The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers

By Werner Jaeger | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
THE THEOLOGY OF THE GREEK THINKERS

THE aim of the Gifford Lectures has been determined once and for all by their founder, who specified that they should deal with that group of problems which we designate by the name of natural theology. Hitherto most of the lecturers have been philosophers or theologians. If I, as classical philologist and student of the humanities, have any justification for ranging my own efforts in this field along with theirs, it lies solely in Lord Gifford's further stipulation that the lectures may also deal with the history of these problems.

The venerable chain of tradition by which this history is linked together spans two and a half millennia. Its value is by no means purely antiquarian. Philosophical thought is much more closely and indissolubly bound up with its history than are the special sciences with theirs. One might perhaps say that the relation between modern and ancient philosophy is more comparable to that between the works of the poets of our own time and the great classical poems of the past. For here again it is from the immortality of past greatness that the new creation draws its vital breath.

Whenever we speak of the beginnings of European philosophy we think of the Greeks; and any attempt to trace the origins of natural or philosophical theology must likewise begin with them. The idea of theologia naturalis has come to our world from a work that has long since become classical for the Christian occident--the De civitate Dei of St. Augustine. After attacking belief in heathen gods as an illusion throughout his first five books,1 he proceeds in the sixth to expound the Christian doctrine of the One God and sets out to demonstrate its thorough accordance with the deepest insights of Greek philosophy. This view of Christian theology as confirming and rounding out the truths of pre-Christian thought expresses very well the positive side of the relations between the new religion and pagan antiquity. Now for St. Augustine, as for any typical Neoplatonist of his century, the one supreme representative of Greek philosophy was Plato; the other thinkers were merely minor figures around the base of Plato's mighty monument.2

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