The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers

By Werner Jaeger | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII
HERACLITUS

THE end of the sixth century and the first decades of the fifth mark a general renascence of the religious spirit among the Greeks. In individual works of poetry and art this spirit manifests itself even more impressively than in the religion of the cult-divinities and the newly arisen sects that are usually cited as evidence for it. Along with poetry and art, philosophy now provides a peculiarly fertile soil for the emergence of the great religious personalities these new times bring forth. What is called religion in the narrower sense offers nothing comparable. The line begins with Pythagoras, who founds a sort of religious order. In Xenophanes we meet a person of a very different stamp. He is the bold herald of enlightenment, who attacks the Pythagorean transmigration-theory as mystification with the same ruthlessness that he applies to the gods of the popular religion and the poets; yet he wages his warfare inwardly confident that he has achieved a higher philosophical knowledge of God. Similarly it is in the form of a religious mystical revelation that Parmenides chooses to express his vision of true Being in which he shows the sense-world to be mere appearance; for he sees his new-found knowledge as the answer to the religious questions agitating the whole world about him. Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Parmenides all belong to the new southern Italian culture resulting from the fusion of imported Ionian intellectualism with the social and religious background of the native stock. In Heraclitus, who appears at the end of the line, we see these same religious questions disturbing Ionia, the birthplace of philosophy. All these thinkers, despite their constitutional differences, possess a kind of prophetic fervour and eagerness to testify to their own personal experience that is especially characteristic of their period and puts them in company with the great contemporary poets Aeschylus and Pindar. This passionate emergence of the personality had not always accompanied philosophical thinking. In the Ionian naturalism of the old Milesians the spirit of observation and pure research had prevailed. We can hardly go wrong by assuming that in the writings of an Anaximander or Anaximenes the

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