Shattering the Sacred Myths - Chapter 5

Ancient Greek Philosophy


The history of Greek and Roman philosophy leading up to the rise of Christianity.

By around 7000 BC, farming settlements had begun to appear in the area of land now known as Turkey. After settling along the coast, some groups sailed across the water, carrying their domesticated plants and animals with them, to settle on the islands between Turkey and Greece. By 5000 BC, they had established a colony on the large southern island of Crete.

By 2800 BC, settlements on Crete had grown into cities with huge stone palaces. The roads were paved and the palaces had running water and sewers. Palace guards carried bronze weapons, and beautiful paintings decorated the palace walls.

Crete was a safe distance from the mainland. Its towns did not need defensive walls and its people lived in relative peace. Its naval power dominated the surrounding seas, and it rose to become a regional center for trade and commerce. The people of Crete established colonies on nearby islands, and by around 2000 BC, they had begun building stone palaces and fortified cities along the southern coast of Greece.

From around 1500 BC, a series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions devastated the island of Crete. The palaces were damaged and most people abandoned the island and moved to the mainland. Regional power moved to the southern cities of Greece and remained there for the next few hundred years.

Around 1200 BC, the Bronze Age empires of the Mediterranean were invaded by northern tribes armed with iron weapons. The invaders attacked by both land and sea. The Greek island colonies were conquered and the cities of southern Greece were seriously weakened.

In the years that followed there were widespread peasant rebellions and civil wars. Kingdoms collapsed, many of them disappearing forever. Years of war and famine took a huge toll on the population. Regional trade came to an end and the art of writing was largely lost. The entire region fell into a dark age that lasted for hundreds of years.


By around 900 BC, conditions had settled down and the population was growing again. Greek traders re-established links with the other Mediterranean civilizations. Increased trade and travel led to new influences being introduced into Greek culture. The Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet and modified it to suit their own language.

The Greeks had been passing down stories by word of mouth about a golden age before the fall of civilization. These legends described the heroic adventures and epic battles fought by ancient Greek warriors and kings. The great fortresses around which these battles were fought were still visible as ancient ruins.

The telling of these stories was a popular form of entertainment. Over the centuries, storytellers added increasing degrees of fantasy to make the stories sound fresher and more interesting. Eventually they became myths that only vaguely resembled the actual events.

Around 800 BC, an obscure poet, known only as Homer, composed two of the earliest and most influential pieces of Greek literature. Homer's books contained many of the popular myths and legends from the golden age of Greece woven together to form epic adventure stories.

These books became immensely popular and had a profound effect on the Greeks, giving them a historical identity and a sense of national pride. They helped to standardize the Greek language and they encouraged people to learn how to read. Children from wealthy families were taught to read these books as part of their education.

The Greek Gods

Homer's books also helped to strengthen the foundations of Greek religion. The major players in Homer's stories were the Greek gods. The gods depicted by Homer acted selfishly and were driven by emotions such as favoritism and jealousy. They behaved like ordinary people except they were immortal and had supernatural powers.

The Greek gods also personified the forces of nature. Zeus was the king of the gods and the god of the sky. There was the earth goddess, the sun god, and the god of the sea. Minor gods had special functions like the goddess of love and the god of war. Gods were used to explain everything from human emotions to changes in the weather.

As the collection of religious writings grew over the centuries, the portrayal of the gods became more mature and purposeful. They became dispensers of justice, rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. Moderation and self-control were judged to be good. Pride, arrogance, and unbridled ambition caused the gods to act to bring about the eventual downfall and disgrace of a person.

Greek religion had no central organization. Instead there were several holy places where temple priests interpreted the wishes and opinions of the gods for those who asked and could afford to pay. Prayers and sacrifices to the gods were usually offered by individual families in front of common household shrines.


The sophistication of the Greek language and the widespread use of writing led to improvements in Greek government. Written constitutions allowed governments to depend less on the rich and powerful imposing their will, and more on developing and refining written laws which clearly defined people's rights and obligations.

