λόγος from Heraclitus to Christianity

The Greek word λόγος (pronounced and hereafter spelled logos) is primarily the equivalent of the English word “word.” Since its introduction into the lexicon of Western philosophy by Heraclitus in approximately 500 BCE, however, it has been procured by and passed through a variety of philosophical schools, including especially those of the Stoics and Philo, acquiring new meanings and nuances while losing others along the way. Finally, beginning with the writing of the Gospel of John near the close of the first century CE, the term was adopted by Christians, who both significantly altered the use of the word and simultaneously drew and elucidated upon previous definitions. Within the early Christian movement, logos would take on the most central and expansive role in the history of its use in philosophy.

The logos as a philosophical concept was first used by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus in about 500 BCE. Heraclitus, like most pre-Socratic philosophers, sought to explain the world in terms of some material element as the generative and operative agent. For Heraclitus, this element was fire, and fire Heraclitus associated with the logos, “the rational principle governing the cosmos.”1 Heraclitus saw all things as being in a constant state of flux, an eternal back and forth movement between opposing forces; the logos was the universal law and reason that stood behind this perpetual push and pull and, ultimately, the unifying principle of the universe, which combined these opposites into one harmonious whole. In the philosophy of Heraclitus, “God is the universal Reason (λόγος), the universal law immanent in all things, binding all things into a unity and determining the constant change in the universe according to universal law.”2 Heraclitus himself summarized the unifying and harmonizing work of the logos very simply: “listening not to me but to the logos it is wise to agree that one is all /all is one.”3

Man, according to Heraclitus, should strive to live in accordance with the logos. As the logos, the eternal and ultimate principle of Reason, is “manifest in the human being’s power of reason,”4 so “man should therefore strive to attain to the viewpoint of reason and to live by reason.”5 To live in accordance with the logos was to attempt to see the world the way the logos does, understanding that existence is necessarily in a constant state of flux and being content with this ever-changing reality and one’s place within it.

This notion of seeking to conform oneself with the universal and inflexible law of the logos and to seek after equanimity within the station one was allotted lent itself naturally to the philosophy of the Stoics which developed about 200 years after Heraclitus. “In the Stoic view,” says Richard Tarnas, “all reality was pervaded by an intelligent divine force, the Logos or universal reason which ordered all things. Man could achieve genuine happiness only by attuning his life and character to this all-powerful providential wisdom.”6

The Stoic conception of the logos included the former understanding inculcated by Heraclitus, as is clear from Stoic writings like this from a poem written by the early Stoic philosopher Cleanthes in about 300 BCE:

Chaos to thee is order: in thine eyes
The unloved is lovely, who did’st harmonise
Things evil with things good, that there should be
One Word [logos] through all things everlastingly.7

The Stoic ideas also expanded upon the Heraclitean logos significantly, however. While drawing upon the idea of Heraclitus that the universal Reason is the source of and is manifest in each individual human reason, the Stoics went a step further. Richard Tarnas explains:

The existence of the world-governing reason had another important consequence
for the Stoic. Because all human beings shared in the divine Logos, all were members of a universal human community, a brotherhood of mankind that constituted the World City, or Cosmopolis, and each individual was called upon to participate actively in the affairs of the world thereby fulfilling his duty to this great community.8

Cleanthes explains in another portion of the same poem:

We are thy children, we alone, of all
On earth’s broad ways that wander to and fro,
Bearing thy image wheresoe’er we go.

