurrection and the cleansing of sin. Greece’s Eleusian Mysteries resurrected Dionysius; in Egypt, Isis and his risen spouse Osiris. Persia’s Mithraism and Rome’s Gnosticism promised resurrection as well. Persian astrology also spread throughout the Mediterranean world, and astrology had become so popular in Rome by 139 BC that the authorities tried to curtail it.
Philosophy itself began to transform, too. The chief preoccupation of philosophers now concerned itself with the question of the origin and end of Man, which the schools of the earlier period had neglected as unanswerable. It was above all the Neo-Pythagoreans—that is, followers of Pythagoras (sixth century BC), who gave up pure rationalism and thus brought Roman thought to admit new forms of immortality. Neo-Pythagoreanism was something of a religious philosophy, which did more than any other to revive faith in immortality. Many enlightened men, like Cicero and Cato, had sought in it consolation for the misfortunes of this world; that life is unbearable without a belief in an afterworld, and a hope for the Beyond was to be found in reading Plato (philosophically, the direct descendant of Pythagoras)-but Plato’s proof of immortality could convince only those already convinced. “[Neo]-Pythagorism, on the other hand, offered to restless souls a certainty founded on a revelation made to ancient sages, and it satisfied at once the Roman love for order and rule and the human love for the marvelous and the mysterious.” Posidonious, the foremost interpreter of Neo-Pythagoreanism at this time, became a predominant influence over his contemporaries and the succeeding generations. “He [Posidonous] introduced into Stoicism momentous ideas derived at once from Pythagoreanism and from Eastern cults, and sought to establish them firmly by connecting them with a system of the world. He allowed the astral religions of the East to flow into the arid bed of a Stoicism grown scholastic.” This astral dimension permeated even poetry: Callimachus, in The Lock of Bernice states, “I too should illumine the precincts divine installing in me as a new constellation midst to the old”; that is, the sky is the domain of the Gods and that the constellations are divine in themselves.
Thus slowly, but definitively, a psychological transformation began to overtake Rome and not even the bleakest of material philosophies nor the vague mysticism of cults could deter the magnificent spiritual changes about to conquer Western civilization. One can imagine the turmoil of the thought-world at this time: Judaism with its hints of life to come; Epicureanism and Stoicism as expressions of man’s ability to bear life with the detached acceptance of his fate; the “mystery religions,” from the East speaking to man in parables and heroic myth that there was an afterlife waiting for him.
The beginnings of a religious movement in Rome were now underway, causing imperial society to “pass from incredulity to certain forms of belief in immortality—at first roughly conceived but later refined.” The change was a “capital one, which transformed for the ancients the whole conception of life. The axis about which morality revolved had to be shifted when ethics no longer sought, as in earlier Hellenic philosophy, to realize the sovereign good on this earth but looked for it after death.” Now the activity of man would aim less at tangible realities that focused on ensuring well-being to the family or the city-state: This activity now turned more towards attaining the ideal in a supernatural world, with the gradual belief that one’s time spent on earth was no longer a short-lived attempt at material and aesthetic bliss.
Earthly life began to be conceived as a preparation for another existence, a test that would end either in eternal happiness or suffering. A stronger aspiration toward a better future grew; a search, to use the words of the ancients, for a sure haven, in which man, tossed by the storms of life might find peace. The life of Justin Martyr, one of the great Hellenic-Christian philosophers of the second century CE, is particularly representative of this seismic trajectory. He had sought comfort from a Stoic, then from an Aristotelian, then a Pythagorean, then a Platonist—only to find, at last, his center and his stability in the Christian church.
Once Christianity first appeared in the Roman world, it was the assurance of the salvation of the human soul which more than any other aspect of that religion that conquered the inner life of Roman society. Its concern for human welfare, expressed in the fellowship of Christians East and West in one community; the breaking down of barriers between rich and poor, slaves and freemen, masters and servants: Its appeal to the imagination and the emotions, its sacred rites, its deep intellectual structure; its ethical values, and the doctrine of the one God as a deity grand enough for Romans in the imperialistic age, all promised the transformation of so much social decay. “A new form of exalted Ideal began to fertilize the course of human history in a way that would give birth to its next and greatest chapter.”
