(An excerpt from Life Beyond the Sun: An Introduction to Worldview and Philosophy Through the Lens of Ecclesiastes) – Despite assertions that “any conflict between philosophy and theology must be apparent rather than real, the result of a misunderstanding,”[i] conflict endures nonetheless. Paul Tillich asks if there is a necessary conflict between the two and if there is a possible synthesis between them.[ii] He answers both questions negatively on grounds that the two stand on disparate bases. There is no necessary conflict as there is no common ground, at least methodologically between the two. For the same reason no synthesis can be had. They are decidedly distinct in that manner.

Whether or not one would accept en toto Tillich’s diagnosis is not a matter of import here, but rather the characterization of difference is significant. How can this variance in grounding be explained? Most assuredly it would seem that the answer lies in the origins and elementary components of both pursuits. The foundations of theology will not be expressed here but only to say that they must extend by definition beyond the purely material, lest the matter at hand become entirely superfluous and be of necessity relegated to discussions of human imagination possessing only aesthetic value as fiction or perhaps some therapeutic value. The effort here will be, on the other hand, given to discussion of causative factors in the rise of philosophy – and specifically that of Presocratic thinking. Once accomplished this can be elsewhere expanded to the end that roots of divergence between philosophy and theology are readily apparent. Yet in order to discuss in a comparative sense we must first have the sense of definition, and as Guthrie says by way of Aristotle, “the only complete definition is one which includes a statement of the cause.”[iii] Hence the centrality of the question: what caused philosophy?

As Guthrie suggests in his History of Greek Philosophy, the emergence of philosophy was not sudden, but rather was a gradual shift from pre-rational, mythic, and anthropomorphic perspectives to a more rational and scientific perception.[iv] This plodding yet measured development has been attributed to a number of influences including (1) the move itself from feudal society to urbanization, (2) the resultant increase in leisure of the citizenry, which allowed for more time for inquiry and intellectual pursuit, (3) increase in trade, which promoted heightened cultural interaction and impacted modes of thought, (4) the rise in literacy as result of directed use of leisure, and (5) a naturalistic drive which becomes more evident as the field develops. Each will be considered briefly here in an attempt to underscore the magnitude of their influence and perhaps understand that while a plurality of influences is likely a reality, there seems to be an underlying motivation which is not to be ignored.


From Feudal to Urban

As to how the shift from the rural to the urban occurred, there are divergent suggestions – e.g., Hanson understood the polis to be based in an egalitarian agricultural society,[v] while Snodgrass attributed the rise of the polis to the development of the military[vi] – yet despite uncertainty in primary causation, it is clear that the shift occurred nonetheless between the 7th-5th centuries B.C, and the result of the evolution can perhaps be summed up best by Morris’ characterization of the polis as “a complex hierarchical society built around the notion of citizenship.”[vii]

The provision for shared duties and responsibilities among citizens helped to establish the conditions for centralization, and centralization provided fertile ground for shared ideas. A sort of micro-globalization took place as commonality in resources, responsibilities, and ideas carried the citizenry toward new modes of thought, and these were influenced by naturalism, as these shared ideas brought a broader questioning of previous mythical bases. Guthrie points out that during these early days the materialism of the Greek polis offered a contrast to the foundations of other burgeoning civilizations in relation to attitudes toward the mythical:


…once the moment for this abandonment of mythological and theological modes of thought seemed to have come, its development was facilitated by the fact that neither here nor in any other Greek state was freedom of thought inhibited by the demands of a theocratic form of society such as existed in the neighbouring Oriental countries.[viii]


It is apparent that with a heightened degree of centralization in Greek society came an increase in naturalistic thinking, whereas the same cultural developments of centralization and shared ideas that were seemingly present in other (nearby) countries did not produce the same inclination toward naturalism. Thus, while the urban transfer provided the conditions for naturalistic philosophy, the result here was rather unique, albeit gradual in its arrival. Perhaps the result could be attributed primarily to something other than the simple reallocation of persons, resources, and ideas.


