Slave Morality and Master Morality

Friedrich Nietzsche recognized that morality and ethical values in general are of the utmost importance for the way people live. Ultimately, one’s morality determines the ends that one seeks to achieve and the means by which one goes about achieving them. Nietzsche took a historical, or “genealogical,” approach to philosophy in which he sought to find the origins of various ideas in order to determine their truth and worth. In his examination of the genealogy of morality, he discovered the origins of contemporary values in a revolt of the weak against the strong. This led him to contrast what he labeled as “master morality” with the “slave morality” which he believed opposed to it.

Nietzsche believed that, earlier in human history, a more natural form of morality had been predominant. He labeled this moral system “master morality,” or “aristocratic morality” (West, 2010, p. 149). This morality had been practiced among the strong, a minority which consisted of those who dominated the weak majority. It included “values such as courage, generosity and magnanimity or greatness of spirit” that “reflect[ed] … strength and vitality” (ibid.). These values, according to Nietzsche, were practiced among the strong and the noble. In demonstration of his position, he drew upon the examples of the heroes of the ancient Greeks as found in Homer’s works and elsewhere. Among them, the strong held a mutual respect for each other and practiced these virtues in their interactions but held a contempt and disdain for the weak.
The weak, according to Nietzsche, had a morality of their own. This “slave morality” saw things as “good and evil” rather than “good and bad” as the master morality posited (ibid.). Whereas master morality was based on a mutual reciprocation among the equally strong, slave morality sought to force all, including the strong, to become equal. The slaves, unable to create their own values due to their weakness, made morality a matter of force rather than freedom, as among the masters, who could create their own values in their strength. In addition, the content of slave morality was such as was of benefit to the weak, including values like “pity, humility, and self-sacrifice” (ibid.). As such, Nietzsche saw slave morality as intrinsically tied to weakness and degeneration as well as inherently selfish on the part of the weak, a symptom of their lowness. Nietzsche saw the rise of slave morality as linked historically to the personages of Socrates and especially Christ. As a result of Christianity, according to Nietzsche, slave morality had become the prevailing moral worldview of Europeans.
Nietzsche did not confine his criticisms of slave morality and its origins to an argument against Christianity. Perhaps his greatest target in these criticisms were those inheritors of the Enlightenment who attempted to maintain Christian values without Christian theology. For Nietzsche, however, “when one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality” (Nietzsche, 1990, p. 80). Nietzsche followed logic and his genealogical method through to where it led him. As a result, he found that it was absurd to attempt to maintain a set of values while ridding oneself of the philosophical or religious foundations of those values. On the contrary, if “God is dead,” as Nietzsche famously said, all of the values based upon his existence and nature as understood by Christians must also be done away with. The atheists and other non-believers who continued to practice and propound Christian values were, then, just as guilty of continuing slave morality as were Christians.
According to Nietzsche, this slavery morality, forcing servile “virtues” born of the selfishness and jealousy of the low-minded, impeded the greatness of people. Those who were natural aristocrats, the strong and noble, were restrained in their powers by slave morality. As a result, they were unable to practice the master morality that their dignity and strength demanded. Nietzsche saw most of the Western philosophical tradition subsequent to Socrates and especially Christianity as the primary culprits in the propagation of slave morality. Because of this, he saw Christianity and Socratic philosophy as impediments to the human spirit and all of those who continued to espouse those values as impeding the same. Nietzsche saw the greatness of humanity as being prevented by a set of values he saw as beneath human dignity.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1990). The twilight of the idols and the Anti-Christ: or how to philosophize with a hammer. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
West, D. (2010). Continental philosophy: An introduction. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Religion in Kierkegaard

The one word which seems to recur most frequently when the topic of Søren Kierkegaard’s views on religion are discussed is “passion,” along, of course, with its cogates. In Antony Aumann’s paper “Kierkegaard’s case for the irrelevance of philosophy,” for instance, he characterizes Kierkegaard’s view of Christianity as “a passionate and unconditional commitment to following Christ” (2009, p. 233). Similarly, Paul Tillich, in his History of Christian Thought, says of Kierkegaard’s understanding of religion that religion is that “which produces infinite passion” (1968, p. 466). For Kierkegaard, religion is, as is demonstrated by this frequent focus on passion by those who describe it, an intense and intensely personal thing and far more an activity, or a “doing,” than an idea, or a “believing.”

 In understanding what all of this means to Kierkegaard, perhaps the first notion that must be gotten rid of is the idea of religion as a set of ideas to which one assents. Aumann states plainly that “Kierkegaard rejects the idea that faith involves simply assenting to certain propositions” (2009, p. 233). It is the common conception that a religion, especially a dogmatic, creedal religion like Christianity, is a set of doctrines and practices and that one is an adherent of that religion if one gives mental assent to those doctrines and engages in those practices. Kierkegaard, however, rejects this understanding of religion altogether. To merely “believe” in the sense of simply agreeing, but not actually feeling the truth of, those doctrines is not enough. Nor is it enough even to engage in the religious practices of a given religious community as David West points, saying that Kierkegaard noted “the emptiness of merely external observances within the established church” (2010, p. 142). Real religion, according to Kierkegaard, must be an overwhelming and overwhelmingly inward experience. To merely “go through the motions” and not to engage passionately is insufficient to true religion.

True religion, according to Kierkegaard, is “an inward renewal, a return to the original purity and ferocity of Christianity” (West, 2010, p. 142). This concept of an “inward renewal” means that it must be something that is deeply and passionately felt, not just thought, nodded in assent to, or even understood. In fact, one need not even have a great understanding of the historical circumstances of Christ or the intricacies of Christian thought and theology to be a Christian in the truest sense of the word. Rather, what is required is an existential commitment to living out the commands of Christ.