Approximately 300 years after the foundation of Stoicism, in the first century CE, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria drew upon these Stoic understandings of the logos in the formulation of his own Hellenic-Jewish philosophy. Like the Stoics, “Philo conceives the Logos as the pilot of the Universe and, in full accord with Stoicism, as ‘warm and fiery.’”9 Philo also expanded upon the Stoic ideas and combined them with Plato’s conception of a universal mind which contained the perfect ideals of all things, equating the logos of the Stoics with the universal mind of Plato:

As therefore the city, when previously shadowed out in the mind of the man of architectural skill had no external place, but was stamped solely in the mind of the workman, so in the same manner neither can the world which existed in ideas have had any other local position except the divine reason [logos] which made them; for what other place could there be for his powers which should be able to receive and contain, I do not say all, but even any single one of them whatever, in its simple form?10

As a Jew who attempted to synthesize his Judaism with Greek philosophy, Philo also made the remarkable step of attempting to find the logos within the scriptures of the Jews. He claimed, for instance, that “this divine Logos inspired and informed Moses’ status as king and god of creation, lawgiver, high priest, prophet, miracle worker, ascetic, and philosopher.”11 Unlike the Stoics, however, Philo did not identify the logos with God; he instead “seems to have wavered between conceiving the Logos as an aspect of God and conceiving it as an independent being.”12 For instance, “when the Old Testament mentions the angel of God in describing the theophanies, Philo identifies the angel with the Logos.”13 Frederick Coplestone explains that “this Logos is an incorporeal substance, the immaterial Word or Voice of God” an assertion by Philo in which there is yet another departure from Heraclitean and Stoic ideas in favor of Platonic ones, “but, in so far as it is conceived as really distinct from God, it is conceived as subordinate to God, as God’s instrument.”14

The use of the word logos to translate phrases like “the word of God” in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures which was considered divinely inspired and used by the majority of Jews in the first century CE, also played a significant role in the growing Jewish-Hellenic synthesis of which Philo’s philosophy was a major part.15 For instance, Psalm 147:4 in the Septuagint version says that “He [God] sends his oracle to the earth: his word [logos] will run swiftly.”16 Several of the Old Testament prophets wrote about the “word [logos] of God” speaking to them. Ezekiel 29:1 in the Septuagint claims, for instance, that “the word [logos] of the Lord came to me.”17 Passages like these would play an increasingly important role as the Jewish-Hellenic philosophical movement culminated in the advent and development of Christianity.

No matter what one’s own personal religious persuasion, the opening verses of the Gospel of John, the first Christian writing to discuss the concept of the logos, can be seen as nothing less than a brilliant masterpiece of world literature. In them, the author poetically and skillfully brings together the Jewish and the Hellenic into one seamless philosophical and theological whole. The author, writing in about 95 CE, begins:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.18

No Jew of that period, reading those verses, could fail to notice the reference being made to the opening verses of Genesis in the Septuagint, which recounts the creation of the world by God. The words, in Greek, Ἐν ἀρχῇ (“in the beginning”) in John’s Gospel would immediately draw to mind the same words in the opening of Genesis: “In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth.”19

Similarly, no one, Greek or Jew, familiar with Greek philosophy would miss the importance of the Word, the logos, in John’s writing. John is clearly identifying the logos concept of Heraclitus and the Stoics with the God of the Old Testament, a step that even Philo, with all of his Hellenizing tendencies, was not willing to full take.

And John continues to shock as he goes on. The most shocking statement of all comes in verse 14: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”20 John has not only identified the logos with the Jewish God but, in words that would be equally shocking and appalling to both Greeks and Jews, now claims that this Logos-God became a human being!21 The most important unique contribution of Christianity to the development of the philosophical concept of the logos was not only to identify the logos with the God of the Old Testament but to simultaneously identify both the logos and the Jewish God with the historical human person Jesus Christ. This unique understanding of the logos would become a central feature of later Christian philosophical and theological development. John Behr, a scholar of Christian patristics, summarizes the centrality of the identification of the logos with Christ:

In the term “Word” (λόγος) there are at least two interconnected ideas, that of revelation and that of the revealer, and these should not be separated too hastily. Christ is the Word of God, who, as such, exists before the world, with God, and is, to use later imagery, spoken out into the world; he is God’s own expression in the world. The function of revealer is so closely bound up with the person of Jesus, that he is, in fact, the embodiment of the revelation: he is the Word made flesh. Not only are his words revelatory, but he is revelatory in himself, coming into the world from above, a divine self-revelation.22

