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Bible Gemz 1717 - Understanding the Epicureans and Stoics before we look at Paul's Speech to the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-21)

February 9, 2018

Paul in Athens

While Paul was waiting for you all [them] in Athens, he was deeply troubled by all the idols he saw everywhere in the city.

He went to the synagogue to reason with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and he spoke daily in the public square to all who happened to be there.

He also had a debate with some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. When he told them about Jesus and his resurrection, they said, “What’s this babbler trying to say with these strange ideas he’s picked up?” Others said, “He seems to be preaching about some foreign gods.”

Then they took him to the high council of the city. “Come and tell us about this new teaching,” they said.

 “You are saying some rather strange things, and we want to know what it’s all about.”

 (It should be explained that all the Athenians as well as the foreigners in Athens seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest ideas.)  (Acts 17:16-21) 

 

 

We have looked at the background of Paul speaking daily in the Agora. The public square was set up as a market place for ideas and the Athenians were keen to listen and debate any new idea under the sun. Paul would have had no end of keen, interested listeners. But for all the wrong reasons. These listeners were not necessarily God-seekers, nor were they truth seekers. They were those who were keen to pick up the latest faddish philosophical ideas. One day the things Paul was saying was enough to attract the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Either some Epicureans and Stoics had happened by and heard what Paul had to say or others who had heard him in the this potpourri of the ideas market mentioned to these particular groups that Paul was worth a visit. Who were these people? 

 

 

The Epicureans were the followers of Epicurus, a philosopher who was born in Samos in 341 bc, and who taught first in Asia Minor and afterward in Athens till his death in 270 bc. His system, unlike most philosophies, maintained its original form, with little development or change. 

 

Social and Political Causes

The conditions for the rise of Epicureanism and Stoicism were political and social rather than intellectual. The breaking up of the Greek city-states and the loss of Greek independence had filled men's minds with a sense of insecurity. The institutions, laws and customs of society, which had hitherto sheltered the individual, now gave way; and men demanded from philosophy a haven of rest for their homeless and weary souls. Philosophy, therefore, became a theory of conduct and an art of living. Epicurus abandoned the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, whether as philosophy or science, and directed his inquiries to the two practical questions: What is the aim of life? and How to attain to it? Philosophy he defined as “a daily business of speech and thought to secure a happy life.”

 

Egoistic Hedonism

His ethical teaching can generally be described as Egoistic Hedonism. The aim and end of life for every man is his own happiness, and happiness is primarily defined as pleasure. “Wherefore we call pleasure the Alpha and Omega of a blessed life. Pleasure is the starting-point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge every good thing”. Epicurus taught that life should be so lived as to secure the greatest amount of pleasure during its whole course. The pleasures of the mind came to occupy a larger place than the pleasures of the body. For happiness consists not so much in the satisfaction of desires, as in the suppression of wants, and in arriving at a state of independence of all circumstances, which secures a peace of mind that the privations and changes of life cannot disturb. Epicurus advocated the withdrawal of life from the complexities and perplexities of civilization, to the bare necessities of Nature. His view was something akin to modern Spiritualism, in his affirmation of the mastery of mind over adverse circumstances. “Though he is being tortured on the rack, the wise man is still happy.”

 

Epicurus' definition of the end of life was to seek “imperturbability,” a peace of mind that transcends all circumstances, and the way to it is the life which is one with Nature. But Nature for Epicurus is purely physical and material, and the utmost happiness attainable is the complete absence of pain. “When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal, or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some, through ignorance, prejudice or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul”. His own life was marked by a simplicity verging on asceticism, and by kindly consideration for his friends. But his theory served the purposes of the worse of men who justified license and selfishness.

 

Epicurus had no interest in knowledge for its own sake, whether of the external world, or of any ultimate or supreme, reality. But he found men's minds full of ideas about the world, immortality and the gods, which disturbed their peace and filled them with vain desires and fears. It was therefore necessary for the practical ends of his philosophy to find a theory of the things outside of man that would give him tranquillity and serenity of mind.

 

8. Materialism and atomic theory

Teleology, providence, a moral order of the universe, the arbitrary action of the gods, blind fate, immortality, hell, reward and punishment after death, are all excluded from a universe where atoms moving through space do everything. The soul, like the body, is made of atoms, but of a smaller or finer texture. In death, the one like the other dissolves and comes to its end.

 

Epicurus’ view of the Gods

The gods enjoyed immortality with supreme repose, far removed and withdrawn from our concerns; since exempt from every pain, exempt from all dangers. They were completely separate from human kind and needed nothing from us.  All religion is banned, though the gods are retained. Epicurus' failure to carry the logic of his system to the denial of the gods lay deeper than his theory of ideas. A consciousness of godhead did not allow him to deny the existence of God altogether. Hence, his attempt to explain the fact so as not to interfere with his general theory. 

 

Epicurus’ teaching was the complete opposite to Paul's. It was inevitable that the teaching of Paul should have brought this school up against him. He came to Athens teaching a God who had become man, who had suffered and died to accomplish the utmost self-sacrifice, who had risen from the dead and returned to live among men to guide and fashion their lives, and who at last would judge all men, and according to their deeds reward or punish them in a future world. To the Epicurean this was the revival of all the ancient and hated superstitions. It was not only folly but impiety. Epicurus had taught that man should not deny the gods but rather affirm their existence and then relegate them to irrelevance because they will never involve themselves in human affairs. 

