Hellenic Humanism & Early Christianity

Author: John Mulloy


by John J. Mulloy

There is a striking contrast between two traditions of humanism which have challenged each other throughout the course of the history of Western culture, and indeed of Hellenic culture before that. One of these sees man as the highest form of existence in the universe. The other sees man and his culture as linked to Transcendent Divine Realities. The conflict between these two views has been especially sharp in the last two centuries of Western civilization, and nowhere has the conflict expressed itself with greater force than in the different interpretations given to Greek culture and its relationship to Christianity.

What, then, is the significance of the development of Greek culture? Is it toward a humanism based upon man and his self-sufficient powers, or man as recognizing a Divine Center for all of human life and its activities? The character of the Greek achievement, the fact that it was the first culture to provide for the formal development of philosophy and science, the greatness of its language and literature, its creation of political theory and literary criticism, the influence of its architecture and sculpture, and its development of astronomy, mathematics and physics during its later Hellenistic period--all of thesehave made it important for Greek culture to give support to one's own outlook upon life.

It is only natural that a secular conception of life and the universe should look back to the Greeks for the origins of a man-centered view of reality. There is much in the Greek development which is in accord with that ideological position. The earlier Greek belief in the gods and the myths seems to have been replaced by a scientific interpretation of nature as the first fruits of the rise of Greek thought and philosophy. The line runs from Thales to Democritus, who concluded that all of reality was nothing but atoms moving around in the void. There is also the development of the agnostic rationalism of the Sophists in Athens in the latter half of the fifth century, and the fact that Pericles himself, the ruler of Athens during its Golden Age, seems to have shared their views. In addition, a good deal of the Greek lyric poetry which has survived accepts as its basic premise the idea that this life and its flowering in youth, is the only thing of real value. The Greek idea of achieving glory in battle through outstanding heroism was so that one might be remembered after his death by future generations.

Moreover, the appeal which is made to Greek culture in periods of anti-Christian reaction in the history of Western civilization, as with the Averroists of the thirteenth century and their later influence, or with the pagan humanists of the Italian Renaissance, or with the philosophes of the Enlightenment, tends to reinforce this view of the essentially anthropocentric character of Greek humanism. In fact, one of the most long-lasting elements in the Renaissance heritage is that conception of history which contrasts the barbarism and credulity of the Middle Ages with the civilization and enlightenment of the classical world. In this conception, the coming of Christianity and its belief in a supernatural world, led to a thousand year interregnum of darkness and superstition. But, then, the Renaissance came to the rescue of man who was bound in the chains of intellectual obscurantism and childish fantasy. In however modified or diluted a form, this idea still survives as the background for the thought of most secular interpretations of history.

One of the most persuasive and influential of nineteenth-century historians who promoted a secular-humanist view of the Renaissance was Jacob Burckhardt, whose Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy appeared in 1860. Of enormous influence on other scholars and on the writing of textbooks for students, this view may be seen in the following passage of Burckhardt's work:

"In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness--that which was turned within as that which was turned without--lay dreaming or half-awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation--only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the State and of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such. In the same way the Greek had once distinguished himself from the barbarian....[Thus] there arose a new spiritual influence which, spreading itself abroad from Italy, became the breath of life for all the more instructed minds in Europe." (London, 1921). p. 129.

A more extreme statement of this view was made by John Addington Symonds, English disciple of Burckhardt, who shows the way in which the conception was most likely to get into the textbooks in the English-speaking countries:

"During the Middle Ages man had lived enveloped in a cowl. He had not even seen the beauty of the world, or had seen it only to cross himself, and turn aside and tell his beads and pray;...humanity had passed, a careful pilgrim, intent on the terrors of sin, death, and judgment, along the highways of the world, and had scarcely known that they were sightworthy or that life is a blessing...ignorance is acceptable to God as a proof of faith and submission...," etc., etc.

As Douglas Bush, Harvard professor of English literature, remarks about this sort of evaluation, "At least Chaucer wore his cowl with a difference, even if he did not enjoy life like Savonarola and Calvin!"