Like other Greek cities at the time, the city of Athens adopted a written constitution around 620 BC. The city's first constitution favored wealthy landowners and resulted in many peasant farmers being enslaved by debt. The first set of laws were criticized as having been written in blood, as the penalty for every crime was death.

Around 590 BC, a visionary statesman named Solon was brought to power in Athens by a peasant rebellion. His first task was to rewrite the constitution. His new laws curbed the power of the wealthy and empowered the citizens by allowing them to elect government officials. Solon wrote a poem about the importance of a good constitution ...

Never will our city be destroyed by the will of the gods, for we are guarded by the wise goddess Athena. But the Athenians themselves, seduced by money, seek mindlessly to corrupt this great city. Helped by the evil schemes of their leaders, whose arrogance shall make them suffer, for they do not know how to restrain their greed nor be discreet in their feasting.

Sparing neither sacred ground nor public property, greedily they steal from one place or another. Athena notes quietly and in time she exacts her retribution. Behold the destruction of our city as vile slavery awakens civil strife. War wipes out for many their cherished youth. Our much loved city is worn down by violence as the wicked stir them into confrontation. The poor are shackled and sold as slaves to foreign lands.

My soul commands me teach the Athenians that a bad constitution brings civic turmoil, but a good one brings order and strengthens community. It shackles wrongdoing and smooths out the rough. It checks greed, tempers arrogance, and withers the fruits of reckless impulse. It takes crooked judgments and makes them straight, halts treasonable acts, and ends the poison of violent conflict. And so under it, everything for mankind becomes whole and wise.

Solon's system of government was refined over the next hundred years to include independent judges and citizen juries. The Athenian constitution formed the basis for a democratic government in which ultimate power was held by an assembly of tens of thousands of male citizens.

Wealthy landowners were never happy with this arrangement, and some of them secretly conspired with foreign dictators and patiently waited for an opportunity to regain control. Meanwhile, slavery continued to power the Greek economy. Unskilled manual labor was considered to be beneath the dignity of a free man. Liberated from the need to do work, some men chose to spend their days in thoughtful contemplation, reading and writing.

Greek science

Greek thinkers began speculating about the nature of the universe. Unconvinced by religious explanations, they believed that through observation and clear thinking, they might be able to find natural rather than supernatural explanations for the workings of the world.

One early thinker named Anaxagoras claimed that lightning was caused by clouds being split by gusts of wind rather than thunderbolts hurled by Zeus. Growing freedom of speech and the lack of any powerful priesthood allowed people to openly express such views.

It was commonly believed at the time that the world was composed of four basic elements: earth, water, wind, and fire. But by carefully observing nature, it could be seen that there were in fact a large number of different elements, and by around 400 BC, it was commonly believed that these elements existed as indivisible particles called atoms.

Some Greek thinkers wrote that nothing could be known for certain because everything changes over time. Others wrote that nothing ever changes, there is only one infinite, eternal, and indivisible reality, despite our senses presenting us with the illusion of a changing world.

Some believed the universe to be infinite and eternal, others suggested that it grew like a seed from boundless chaos. Many believed that there was a more abstract reality that existed beyond what our senses can perceive. One early thinker named Pythagoras suggested that this ultimate reality was based upon mathematical relationships.

Each new generation of thinkers enthusiastically challenged the speculations of the previous generations. No idea was too sacred to be questioned.

Religious morality

Although there was no powerful priesthood, the conservative political establishment supported traditional religion as a source of moral guidance for the community. Speculation about the workings of nature caused people to question the existence of the gods, thereby undermining religious morality. Many of the early Greek thinkers were prosecuted by the conservatives on the charge of corrupting the public morals, and many were either sent into exile or killed.

One early thinker named Xenophanes claimed that the gods and goddesses were merely human inventions. He asked why he should continue to worship gods who displayed such bad manners, questionable morals, and childish emotions. He instead suggested believing in one greater god who did not resemble mortal men in either body or mind. Some Greeks in later centuries used the name Zeus to represent such a god.

