The return of the Greeks

I pointed a while back toward the recent revival of interest in Stoicism, wondering if it might be grounded in the decline of Christianity.

It’s easy to say that Christianity is untrue, that its teachings are degrading, and that its ethics are grounded in cultism … but what then? What replaces Christianity and provides a framework for thinking about the world and our place in it?

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If publishing trends can be trusted, a lot of people are looking toward Stoicism, a pre-Christian philosophical movement nearly wiped-out when the Roman church seized control of the western half of the Roman empire following Rome’s collapse.

What do you know? The latest self-help guru seems to be … Aristotle.

Cold showers have their virtues: They prepare an adult for the unavoidable tortures and small indignities of the day. But Hall’s treatment of Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” reveals that true virtue, the inner core of human happiness, is a matter of living in accord with “the ancient Greek proverb inscribed on the Delphic Temple, ‘nothing in excess.’” According to Aristotle, the first Western theorist to develop a moral system tethered to this principle, “character traits and emotions are almost all acceptable — indeed necessary to a healthy psyche — provided that they are present in the right amounts. He calls the right amount the ‘middle’ or ‘mean’ amount, the meson.”

“Christianity cheated us out of the fruits of ancient culture, and later it cheated us a second time out of the fruits of Islamic culture.”

Nietzsche, 1889;
The Antichrist, §60

Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, laid the groundwork for Christian metaphysics with the theory of ‘forms.’ Aristotle, with his almost zoological listing and classifying, laid the groundwork for science and, ultimately, the rejection of metaphysics. When the Roman church seized control of the western half of the Roman empire following its collapse, Aristotle was banished. Had his works not been smuggled to Arabic scholars, all of his writings would have been lost; as it is, Aristotle was unknown in the West for almost 1,000-years.

I have a couple editions of the Nicomachean Ethics at hand, and am unlikely to buy a commentary; I’m already familiar with the material. What interests me, as in the case of Stoicism, is the revival of the Classical world as Christianity disintegrates. This, I think, is a wholesome development.

Epicurus knew that the moon travels around the earth, that the earth travels around the sun, and that the earth is a globe. Epicurus had worked-out the essentials of the theory of evolution, too, and allowed women to study at his school. We know those things because denunciations of Epicurus by the early church fathers, especially Lactantius, remain available; virtually all of Epicurus’ writings, save a few letters, were deliberately destroyed.

So the freewheeling intellectualism of the Classical world is having the last laugh, reviving as its tormentor, Christianity — which has never been able to sustain itself without force — staggers toward the dustbin. To paraphrase a modern aphorism, You just can’t keep good ideas down.

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