Naturalistic Traditions: Were the Classical Greeks naturalistic?

Naturalistic Traditions: Were the Classical Greeks naturalistic? December 3, 2013

Heracles and Athena. Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, 480–470 BC. From Vulci. Image via Wikipedia. Public domain.

Last time, we discovered the world’s oldest Naturalistic Pagans* in the Ionian philosophers of ancient Greece.  Yet, they comprised no more than a handful of intellectuals in a world full of theists.  What was the effect of naturalism on the rest of Greece as it developed in the Classical period?  Did it spread through the culture or remain isolated?

This post is part of Naturalistic Traditions, a column exploring naturalism in Pagan ways.  The present series explores the historical roots of naturalistic ways in order to gain an expanded sense of the historicity of the diverse styles of belief common in Paganism today.

Something in the air

According to Aristotle, the Ionians sparked the beginning of philosophy, so their influence must have been vast.  In terms of religion, however, the majority of Greeks of the Classical Period (roughly 480 – 323 BCE) remained firmly theistic.  Nevertheless, something was in the air.  A wide range of cultural innovators produced a milieu that conduced to naturalism spreading through the culture.

The Classical Period was the age of Socrates, Euripides, Hippocrates, Thucydides, and countless other great names.  Learning and the arts flourished, and a significant segment of the populace became literate.**  With this came enhanced esteem for reason, which did not leave religion untouched.  For example, many luminaries, such as Xenophanes, complained that deity, being perfect, could not be as lewd and mischievous as portrayed in myth.  Meanwhile, the Sophists contributed a distinction between physis (nature) and nomos (custom or culture), stressing the relativity of the latter, as well as the first clear agnostic or atheist positions: Protagoras proclaimed “Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not or of what sort they may be” (Poster, 2002), Prodicus of Ceos said the gods originated from the impressive powers of nature (Guthrie, 1971), Critias claimed they were invented to instill good behavior through fear (Bremmer, 2006), and Diagoras of Melos declared there were no gods at all (Hecht, 2003).  Finally, Socrates, as portrayed in Plato’s Euthyphro, rejected the gods as the source of moral authority.  All these voices created a critical atmosphere: it became permissible to reason about the nature of deity.

This atmosphere, conducive to the spread of naturalism, can be seen beyond the schools of philosophy: it turns up especially in the playwrights, historians, and medical physicians of the day.  We’ll have a look at each of these in turn, followed by a final note on the views of the common people.

The playwrights

When the Greeks thought of paideia, or education, they thought not only of schools but also of theaters.  The stage was a locus for the inculcation of traditions and mores.  This makes it all the more startling to find critical attitudes toward religion in the works of the great playwrights: Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sophocles.

For instance, Aeschylus’ Oresteia transforms the myth of Orestes, who kills his father, into a morality story in a way it never was before: Orestes essentially becomes an ethical hero.

At the same time, Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds portrays Socrates claiming that thunder comes not from Zeus but from a collision of winds.  Though the view is lampooned, it nevertheless reveals a new naturalistic way of thinking.

Then there is Euripides, who has been called an atheist but whose true beliefs remain elusive.  His Bacchus, drenched with religious overtones, depicts King Pentheus vying against the god Dionysus.  Although the king ultimately pays with his life for his doubt, one cannot help but sense a subversive subtext.  It is likewise hard to ignore the the words of the main character from a fragment of his lost play Bellerophontes, who declares:

Does someone say there are indeed gods in heaven? There are not, there are not, if a man is willing not to rely foolishly on the antiquated reasoning.  (Bremmer, 2006)

Finally, Sophocles is of particular note.  Woodruff (2009) goes so far as to call his work humanist, noting that human action, rather than divine, takes center stage.  The gods, though present, are typically off-stage, while the foreground is held by the passions and faults of ordinary people.  Moreover, unlike the plots of Euripides, resolved via deus ex machina (i.e. by divine intervention), those of Sophocles can be accounted for by human causes alone.  Divine causes are there as well, but only alongside human ones.  This double determinism may have expressed a growing willingness for Greek audiences to entertain non-theistic and even naturalistic explanations of events.***

These playwrights thus contributed to the growing atmosphere critical of religion as traditionally conceived, which simultaneously conduced to naturalism.

