The Origins of Christianity
by Revilo P. Oliver
Professor of the Classics, Retired; University of Illinois, Urbana
MONOTHEISM is a quite unusual form of religion and one which creates difficulties for even its most adroit theologians. If it is a theism, its god must be a superhuman person, conscious and accessible to his votaries. Thus religions which posit an impersonal force, such as the Classical Fatum or the Hindu’s impersonal Brahma (neuter), as the supreme power in the universe are excluded, as are all forms of pantheism which assume that the whole universe is a living but unconscious entity that cannot properly be called a god. And if the theism is mono, the God must be actually supreme and therefore omnipotent, although he need not be the only supernatural being in the universe. Men cannot readily imagine a hermit god, so viable monotheisms suppose a god who is indeed absolute master, but has his retinue of associates, companions, and servants who obey him and carry out his orders. But he must be supreme: all other gods must be thought of as his agents, and no other god can be represented as his rival and enemy. That, of course, rules out Christianity for the greater part of its history and as described in its Holy Book, which provides the Christian god with a rival god, Satan, and assumes that the two gods are slugging it out for mastery now, although it is predicted that one of them will eventually triumph. In quite recent years the clergy of most Christian sects have joined in killing off the Devil to make their religion a monotheism, so that, as an eminent Catholic theologian, Father Jacques Turmel, complained in the work which hepublished in an English translation under the pseudonym Louis Coulange, "Satan ... is now like the Son of Man, of whom the Gospel tells us that He had nowhere to lay His head." But so long as Christianity supposed the existence of a god and an anti-god, it was a ditheism, and that only on the assumption that its tripartite god counted as one and that the anti-god was the sovereign of all other gods, such as Jupiter, Apollo, Venus, and Dionysus, a point on which some of the early Fathers of the Church could not quite make up their minds.
The invention of monotheism is generally credited to Ikhnaton (Akh-en-Aton), a deformed and half-mad king, who ruled (and almost ruined), Egypt from c.1369 to 1354 B.C., and who cannot have been worthy of his lovely wife, Nefertiti, whom he later so hated that he erased her name from their joint monuments. His portraits show that he suffered from some disease or malformation that produced an enormously distended belly and heavy hips that are in painful contrast to his asthenic limbs and torso. He was a mongrel. His grandmother was a blonde Aryan, perhaps Nordic, princess, whose skull and hair attest her race. His father’s features may show some admixture of Semitic blood; the race of his round-faced mother is uncertain: she could have been an octoroon or even a quadroon; and his own protruding negroid lips attest a considerable black taint in his blood, while his oddly shaped jaw shows some clash of incompatible genes. A mind so divided against itself genetically must have matched the distortion of his body. It is quite certain that he venerated Aton, the solar disk, as the supreme god, and we must grant that heliolatry is a quite rational monotheism, since the sun is obviously the source of all life on earth. Whether the king admitted the existence of other and subordinate gods is a question on which Egyptologists are divided, but not, as we have indicated above, crucial to his claim to be the first monotheist. There is greater uncertainly as to whether the religious innovation should be credited to his father, Amenhotep III, with whom he may have ruled jointly for a few years.
Ikhnaton’s religion, for which he convulsed Egypt and forfeited her empire, must have been well-known to the contemporary Aryans on Crete and in the Mycenaean territories elsewhere, but there is no indication that they were in the least impressed by his monotheism. Some have conjectured that a tradition about him may have reached the Jews, who however, show no tendency toward monotheism until more than a millennium later, when they had quite different models before them.