Appeal of Leisure

Aristotle had much to say on schole (leisure), indicating that he reckoned it to be prerequisite in setting the conditions for philosophical pursuit. He asserts that it is the primary principle, saying,


…nature herself, as has been often said, requires that we should be able, not only to work well, but to use leisure well; for, as I must repeat once again, the first principle of all action is leisure [emphasis mine]. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end[ix]


… leisure of itself gives pleasure and happiness and enjoyment of life, which are experienced, not by the busy man, but by those who have leisure.[x]


And ultimately he views it as prerequisite to, at least certain aspects of literacy:


…there are branches of learning and education which we must study merely with a view to leisure spent in intellectual activity, and these are to be valued for their own sake.…[xi]


Seneca echoes the Aristotelian sentiment, even asserting that


Of all men they alone are at leisure who take time for philosophy, they alone really live; for they are not content to be good guardians of their own lifetime only.[xii]


The preeminence of schole in Aristotle seems an appropriate diagnosis of his time, and Guthrie suggests Aristotle is correct in his assertion that disinterested intellectual activity (the work of philosophy) is indeed a product of leisure.[xiii] Guthrie further offers the words of both Aristotle and Hobbes in support of this conclusion:


Philosophy did not arise from a demand for the necessities or amenities of human life. Rather was the satisfaction of those demands a precondition of its existence. We may agree with Aristotle, who, after making his point that philosophy has its origin in wonder, adds: “History supports this conclusion, for it was after the provision of the chief necessities not only for life but for an easy life that the search for this intellectual satisfaction began”; as also in this matter with Hobbes, who said much the same thing: “Leisure is the mother of Philosophy; and Common-wealth, the mother of Peace and Leisure: Where first were great and flourishing Cities, there was first the study of Philosophy.”[xiv]


Note in particular Hobbes’ description of the Commonwealth as mother of peace and leisure. If it be so, then such events as the feudal-to-polis shift would have been prerequisite to the promulgation of leisure and of more import than the leisure itself inasmuch as that transfer provided the societal conditions under which leisure could exist. Leisure was most assuredly contributive, but perhaps not entirely causative, as that leisure could have been used for other pursuits. Still, the question of “why philosophy?” remains unanswered.


Trade in Ideas

With trade evident earlier in the Phoenecian culture, and if trade was indeed so impactful in providing opportunity for philosophy, then how to explain the blossoming of philosophy in the later arriving Greek culture? The answer to this question provides yet another indicator that cultural evolutions which provided the prerequisite conditions for the rise of philosophy must not be of necessity considered as causative to philosophy’s genesis. Nonetheless, trade is a key factor, and specifically here – trade in ideas.

Ancient Greek philosophy reflects an awareness of key ideas from other cultures. Guthrie describes the acquisition of this familiarity:


Milesians like all Ionians must have had plenty of opportunity of getting to know the Oriental mind. On the active side, these enterprising Greeks made journeys by land to Mesopotamia and by sea to Egypt; and the evidence all suggests that the first philosophers were no recluses, who shut themselves off from this ferment of their times.…[xv]


Thales, for example, had been to Egypt,[xvi] and also seemed to rely on Babylonian understandings of astronomy.[xvii] In Greek mathematical thinking Egyptian and Babylonian influences were recognized.[xviii] Notably this evidence of early trade in ideas shows some distinction, however, between the Greeks’ utilization of the ideas and that of the Egyptians and Babylonians, for example, in that the Greeks’ scope of inquiry reached new levels (as will be further discussed later, see Literacy alters the Dialogue).

The Greeks recognized, for example, that Egypt had much to offer – holding Egyptian culture and wisdom in higher regard than that of other cultures. Plato records in the Timaeus an illustrative encounter between Solon and an Egyptian priest:


A very old priest said to him, “Oh Solon, Solon, you Greeks are all children, and there’s no such thing as an old Greek…you are all young in mind…you have no belief rooted in old tradition and no knowledge hoary with age….with you and others, writing and the other necessities of civilization have only just been developed….”[xix]


The dialogue at this point indicates (1) the Greek respect for Egyptian ideas and culture, and (2) the interchange of (specifically cosmogonical here) ideas between the Egyptians and Greeks. But the conversation recorded here also gives rise to an appropriate question: if interchange of ideas was a reality, then can trade in ideas really be seen as causative for the development of philosophy? Perhaps a prerequisite observation would be that Egypt had opportunity to profit equally from idea sharing, and yet philosophy did not rise first in Egypt. For the Greeks, however, as trade increased so did their exposure to diverse and contrary accounts of cosmogony, for example. The Greek response was reasoned inquiry: questioning not only the imported accounts but those of their own traditions as well.

