Glad Tidings for Philosophers
Dr. Clark Carlton · January 1, 2010
Clark explains how Greek philosophy and Christian theology share the exact same Logos.
Today’s topic is “Glad Tidings for Philosophers.”
As we are in the midst of the Nativity season, with those of us on the new calendar having just celebrated the feast, and those on the Julian calendar getting ready to celebrate it, I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at the first chapter of John.
In the West, this reading is actually appointed for Christmas Day. In the Orthodox tradition, of course, this is the reading for Pascha. This is significant because of the many ways in which these two great feasts are intertwined. Indeed, our services for the Nativity are largely patterned after those of Pascha. Some of you may be familiar with Fr. Thomas Hopko’s book of Advent meditations called The Winter Pascha. Given these connections, it is meet and right that we should consider the prologue to John during this festive season.
“In the beginning was the Word,” or in Greek en archē ēn o logos. I want to take us much further back than the 1st century A.D. The first verse of the Septuagint, that is the Greek Old Testament, reads,en archē theos—“in the beginning, God”. Now, any Hellenized Jew familiar with the Septuagint, upon reading the opening of John’s Gospel, would have recognized immediately just what John was up to. John 1:1 is a commentary on Genesis 1:1 in the light of the coming of Christ—“In the beginning, God”—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
But there is more in the background to this passage, however, than God’s revelation to Israel. We need to go back to the 6th century B.C., to a little town on the Ionian coast called Miletus. There we find a fellow named Thales who made a name for himself by being the first person, that we know of anyway, to predict an eclipse. According to Aristotle, Thales was the first philosopher. He was what we might call today a “natural philosopher”, that is, he was primarily concerned with the way nature works. In fact, we could just as well call him “The First Natural Scientist in the West.”
Significantly, for the development of Western science, Thales believed that everything that existed could be traced back to one primary source, one ultimate principal, and he called this source the archē which we have just learned is the Greek word for “source,” “origin,” or “beginning.”
Now Thales and those who followed him disagreed about what this archē was. Thales thought it was water, but they all agreed that there was one primal source of all things. Incidentally, this search for primal simplicity is still with us today in the quest for a unified field theory. Well, by the time we get to Socrates toward the end of the 5th century, philosophy starts to head off in a different direction. Socrates tells us that, as a young man, he too was interested in natural philosophy but he quickly became bored with it. Instead, he turned his gaze inward, taking up the challenge of the Delphic oracle “to know thyself.”
Thus, we see philosophy in the great tradition flowing off into two distinct streams—natural philosophy, the forerunner to natural science, and anthropological philosophy aimed at self-knowledge. Some philosophers, of course, tried to balance the two—Aristotle comes to mind. But I want to focus on the Stoics who managed to create both a universe encompassing physics and at the same time a highly developed psychology and morality. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the Stoics were able to create their psychology and morality because of their physics.
One caveat here at the outset. Stoic physics tends to be more theoretical than practical. So, when I say that they combine these two streams of philosophy, don’t picture the Stoics wearing lab coats and doing experiments. But, of course, even today there are marked differences between the more theoretical fields like physics and cosmology and fields such as chemistry and biology.
Now, the Stoics too believed in an archē—an original principle. For them, this archē governs the entire universe. They had many names for it. They called it Zeus, fire, etc. However, the most important of these names was logos. And as I am sure you know, logos has many meanings in Greek—word, speech, reason, science, rationality, etc. The Stoic use of the word implies pretty much the whole range of meanings. Because the cosmos is shot through with logos, in fact it pretty much is logos, everything that happens happens for a reason. Human happiness is to be found in being in harmony with this universal reason.
This in turn led the Stoics to create a very sophisticated psychology, particularly in regard to making judgments about sensory impressions. The Desert Fathers borrowed liberally from Stoic psychology. And, truthfully, just about the only real advancements in psychology from the Stoics until the modern period were made in those desert cells.
But what I want to emphasize is the fact that the logos holds everything together for the Stoics. It not only binds and directs the cosmos—it binds man to the cosmos and man to his fellow men, since the human soul is a spark of the universal logos.
Now I said that any Jew familiar with the Septuagint would have immediately understood the importance of the prologue to John’s Gospel, while anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with Greek philosophy would have immediately seen a whole other set of connections—en archē ēn o logos. You know, John’s Greek is not very good. That is to say it isn’t very sophisticated. The Gospel has been ridiculed for its simplicity and rusticity ever since he wrote it. And yet, when we step back to look at the structure of John’s Gospel as a whole, we can only marvel.
John was a literary genius. Here, we have him speaking to two very different audiences at the same time and in the same way. But the message is one and the same. The Creator of the Jews and the logos of the philosophers is one—one archē, one origin, one beginning. “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God” (John 1:1).
But John goes on to tell us—“and the logos became flesh and tabernacled among us” (John 1:14). This is the glad tidings of the Nativity—to the Jew first and then to the Gentile. This is no far off God or impersonal force, but a God who becomes a part of his own creation for the salvation of the creatures made in his image. It is Christ, the Word made man, who spoke the cosmos into being and holds it together. It is Christ, the perfect Image of the Father, in whose image we have been created. Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One. Angels with shepherds glorify him. The wise men journey with a star. Since, for our sake, the pre-eternal God is born as a little child.
One final comment about John. How did this rustic, Palestinian Jew become such a literary genius given his obvious limitations with the Greek language? Well, John himself gives us the answer—“and the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we beheld his glory—the glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Remember, we have said that a theologian is one who has beheld the glory of God and who speaks, as it were, from within that vision. John’s literary genius is not an expression of human ability, but the product of his vision of the uncreated glory of Christ. He speaks of the logos, because he has beheld the glory of the incarnate logos. May God grant us the ears to hear his words that we might too share in his vision. Christ is born! Glorify him!
And now may our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who was born for us and for our salvation, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska and the blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov have mercy upon us all and grant us a rich entrance into his eternal kingdom.