The Axial Age in Greece

The coast and islands of the northeastern Mediterranean Sea were populated by waves of Indo-European immigrants who arrived from the north. Sharing a common language (though with different dialects), culture, and religion, they designated anyone who did not speak Greek as “barbarian.” But they engaged in trade with other cultures, including Egyptians, Phoenicians, and the Minoans of Crete. Politically, the Greeks were never united until they all were captured and drawn into the Macedonian Empire by King Philip II of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great. Before that time, each Greek polis (or “city-state”) was independent with its own form of government, ranging from the royalty of Sparta to the democracy of Athens. Sparta had two kings, and they could not act unless they agreed with each other. The democracy of Athens included only Greek-speaking men who owned property, so it excluded women, slaves, foreigners, and many other residents. But it was the beginning of democracy as is still practiced in the world today.

The Greeks united, after a fashion, to resist the Persian invasions of 490 and 480 BCE. They also united—sometimes voluntarily, sometimes involuntarily—as leagues to battle one another. Greek culture flourished in spite of their battles and wars. The Greeks of Athens and of other poleis achieved excellence in mathematics, science, architecture, sculpture, drama, history, and philosophy. Not only did Greeks know that the world is round; they measured its size fairly accurately. Although they borrowed freely from other cultures, the thinkers of Greece laid a foundation upon which western civilization firmly rests.

Confucius and the Buddha presented new Axial Age ideas without rejecting the gods and religious practices of the Chinese and Indian cultures. Zarathustra in Persia overthrew the gods in his proclamation of one god. Greek thinkers approached the world without reference to any gods. They continued to build temples to the gods and worship them; they continued to portray gods in sculpture and in drama. But Greek historians recorded events without attributing success or failure to the gods. Likewise, Greek philosophers sought to explain the material world and its processes without attributing those to the gods.

One early Greek philosopher thought that everything material is made of water. That makes sense: water can be solid, liquid, or vapor, and many things we encounter contain water. Others thought the material world consists of some other primary substances. Greeks first proposed the atomic theory, suggesting that all material things are made of tiny, unbreakable substances. Still others proposed that everything material is made out of numbers. Philosophers debated whether the material world is always at motion or whether true reality is stable and unmoving. One class of philosophers showed that motion is logically impossible. Achilles cannot defeat a tortoise in a race if the tortoise has a head start: by the time Achilles reaches the place where the tortoise started, the tortoise will have traveled to a new spot. When Achilles reaches that spot, the tortoise will have traveled further. Achilles can never catch the tortoise so long as the tortoise keeps moving. Likewise, I cannot throw a ball across the room, because the ball must reach a half-way point on its way across the room, but first it must get half-way to that point, and before that it must get half-way to that point—the ball cannot travel through an infinite number of points in a finite amount of time. (It took Newton and Leibnitz’ invention of calculus centuries later to handle concerns about traveling through infinite points of space.) Greek science did not involve observation and experimentation—that scientific method was developed in Europe during the medieval period. Greek science was a logical process that followed mental rules rather than seeking to discover natural rules.

Over time, Greek philosophy degenerated into theories of communication and rhetoric. Sophists claimed they could take either side of a dispute and win a debate—useful talents in politics and law, but not so helpful in scientific pursuit. From this community arose Socrates. He questioned experts in every field, searching for ultimate truth in the things they knew. Instead, he discovered limits to their knowledge. Socrates wanted to know what makes something good, whether that something is a song, a painting, a boat, or a man. A boat-maker can fashion a good boat and describe its goodness, but the boat-maker could not tell Socrates how the boat acquired its goodness. Especially the Sophists could not answer Socrates’ questions about language and rhetoric, about what makes something true or how to distinguish a good idea from a bad idea. By his persistence, Socrates made enemies among the Sophists and politicians and legal experts and leading citizens of Athens. They accused him of impiety and of corrupting the youth of Athens. Narrowly convicted, both Socrates as defender and his prosecutors were allowed to suggest a punishment. The prosecutors called for death. Socrates said that, because of what he had been doing, he deserved to have a house and regular meals charged to the public expense. The jury chose the prosecutors’ sentence. With his cooperation, Socrates was executed by poisoning.

