An Unreasonable Hybrid
In the centuries before it became the State Religion of the Roman Empire, some of the many factions within Christianity hybridised with the Socratic school of philosophy. Mainly with the work of Aristotle and Plato, who became Authorities despite not having been Christian. It was this that allowed Constantine to integrate those versions of Christianity into the existing Imperial way of life.
This also ensured we have much of what they wrote, whereas major thinkers like Heraclitus and Democritus are little more than famous names.
Heraclitus of Ephesus was once rated highly, but is now known mostly for supposedly claiming we can’t bathe twice in the same river. His works are lost: we can’t be sure if this was just a sound-bite. His actual view might have been much more subtle than the standard version, which I see as superficial. The whole point about a river is that it is a movement of water, unlike a lake or pond. But also remaining in much the same place from day to day and year to year, unlike a flood. But for all we know, Heraclitus also saw it so and was just making a provocative remark to get people thinking about the world’s changeability.
Democritus also is known just from quotes, though Aristotle may have borrowed a lot from him. He and Leucippus are credited with inventing the idea of atoms, though we also know that Democritus, from a wealthy family, studied the learning of Mesopotamia and Egypt.
As a philosopher in his own right, Democritus was known and highly rated in Classical Greece and Imperial Rome. But he was thereafter neglected and his works lost. This might have pleased Plato, who supposedly wished all of his books burned. And Christian theology decided that the notion of atoms was heretical: thankfully their influence was negligible when modern European chemists decided that this and a number of previously obscure chemical elements were the best explanations for what their chemical experiments showed them in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Antoine Lavoisier is justly famous for his correct recognition of many of the elements. Working out that what Joseph Priestley had called ‘dephlogisticated air’ was in fact a distinct element. Sadly, he chose to call it Oxygen, Maker of Acids, reserving the name Hydrogen or Maker of Water for water’s other component. Many acids have different strength depending on how many atoms of oxygen are in the molecule: but some such as hydrochloric acid contain no oxygen. Lavoisier guessed that chlorine was actually a molecule combining oxygen with something unknown, and sadly he guessed wrong. That’s one of the problems of pure thinking without experimental check on the reality of your notions.
Incidentally, it is also an error to suppose that mediaeval alchemists seeking to make gold were seeking ‘transmutation of the elements’. For them, the elements were Earth, Fire, Air and Water – a notion inherited from ancient times, for no particular reason. China, which developed fairly independently of the various West Asian and European cultures inspired by Mesopotamia, chose to have Fire, Water, Stone, Wood and Metal as elements. Air they chose to ignore, but they did correctly notice some basic difference between solids: metallic, non-metallic and organic.
Metaphysics easily ensnares some very clever minds. But it is basically an error. Ideas depend on the real world, rather than the other way round. Mental categories must always be checked against reality, and revised if necessary.
What we have of Classical Greece is dominated by Plato and Aristotle, because Constantine raised up a version of Christianity that had already included them. Liked their metaphysics, and included it in an elaborate theology defined first at the First Council of Nicaea. And it was Christians who did the later copying of ancient philosopies. There may not have been much intentional suppression of thinkers like Heraclitus and Democritus: just a lack of interest.
Christianity became the Roman Empire’s creed, dominating Roman Europe and also North Africa and West Asia until the rise of Islam. Islam regarded itself as the true continuation of the teaching of ‘the Prophet Jesus’, and so inherited much of the same structure of thought. Accepted Plato and Aristotle as Authorities.
Constantine might have chosen some other creed. Even Buddhism, if it had made its way west. It made its way east and got included in Imperial China and isolationist Japan. But though Buddhism was known about in the Roman world, and had hybridised with Greek culture in Bactria in Central Asia, it never counted for much.
There were also other creeds that had substantial followings in the Roman world. Mithraism, the worship of Isis, and the creed of the Unconquered Sun. But Constantine opted for Christianity, with a few pagan overtones. His specific choice was to use the ‘Chi Rho’ symbol, which was used by Christians but much older and acceptable also to pagans. Yet by stages, it became a complete take-over of the Roman Empire of versions of Christianity merged with Socratic philosophy.
It was the worst possible choice.
