In his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell writes, “Until the Punic Wars, the Romans had been a bucolic people, with the virtues and vices of farmers: austere, industrious, brutal, obstinate and stupid.” It was only when they came into contact with the Greeks that they grew more civilised. But they would never be as cultivated as the Greeks; they would never produce great works of art or radically new ideas; in the end people can only change so much, and what the Romans left us was very much a reflection of what they were right from the start. They gave us roads, military strategy and a system of law and order born from empire building. What we sometimes forget, however, is that they also gave us the Roman Catholic Church, a church that would come to dominate all of Europe, until the Reformation of the 16th century eventually brought more change, allowing Protestantism and finally Secularism to flourish.
While Greek Stoicism, a philosophy based on virtue and self-knowledge, was on the rise, a man called Epicurus began to set out a more pragmatic approach to virtue. He lived in the third century BC, and he was among the last of the Greek philosophers to make his mark on Western civilisation. He is credited as having first raised the problem of evil, which argued against the existence of God. Because of this he is retrospectively called an atheist.
Epicurus also believed that pleasure was the only true happiness, and that we should turn our backs on the constraints of virtue. Do not covet what you cannot have, in other words, which is one way of avoiding disappointment. But what is interesting about Epicurus is the gulf he reveals between Greek and Roman thinking. With Epicurus we were still in the pre-Christian age. The gods had no real power; they existed as observers. They were not angry, and they did not condemn. How different to Roman thinking, which was superstitious in the extreme. The gods of pre-Christian Rome were the gods of Greece, but they had become vengeful, watchful and demanding. No Roman general would go to battle before the gods had been placated with an offering; no right-thinking Roman citizen would anger the gods by neglecting a ritual, and by the end of the Roman era, Rome had become stultified by its own fears, which were multi-faceted. There was fear of the gods, fear of failure and defeat, fear of other people and ultimately fear of what Rome had become: a cauldron of self interest and corruption.
Against this backdrop of fear, Constantine became the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. The rest of the Roman world would follow his lead, including the barbarians who would eventually plunder Rome in 410 AD. Gladiator arenas, which had witnessed the massacre of Christians and slaves, became used as places of Christian worship. It was, when you think about it, an incredible transformation, and it would affect philosophy in profound ways, essentially by moving it away from what had once been important to the Greeks: science, and moving it towards what now became important to everyone: virtue.
It was the Christ of the Christian Gospels that came to incarnate the Stoic principle of logos, which focussed on the importance of virtue for the individual. But Christianity would bring other things too, the Kingdom of Heaven for instance. The notion of life after death had been around for a long time, but Christianity brought a new dimension to the concept of eternity. In Greek philosophy eternity had been thought of as a dimension that existed beyond the physical body. Plato used the word Aeon to describe what he and others saw as a higher world of consciousness, a transcendent state of awareness to which we had to aspire if we were ever to attain ultimate wisdom. Other philosophies share this concept of a transcendent state but it was monotheism – the worship of one god only – that connected the idea of eternity with salvation or damnation more specifically. As a concept it was effective, but worrying, because it introduced the notion of divine punishment and the need for redemption, both of which had a major impact on societies all over the world through the idea of martyrdom.
The decline of the Roman Empire brought a new Age. The light the Greeks had nurtured gradually went out, and Europe was plunged into a darkness from which it only emerged some five hundred years later. This period is now known as The Dark Ages. But the legacy of the Greeks would not be lost in darkness forever. One day, the light of innovation would burn again. What would it show us next?
What happened to philosophy after the decline of the Ancient Greek world? Find out more in my new series starting next week: A Short History of Ideas
Read more about the Greeks and Western Christendom in
The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer, HERE
by Lucille Turner
A compelling tale of prophecy and intrigue
A novel about the life of Leonardo da Vinci