by Navid Zaidi
The period 800-200 BC has been called the Axial Age. For reasons that are not entirely understood, all the chief civilizations of the world developed during this period along parallel lines ; Taosim and Confucianism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India and philosophical rationalism in Europe. In the Middle East, Zoroaster and the Hebrew Prophets, notably Elijah, Isaiah, Amos and Hosea, evolved different versions of Monotheism.
Philosophical rationalism arose in Greece some time around the sixth century BC. So sudden and so astonishing was its rise that it has become known as ‘the Greek miracle’. Among the Greek elite, unprecedented freedom and autonomy of thought were favored, and in their assemblies, the citizens acquired the habit of public debate and argument. Zeno (334-262 BC), the founding father of the Stoic school, gave free and open lessons to all comers.
In the Greek tradition, the innermost essence of the world is harmony, order—both true and beautiful—which the Greeks referred to by the term kosmos. For the Greeks, the structure of the world—the cosmic order—was not merely magnificent, it was also comparable to a living being. Wrote Marcus Cicero in the first century BC, “…….It remains no less true that nothing is more perfect than this world, which is an animate being, endowed with awareness, intelligence and reason.”
If anyone claimed today that the world is alive, animate—that it possesses a soul and is endowed with reason—he would be considered crazy. But what the Greeks were trying to say was by no means absurd: they were convinced that a ‘logical’ order was at work behind the apparent chaos and that human reason was able to discern the divine character of the universe. They thought that this order, or kosmos, this ordained structure of the universe in its entirety, was ‘Divine’, ‘Well-made’ and perfect of itself, from the planets down to the tiniest organisms.
The Greek wisdom still speaks to us today, through the centuries and overarching many cultures. However, we no longer inhabit the world of Greek antiquity and their great cosmologies have for the most part vanished. Greek wisdom was not enough to stop the emergence of competing systems of thought and, specifically, to prevent the spread of Monotheism. Monotheism, mainly Christianity and Islam, was to deal the Greeks a lethal blow, pushing it to a marginal position for nearly 1500 years.
How did that happen?
The Greek world was fundamentally aristocratic, an elitist world, a universe organized as a hierarchy in which those most endowed by nature should in principle be ‘at the top’ while the less endowed saw themselves occupying inferior ranks. In the moral vocabulary of the ancient Greeks, the notion of ‘virtue’ was always directly linked to those of talent or natural endowment. Aristotle speaks of a ‘virtuous eye’ in one of his works devoted to ethics, by which he simply means an ‘excellent’ eye, a perfectly functioning eye, neither long-sighted nor short-sighted.
The Greek world rested entirely upon the conviction that there exists a natural hierarchy, of organs, of sight, of plants or of animals, but also of men: some men are born to command, others to obey.
The Greek doctrine of salvation was utterly anonymous and impersonal. It promised eternity, of course, but of a non-personal kind, as an oblivious fragment of the kosmos: death, for the Greeks, was a mere rite of passage, which involved a transition from a state of individual consciousness to a state of oneness with the kosmos.
THE MOVEMENT OF JESUS AGAINST THE GREEKS
Such was the state of thought in the Roman Empire when Jesus Christ appeared. Following the formula of theory, ethics, and wisdom, Jesus radically ruptured the Greek world and outlined a new morality and a doctrine of salvation based on faith and love. Thus did religion capture the hearts of humanity and gained the upper hand over Greek thought and dominated Europe. This was no small achievement.
What were the reasons?
Firstly, and most fundamentally, the Logos, which for the Greeks merged with the impersonal, harmonious and divine structure of the Kosmos as a whole, came to be identified for the Christians with a single and unique personality, that of Christ. To the horror of the Greeks, the new believers maintained that the Logos was in no sense identical with the harmonious order of the world, but was incarnated in one outstanding individual, namely Christ. This left the Greeks stone cold.
Secondly, the way of seeing, contemplating, understanding and approaching Reality was transformed. From now on, it is no longer reason that will be the theoretical faculty of excellence, but faith. And so, faith began to supplant reason. Truth is no longer accessed through the exercise of a human reason. What will count, above all, is no longer intelligence but trust in the word of a man, Christ. We are going to believe him because he is worthy of this act of faith.
Thirdly, what was required to put into practice this new system of thought was not the comprehension of the philosophers, but the humility of the simple folk. The belief in a natural hierarchy has no legitimacy. To speak of a ‘virtuous eye’ no longer makes any sense, because the gifts received at birth are unequally distributed among men, some men are much stronger or more intelligent than others, just as there exist in nature sharper eyes and less sharp eyes. These inequalities have no bearing on morals. All that counts is how we use the qualities, not the qualities themselves. What counts as moral or immoral is the act of choice, what philosophers began to call ‘free will’. Human dignity is the same for everyone, whatever their actual inequalities, because it is connected to our freedom to choose how to act, not upon our innate endowments. This was unheard-of at the time, and it turned an entire world order upside down.
Fourthly, philosophy becomes the ‘handmaiden’ to religion. Reason would be entirely subjected to the faith which guides it.
THE ANTI-CLASSICAL APPROACH OF THE QURAN
Greek philosophy was a great cultural force in the history of Islam. But while Greek philosophy very much broadened the outlook of Muslim thinkers, it was pure speculation, theory, and neglectful of fact. The spirit of the Quran was essentially anti-Greek. The appeal to the concrete combined with the slow realization that, according to the Quran, the universe is dynamic in its origin and capable of increase, eventually brought Muslim thinkers into conflict with Greek thought.
Plato was convinced that the divine world was static and changeless. The Greeks saw movement and change as signs of inferior reality; something that had true identity remained always the same, permanent and immutable. The Quranic view of ‘alternation of day and night’ as a symbol of the ultimate reality which ‘appears in a fresh glory every moment’ is in total conflict with Greek thought of a static and changeless universe.
All lines of Muslim thought converge on a dynamic conception of the universe, the essentially Islamic idea of continuous creation which means a growing universe. This concept required a keen sense of the reality of time, and the concept of life as a continuous movement in time. For the Greeks, time was either unreal, as in Zeno and Plato, or moved in a circle, as in Heraclitus and the Stoics.
Socrates concentrated his attention on the human world alone. To him, the proper study of man was man and not the world of plants, insects and stars whereas the Quran sees in the humble bee a recipient of divine inspiration.
As a true disciple of Socrates, Plato despised sense-perception, which in his view yielded mere opinion and no real knowledge. How unlike the Quran, which regards ‘hearing’ and ‘sight’ as the most valuable divine gifts.
This prolonged intellectual warfare of Muslim thinkers against Greek philosophy consisted of formulation of the principle of ‘doubt’ as the beginning of all knowledge, a systematic refutation of Greek Logic, criticism of Aristotle and showing that induction is the only form of reliable argument. Thus arose the method of observation and experiment.
But it was the conception of a continuous life and time which is the main point of interest in Ibne Khaldun’s view of history, and the way in which he conceives the process of change. He implied that history, as a continuous movement in time, is a genuinely creative movement and not a movement whose path is already determined. In the work of his genius the anti-classical spirit of the Quran scored its final victory over Greek thought.
Karen Armstrong: A History of God
Luc Ferry: A Brief History of Thought
Sir Muhammad Iqbal: The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam