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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Development of Græco-Roman Cultivation

By David Friedrich Strauss (1808–1874)

From ‘A New Life of Jesus’

IN opposition to the religious tendency of the Jewish people, all the efforts of the Greeks were applied to the perfecting of the really human element in man. This position does not, speaking generally, require any proof; as in the politics and morals, in the poetry and fine arts, of that people, it lies before us as a recognized fact. But in their religion it shows itself in the resemblance of the Greek gods to men. The Indian, the Egyptian, the Assyrian, did not shape their divinities in purely human form. And the cause of this was not merely deficiency in artistic skill and taste, but above all, the fact that these nations did not conceive of their gods as being simply human. Whether the Greek obtained his divinities in part from abroad, or from native predecessors, the peculiar change which he as a Greek in every instance set about making, is this: that he converted the original natural symbolism into a relation of human life; made them, instead of types of cosmical powers, representatives of the powers of the human mind and social institutions; and in connection with this, approximated their outward form more completely to the human.

Now, a piety which produced human ideals in god-like forms—in those of an Apollo, an Athene, a Zeus—stands indisputably higher than that which had not divested its divinities externally of the form of beasts, and internally of the wild creating or destroying power of nature; but the human element in the Greek gods had,—corresponding to its original natural signification, as well as to the state of the cultivation of the popular mind at the time when these imaginations were realized in form,—together with its moral side, so strongly marked a sensual side, that as soon as the moral ideas were enlightened, offense could not fail to be taken at the cruelties of a Kronos, the adulteries of a Zeus, the pilferings of a Hermes, etc. Hence the poets of the later period endeavored to give a moral coloring to the myths that offended them: but there were individual philosophers of an earlier time—above all Xenophanes, the founder of the Eleatic school—who rejected the unworthy and in general human conceptions of the gods, as they were represented by Homer and Hesiod; and as is well known, it was on this ground that Plato banished Homer from his ideal republic. But even independently of this moral stumbling-block, the plurality of gods was soon discovered to be irreconcilable with the idea of the Divine nature; which, as the most perfect possible and the supreme cause of everything, could be only one and indivisible: and thus, among educated Greeks, we see Polytheism continually more and more displaced by the conception of Monotheism, or at all events reconciled with it by a stricter subordination of separate divinities to one supreme God. Thus in this respect the Greek gradually raised himself to the point of view on which the Hebrew stood from the first; and in so far as the former had attained to his conception of the one God by the philosophical method, that conception, in its later contact with Jewish Monotheism, might be of special service to the latter in the way of purifying it from many anthropomorphic features which still clung to it in the writings of the Old Testament.

But in all this the Greek formed his conceptions of man, his nature and his duties, far in advance of those ideal gods in Homer; and in a manner that never would have been possible on Jewish soil. “Humanitarianism,” says Welcker, “could never have issued from Hebrew supranaturalism; for in proportion as the apprehension is earnest and exalted, must the authority and the law of the one God and Lord suppress that human religious freedom out of which all power and cheerfulness is derived in the best and noblest form.” It was precisely because the Divinity did not confront the Greek in the form of a commanding law, that the Greek was compelled to be a law to himself; because he did not, like the Jew, see his whole life ordered for him, step by step, by religious ordinance, he was compelled to seek for a moral rule within his own mind. That this was a difficult problem, that the way to the solution of it led over dangerous ground, we see by the corruption of morals which broke in over the Greek nation after the most brilliant and flourishing age, by the arbitrary manner in which the contemporary Sophists confounded all moral notions. To them, according to the maxim of Protagoras, man was the measure of all things: nothing was naturally good or bad, but only by reason of an arbitrary rule of men, to which the individual need not bind himself; but as the authors of those rules established them for their own advantage, it was open to the individual to call good and put in practice whatever was agreeable or useful to himself. The art of justifying such conduct argumentatively, of shaking the foundations of all existing principles in religion and morals, “of strengthening the weaker cause,”—i.e., of making right of wrong,—was taught and published by the Sophists; but in point of fact, all that they did was to put into a methodical form what all the world around them was practicing already.

