Philosophy has changed a great deal over the centuries.
While today philosophy is often an idle occupation of the undecided undergrad, to be a philosopher in the ancient world was to be a vested guardian and steward of the culture. Philosophers were more like monastics of the early Christian desert, isolating themselves from the world in order to focus on the deeper meaning behind it, emerging solely to prophesy on critical matters of their day.
In the scriptures, philosophy is not routinely mentioned, although Eleazar retorts to Antiochus Epiphanes that obedience to God’s Law is the best way to master the Greek “cardinal virtues” (4 Macc. 5:22–24).
Williston Walker writes of philosophy in antiquity:
In the Roman-Hellenistic era, ‘philosophy’ was not the name of an academic discipline concerned with a special range of abstract questions. Rather, it denoted the quest for an understanding of the cosmos and of the place of humanity within it—an understanding which was achieved only by participation in a certain way of life and which issued in happiness or beatitude.1
The role of many philosophers was to achieve a “happiness” advocated by their particular discipline, and the extent or focus of this happiness was not agreed upon by all:
The focal problem which was debated in the Hellenistic age, however, was that of the nature of the ‘happy’ or fulfilled life.2
Walker discusses several different forms of Greek philosophy, examining both similarities and differences between each and orthodox, Christian theology—what St. Justin Martyr, himself once a philosopher of the Empire, would call the true philosophy.
For the Sophists, philosophy was an ethical investigation (Δισσοὶ λόγοι). It was a concern less with “genuine knowledge” or epistemi, and more with the appearance or doxa of things.3
The Epicureans, on the other hand, were seeking a sort of inner peace or quietude:
The school of Epicurus taught that pleasure—in the negative sense of absence of mental disturbance (ataraxia)—was the highest human good. The good life is the life which maximizes pleasure by minimizing the pain attendant upon unnecessary desire and anxiety. Thus, paradoxically, the greatest pleasure is attained by a life of quiet, retirement, and restraint: a life characterized essentially by self-control.
This bears resemblance to the Christian notion of living a quiet and peaceful life (1 Thess. 4:11), a reduction of anxieties regarding the “cares of this world” (Mark 4:19). Self-control is considered a Christian virtue, marked out by a life in the Holy Spirit. As with St. Seraphim of Sarov, acquiring a mind of peace in the Spirit can lead not only one’s own salvation, but also that of the whole world.
However, the Epicureans saw religion as a source of anxiety rather than as its cure. For Orthodox Christians, the Church is the hospital of the Great Physician, a place of healing and relief from the disturbance of the world. So while there are some similarities in language and even thought between Orthodoxy and Epicureanism, both the end and acquisition of ataraxia is entirely different.
Stoicism, on the other hand, shows more similarities and influence to early Christian thought:
Much more influential, especially in the Latin West, was the philosophy of the Stoics with their teaching that the sole human good is virtue or ‘the life according to nature.’ . . . Like the Epicureans, the Stoics were materialists. Roughly speaking, they conceived the cosmos to be composed out of two kinds of ‘stuff’ or ‘substance’: a passive matter, and the active, fiery ‘spirit’ or ‘breath’ (pneuma) which transfuses matter, forms it, and causes it to cohere. This pneuma functions in the cosmic body much as soul does in the human body; that is, it is the source of life and of harmony. Called ‘God’ or ‘Fate’ or ‘Reason’ (logos), this ‘spirit’ is the indwelling divinity . . . The human soul, itself rational, is a spark or portion of the divine Reason.
The good for human persons, then, consists in their being fully what they are—that is, in living and acting according to their interior nature and identity, which is logos. Only such a life is the excellent (or, in other words, virtuous) human existence. What is more, only the virtuous life is free, for it alone is within people’s power to achieve, and it alone lets people be truly themselves . . . dependence on external circumstance alienates the person from himself. It is a sickness of the soul which the Stoics called ‘passion’ (pathos), because the person who is subject to it is passive in relation to influences stemming from outside and to that degree unfree and unfulfilled.
The emphasis on pneuma that both forms and coheres the created order and the “source of life and harmony” known as logos is an obvious parallel to John’s Gospel of Christ as the Divine Logos, who is from the beginning. In reading John chapter 1 at the Paschal Liturgy, the newly illuminated are hearing for the first time the deeper meaning behind concepts they likely already understood (or to which they had at least been exposed). This Logos who permeates, creates, and holds all things together is the God-Man Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.
The “spark” of Logos in each of us ( the spermatikos logos in Justin Martyr) helps explain how we are all created according to the image of God. This also underlines how each of us are connected not only to Christ, but also to one another in his Body, the Church. Further, it explains the Orthodox affinity for environmentalism or ecology, as the created order is permeated in a both immanent and transcendent way by the God of all creation.
To live in accordance with one’s “interior nature and identity, which is logos,” is akin to the Orthodox emphasis on controlling the “passions” (pathos) and being transformed according to the likeness of logos. To be concerned with external things or disturbances is to live according to pathos rather than logos. It should be obvious there is similarity between Stoic philosophy and the finer points of orthodox asceticism, but our goal as Christians is that of deification, not merely an untroubled or free existence.
Lastly, Walker describes Platonism and its connections with early Christianity:
The teaching of Plato was based ultimately on his distinction between that-which-is (Being) and that-which-comes-to-be (Becoming). Searching for the true basis of order in the moral, political, and natural realms, Plato discerned it in the system of Ideas or Forms—the models or originals of empirical reality. These Forms were characterized by two essential qualities. First, they were seen simply to be, unchangeably, self-identically, and hence eternally. Second, they were seen to be intelligible, capable of being grasped by mind. In contrast to this realm of Being and Intelligibility, Plato saw the visible world of immediate experience as a realm of continual Becoming—a world about which it was impossible to have stable knowledge because it was always slipping through one’s mental fingers.
These two realms of Being and Becoming, however, were not in Plato’s view divorced. The empirical world images and participates in the eternal world of Being. That it does so, moreover, is owing to the activity of living, self-moving soul, which is a denizen of both spheres. As soul contemplates and internalizes intelligible Being, confirming its own life to that truth, it orders and harmonizes the world of Becoming, so that the temporal order becomes ‘a moving image of eternity.’
A distinction between “being” and “becoming” is analogous to how we explain the sacred mysteries, and especially the Eucharist. The bread, wine, and water of the Eucharist are in a state of “becoming” in our Divine Liturgy. They are “moving images of eternity,” allowing us to partake of the eternal God in our temporal present. Both the last supper of the upper room and the great wedding feast of the Lamb are made present in our service. As a mystery of the Church, the Eucharist conforms our temporal experience to that of the eternal. The elements may appear to our natural or empirical eyes as bread, water, and wine, but a priest prays that God might “show them to be” the precious Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
Part of becoming a Christian is learning to see the world as it really is, or as it is in eternity. Asceticism, iconography, and the sacred mysteries are all ways in which the Church aids in that endeavor. Rather than being forever shackled by a fallible, temporal perception, our eyes are attuned to the eternal reality—to the deeper meaning. This “removal of the veil” (apokalypsis) between eternity and our present, evil age is a key theme in both the New Testament and in the Divine Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy itself is an apocalypse, a collapsing of the barriers between heaven and earth.