There was an important question that the older Greek and Roman philosophies asked that stopped being asked after the rise of Christianity. That question is this: Is the search for god and the search for truth the same thing?
Is the search for god and the search for truth the same thing?
I spend a lot of time reading and translating Stoic philosophy, which developed three-hundred years BCE. My fascination concerning Stoic philosophy flows from the fact that the Western World—immediately before the take-over of the Roman Empire by Christianity in the 400s—had come very close to the level of philosophy that had developed in China in the form of Daoism and in India in the form of Buddhism.
It is tantalizing to think that the Mediterranean and European worlds might have reached the level of thought that developed in India and China had not Christianity destroyed the tradition.
We will never know what might have been, but what those of us who are post-Christian can do is look back at the pre-Christian documents that have survived and examine what was happening before Christianity stopped the process.
As it developed in the Roman Empire, Christianity took on elements of many philosophies and cults in the air at the time, including of course the idea of gods who became partially human—an idea that was very much NOT part of Jewish or Stoic thinking.
Back to the question: Is the search for god and the search for truth the same thing?
Various philosophies have answered the question in various ways. For Christianity, the answer is, “of course!”
But the Stoics had a more naturalistic answer to the question: “only if god (or the gods) equate to nature.”
In other words, nature is definitely the truth, and seeking truth by observing nature is fruitful. But pursuing the truth of the gods outside of observable nature is foolhardy.
In this way, Stoicism maps onto Chinese Daoism, which evolved directly out of more ancient shamanic practice. In Daoism, nature is the great teacher of human ethics, and the greatest teacher of all is water. In the seventy-eighth chapter of the Daodejing we read this:
Nothing is as soft and supple as water,
yet nothing hard stands up to it
because it cannot be stopped.
Anyone can see how
the soft overcomes the hard,
the weak the strong, yet
who puts this into practice?
Not very high-flown or philosophical, is it? Which is the point: when we stop searching for god and begin to search for truth, the search takes on a very practical bent. Rather than toying with abstractions, we are dealing with the concrete. For example, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said,
At the start (of doing anything), think: what is the nature of what I’m doing? Taking a bath? Think: hot water (I hope); steam; dropping the soap.
Think, and so go about the action . . . aware. Think: I will bathe and stay in harmony with nature.
And if a pipe breaks? Tell yourself: It’s not only a bath I want but harmony with nature. If I don’t see the humor, I won’t be in harmony.
Practical Stoic advice for getting through the day. There’s no need for a self-help section in the bookstore when you’ve got practical philosophy.
Is the search for god and the search for truth the same thing? Whatever the “truth” may be, from a practical standpoint, they had it going on in the BCE.
I post translations from Stoic philosophy at www.wayofoneness.com.