Perhaps the most beautiful literary prelude to the “preparation” of Rome for the coming of Christianity is found in a work of Cicero, the Consolatio. A prose poem to his beloved daughter, Tullia, following her death during childbirth in 45 BC, Cicero, the rationalist and rhetorician who denied his entire life the existence of an afterlife, finds himself unable to reason his way out of his debilitating despair through conventional philosophy and morality. He begins to accept the possibility of the eternality of the soul, as reflected in a series of gripping correspondence with two unwaveringly Stoic friends, Sevirus Sulpicius Rufus and Atticus. Cicero’s spirit, now troubled by the problem of destiny, did not turn to the old beliefs but to the new conceptions, coming into philosophy through the mystical influences of the East. Three other books then followed: De Natura, perhaps the most detailed account of Roman theology and of Cicero’s own intellectual development; Hortensius, an exhortation to philosophy which is said to have influenced St Augustine‘s conversion to Christianity, and Tusculans, a masterpiece “on the necessity of emotions” and of Cicero’s ultimate rejection of Epicureanism. These were written in this later period of his life and reflect this journey from the public man, lawyer and activist to the solitary thinker and philosopher seeking consolation in the luminous doctrine of an eternal survival. This example of one man’s spiritual evolution is an example of the magnificent transformation which was about to overwhelm the Roman world.
The first Hell was Tartarus, “the deepest gulf beneath earth, the gates whereof are of iron and the threshold of bronze, as far beneath Hades as heaven is above the earth,” as first described in Homer’s Illiad. It was an ugly, dank pit surrounded by a “three-fold layer of night,” which, according to Hesiod, required nine days and nights for an anvil falling from earth to reach. One traveled there on the rivers of Acheron, “the dread of Acheron…which so confounds our human life,” wrote the Roman Stoic philosopher Lucretius, when he described the way to “the abyss of Tartarus, the Black” in his magnificent De Rerum Natura. The Orphic poet Musaes of Athens, the servant of the Muses as his name suggests, had given Tartarus and Night as the source of All Things and all versions of Greek mythology have Tartarus as one of the first entities to exist in the universe. For Aristophanes, in his work the Birds, it is Chaos, Night, Erebus and Tartarus who are the beginning of all things—there was no earth nor air nor Heavens. While later Hades became the realm of the dead, Tartarus became the prison for defeated Titans after losing battle against the Olympian gods. In Virgil’s world, the Erinyes—Vengeance rendered into Woman—were the enforcers of justice in Tartarus alongside the Nemesis, the jailers of Tartarus, burning the damned with torches, while the Hectoncheires, mightier than Cyclops, stood guard and a flaming river surrounded its bronze walls, preventing prisoners from escape. “Happily is he,” wrote Virgil in the Georgics, “who can know the causes of things, who treads underfoot all fears and inexorable fate and vain rumors as to greedy Acheron.” In Tartarus, great punishments were inflicted on the Lapiths, those legendary horsemen of Thessaly who battled the Centaurs; it was where Nyx, the goddess of night dwelled, and to where the sons of Poseidon, the giants Otus and Ephialtes were hurled when they piled Mount Pelion atop Mount Ossa to reach the home of the Olympians. It is where a lost Aeneas wandered looking for his father, not knowing which direction to take. It is where the great Church Father, Gregory Nazianzen, hearing of the death of the last pagan Emperor of Byzantium, Julian the Apostate, mutters exhortations to modesty and forgiveness, but he is well satisfied that the real sufferings of Julian “will far exceed the fabulous torments of Ixion or Tantalus.” And it is where the fifteenth century Dante would meet Virgil, as they crossed Acheron into the third circle of hell, part of neither the dead nor the living, “into the hollow pit where the tears flowed for eternity”
Heaven, of course, was the Elysian Fields, the gardens of a beauty unknown to mortal life, where one lived in absolute in peace, allowed either to dwell there forever or to await rebirth on earth. With its seasonal rituals centered around Demeter, the spirit of fertility, Persephone, her daughter, the spirit of vegetation, and Pluto, who brought death to all living things, the Eleusian cult emphasized the alternating death and birth of life witnessed in the autumn and in the spring assured immortality to its initiates. The Eleusian cult became a state cult in Athens in the sixth century, and its popularity had become worldwide by the first century AD. The poetry of Elysium was never as urgent as that of Tartarus; its mythology lacked the visionary certainty, the inescapable fear of the unknown that so permeates the latter. Where Elysium inspired its lyrical concept of a “blissful afterlife,” the emotional content of that poetry was pitched to a very high level of refinement. Lysistratas speaks of the “perfect celestial melody” and “the symmetry of the divine” that was Elysium.