The first Aryan known as a monotheist was Xenophanes (born c. 570 B.C., died c.470). He certainly repudiated the anthropomorphic gods of polytheism and posited one god, spherical because that is the perfect form, eternal, and unchanging; but we are also told that the god was an infinite sphere and identical with the universe. Now, was the universe conscious, and could men, whom Xenophanes thought the products of a kind of chemical reaction between earth and water, pray to the vast being of which they were an infinitesimal part? There is no evidence that Xenophanes thought they could, and I do not see how one could imagine that a man could attract the attention of the universe. Even assuming that Xenophanes thought of the universe as a living being (which, of course, is not unchanging), can we imagine one cell in our bodies as praying to us? My guess is that what has been called "the only true monotheism that has ever existed in the world" was, strictly speaking, atheism.* If there are no gods whom men can ask to intervene in human affairs, it is simply an abuse of language to call an impersonal, inexorable force ‘god.’ Xenophanes was certainly one of the great men in whom our race may legitimately take pride, but I do not see how we can properly term him a monotheist, although he may have influenced later Greeks to accept a monotheism.
* Xenophanes is known only from brief quotations, paraphrases, and allusions in later writers, and there are endless controversies about many points; he was a gentleman and a poet who wrote drinking songs with conventional allusions to gods, which some determined theists would take seriously. By far the best criticism and summation of the evidence known to me is in the first volume of W. K. C. Guthrie’s History of Greek Philosophy (Cambridge University, 1962).
The spread of Stoicism in the Graeco-Roman world is one of the most remarkable phenomena of history. Many have remarked on the paradox that a Semite, a Phoenician merchant in the export trade, who went to Athens on business and happened to attend lectures by one of the Cynic philosophers and who could not speak grammatically correct Greek, should have set himself up as a philosopher in his own right and, despite his alien features and tongue, attracted a large following of Greeks. And there is the greater paradox that a doctrine which inspired the subversive agitations and revolutionary outbreaks that Robert von Pöhlmann identified as ancient Communism should have become the philosophy of the most conservative Romans. The first paradox may be explained by the fact that when Zeno went to Athens in the second half of the fourth century B.C., Greece was in the midst of a prolonged economic crisis and culturally demoralized, and many of the citizens felt the morbid fascination with the exotic and alien that in our time gave prominence to "soulful" Russians and Hindu swamis. As for the second paradox, Zeno’s successors so modified his doctrine that Panaetius, a Greek from Rhodes, was able to transform it into a philosophy that was attractive to Roman minds.†
† I need not say that I am making generalizations, which I believe valid, about a doctrine that had a long and complicated history and was represented by a great many writers and teachers, who introduced various modifications of the doctrine with, of course, endless controversies. The most systematic and complete study of Stoicism is in German: Max Pohlenz, Die Stoa (Göttingen, 2 vols., 1948). The modest little book by Professor Edwyn Bevan, Stoics and Sceptics (London, 1913), can be read with enjoyment as well as profit.
Stoicism became for several centuries the dominant philosophy of educated men in the Graeco-Roman world for four principal reasons.1. It claimed to be based exclusively on the observed realities of the physical world and to "follow nature," and to reject all superstitions about the supernatural. This claim was reinforced by studies of natural phenomena, such as the causes of the tides, undertaken by a few of the prominent Stoics.Stoicism, which was embraced by the majority of educated and influential men to the time of Marcus Aurelius and the twilight of human reason, was a philosophy, not a religion: it had no mysteries, no revelations, no gospels, no temples, no priests, no rituals, no ceremonies, no worship. But nevertheless, this eminently "respectable" doctrine, which extended its influence deep into the masses, was a monotheism.
2. A claim to be based strictly on reason, with no concessions to religious mysticism, and this claim was supported by a very elaborate system of logic and dialectics by which every proposition could infallibly be deduced from observed phenomena, thus providing complete certainty and satisfying minds, that could not be content with a high degree of probability, which is all that epistemological limitations permit us to attain.
3. It provided social stability by guaranteeing the essentials of the accepted code of morality and stigmatizing all derogations from that code as irrational and unnatural.
