“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”—Genesis 1:1-2
“Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of all.”—Hesiod, Theogony
“Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him.—Hesiod, Theogony
“Tiamat made weighty her handiwork,
Evil she wrought against the gods her children.”—The Enuma Elish, Second Tablet
In this, the second decade of the 21st century, most of us seeking spiritual knowledge are aware that most civilizations possess a cosmogony, or a “birth story,” and realize that we are no longer limited to Genesis. It should already be apparent, however, that Genesis evokes peaceful imagery when one compares it to the Enuma Elish of Mesopotamia or Hesiod’s Theogony (see above); but our discussion of the Judeo-Christian religion(s) will come in the next article. For now, make note of the quotation from Hesiod above,for it is to the Theogony that we now turn.
Today, I will briefly cover a small handful of the orthopraxic (“right-practice”) religious rituals and stories of the ancient Greeks and then cover Socrates and Plato and their philosophies in more detail. Readers may find that the philosophical notions set down by Plato will be especially influential on early Christian thought. I will conclude the article with a brief overview of the conquests of Alexander the Great and the legacies he left behind for the world.
Ancient Greek “Religion”
Prometheus at right and Atlas at left
The ancient Greeks did not care very much for personal conviction. Hamartia, the Greek word for “missing the mark,” was often wielded as a verbal weapon by the tight-knit city-states and hurled at an individual who thought himself beyond reproach; this was especially potent if that individual believed that they knew what was best for everyone else. Another word, hubris, meant “excessive pride” and was also used to the same end. Already we see two features of Greek religion: cautiousness and humility. We should say that these were the ideal features of Greek religion, and that the reason we see words like hamartia and hubris was due to the fact that not many Greeks exhibited those virtues. Like Iran, Israel, India, and China before it, Greece began with superstitious, highly ritualized beliefs and practices that gradually became more moralistic and refined. In the beginning of time, there was Chaos and Gaia; then these gods produced their own minor gods because they were estranged and could not associate. Even the Greek birth story was marked by strife, and as we shall see, hamartia and hubris. In order to explain the common “what goes around comes around” phenomenon, the Greeks conceived of the Erinyes, or “Furies,” who haunted and hunted a transgressor who was tainted with miasma, the Greek conception of “sin.” Through Hesiod, a 7th century shepherd and poet, the Greeks conceived the gods—literally and figuratively. In his Theogony, which literally means “birth of the gods,” Hesiod tells one story about the titan Prometheus which is of particular importance, both then and now. Prometheus’ story also exhibits the two qualities of Greek religion above: cautiousness and humility–or at least the need for them! Prometheus’s story may have brought about the words hamartia and hubris, in fact. In Prometheus, bringer of fire and food, mankind saw its greatest model for what to do and what not to do. Prometheus challenged the established order for—what he thought—the good of all mankind, but the Greeks taught that we need to be cautious and avoid “missing the mark,” which is exactly what Prometheus ended up doing. Even here the Greeks were critical of their savior Prometheus: he stood like a sentinel with an outstretched hand to all Greeks who wanted to challenge the status quo in order to bring some new cosmic order. Prometheus had shown hamartia—he had “missed the mark” in stealing the best meat for men and then fire from Zeus. Prometheus had set aside the meat from a sacrifice between the gods and men in the Golden Age (the first age of mankind) and gave Zeus the bones wrapped in fat. This forced Zeus’ hand; he took away fire to make us suffer for Prometheus’ act of hubris. So Prometheus stole it back, and for that, he was chained to a pillar and suffered an eagle to peck out his liver every day so that every night it would regenerate only to bring about the same punishment the next day—eternally. Did Prometheus “miss the mark” or had he hit the bull’s-eye? The Greeks were ambivalent about Prometheus and wary of any that followed in his footsteps. Do we play it safe and accept our lot that has been meted out by the gods or challenge them, the Greeks asked. The story of Prometheus helped the Greeks understand the nature of the gods and mankind and helped them understand the mysteries of the human experience.
Other significant Greek heroes suffered the same fate. Look at Achilles, Homer’s anti-hero from his Iliad, who sought personal kleos, or “glory,” and set it above the survival of the community. Achilles pouted in a tent for some time and refused to fight for his fellow countrymen because Agamemnon seized a young woman, which was Achilles’ prize of war. This was hamartia and hubris. A Spartan poet named Tyrtaios, writing c. 600 B.C.E. wrote “This is excellence, this the finest possession of men….when a man stands firm and remains unmoved in the front rank and forgets all thought of disgraceful flight steeling his spirit and heart to endure and with words encourages the man standing next to him” (Armstrong, 171, emphasis my own). Here we see a break with the egotism of the past and begin to see the Greeks thinking about the community. We saw this in China and India with Confucius and Buddha and their teachings about ren and nibbana; Confucius had taught that in order to enlarge oneself, we must enlarge others, and Buddha taught his students to cultivate their mind to find friendship and love for all living things. The Greeks, Chinese, and Indians share only the shift from individual–>community in common; how they expressed it was an entirely different story.