In contrast to the versions of a rewarding afterlife, which existed in Egypt and Babylonia but in a way that the heavens were reserved only the gods, the earth was for mankind, and the underworld for the dead, Hellenic Elysium made the possibility of an exalted afterlife available to all men. Tartarus and Elysium, so definitively Hellenic concepts, formed the fundamental basis of the modern Western idea of Heaven and Hell as a moral judgment of all human souls for their time spent on earth—so critical a difference eloquently distinguished in Alan Bernstein’s The Formation of Heaven and Hell. That is to say, the pre-Hellenic ideas of the afterlife—the early Mesopotamian, Persian, Judaic and Egyptian versions—were limited to neutral, neither-good-nor-evil territories of a darkened, dead world where souls gathered but were not judged one way or another; Heaven, meanwhile, was conceived as the realm of the gods, or, at best, of demi-gods. “While the Egyptians had one of the earliest conceptions of a human being having a blessed afterlife in heavenly realms,” writes J. Edward Wright in his The Early History of Heaven, “the idea of heaven as a place for royal, righteous or good people was almost unknown to most Near Eastern peoples.” Furthermore, those human beings in Egyptian cosmology had to have the status of demi-god—no everyday mortal could apply. It is Hellenism, with some borrowings of later Egyptian and Persian developments, that would develop the democratic idea of a human soul’s eternal damnation or its salvation, starting from these first abstractions of Tartarus and Elysium, and, as mentioned above, continuing through to Hellenism’s own significant influence on later Judaism—the Judaism, that is, of the Book of Daniel, the Book of Enoch and the Book of Isaiah, for example. This critical difference between the “neutral” idea of the afterlife and the “moral” came to dominate.
From the beginnings of rational Greek philosophy with the “Milesian Revolt” in the seventh century to Hellenism’s philosophical “golden age” of the sixth and fifth centuries through to the time of the Alexandrine (“Hellenistic”) conquests of the fourth century, human thought conquered an incredible psychological journey through the refinement of pre-Christian, Western ideas of the afterlife and the immortality of the soul, concepts categorized by the term: eschatology, the science of “the end.” This eschatology, a centuries-long processing, mixed Orphism with the pre-Socratics, but found its most profound expression in Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Plato was the most complete philosopher in eschatological concepts, and his idea of man‘s four possible fates—that of the holy sent to Elysium, the incurably wicked to Tartarus, and those hanging in between but whose sins are curable—obviously suggest parallels the Christian concepts of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. By original way of Pythagoras, and refined by Plato’s eschatology, the fourth century BC, “the post-mortem residence of the human soul” was transferred to the heavenly realms in such Greek philosophy. This belief would come from the Pythagorean and Platonic ideas that the human soul originated in the ethereal realm, became imprisoned in the human body, and would eventually return to the spiritual realm once again upon the death of the body. A beautiful example of this is Plato’s Myth of Er in the tenth chapter of Plato’s Republic. The hero Er, a soldier from ancient Armenia, dies in battle but before his funeral his soul leaves his body to visit the underworld and the heavens where it witnessed people being rewarded or punished according to their behavior while on earth. This myth is based on the belief that the soul will survive the body and although it aspires to rejoin the pure spiritual realm, it also fully expects to suffer or be punished for its earthly sins after death.