Socrates had a student named Plato who wrote dialogues featuring the ideas and challenges of Socrates. Some are probably based on real conversations; others were likely invented by Plato to explore his own philosophical ideas. The search of Socrates for ultimate truths about what is good and true and beautiful led Plato to believe that the most real things in the world are goodness and truth and beauty. Those things we encounter in the material world merely draw their qualities from the more real world of ideas. When I write the word “dog,” each reader pictures a dog: large or small, young or old, exuberant or lazy, friendly or vicious, possessing various lengths and colors of fur, but each an example of a dog. Plato would say that they share the qualities of the idea of dog—the ultimate reality is not the individual dogs we experience and picture, but the dogness that they share. Likewise, goodness is an idea that is found in many places, but real goodness is an idea that we know through its diverse manifestations. To form a good society, we need experts who know how to approach the idea of goodness and how to express it in laws and requirements that will drive badness away and will draw goodness out of all citizens.

Plato had a student named Aristotle who disagreed. Aristotle said that the objects we encounter are real. Ideas about them, such as “good” or “dog,” are only labels we create for our own purposes; the labels themselves are not real. Aristotle had his students study the world to sort all things into categories. Dogs can be sorted into various breeds, and all dogs are among mammals, which are among animals, which are among living beings. Likewise, boats and songs and pictures can be described and labeled, sorted into categories and judged by predetermined rules to we can determine which boats and which songs and which paintings are the best.

Other schools of philosophy developed in ancient Greece. Stoics, like Buddhists, stressed non-attachment to the world. They viewed the material world as unimportant; they taught that the mind or soul escapes the body and material things at death and moves on to a higher state of being. Epicureans believed that only the material world exists. The mind and the soul, like the body, disintegrate and disperse at death. Nothing individual survives. The best we can do is enjoy life now, but not to excess. A glass of wine adds quality to the evening; drinking the entire bottle only causes problems. Both Stoics and Epicureans resisted Christian teachings about the resurrection of the body, but for different reasons. Epicureans thought that nothing remains to be regathered and raised; Stoics thought that when the mind or soul escapes the body it was better off and would not want to return to the body.

Many Christians have built their understanding of the world around Greek philosophy. Putting their trust in Jesus and believing the message of the Bible, they still approach and understand these teachings in a Greek framework, whether Platonic or Aristotelian or Stoic or Epicurean. Christian mystics often have drawn inspiration from neoplatonic expressions of ancient philosophy. Christian monastics often have justified their practices through a Stoic outlook upon the world. Christians committed to a faith-ordered life that is logic and rational draw inspiration from Aristotle’s writings. Christianity is not bound to Greek philosophy—the Gospel of Jesus Christ is available to everyone in the world, even if they were trained in Daoist or Buddhist or indigenous religious world views. J.

Feelings (something more than feelings)

When I was younger (so much younger than today), I was drawn toward Stoic philosophy. Logic and reason were guides to life; feelings were to be ignored. After all, the great virtues all involve working against one’s feelings. Courage is not lack of fear: courage is doing the right thing in spite of fear. True love is not feeling good because of someone else; true love is caring more about the other person than about one’s self. Victory over evil does not come from never being tempted; victory over evil comes from resisting temptation, from saying no to temptation.

Yes, I was Mr. Spock, but with a better script-writer than Spock had. I did not prattle about logic, because logic consists of the rules that govern reason. Loving logic rather than reason is like loving the rules of football rather than the game of football. The rules make the game possible, but the game is the thing. Reason, of course, has limits; there are things that are beyond reason, and those things are of vast importance. Having learned of the reality that lies beyond reason, though, does not diminish reason. In fact, reason can be used to study and understand even those messages that come from the world beyond reason.

But in the last few years I have learned that feelings are not to be ignored. A human being consists of body and mind and spirit, and feelings happen at the intersection of body and mind and spirit. Many feelings come from the body, warning the mind and spirit of the body’s needs. Other feelings can come from the mind or the spirit, guiding the whole being along a certain course of action or turning away from a different course of action.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this” most of the time. It is rare for me to start a trip, long or short, without the feeling that I have forgotten something important back at home. If someone at home or at work is in a bad mood, I often feel that I am responsible—I must have done something wrong to annoy him or her. In shopping malls and large stores I often feel threatened and overwhelmed. I feel an eerie sense of doom, and I want to make my purchase and leave as quickly as I can. (And I am grateful for self-serve registers, so I do not have to interact with another person while in the store.)

