LH-1. History and Philosophy in the Classical Culture

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by Msgr. Eugene Kevane
©2003 The Miriam Press. All Rights Reserved

I. History and Philosophy in the Classical Culture

The capacity for history is a mark of the human. History begins as each human being’s own personal history. Each carries a personal memory of his own past. The beginning of it is shrouded in each case, for each must learn of it by believing the word of his parents. The end of it is likewise shrouded, although each knows that the end is certain. This memory of personal events and affairs, of one’s own res gestae, is an elemental human fact. Linked with it is a second capacity, that of thinking reflectively upon the meaning of these events in order to interpret their significance. This capacity for philosophy and hence for a philosophy of history is likewise a mark of the human. History, philosophy and the philosophy of history begin with the fact of human persons, qualitatively distinct as forms of life on this planet.

Each human family maintains some rudimentary kind of group memory, preserved in oral discourse. This family history is vivid back to the grandparents, fades rapidly with the great-grandparents and usually disappears beyond them.

When families coalesce into the larger groups, the tribes, tongues, peoples and nations of the earthly scene, group memory of the past continues to set the human apart from the other animal species and kingdoms. Always men hand on a narrative of great events, divine events which took place in illo tempore, events which gives the tribe its characteristic heritage of beliefs and values, the substance of its education and the meaning of the rites by which its youth passes into responsible adulthood. And thus man in his early simple tribal condition lived forward in time.1

Growth as well as succession in time: great events, immense sufferings in common, victories and defeats, powerful leaders, influential teachers: tantae molis erat, Virgil knew, Romanam condere gentem. Gradually the long pre-history ends, and the earliest civilizations stand revealed in the light of historical records which survive to the present. These records are food for thought. “Many people have had folk memories,” writes Professor Starr of the University of Illinois, “but only three seem independently to have evolved the concept of formal written history. One of these is the Chinese; the second is the Hebrew; the third … is the Greek. The idea of explaining man’s present condition by a disciplined, factual description of his past is one of the great achievements which we owe to Hellenic creativeness.”2

Homer still stood in the original tradition of enarratio, a recounting of the great events and personalities in illo tempore which provide the models and paradigms for the formation of the Greek human being.3

History As An Intellectual Discipline

With Herodotus something else begins, hence his common recognition as “The Father of History.” It is a disciplined and factual description, even somewhat documented, of a segment of the more recent human past. Thucydides develops the idea, and it passes to the Romans. “What mind,” asks Polybius in the introduction to his History of Rome, “however commonplace or indifferent, could feel no curiosity to learn the process by which almost the whole world fell under the undisputed ascendancy of Rome within a period of less than fifty-three years, or to acquaint itself with the political organization to which this triumph — a phenomenon unprecedented in the annals of mankind — was due? What mind, however infatuated with other spectacles and other studies, could find a field of knowledge more profitable than this? … The coincidence by which all the transactions of the world have been oriented in a single direction and guided towards a single goal is the extraordinary characteristic of the present age… The unity of events imposes upon the historian a similar unity of composition in depicting for his readers the operation of the laws of Fortune upon the grand scale.”4

This “profitable field of knowledge” is the human discipline invented by the Greeks and Romans. They called it History, and we of the affiliated West follow them to this day. It was never a separate “Art” on the cycle of liberal studies. It was taught and learned as a part of the two comprehensive artes of human discourse, Grammar and Rhetoric. Polybius expresses well its concept of self-contained meaning, its “philosophy of history,” if one will, although the Ancients did not use this phrase. This meaning was the goal it saw for human history, the Empires, great political, social, cultural and linguistic entities which proceeded in succession across the face of antiquity, Babylon, Persia, Alexander and Greek Hellenism, and the culmination in the Roman Empire. Culmination: for the Roman historians shared the common belief which Virgil voiced: imperium sine fine dedi, a concept which was destined in thought-provoking fashion to survive the “Fall of Rome” as the Romidee of the Middle Ages.5

This is some sort of understanding, indeed, of meaning and direction in human affairs, of linear movement toward a goal. But it does not come from philosophy in any formal sense: it is not the result of the application of philosophy to what is taken as given in history. Hence it is not a “philosophy of history” in the modern sense of the phrase since Voltaire and Hegel.

Herodotus retains some vestiges of openness to reports of factual and therefore “historical” interventions from a higher order of reality beyond this visible cosmos, but after him the classical historians in general present their narratives as a purely human, this-worldly panorama of causes and effects in the order of phenomena. This secularized condition left no place for historical intervention by Someone who could qualify as the Lord of History, holding its course and destiny in His hands by virtue of His creation of all the entities that are actors on its stage and which figure in its panorama.

