Ancient Greece, Home of Philosophy
THE ancient Greeks, especially those living in Athens, attached great importance to philosophy. They tried to solve major questions of life and of the universe by using logic and speculation. They reveled in discussing new things. A physician in the first century C.E. reports: “All Athenians and the foreigners sojourning there would spend their leisure time at nothing but telling something or listening to something new.”—Acts 17:21.
The philosophies of the ancient Greeks did not agree with the message proclaimed by Christians. While the apostle Paul was in Athens, “certain ones of both the Epicurean and the Stoic philosophers took to conversing with him controversially.” Some disdainfully said: “What is it this chatterer would like to tell?” (Acts 17:18) They viewed Paul as an idle babbler, one who picks up scraps of knowledge and repeats them without order or method. But did these philosophers really have something valuable? Consider:
Epicureans and Stoics
The Epicurean philosophers advocated living in such a way as to get the most pleasure out of life, yet doing so moderately in order to avoid the unpleasantness resulting from overindulgence. Not physical pleasures, but pleasures of the mind were stressed.
Needless wants were to be suppressed. The philosophy discouraged involvement with things that would give rise to desires that might be difficult to satisfy. Knowledge was sought mainly to rid oneself of religious fears and superstitions. The two primary fears to be eliminated were fear of the gods and of death.
This philosophy made lawbreaking ‘inadvisable,’ simply because of the shame associated with detection and the punishment it might bring. Living in fear of being found out and/or punished would take away from pleasure.
To the Epicureans, virtue and morality in themselves had no value. Only when they served as a means to gain happiness were they considered profitable. Friendships, too, rested on a selfish basis, namely, the ‘pleasure resulting to the possessor.’
The Epicureans believed in the existence of gods, but thought that they were too far away from the earth to be interested in man. So it did no good to pray or sacrifice to them. The Epicureans did not believe that the gods created the universe. Nor did they think that the gods inflicted punishment or bestowed blessings. According to this philosophy, the gods could not aid anyone to gain happiness. Life was viewed as coming into existence by chance in a mechanical universe. Death was thought of as the end of everything, freeing one from the nightmare of life. The Epicureans believed that man had a soul composed of atoms that dissolved when the body died.
With its emphasis on pleasure, did Epicurean philosophy contribute to a purposeful life? Did it provide a solid hope? No, for even its founder, Epicurus, referred to life as a “bitter gift.”
But did the Stoics have something better to offer? No, for like the Epicureans they had no personal relationship with God. The Stoics did not even believe in God as a person. They thought that all things were part of an impersonal deity, from which the human soul emanated. The soul was believed to survive the death of the body. Some Stoics thought it would eventually be destroyed with the universe.
The Stoics maintained that to attain the highest goal, happiness, man should use his reason to understand and conform to the natural laws governing the universe. To them, pursuing a life of virtue therefore meant ‘following nature.’ The truly wise man, in their estimation, was indifferent to pain or pleasure. Fate, they thought, governed human affairs. If problems seemed overwhelming, the Stoics considered suicide unobjectionable.
The Stoics, like the Epicureans, tried to gain happiness in their own way. But they failed to reach their goal. Why? Because they had not learned that the foundation of true wisdom is Jehovah God and that apart from him there can be no true happiness. Centuries before the birth of Epicurean and Stoic philosophies this inspired acknowledgment was made: “The fear of Jehovah is the start of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Most Holy One is what understanding is.”—Prov. 9:10.
Something Greater than Grecian Philosophy
The message proclaimed by the apostle Paul was something that both the Epicureans and the Stoics needed. It revealed that happiness came from being in a proper relationship with the Creator. He was no impersonal God nor was he far removed from humanity. The apostle Paul said:
“The God that made the world and all the things in it, being, as this One is, Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in handmade temples, neither is he attended to by human hands as if he needed anything, because he himself gives to all persons life and breath and all things. And he made out of one man every nation of men, to dwell upon the entire surface of the earth, and he decreed the appointed times and the set limits of the dwelling of men, for them to seek God, if they might grope for him and really find him, although, in fact, he is not far off from each one of us.”—Acts 17:24-27.
While neither the philosophy of the Epicureans nor that of the Stoics could reveal a comforting hope for the dead, Paul did so on the basis of reliable evidence, saying: “[God] has set a day in which he purposes to judge the inhabited earth in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and he has furnished a guarantee to all men in that he has resurrected him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31) At the time that Paul spoke these words, most of the some five hundred persons to whom the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ had revealed himself were still alive to testify to that fact. (1 Cor. 15:6) So God’s guarantee respecting the resurrection and future judgment was well established.
Some of those who heard Paul, including a judge of the court of the Areopagus, came to appreciate that the philosophy of the Stoics and Epicureans had nothing to offer. So they embraced Christianity and were baptized.—Acts 17:33, 34.
Similarly, tens of thousands today have come to recognize that the philosophy of “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we are to die” leaves one’s life empty and meaningless. (1 Cor. 15:32) They have found that acknowledging God’s existence by obeying his law gives purposeful direction to one’s life. This is because that law, unlike ancient Grecian philosophies, is based on love for God and an unselfish interest and concern for fellow humans. (Rom. 13:10; 1 Cor. 10:24; 1 John 5:3) Therefore Jehovah’s witnesses invite people everywhere to examine God’s Word and see for themselves whether it does not outline the best way of life for people even in this twentieth century.