It may also have been what Catholic theologians called a Felix culpa, a ‘happy fault’. Or it was if one holds that all of the popular religions were based on primitive errors and misunderstandings about physics and the wider universe. The extreme Christian claim to Know Truth cleared the way for minds to shake themselves free of it. Whereas Confucianism was a trap for Chinese culture until Mao freed them from its worse aspects. Both Islam and Hinduism are gaining ground at the expense of those wanting to keep them as cultural flourishes on a Westernised pattern of thinking.
It might also have been otherwise in the Roman world. The early Christian Tertullian asked:
“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, or the Academy with the Church?”
He was right, but was viewed with suspicion by the hybridisers. Unlike other early theologians, he has never been accepted as a saint.
Christianity spread within the Roman Empire. But assuming you don’t believe in a God who constantly meddles in the mundane world, it could only hope to win by taking over much of the existing outlook of the rich and educated.
I’ve read very little about Tertullian, and by no means all of Plato or Aristotle. Their alien politics and major errors on matters of science – detailed later – meant I could not see them as sources of wisdom.
Science has given a definite picture of the world beyond humans. It shows all pre-scientific thinkers to be massively wrong on matters where they are easily testable. And Plato repeatedly claimed to have proved things that he had not proved at all. How much more does one need to know about such ‘Authorities’?
Plato’s sloppy philosophy is more about looking good that getting as close as you can to truths that are often uncomfortable. Truths like the fact that humans live on a fast-moving planet. And that objects continue in motion without any need for fresh inputs, if there is nothing acting to slow them.
This last was a key assumption by Newton. Objects on Earth slow down, because of friction from the ground and even the air. In the vacuum of space, they carry on regardless.
It also occurred to me that the basics could have been demonstrated to Greeks, had anyone thought of it. Long ago, I read an account by physicist Richard Feynman, who as a child had a little wagon with a rod to pull it. He noticed that a ball in the wagon would hit the front of the wagon when he stopped. His father explained that this was Inertia – objects do not change their speed unless a force acts on them.
Inertia remains rather mysterious. Relativity might suggest that all motion is relative, but we also know that objects respond to being slowed down or speeded up (both processes viewed as ‘acceleration’ by physicists). And inertia acts as if it were sensitive to the pooled background of the entire universe, for no very clear reason.
If you know modern physics, you should be aware that there is an outstanding problem creating a unified theory that allows for both General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Both have been tested in detail and confirmed in extremely sensitive tests; yet they are built on incompatible assumptions. But in my view, such a theory might well include a proper explanation for inertia, undoubtedly real yet still mysterious.
But to get back to the Greeks, they could have made a wagon such as Feynman had, and noticed that it contradicted their ideas of how the world works. Or one could have linked it to Greek myths – have it as Ajax in his chariot, fixed to a cross-bar like the footballers in table-football. When the chariot stopped, Ajax would shoot forward and bump his head on the front. Someone involved in arts-and-crafts might like to make such a thing as an educational toy. My own experiences in the question-and-answer forum Quora indicated many adults still do not understand it.
It could be that someone did a demonstration of inertia much as I described, and that the followers of Plato and Aristotle brushed it aside as vulgar ‘appearances’. They would have seen it as much inferior to their cherished metaphysics.
A film called Agora  shows Hypatia, a female mathematician, philosopher and astronomer in late 4th-century Roman Egypt, performing a variant. She drops a weight from the mast of a ship, expecting it not to keep the ship’s motion. And then supposedly comes close to modern science when she notices that it acts contrary to her expectation. And then is murdered by ignorant Christian fanatics, with her work lost. But the film is largely fiction: Hypatia and her murder are real enough, but there is no solid evidence she managed any genuinely new thinking.
We do know that Archimedes, a fascinating inventor in the days when Roman power was talking over from the Greeks, was apologetic about his clever inventions. That he preferred to be known for his equally valid excursions into pure thought.
The Socratic school did not cause this contempt for manual work, which may have been connected with manual tasks being done mostly by slaves. And it is worth noting that in China, the gentry had an equal distancing of themselves from manual work in a very different society. But they certainly shared the common error. (And a positive in Christianity is that it did encourage its thinkers to also work with their hands.)
What’s worse than a hyping of pure thought is the abuse of reason to claim proof of things that were not proven. Things that often turned out to be wrong.
There is a lot of intellectual trickery in The Republic, as I plan to detail in a future article. And in Xenophon’s alternative version of Socratic teaching, there is a straightforward justification of lying as a way for Superior Persons to guide the ignorant masses.