While the Hellenic world was the first civilization to democratize the idea of the judged punishment-or-reward for man’s life on earth, it must be remembered that this was not the case in early, Hesiodic or Homeric Greece. Like the main Near Eastern civilizations, the early Greeks did not quite believe that just any man could enter the celestial realm, such as seen in The Odyssey when the giants Otus and Ephialtes try to stack mountain upon mountain in order to climb into Mount Olympus, but whose plans are thwarted when they are killed in their youth by one of Zeus’s sons—a story that is a polemic about ascending into heaven, much like the tale of the Tower of Babel in the Hebrew Bible. For these early Greeks, Mount Olympus and the heavenly realm were the homes of the gods alone; immortality for a human being might be obtained through an offer of the gods, but these offers were usually obstructed.
The democratization of heaven thus only started—and inconsistently at that—around the seventh and sixth century BC. This is not to say, of course, that belief in an afterlife was accepted through society throughout: the “Sophist” view—the Sophists considering themselves the philosophical heirs of Aristotle—maintained that life on earth was about attaining satisfaction of life on earth and nothing more. The great statesman Pericles, for example, ruling in the fifth century BC, was of this mindset, as for him honor after death for a great general did not suppose any kind of immortality, but only celebrated the glory he had achieved in battle.
Nonetheless, by the time of Pythagorean and Platonic philosophers of the seventh and sixth centuries BC, the idea of a human attainment of the rewarded afterlife as a judged condition of good or bad behavior on earth formed its solid, philosophic grounding. As stated above, Pythagoras and Plato most thoroughly defined the idea of the immortal soul in Greek philosophy. This idea of the soul, the true locus of a man’s personhood, was that it ruled the body, yet was trapped within it awaiting material release. Where Socrates, according to Plato, had an unwavering belief in the immortality, at least, of some gods, Plato’s ambition was to prove the soul’s immortality in all men. He argues for a certain kind of life with a view toward consequences in the hereafter; the famous “transmigration of souls.”
The Orphic Mysteries, mentioned above, having first started to circulate around the seventh century reappeared about two hundred years before the birth of Christ with a mostly Persian influence. These proved the most tenacious challenge to the pervasive nihilistic gloom of the Romans. Particularly striking were the similarities of the Mysteries to Christian belief. As Herschel Baker, a classic scholar of the afterlife, has written: “[Christianity’s] original and persistent impulse has much in common with the Orphic subordination of man to deity and with the Orphic hope of heaven.” Orphism was called “the harbinger of the mystery religions and Christianity in the West, and its success regarded as the first prominence of the long dominance of Oriental religious thought in the Mediterranean world.” The Mysteries, both as they were first recorded between the ninth and eighth centuries BC and later as they appeared with renewed force between the third and second century BC, chronicled insatiable cycles of dynastic treacheries which ultimately triumphed in redemption, renewal and the resurrection of a god from the dead (and this god was almost always Dionysius). These Mysteries also had their own concept of Original Sin for which mankind had to repay for the rest of human existence.