Schools in Athens

Democracy in Athens was frequently interrupted by periods of dictatorship. The city was growing enormously wealthy, with a powerful navy and a fleet of trading ships. Meanwhile, the Persian Empire had been expanding westward and capturing Greek colonies. Athens maintained a balance of war and diplomacy with its neighboring cities until around 490 BC, when all of Greece was forced to unite against an invasion by the Persians.

The wealth and freedom of Athens attracted educated people from around the region. Schools began opening where professional teachers lectured on a variety of subjects including law, politics, and commerce. Practical skills were considered to be more valuable to students than philosophical questioning. In any case, teachers widely believed that the hidden workings of the universe might never be known. Anything beyond what the senses can perceive is merely opinion.

But the fears of the conservatives were soon realized when schools began teaching that there were no absolute truths and no universal standards for judging human behavior. It was said that ideas about right and wrong either developed through social progress or were determined by those in power. In any case they changed over time.

It was also said that the only kind of knowledge that has any real value is the kind that leads to material success. A practical education in law, politics, or commerce is not about being truthful, but rather about using persuasive arguments to convince other people to believe your opinions. Some schools even taught that personal ambition is more valuable than the welfare of the community.


Although many Greek thinkers were denying the existence of absolute truths and values, philosophers like Plato were trying to explain how they might actually exist. Plato believed that the best way to justify important human values like justice and goodness was to think of them as being reflections of eternal truths that existed in a heavenly dimension.

Plato's books are among the earliest and best preserved works of moral philosophy. They were often written as debates between people with differing points of view. The main character in the debates was usually Plato's old friend and mentor, the legendary Socrates.

Socrates wanted people to think about what they believed rather than just blindly accepting whatever was passed down to them by tradition or told to them by figures of authority.

He said that the secret to being wise was to realize that we really do not know much. Everybody wants to think that what they believe is right, and they cling to the beliefs that they are familiar with, even when they do not fully understand the issues. It takes a great deal of humility to admit the limits of your knowledge.

He taught that by asking the right questions, and then subjecting the answers to further examination, agreement could eventually be reached about the highest standards for human thought and behavior. He was notorious for stopping people in the street and questioning what they believed.

Socrates was eventually accused by the conservative establishment of undermining people's belief in the traditional gods of the city, and thereby corrupting the morals of the young. By a slim majority, a jury of 500 citizens condemned him to death. Plato wrote an account of his trial in which Socrates said to the jury ...

Supposing that you were to say to me, “Socrates, this time we shall disregard the testimony and acquit you, but only on one condition - that you give up this quest and stop philosophizing. If we catch you again carrying on in the same way, you shall be put to death.”

Well, supposing that you were to offer to acquit me on these terms, I would reply, “My fellow Athenians, although you have my deepest respect and admiration, I am more deeply devoted to my God than I am to you, and so as long as I draw breath, I will never stop practicing philosophy and questioning ideas and pointing out the truth to everyone that I meet.”

I shall continue to say, in my usual way, “My dear friend, as a citizen of Athens, the greatest city in the world, famous for its wisdom and its strength, are you not ashamed that you devote yourself to acquiring as much wealth as possible, and similarly striving after position and fame, and yet you give no attention to truth and understanding and the perfection of your soul?”

And if any of you disputes this and claims that he does care about such things, then I will not leave him alone, but shall question him and examine him and put him to the test, and if it seems to me that in spite of what he says, he has made no real progress towards goodness, then I shall lecture him for neglecting what is of supreme importance, and giving his attention to trivial matters instead. And I will do this to everyone that I meet, young or old, foreigner or fellow citizen, but especially to you my fellow citizens, as you are closer to me in kinship.

This, I do assure you, is what my God commands. And it is my belief that no greater good has ever come to you in this city than my service to my God, for I spend all of my time going about trying to persuade you, young and old, to make your primary concern not for your bodies or for your possessions, but for the highest welfare of your souls. And I will say to you, “Wealth does not bring goodness, but goodness brings wealth and every other blessing, both to the individual and to the state.”

