Monday, March 08, 2010



I've been puzzling over something for a while. If you have answers to offer, please comment.

Why didn't the concept of a single, unitary God appear in Western history until late in the classical world? Why not in ancient Greece and pre-Christian Rome?

Greek civilization was hardly incurious. Its philosophers, from Socrates through Plato to Aristotle, as well as less famous names, seem to have pondered everything about the nature of the universe and mankind's relation to it. Their great playwrights -- Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides -- took soundings of the human soul as no other dramatist except Shakespeare did. At least the first two were concerned with the individual's relation to the gods, even if by the time of Euripides a certain skepticism was creeping into the Greek world view.


Still, the religious ideas of ancient Greece strike us as puerile. Zeus, Hera, Hephaestus, Poseidon and many of the others are like cartoon characters. And even if they had had more dignity (by our standards), they were multiple.

The Roman Republic and early Empire were arguably practical-minded and un-philosophical, though there were exceptions like Lucretius and Ovid. And as a whole the Roman aristocracy at least had the ideal of gravitas, or taking life seriously: they would have agreed with Longfellow: "Life is real! Life is earnest!"

But the Romans were hardly indifferent to the unseen. They had gods and ceremonies for virtually every aspect of life. Birth, marriage, death, the household, planting, harvesting, going to war,
the hearth, crossroads, streams, you name it. They had no religious doctrine or creed as we understand it, but they took their religious observances to heart. A ritual or sacrifice had to be done in exactly the right way or, if there was a mistake, done over. The Romans were so scrupulous about observing the proper rites that in late classical times they continued to honor obscure gods and conduct practices that originated so far back in time that no one could explain their meaning or purpose.


H.J. Rose, a professor of Latin and Greek and surely one of the most learned students of the religion of antiquity, wrote in Ancient Roman Religion (London, 1949):
It is clear that in all this [the Romans' relationship with their gods] there was an element of sheer magic; there was also a strong element of bargaining, for the Romans were a legal-minded people who understood excellently the obligations of both parties to a contract. So on occasion they made contracts with gods, drawn up by skilled clerical draughtsmen and providing for all manner of contingencies. A very famous one has come down to us.

When it became evident that the Second Punic War was to be a long and hard-fought struggle, with Hannibal in Italy and threatening Rome itself, Juppiter [Rose's spelling] was appealed to and promised a sacrifice of the whole increase of the flocks and herds for a year if by that year, half a decade ahead, he put the Roman people in a satisfactory position. The deed, when drawn up, was approved by the Assembly.

But in return for so great a gift, the god was to waive certain rights which he might normally insist on; the Romans were considered to have done their part even if irregularities were found in the method of sacrificing, if the offering were made on the wrong date or even by an unqualified person, and also to be quit of responsibility for any beasts who might die or be stolen before the time came to offer them.
This kind of crude bargaining with the gods sounds absurd or distasteful to us, but before we get too condescending, we ought to recall the numerous churches and monasteries built in the Christian era of Europe as thanks for battles won and plagues survived.


But to return to the main point: how could there have been two great civilizations in the ancient world, lasting over a millennium between them, that developed no idea of One God until Rome's armies and rulers encountered a certain sect on the fringe of the empire, in Palestine? And even then failed to accord it, or its derivative religion of Christ, any respect for many generations?

Surely both Greece and Rome had their share of mystics and contemplatives on whom the Spirit descended. How can we doubt that some who had received knowledge of the transcendent could no longer be enchanted by polytheism? Why did they have, as it appears, zero influence on "official" classical religion? Why was the idea of one God ignored, or abhorred, until Constantine recognized Christianity in the fourth century?

True, that was a troubled period, and spirituality is said to be the daughter of adversity. But Rome had gone through plenty of sticky patches before -- the Gauls overrunning the city, for instance. Athens had its debacle with the Peloponnesian War. Yet the old gods held their ground.


For that matter, other than Islam, no major religion with a concept of one supreme God has emerged anywhere in the world. Buddhism finds it a waste of time to talk about God, preferring to speak of Enlightenment. Hinduism does have a mystical side that could be said to be monotheistic, but popular Hinduism continues to have a variety of deities.

Something very strange and profound happened in the Mediterranean world of late antiquity. Why then, and not before?



Anonymous said...