Literacy Alters the Dialogue

As mythos provided a vehicle for the proliferation of traditional narrative, it generally did so in poetic form. Interpreted thus as a mnemonic instrument, mythos was often in possession of a number of characteristics which granted it import and provided a profoundness as a mode of communication, and specifically a means of preserving tradition orally. Even as political thought developed in early Greek culture orality was still preeminent, as politics was in itself a type of oral tradition.

Although development of the Greek alphabet is traced from the eighth century BC, schooling in written texts does not appear until the sixth century BC in Ionia, but once it appeared it gained prominence, as Ford says,


Schooling in letters is first attested for Ionia in the later sixth century, but there has been a good deal of debate about how rapidly it spread and when paideia came to involve not only the traditional lyre teacher (kitharist¯es) but the letter teacher (grammatist¯es) as well. Havelock’s intellectual history led him to posit that elementary education in reading and writing became normalized in Athens somewhere between the childhood of Socrates and that of Plato (i.e., the 460s and 420s, respectively).But many point to the 480s, when Athenian vases begin to represent school scenes complete with tablets, styluses, and book rolls.…[xx]


Ford’s comments indicate two important elements: (1) While the date of formalized education is perhaps a bit unclear (anywhere from the 480’s-420’s BC), it nonetheless coincided with the rise of philosophy, and (2) that while initially emphasized in music, literacy, i.e., the written text, and more, formalized systems of education are evidenced by a number of archaeological sources. So we see the rise in literacy confirmed and coinciding with the rise of philosophy, but what of its impact?

There are two recent perspectives on the impact of literacy in ancient Greece: (1) the autonomous model (Havelock, Goody, Ong, etc.) which asserts literacy to be a tool causative of dramatic cultural impact in areas such as democracy and analytic thinking; and the opposing perspective, (2) the ideological model (Street, Stock, Carruthers), which sees literacy as being shaped by culture rather than offering shape to it.[xxi] The autonomous model would offer more support (seemingly) for literacy as causative, but the ideological model introduces doubt regarding literacy’s role as grounds for the birth of philosophy.

There is another pertinent variable in the discussion on literacy, and that is the Greeks’ inimitable use of it. While other cultures were also progressing in their own pursuits of literacy, the Greek’s use of literacy was not perhaps as utilitarian as that of other cultures, as Guthrie compares the Egyptian knowledge of fire as a useful tool with the Greeks inquiry as to the very substance of fire and why it functions as it does, noting that a significant step in literacy was taken by the Greek mode of thought.[xxii] More complex questions give rise to more complex answers, and thus require perhaps an unparalleled utilization of literacy which could only (as perhaps Guthrie might argue) have begun here. In order to maintain a certain philosophical spirit a certain aptitude for abstraction is required.[xxiii]

While it is inarguable that literacy provided very favorable conditions for engagement in philosophic inquiry (though such inquiry would not have been impossible previously), there is debate (notably autonomous vs. ideological) regarding its causative impact on philosophy.


Naturalistic Drive

To what did the earliest philosophical inquiries attend? Notably, causation was an immediate focus. How could the cosmos be explained? To what did the cosmos owe its existence, its function, its order? Could the eruption of lightning be attributed to the anger of Zeus? Or was there a different wizard behind the curtain?[xxiv] Guthrie also sees causation as relevant to the early discussion:


The gradual emergence into consciousness of the problem of the first cause of motion, bound up as it is with that of the relation between matter and life, is one of the main threads to be followed in an exposition of Presocratic thought.[xxv]


Guthrie describes even more directly the birthing moment of Greek philosophy as that moment when


The conviction began to take shape in men’s minds that the apparent chaos of events must conceal an underlying order, and that this order is the product of impersonal forces.[xxvi]


