Philosophy and Superstition
“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (v. 16).- Acts 17:16–21
The city of Athens was the seat of Greek philosophy. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had lived and taught there. Before them Thales, Anaximander, Parmenides, Heraclitus, and many others had practiced philosophy there. Each was seeking the one ultimate principle of which all things were supposedly composed. Thales believed that ultimately, everything is water, while in a more sophisticated way, Plato and Aristotle claimed that ultimately, everything is “being.”
By focusing on this one ultimate aspect of reality, the philosophers were pushing against the worship of particular things like idols. In time, however, idolatry returned even stronger than before. After all, if everything in the world is a piece of the Ultimate, then everything is divine to some degree. Things that have more “being” are more divine, and so for our own good we had better worship them. Eventually, Athens, the city of philosophy, also became the city of idols. Greek philosophy led straight to superstition.
The Bible has very little admiration for Greek philosophy, though unfortunately, many in the history of the Christian church have not shared the Bible’s viewpoint. Paul was not impressed by what he saw in Athens. He was distressed. He did not say, “Athens, at last! The home of the wonderful philosophers Plato and Parmenides.” He did not try to meld the Gospel to the thinking of Aristotle. Instead, he confronted the Athenians head-on.
The philosophers in Athens at this time were organized into two groups. The Epicureans argued that men should seek pleasure, and that the best way to do that is to live moderately. The Stoics argued that men should seek independence and self-sufficiency, and suppress their desires. Both groups were continually seeking new things, the Epicureans because of their quest for new pleasures, and the Stoics because of curiosity about nature. Thus, when Paul arrived in their midst with a strange new teaching, they rapidly brought him to the Council of the Areopagus, which supervised the religions and foreign gods in Athens. They wanted to hear about this new “manifestation of being.”
The idea of all the world being a part of God, or participating in deity, is common in New Age thinking. Perhaps this view is popular in the West because it is so democratic, all things sharing equally in divinity. Remember always the infinite gap between Creator and creation. Praise God as the single source of all being.
Passages for Further Study
1 Corinthians 8:1–13