The Greeks slowly began to externalize the suffering and tragedy that they suffered from their ancestors during the 6th century B.C.E. “Above all, tragedy put suffering on stage,” writes Armstrong of the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—all close contemporaries living between 525 and 405 B.C.E. She goes on to say the “Greeks firmly believed that the sharing of grief and tears created a valuable bond between people,” just as we had seen above with Tyrtaios’ poetry (Armstrong, 269). The Greeks will call the act of recreating suffering on stage mimesis, or “imitation,” and the release experienced after enduring this imitation catharsis, or “release/renewal.” Unlike the Buddhists who internalized their suffering and crafted it into love and compassion, the Greeks externalized their experiences through recreations in order to put the human-being on trial, in a sense. How can we learn from our experiences? Why do we suffer? The Greeks accepted that life was suffering, and in that regard, they are aligned with Buddha’s First Noble Truth: all life is dukkha, or suffering. The Greeks were more similar to prophet Isaiah: they saw the hand of god or the gods in the experiences of mortals and they accepted that there was a bequeathed law given by Yahweh or Zeus that to live was to learn to accept and cope with suffering. Yahweh punished the Northern Kingdom of Israel to show them that he was upset and wounded that after all he had done for them, they went back to worshiping false gods; god’s mouthpiece had been Isaiah for this. In Greece, Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and The Persians lamented the same loss of life for a easily remedied problem: “Zeus throned on high sternly chastises arrogant, boastful men,” wrote Aeschylus (Armstrong, 270). Perhaps we’re witnessing that these civilizations were more alike after all. What we’re left with is a war-torn country seeking the best way to live with suffering. With the freedom to do as one pleases, how do the Greeks conceive a philosophy that allows them to embrace suffering as Confucius and Buddha had done in their countries? In fact, Zoroaster, Isaiah, Confucius, and Buddha, the Axial Age philosophers we have already discussed, placed a high premium on correct behavior; doing was everything. Correct belief had gotten the Jews nowhere in the Northern Kingdom of Israel because in 722 B.C.E., their kingdom was destroyed despite the fact that they tried to worship Yahweh but failed and ended up worshiping false gods. The Persians, Chinese, and Indians, too, understood that correct belief did not necessarily amount to correct action. Unfortunately, or somewhat differently, Plato reversed the Axial trend and placed his bets on correct belief rather than correct behavior, which had helped the others be a success.
Socrates and Plato
The Cave of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave from the Republic
After the Greco-Persian Wars (491-479 B.C.E.) had concluded, the Greeks experienced a brief but brilliant Golden Age in Athens. Pericles funded the building of the great Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis and stabilized Athenian democracy, wandering philosophers known as the Sophists peddled their intellectual wares to enthusiastic students, and an “ugly man, with protruding lips” and “flat, upturned nose and a paunch” began to ask too many important questions around a very sensitive Athens (Armstrong, 305). The Athenians didn’t want to ask any more questions or philosophize about how they got to this peaceful golden age; they just wanted to enjoy it. The problem was, Socrates would, and did, talk to anyone and everyone. “During a military campaign, he once astonished his fellows hoplites by standing motionless all night long wrestling with an intellectual problem” (Armstrong 306). Through the Dialectic Method, Socrates endeavored to expose false beliefs and presuppositions through rigorous, virtuous dialogue. Socrates was not unlike his contemporary Confucius in China who constantly spoke about ren yet refused to define it. Socrates constantly referred to “The Good” (Greek: agathos) and only spoke of it in parables to his fellow Athenians, who thought they knew what a “good” thing or person was. Socrates was forced to commit suicide in 399 B.C.E. because of his controversial dialectic which estranged him from his fellow Athenians and this deeply affected his young student Plato, who would take over after his master’s death.