The technai or liberal arts which constituted the curriculum of the paideia, the Greek educational system, were organized upon two different patterns throughout classical antiquity.6 In one, Rhetoric was the culminating discipline, with its inclusion of history within itself, and with its exclusive concern with successful practical life in this world. In the other pattern, Rhetoric was moved to a lower position, to provide room for a new Seventh Art, culminating the formation of the Greek citizen. It was the discipline called Philosophy, and this place as the Seventh of the Seven Liberal Disciplines, understanding seven as a symbolic number meaning all the components of a curriculum, was maintained from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, to its victory over the other pattern in the emergence of Christian Philosophy with Augustine and the Fathers of the Church generally, and on throughout the Christian Era to the most recent directives of Rome on Philosophy in priestly training.7

The Study Of Wisdom

There is no question but that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had in mind a natural human science or discipline that penetrates beyond phenomena to abiding intelligible principles of reality as such. These intelligible principles comprise its proper object, distinct from the objects of the sciences and disciplines which are counted among the first six Arts; and the rational insights into these principles and the understandings about the necessity of their existence if reality is to be explained and human life is to be understood are the fruit of its study and research. It was the conviction of these Greek thinkers that this rational discipline called Philosophy opens up to man the study of wisdom and promises to provide the foundation for humanism specifically as such. It follows that this discipline which studies natural wisdom is indispensable to man in his quest of the happy life.8

How did the Greeks conceive the object which this discipline studies? “We are seeking the principles and causes of existing things,” Aristotle answers, “by which I mean existing things qua existing.”9 “If there is anything eternal, immutable, and existing separately,” he continues, “it must be studied by a speculative science. Not by physics… nor by mathematics, but by one that is prior to both…. If there are none but natural substances, physics will be the primary science. But if there is an immutable substance, the science which deals with it must be primary. Because it is primary it is universal, and it is therefore concerned with the essence and properties of being qua being.”10 “If, then, as I shall try to show, there is a separate unchanging substance, the science of it is different from physics and mathematics. If there is such a substance, here surely is the divine, and the first and most authoritative principle. Evidently, then, there are three kinds of theoretical sciences, physics, mathematics, theology.”11

In practice, Aristotle seems to have devoted his attention more to the substances visible in the cosmos than to rational theology. “We know a thing (e.g. man, fire) best when we know what it is,” he goes on, “and not simply its quantity, quality, position, etc…. The ancient and everlasting question, ‘What is being?’ really amounts to ‘What is substance?’ It was substance that many of the earlier philosophers described as one or many, as numerically finite or infinite; so that it must be our first and principal, if not our only object.”12

It is fundamentally important to recognize that Philosophy did not spring forth from these Greek pioneers in its perfected form. Aristotle’s definition, one can see, does not bear upon the existence of realities, as such, so much as on the forms in which realities are seen to exist as phenomena of this visible cosmos. His mind is a powerful one, to be sure, but he stands with his head turned downward to the things of this earth, to their substantial forms, or natures, or essences.

The Quest Of Wisdom

The quest of wisdom in Classical Philosophy does indeed attempt to relate these understandings regarding natures surrounding man to the nature of man himself, and thus to provide man with a way of life based upon wisdom. Philosophy offers a guide for personal living, and hence there is a practical outcome from Philosophy for each man’s personal history. But there is no sign of a reasoned analysis of the meaning and direction of human history in the large, nor any example of systematic application of philosophical principles to what is given in that other discipline among the same Seven Arts called history. The Classical Philosophy advances only speculations about the eternal recurrence of all earthly events in cycles like a Great Year, and not rational knowledge about the actual successions of the realities which constitute the visible cosmos. Furthermore, this natural discipline offers no specific information about the original beginnings of the universe, nor any knowledge of a final goal. When it speculates about a final conflagration, it seems to draw upon popular religious traditions, and in doing so includes the goal as merely the beginning of another cycle of the self-same events. The Trojan War, Aristotle opines, will be fought over again, the same to the last detail.13

Such are the facts. Linked closely with this inability to reach a Philosophy of History was the characteristic failure to recognize the Creator. The Classical Philosophy did not rise to the doctrine of Creation. Thus it ministered to the secularized condition which came to predominate in the Classical Culture. It fostered on the one hand a schism in the soul promoted by the separation between the disciplines of Philosophy and History; and on the other hand there was its characteristic intellectual darkness due to its failure to recognize God the Creator.

Thus there was literally no contact between “philosophy” and “history,” and the question whether “history,” as such, falls within the formal object of that science which studies an abiding reality beyond the object of the empirical and mathematical sciences was not even raised. And when it did not ask whether philosophy has the power to perceive succession as such, in its intelligibility, so as to know the meaning and direction of the succession in time of the natural substances and human entities which constitute the cosmos, it failed to reach that branch of philosophy known today as the philosophy of history.