Xenophon also tells us that Socrates when put on trial decided it would be a convenient time to die, and intentionally did not put up a sensible defence against charges for which the death penalty had been demanded. It was normal for the defendant to offer to accept some lesser penalty, much like modern plea-bargaining. But Socrates chose to be defiant, and also chose not to flee when left unhampered if he would prefer exile to death.
Death appears to have been Socrates’ own choice. And after some controversies, it seems now established that taking hemlock of the variety probably used was about as convenient and pleasant a way to die as you could have found at the time.
None of this is put straightforwardly in Plato, where Socrates expresses regret that he had not had longer to talk and thinks he might have been acquitted. But it does give a logic to what Plato reports Socrates as doing. In particular his refusal to escape, which it seems everyone was hoping he would do. And he had earlier insulted his jury by suggesting that he ought to be rewarded rather than punished, ignoring the damage done to Athens by men he had taught.
Greek Paganism was generally as hostile to suicide as Christianity was – not a cultural inevitability, since both Roman and Chinese culture accepted it and it was later glorified in Japan. The pagan hell included a dismal Wood of Suicides.
But being killed by enemies was another matter.
I would also suppose – though neither Plato nor Xenophon say it and perhaps neither realised it – that Socrates saw he could gain dignity by being seen to die for his beliefs. Greeks already understood the heroism of dying well despite having been defeated – in Homer it is the Trojans who are the best individuals. Socrates seems to have been the inventor of martyrdom for ideas, which must have helped his school of thinkers to hybridise with Christianity.
Xenophon was probably naïve rather than honest when he presents Socrates as intending to die. He was certainly not honest in many of his other writings.
One big trouble with lying is that it’s not true – so actions that would be valid if the lies had been true will end in disaster. That applied to the Liberal Interventionism in Iraq and the rest of the Muslim world, which some of us warned about at the time.
The other big trouble is that once some of the lies get exposed, there will be a general mistrust of everything you do. And when some liars visibly succeed, many others may think that perhaps morality is just a trap for small minds. This was the position with the Hellenic kingdoms formed by the generals of Alexander the Great. Generals who between them murdered Alexander’s children and most of his relatives. Who probably found such ruthlessness easier because of the strong suspicion that Alexander himself had organised the murder of his father and then had the killer killed before he could talk. (Much like the fictional version of Macbeth in Shakespeare.)
Most of the Successors who wasted Alexander’s legacy in endless futile wars had been educated by Aristotle!
Xenophon is unsubtle in his trickery. Having read his Persian Expedition (Anabasis), I was convinced he is continuously lying about his own role in the matter. I’m sure something of the sort happened: you could not invent a major venture by 10,000 Greeks within living memory without sounding ridiculous. But not as he told it. I’m surprised that so many people believe his version.
No one at all believes his Education of Cyrus (Cyropaedia). We might if we had nothing else about Persian culture – a point to remember when one thinks about other peoples whom we know only from one authoritative-sounding Greek or Roman source. There are many instances when we have several sources, and know some of them to be rubbish. Greeks and Romans had a hazy notion of China as the source of silk and other civilised products, but the legends of Hyperborea is probably a reflection of China put falsely in the far north. (Quite possibly misdirection by nomads controlling a very profitable trade.) There was also a notion of Chinese as large red-headed people – probably a confusion with nomadic middle-men. And as for the Education of Cyrus, it is heavily based on Spartan practice. It is profoundly ignorant of actual Persian custom and belief, or else choose to ignore them.
In their accounts of Socrates and his pupils, neither Plato nor Xenophon deal properly with each other, pretending the other was not there. Had not the works of both been popular and preserved till modern times, most people would not suspect this. Had just one survived, that would be our undisputed view of Socrates – though only Plato contains the sophistications to have merged with the growing Christian creed.
We also learn from surviving Greek comic plays that many Greeks who knew Socrates presented him as a fool whose followers were dishonest. A man whose intellectual tricks made it easy to justify dishonesty. This is particularly true of Aristophanes’ play The Clouds.
Satire succeeds by taking real faults and exaggerating them. Athens was the size of a modern small town: people must have an excellent idea of what Socrates was like and what was the result of his teaching.
