A man who has not read Homer is like a man who has not seen the ocean. There is a great object of which he has no idea. -Walter Bagehot
Homer, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and other classical Greek and Roman thinkers were for centuries considered, in the Western hemisphere, necessary to a good education. Today they are still considered important thinkers, but less vital to an education as high schools and universities stretch to include modern authors, women, and minorities in their humanities studies. Interestingly, Christian schools and teachers often emphasize classical learning far more than secular schools, even though these men were, in fact, pagans who lived before the time of Christ, in societies that bowed to a pantheon of gods. This Christian love of classic literature started eons ago, and monks who copied down copious volumes for their monastery libraries are the sole reason we have such ready access to these ancient thinkers today.
Is it justifiable for Christian students to learn from pagan myth-tellers and philosophers? What good could come from it? To answer these questions, let’s look at worldviews. (I am indebted to Dr. Daniel R. Spanjer’s lectures series for many of the following thoughts and analogies.)
The ancients believed themselves to be ruled by dozens of gods, and they lived in fear of angering those gods. In exchange for health, happiness, safety, prosperity, and a hundred other desires, they did whatever the gods asked of them, even going so far as to sacrifice their children if that is what the gods demanded. Their adherence to the gods produced in them a slavish obedience and a way of living that catered to their animal appetites. In the words of Dr. Spanjer, “When we learn to simply service our appetites, we learn to love unlovely things.”
The Hebrew worldview danced to a different drummer. In the Hebrew mindset, people answered not to gods but to the Word of God as spoken through Moses and the prophets. They were motivated to serve Him not through fear, but through love, and the highest aim in life was to gain wisdom from careful study of and obedience to the Hebrew scriptures. Interestingly, some scholars think that because of their similarity of thought, Greek thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle borrowed from the Hebrews. Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist who was martyred for his faith in 165 A.D, said in an early defense of the Christian faith that Plato had taken from Genesis his teaching that God created the world from preexistent, shapeless matter.
Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek thinkers questioned the worship of many gods. Plato advised against teaching children the ancient legends in which gods committed atrocities even humans would shudder to think of. He taught that we on earth see only shadows of ultimate reality, a reality perfectly good, true, and beautiful. Glimpses of this reality could only be obtained through deep thought and study. He and other Greek philosophers, or “lovers of wisdom,” taught that people should not be slaves to their own passions, but should keep their desires in balance as they worked for the good of society and, through knowledge, learned to discern the truly good and beautiful.
It is worth looking further at the Greek understanding of metaphysics. Aristotle taught that reality consists of four causes. To make these causes easier to understand, we will compare them to the building of a house.
The Greeks viewed the world holistically. It had a cause and was moving in created patterns toward a pre-ordained destination. This way of thinking fit easily into the Christian worldview, which taught a Creator that existed before physical reality and a future consummation of all things. Because of this underlying similarity, many Greeks easily accepted Christianity and Christian thinkers built naturally from the thoughts of the Greek thinkers preceding them.
For centuries, the classical way of looking at the world prevailed in the Western world for Bible believers and non-believers alike. Because we are young and have a short view of history, few of us realize how radically the Enlightenment and the secular age which sprang from it have changed the way we interact with the world. The Enlightenment did not divorce God from the world, but began to question whether God controls all aspects of physical reality or whether these things are controlled by physical laws we can see and measure. The secular view goes further and says the universe we know with our senses is the sum of what there is. Religion, in this view, is fine, as long as it remains personal and doesn’t impinge on the rights and freedoms of others. An individual’s ability to pursue “life, liberty, and happiness” is the greatest good because it is the only good. Every circumstance is the sole result of material and efficient causes. War is the product of culture and propaganda, hunger the result of a failed economy, and a man or woman’s character a combination of their education, their experiences, and their genes.
A focus on physical reality is not wrong or evil—in fact, it has produced many advances in science and technology—but it does fail to account for a greater, ultimate reality. Some have said that the modern secular mindset has circled back to that of the ancients, to once again being governed by physical realities and appetites. Instead of bowing before a pantheon of hungry gods, we worship science, sex, business, and pleasure, slavishly obedient to their demands in our push to pursue our own destination and satiate our own appetites.
So, is there a benefit to Christians in studying classical authors?
Yes, especially if we teach with a view to the larger picture. If a student can grasp how these authors wrote into an evolving understanding of the way the world works—both drawing from and adding to that conversation—if they can further understand that today’s prevailing worldviews are only a small set of gears on a much larger wheel, they will be in a better position to analyze and understand the thought trends of today.
In addition, the classical authors rely heavily on logic, a position in which Christianity has traditionally thrived. Jesus came as Logos, the Word, and Justin Martyr went so far as to say that any man who lived according to Logos was really a Christian, even though he lived before Jesus’ human birth. Peter asks us to be ready to give the reason of the hope that we have, and the early Christians did so with astuteness, using both Hebrew scripture and the teachings of the philosophers to give a sound defense of their faith. Studying the classics can aid students in adding to this historic Christian dialogue.
Studying classical versus secular worldviews opened my eyes to a secular perspective I had long accepted without realizing it. That perspective says that a person is the product of their past. It makes sense. My Christian beliefs and lifestyle are the result of Christians who came before me, and the women I know in jail are there because of a combination of drug addictions and traumatic childhoods. Partly because of this simple black and white equation, I have long struggled with the biblical teaching of hell. Punishment for people who are formed by their circumstances is clearly unfair. But studying classical thought and realizing how greatly it contrasts with modern society’s viewpoint caused me to question my own easy acceptance of it. Is a person really the product of their past?
As Christians, we believe the Bible holds the ultimate answer to that. However, studying what humans have said through the centuries will open our eyes to our own blind spots and help us to “rightly discern the Word of Truth.”
Justin Martyr. “The First Apology of Justin Martyr.” From the translations of Marcus Dods, D.D. We Don’t Speak Great Things, We Live them. Scroll Publishing, 1989. ibid.