The teachings of Socrates influenced a generation of thinkers in Athens, but he never wrote anything down. Most of what we know about him comes from the writings of Plato, and so it is difficult to know how many of his ideas were actually Plato's.

Plato established a school called ‘The Academy’ in Athens in 390 BC. His mission was to educate politicians and improve the quality of government. He believed that the main purpose of good government was to shape the moral character of its citizens, inspiring them to be committed to the welfare of the state. He did not believe in democracy, but instead believed that only philosophers have the wisdom to govern in the best interests of the people. Plato's school remained open for the next 900 years.

One of Plato's students was Aristotle, who was later employed to teach Alexander the Great, who went on to conquer Persia and Egypt and establish the Greek Empire. Aristotle later opened his own school of philosophy in Athens.

Aristotle believed that knowledge about the universe and about human nature could only be gained through the careful study of nature and the painstaking collection and organization of facts. He was suspicious of any ideas that did not come from experience and common sense.

Aristotle's books summarized the scientific and ethical ideas of his time. Although most of his conclusions have since been replaced by newer discoveries, his writings remained an inspiration to scientific thinkers until the beginning of the modern age.


Greek philosophers had begun to ask the ultimate questions. What is the universe made of and where did it come from? Do gods exist? If so then do they interest themselves in human affairs? How do we think? Why do we exist? And what happens to us after we die?

Greek philosophy grew to replace traditional religion as the educated person's guide to truth and morality. Even our relationship with the gods became the domain of the philosopher, not the priest. Religion had lost its moral authority and now only existed to perform ceremonies to appease the gods.


An influential thinker named Epicurus established his own school of philosophy in Athens around 310 BC. Epicurus believed that everything in the universe has a natural explanation. His philosophy grew to become one of the most popular beliefs in the Greek and Roman empires, and it remained popular for centuries.

According to Epicurus, the universe is infinite and eternal, and everything in the universe is made up of fundamental atomic particles. Even living things are made up of particles, and it should be possible to explain the mind and its senses through the interactions between these particles.

Everything happens according to the laws of nature, and not because of the divine will of any gods. Epicurus did not deny the existence of gods, because nature seems to have planted the idea of them firmly in the minds of men. But there is no divine intervention or any other act of God, and there is no divine purpose or any other religious objective. We have no other significance beyond that which we give ourselves.

He said that if the gods listened to the prayers of men, then all of humankind would quickly perish, because people seem to be eager pray for each otherís destruction.

Epicurus said that there was no life after death. People are made up of atoms that are dispersed into nature when they die. When the body dies, so does the mind. This is the only life that we have, so we must try to live it as happily as possible.

All that is needed for happiness is a life among friends, a body free from pain, and a peaceful mind. Living honestly brings the greatest peace of mind, and a correct understanding of nature can help free a person from needless fears and anxieties.

He said that happiness can be gained by pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. But always consider the consequences of pursuing pleasure, because some forms of pleasure result in a pain which is many times greater than any pleasure to be gained. And all things are best enjoyed in moderation.

He said that it was wrong to think that just because life had no meaning that people would have no price to pay for the things they did. People are called to account throughout their lives by the judgments of others, or by the fear of being found out.

In the centuries following the death of Epicurus, some of his followers began to preach self-indulgence. They believed that we should abandon our restraints and live for the moment. The word ‘Epicurean’ came to describe someone who lived only for pleasure.

As the Greek Empire declined and the Roman Empire expanded, Epicureanism was gradually replaced by Stoicism as the most influential philosophy in the region.


The name ‘Stoic’ came from the Greek word which described the public place in Athens from which Zeno began to teach his philosophies around 300 BC. Zeno's work was carried on by a succession of thinkers, and their collective efforts produced a philosophical system that attempted to embrace “all things divine and human”.