Under the influence of Christianity, philosophy was regenerated and renewed, so that Christian philosophers discoursed with a new power and lucidity on the things of God and the Soul, rising to the philosophical concept of creation from nothingness. Did this evoke the philosophy of history? In its modern sense? In any sense?14


  1. 3. Cf. Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1959); Herbert Kühn, “The Problem of Primitive Monotheism,” in Hastings-Nicholl (Eds.), Selection II (london: Sheed and Ward, 1954), pp. 63-86; and Wilhelm Koppers, Primitive Man and His World Picture (London: Sheed and Ward, 1952). Much careful research is needed on the part of younger, post-modern scholars (to anticipate a point to be made below) to break through the imposition of “modern” philosophical patterns upon the findings of the sciences, not least the sciences of prehistory. “Twenty years ago,” Koppers writes, “it was still possible to publish a pamphlet with the title, How God Was Created — by man, it goes without saying. Today, however, the most primitive races of the earth raise up their voices, as it were, crying in unanimous protest: “You are on a wrong track. Your mental experiments (or rather hypotheses) won’t work. The belief in a Father God, handed down by our forebears from time immemorial, cannot possibly be regarded as a final stage in human development. He must rather be the starting point, as is shown in our creation-myths. Is this not also the teaching your Bible?” p. 180. Cf. William F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957) passim, and especially pp. 168-178, “The Nature and Evolution of Primitive Religion”; “There can no longer be any doubt that Fr. Schmidt has successfully disproved the simple evolutionary progression first set up by the positivist Comte, fetishism—polytheism—monotheism, or Tylor’s animism—polytheism—monotheism” (p. 171). This is an instance of the post-modern situation in empirical science, to be discussed further below. For a short but penetrating article on this question, cf. Franz Kardinal König, “Does Scientific Atheism Exist?” in L’Osservatore Romano – English Edition (April 7, 1977), pp. 8-9. 

  2. 4. Chester G. Starr, The Awakening of the Greek Historical Spirit (New York: Knopf, 1968), p. 3. For the background of the emergence of historia as an intellectual discipline, cf. his Chapter I, “The World of Epic and Myth,” pp. 12-35, with its discussion of Homer and History. 

  3. 5. For the early Mesopotamian annals and chronicles, cf. James B. Pritchard (Ed.). Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), esp. Part III, “Historical Texts,” pp. 227-322. For an insight into the religious character of early historical records, cf. the classic work of Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws and Institutions of Greece and Rome (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1956); “The Rituals and the Annals,” pp. 167-173. “In the minds of the people,” he writes, “all that was ancient was venerable and sacred…. Thus history had for the ancients a greater importance than it has for us. It existed a long time before Herodotus and Thucydides, written or unwritten; as simple oral traditions, or in books, it was contemporary with the birth of cities…. History commenced, indeed, with the act of foundation, and recorded the sacred name of the founder. It was continued with the legend of the gods of the city, its protecting heros. It taught the date, the origin and the reason of every worship, and explained its obscure rites…. All this was written for the instruction and the piety of the descendants…. These city annals…were not a work of art, but a religious work. Later came the writers, the narrators, like Herodotus; the thinkers, like Thucydides. History then left the hands of the priests and became something quite different,” pp. 170-171. Among the Hebrews this original religious character of the official historical records was maintained without change, and stands to this day in the Bible. 

  4. 6. Polybius, World History, Book 1, cc. 1-4; in Arnold J. Toynbee (ed.). Greek Historical Thought from Homer to the Age of Heraclitus (London: Dent, 1924); pp. 23-24, 26. For the origin and nature of the concept “history,” cf. Friedrich Büchsel, “Historéo, Historía,” in Kittel-Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), Vol. III, pp. 391-396. Translations of the Greek and Latin historians are available in the Loeb Classical Library. 

  5. 7. Cf. William M. Green, Augustine on the Teaching of History (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1944); James Bryce, The Holy Roman Empire (New York: Macmillan, 1904, 1913) “Theory of the Medieval Empire,” pp. 89-120; and “Fall of the Empire,” pp. 408-417, Bryce dates it on August 6, 1806, when Napoleon deposed Francis II, the last Holy Roman Emperor of the Germanic Nation. Cf. the French historian, Henri Berr, in his Preface to a new edition of F. Lot’s classic, The End of the Ancient World and the Beginnings of the Middle Ages (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1953), p. XV: “This Roman Empire, whose prestige had fascinated the Barbarians, persists as an ideal framework, and only disappears in 1806….” This fact which the historians perceive needs to be correlated with the Hebrew Fact, the Catholic Fact, the conversion of the Fourth Empire, Christendom and the Great Apostasy of the Nations, matters to be considered below as given by history to philosophical reflection and analysis. On the idea of Rome, pagan and Christian, cf. Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1952), Chap. III, “The Struggle for Representation in the Roman Empire,” pp. 76-106. 