It's quite difficult to look outward when one's eyes are trained inward.

David said...

Interesting question. It's probably less obvious to think of a *common* explanation for diverse phenomena than to think of individual explanations for individual phenomena...whether natural or supernatural. Prior to Newton, for instance, no one thought that there might be a common explanation for the fall of an apple and the motion of the planets.

Ray said...

What if there really is a God? Suppose this God could only be understood by the most intelligent people on Earth--the Jews. Perhaps this God has been here along.

Anonymous said...


This is a tricky problem you have posed for your loyal readers. Let me give it a shot.

We can look at this not from a religious or spiritual point of view, but view it as development of human society.

As civilisation expands from inception, it experiments with all sorts of new ideas, and that means different ideas/gods with differing attributes. It is uninhibited and changes tack quite often. Laws are minimal and designed to give the citizen a lot of freedom. As you illustrate, the citizen had even the freedom to negotiate with gods. This had the advantage that if one god did not provide a good deal, you could look for another. A kind of market economy of ideas/gods. As civilisation progresses in time, social structures ossify, and this is reflected in a greater centralisation of government, which passes more restrictive laws. A central government’s main task is to restrict the citizen’s freedom, and make the citizen rely on just that one central authority – itself. We are seeing the onset of this in the USA. Europe is now in the EU centralised state. There comes a time, such as in socialist states, that there is just one god, the government, which recognises no other god but itself - Unigod. It is this god that creates and looks after you until death. This is what Obamacare is about.

If we look at the above model for social evolution and extend it to the spiritual/divine world, we see that a free enterprise religious system, such as one the Romans had, would eventually ossify to a single god system, just as a free libertarian society eventually society ossifies to a ‘centralised authority’ state.

The Jews of course went through this development earlier in history – that is the essential difference. In a Unigod system, one notes that there is no dictating the terms of interacting with the single deity – it’s a monopoly, with all the powers on one side.

In a social system, humans eventually overthrow the totalitarian state, because it ossifies, as all system do, and just as the previous state did - the USSR is a good example. In the divine/spiritual world, we see the same - Western people are breaking away from Christianity. They are replacing the Unigod/Trinity that we have had for 1500 years, and replacing them with the gods of Green, Environment, Climate change, diet and health gods, and others such. Eventually, as is the wont of humans, they will throw these gods off. There is the danger then that we may go back to a Unigod - not the one we know, but a new one that offers all the delights of earth, for eternity, but with no disadvantages.

If this happens, we will sink back into a primitive state, and will then have to retrace our steps to civilisation. Cycle period – 4000 years approx.

Marcus said...

You frame the question in such a Christian-centric way, it hardly lends itself to an answer. You frame it as if you were asking: how could they not have seen 2+2=4? How could the Chinese have survived 10,000 years without the neurosis and superstition of the Jewish idea that god is a potter or maker and we are forever alienated from creation and nature?

I personally find the Old Testament so unpleasant whenever I open and try to read it, I run back to The Odyssey or Plato as if to bathe and breathe a healthy, natural air again.

The answer to your question: they were less alienated, more immediate people; more in touch with nature and reality. As Jonathan Swift observed, they were Giants to our Dwarfs.

Christianity was to antiquity what Islam is for us today: an other-worldly death cult and a symptom of profound malaise.

Then again, given your reduction of "conservatism" to Christianity (re: alt right entry), you may not be open to the consideration that Christianity was a radical, new-fangled (and foreign) idea that initially appealed to lowest, least educated and most marginal segments of society. And with good reason, for like Islam today, it provided ready answers in the face of uncertainty of the abyss.

Rick Darby said...


Yes … but why did the religious "common" explanation arise at that time and take hold? In the case of Newton, a scientific world view had already begun to challenge the Aristotelian system, so his gravitational theory had a "slot" to fit into. There seems to have been no corresponding receptive climate in the ancient Mediterranean civilization.

Rick Darby said...

DP 111,

Thank you for taking the trouble to write a seriously considered comment. There is a lot to think about there.

I love your phrase, "A kind of market economy of ideas/gods."

Is your parallel with political development an analogy or do you mean that monotheism was simply the end stage in a political or social process?

