The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers

By Werner Jaeger | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IV
THE SO-CALLED ORPHIC THEOGONIES

THE fewer the petrified remains of doctrine from which we can still hammer out the sparks of genius as we study the earliest thinkers, so much the more precious is a man like Xenophanes, who shows us how widely that genius radiated-- from the edge of Asia, the birthplace of Greek philosophical thought, to the westernmost borders of Greek civilization. Xenophanes is by no means the only Greek poet of his time to be touched by the rising philosophy. The Sicilian Epicharmus, for example, the first writer of literary comedies, resident at the court of the tyrant Hieron of Syracuse, has left us some clever verbal fencing over the origin of things, in which one of his characters shrewdly criticizes the venerable Hesiodic Theogony because it speaks of Chaos, the ultimate beginning itself, as having come into being.1 Clearly the playwright had had some acquaintance with the natural philosophers' conception of a first principle which itself has had no beginning. Epicharmus also bears witness to the whirlpool of doubt into which this conception had drawn the religious thought of the time. When we see the whole problem aired before thousands of listeners as a field for comedians' glibness, it is evident that the intellectual dispute which philosophy had stirred up had already begun to have an unsettling effect upon wider and wider strata of society.

Nevertheless, the old style of theogonic thinking is by no means dead, as this very discussion in Epicharmus shows. Even in its oldest Hesiodic form, theogony is a typical transition- product, not unconnected with the new philosophical spirit, an offshoot of a religious attitude which has already become more thoughtful; so it is hardly surprising to find it flourishing steadily with the quickening growth of philosophy throughout the whole sixth century in an imposing array of theogonic works, most of which still retain the poetical form of their model, Hesiod. The very closeness of this association shows us that these two types of intellectual attitude are sister branches of a single root reaching deep into the parent soil of religion. In the theogonies religious interest is focused directly upon the

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