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The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers

1936 to 1937
University of St. Andrews

Jaeger’s basic thesis is that the thought of the pre-Socratic ‘philosophers’ is more recognisably theology than philosophy. Their concerns were with the nature of the divine, and their speculations about the origin of the world were intimately bound up with accounts of the origin of the divine. Thales gives an account of the gods within physical objects; Anaximander defines the divine as ‘the boundless’; Xenophanes pictures God as omnipotent and impassible. In poets such as Xenophanes and Pherecydes we find a movement from the ‘mythological’ deities of Homer toward a more philosophical bent, but it remains focused on the divine.

Parmenides views God as beyond even being; Heraclitus proclaims the divine law of harmony and balance. Finding the via media between Parmenides and Heraclitus becomes the work of later Greek philosophy. In Empedocles, Anaxagoras and Diogenes we find various theories of physics and metaphysics, but each alike insists on a direction to nature, a teleology, and at least hints at an organising divine mind that has ordered the world in these directions.

Only in the Sophists of the fifth century do we really find a turn away from theology to anthropology. The Sophists are less interested in the truth about God and more in the origins of human religious impulses. Jaeger sees this as the decisive loss of the ‘philosophical idea of God’.

  • St. Andrews