Indeed, the striking parallels between Orphism and Christianity captivated even modern psychology, as described by C.G. Jung:
Both as good shepherd and mediator, Orpheus strikes the balance between the
Dionysiac religion and the Christian religion, since we find both Dionysus and
Christ in similar roles, though…differently oriented as to time and direction in
space—one a cyclic religion of the nether world the other heavenly and
eschatological or final. […] On a funeral urn found in a Roman grave near
the Columbarium on the Esquiline Hill there was depicted a clear bas-relief
representing scenes of the final stage of initiation where the novice is admitted to
the presence and converse of the goddess….This all points to an initiation into
death but in a form that lacks the finality of mourning. It hints at that element of
the later mysteries—especially of Orphism—which makes death carry a promise of
immortality. Christianity went even further [emphasis added]. It promised something more than
immortality (which in the old sense of the cyclic mysteries might merely mean
reincarnation), for it offered the faithful an everlasting life in heaven. [emphasis added]
Particularly fascinating is how these evolving concepts of the afterlife in later Greek thought (Hellenism) came to influence Judaism after the Alexandrine conquests of the fourth century BC. As touched on above, the idea of eternal salvation was not an idea present in Judaism prior to that influence; the Judaic concept of the afterlife was that “all go to one place, all are from the dust and all turn to dust again,” that a person’s essence dies with his body. This view of the afterlife was that of a dark shadowy existence called Sheol, and when one died, that was the end of his spiritual life, as well as the end of his relationship with God.
Yet the fourth and third centuries BC were especially important centuries in early Jewish history and in this era the ideas of the Persians and Greeks were already influencing how some Jews articulated their Judaism. The later books of the Old Testament, such as seen in Isaiah, Enoch or Daniel, beautifully articulated this view, in which the idea of Heaven as it would be understood in Christianity was first presented. The Book of Daniel most gracefully and movingly shows this new influence: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches and eternal abhorrence. The knowledgeable will shine like the splendor of the firmament, and those who led many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever.”
Though contact between Greeks and Semites goes back to Minoan and Mycenean times, as reflected in certain terms in Homer and in “other early Greek authors, it would not be until the end of the fourth century, however, that the Jews were first clearly mentioned by Greek writers, who praised them, Baker writes, as “brave, self-disciplined and philosophical.” (This cultivated, if tense, relationship—one marked by alternate acceptance and rejection of each others’ civilization—culminated in disaster once Judaism was outlawed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the leader of the Hellenic Seleucid empire in Antioch—the very same emperor who had liberalized relations between Hellenes and Jews following the civil strife of two Hellenized-Jewish elements that had occasioned the Maccabean revolt.)
In a word, this new concept of Heaven and Hell expressed the enormous Hellenic influence on Judaism and on the foundations of Christianity and the history and belief systems of the three major religions would have been different today if Hellenic concept had not affected Judaism. The coming of this Hellenistic influence on Judaic belief in the afterlife suggested a devastating revolution about to take place in human civilization, and in that a mere foreshadowing of the incredible impact Hellenism would have on the intellectual structure of Christianity.
But it was the Socratic heritage and its regard of immorality and the human soul that most directly relates to Hellenic civilization’s interesting progress toward and intellectual basis for the Christian world. In his captivating Introduction to Stephan MacKenna’s classic translation of The Enneades of Plotinus, Paul Henry writes, “The Socratic heritage, which is the conviction of the existence and supreme dignity of the human soul as a traveler in eternity, the heritage which was rethought by Plato and transposed by Plotinus into a mysticism more rational or rationalistic than religious, was on the way to cementing a centuries-long alliance with the Gospel Revelation.” Henry adds:
[A]nd through [this alliance] with virtually all the great philosophies of the West, philosophies which, though freed from theological tutelage, were nevertheless born on Christian soil—the philosophies, let us say, of Thomas Aquinas, and of Spinoza, of Descartes and of Kant. It is only in our day that we see influential schools of empiricism and behaviorism, Marxism, logical positivism, existentialism all deviating from the Platonic tradition and from Christian intellectualism—a deviation which was perhaps their only common denominator. Socrates was, as Plato and Aristotle would be, more of a monotheist than one imagines conceivable for a Greek of antiquity. He took oracles seriously, but he did not worship the traditional gods of the Greeks—nor did he believe in the gods of the State—the very rebellion that would later lead to his forced suicide.
