THE PATRISTIC POINT OF VIEW
The philosophy of the Greeks during the first century of our era presents a great contrast to that of the age of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. No longer do we find men engaged in the processes of positive, constructive thought, but we have presented to our view an age of retrospection, of literary criticism, and, to a great extent, of intellectual exhaustion.
Men live amid the ruins of the systems constructed by their ancestors, and each one attempts to form for himself, out of the scattered fragments, a combination which may serve him as a sufficiently coherent rule of thought, and, especially, of life. Stoicism, Epicureanism, Scepticism, the "Orientalizing Hellenes," and the "Hellenizing Orientals," all by their restless, nervous, frequently erratic and aimless activity, bear witness to the fact that the mind of man has had revealed to it its own limitations, and is well on the way towards despair of ever arriving at truth.
The Greek mind no longer exhibits that elasticity and spontaneity and enthusiasm in the search for truth, or that confidence in its results, which characterized the representatives of the best period of the thought of the race. The political fortunes of Greece do but typify the process which was going on in the Greek mind itself, and the period which we are considering is an age of intellectual as well as political decadence. This is manifested by the further fact that the thought of the age was largely turned backward and dwelt in the past.
The day of original thought had passed by, and men were now content to deal with ideas at second hand—to be commentators rather than creators. This literary character which Greek philosophy now first began to exhibit was often seen and protested against. Thus Epictetus says: "If I study philosophy with a view only to its literature, I am not a philosopher, but a littérateur; the only difference is that I interpret Chrysippus instead of Homer." But protest as they might, the inexorable signs of old age crept over the nation as irresistibly as they do over the individual, and, like the venerable man, preserved beyond his generation, Hellas lived largely in the memories of the past.
The influence of this condition of things is seen in the education of the times. The Greek world of this period, as we know it, was pre-eminently educated, but in a special, literary sense of the term. The foundation of their education was Grammar—the "Belles Lettres" of modern times. Sextus Empiricus says, "We are all given over to Grammar from childhood, and almost from our baby-clothes."
After Grammar came Rhetoric, "the study of literature by the study of literary expression and quasi-forensic argument," and Rhetoric was followed by Philosophy, which, however, like the other branches of study, so partook of the characteristics of the age that we find Marcus Aurelius congratulating himself in this manner: "I owe it to Rusticus that I found the idea of the need of moral reformation, and that I was not diverted to literary ambition, or to write treatises on philosophical subjects, or to make rhetorical exhortations."
This saying of the imperial Stoic suggests another characteristic of the thought of the age—its ethical cast. From the time of Aristotle men had been content to have, to a large extent, the abstract problems of Ontology, Epistemology, and the others, and to lay emphasis on questions of life and manners.
Stoicism, Epicureanism, Scepticism, and all the minor schools of the age, are pre-eminently ethical in their character. To be sure it was ethical theory rather than practice with which they were busied, but this fact makes the characteristic none the less important for the student of the history of philosophy. This disorganized condition of thought which we have been attempting to depict has been well described by Dr. Stirling: "The fall of the old world, which was at once political, religious and philosophical, was characterized by a universal atomism.
Politically, the individual, as an atom, found himself alone, without a country, hardly with a home. Religiously, the individual, as an atom, has lost his God; he looks up into an empty heaven; his heart is broken, and he is hopeless, helpless, hapless, in despair. Philosophically, all is contradiction; there is no longer any knowledge he can trust. What the world is he knows not at all. He knows not at all what he himself is. Of what he is here for, of what it is all about, he is in the profoundest doubt, despondency and darkness. Politically, religiously and philosophically thus empty and alone, it is only of himself that the individual can think; it is only for himself that the individual must care.
There is not a single need left him now—he has not a single thought in his heart—but εὖ πράττειν, his own welfare." It was in the midst of this lump of Eclecticism, Syncretism and Scepticism that the leaven of Christianity was deposited, and the result of the fusion which took place after the first antagonism had passed away, makes this period a turning-point in the history of philosophy, and of the utmost importance as regards its effects on subsequent thought. And of this antagonism and subsequent reconciliation, the early Christian Apologists were concrete examples.
They had most of them, before they became Christians, been adherents of one or the other of the different philosophical sects, and several of them had tried all in turn. They exemplified well the prevailing restless distrust of the results and methods of the older schools, but in Christianity—the belief in a Person, who was for them "the Way, the Truth and the Life"—they finally found the certainty for which they had so long sought in vain.
The effect of this process, and of this result upon the attitude of the early Christian philosophers, could be none other than an increased distrust of the arguments for the existence of God, and an inclination to ignore them completely. These already suspected processes of reasoning by which the Greeks had been able to attain only to an abstract principle, or force, or mechanical cause, or arranger of the world, must be of very small importance to these men, upon whose sight had burst all at once, in the height of their despair, the vision of the Christian doctrine of God, certified to by one whom they believed to be the veritable Son of God, "of one substance with the Father," and whose testimony to the truth of any fact brought a certainty which was infinitely superior to that which could be attained by any rational argument on other grounds.
The transcendent authority of the teaching of Jesus Christ for these men, suddenly rescued by a belief in His claims from an absolute scepticism which was rapidly overflowing their minds, needs to be thoroughly appreciated before one can understand the position which they assumed, especially with reference to such a question as the one under discussion. But though this basis of belief was sufficient for them, yet, as the primary mission of the Christian was to "go, disciple all nations," they were soon brought, in their endeavors to fulfil this command, into contact with those who not only denied the authority of their Teacher, but who were sceptical about the very fundamentals of religious belief.
For the sake of these, then, and occasionally for the further confirmation of the faith of believers, and for purposes of illustration, the patristic writers return again to the discussion of those elements of belief for which they themselves felt no need, and hence we have in their works a rather frequent reference to the various forms of the theistic argument; but one which is evidently only incidental to their main course of thought, and which is brought in merely in accommodation to the needs of their readers. The ordinary arguments to prove the existence of God were not at all an essential, or even prominent, feature of early Christian Theology.
And because of this secondary and incidental position of these arguments, they were never, as we shall see, given definite, conventional shape in the patristic use of them, nor were the various forms of the argument differentiated; but they were used in what we may call a mixed form, a combination of two or more different forms being put forth as one composite whole.
Besides these general influences which shaped the patristic treatment of the theistic arguments, we should notice certain fundamental and characteristic principles assumed by the Fathers, or by most of them, which have their bearing on our subject.