But let us take a more balanced statement of this kind of contrast between Greek humanism and Christian culture than either Symonds or even Burckhardt is able to give us. What we are especially concerned with here is the conflict thought to exist between the mature rationalism of the Greek heritage and the limited intellectual horizons imposed on mankind by the Christian religion. Matthew Arnold, outstanding English poet and critic of the later nineteenth century, and not unsympathetic to Christianity although he was agnostic in viewpoint himself, makes the following distinction between what he terms Hebraism and Hellenism. (He sees Christianity, we might add, as the more universal development of the Hebraic view of life.)

"The uppermost idea with Hellenism [Arnold says] is to see things as they really are; the uppermost idea with Hebraism is conduct and obedience. Nothing can do away with this ineffaceable difference...the bent of Hellenism is to follow, with flexible activity, the whole play of the universal order, to be apprehensive of missing any part of it, or sacrificing one part to another....An unclouded clearness of mind, an unimpeded play of thought, is what this best drives at. The governing idea of Hellenism is spontaneity of consciousness; that of Hebraism, strictness of conscience.

"Christianity changed nothing in this essential bent of Hebraism to set doing above knowing" (Culture and Anarchy, 1869, chap. 1V).

Now the triumph of Hebraism over Hellenism by the conversion of the ancient world to Christianity is not seen by Arnold, the humanist sympathetic to Christianity, as being a bad thing, as being merely the enchainment of the human mind, as many secularists like to portray it. Christianity was necessary for that particular stage in human development which had been reached by the end of the ancient world, as manifested by the decline of the classical culture and the influx of the barbarians; it was needed as a kind of purification and disciplining ofhumanity by the rigors of the Hebraic spirit so that it would later be ready for a revived Hellenism. This revival would come to its first flowering at the time of the Renaissance, but reach its full maturity about the time of the later nineteenth century in which Arnold himself lived. Now that Christianity had disciplined the will and the affections, the treasures of the mind which Hellenism had held in store could again be placed before Western man for his proper use of them. One wonders what Arnold would have made of our hedonistic Western culture today, with the mass media's constant titillation of our sensual appetites. Would he feel that he had been premature in getting rid of Christianity and its discipline of man's passions, and that the participation in Hellenism must be indefinitely postponed? Here is the way Arnold expresses his view of the meaning of the triumph of Hebraism over Hellenism when the Roman Empire was converted to Christianity:

"The indispensable basis of conduct and self-control, the platform upon which alone the perfection, aimed at by Greece can come into bloom, was not to be reached by our race so easily; centuries of probation and discipline were needed to bring us to it. Therefore the bright promise of Hellenism faded, and Hebraism ruled the world." (That is, in the form of Christianity.)

Now it seems to me that one can accept the essentially Hebraic character of Christianity--the Church as the New Israel, the New Testament as the fulfillment of the Old, Christ as the culmination and transcendence of the teaching of the Hebrew Prophets--without ignoring the way in which Christianity has appropriated the heritage of Hellenism. Christian culture has been built, almost from the very first, on a double foundation, that of both Hebraism and Hellenism, to use Matthew Arnold's terms; and it was precisely the development of Greek culture toward certain religious and philosophical ideas which made this possible. The ultimate development of Greek culture was not away from religion toward rationalism; it was toward an ever more intense searching after the Unknown God.

Let us now examine more closely the validity of that contrast between Hellenism and Christianity drawn by Matthew Arnold. Let us test it especially in relation to the encounter of the two in the early centuries of the Christian era.

In examining that subject, we shall first of all rely upon the scholarship of Werner Jaeger, a German Protestant scholar who emigrated from Germany in the mid-1930's and, after giving the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Scotland, became professor of classics at Harvard until his death in 1961. Jaeger's most important work is a three-volume study of the ideals of Greek culture called Paideia, which is generally regarded as the most penetrating examination of the Greek cultural development which classical scholarship has achieved in the twentieth century. He has a kind of summary of his conclusions from Paideia, in a lecture which he delivered at Marquette University in 1943 called "Humanism and Theology," which is an excellent means to become acquainted with Jaeger's basic conception of the historical development of Greek culture and its relation to Christianity.

What does Jaeger see to be the relationship between Hellenism and Christianity in this early Christian period to which Matthew Arnold makes reference? Arnold's claim is that there was a basic incompatibility between these two cultures, that "Nothing can do away with this ineffaceable difference by which Christianity", as the inheritor of the Hebraic attitude toward life, "set doing above knowing," and thus set herself against the Hellenic approach to reality. (See Culture and Anarchy, chap. 1V.)