Plato inserted Socrates as a character in many of his treatises, “most memorably in the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic” where Socrates envisioned a group of men who had been shackled their entire lives in a dark cave. These men could not see the mouth of the cave wherein the light came through each day and thus could only see the shadows of things that passed by flitting across the cave wall which they faced. This was how Plato devised his famous Theory of Forms in which he argued that we human-beings are living in a cave experiencing what we think are the originals but in actuality are cheap imitations of wonderful things like Love, Goodness, Beauty, and Courage (mainly abstract virtues). Perhaps because these virtues were so abstract and were open to unique individual interpretations and definitions Plato imagined a world of Forms, or “originals” removed from our daily experiences but not unreachable. The Forms were outside in the world of light whereas our “realities,” as we called them, were actually mere perceptions (the shadows) on the cave wallof the true realities we are meant to experience (Hey! Someone is holding out on us!). Like Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattva, who was an enlightened individual not unlike the Buddha himself who had achieved nibbana (“snuffing out” of desires) yet who stuck around to help the rest of us achieve nibbana, there were liberated men from Socrates and Plato’s cave that could help others, still in the cave, escape. Socrates and Plato warned the men who were liberated, however, like Jesus would later on urge those who followed him, that you will now be misunderstood, mocked, and persecuted because of your enlightenment; those that do this to you are still in their caves chained and facing the wall (see Matthew 5:11 and Matthew 10:34). In the end, Plato’s solution was this: “Either the stock of those who rightly and genuinely follow philosophy acquire political authority, or else the class who have political control be led by some dispensation of providence (highly unlikely, he is saying) to become real philosophers,” this world will not see an end to its troubles (Armstrong, 372-386). Plato’s solution, in short, was to think really, really hard about such virtues as love, beauty, courage, and justice in order to experience them in our psyche, or “soul.” Like Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven, the Forms were “superior, numinous, and timeless” (Armstrong, 376). There were other ideas of Plato’s, too. Plato’s Laws took him “even further away from the Axial Age,” Armstrong writes, because his imaginary city in the Republic “was a theocracy”–an idea that would have appalled Zoroaster, Buddha, and Confucius, but perhaps not Isaiah, who argued that God was king and ruled through David and his descendants. “Correct belief came first; ethical behavior only second. Orthodox theology was the essential prerequisite for morality…none of the Axial thinkers had placed any great emphasis on metaphysics’ (Armstrong, 386). Plato asserted that it was through the mind and contemplation of the Forms that we would be able to experience them; to “know the good is to do the good,” his teacher Socrates once said in one of Plato’s smaller treatises. Towards the end of Plato’s life, he neutered the old Greek religion that had put so much stock in the Olympian gods yet condemned Atheism, forbid prayers to the gods yet did not permit blasphemy against them, and vehemently pushed for the importance of justice within the city-state; Plato had completely intellectualized Greek religion and in so doing illustrates the shift from eastern, orthopraxic thought to western orthodoxic thought, from eastern philosophy to western–what will soon be–orthodox monotheism. Interestingly, however, we will see evidence of the influence of both eastern and western philosophy on Christianity; take James 2:17, for example: “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead,” which seems to argue for a middle ground between the Axial Age teachings and Greek rationalism. This is in line with modern thinking that Christianity was the fulfillment of all world philosophies; more on that later.
All of these Axial Age philosophers promised one thing: if you change your behavior and/or thinking you will genuinely improve the quality of others’ lives and experience a kind of personal transcendence that no one else (unless they do the same) will experience until they see the benefits of your “way,” whether that’s Greek rationalism or Confucianism. Subscribing to one of the Axial Age philosophies is like getting a backstage pass to get away from the crowds, it seems. Zoroaster, Isaiah, Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, Plato, and later Jesus never promised a complete eradication of suffering—they promised a way through, not out. They encourage us to not abandon our fellow man or woman, which is ever so tempting for most.
In the wake of all of these religious transformations which began in the steppes of Iran c. 1200 B.C.E. and have continued to 360 B.C.E. in Athens, Greece, there will come a young man, born with prophecies of greatness surrounding him to avenge Greece’s near-defeat in the Greco-Persian Wars and to unite the entire known world–for better or for worse.
Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.E.)
Alexander the Great’s unique head tilt is a significant feature of Alexander iconography; it suggests, as most art historians believe, Alexander’s divinity which he introduced in 327 B.C.E. (see the article). Plutarch, a later historian of Alexander, tells us that he used to walk with this head tilt.
One day when a gleeful messenger interrupted Alexander in his study to bring news from abroad, the king replied by placing his hand on the man’s shoulder calmly, and smiling asked: “What can you possibly tell me that deserves such excitement, except perhaps that Homer has come back to life?” Alexander certainly possessed a sense of humor and had a way with words—he always did, especially among his soldiers. Mary Renault, the great historical novelist of Alexander said that “Alexander, like his contemporaries, treated the Iliad as history; he probably delighted in visiting the reputed scenes of the heroes’ birth or exploits.” For Alexander, there was no greater glory than chasing the shades of his ancestors Achilles and Herakles; Achilles on his mother’s side, Herakles on his father Philip’s. But what were Alexander’s great achievements? For surely it is not because of his personality that we call him “great,” for here was a man who murdered his best friend, executed his generals without trials, burned the great Persian capital of Persepolis to the ground, and plundered many Indian cities.