“Socrates,” wrote Arthur Hillary Armstrong, another classic scholar of the development of the concept of the moral afterlife in Western philosophy, “was perhaps the first man in Europe who had a clear and coherent conception of the soul as we understand it; that is, as the moral and intellectual personality, the responsible agent in knowing and acting rightly or wrongly.” He believed that knowledge and obedience to truth improved one’s soul and diminished the ungodliness of wrongdoing, confusion and ugliness (and to help people gain knowledge and improve their soul he tried to expose their ignorance and mistaken reasoning—hence, the Socratic method). Socrates built up a description of the constitution of the human soul paralleling his description of the constitution of the Ideal State. For just as the Ideal State is an integration of three different classes, each with its own economic or political role, so the soul is an integration of three different parts or elements, each with a role proper to it in the conduct of personal life. All people have in them the appetitive or impulsive element, the element of thought or reason, and, between these two, an element capable also of taking orders from thought or reason.
According to Plato, when one dies (when one’s body dies) one will continue to be what one has been all along, a soul: an immaterial center of consciousness, reason, and action. One’s death is, then, an extrinsic change in one; being dead simply means no longer having a body to animate. Christians, Jews, and Muslims who believe in the resurrection of the dead will accept two of Plato’s theses about death: that the person does not survive death, and that dead person will not be forever disembodied. What is not accepted, however, is that the soul will experience a large, perhaps infinite number of “reincarnations” in the future. Christians, moreover believe that the new life that will await the soul has nothing to do with its earlier life.
Plato held that the soul, being immortal, would face judgment after death, that it would receive rewards and punishments according to the goodness or badness of its earthly life, and that it would be given an opportunity to choose the condition of its next existence.
Like Plato, Aristotle saw soul as embodying reason. Soul, he believed, moved itself with a sense of purpose. The cause of motion of all things, he concluded, is Divine Will. More than Plato, Aristotle saw soul (or mind and reason) as having a connection with the human body. In his work, De Anmia, Aristotle connected body and mind—the first work in psychology grounded in biology. He believed that one’s body developed earlier than one’s soul and that one’s appetites developed earlier than one’s ability to reason. He believed too that one’s soul moved one’s body, but, unlike Plato, he believed that a person’s soul did not survive death in individualistic form. Regarding the soul as one part of a collective, divine force Aristotle believed that with the death of an individual the soul returned to this collective—that is, to Zeus. His God was not an interventionist, but the source of all. Aristotle could not bring himself to believe Zeus was the Creator, that something could be created out of nothing, but he believed in Zeus as the classic Unmoved Mover of the universe.
Of course, it is important to distinguish between belief in the immortality of the soul and belief in the resurrection of the body. The first belief is derived from Plato, who held that the soul will survive in an incorporeal state. The second is based on Biblical revelation (Aquinas, for example, held both beliefs). Aristotle thought that human reason alone persisted, and that the emotional and nutritive soul was destroyed with the body but he left no personality to this pure intelligence, deprived of all sensibility. He denied that the “blessed” could be happy.
With Aristotle, a long period begins during which Greek philosophy nearly ceased to speculate on destiny beyond the grave. In the Alexandrian age, however, which was the surpassingly scientific period of Greek thought, there was a tendency to remove all metaphysical and mythical conceptions of the soul’s destiny from the field of contemplation. This was the period in which the Academy, Plato’s school, unfaithful to its founder’s doctrines, was led by men who, like Careneades, raised skepticism to a system and stated that man can reach no certainty. The dogmatism of other sects was at this time hardly at all more favorable to the traditional beliefs in another life.