If the latter, I don't think the explanation completely fits. Whatever happened represented a change of consciousness that went deeper than a centralization of the concept of supreme power or authority. For the first time in Western history, the insights of mysticism spread widely through a civilization and touched the masses.

It was an existential change from the old, ritualistic forms of worship that more or less had satisfied the Greeks and Romans. It's almost impossible to exaggerate the difference between propitiatory ceremonies involving whatever god was felt to be most useful, and a personal relationship with One God.

That said, I very much agree with your analysis of changes in the political and social system at present. Western societies, with the partial exception of the United States, have booted out the Christian Trinity to replace it with the new holy order: environmentalism, social engineering, healthism, etc.

Rick Darby said...


I hadn't thought I was being Christian-centric. As I noted above in response to DP 111, the transformation into monotheism was a profound change of consciousness, or if you prefer the current jargon, a paradigm shift. Christianity happened to be the vessel that it fit into.

Christianity isn't the only religion that has rejected polytheism. Besides Judaism and Islam, the core practices of Hinduism — sometimes called the Vedanta — embrace one supreme and perfect Self. Buddhism, except in its cowboy offshoots like Tibetan Buddhism, has no use for multiple gods or godlike beings.

I'm with you on the Old Testament: it's understandably important to Jews and important as a historical phenomenon, but I simply can't derive anything resembling inspiration from it. And frankly, I feel the same about large portions of the New Testament Gospels. Maybe it's a flaw in me that makes me unable to connect with it.

As an ignorant amateur classicist, I find the pre-Christian cults picturesque and imaginatively appealing, although the almost universal practice of animal sacrifice in their rites repels me. But their rules of engagement with the Divine seem to me primitive compared with prayer, mystical contemplation and the One God.

Ilíon said...

Classical civilization was profoundly irrational.

The modern perception that the people of the time were paragons of rational virtue is an artifact of selection bias -- we Christians copied and recopied (and thereby preserved) the more rational expressions of classical civilization because that's what *we* were interest in.

Anonymous said...


I looked at it initially from the point of social development humanity – in the economic, political and spiritual domains. Each of these can be multiGod at times, then giving way to Unigod, and back again. In the interregnum, there is very likely to be chaos. We are in such an interegnum period in the spiritual domain, where Unigod is being supplanted by a multigod state - the attendent moral confusion and decay is evident all round.

What I find intriguing though is that it is only in the European Christian period of the Unigod state (state as in a quantum state), does science and its application to serve humanity, come into existence. It is only in Christendom that it is not just a flash in the pan, but grows strong as an organised system of thought. Though great men of thought existed in previous eras, the matter ended there- they were individuals.

And not just science, but the whole panoply of the emancipation of man, abolition of slavery, the extension of human rights to war, and prisoners of war, and much else. None of this happened in the various previous periods of multigod or Unigod states. It does not even happen in the Jewish states of Unigod or multigod. I’m aware of the many scientific contributions by Jews, but it has to be noted these were made in European Christendom, and never in any other cultural/religious environments, including a purely Jewish one. It is in the atmospherics of Christendom does science and mathematics really come to exist, and then gain strength.

Why should this be so? Is it a coincidence, or something more? Surely not, or it would have fizzled out. Even in the field of mathematics, where the Greeks (in a multigod state), had a 500-year head start over Christian Europe, they never advanced beyond static descriptions of space. The Greeks also failed to investigate the physical universe, even though they had the mathematic tools for it (or thought they had).

Christianity is the strangest religion ever. If men actually sat down and created it, then it must be strangest religion ever created by man. So much of it is so strange that anyone creating it, would instantly reject it as being impossible, and therefore, of no use in attracting a person to Christianity.

At heart, is the given that there is a mystery, and that mystery is so profound that it can never be know to mortals. How strange – you are offered a salvation in the form of a mystery, which can never be known.

It could be it was this that goaded men to try and solve the mystery, and thus physical science begins. I would then hazard, that science owes its existence to Christianity.

Marcus said...

Ilion and Rick,

For the record, I did not mean to imply that the ancient world was more rational. I think the opposite is true: they were certainly more in tune with the irrational and with mystery. My point is that once we reject the idea of God as a maker but preserve the corresponding idea of rationality, we are left with a mechanical, reductionist world-view that posits rationality above else, thus closing the door to a non-scientific investigation of the mysteries of life. A creature like Dwakins, for example, could only exist within a disillusioned Christian world.