  6. 8. Cf. the “Introduction” in H. von Arnim, Leben und Werke des Dio von Prusa, Mit einer Einleitung: Spohistik, Rhetorik, Philosophie in ihrem Kampf um die Jugendbildung (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1898), pp. 1-114; for a short study from Augustine’s point of view, based on von Arnim, cf. E. Kevane, “Augustine and Isocrates,” The American Ecclesiastical Review (Nov. 1963) 301-321. The breakthrough by Philosophy to a reality higher than the cosmic order of the Archaic Culture is a basic theme of Voegelin’s work, op. cit. passim, and esp. pp. 52-75. “Through the opening of the soul the philosopher finds himself in a new relation with God; he not only discovers his own psyche as the instrument for experiencing transcendence, but at the same time discovers the divinity in its radically nonhuman transcendence,” p. 67. 

  7. 9. St. Augustine listed philosophy consistently throughout his life as the seventh of the Seven Liberal Arts. Cf. Retr. I, 6, 3; P.L. 32, 591. The Documents of the Magisterium from Vatican I through Vatican II on the study of Philosophy are numerous and consistent, down to the Letter, dated Jan. 29, 1972, from the S. Congregation for Catholic Education “To the Ordinaries of the World on the Study of Philosophy in Seminaries”; this Letter is reprinted in The Program of Priestly Formation (Washington: NCCB, 1976), pp. 145-155. Cf. Battista Mondin, “Philosophy Necessary in Priestly Formation,” L’Osservatore Romano — English Edition (March 2, 1971), p. 11: “Those who are most exposed to the influence of Protestantism, or more exactly to a certain kind of Protestantism, for example that of Barth and Bonhoeffer, maintain that philosophy is useless or even harmful in priestly formation.” As Mondin points out, summarizing the position of Vatican II and of the Holy See in this Letter, the truth is exactly the opposite; theology has more need of philosophy today than ever before. But it must be the right kind of philosophy, taught in the right way: “It will not suffice to teach the history of philosophy.” Ibid. We shall return to this point below when the intervening discussion hopefully will have assisted in making this position more intelligible. 

  8. 10. Concern for human happiness, variously defined, was uppermost in the philosophical schools which developed as perhaps the most distinctive mark of the Classical Culture. Cf. R. Holte, Beatitude et Sagesse: Saint Augustin et le probléme de la fin de l’homme dans la philosophie ancienne (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1962). Christian Philosophy did not disavow this concern when it broke through to its more clear and lucid concept of God, and became able to see the truth with Augustine: verus philosophus amator Die (De civitate Dei VIII, 1). One can see this perhaps best in Augustine’s De beata vita, the short gem among the Dialogues of Cassiciacum, those early works which earn for him the title of Founder of Christian Philosophy. For Augustine, Philosophy, always the culminating component of natural humane studies, is the “science of virtue and wisdom,” as he terms it in his De Magistro 14 (45); P.L. 32, 1219. 

  9. 11. John Warrington (Transl.). Aristotle’s Metaphysics (London: Dent, 1956), p. 153. 

  10. 12. Ibid., pp. 154-155. 

  11. 13. Ibid., p. 156. Warrington notes that Aristotle’s reference is “probably…to a lost or never written” treatise on God for which the extant portions of the Metaphysics are preparatory. In any case Aristotle’s intention of openness to the Supreme Being is clear. 

  12. 14. Ibid., pp. 167-168. Aristotle proceeds to study the various meanings of substance, always in the context of the visible cosmos: “Substance is most commonly recognized as belonging to bodies — animals and plants and their parts, and what is compounded of them, e.g., the physical universe and its parts (the stars, the moon, and the sun).” Ibid., p. 169. 

  13. 15. On the Greek cyclical view of times, from which not even Aristotle was exempt, cf. Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Vol. IV: “The Modes of Time”; and Karl Löwith, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1949); “To the Greek thinkers a philosophy of history would have been a contradiction in terms” p. 4. For Augustine’s refutation of the cyclical view, cf. De civitate Dei, XII, cc. 9-20; for his rejection of fate and defense of contingency under Providence, cf. ibid., V, cc. 2-11. 

  14. 16. For the general contrast of Christian thinking with the pagan concept of time, cf. Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time: the Primitive Christian Conception of Time and History (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1950), esp. pp. 51-60, “The Linear Conception of Time in the Revelatory History of the Bible as Contrasted with the Cyclical Conception of Hellenism.” Cf. note 167 below for the discussion which followed Cullmann’s study. 

  • You are my witnesses (Is. 43:10)  •  You shall be my witnesses (Acts 1:8)