The Stoics believed in a supreme power, which could be described in any number of ways according to choice or context. Descriptions included ‘the universe’, ‘nature’, ‘destiny’, ‘fate’, ‘providence’, ‘the divine will’, ‘god’, or as a concession to traditional religion, ‘the gods’.

They saw the entire world as a single community in which all men were brothers. They believed that we are all part of nature's scheme, and although we are unable to perceive our place in this scheme, it is our duty to fulfill our purpose and cooperate with nature by living virtuously.

They believed that the path to happiness is to pursue virtue, not pleasure. Virtue appears as all of the admirable qualities of character, such as honesty, generosity, courage, and self-control. Happiness comes from the high quality of life that you will experience as the result of your virtuous behavior.

The Stoics saw no need to believe in reward or punishment after death, as virtue in this life was seen as its own reward and vice as its own punishment.

They believed that they only needed the basic necessities of life. They did not set too high a value on things that could be taken away from them at any moment. They had no time for greed or ambition and they did not seek to live in luxury.

They believed that our ability to reason separates us from the animals. Reason is a divine essence and it connects us with God. Our powers of reason should be strong enough to overcome physical pain, emotional suffering, and the fear of death.

With some effort, you can learn to control your passions and desires and take complete control of your emotional life. And with realistic expectations, you should be able to resign yourself without any complaint to whatever your fate may be.

Stoic philosophy was said to be like a living animal, with logic as its bones, physics as its flesh, and ethics as its soul.

The influence of Stoicism increased steadily over the centuries. The Romans were particularly attracted to Stoicism because it promoted justice, bravery, seriousness, self-discipline, and self-sacrifice; qualities that were admirably suited to the Roman character.

Despite being a philosophy, Stoicism became the religion of educated men and women throughout the Roman Empire. It influenced all of the better aspects of Roman culture, from progressive government to classic literature.

However, it failed to convince everyone. Many saw it as being too rational, unemotional, and placing too high an expectation on their behavior. The spiritual hunger of the masses was not satisfied by philosophy but by religious cults.


For thousands of years, a steady stream of settlers had been navigating their way through the mountain ranges north of Italy. They were attracted by the mild climate and fertile soil of the Italian peninsula. The northern mountain ranges had long provided a natural barrier against any large scale invasions, and the dense forests prevented the appearance of any significant settlements before the invention of the iron axe.

By around 800 BC, the population of Greece had grown to become unsustainable. Greek migrants were looking for new lands to settle across the sea. Hundreds of colonies were established along the southern coast of Italy, eventually forming an area of land which became known as Greater Greece.

The city of Rome was built on the Tiber River in central Italy. The river allowed convenient transport to the sea. Rome's hills provided a good defensive position against enemy attacks. The surrounding land was fertile and provided plenty of building materials. Around 500 BC, Rome overthrew its king and adopted a democratic constitution.

The Romans eventually subdued the Greeks in southern Italy and extended their influence across the entire Italian Peninsula. They adopted the Greek alphabet and modified it to suit their own distinct Latin language. They also adopted Greek art, religion, and philosophy.

The Phoenicians had long been establishing colonies throughout the Mediterranean. The city of Carthage on the north coast of Africa had become their capital. From around 270 BC, Rome was drawn into a series of brutal wars with Carthage which continued for more than 120 years. By the time Carthage was captured and reduced to rubble, Rome had grown to become the dominant military force in the Mediterranean region.

The government of Rome was practical and efficient and its army was highly trained and well equipped. As the Romans rid themselves of hostile neighbors, and as they were called upon by friendly neighbors to settle regional disputes, they gradually expanded their area of influence across the remnants of the old Greek Empire.

Wherever the Romans went, they established a common law, common language, and common currency. They built roads, bridges, aqueducts, and irrigation channels. They constructed luxurious villas with heated floors and heated baths. And in the towns and cities they built temples, theatres, and stadiums.

The spread of Roman civilization was best described at the time by the Roman historian Tacitus ...

