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Philosophy and Religion

Updated on November 30, 2016
Photo by Dimitri Castrique
Photo by Dimitri Castrique

Greek philosophers in Ionia from the 6th century onward speculated on the nature of the universe with an intellectual freedom unrestricted by religious inhibitions. Whereas Hesiod's cosmogony had been cast as myth, the philosophers passed the gods by in their speculations. Anaximenes of Miletus (540 B.C.) believed that air was the primary substance, and he used the word iheos (god) to describe it. Xenophanes of Colophon (525 B.C.) was the most outspoken critic of the Homeric gods: "Homer and Hesiod," he said "have ascribed to the gods all that is shameful and a disgrace among men." He rejected anthropomorphism and used the word "god" of the whole world, which he thought of as a living being. Heraclitus of Ephesus (500 B.C.) attacked religious ritual, especially animal sacrifice. These philosophers, and even men like Pythagoras who were intensely religious, saw the inadequacies of Homeric anthropomorphism.

In explaining man's relationship to the macrocosm, die philosophers began to undermine the structure of Greek religion. The critical movement flourished at Athens, especially at the end of the 5th century. The teachings of the Sophists are satirized in Aristophanes' play The Clouds (423 B.C.), and it was for atheism that the Athenian conservatives executed Socrates in 399. The Sophists explained away myths, while Plato wished to abolish Homer's stories of the gods from his educational curriculum. By the end of the 4th century the old religion was irreparably weakened. Only the mystery religions maintained their position; otherwise, philosophy provided the assurance denied by the fading Homeric gods.

The 3rd century B.C. saw the advance of Stoicism. Cleanthes (around 270 B.C.) called the supreme divinity "Zeus who interpenetrates all," but this "god" was really a philosophic principle that could hardly be worshiped. Epicurus (280 B.C.) believed that the gods existed but that they had no effect on human life; for him traditional religion was "superstition." The fading of the old gods is seen in the Hellenistic custom of deifying living men. In such circumstances the doctrine of Euhemerus (300 B.C.), that the gods had originally been men, became popular. The rationalization of myths helped undermine the traditional religion, as did the researches of scholars like the Alexandrian poet Callimachus (260 B.C.).

A lively interest in the old gods continued far into Roman times although the gods themselves were dead. The standardization of the myths in literary form completed the fossilization of the gods. The 12 Olympians were equated by the Roman poet Ennius (185 B.C.) with 12 Italian gods and are better known to the modern world by their Latin names; but their worship at Rome never had the vigor and spontaneity that Greek religion had in its prime. The collapse of religion was paralleled by the weakening of Greek political institutions, so that the emphasis of Greek religion turned in its final stages from civic religion to the religion of the individual. Men were less concerned with their external relationship with the gods than with the ethical and moral problems of their own lives and with death. For all classes the mystery religions provided some of the answers, and they enjoyed a revival. For the educated classes philosophy provided comfort, while for the uncultured, especially in the country, the humble local cults continued to survive, as do some of them in quasi-Christian guise to this day.

The vacuum created by the retreat of the old gods was further filled by astrology and by new gods imported from the East. Of the Greek gods, only Asclepius enjoyed a lively cult in the Hellenistic age; as god of healing, he answered to the individual's needs. Christianity absorbed the vestiges of paganism and used the teaching of the philosophers (especially the Stoics) to establish itself as the dominant religion.


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    • AnkushKohli profile image

      Ankush Kohli 6 years ago from India

      Thanks for such a vast explanation of Greek Mythology.