A lightly regarded and superficial religion cannot endure, especially when it has no priesthood to foster its forms and to fill the hearts of the devotees with fear and awe. The Olympian religion did not promise salvation, nor did it quench the spiritual thirst of its believers; therefore was it doomed to perish. Within a millennium of its inception it had nearly vanished, and the Greeks were without a national religion, the gods of Olympus having lost their hold upon the better minds.
This was the situation when, during the sixth century before Christ, the Orient and the Levant experienced a revival of spiritual consciousness and a new awakening to the recognition of monotheism. But the West did not share in this new development; neither Europe nor northern Africa extensively participated in this religious renaissance. The Greeks, however, did engage in a magnificent intellectual advancement. They had begun to master fear and no longer sought religion as an antidote therefor, but they did not perceive that true religion is the cure for soul hunger, spiritual disquiet, and moral despair. They sought for the solace of the soul in deep thinking—philosophy and metaphysics. They turned from the contemplation of self-preservation—salvation—to self-realization and self-understanding.
By rigorous thought the Greeks attempted to attain that consciousness of security which would serve as a substitute for the belief in survival, but they utterly failed. Only the more intelligent among the higher classes of the Hellenic peoples could grasp this new teaching; the rank and file of the progeny of the slaves of former generations had no capacity for the reception of this new substitute for religion.
The philosophers disdained all forms of worship, notwithstanding that they practically all held loosely to the background of a belief in the Salem doctrine of “the Intelligence of the universe,” “the idea of God,” and “the Great Source.” In so far as the Greek philosophers gave recognition to the divine and the superfinite, they were frankly monotheistic; they gave scant recognition to the whole galaxy of Olympian gods and goddesses.
The Greek poets of the fifth and sixth centuries, notably Pindar, attempted the reformation of Greek religion. They elevated its ideals, but they were more artists than religionists. They failed to develop a technique for fostering and conserving supreme values.
Xenophanes taught one God, but his deity concept was too pantheistic to be a personal Father to mortal man. Anaxagoras was a mechanist except that he did recognize a First Cause, an Initial Mind. Socrates and his successors, Plato and Aristotle, taught that virtue is knowledge; goodness, health of the soul; that it is better to suffer injustice than to be guilty of it, that it is wrong to return evil for evil, and that the gods are wise and good. Their cardinal virtues were: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice.
The evolution of religious philosophy among the Hellenic and Hebrew peoples affords a contrastive illustration of the function of the church as an institution in the shaping of cultural progress. In Palestine, human thought was so priest-controlled and scripture-directed that philosophy and aesthetics were entirely submerged in religion and morality. In Greece, the almost complete absence of priests and “sacred scriptures” left the human mind free and unfettered, resulting in a startling development in depth of thought. But religion as a personal experience failed to keep pace with the intellectual probings into the nature and reality of the cosmos.
In Greece, believing was subordinated to thinking; in Palestine, thinking was held subject to believing. Much of the strength of Christianity is due to its having borrowed heavily from both Hebrew morality and Greek thought.
In Palestine, religious dogma became so crystallized as to jeopardize further growth; in Greece, human thought became so abstract that the concept of God resolved itself into a misty vapor of pantheistic speculation not at all unlike the impersonal Infinity of the Brahman philosophers.
But the average men of these times could not grasp, nor were they much interested in, the Greek philosophy of self-realization and an abstract Deity; they rather craved promises of salvation, coupled with a personal God who could hear their prayers. They exiled the philosophers, persecuted the remnants of the Salem cult, both doctrines having become much blended, and made ready for that terrible orgiastic plunge into the follies of the mystery cults which were then overspreading the Mediterranean lands. The Eleusinian mysteries grew up within the Olympian pantheon, a Greek version of the worship of fertility; Dionysus nature worship flourished; the best of the cults was the Orphic brotherhood, whose moral preachments and promises of salvation made a great appeal to many.
All Greece became involved in these new methods of attaining salvation, these emotional and fiery ceremonials. No nation ever attained such heights of artistic philosophy in so short a time; none ever created such an advanced system of ethics practically without Deity and entirely devoid of the promise of human salvation; no nation ever plunged so quickly, deeply, and violently into such depths of intellectual stagnation, moral depravity, and spiritual poverty as these same Greek peoples when they flung themselves into the mad whirl of the mystery cults.
Religions have long endured without philosophical support, but few philosophies, as such, have long persisted without some identification with religion. Philosophy is to religion as conception is to action. But the ideal human estate is that in which philosophy, religion, and science are welded into a meaningful unity by the conjoined action of wisdom, faith, and experience.