Native populations, scattered and barbarous and inclined to war, were made accustomed to peace and leisure through the charms of luxury.

Private encouragement and public aid was given to the building of temples, courts of justice, and stately dwellings. The industrious were praised and rewarded and the lazy were criticized. Thus honorable rivalry took the place of forced labor.

The sons of the chiefs were given a liberal education, and those who once disdained the language of Rome now coveted its eloquence. They even took a liking to our style of dress, and the 'toga' became fashionable.

Step by step they were led to things of idle decadence - the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. All this in their ignorance they called civilization, when it was but a part of their servitude. And so, the gullible natives eventually came to call their slavery ‘culture’.

Roman emperors

During the last century BC, it became possible for a single individual to amass more power than the government of Rome. After gaining control of the northern armies and conquering Western Europe, Julius Caesar marched into Italy. During his short time in power, he revolutionized Roman politics. After Julius Caesar, and after the success of his nephew Augustus, all of the power of Rome would now be concentrated in the hands of one man, the emperor.

Being the emperor of Rome was mostly a matter of keeping the army under control and protecting the borders. Many of the emperors gained power through military force, sometimes after long and bloody civil wars. They often resorted to bribery or murder to remove their opponents. Once in power, it was not long before they were assassinated by their palace guards, defeated in battle by their friends, or killed by their own soldiers to avoid further bloodshed.

Tradition dictated that when a leader died, his power would pass down to his son or to the next nearest family member. When Roman emperors passed their power down to family members, it did not take long before the empire passed into the hands of fools, madmen, or children. The most stable line of emperors were those who were chosen by the previous emperor, and adopted as their son and successor.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was born into an aristocratic family in Rome in the year 121. His father died when he was still very young, and he was cared for by his grandfather, who arranged for him to be educated in Stoic philosophy. As an adult, he became a trusted friend and advisor to the reigning emperor, who later adopted him as his son. In the year 161, Marcus Aurelius became the emperor of Rome.

Before his reign, the empire had enjoyed centuries of relative peace and prosperity. But in his first year, the Persians tried to regain control of the eastern provinces. The Persians were crushed, but the returning soldiers carried back a plague which was spreading from Asia. The disease devastated the population of the empire, seriously diminishing Rome's resources.

Barbarian tribes then crossed the northern frontier and drove deep into Roman territory. The emperor personally commanded the empire's defense, pushing the tribesmen back across the border into Germany. He then spent much of the remainder of his life battling to force the barbarians into submission, a task he almost completed before dying of plague in the year 180.

During his reign, Aurelius depended on Stoic philosophy for guidance through his years of hardship. He applied his philosophical ideals to provide a style of government that was honest and fair. He recorded his thoughts in a diary which later became one of the defining works of Stoic philosophy. Much of this was written while he was camped with his army at the front line between battles ...

In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his situation uncertain, his senses a dim glow, his body in constant decay, his soul washed around by waves of emotion, his fortune hard to know, and his fame doubtful. All that is of the body is like a flowing stream, and all that is of the soul is like dreams and vapors. He is like a soldier on a tour of duty through a foreign land, and after glory comes oblivion.

Where then can a man find the instructions to guide his steps? There is only one kind of knowledge that can protect a man's spirit from harm so that it remains unaffected by either pleasure or pain, and this is the kind of knowledge comes from an understanding of philosophy.

Philosophy directs us to do nothing without good purpose or with dishonest intent. It frees us from having to depend on the thoughts or actions of others. And it helps us to accept everything, good and bad, as having come from the same ultimate source as ourselves.

Most importantly, only an understanding of philosophy can free us from the anxiety of death, as being nothing more than a simple dissolving of the elements from which every living thing is made. If these elements themselves take no harm from their ceaseless forming and reforming, then why should we fear the disintegration and release of the elements within ourselves? It is but nature's way, and in the ways of nature there is no evil to be found.