As discussed abovee, the last phases of pre-Christian Hellenistic philosophy were the Romanized forms of Epicureanism and Stoicism. But most of all, it was the Stoic idea of the Logos—the Word as Divine Reason in the universethat was most influential on Christian thought, particularly in the Fourth Gospel. First used by Heraclius (540-475 BC) and continued by later Greek philosophers, the Logos more than any other concept came to represent the kind of critical semantic foundations upon which the early intellectual organization of Christianity was based. The Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, Philo (20 BC -50 AD), spoke often of the Logos as the synthesis of the Jewish messiah with the Greek notion of the supreme reason. Philo may have mediated such a concept to the author of the Fourth Gospel, for in the Gospel of Saint John the Logos is the divine creator of the universe, an eternal light shining in darkness for the illumination of all mankind.
And, among the many mystery religions discussed above, it was the cult of Mithra, from Mithraism, a branch of Zoroastrianism, which would become the strongest rival of Christianity for the allegiance of the Graeco-Roman world and, among other “after-life” type rites, it practiced piercing the neck and drinking the blood of a bull to purify sin and be “born again for eternity,” according to the Christian poet Prudentius (410 CE). This cult of Mithra had become exceedingly popular for Roman soldiers. Originally associated with the bright sky, Mithra in Roman times was identified with the sun god, “Sol Invictus Mithra.” Mithraists regarded the winter solstice as the time for the rebirth of their god, as on or about December 21 the sun seemed to recover its strength after the days of decreasing sunlight in late summer and autumn. Mithra’s birthday was celebrated on December 25; when Christianity finally won out over its rival, it was customary to use the old festival day for the celebration of the birth of Christ.
Thus when Christianity entered the stage of history, it was destined to triumph over the other oriental mystery religions which were its rivals. “Instead of being based upon a mythical story of the life, death and resurrection of a god,” wrote scholar Henry M. Battenhouse, “Christianity was founded by a historical personality. In place of the esoteric mysticism of the cults, Christianity introduced the concept of love as a new moral force applicable to the entire human race.” Battenhouse continued: “Christianity triumphed over all the other cults because it most effectively brought a satisfying message to the widespread sorrow of the ancient world. The Gospels showed that this new religion offered more abundantly and more assuredly the two values most earnestly craved in the Graeco-Roman world: healing in this life and immortality after death.”
Of course, the spread of the mystery cults meant the decline of the classical Graeco-Roman polytheism. As Roman emperors grew threatened by this development they began to repair old temples and build new impressive ones. Still, the decline continued. To preserve further the religious character of pagan patriotism, Augustus instituted the imperial cult by elevating Julius Caesar to a divine status and decreeing that the Emperor should be worshiped even during his lifetime. It was the best means the emperors knew to give cohesion to their vast empire.
To the Jews, state worship of the emperor was the highest of blasphemies, although the Roman authorities did allow the national messianism of the Jewish religion relatively free expression. The Romans could not, however, accept that Jesus was the sovereign of the newly heavenly kingdom and the ruler of a new imperial cult designed to supplant all rivals. It was this contrast which led the Christian Church to suffer so much at the hands of the Roman rulers, especially given that the emperors regarded themselves as divine, and imperial orders were issued beginning with the formula, “Our Lord and god.” The Christians’ refusal to acknowledge such honors or to participate in Emperor worship would now result in close to 300 years of persecutions by the Romans. Nonetheless, the course of humankind was set. As detailed above, with The Book of Daniel, the belief in justice after death was introduced into Judaism. Philosophy and religion had finally matured to a point where these could “receive” Christianity.
In sum, to understand this journey of the human imagination across civilizations and centuries, one must grasp how this utterly fascinating Hellenic invention of the “democratized” concept of moral judgment in the afterlife came into its beautiful philosophical maturity. Even then, one must start with the history of the notion of afterlife across several civilizations across several millennia to reach the starting point—the pre-Socratics—of this particular achievement of the Eternal Hellenic. It is this achievement which so brilliantly and mysteriously would bring the ceaseless speculation of the human mind together in one final resting place: the Logos—or “Reason”—of Christ. Starting from the Milesians and through to Daniel—Man had, at last, found his soul.
This essay was first published here in February 2018.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.