What this revelation consisted of could only but add to the shock of both Greeks and Jews at the Christian ideas already discussed. While the apostle Paul was not referring to the conception of Christ as logos specifically in his statement, his words in his first letter to the Corinthian church adequately express the reaction that non-Christians of that period had to the Christian beliefs about the logos: “We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness.”23 Jaroslav Pelikan, a scholar in Christian history and theology, explains that

what made this portrait of the Logos as Cosmic Christ special was the declaration that the Word had become flesh in Jesus and that in Jesus the incarnate Word had suffered and died on the cross.24

From these ideas of the logos, some of them derived from the thought of other philosophical schools and others entirely uniquely Christian, Christians continued to explore their own theology and to ferret out its implications. Most important among these elements of Christian logos theology were the unique Christian ideas about the relationship of the logos to mankind.

The most obvious, and most uniquely Christian, implication of the relationship of the Christian conception of the logos to man was encapsulated by the apostle John in what is probably the most famous verse from his Gospel:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.25

The word here translated “world” is, in the original Greek, κόσμος (kosmos), the same word used by previous Greek philosophers to refer to the harmonious order of all of material existence. For Christians, then, the logos was not just the generative principle behind existence who directs it into a harmonious order, the logos in fact became a part of the created order and gave himself for it to save it because of his love for it.

Another important aspect of the relationship of the logos with man in Christianity was similar to, but not identical with, the ideas of earlier philosophers who had used the concept of the logos. This idea was first enunciated by the second century Christian philosopher Justin Martyr in about 150 CE. Similar to the claim of Heraclitus and the Stoics that the eternal Reason is manifested in the reason of individuals, Justin claimed that “the seed[s] of reason” have been “implanted in every race of men” by the Supreme Reason, the logos.26 Later, in the fourth century, the Christian bishop and mystic Gregory of Nyssa expressed much the same idea at greater length, saying:

And if you were to examine the other points also by which the Divine beauty is expressed, you will find that to them too the likeness in the image which we present is perfectly preserved. The Godhead is mind and word [logos]: for “in the beginning was the Word [logos],” and the followers of Paul “have the mind of Christ’ which “speaks” in them: humanity too is not far removed from these: you see in yourself word [logos] and understanding, an imitation of the very Mind and Word [logos].27

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, a modern Eastern Orthodox bishop and scholar, explains the same point in words heavily reminiscent of the writings of Heraclitus and the Stoics, but without reference to them:

As the Word or Logos of God he is also at work before the Incarnation. He is the principle of order and purpose that permeates all things, drawing them to unity in God, and so making the universe into a “cosmos”, a harmonious and integrated whole. The Creator-Logos has imparted to each created thing its own indwelling logos or inner principle, which makes that thing to be distinctively itself, and which at the same time draws and directs that thing towards God. Our human task as craftsmen or manufacturers is to discern this logos dwelling in each thing and to render it manifest; we seek not to dominate but to co-operate.28

With this statement, one sees the culmination of the philosophical tradition of the logos in its fullest development. The concept of the logos had certainly come a long way from its roots in the philosophy of Heraclitus in 500 BCE, where it was identified with the material element of fire and remained rather underdeveloped and vaguely defined. As it entered Stoicism, it took on new meanings, especially in its identification with God, and in the implication that mankind is a brotherhood of children of the logos, subject to its providential care. In the philosophy of Philo of Alexandria, the logos was stripped of the gross materialism that had previously weighed it down and brought into contact with the philosophy of Plato as well as with the theology and tradition of the Jewish Bible. Finally, the logos became man, or at least became identified with a certain man, in Christianity, and so became a historical figure as well as a personal and loving savior. Through all of these quite different philosophical contexts, however, the concept of the logos never lost its central meaning of which Heraclitus first spoke. It remained the Supreme Principle directing the order of the cosmos and the source of human reason to which human beings must conform themselves or perish. On the contrary, the movement of the concept of the logos through time and through various philosophical schools not only did no damage to the original concept, but in fact greatly enhanced, expanded, and deepened its original meaning. In the end, the logos was not simply a vague and abstract philosophical principle mindlessly balancing the cosmos, but a real and concrete person lovingly ordering his creation.