We should like to examine this view in terms of the actual historical development of the Christian religion. Did Christianity result in the removal of the Hellenic spirit and Hellenic thought from the culture of Christian antiquity, once its triumph in the Roman Empire had been assured? If this was not the case, but Hellenism continued to exist as a vital element in Christian culture, then the contrast between the two cannot be as absolute as Arnold makes it out to be. One might recognize a difference in relative emphasis without finding the one so exclusive of the other that they could not continue to exist in some kind of fruitful interaction and dynamic tension. In fact, any culture which manifests a great deal of creative vigor is likely to be based on just such a tension of competing elements.

Jaeger has this reference to the relationship between Christianity and Greek culture in describing the subject matter of his most important work:


"...the transformation of Hellenistic Greek paideia into Christian paideia is the greatest historical theme of this work. If it depended wholly on the will of the writer, his studies would end with a description of the vast historical process by which Christianity was Hellenized and Hellenic civilization became Christianized. It was Greek paideia which laid the groundwork for the ardent, centuries-long competition between the Greek spirit and the Christian religion, each trying to master or assimilate the other, and for their final synthesis" (Paideia, 11, xi).

That, it seems to me, is a more accurate statement of what actually took place with the conversion of the ancientworld to Christianity: not, as Arnold claimed, that "Hebraism ruled the world" with the result that "the bright promise of Hellenism faded," but rather that the Hellenic achievement was incorporated into Christian thought and culture and deeply influenced the intellectual formulation of Christian teaching. To quote Jaeger again, this time from his Marquette lecture:

"In order to become the universal or Catholic religion, Christianity took over the rational form of theology and dogma from Greek philosophy."

And he speaks also of the danger which this incorporation of Hellenism might represent to Christianity and its Hebraic tradition--if Hellenism were not checked and counterbalanced by other elements. This danger was in fact recognized by one of the great Greek Fathers of the fourth century:

"Nothing is so characteristic of the Greeks, says St. Gregory of Nyssa, one of the outstanding Christian Platonists of the fourth century, as the belief that the essence of religion lies in the dogma. He sees clearly the danger of overrating this aspect and neglecting what he calls the real strength of Christianity: the mysteries of the faith and the venerable traditions of the Church. The three elements ought to be kept in a perfect balance."

And, in sharp divergence from the Arnold view that there was an irreconcilability between the Hebraism of Christianity and the spirit of Hellenism. Jaeger sees quite another meaning to the relationship between the two:

"Beyond the general intellectual affinity between Christian dogmatic thought and Greek philosophical theology, there was also a deeper kinship of their spirit. It was so close that, as St. Augustine in his Confessions tells us, he received the first impulse to his conversion from reading not the Scriptures but a book in which Cicero had reproduced a platonizing work of the young Aristotle, the Exhortation to Philosophy. There were many who came to Christianity in this way" (pp. 60-1).

Christopher Dawson points out that, by the fourth century of the Christian era, there was another religious humanism besides Christianity which claimed to be the true representative of the heritage of Greek thought. Note that this humanism was not man-centered, as with the Sophists. Instead the passage of some seven or eight centuries from the age of Pericles had radically altered the Greek view of life. That view was deeply influenced by Oriental elements, and thus, in Dawson's conception of it, was much less faithful to the authentic ideals of humanism than were the Christian Fathers of the Church. The latter had built a strong bridge between the Christian Gospel of the crucified Christ and the goals which Hellenic thought had been striving to attain.


In the following passage Dawson sees Julian the Apostate, who tried to overthrow Christianity, as the representative of a Greek philosophy which had been deeply orientalized and had thus departed from the emphasis on the value of man which was characteristic of earlier Greek philosophy. Dawson speaks of a "bastard Hellenists syncretism," and then implies that this was the route which Julian and his associates were following:

"The religion of the Emperor Julian and his Neoplatonist teachers,in spite of their devotion to the Hellenic past, was actually more impregnated with oriental elements than was that of the Christian Fathers, such as Eusebius of Caesarea, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, Basil and the two Gregories.

