raphael school of athens

I have been publishing on Pandaemonium a series of ‘lost pages’ from The Quest for a Moral Compass, my forthcoming book on the history of moral thought, due to be published in April. In completing the book,  I had to cut the original manuscript quite considerably. Much of what has been lost is better off left on the cutting room floor. There are, however, some sections coherent enough to be worth reading. Previous such ‘lost pages’ included  abandoned sections on MachiavelliDescartes, John LockeGreek cynics, atomists, skeptics and relativists and Christian accounts of evil. This extract explores the relationship between Christianity and some of the themes in Greek philosophy.

Cruelty, treachery, disloyalty, corruption, meanness – the myths and tales of most ancient societies were alive to the worst aspects of human nature. Such moral frailty was not, however unique to humans. The gods were often equally wretched in their behaviour. The line between humanity and God was drawn not in morality but in power.  Gods possessed powers that humans could only dream of, and as immortals they were untouched by death, but their power and immortality did not improve their moral conduct.

Monotheism remade that line between human nature and divine nature. Gods remained powerful, humans restricted in their powers. Indeed, as a whole divinity of gods was reduced down to a single Creator, that single Creator became far more powerful than previous gods had been.  But the key distinction between human beings and God was now not simply one of immortality and power.  It was also one of morality. The monotheistic faiths drew a new contrast between corrupted humanity and incorruptible God, a contrast that transformed moral frailty into a condition, not of the cosmos, but of being human. It was in Christianity that this distinction was made clearest.

In redrawing the line between humanity and God, monotheism both adopted and discarded major themes in Greek philosophy. Greek philosophers had recognized human moral frailties, but had also believed that through reason and education some individuals at least could overcome the lure of the baser aspects of the soul. It was in the use of reason to accommodate life to the exigencies of fate that human dignity lay. At the same time, there was a strand within Greek philosophy that  helped make more profound the distinction between Man and God. The distaste for the idea of capricious gods, and the desire for naturalistic explanations, evident from the Presocratics onwards, led some, like Democritus, to dismiss the very idea of gods and to insist on a purely materialist universe. Others redefined the nature of godliness.

Xenophanes (c 570-476 BCE), one of the earliest of the Presocratics,  savaged Homer and Hesiod for ‘attributing to the gods everything that men find shameful and reprehensible – stealing, adultery and deceiving one another.’ Humans possessed false ideas of gods because they fashioned them in their own image. So, ‘Ethiopians say their gods are flat-nosed and black, and Thracians that theirs have blue eyes and red hair.’ And if horses and cows possessed gods, they would undoubtedly be ‘horse-like gods, cow-like gods’.

There could only be one God, Xenophanes insisted, ‘since it is sacrilege for any of the gods to have a master’. This God could be ‘in no way similar to mortal men in body or in thought’. God must have always existed, for there is nothing superior that could have created Him, and He could not have been created by an inferior being. He is a living being but unlike like organic beings there are no parts in Him. He has no physical contact with anything in the world but ‘remains for ever in the same place, entirely motionless’ and ‘effortlessly, he shakes all things by thinking with his mind.’ This notion of a wholly simple God came to be important in both Islam and Christianity.

David - The Death of Socrates

Plato took much further the argument for a transcendental being and a transcendental realm. Like Xenophanes he insisted on the goodness of God. His Republic would not ‘allow any stories about gods warring, fighting, or plotting against one another, for they are not true.’ Not only are such tales untrue, but young people should not ‘hear it said that in committing the worst crimes [God is] doing nothing out of the ordinary, or that if he inflicts every kind of punishment on an unjust father, he is only doing the same as the first and greatest of the gods.’ Only the good things in life come from God; ‘we must find some other cause for the bad ones, not a god’.

In The Republic Plato established the idea of a transcendental reality, more authentic than the material realm that humans inhabit. He talks here not of a transcendental personal God, as Judaism, Christianity and Islam were to do, but of the Form of the Good, to which everything ultimately owes its existence, and which is itself beyond and superior to being.

In Timaeus, which Plato wrote late in his life, a new conception of God (or gods) appears. It is among Plato’s more obscure works, the down-to-earth dialectical investigation characteristic of most of his dialogues giving way to grandiose cosmic theorizing. It was also one the most influential in ancient and medieval times, probably because it was more mystical than philosophical.  In its first millennium, Christian theology drew heavily upon the cosmology of Timaeus.

Plato compares God to a craftsman who has sculpted the universe, guided by the perfection of the Forms, transforming it ‘from a state of disorder to order’. The universe is not simply a physical body but also a living being, imbued with a divinely-crafted soul. Plato explains in detail how God made his universe, creating Time, then the planets, the sun and the moon, and the stars, then the minor gods that inhabit Mount Olympus, and finally mortal living beings. The souls of living beings, including humans, were fashioned from heavenly leftovers, God taking the ‘mixing bowl… in which he had blended and mixed the soul of the universe’ and pouring into it ‘what remained of the previous ingredients’, although ‘these were no longer invariably and constantly pure, but of a second and third grade of purity.’ The minor gods were left to create the bodies for, as God told them, ‘if these creatures came to be and came to share in life by my hand, they would rivals the gods’ and be immortal.

Though God is good and benevolent, He is not omnipotent, and so cannot, as the later God of the monotheists could, create the universe from nothingness, but has to work with the material already given. ‘This ordered world is of mixed birth’, as Plato puts it. ‘It is the offspring of a union of Necessity and Intellect’, the latter prevailing over the former ‘ by persuading it to direct most of the things that come to be toward what is best’.