The historians

Among Greek historians, two names loom large: Herodotus and Thucydides.  Comparison of their approaches reveals a striking turn toward the naturalistic.  Herodotus, considered by some to be the world’s first real historian, invoked all manner of divine causes in his chronicles.  This is conspicuously absent, however, in Thucydides.  He sought the causes and effects of events without reference to gods. Though he seems to put at least some stock in oracles, his decision to exclude divine intervention from historical causes represents a radical break from Herodotus.  His method of history is, on the whole, naturalistic.

Thucydides may himself have been a naturalist.  Then again, one can employ naturalistic methods without being a naturalist, just as a modern scientist can do experiments without invoking God yet go happily to church on Sunday.  Nevertheless, the case of Thucydides sums up two points, which could be made of any of the figures discussed in this article: he represents a further contribution to the critical atmosphere mentioned above, and indicates that Greek audiences of the time were willing to entertain naturalistic ideas.

The medical physicians

Just as with theater and history, so too with medicine in Classical Greece: attitudes were changing.  Previous traditions, such as the physicians of the cult of Asclepius, made heavy use of divinity and magic, both in their explanations and their cures.  The Hippocratics, however, broke with that practice.  They concentrated instead on empirical methods.

This is nowhere better exemplified than in the text entitled On The Sacred Disease, which discusses epilepsy.  Traditionally considered an affliction sent by gods, epilepsy is claimed by the author to be no more or less divine than any other disease.  In fact, the author seems to consider all aspects of nature equally sacred:

And the disease called the Sacred arises from causes as the others, namely, those things which enter and quit the body, such as cold, the sun, and the winds, which are ever changing and are never at rest. And these things are divine, so that there is no necessity for making a distinction, and holding this disease to be more divine than the others, but all are divine, and all human.  (Adams, 1868)

Cold, sun, and winds are divine – and all diseases too.  By this, the author does not seem to mean they are embodiments of deities, for there was no Greek god of the cold, but rather that the natural world itself is divine, and no part of it more so than any other.  This pantheistic sentiment re-focuses attention on the empirical world, which surely must have been conducive to naturalism.

More importantly, it reveals something about how far naturalism had spread through the culture.  As Lloyd (1992) reminds us, the Hippocratics were first and foremost sellers of their services and wrote such texts in order to persuade potential clients.  That suggests they would likely have avoided views that would have sat poorly with potential clients.  If they included such naturalistic views as these, their clients must have been ready and willing to entertain them.  Among those able to pay physician costs, naturalistic ideas were apparently welcome.  Truly, something was in the air.

A final point is worth special attention: the Hippocratic author does not reject divinity per se, only its distinction as a cause separate from nature.  It is as though the author is arguing against an apparently prevalent view that some causes were divine and others natural: the phrase “from causes as the others” implies two categories of causes.  In contrast, the author collapses them into a single category, the nature of which is “things which enter and quit the body.”  This suggests a retention of the religious or spiritual within a naturalistic worldview, rather than a purely secularizing trend.  The consequences for Naturalistic Paganism, then, are clear: the author’s views may represent a combination of naturalism and Pagan religious practice.

The common people

So where does all this leave us regarding the population at large?  While we know that philosophers, theater-goers, history readers, and medical patients were exposed to and at least somewhat open to naturalistic ideas, the majority of the populace, which may not have been able to afford these luxuries, most likely remained traditional.

