The age of the sage

Updated 02 Nov 2014


— Illustration by Abro
— Illustration by Abro

In the ancient Greek civilisation, people used to worship a number of gods and goddesses, who were believed to reside far away from human settlements, either on mountain peaks or in the sky. Magnificent temples were built in their honour and to pay homage to them. To please their gods, they sacrificed animals, celebrated festivals and performed ceremonies in order to feel the presence of gods and goddesses amidst them.

The Olympics were organised to pay respect to the gods, and here athletes would display their skills and arts in a variety of sports. Dedicated to the Olympian gods, these games would be staged on the ancient plains of Olympia. Annual theatre competitions were also held to commemorate gods where great writers participated and dramas would be performed.

However, these deities had no interference in the social, political and economical affairs of the Greek society. For example, when there was a question of improvement of law and order, the society turned to Draco, the first legislator of Athens in Ancient Greece who replaced the prevailing system of oral law and blood feud with a written code to be enforced only by a court. The new legal system was an endeavour to create peace and harmony. As the laws of Draco were very harsh, they could not be sustained over a long period of time.

In the 6th century BC the statesman Solon, also known as ‘one of the seven wise men of Greece ended the exclusive aristocratic control of the government by substituting a system of control by the wealthy.

What forms the basis of social harmony, faith or philosophy?

He introduced a new and more humane law code. His law system made attempts to bridge the gap between the rich and poor, to abolish the debt which the poor had to pay to the nobles and to end slavery so that no Athenian could be enslaved. Those who were sold outside Athens were returned to their homeland. He also introduced some economic reforms and the peasants were encouraged to plant olive trees so that oil could be exported. When Lycurgus established a military-oriented reformation of the society through his legal system, Sparta transformed into a militant State.

In the 6th century BC an Ionian philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus, propounded the theory that nothing is permanent, everything is in motion and traditions, values, and norms change according to the need of time. He is also known for his famous saying “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. He believed in the multiplicity of opinion and plurality of views. According to him, there is no lasting truth.

In the 4th century BC, Socrates and his followers emphasised on the importance of moral values for the sustenance of the society. However, there was no divine interference to legitimise morality or the legal system.

The Romans imitated the Greeks in codifiying their laws according to their circumstances. The Roman philosophers such as Cicero (d.43BC), Seneca (d.65 AD), and Marcus Aurelius (d.180AD) followed stoicism which suited the ruling classes of the Roman Empire. Lucretius (d.55BC) believed in the philosophy of Epicureanism and denied the existence of deities but wanted to act upon moral values for better enabling the discipline and organisation of society.

All these philosophers had a secular approach towards social, political and economic problems without making any attempt to seek the help of deities.

The situation of Roman society radically changed when in 313 AD, Constantine, the then emperor converted to Christianity. The Church, with the support of the state, launched a campaign against the Pagan philosophers.

Some of them were killed and those who survived took refuge in other countries. When Justinian (527-565AD) became the emperor, he tried to Christianise the whole Roman Empire by wiping out non-Christians and heretic sects. He abolished Plato’s academy which was the center of philosophy, uprooting all liberal and secular ideas. He was the emperor who built the famous church of Hagia Sofia in Constantinople. He was also famous as a law maker. The famous library of Alexandria which contained the rare manuscripts was burnt for housing what was considered Pagan literature.

The result of this policy was that Greek philosophy disappeared from the Roman Empire. Most of the manuscripts were destroyed while some of them were preserved by the Pagan philosophers, who migrated to Harran (an ancient city in upper Mesopotamia) where they were translated from Greek into Arabic during the Abbasid period. It was through these Arabic translations that the west came to relearn Greek philosophy.

As a result of this narrow-minded policy — that there was a single truth and all other beliefs and thoughts were false and irreligious — Europe plunged into the Dark Ages.

During the medieval period in Europe, faith dominated all aspects of life and nobody was allowed to deviate from the teachings of the Church. Philosophy became subordinate to religion and consequently, during this period, no great philosophers or thinkers were produced. Europe had to wait for Renaissance to pull it back from darkness to enlightenment. During this period, the lost heritage of Greece and Rome was discovered and retrieved which transformed European society on the basis of rationalism.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 2nd, 2014