4. What was most important to the Roman mind, Stoicism (as revised by Panaetius) was the one philosophy which encouraged and even enjoined men to take an active part in political life and devote themselves to service of the state and nation. Patriotism and the morality that makes great statesmen and generals were disparaged by some other philosophical systems, especially the Cyrenaic, Cynic, and Epicurean, and virtually disregarded by the New Academy, which anticipated the methodology of modern science and represents the intellectual high tide of of Graeco-Roman civilization, but demanded a rationalism and cool objectivity of which only the best minds are capable. Everyone who has read Cicero’s De natura deorum will remember how he was taken by surprise when Cicero, in the very last paragraph, pronounces in favor of the Stoic position, although Cicero was himself an Academic and, furthermore, cannot have failed to see which of the arguments he has summarized was the most reasonable. In that last sentence the statesman silenced the philosopher with a raison d’état.
The Stoics claimed that the universe (which, remember, was for them the earth with its appurtenances, the sun, moon, and stars that circled about it) was a single living organism of which God was the brain, the animus mundi. This cosmic mind ordained and controlled all that happened, so that Fate, the nexus of cause and effect (heimarmene),was actually the same as divine Providence (pronoia). This animus mundi, which they usually called Zeus and which some of them located in the sun, was conscious and had thoughts and purposes incomprehensible to men, who could only conform to them. Their Zeus, who, of course, was not anthropomorphic, was the supreme god, perhaps the only god. Few, however, were willing to spurn a compromise with the prevalent religions, and they accordingly admitted the probable existence of the popular gods as subordinates of Zeus, an order of living beings superior to men and more or less anthropomorphic, who were parts of the Divine Plan. They accordingly explained the popular beliefs and myths as allegories by twisting words and manipulating ideas with a sophistic ingenuity that made them expert theologians. Having made this concession to the state cults and popular superstitions, the Stoics insist that a wise man will perceive that the various gods which seem real to the populace are all really aspects of the animus mundi, and that there really is only One God.
Cleanthes, Zeno’s disciples and successor at Athens, is best known for the eloquent prayer, commonly called a hymn, addressed to the One God, which begins "Lead me on, 0 Zeus!" After speaking of the majesty of the Universal Mind, he assures Zeus that he will follow willingly whithersoever the god leads him, but adds that if he were unwilling, it would make no difference, for he would be compelled to follow. This, of course, is simply Seneca’s oft-quoted line, Ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt with which, by the way, Spengler appropriately concluded his Untergang des Abendlandes. It makes excellent sense because we recognize in fata the inexorable nexus of cause and effect in the real world. We are taken aback when we find it addressed to a god, who presumably can hear the prayer, and are then assured that Divine Providence has so unalterably arranged the sequence of events that what is destined will occur anyway. A sensible man will immediately ask, Why pray, if the prayer can make no difference?
The Stoics have an answer. Good and evil, pain and pleasure, are only in the mind, and what makes the difference is your attitude toward events: it would be wrong as well as futile to resist the Divine Plan, no matter what it ordains for you. The only important thing is the maintenance of your moral integrity, and so long as you do that, events have no power over you. They even insist that a wise man, conscious of his moral integrity, would be perfectly happy, even if he were being boiled in oil. So far as I know, this proposition was never tested empirically, although intelligent men must often have thought that it would be an interesting experiment to put Chrysippus or some other prominent Stoic in the pot to ascertain whether the boiling oil would alter his opinion.
The Stoics insisted that since all things happen "according to Nature," i.e., Providence, there can be no evil or injustice in the world. To maintain this paradox, they had to devise various arguments, usually packed into a long sequence of apparently logical propositions, spiced with endlessly intricate definitions, some of which were mere verbal trickery that passed unnoticed in the harangue. The most plausible proposition was a claim that whatever seems unjust or wrong to us is only part of a whole which we do not see. It may be simplified by the analogy that lungs or livers considered by themselves are ugly, but may form necessary parts of a beautiful woman.
The Stoics thus constructed a theodicy that was satisfactory to them. They were, of course, intellectuals busy, as usual, with excogitating arguments to override common sense.
What we have said will suffice to show how the Stoics made monotheism an eminently respectable creed. It became the hall mark of Big Brains.