One sees the problem, for example, in Heidegger, who sough to get behind (beneath) the ontology of the rational God - and the consequences were mind-boggling and catastrophic.

Essentially, my argument is that by putting all your ethical-moral eggs in Unigod's hands, you may be left with no ethical compass if you jettison that god. If on the other hand ethics is derived from multiple sources, man's fall will be less catastrophic. I've never been impressed by the declaration that "If God is dead, everything is permitted." Everything? Why? It simply does not follow unless you believe man incapable of ethical behavior - in all spheres of life - without Unigod's guidance. A Roman, for instance, may have been incredibly disappointed with a civic deity yet preserved his filial-piety intact.

Also, the more political-historical argument expressed above regarding centralization has much merit. It was said by critics that Constantine needed one religion for one empire and one people.

Still, the original entry raised a more nuanced, uncanny question that has intrigued me for years: what happened to men's minds, how and why. Makes one take revelation very seriously.

Ilíon said...

Marcus: "My point is that once we reject the idea of God as a maker but preserve the corresponding idea of rationality, we are left with a mechanical, reductionist world-view that posits rationality above else, thus closing the door to a non-scientific investigation of the mysteries of life. A creature like Dwakins, for example, could only exist within a disillusioned Christian world."

Indeed, a Dawkins, or a Russell, can exist only in a society seeped in a Christian worldview.

At the same time, it's actually impossible to simultaneously reject the idea/knowledge of the Creator-God and yet hold onto the idea of rationality: the "mechanical, reductionist world-view" logically denies the reality of, and the possibility of, rationality.

Anonymous said...

Rick wrote: Is your parallel with political development an analogy or do you mean that monotheism was simply the end stage in a political or social process?

Not as end development, but as states that exist side by side. Sometimes a majority of humans are in one state, and then in the other. We can take QM as a guide. Quantum states exist, even though at times, they are unpopulated.

It is up to the observer to ascertain what is subjectively good for humanity. As fas one can see, the Christian Unigod state has led immense positive advantages for all mankind, and not just the West, when it was in its Christian Unigod state.

Ilíon said...Indeed, a Dawkins, or a Russell, can exist only in a society seeped in a Christian worldview.

Quite. Dawkins, Hitchins etc criticism is of Christianity and not any other religion. In a way this is a compliment, for they are unable to define themselves in any other way except as opposition to Christianity.

So what does this mean. They really are not opposing Christianity in the sense as Islam does, but serving the same role as sceptical scientists do in any debate about a scientific theory.***

***This is true for all scientific theories except the hypothesis of AGW. In this case, the sceptics have been placed in the same category as Holocaust deniers.

jimbo said...

I think the question is actually misconceived. If you actually look deeply at Greek or Roman paganism (or Hinduism for that matter), you find out that behind all the picturesque gods and demigods you DO have a conception of a single creator god. But that single creator god is so remote and abstract, so removed from the world, that it is no use trying to pray to Him or communicate in any way.

What Judaism (and, more significantly, Christianity) gave to pagan antiquity was the concept that the Creator of the cosmos was actually personally invested in His creation - to the absurd extent that He actually "wrote himself into it" in order for his creatures to become closer to Him. That, not he mere concept of One God, was the difference.

Ilíon said...

"If you actually look deeply at Greek or Roman paganism ..., you find out that behind all the picturesque gods and demigods you DO have a conception of a single creator god"

When did that happen?

Are you sure you're not reading later philosophical developments back into paganism?

Takuan Seiyo said...

I am not much perturbed by the issue of why then and not before. One might as well cogitate on why so many apples had fallen before, but it took Newton to draw a conclusion from the falling apple that he beheld.
The Uni-God is one of the distinct contribution of the Hebrews, the second one being the anathema on human sacrifice but the third one, the 10 Commandments, having some precedence in the Hammurabi Code. What worries me more is that while the Judaic conception and the religion and morality that arose from it, Christianity, remains as a bedrocks of Western civilizations, we have gradually eradicated the second one, ancient Greece, and watered down the third one, Rome. Not to speak of our connectedness to our lands and landscapes that we lost when Christianity expunged by fire and sword Europe’s pagan cults.All that mix is well worth a reappraisal.