10 September 2013

The End of an Era: Meaning & Solace in Pre-Christian Society

The search for meaning and solace in the dangerous world before the birth of Christ

Conditions of life until the 20th century were pretty raw and sadly, they continue to be so for many people. Fighting, pestilence, lack of food and the abuses of others were the conditions most people were born into. If you were lucky and strong enough to survive childhood you could count your blessing. Then the perils of childbirth for women and the demands of war for men, were just two of the imminent dangers that brought mortality to front of your mind. Unless you were very lucky, living into your fifth decade was unlikely.

In the face of such hardship we could easily be tempted into Thomas Hobbes’s famous dictum ‘life is nasty, brutish and short’. But people, by and large, can’t live with such meaningless pessimism. They look for, ache for, solace and a feeling of belonging to something that orientates their life. Whether it is fate, the play of the Gods or the spirits of nature, people need to locate themselves in relation to their experience. Our logic-orientated brains have sought reasons – some kind of rational account of what, why and how.

The story of reason that we in the Christian west tell ourselves is that from around the 5th century BC from the pre-Socratics and then the trio of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, reason was born in ancient Greece from which the civilized world emerged. Despite serious omissions in the story (for example China, India and Persia) this lineage interlaced with more ancient scriptural accounts is the one we imbibe through our culture and is traced through the history of philosophy and ideas taught in our universities. Very, very crudely, reason passes through Rome, onwards through Christ, gets lost in the ‘Dark Ages’ emerges in the Renaissance, gets reworked through the Reformation, Descartes and Newton before arriving at the ages of Enlightenment, Revolution and Modernity. Phew!

The story of reason demands a lifetime of scholarship but reason itself is also severely limited in helping us deal with life. Reason alone never delivers what the human spirit needs and as Mahatma Gandhi famously put it ‘Reason given the status of omnipotence becomes a monster.’ In the centuries between Socrates and Christ, reason was worked and used in three of our most enduring philosophies. Again very, very crudely: Scepticism – the belief that real knowledge of things is impossible, Epicureanism – that the world is made of the mere fortuitous combination of atoms, and Stoicism – that happiness can only be obtained by submission to natural law.

All three are components of the intellectual resources we operate with today – you can find them in the everyday talk of folk. But can you see how they each attempt to deliver a reasoned account of the human condition, but are each insufficient in helping us to live our lives. They are at best partial accounts and do not answer our internal ache to find meaning. As people in the centuries before Christ and Christendom faced their hardships, such philosophies would not have helped them much.

The intellectual conditions before Christ lacked what the Christ story provided – a way of finding meaning in adverse conditions. Maybe that is why Christianity took such an enduring grip on us.

John Issitt is the author of Agents of Reason.
Website: http://www.agentsofreason.co.uk/,
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