Although he does admit that while philosophy began with the pronouncement of the teleological, it did not fully abandon mythical conceptions – and has not done so even to this day.[xxvii] It can be ascertained that while, especially at the earliest moments, Greek philosophy maintained a degree of connection with the mythical framework of mainstream Greek theology[xxviii] the prevailing intellectual motivation appeared to be the search for impersonal forces as causative. Sahakian describes the efforts of the early Greek thinkers:


The Ionian philosophers set for themselves the task of ascertaining the nature of substance, of cosmic matter, of the very stuff out of which the entire universe is composed.[xxix]


Initial inquiry was directed toward providing explanation for the appearance of reality, and indeed, even seeking the reality behind the appearance. Wells discusses Platonic thought as emblematic of the times and type of inquiry, characterizing ancient Greek thought as challenging traditional interpretations and thus impacting how mankind was to live. This kind of thinking was


…a landmark in this history; it is a new thing in the development of mankind, this appearance of the idea of willfully and completely recasting human conditions. So far mankind has been living by traditions under the fear of the gods. Here is a man [Plato] who says boldly to our race, and as if it were a quite reasonable and natural thing to say, “Take hold of your lives. Most of the things that distress you, you can avoid; most of these things that dominate you, you can overthrow. You can do as you will with them.”[xxx]


As evidenced by the curious univocality (in regard to the content of inquiry not the results) of the early Greek thinkers, demonstrable by their commitment to natural philosophy – at least until Socrates, it seems as though the most definitive characteristic of ancient Greek thought was the pursuit and emergence of a naturalistic world view whereby the cosmos could be explained in terms of both (to differing degrees) the rational and the empirical, to the exclusion of the mystical. This represented a colossal redirect in Greek culture as the mythological record and the pantheon became less and less relevant, giving way to an increasingly secular approach.


Philosophy vs. Theology?

While each of these perspectives offers somewhat convincing explanations prima facie, it is perhaps most likely that the justification for the rise in philosophy is not an either/or proposition exclusively, but that instead each of the elements discussed worked cooperatively in providing a context in which philosophic inquiry could thrive uniquely as it had not had opportunity to do in previous cultures and eras. It does however seem that if there is to be a primary causation that it should be linked to a naturalistic drive, as this seems a most internal element of motive, implying greater force in causation over the other factors which must be reckoned as external – albeit no less than magnificently important to setting the conditions – to the pursuit itself. In short, the naturalistic drive seems a moral principle whereas the others are in greater part descriptive.

If this be an accurate assessment, then what of interconnectedness? Jean Grandin speaks of a “new proximity between theology and philosophy,” appealing to the previous desirability of interactions between the two as a model for future sharing of inquiry.[xxxi]

Tillich’s view on the possibility of synthesis seems to counter Grandin’s hopeful assessment, causing one to wonder if indeed naturalistic drive as primary cause of philosophic origin eliminates the possibility of a theological impact on philosophy. Yet this writer is not willing to concede that the initial (and in many senses, ongoing) motivating factors which contributed in large part to the genesis of a particular class of thought (philosophy) also require a grounding of methodology untouchable by theology and theological perspective. Naturalistic drive has inarguably given impetus in the development (or to some, the debasement) of inquiry, yet it needs not necessarily find within itself the resolution. In short, despite divergence in origin and motivation, there is an interconnectedness to be seen between philosophy and theology, as can be illustrated by question and answer. Questions may be provided in one context and may be answered in yet another. If the conflict between philosophy and theology then arises from disparate foundations, is interaction between the two impossible? Is that which is philosophical non-theological, and is that which is theological non-philosophical? No, on all counts.

First, it seems there should be sharp distinction between causation and content – between motivation and result. If indeed the motivation for philosophy historically is grounded purely in the naturalistic, the content of philosophic inquiry need not necessarily be. Second, both philosophical and theological can be enhanced by the process of testing at the hands of the other. Both pursuits ought to avoid prejudice and fear of interaction. As philosophy’s naturalism – chance and necessity, resultant cosmogonies and ethical systems – should be unafraid in the face of theological critiques, so theology’s metaphysical groundings should fear no challenge from philosophy’s sometimes rationalistic and sometimes empirical critiques. Theology can learn much from critiques offered from philosophy. Perhaps much error is maintained on both sides by an unwillingness to suffer such criticism. Third, too many intersections have historically been unearthed than can be ignored. It is not coincidence that most philosophy compendiums and readers will consider theological texts, and that epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics, at least, inextricably connect the two disciplines. This interconnectedness has historically been so strong that to some degree it is difficult to calculate where theology ends and philosophy begins and where, if at all, each discipline restricts the other.