Negative feelings have their silver linings. I never leave my keys locked in the car, because my feelings of anxiety cause me to clutch the keys in one hand while I close the car door with the other hand. In a similar vein, I never leave my magnetic pass key on my desk at work; I’m always touching it as I go through the secure door of the work area. I am probably kinder to my co-workers than I would otherwise be because of my false sense that their unhappiness is my fault. If bad feelings make me a better person, who am I to complain?

A therapist has helped me to be mindful of my feelings, to look at them and ask myself what they are telling me. Why am I especially jittery on Saturdays? Is it because of the change in routine, the one day that I don’t jump out of bed to head to work or to church? Is it anticipation of the coming Sunday morning responsibilities at church? Or is it awareness that, unless the weather is bad, I will be exposed to the noise of neighbors working in their lawns and gardens with the racket of power tools of various kinds?

In short, I’ve learned that feelings are not to be ignored. They have their place, even if they are not reliable guides for decisions to be made or actions to be taken. Feelings are part of being human. Much as I may have wanted to be a Vulcan, both my parents were human, and I am human too. And that’s not a bad thing—the Lord created humans and said that they made creation “very good.” When sin and evil entered creation, the Lord entered creation as a human to ransom and redeem humans. And the Lord has experienced the full range of human feelings, even as I do, without sinning in the process. Being human, having feelings, is good. J.

“Hello, my name is Joe”

From time to time I dream of winning a grand victory over an evil intelligence, as Captain Kirk so often did in Star Trek. Yesterday, on a small scale, I finally had my chance.

The telephone rang while I was working on my desktop computer at home. I did not recognize the number showing on caller ID, but that did not necessarily mean the call was not from someone I know. I haven’t memorized all the phone numbers of people I might want to speak with on the phone.

I picked up the phone and said hello. A cheerful voice introduced himself as “Joe from Senior Auditory Center and Helping Hands.” He asked how I was doing and I said, “I’m fine, Joe; how are you?”

Instead of the usual, “I’m-fine-thanks-for-asking,” Joe moved immediately into a description of what his company offered. He implied that someone in the household had a need for a hearing aid. “I don’t think I’m interested,” I told him, but Joe then said that someone in the household had contacted his company.

Given the name of the company, I didn’t think that was likely. Instead of saying so, I offered, “Let me write down your name and number and ask my family if any of them have contacted you.”

“I’m not trying to sell you anything,” Joe assured me. “This is a free service.” I thanked him and asked again for a way to contact him if someone in the family indeed had an interest in what he was offering.

Instead of giving me a phone number, Joe said, “I’d just like to ask you a few questions, OK?”

By this time, Joe’s failure to respond to what I was saying made me suspect that Joe was not a human being, but rather a computer-generated voice. His pauses before responding were just a smidgen too long; along with his unfitting responses, our conversation made me picture a 1960s, made for TV, room-sized computer with whirling tapes and flashing lights. I knew that if I said “OK,” Joe would start asking his questions, so I said, “I don’t think I want to answer any questions.”

“OK?” Joe asked again.

“I know what word you want me to say, and I’m not going to say it,” I told him.

“I just want to ask you a few questions, OK?” Joe repeated.

Although I was tempted to tell him that logic is a chirping bird, I instead chose a more fitting line. “Joe, what we have here is failure to communicate,” I said.

“I’m sorry to hear you’re having that problem,” Joe said.

“I don’t think the problem is on my end,” I told him.

“My name is Joe,” he said, more slowly than he had said it the first time. I pictured the face of an android, eyes blank and staring, smoke starting to rise out of both his ears. He continued, slowly and distinctly, “I am from the Senior Auditory Center and Helping Hands.” After that came a silence long enough that I figured it would not be rude to hang up on Joe.

In three different episodes, Captain Kirk was able to save an entire planet and its resident civilization (not to mention his life and the lives of his crew) by talking a computer to death. I’d like to believe that, in a small way, I have now shared in the good captain’s victories. J.