Paul's Passing Thoughts

The History of Western Philosophy and Its Societal Impact on the Church – Part 3

Posted in Uncategorized by Andy Young, PPT contributing editor on February 3, 2017

The following is part three of an eight-part series.
Taken from John Immel’s second session at the 2013 Conference on Gospel Discernment and Spiritual Tyranny
~ Edited by Andy Young

Click here for part one
Click here for part two
Click here for part four
Click here for part five
Click here for part six
Click here for part seven
Click here for part eight

We have been discussing the major contributors in the progression of Western thought. Many concepts and doctrines that we have traditionally come to think of as Biblical orthodoxy in reality have their roots in ancient philosophies. Here is a brief summary of the thinkers and their contribution that we studied in part two:

Thales – The first scientific approach to explaining reality as opposed to a pantheistic approah. The concept of one universal “stuff” and its various forms.

Heraclitus – Because everything is in a constant state of “flux”, man is unable understand the nature of reality. The first to introduce a division of reality. Two “realms”.

Parmenides – Precursor to Aristotle’s “Law’s of Identity” and existence. Existence is real, but change is not. Change is only apparent because of man’s faulty perception.

This brings us to part three, and we will pick up where we left off.


I want to address Zeno and his paradoxes, because they are very commonly used as proofs of Parmenides’ philosophy. Zeno was a disciple of Parmenides. He continued the arguments against Heraclitean thought. His goal was to prove that movement was an illusion and plurality and change was impossible. His proofs are said to support Parmenides’ conclusions. Here is his most famous paradox.

The Dichotomy Paradox: “That which is in locomotion must arrive at the half-way stage before it arrives at the goal.” – as recounted by Aristotle, Physics

This is basically the endless half-life of infinity. The theory is that you can’t ever cross a room, because in order to do so you must first cross half, and then must cross half of that, and so on, to the point where you could never actually arrive at your destination, and in this way, motion does not really exist. It is an illusion. Zeno is using this paradox to deny the implications of change.

Now you can see the utter quagmire that western thought is in. Now mind you, this is a monstrous step up from the rest of the world that is still under the tyranny of pantheism and the endless cycle of man is nothing more than a cog in the wheel of life-birth-death-life-birth-death. The developments these men are making are light-years forward in comparison to everybody else.


The Pythagoreans
The Pythagoreans represent a school of thought that is unique from both Thales and Heraclitus. They have an impact on western thought that persists throughout most of the rest of the timeline that we are going to cover. They are important because we are talking about a school of thought that has almost 500 years to develop before the onset of Christianity onto the scene. Pay close attention, because I am confident that you will find the Pythagoreans disconcerting.

When one talks about Pythagoras it is usually in reference to the school that he founded. While we know almost nothing about Pythagoras specifically, what we do know comes from a whole scope of literature that came out of the school and from writers like Parmenides, Aristotle, and others.

Please make a note: the Pythagoreans profoundly impacted Plato. This is the root source of the majority of Plato’s ideology. Again, this will become apparent later as we move on.

Most of you have probably heard of the Pythagorean Theorem, a2 + b2 = c2. It is most often attributed to Pythagoras, but it was most likely a product of someone else within the sect. It was a communistic, religious school, and many people contributed to the school’s intellectual content. While this equation and many other mathematical proofs are attributed to Pythagoras, it is more accurate to understand that intellectual movement was substantially beyond its founder.

Their claim to fame is primarily rooted in their extraordinary work in mathematics, music, and astronomy. Scholars talk of early, middle, and late Pythagoreans, but for our purposes, these distinctions don’t matter much because as you will see their influence continues to this day.

The Pythagoreans celebrate sunrise.

In contrast to the previous thinkers I have discussed there is one crucial distinction I want to make. This group was a part of the Orphic mystery religions, meaning that the previous thinkers were secular by comparative standards. While we would call Plato a pantheist, the fact of the matter is, by comparison he was agnostic at best.

Editorial Note: The following link will provide some insight into the tenets of the Orphism.
Here is an excerpt just to give you an idea:

“Man has two parts, a high part and a low part. The low part is the body, the high part the soul. These two are in eternal conflict with each other. The soul is akin to God, to another dimension. Once, it was a god-like creature, inhabiting another, superior, spiritual world. But it sinned. And the result was it fell from grace. And as punishment was included in the body on this earth. The body is therefore the prison, the tomb of the soul. And we are destined, each of us, to go through a series of “reincarnations”. At the end of our earthly span, our soul goes back to the other world, and it gets the appropriate reward or punishment (depending upon its behavior), and then it comes around again, what they call the “wheel of birth.” Sometimes it comes up in another human body, sometimes in an animal body. It lives out its cycle…until…the soul can escape from this body and earth permanently, reunite once and for all with God, and thereby achieve true happiness and salvation…

“How do you [get to it]?…purification…you have to live a good life…an ascetic life…[but] the Pythagoreans at their most ascetic are frenzied hedonists in comparison to the Christians that are yet to come…”

This is the roots of gnosticism that would take hold in the first and second centuries. We have a mystery religion, man in a flesh body that is functionally depraved needing some form of enlightenment that is given to him by the gods, enlightenment that is unique to a select few. This is where it starts.