It is well known how this moral license among the people of Greece, and the sophistical palliation of it, was resisted by Socrates. He could not, like a Hebrew prophet, refer to a written law of God,—which indeed in the case of his fellow-countrymen, long before moved to religious skepticism, would have done no good; like the opponents, therefore, whom he endeavored to combat, he kept to man: to him too, in a certain sense, man was the measure of all things; but not man in so far as he follows his own caprice or pleasure, but in so far as he seeks in earnest to know himself, and by well-regulated thought to come to an understanding with himself as to what contributes to his own true happiness. He who acts upon such true knowledge will on all occasions act right; and this right conduct will ever make man happy: this was the condensed substance of the moral system of Socrates, for the establishment of which he required no divine command; although he delivered very pure notions respecting the nature of God, in the sense of the reconciliation alluded to above of the national Polytheism with a rational Monotheism. That Socrates delivered these doctrines not scholastically in an exclusive circle, but publicly and as it were socially; that moreover, as an exalted example, he at the same time practiced what he taught, in his own life and conduct; that lastly he became a martyr to his convictions,—to his efforts, misunderstood by the mass of his fellow-citizens, for spiritual and moral elevation,—all this gives him a resemblance to Christ which has always been observed: in fact, notwithstanding the wide difference occasioned by the opposition between the systems of the nations and the religions on both sides, there is not in the whole of antiquity previous to Christianity, that of the Hebrews not excepted, any figure to be found so closely resembling Christ as that of Socrates.

After Socrates, no Greek did more to raise the tone of Greek cultivation to a point at which it might come into contact with the religion of the Hebrews, consequently towards the preparation for Christianity, than his disciple Plato. According to him, Ideas constituted all that was true in things; i.e., general notions of them, which he considered to be not mere conceptions in the minds of men, but real supersensuous existences. The highest idea is that of the Good, and this identical with God himself: and when Plato calls Ideas also Gods, we see in this the possibility of a reconciliation of his philosophy on the one hand with the Polytheism of his countrymen, on the other with the Monotheism of the Jews; for Ideas, which in the former case might be looked upon as subordinate gods or demons, might in the latter be looked upon as angels, and be subordinated to the supreme Idea as to the one God. Plato declares the external world to have arisen from an amalgamation of reason with unreason, from the entrance of Ideas into their opposite (which accordingly was called matter, but which Plato described more negatively as the non-existent, without form and definiteness): in connection with this, in the language of the mysteries, he calls the human body the fetter and prison of the soul, into which it sunk out of an earlier disembodied state of pure contemplation of Ideas; and he considers the utmost possible release of the soul from the body as the problem which philosophy has to solve. In all this we recognize at once the points of contact with the views of the Essenes and the Gnostic speculations, in the form in which they appeared early in the Christian Church; but the main central principle—that of considering not the visible but the invisible as the truly Existent, not this life but the future as the true Life—has so much connection with Christianity that we cannot but recognize in this principle a preparation for it, or of mankind for it, on the part of the Greeks. Lastly, Plato does not, as Socrates did, consider virtue as the only true means for attaining happiness, but makes happiness to consist in virtue as the right condition—harmony and health—of the soul; and in doing so he makes virtue, in so far as it has its reward in itself, independent of all pure motives, even of a regard to future recompense,—which nevertheless he emphatically inculcates. Thus he raised the idea of virtue as much above the Christian idea of it, as the point of view of the genuine philosopher is in comparison with the ordinary religious point of view; and only the foremost of the Christian teachers have in this respect come near to Plato.

In everything that was essential, Aristotle remained true to Plato’s exalted theory of man’s moral object; only that, in accordance with his tendency to outward experience, he laid more stress upon external good and evil as possible helps or obstacles to moral effort. The school of the Stoics, in part from a motive of mere opposition to the less strict principles of the Peripatetic School founded by Aristotle, took as the main foundation of their moral doctrine the self-sufficiency of virtue, its power to make men happy in itself alone, the worthlessness of everything external to it. According to the Stoic doctrine, virtue is to be considered the only good, vice the only evil; all other things, however powerful their influence may be on the condition of men, come into the category of the indifferent: health and sickness, riches and poverty, nay, life and death themselves, are in themselves neither good nor bad, but solely indifferent things, which men may turn as well to good as to evil. Here the connection with the later Christian point of view and its indifference to external circumstances cannot be overlooked: and when the Stoic philosophy places its wise man, as a being perfect, absolutely without wants and godlike, upon an elevation apparently irreconcilable with Christian humility, this elevation is again compensated when the superiority of the wise man is stated to consist only in his having put himself in accordance with the law of the universe, and adapted himself to the general reason of the world; and resignation to destiny as the will of God, the subordination of the individual will to the will of the Divinity, is preached by the Stoics in a manner which at once reminds us of the precepts of Christ.

