Jeremy J. Baer
Classical philosophy has always been a valid part of Greco-Roman polytheism. I just personally don’t subscribe to it myself.
Usually, when I make the latter statement, there will be those who completely ignore the former statement and descend into paroxysms of disbelief. There are some Hellenes who, not content at having discovered a particular flavor of classical religion that speaks to them, feel the need to thrust its importance on everyone else. In some circles, admitting disagreement with classical philosophy is tantamount to either declaring open rebellion against Hellenism, or severing oneself completely from all claims to intelligence and decency. Some sophists will even go so far as to declare that everyone in Antiquity must have been a Neoplatonist whether they knew it not, simply because everyone offered sacrifice at the same temples; and that furthermore we should all be Neoplatonists ourselves, whether we like it not, because it is the only one true path.
This is a rather ugly undercurrent in Hellenism, home to a cabal of proselytizing Neoplatonic fanboys who seem to treat the discourses of Plato much the same way Christianity treats the epistles of St. Paul. I might suggest besmirching Plato just for the wry amusement of watching these fundamentalists foam at the mouth, but that would be undignified of me. I could also suggest that there is nothing wrong these people that a little hemlock couldn’t cure, but that too might be construed as poor taste.
In any event, I honestly don’t care to denigrate Plato or any other philosopher. I merely wish to register my inability to fully embrace any single classical philosopher’s worldview. I also do not care to lump all philosophically inclined polytheists together; there do seem to be some highly respectable people who take philosophy as an inspiration to lead a quiet life of virtue and contemplation, rather then engaging in empty online posturing.
But how can anyone reject classical philosophy, some might ask? There are those who will say one stumbles upon philosophical questions whether one wants to or not, hence the need for philosophy. This may be true. But it doesn’t imply one needs to follow a particular philosophy, or even a particular classical philosophy.
First, some background. Classical religion proper only has a few assumptions: the gods exist, and human beings can gain their attention through correct ritualistic devotion. It only makes a few demands: particular deities require particular rites and festivals from ritually pure adherents. And it only makes a few promises: the individuals and communities who propitiate the gods in the prescribed manner may succeed in entreating the deities’ favor.
That’s it, really. Religion (a word they didn’t even have) made few definitive statements on the ultimate nature of the gods and the cosmos, the ontological destinies of humanity, the proper role between citizens and a particular form of government, between man and nature, between people and their fellow citizens. That was left, quite thankfully, for humans to figure out on their own, as I assume the gods thought we had the potential to reason it out for ourselves.
Enter the philosophers, the lovers of wisdom. They tried to erect integrated systems of thought on such grand questions as theology, cosmology, ontology, politics, ethics and the study of nature. They separated logos from mythos, giving birth not only to philosophy but science and politics as well.
This is certainly a worthy legacy to remember. But I respect the process more than the result. Western philosophy, science and politics began with the Greeks, but it didn’t end with the Greeks. It’s still out there, evolving. And I believe Hellenic polytheism needs to evolve with it.
Consider, for example, those of who who don’t agree with the ultimate conclusions of Plato and his ilk. Again, this is tantamount to blasphemy in certain circles, but nonetheless there are simply those of us who don’t make it our goal in life to transcend worldly reality for a presumed cosmic unity. There are those of us who, not wanting to transcend the world at all, want to live completely in it. And while we’re at it, we want to live in the world of the twenty-first century, not the world of Plato and his successors.
In the last 300 years we have come to know more about the cosmos, the world and ourselves than the Ancients could ever imagine. We have witnessed incredible revolutions in politics, economics, sciences and the arts. We have come to better understand our impact on plants and animals, and our relationship to ecology. We have developed systems of ethics which bear both the heavy imprint of monotheist religions and the secular revolt against said religions. The gods may be immortal and unchanging, but human beings and human society are other matters entirely.
Let us again go back to the presumption defined near the beginning of this article: because the gods thankfully don’t prescribe a long list of details on how to live our lives as humans, we are expected to figure some things out for ourselves. This entails a certain amount of philosophical inquiry whether one likes it or not. Fine. I would submit, however, we need new philosophies for a new age. If the Hellenistic philosophies differed from those of the Classical era as a response to advances in science and shifts in the political system, how much more so should it change now?
We need philosophies that take into account the last 1600 years after the fall of the Roman empire, and in particular the last 300. I think my cosmology would be more inspired by Stephen Hawking than Plato, my politics more influenced by Tocqueville than Aristotle, and my ethics more beholden to modern libertarianism than Roman Stoicism. Whereas Greco-Roman philosophy afforded plant and animal life little justice from the whims of man, I am more sensitive to modern ecology’s insistence we respect other lifeforms that share our planet. And all of this is just for starters! Another person may approach things quite differently, and that’s fine too: there is room in the modern era for competing philosophies, just as there was in Antiquity.
Plato and his peers will still be around for those who want them. They are not going anywhere, nor should they. But I don’t think they had the last word on wisdom. Classical religion needs to live and breathe in a new world, and that implies that new philosophers can and should come to the fore to find modern answers for age old questions. To put it another way: if we truly love wisdom, we can’t confine it solely to Plato’s Cave.