Finally, it seems that philosophy and theology are of the same kind – not in presupposition or conclusion, but rather in that the legitimacy of both are tied to previous faith commitments, as is evidenced by the respective handling of that which seems (at least) beyond human capacity for understanding – either by the rational or the empirical. Thomas Aquinas, illustrates from a theological perspective this kind of presuppositional commitment, saying,


…although things which are beyond human knowledge are not to be sought by man through reason, such things are revealed by God, and are to be accepted by faith.[xxxii]


Harvard Research Professor Richard Lewontin, from perhaps an extreme naturalistic perspective illustrates the same kind of commitment, yet with a dramatically different conclusion:


Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenological world, but on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.[xxxiii]


Lewontin’s commentary here brings to mind the Presocratic attempts at explaining the cosmos. Initially they were grounded at least to some degree in mythos, and swiftly became almost exclusively naturalistic. Assuming the commitment is based on an appropriate grounding it would be expected that progress resultant from increased abilities in the science (and art) of inquiry would draw us closer to better understanding not just the world around us but also existence itself. However, if that condition of prior commitment (materialism) is not reliable, then interpretations not shared by philosophy, science, and theology can be called into question, and hence arrives the importance of the interconnectedness between philosophy and theology. The debate perhaps should not be primarily about method, but rather about the legitimacy of prior commitments and presuppositions.

[i] Erwin Fahlbusch & Geoffrey William Bromiley, The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 198.

[ii] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 1:26.

[iii] W.K.C. Guthrie, The History of Greek Philosophy Vol. I: The Earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 38.

[iv] Ibid., 1.

[v] Victor Davis Hanson, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (New York: Free Press, 1995), 3.

[vi] Anthony Snodgrass, “Archeology and the study of the Greek city,” in City and Country in the Ancient World, eds. Rich and Wallace-Hadrill (London: Routledge, 1992), 19.

[vii] Ian Morris, “The early polis as city and state,” in City and Country in the Ancient World, 26.

[viii] Guthrie, Vol. I, 30.

[ix] Aristotle, Politics, Jowett (trans.),1337a31.

[x] Ibid., 1338a1.

[xi] Ibid., 1338a8.

[xii] Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae, XIV, 1-2. J. W. Basore (trans.) Loeb Classical Library, Vol. 254, 333.

[xiii] Guthrie, 35.

[xiv] Ibid., 31.

[xv] Ibid., 32.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid., 33.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Plato, Timaeus, trans. Desmond Lee, 21-23.

[xx] Andrew Ford, “From Letter to Literature: Reading the ‘Song’ of Ancient Greece,” in Written Texts and the Rise of Literate Culture in Ancient Greece, ed. Harvey Yunis (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 24.

[xxi] James T. Chambers, “Review of Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece by Rosalind Thomas, (New York: Cambridge, 1992),” in History of Reading News, XIX/1 (Fall, 1995).

[xxii] Guthrie, 36.

[xxiii] Ibid., 38.

[xxiv] shamelessly anachronistic reference to the Wizard of Oz.

[xxv] Guthrie, 7.

[xxvi] Ibid., 26.

[xxvii] Ibid., 44.

[xxviii] E.g., Thales characterization of water or moisture as arche.

[xxix] William S. Sahakian, History of Philosophy: From the Earliest Times to the Present (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1968), 1.

[xxx] H.G. Wells, The Outline of History (Garden City, NY: Garden City Books, 1949), 1:331-332.

[xxxi] Paru dans A. Wiercinski (Dir.), Between the Human and the Divine. Philosophical and Theological Hermeneutics (Toronto, CA: The Hermeneutic Press, 2002), 97-101.

[xxxii] Thomas Aquinas, On Nature and Grace, ed. A.M. Fairweather (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1954), 36.

[xxxiii] Richard Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons”, New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997.

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