Again, there was still another point of view in which Stoicism prepared the way for Christianity. The mode of thought that prevailed in antiquity, not merely among the Jews, but also among the Greeks and Romans, was, in accordance with the isolation of the nations before the great monarchies of the world arose, exclusive, and limited to their own people. The Jew considered none but the posterity of Abraham to be the people of God; the Greek held that none but a Hellene was a genuine man, or fully entitled to be called a man at all, and with reference to the barbarian he assigned himself the same exclusive position that the Jew did to himself towards the Gentiles. Even philosophers like Plato and Aristotle had not yet quite rid themselves of the national prejudice: the Stoics were the first to draw from the community of the faculty of reason in all men the inference of the essential resemblance and connection of all.

The Stoics were the first to look upon all men as citizens of a great republic, to which all individual States stand in only the same relation as the houses of the town to the whole, as a family under the common law of reason: the Idea of Cosmopolitanism, as one of the finest fruits of the exertions of Alexander the Great, first sprung up in the Porch; nay, a Stoic was the first to speak the word that all men are brothers, all having God for their father. As regards the Idea of God, the Stoics advanced the reconciliation between the popular polytheism and philosophical monotheism on the ground of the pantheistic view of the universe, so far as to consider Zeus as the universal Spirit of the universe, the original Existence, and the other gods as portions, and manifestations of him; and in doing so they did, in the Idea of the Logos, describing universal Reason as the creative power of nature, prepare a conception which was afterwards to become of the utmost importance for the dogmatic foundation of Christianity. At the same time, by the allegorical interpretation which they applied to Homer and Hesiod in order to extract physic-philosophical ideas of the gods and their histories in the Greek mythology, the Stoics pointed out to the Alexandrian Jews and subsequently to the Christians, in the study of the Old and subsequently of the New Testament, the way of substituting at their pleasure a different meaning when they did not like the literal one.

However far a theory which places the highest good in pleasure, and deprives the gods of all interference with the world and mankind, appears to be moved from the line of spiritual development which helped to prepare the way for Christianity,—still, even in Epicureanism, traits are not wanting that bear some resemblance to it. In the first place, it is especially true in philosophy that the most opposite tendencies come in contact when thoroughly carried out; and thus the highest Good of the Epicurean is not so far from that of the Stoic as might appear at first sight. For by that pleasure in which he places the highest Good, the Epicurean does not understand the highest sensual enjoyment, but an abiding tranquil state of mind, which requires the renunciation of much transitory enjoyment, the acceptance of much incidental pain; and the Epicurean tranquillity is closely connected with the Stoic apathy. It is true indeed that the virtue of the Epicurean is never an object in and for itself, nor ever anything but a means for attaining that happiness which is separate from it; but still the means are so indispensable and so sufficient, that he can neither conceive virtue without happiness nor happiness without virtue. And though the Epicureans were not so prudish as the Stoics with regard to the outward good things of life, still they pointed to the simplicity of men’s real wants, and to the advantage of keeping within the bounds of these wants, conversely also to the mode in which pain and misery may be conquered by the exercise of reason and coolness. In this the Epicureans, by their passive process, approached very nearly to the same point as the Stoics did by their active; and towards the latter they stood in a supplementary relation in those points in which Stoic severity became harshness and want of feeling. The Porch would know nothing of compassion and indulgence; Epicurus advised mercy and pardon, and the Epicurean principle, that it is better to confer a benefit than to receive one, corresponds exactly to the precept of Jesus, that to give is more blessed than to receive.