So, what can we say of the culture as a whole?  Robert Parker (2011) attempts to address the question in his On Greek Religion, and concludes that most Greeks maintained at least a basic belief in the efficacy of the religious system.  Oracles continued to be consulted and rituals carried out.  This implies a tacit affirmation that these things remained worth doing.  Opinions of precisely why they remained worth doing, however, likely varied from person to person.

One may imagine Naturalistic Pagans, whether as individuals or small crowds clamoring amidst the diversity of opinion, affirming the value of religious practices for naturalistic reasons.  They may have taken a cue from Aeschylus and recognized the role of myths as moral exemplars.  They may have followed Thucydides in acknowledging religion’s relevance as a cultural, if not strictly divine, force in history.  Or they may have sided with the Hippocratic physicians in seeing sacredness in nature and its ordinary processes.  Unfortunately, their voices are silent.  It is generally only the opinions of philosophers that come down to us in explicitly articulated forms; as for the rest, we can only speculate.

We’ll have much more to say of philosophical opinions in the next article in the series, particularly those of one of the most naturalistic groups in ancient history: the atomists.  In the meantime, we can conclude that naturalism probably did not remain isolated among a handful of eccentric intellectuals.  A critical mood allowed it to spread throughout the culture of Classical Greece, where it appears assumed in the audiences and clients of playwrights, historians, and medical physicians.  Though naturalism never achieved hegemony, it was a valid worldview common in ancient Greece.

*Naturalism may also have bloomed around the same time, or possibly even earlier, in India.  Difficulties with textual dating make confidence in the historical sequence problematic.
**Harris estimates the literacy rate of Athens to be 5-10%, which is large by ancient standards.
***In the first article of this series, I mentioned a potential objection: one may point to examples such as Sophocles’ Antigone, where Dionysos might still be considered “center stage”: fear of the deity’s withheld favor spurs Creon on to release Antigone, and leads to the suicide of Creon’s son Haemon.  Now, we can return to this criticism and give it fuller treatment.  A careful reading shows that it does not quite overturn Woodruff’s claim.  Human passions are still center stage, for it is not the god but human fear of him that motivates action.  Examples like this abound in Sophocles.  There may well be exceptions, but on the whole his work exemplifies a humanistic character that contributed to the critical atmosphere of Classical Greece.


Adams, C. D.  (1868).  “The Genuine Works of Hippocrates.”  Perseus Digital Library.  Retrieved November 20, 2013, from:

Bremmer, J.  (2006).  “Atheism in Antiquity.”  In: Martin, M., ed.  (2006).  The Cambridge Companion to Atheism.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Guthrie, W.  (1971).  The Sophists.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Harris, W. V.  (1989).  Ancient Literacy.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hecht, J. M.  (2003).  Doubt: A History.  New York: HarperCollines.

Lloyd, G. E. R.  (1992).  “Greek Antiquity: The Invention of Nature.”  In: Torrence, J., ed.  The Concept of Nature.  (1992).  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Martin, M., ed.  (2006).  The Cambridge Companion to Atheism.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Parker, R.  (2011).  On Greek Religion.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Poster, C.  (2005/2002).  “Protagoras (fl. 5th C. BCE).”  The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Retrieved November 20, 2013, from:

Thrower, J.  (1971).  A Short History of Western Atheism.  London: Pemberton Books.

Wians, R. W.  (2009).  Logos and Muthos: Philosophical Essays in Greek Literature.  New York: State University of New York Press.

Woodruff, P.  (2009).  “Sophocles’ Humanism.”  In Wians, R. W., (2009), Logos and Muthos, New York: State University of New York Press.

Previous posts in this series

  1. Exploring the historical roots of Naturalistic Paganism
  2. Modern cosmology
  3. Evolution and the way to live
  4. Were early hunter-gatherers naturalistic?
  5. Were early agriculturalists naturalistic?
  6. Were archaic Egypt and Mesopotamia naturalistic?
  7. Was archaic Greece naturalistic?
  8. Were the Ionian philosophers naturalistic?

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