They said failure to live a pure life brought punishments after death in the lower plains of the underworld. Harmony is divine. Disharmony is material and flesh. And now you can see why they arrived at a duality of existence.   Their religious worldview led them to conceptualize two different states, but they didn’t leave it there. The Pythagoreans identified three kinds of men:

  • Theoretic – The lowest class of man; a crass materialist; committed only to material gain and the preoccupation with his fleshly life.
  • Practical – Comes seeking to participate in enlightened action; wants higher virtues; still physically working to attain those values.
  • Apolistic – The highest class; those who simply look at life; exists in pure contemplation; the philosopher who contemplates science and mathematics who is released from the cycle of birth; a root desire to free oneself from the flesh

Freeing oneself from the flesh became the ethical ideal. Not only did they conceptualize two worlds, but they added the concept of a fundamental depravity of human existence. Heraclitus and Parmenides assumed that man’s senses were suspect, but it wasn’t a metaphysical corruption. The Pythagoreans’ notion of depravity goes beyond a mere inability, it makes man depraved as a function of his physical existence. Because he is material he is necessarily depraved.

So the question is, if they were a mystic sect, why would they become so dominant? Throughout history there have been many mystery religions, most of which you will never know even existed. By definition the mystery dies with the last follower who knew the secret. But the Pythagoreans sustained mystical influence because their advances in science were so compelling. Words fail when trying to describe the Pythagorean impact on music, math, and science. Their work in mathematics and astronomy makes possible men such as Kepler, Newton, and Einstein. We don’t get to the moon without the Pythagoreans. Without their foundation, physics would be impossible. So their mystical metaphysical worldview piggybacked into subsequent generations of thinkers because of the power of their contributions to the physical sciences.

This should not really be any surprise. Frankly, Christians do this sort of thing all the time. How many times do we presume that if a person has one crucial thing correct that he must have the authority to have everything else correct? As a result we accept, rather uncritically, whatever comes out of the preacher’s mouth. How could C.J. Mahaney, John Piper, John MacArthur, et al, ever get to where they are without this presumption?

Here is the introduction of the soul/body dichotomy into western thought. It is the origin for Martin Luther’s cross story/glory story, Augustine’s “original sin”, and Plato’s two realm idea that requires a philosopher king to bring enlightenment to the incompetent masses. The conclusions of such ideas always result in the dividing of humanity into classes. As we move forward into the development of Western thought, this division is almost never challenged. It becomes the dominant theme in Christianity almost from the outset.


The Atomists
Up to this point the progression of thought has been a-systematic, meaning there has been no systematic approach to the nature of things. There has been some tossing around of ideas back and forth, but this begins to change with the Atomists. For the first time, thinkers tried to develop a whole approach to primary philosophical questions, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics.

Like everyone else before them, the Atomists are trying to reconcile Thales and Heraclitus. They were materialists, meaning that reality is matter in motion. Everything, including non-material and mental phenomena is explained entirely in physical material terms. They were pluralists. Instead of one universal “stuff”, as Thales proposed, there are many “stuffs”. Each “stuff” is unchangeable. This would serve to satisfy Parmenides assertion that everything is unchangeable and indestructible. The smallest unit of these universal “stuffs” is the only thing that can move or change, which of course satisfies Heraclitus.

This has a serious flaw because, after all, we’re looking for a one-world substance that integrates everything and explains change. The Atomist’s explanation makes everything you see, taste, touch, smell, and hear have to contain its own unique “stuff”. The world would then collapse on itself for the sheer weight of things, and man would be lost in a blindingly chaotic world.

So the Atomists decided that all physical things have two parts: qualitative characteristics, and quantitative characteristics. This evolution of thought gave them the ability to sub-divide qualities (colors, smells, sounds) versus quantities (number, length, motion). It was pretty ingenious. It gave them the ability to categorize some things and not others. By removing quantities from consideration they were able to reduce the number of “stuffs” needed to explain the universal “stuff”. But they still needed to reconcile their ideas with Parmenides. They had a solution to absolutes, but now they had to figure out what to do with flux.

The solution to this was the question, “Are qualities real?”

The logic went like this. When a man smells, is he smelling something real or is his nose playing tricks on him? The simple answer is, no, it is not real, because “smell” is a quality based on man’s nose, and the easiest way to address quality was to conclude that nothing was real. Qualities are merely the way “stuff” affects man.

Once again, the conclusion is that man’s faculties are the problem.

But the conclusion begs the question: if there are no qualities, then how do these things operate? The answer was that the motion seen is from the physical pressure, the impact of the universal “stuff” against other universal “stuff”. This mental model formed the basis for what we now call “atoms”, but they were applying a mechanical model to the discipline of metaphysics.

Can you guess what this means?

If you have everything metaphysical acting mechanically what you end up with is an endless stream of causation. And since man is made up of the same universal “stuff”, this leaves man without independent will. He is simply a product of mechanical forces outside of his control. This is the foundation of determinism, and this is the concept that the Atomists introduced into Western though. The entire scope of Atomists’ philosophy doesn’t affect Christianity as a whole, but this one concept of determinism did. This concept is what influenced St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others to come.

To be continued…

Click here for part one
Click here for part two
Click here for part four
Click here for part five
Click here for part six
Click here for part seven
Click here for part eight