 

 

Stoics

The name was derived from the Stoá Poikı́lē, the painted porch at Athens, where the founders of the school first lectured. This school of Greek philosophy was founded at Athens circa 294 BC by Zeno (circa 336-264 BC), a native of Citium, a Greek colony in Cyprus. But the Semitic race predominated in Cyprus, and it has been conjectured that Zeno was of Semitic rather than Hellenic origin. His Greek critics taunted him with being a Phoenician. It has therefore been suggested that the distinctive moral tone of the system was Semitic and not Hellenic. 

 

The most adequate account of the teaching of the Greek Stoics has been preserved in the writings of Cicero, who, however, was a sympathetic critic, rather than an adherent of the school. The system acquired its most lasting influence by its adoption as the formative factor in the jurisprudence of imperial Rome, and Roman law in its turn contributed to the formation of Christian doctrine and ethics.

 

Metaphysics and Religion:

They followed the idea of  “Follow Nature,” but they followed the earlier philosopher Heraclitus in defining the law of Nature as reason (lógos), which was at once the principle of intelligence in man, and the divine reason immanent in the world. They were more inclined to follow a materialistic pantheism. On the one side, Nature is the organization of material atoms by the operation of its own uniform and necessary laws. On the other side, it is a living, rational being, subduing all its parts to work out a rational purpose inherent in the whole. As such it may be called Providence or God. The Stoics rejected the forms and rites of popular religion, they defended belief in God and inculcated piety and reverence toward Him. Their pantheism provided a basis for Greek polytheism, where all the world is God, each part of it is divine, and may be worshipped. Their attitude to evil was that evil was only apparently or relatively evil, but really good in the harmony of the whole. Therefore they bore evil with courage and cheerfulness, because they believed that “all things worked together for good” absolutely.

 

Ethical Teaching:

The main trend of the Stoics ethical teaching was spiritualistic. Its crown and climax was the ethics. The Stoics did not pursue knowledge for its own sake. They speculated about ultimate problems only for the practical purpose of discovering a rule of life and conduct. And in their ethics, the great commandment, “Follow Nature,” is interpreted in a distinctly idealistic sense. It means, “Follow reason,” as reason inheres both in man and in the universe as a whole. It is submission to Providence or the rational order of the universe, and the fulfillment of man's own rational nature. The life according to Nature is man's supreme good. They summed up their moral teaching in the ideal of the sage or the wise man. His chief characteristic is ataraxy, a calm passionless mastery of all emotions, and independence of all circumstances. He therefore lives a consistent, harmonious life, in conformity with the perfect order of the universe. He discovers this order by knowledge or wisdom. This ideal was achieved in a system of particular duties, such as purity in one's self, love toward all men, and reverence toward God. In Stoic ethics, Greek philosophy reached the climax of its moral teaching. Nowhere else outside Christianity do we find so exalted a rule of conduct for the individual, so humane, hopeful and comprehensive a deal for society.

 

it is most probable that the Epicureans mocked Paul, while the Stoics desired to hear more. The latter would have found much in Paul's teaching that harmonized with their own views. Paul's quotation from the classics in his Athenian speech was from the Stoic poet, Aratus of Soli in Cilicia: “For we are also his offspring.” His doctrine of creation, of divine immanence, of the spirituality and fatherhood of God, would be familiar and acceptable to them. His preaching of Christ would not have been unwelcome to them, who were seeking for the ideal wise man. 

 

They said, “What’s this babbler trying to say with these strange ideas he’s picked up?” 

Others said, “He seems to be preaching about some foreign gods.”

Then they took him to the high council of the city. “Come and tell us about this new teaching,” they said.

 “You are saying some rather strange things, and we want to know what it’s all about.”

 

With the comments above clipped from E-Sword and heavily edited you can see how these two philosophies would have manifest different reactions to what Paul had to say. Clearly this sparked more debate to the point where they took Paul before the high council, called the Areopagus. 

 

The Areopagus met on a spur jutting out from the western end of the Acropolis and separated from it by a very short saddle. Traces of old steps cut in the rock are still to be seen. On the flat surface of the summit are signs still visible of a smoothing of the stone for seats. Directly below to the North was the Agora, or market-place. 

 

The Areopagus, or Hill of Ares (Mars Hill), was the ancient seat of the court of the same name. The Areopagus saw that the laws in force were observed and executed by the properly constituted authorities; it could bring officials to trial for their acts while in office, even raise objections to all resolutions of the Council and of the General Assembly, if the court perceived a danger to the state, or subversion of the constitution. 

 

The Areopagus also protected the worship of the gods, the sanctuaries and sacred festivals, and the olive trees of Athens; and it supervised the religious sentiments of the people, the moral conduct of the citizens, as well as the education of the youth. Without waiting for a formal accusation the Areopagus could summon any citizen to court, examine, convict and punish him. Under unusual circumstances full powers could be granted by the people to this body for the conduct of various affairs of state; when the safety of the city was menaced, the court acted even without waiting for full power to be conferred upon it. The court sat at night at the end of each month and for three nights in succession. Conservative almost to a fault, it did the state good service by holding in check the too rash and radical younger spirits. 

 

Now you have all the pieces to gain an appreciation for what happened after Paul got into dialogue with the Epicureans and Stoics.  

 

 

Quality is not an act, it is a habit. Aristotle

 

Long for the approval of God not the applause of men. Ian

 

Don’t be a moron and blame God when bad things happen; don't follow human philosophies; like man they fall short of God’s Truth. Ian

 

The Infinite squeezed Himself down to the size of an infant. Deron Spoo 

 

 

 

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