"For the writings of the latter, in spite of their avowed hostility to the Greek religious tradition, were characterized by a genuine spirit of humanism, for which there was little room in the spiritualistic theosophy of Julian and Maximus of Tyre. Their whole apologetic is dominated by the conception of Man as the center and crown of the created universe. The first book of the Theophany of Eusebius is a long panegyric of humanity, -- man, the craftsman and artist, the builder of cities and the craftsman of ships, -- man, the scientist and philosopher,who alone can foretell the changes of the heavenly bodies and knows the hidden causes of things, -- man, a God upon earth, the dear child of the Divine Word'."

"So, too, St. Gregory of Nyssa sees in man not only the god-like image of the archetypal beauty,' but the channel through which the whole material creation acquires consciousness and becomes spiritualized and united to God"....

Because this intended Divine harmony of creation,with man as its crown,had been ruptured by man's rebellion against God in Original Sin, with the consequences this had for successive generations of mankind, God acted to restore man's integrity. Dawson points out, following Gregory of Nyssa:

"This is what has happened in the actual history of humanity, and, therefore, it has been necessary for the Divine Nature to unite itself with mankind in a second creation which will restore and still further develop the original function of humanity. Thus, the Incarnation is the source of a new movement of regeneration andprogress which leads ultimately to the deification of human nature by its participation in the Divine Life. The life of the Divine Trinity externalizes itself in the Church as the restored humanity, and the purpose of creation finds its complete fulfillment in the Incarnate Word.

This presentation of the Christian doctrine of man and the Incarnation is a conscious attempt to express the new Christian world view in a form accessible to the Greek mind. It is a genuine synthesis of the Christian and the Platonic traditions, and one which in spite of Harnack's criticism, is in entire agreement with the spirit of St. Paul himself." Progress and Religion (1929) pp. 157-159.


Thus, the significance of these early Christian centuries did not consist simply in the triumph of Christianity and, through this, "a triumph of Hebraism and man's moral impulses," as Arnold asserts. That would be far too one-sided a view of the nature of Christian culture. Rather it consisted in a general conversion of ancient culture and the Greek mind to Christianity, and through this in a new flowering of the Hellenic spirit. This found expression in religious thought and in a more personal religious experience than had been possible under the various systems offered to men by Greek philosophy.

One has only to compare the richness and depth of St. Augustine's thought and religious experience with that of Marcus Aurelius to see that Hellenism has suffered no diminishment through being united with Christianity, but rather the reverse. Take, for example, the key Augustinian concept of a Universal law which is seen as the expression of God's wisdom and Providence for all things, and realize that it is, in origin, as Dawson points out, "derived from purely Hellenic sources. It is the characteristically Greek idea of cosmic order which pervades the whole Hellenic tradition from Heraclitis and Pythagoras to the latter Stoics and neo-Platonists" (St. Augustine and His Age, 1930). Only, in Augustine's hands it acquires a much greater depth and beauty as the "Hebraic" element of direct personal relationship with God transforms the idea.

And on the other hand, consider the Stoic philosophy of Marcus Auralius and the melancholy it produces in him, the unsatisfied longing for something more than Hellenism has to offer:

"In brief, the things of the body are as unstable as water; the things of the soul, dreams and vapors; life itself, a warfare or a sojourning in a strange land. What then should be our guide and escort? One thing, and one only -- Philosophy. And true philosophy is to observe the celestial part within us,...and at all timesawaiting death with cheerfulness, in the sure knowledge that it is but a dissolution of the elements whereof every life is compound....It is in harmony with nature, and naught that is evil can be in harmony with nature....

"For, if God exists, to depart from the fellowship of man has no terrors -- for the divine nature is incapable of involving thee in evil. But if He exists not, or, existing reck not of mankind, what profits it to linger in a godless, soulless universe? (Meditations.)

Even Matthew Arnold sees Aurelius as a soul awaiting the coming of Christianity -- "We see him wise, just, self-governed, tender, thankful, blameless; yet, with all this, agitated, stretching out his arms for something beyond -- tendentemque manus ripae ulterioris amore." Reaching out his hand in desire toward the ulterior shore -- is not this a fitting symbol of Hellenism's relation to Christianity, and why it was that conversion fulfilled its aspirations and implicit purpose? For in the words of St. Augustine, who made that journey from Hellenic philosophy to Christian faith, "Thou hast made for Thyself, O God,and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee" (Confessions,I,I).

Taken from the Summer 1993 issue of "The Dawson Newsletter." For subscriptions send $8.00 to "The Dawson Newsletter", P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, John J. Mulloy, Editor.