It was from the opposition and combat between these schools of Greek philosophy, of which the one regularly denied what the other maintained, the one thought it could refute what the other could maintain, that at last a doubt of all truth as capable of being known and proved—skepticism, as well philosophical as practical—developed itself. In this there seems at first sight to be a still wider separation from popular religious faith than had been before involved in men’s applying themselves to philosophy. Still, the breaking of the last supports which human consciousness sought in philosophy might make that consciousness even more ready to receive a fresh supposed revelation of the Divine. The increase of superstition, the recourse to secret mysteries and novel forms of worship, which were to bring man into immediate contact with the Divinity, such as may be noticed about the time of the rise of Christianity even among the more cultivated classes of the Græco-Roman world, was the result of the fact that not merely the old religions now failed to give mankind the satisfaction which they sought for, but the existing philosophical systems also failed to do so. It is well known how in the third century after Christ the so-called Neo-Platonic philosophy sprang out of this unsatisfied want; but even in the last century before Christ we remark a precedent to this tendency in the same Neo-Pythagoreanism to which we ascribed, above, an influence upon the Therapeutico-Essenic sect among the Jews. If then such a want of a new method of contact with the Divine, a new bond between heaven and earth, was felt in the spirit of that time, and felt among the Jews as well as among the Gentiles, Christianity takes its place as one of a series of attempts to satisfy that want; and the recognition that it met with is explained from the fact that it had the power of satisfying it in a more catholic and original manner than the artificially invented systems of Neo-Pythagoreanism and Neo-Platonism, or the secret league of the Therapeuts and Essenes.

If now, as compared with what the Greeks did to prepare the way for Christianity, we attempt to describe the assistance which the Roman people rendered, we may refer this assistance to two points. The first is the unity of one great Empire within which, even in the century before the birth of Christ, they had comprised all the known nations of the ancient world. In this Alexander had preceded them; but his kingdom, which besides did not comprise the real West, had not continued to exist as a unity, but had fallen into several pieces, among which there was never a complete cessation from a bloody struggle. It was impossible that the idea of Cosmopolitanism—the contemplation of man as man, and no longer merely as Greek, Jew, etc., etc.—could strike deep root until it did so in the Roman Empire of the world; so also it was necessary for the numerous and separate divinities of tribes and nations to unite and mix in this great communion of peoples, before the conceptions of them could resolve themselves into that of the one supreme and only God, the religions of the nations into a religion of the world. And with this change the spiritualization of religion was immediately connected. The One God could not be a material God, and for the God of all nations the usages were no longer suited by which this or that people had been accustomed to worship its own God. Christianity having once arisen, was enabled to spread rapidly and unimpeded by means of the closer connection which the Roman rule had established by assimilation of education and institutions, as well as by the facilitation of intercourse between separate nations and countries. This dissemination was but an external addition to all that preceded. The reverse side of this unity is the destruction of the happiness and comfort which one of these peoples had before enjoyed in its independence, in living according to its own laws and ancient traditions; the pressure with which the foreign yoke weighed upon them; the manifold acts of injustice to which in the later times of the Roman republic—especially during the civil war—they were obliged to submit. Men’s life in this world being thus embittered, and all natural assistance against Roman oppression being at last despaired of, their minds were directed to the next world, their expectations to some miraculous succor such as that of the idea of the Jewish Messiah made them hope for, and Christianity promised after a spiritual fashion.

The other point which we may look upon as the Roman contribution towards the preparation of the way for Christianity is the practical turn of the Roman people. Even the late schools of Greek philosophy, such as the Stoic and Epicurean, had preferred applying themselves to the theory of morals; and in the hands of the Romans, who had little inclination for mere speculation or scholastic philosophizing generally, philosophy became entirely practical and popular. In the popular apprehension the opposition between different schools and systems was smoothed away. The consequence was that among the Romans especially was formed that Eclecticism, as the most famous representative of which Cicero is well known to all the world, though his real merit and importance in the history of progress has been lately overlooked; Seneca also, though he stands on Stoic ground, was not free from this Eclecticism: and in the writings of both there are found, about the One God and the consciousness of him implanted in men,—as well as about man, his Divine nature, its corruption and restoration,—thoughts and expressions the purity of which surprises us: while their resemblance to the doctrines of Christianity, especially in the case of Seneca, has given occasion to the legend of a connection between him and the Apostle Paul, though it only shows how everything on all sides at that time was pressing towards the point at which we see Christianity immediately appear.