Ancient philosophy was religion
exactly as Raphael imagined him in 1511 AD

Getting started



For the ancients, philosophy was religion without revelation.

Another SPFYMLMWe're talking about how ancient religion was qualitatively different from modern religion, how it served different functions. We just saw that ancient religion included civic religion, which helped people control the world by bargaining with the god-beings.

Now, we imagine our religion is moral. Ancient civic religion wasn't, at least not the way we understand moral. People didn't bargain, "God save me from this illness, and I promise not to sin." Their bargaining was practical, "God, I'm giving you these nice cakes and incense, which be both know you like; now, you protect me from illness."

Don't get fooled. Just because ancient civic religion didn't address morality (at least not the way we understand moral), don't you go thinking ancient people didn't care about morality, about right and wrong, good and evil and ultimate truth. They did. They just addressed the question with a different kind of institution. Where we use scripture and the revealed word of God to understand good and evil, they used philosophy. Who'd 'a thunk it?

So let's talk about ancient philosophy. Remember that as we try to understand how ancient institutions translate into modern terms, it's useful to see philosophy as one of three kinds of ancient religion:

Civic Religion



bargain with the God-beings so they'll cause good things to happen


access the power of the God-beings to predict the future

  Personal, family, tribal, city and national religions.



Mystery Religions

Personal contact with divinity. Salvation.

Philosopy           φιλοσοφια
Civic religion didn't have a formal theology to answer questions of morality and purpose, and it didn't take much sophistication to see the-god-beings-do-it-only-you-can't-see myths weren't convincing explanations of how the world worked. There were vacuums to fill.

For the ancients, at least for big parts of the literate aristocracy, philosophy wasn't remote and abstract and theoretical, it was fundamental to your day to day understanding of the world, and to your personal idenity. People back then were Platonists, or Stoics, or Epicurians the same way people now are Baptists, or Catholics or atheists.

Philosophy—religion without revelation
For us, religion and revelation are inseparable. Christianity, Islam, Bahai'-ism, Mormonism are "revealed" religions, based on the God's direct revelation through his Son or Prophet—Jesus, Mohamed, Bahaulla, Joseph Smith. The ancients didn't have "revealed" religions (at least not much). They had to work out their ideas of meaning and divinity without a solid, revealed, starting place.

People who thought about meaning and divinity were called "philosophers." We use the same word today, but we mean something way different. It's a mistake for us to think of ancient philosophers as tweed jacket theorists. They were theologians.

The best way to define the ancients' word "philosophy" to us—limited as we are to equating deity and revelation—is "religion without revelation." In a world without revealed religion, the ancient philosophers tried to figure out, What is God? Amazing.

Ancient philosophers developed ethical and moral teachings that guided men and empires all around the Mediterranean for hundreds of years.


If you're interested in how ancient philosopher/theologians understood God, Cicero's book, The Nature of the Gods, is a great read.

Listen to Cicero [106 - 43 BC], a non-Christian, describing God:  >>  

"God dwells in the universe as its ruler and governor, and rules the stars in their courses, and the changing seasons, and all the varying sequences of nature, looking down on earth and sea, and protecting the life and goods of men." ....

"The divine power is to be found in a principle of reason which pervades the whole of nature."

Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, Book 1
Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

You got that? Ancient religion wasn't like our religion. Civic religion, whose magic beings make it look to us like "religion", was mostly about controlling the world by bargaining with the god-beings—hardly a function of "religion" at all, as we see it. Philosophy was about ethics and morality, but it didn't have revelation—to us a key featrue of "religion"— but philosophy did not have revelation, so to us it doesn't look like religion at all.

Good Books for this section

From Religion to Philosophy:
A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation
by F.M. Cornford

What you'll find:

Explains how the earliest rationalist Greek philosophers borrowed the basic moral concepts of Greek religion.

First published in 1912. Still in print because it is very very good. Even if you're not a Pagan origins buff, this is a great book. Highly recommended.



The Greeks and the Irrational
by E.R. Dodds

What you'll find:

A famous scholarly look at the parts of Greek thought that were not rational—which basically means their religious ideas, particularly where they met philosophy.

First published in 1951, still in print because it is very very good. Even if you're not a Pagan origins buff, this is a great general interest book. Highly recommended.


Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity
editors Polymnia Athanassiadi, Michael Frede

What you'll find:

A technical book by academics, for academics, reviewing the trend of antique non-Christian thought to believe in One God.

Chapters include:
Towards Monotheism
Monotheism and Pagan Philosophy in Late Antiquity
Monotheism in the Gnostic Tradition
The Cult of Theos Hypsistos between Pagans, Jews and Christians

Best Paragraph:
" Thus, if one does postulate an intelligent agent as an ultimate principle at all, one will try to postulate a unique, single agent of sufficient power, unless there are overwhelming considerations to the contrary. This will be done for the same reason as one will try to get away with postulating fire as one element, rather than a whole number of irreducibly different kinds of fire. Hence, though it is perfectly true that Aristotle did not have to concern himself with the question of monotheism versus polytheism, he, like Plato before him and philosophers like the Stoics after him, had a precise reason to assume that there was one particular, individual, active principle which governs the world."
Pg 47


The Cambridge Companion to Greek Philosophy
edited by David Sedley

What you'll find:

A reasonably intelligible introduction to Greek and Roman philosophy.




Greek Philosophy
Thales to Aristotle
editor Reginald Allen

What you'll find:

A nice collection of primary sources from early Greek philosophers. Remember philosophy was a form of religion.