Think of how long you have been delaying your enlightenment, and how although the gods continue to grant you opportunities, you continue to take no advantage of them. It is time now to learn about the nature of the universe to which you belong, and about the higher nature which is responsible for your existence, and to understand that you are only in existence for a limited time. If you do not take advantage of this opportunity to learn, then the opportunity will be gone, and you will be gone, and you will never get this chance again.

Either the universe is just a chaotic mass of atoms, randomly forming intricate structures which dissolve over time and scatter away, or else it is an ordered system governed by a purposeful higher nature. If the world is purposeless and chaotic, then why should I continue to suffer through it? Or why should I care about anything other than how to keep my dust from returning to the earth? Why should I feel responsible for anything, when regardless of what I do, death will take me sooner or later? But if there is order and purpose, then I will show reverence, and I will remain steadfast in my duties, and I will put my trust in the purposeful governing force.

Keep yourself simple, good, sincere, serious, humble, kind, affectionate, and thoughtful. Stand up for truth and justice, remain resolute in your devotion to duty, and accept whatever your fate may be. Always strive your hardest to be the kind of man that philosophy would have you to be. Respect the gods and comfort your fellow mortals. Life is short and this earthly existence has only one reward, the opportunity to be of a pious disposition and to act in an unselfish way.

As long as you are carrying out your duties, do not be concerned about whether you are freezing cold or beside a good fire; exhausted from battle or fresh from sound sleep; hated or loved; in the act of dying, or going about some other piece of business. For even dying is part of the business of life, and there too, nothing more is required of us than to see the moment's work well done.

In everything you do, as a Roman and as a man, resolve yourself to do those things with dignity and humanity. Avoid being selfish, careless, or unreasonable. Do not try to impress others or think of yourself too highly. And do not let your thoughts turn to unhappiness. See how few things a man needs to master for his days to be peaceful and holy. He has but to follow this advice and the gods will ask for nothing more.

The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts. So guard your thoughts and take care not to entertain any notions that are unsuitable to virtue or reason.

Religious cults

Julius and Augustus Caesar were both declared to be gods after their death. It then became tradition for the senate to declare dead emperors to be gods. This led one emperor to joke with his dying words, “Alas I think I am becoming a god”. Some emperors even demanded that the senate declare them to be gods while they were still living. People were expected to participate in ceremonies to honor the emperors as gods, regardless of what they truly believed.

Temples throughout the empire contained statues of Jupiter, the king of the gods, who was the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Zeus. Other temples celebrated Isis, the Egyptian queen of heaven. Statues of Isis depicted her holding the baby god Horus, who had died and been reborn.

But as traditional religion declined, new religious cults competed to meet the spiritual needs of the masses. Since the invention of the alphabet, there had been one thousand years to think about, experiment with, and write down all of the essential ingredients of religion and philosophy. New cults now borrowed heavily from the lessons of the past.

One influential cult was based upon a mystical interpretation of Plato. Neo-Platonism was like a rational science that attempted to break down and describe every aspect of the divine essence and its relationship with the human soul.

An Alexandrian Jew named Philo tried using Greek philosophy to interpret the Jewish scriptures. He wanted to unite the two traditions by suggesting that the Greek philosophers had been inspired by the same God who had revealed himself to the Jews.

But only Christianity had the right combination of ingredients to appeal to both the masses and also eventually the ruling elite. Based on ancient scriptures, with a solid creation myth, its own collection of inspired writings, a convincing story about the appearance of God as a man, a morality based upon personal maturity rather than harsh punishment, role models for both men and women, and a good organizational structure. Christianity was destined to grow to become the dominant religion.

Greek philosophy was eventually extinguished by the hostility of Christianity towards other beliefs. Many of the followers of Greek philosophy were forced to move to Syria and other eastern countries to escape persecution by the Christian authorities. Many of the books they carried with them were translated into other languages. It would not be until the crusades, almost one thousand years later, that Greek philosophy would be rediscovered by the Greek and Roman worlds.

Continue to chapter 6 ... A rational history of Christianity