There is much truth in an observation made by Professor Gilbert Murray in his well-known Five Stages of Greek Religion. Reporting the anecdote that an impressionable Greek,who had attended lectures by the Aristotelians and then heard the Stoics, said that his experience was like turning from men to gods, Murray remarks: "It was really turning from Greeks to Semites, from philosophy to religion." It is true that we know that Zeno and a few other Stoics were Semites and we suspect that quite a few others were, or perhaps were hybrids, half-Greek and half from some one of the pullulent peoples of Asia Minor that Alexander’s conquests had Hellenized, but the fact is that their doctrine did enlist Aryans (there is no reason to suppose that Panaetius was not of our race) and was unsuspiciously accepted by a majority of the Greeks and Romans of the educated classes. That is what gave it prestige.
Stoicism, furthermore, was not merely an alien ideology foisted on credulous Aryans. It contained elements congenial to our racial psyche. Professor Günther has observed that Aryans "have always tended to raise the power of destiny above that of the gods," and cites the belief in an impersonal, inexorable Moros, Fatum, Wyrd, to which we referred above. This was approximated by the Stoics’ animus mundi with its immutable Providence. Aryans accept the reality of the visible, tangible world of nature and instinctively reject the festering Semitic hatred of this world. "Never," says Günther, "have Indo-Europeans [= Aryans] imagined to become more religious when a ‘beyond’ claimed to release them from ‘this world,’ which was devalued to a place of sorrow, persecution, and salvation." Here again the Stoic belief that this world is the only one and that all things happen "according to nature" was consonant with our race’s mentality. The Aryan belief in the unalterable nexus of cause and effect does not lead to the passive slavish fatalism, kismet, of Islam, but fate is, instead, a reality that the Aryan accepts manfully: "The very fact of being bound to destiny has from the beginning proved to be the source of his spiritual existence." Thus the healthy Aryan "cannot even wish to be redeemed from the tension of his destiny-bound life," and Günther quotes Schopenhauer: "A happy life is impossible; the highest to which man can attain is an heroic course of life." The Aryan ideal, Günther continues, is the hero who "loftily understands the fate meeting him as his destiny, remains upright in the midst of it, and, is thus true to himself." Compare the Stoic insistence that the maintenance of one’s moral integrity is the highest good. The fatalism may seem passive, but Stoicism was in practice the creed of Cato of Utica and many another Roman aristocrat who lived heroically and died proudly, meeting his fate with unflinching resolution.
Stoicism was founded and to a considerable extent promoted by Semites, and although it included, by chance or design, much that was in conformity with the Aryan spirit and mentality, it was hybrid, a bastard philosophy, for it also contained much that was Semitic and alien to our race. As Gilbert Murray remarked, it had a latent fanaticism in its religiosity and it professed to offer a kind of Salvation to unhappy mankind; despite its ostentatious appeal to nature and reason, it was a kind of evangelism "whose professions dazzled the reason." It professed to deduce from biology an asceticism that was in fact fundamentally inhuman and therefore irrational, e.g., the limitation of sexual intercourse to the begetting of offspring. Although it was the creed of heroes, we cannot but feel that there was in it something sickly and deformed.
Stoicism, furthermore, was an intellectual disaster. It carried with it the poisonous cosmopolitanism that talks about "One World" and imagines that Divine Providence has made all human beings part of the Divine Plan, so that there are no racial differences, but only differences in education and understanding of the Stoics’ Truth. That is why we today so often do not know the race of an individual who had learned to speak and write good Greek (or Latin) and had been given, or had adopted, a civilized name. Our sources of information were so bemused by vapid verbiage about the Brotherhood of Man that they forgot to discriminate.
Professor Murray is right in saying that Stoicism was basically a religion, but it was so wrapped in layer after layer of speciously logical and precise discourse and required so much intellectual effort to understand its complexities that it was considered a philosophy. And I think we may accept it as such on the basis of one criterion: it had no rituals or ceremonies and it had no priests. That is an important point to which we shall return later.
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Copyright ©1999 Kevin Alfred Strom. Back to Revilo P. Oliver Index