Why did God take on such a task? Because ‘he was good’ and wanted everything to become as much like himself as was possible’. But because the cosmos reflected both the goodness of its creator and the inherent limitations of the materials with which he had to work, so the world cannot, and does not, adequately reflect the righteousness of its designer.

There was in Plato’s cosmology an answer, therefore, to the problem of evil. Evil exists because God is not powerful enough to ensure that goodness always triumphs. This was not an answer available to later monotheists, committed as they were to an omnipotent Creator. Nevertheless Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers all drew upon Platonic concepts of a transcendent world, of an intelligent Creator crafting the world out of His goodness, and of a dual character of human being, composed both of mortal flesh and immortal soul.

celestial spheres

Monotheistic thinkers drew also upon the different cosmology of Aristotle who, while influenced by Plato’s theology, was critical both of the Platonic concept of Forms and of the idea of a craftsman that designed the cosmos. He introduced instead the notion of the Immovable Mover.

Like the Presocratic Heraclites, Aristotle argues that the universe is forever in a state of flux.  Behind every change must lie a cause, and indeed a chain of causes, that brings about that change. But such a chain of causes cannot stretch out for ever because, in Aristotle’s view, ‘it is impossible to have an infinite series of movers’. The first link in the chain, as it were, was the Unmoved Mover, the prime cause of all change in the cosmos, but which itself was not caused by anything.

Like Xenophanes, Aristotle held that the Unmoved Mover must always have existed and always will exist. The Unmoved Mover had to be immaterial because it is possible to act upon matter and by definition nothing could act upon the Unmoved Mover. Since it is immaterial, the Unmoved Mover cannot physically act upon the cosmos, but causes change purely through its thought. Eternal things must, in Aristotle’s eyes, be good since there can be no defect in that which necessarily exists. This Unmoved Mover Aristotle called ‘god’, not as an entity to be worshiped, but as ‘a supreme and eternal living being’, the most powerful, intelligent and beneficent creative force in the cosmos.

If monotheistic believers found in Greek thought the idea of a sublimely good transcendental being, the Creator of the cosmos, and the guardian of virtues, they also read Greek philosophers in a way that appeared to provide rational foundations for the belief that mortal flesh was inherently corrupting.  In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates, on the eve of his execution, explains why he does not fear his impending death, and indeed welcomes it. At death the body separates from the soul. And it is the body that in life has been a burden upon the soul.  The body is an ‘infection’ upon the soul, indeed an ‘evil’.  Death is a rite of ‘purification’ from  ‘the contamination of the body’s folly’.  ‘If we are ever to have pure knowledge’, Socrates argued, ‘we must escape from the body and observe things in themselves with the soul by itself’, adding that  ‘Only when we are dead’ can we ‘attain that which we desire and of which we claim to be lovers, namely, wisdom.’ Before death, ‘we shall be closest to knowledge if we refrain as much as possible from association with the body’. That is why a true philosopher ‘despises’ bodily pleasures such as food, drink and sex. The body is an obstacle in the search for knowledge because ‘it fills us with wants, desires, fears, all sorts of illusions and much nonsense so that… truth and in fact no thought of any kind comes to us from the body.’  It is the body and its desires that ‘cause war, civil discord and battles’ and ‘make us too busy to practice philosophy’.

When St Paul asks in Romans, ‘O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’, he is some ways echoing Socrates. But Paul’s view of the body corrupt is different from that of most Greek philosophers. For Socrates, and for those who followed him, in particular Plato, the deprecation of the body was a celebration of the intellect, which to Greek philosophers made humans almost divine. In the new monotheistic faiths, the corruption of the body was an expression of the inherent frailty of the human mind, of moral imperfection as the defining feature of the human condition, a concept that became one of the dominant themes of the new faiths.

valentin paul writing his epistles

‘For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing’, Paul confessed, ‘for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do.’ Being human, for Paul, was to know the distinction between right and wrong, but to possess too little will to act upon it.

Greek philosophers had accepted that the standards followed by virtuous people are too demanding for ordinary folk, but believed that, given the appropriate knowledge and character, human individuals are capable of satisfying the most exacting moral measure. For Aristotle, humans were capable both of establishing what constituted the good and of working their way towards it. For Plato, the Good was defined by a transcendental Form in a different realm. Humans, however, or at least some humans, possessed the capacity to apprehend the Good and to attempt to create the good life on Earth. For Christians, however, only through the grace of God could humans be moral. ‘None is good’, as Jesus was to say, ‘save one, that is, God.’ Or as Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians ‘For by grace are ye saved through faith and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God’. The other side of faith in the goodness of God was the insistence on the moral wretchedness of human beings. Not for more than a millennium would a new vision of human nature, and of human capacities, begin to challenge Pauline despair.


The images are, from top down, Raphael’s The School of Athens, Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates, The Spheres between Heaven and Hell from the Neville of Hornby Book of Hours and Valentin de Boulogne’s St Paul Writing His Epistles.


  1. saurabh

    very appealing article. reflect similarity between Greek philosophy and Hindu philosophy. “Death is a rite of ‘purification’ from ‘the contamination of the body’s folly’”.

  2. Timaeus ‘was also one the most influential in ancient and medieval times, probably because it was more mystical than philosophical’, or, I believe, because it happened that it was, almost uniquely, not ‘lost’ at this point.

  3. jonathan cohen

    Thanks for a very interesting and enlightening short essay. Great topic for a book or longer discussion.

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