The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers

By Werner Jaeger | Go to book overview

CHAPTER V
ORIGIN OF THE DOCTRINE OF THE SOUL'S DIVINITY

THE Greeks (as one modern student has remarked) share with the Jews the honour of creating an intellectualized faith in God; but it was the Greeks alone who were to determine for several millennia the way in which civilized man would conceive the nature and destiny of the soul. Their ideas contributed much that was essential in forming the Christian world-view; and by becoming part of the Christian religion these ideas acquired in their turn the widest possible diffusion. We may think of this Greek conception of the soul as beginning to develop in the sixth century. Its roots may well reach deep into the prehistoric strata of human existence; but during the sixth century the belief that the soul was divine and had a metaphysical destination took on the intellectual form that enabled it to conquer the world, and this will always remain a decisive historical event. The Greek soul-myths were not a fruit of the philosophical spirit, but sprang rather from the religious movement which we have described briefly in our previous chapter. That movement, however, lay directly in line with philosophy. Its influence took the form not of the absorption of a complete religious dogma by philosophy, but rather of a free intellectual catharsis of the religious beliefs about the soul; in any case it implied that these beliefs provided a new point of orientation from which philosophical thought could set forth. It accordingly falls within the frame of our study.

But we must first consider the general forms that the Greek idea of the soul took, so far as we can know from our extant tradition. Since the appearance of Erwin Rohde classic volume Psyche, which was for the philology of his time a supreme achievement of scholarly synthesis and artistic skill,1 research has not been idle, and the Homeric conception of the soul has been particularly favoured as the subject of penetrating studies which undermine the basic assumptions of Rohde's treatment. Rohde had been much impressed by the theory of an animistic stage in the history of religion such as E. B. Tylor and Herbert Spencer had worked out; he accordingly attempted to bring

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