Perhaps the most significant achievements of Alexander was the dissemination of the Greek language, called Koine (“Common”), the foundation of Alexandria, Egypt, and the building of roads that linked India and China’s commercial Silk Road with the Mediterranean’s sea routes. It was because of his great opening between east and west that Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Confucianism, and Greek rationalism were able to travel from their respective countries to foreign ones. Alexander’s empire had a profound impact on the tiny, disheveled nation-state of Judah where some historians, such as the later Josephus (wrote during the 1st century C.E.) believed he was shown the Old Testament and had it translated into Greek. Whether he ordered that directly or not, shortly after his death in 323 B.C.E. in Babylon, Hellenized (meaning to be made Greek) Jews began translating their Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, which would be called later the LXX or the Septuagint, “translated by 70.” Alexander even kept company with a Hindu brahmin named Calanus and probably met Buddhist monks in India between 328-326 B.C.E. “Alexander is still prayed in aid by fishermen in Greece, cursed as a ‘thief’ in Iran, and worshipped as a saint in the Coptic Church of Egypt.” By other Iranians, Alexander was seen as a great man who incorporated them into his great army and culture through his conciliatory policy instituted toward the end of his life in 324 B.C.E. called homonoia, which means, in one sense, “being of like mind.” Though this latter policy has come under much scrutiny in 21st century Alexander scholarship, it still is believable based on what we know of Alexander’s most times capricious yet some times sincere behavior. That, and he instituted it in the last year (though he did not know that) of his reign after much controversy from 327 B.C.E. when he had not-so-subtly suggested he be worshiped as a god for his astounding accomplishments. Actually, Alexander began a Persian practice in his Greco-Macedonian court called proskynesis, or “prostration/bowing,” where the supplicant came very low to the ground in a reverent position. To the Persians, this was customary and was not at all associated with a notion of divinity, but to pious god-fearing Greeks, getting on the ground was only something you did for Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, and the rest of the Olympians. Here has been just a taste of the macrocosmic and microcosmic impacts that Alexander’s conquests had on the world, although we have yet to mention his greatest legacy, which was a posthumous one.
This is a map of Alexander’s empire. By 327 B.C.E., he had subdued all of this and believed he had conquered, and we must forgive their ignorance, the “entire known world,” which the Greeks called the Oikoumene. This is one of the largest empires the world has ever seen next to the later Roman and Mongol Empires. Unfortunately, as we will discuss in the next article, it dissolved after his death in 323 B.C.E. when he died in Babylon of a “fever.” His last words were “Hoti to kratisto”–”To the Strongest.”
Many historians have vehemently argued how Alexander’s conquests paved the way for the dissemination of the initially Jewish sect Christianity:
“It was this Hellenistic world that the Romans were to conquer between the late-third century and mid-first century B.C.E., and it was within the Hellenized eastern Roman Empire that Christianity was first to emerge. St. Paul, a Hellenized Jew possessing Roman citizenship, came from Tarsus in Cilicia, not all that far from the site of the second of Alexander’s three major set-piece battles.”
Alexander, at left, charges Darius III, Shahanshah (“King of Kings”) of Persia at right, who is fleeing. Alexander wears on his breastplate the apotropaic (Greek for “to ward off fear”) image of Medusa and is charging on his famous horse Bucephalus. This image is a mosaic and was made after his death. According to one historian, Alexander actually endured a stab wound to the thigh from Darius III in monomachia (“single-combat”), even though this image depicts the king fleeing in his chariot. Hmmm.
Indeed, the Battle of Issus was fought in 333 B.C.E. just to the southeast of Paul’s future city Tarsus, which because of Alexander was Hellenized. The universal Greek language and the new translation of the Old Testament into Koine Greek permitted the rapid dissemination of Christianity, which was considered at first by the Romans a branch of Judaism. Judaism was seen by the Romans as a religio licita, or “protected religion,” because of an alliance struck between 2nd century (c. 167 B.C.E.) Jews and Romans made to oust the Greek successors of Alexander the Great who had settled in Israel after Alexander’s death. Christianity is the subject of the next and last article in this Great Transformation series, so we will conclude here. What happened between these great civilizations that we have discussed in the wake of Alexander’s conquests, and what in particular happened between the time of Alexander and Jesus in Israel? These are the questions that we will turn to next week.
 Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, 2004, 67.
 Mary Renault, The Nature of Alexander, 1979, 159.
 Paul Cartledge, Alexander the Great: A Hunt for a New Past, 2005, 45.