When Latin-Christian Europe started really thinking about the hybrid creed during the European cultural surge known as the Renaissance, it fell apart. The various versions of Protestantism tried to get back to an original ‘pure’ Christian creed, but found that there was no such thing.
Roman Catholicism in Dark-Age and Mediaeval times had made many innovations. Far more than Orthodox Christianity, although it too stuck with a muddled doctrine of Jesus as both two separate people and a single indivisible person – irrationalities created by power-struggles in the Eastern Roman Empire. And Official Christianity got away with it, because it largely controlled education. Without written records available to most people, the various innovations soon became accepted as solid and ancient traditions.
Protestants soon found that a creed based just on what was really in the Bible would not have felt like Christianity at all. A few tried – one example is the Sandemanians (Glasites), who included noted scientist Michael Faraday. But they were never popular and are now extinct.
Reasoning about Christianity most commonly led to people reasoning themselves out of Christianity. This happened during the 17th and 18th centuries, as science advanced.
Newton and Galileo were serious in their Christianity, with Galileo getting into trouble because he wanted his church to face up to the truth about the solar system. Newton had no such problem, but he also looked logically at the Bible and decided that the doctrine of the Trinity was probably a false addition. It very probably was, but that would have been too radical for most Protestants.
Priests are another anomaly. They were added to the growing Church some time before Constantine made it the Imperial creed. They are part of Greek Orthodoxy and other surviving ancient Christianities. This was done even though it was entirely lacking in Biblical justification. The harder-line versions of Protestantism are quite right on this, though not on much else.
Kautsky in his excellent Foundations of Christianity suggests that the Christian Mass began as a common meal among people who upheld the original rejection of personal property. Also seen as commemorating Jesus, but basically a meal.
No doubt the original Bible-sanctioned officials, Bishops and Deacons, would have handed out bread and wine that might often have been less than people wanted. I don’t think he noted the lack of lamb, which was there at the Last Supper in line with Jewish practice. But meat of any sort was a rare luxury for most people in the ancient world.
In Kautsky’s view, it was only by gradual stages and for the benefit of rich members who had much better meals at home that the ‘common meal’ was gradually become ritualised and involved only tiny quantities. And as the symbolism increased, they spread the notion that some of the Deacons and all of the Bishops were something higher: Christian Priests whose blessing was needed to make the Common Meal a source of blessings and Good Luck.
Jesus and his immediate followers were conventional Jews who recognised the authority of the official temple priests, even though those priests were mostly corrupt. They saw the correct rituals as vital, even if bad people performed them. And they wanted a purified Temple converted to their values. But when the Romans destroyed the Temple and the world carried on much as before, some shifts in thinking became necessary.
We have good evidence that a similar shift happened in the branch of Christianity known as Quakers, who adopted pacifism only after the religious extremism of the Civil War became marginal with the restoration of Charles the Second.
It is also interesting to note that the End of the World in the Book of Revelations has no mention of the Jerusalem Temple being destroyed. And I’d suppose that all references by Jesus to the impending doom of the Temple were added long after the event. It is notable that the Gospels make no mention of Jesus being criticised for this by his accusers. The Temple Priests supposedly ignored statements that would have been far more blasphemous to official Judaism than the accusations recorded as thrown at him. God was supposed to preserve the Temple, being in charge of everything.
One has to assume that surviving branches of Christianity reworked the Sayings of Jesus after the unthinkable actually happened. And meantime most Jews shifted to become good citizens of the Roman Empire, or wherever else they were living.
Interestingly, when Julian the Apostate tried to return a lightly-Christianised Roman Empire to Paganism, one of his ideas was to let the Jews restore their Temple. It would have been awkward for Christian theology. But he died or was murdered in a pointless war against Persia.
Looking back earlier, with the world failing to end when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and converted to Pagan worship, surviving Christians must have made many adjustments. Including applying rules for the Jewish Sabbath to the Pagan-Roman ‘Day of the Unconquered Sun’. This is irrational, but also too basic to popular Christianity to be discarded. Or not except for some 25 million Seventh-day Adventists, plus a few other small sects that have little else to recommend them.
Protestants trying to make Sunday a day of joyless quiet are not being Biblical: they are ignoring chunks of the Bible in favour of what can work as a popular religion.
This is a portion of a longer work, ‘Socrates and the Abuse of Reason‘.
 Der Ursprung des Christentums, 1908