Notes

1 Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991), 45.

2 Frederick Coplestone, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1946), 43.

3 “Heraclitus of Ephesus” (2006) http://www.philosophy.gr/presocratics/heraclitus.htm (Accessed 18 Februrary 2011).

4 Tarnas, 45.

5 Coplestone, 43.

6 Tarnas, 76.

7 Coplestone, 393.

8 Tarnas, 76.

9 R.E. Witt, “The Plotinian Logos and Its Stoic Basis,” The Classical Quarterly 25, no. 2 (April 1931): 104.

10 Philo of Alexandria, “On the Creation,” 5.20, tr. Charles Duke Yonge (2010) http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book1.html (Accessed 18 February 2011).

11 Calvin J. Roetzel, The World That Shaped the New Testament: Revised Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 146-7.

12 Coplestone, 460.

13 ibid.

14 ibid.

15 R.M. Price, “’Hellenization’ and the Logos Doctrine in Justin Martyr,” Vigiliae Christianae 42, no. 1 (March 1988): 20.

16 “Septuagint Old Testament Bilingual (Greek-English),” tr. L.C.L. Brenton (2010) http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/septuagint/default.asp (Accessed 18 February 2011).

17 ibid.

18 John 1:1-5, King James Version.

19 “Septuagint Old Testament Bilingual (Greek-English).”

20 John 1:14, KJV.

21 John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology, Volume 1: The Way to Nicaea (Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 69.

22 ibid., 67.

23 1 Corinthians 1:23, KJV.

24 Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 70.

25 John 3:16, KJV.

26 Justin Martyr, “Second Apology,” VIII, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1: Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), 191.

27 Gregory of Nyssa, “On the Making of Man,” V, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 5: Gregory of Nyssa: Dogmatic Treatises, Etc., eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.), 391.

28 Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way: Revised Edition (Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 32-3.

Bibliography

Behr, John. Formation of Christian Theology, Volume 1: The Way to Nicaea. Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001.

Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. New York: Dorset Press, 1986.

Coplestone, Frederick. A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1946.

Gregory of Nyssa. “On the Making of Man.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 5: Gregory of Nyssa: Dogmatic Treatises, Etc. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

“Heraclitus of Ephesus” (2006) http://www.philosophy.gr/presocratics/heraclitus.htm (Accessed 18 Februrary 2011).

Justin Martyr. “Second Apology.” In Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1: Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Miller, Ed. L. “The Johannine Origins of the Johannine Logos.” Journal of Biblical Literature 112, no. 3 (Autumn 1993): 445-57.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Philo of Alexandria. “On the Creation.” Translated by Charles Duke Yonge (2010) http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book1.html (Accessed 18 February 2011).

Price, R.M. “’Hellenization’ and the Logos Doctrine in Justin Martyr.” Vigiliae Christianae 42, no. 1 (March 1988): 18-23.

Roetzel, Calvin J. The World That Shaped the New Testament: Revised Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

Russell, Bertrand. The History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.

“Septuagint Old Testament Bilingual (Greek-English).” Translated by L.C.L. Brenton (2010) http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/septuagint/default.asp (Accessed 18 February 2011).

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.

Ware, Metropolitan Kallistos. The Orthodox Way: Revised Edition. Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995.

Witt, R.E. “The Plotinian Logos and Its Stoic Basis.” The Classical Quarterly 25, no. 2 (April 1931): 103-11.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s