The paradox in Kierkegaard’s thought on this matter is that one must simultaneously acknowledge that one will never be able to actually live out those commandments fully. To live the Christian life in this passionate and complete kind of way is, in fact, impossible. It is, however, one’s unwavering dedication to doing so that is important. In short, one must make the Christian way of life into one’s own way of life, one’s ultimate and driving goal being the complete attainment to it.

In addition, for Kierkegaard, this overarching commitment must not be contingent on reason. Kierkegaard rebelled, in addition, against those who attempted to find a solid foundation for evidence in favor of the Christian faith in the historical record surrounding the gospels as well. In fact, as reasonable notions, including all of the philosophical proofs, theological arguments, and historical evidences, are insufficient guides in making a decision for or against religion, reason not only should not but cannot be the cause of one’s commitment. On the contrary, one must make a “leap of faith” in his commitment to follow out the way of Christianity.

In making this leap of faith, one must in a sense “jump” beyond reason and any attempt at objectivity to a purely subjective, personal dedication. This jump is the only way to overcome the estrangement inherent in the human condition, or what Kierkegaard referred to as the “sickness unto death” (Tillich, 1968, p. 463). This “sickness unto death,” according to Kierkegaard, is a state that all men hold in common. It is the state of feeling and even really being guilty but, possibly, possessing no knowledge of what it is one is guilty of. Ultimately, says Kierkegaard, it is the inherent knowledge, even if somewhat vague and incomprehensible, that one is separated from God. The only way to overcome this separation is through the existential commitment everyone is called to in Christianity, and the only way to make this commitment is via a leap of faith.

Søren Kierkegaard’s view of religion as a passionate experience was seen by him as a way of overcoming both the insufficiency of evidence for religion and the estrangement that he saw as the only alternative to a life of faith. His views led him to reject both intellectual assent to a set of doctrines and the outward rituals of a religious community as insufficient to true religion. True religion, for Kierkegaard, is a personal and passionate commitment to and a constant engagement in obediently following out the commands of Christ, even when these commands seem impossible to fulfill. It is only in this way, according to Kierkegaard, that religion becomes meaningful.

Aumann, A. (2009). Kierkegaard’s case for the irrelevance of philosophy. Continental Philosophy Review, 42, 221–248. doi:10.1007/s11007-009-9104-2

West, D. (2010). Continental philosophy: An introduction. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

The Origins of Atheism in the Enlightenment

While skepticism and doubt have had a presence in human thought for nearly as long as religious faith has existed, they have had a place within religious thought rather than in opposition to it for the vast majority of their existence. Doubt was generally employed by religious thinkers for the purpose of strengthening and explaining their faith, as can be seen in the numerous “proofs” for the existence of God formulated by the great theologians of the Middle Ages, such as Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury. With the new science and philosophy of the Enlightenment, however, unbelief began to be seen as a viable alternative option that stood in opposition to faith. In addition to the popular deism of the Enlightenment, espoused by such important figures as Voltaire and Maximilien Robespierre, atheism also found its first explicit adherents among such figures of the French Enlightenment as Baron d’Holbach and Jacques André Naigeon. This new view of disbelief would have a major influence on subsequent generations of thinkers in the West as proponents of religion now had to contend with disbelief as a rival system of thought and many of the most influential philosophies, such as those of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Jean Paul Sartre, supported and often assumed atheism. Among the numerous new concepts introduced by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, one of those which has had the longest lifespan and the greatest impact has been the introduction of disbelief as a viable alternative position to religious faith.

Reasonable Doubt in the Middle Ages

One of the most central philosophical pursuits of the Middle Ages was the attempt to reconcile faith and reason.1 Medieval thinkers had inherited both the religious tradition of the ancient Middle East, which they saw as representative of faith, and the philosophical tradition of ancient Greece, which they saw as representative of reason. In their attempts to synthesize the two, the primary question they encountered was whether the existence of God, the primary object of faith, could be proved through the use of reason alone. “Some of the greatest thinkers who have ever lived have pored at length over this question.”2

One of the most remarkable features of Medieval philosophy is the centrality of this question when compared with the apparent nonexistence of any separate class of nonbelievers. Not only are there no surviving writings by or about any person espousing outright unbelief during the Middle Ages, but according to Sarah Stroumsa, “in the discussions of God’s existence the actual opponents” of the philosophers examining the question “are not identified as individuals. As a group they are sometimes referred to as heretics, unbelievers, materialists, or skeptics.”3

Some of the greatest minds of the Middle Ages, then, dedicated large portions of their work to arguing against an entirely theoretical unbelief. When Anselm of Canterbury formulated his ontological argument4 and Thomas Aquinas formulated his famous “five ways” to prove the existence of God,5 they themselves assumed doubt in their writings in order to strengthen faith through reason and to demonstrate that faith and reason are compatible and complimentary.

Later, in the fifteenth century, however, William of Occam set about undoing the synthesis which had been accomplished by Anselm, Aquinas, and others like them. Occam believed that “logic and theory of knowledge had become dependent on metaphysics and theology” as a result of their work and that they had made reason subservient to faith.6 He “set to work to separate them again.”7 As a result of his work to separate faith and reason, according to Richard Tarnas,

there arose the psychological necessity of a double-truth universe. Reason and faith came to be seen as pertaining to different realms, with Christian philosophers and scientists, and the larger educated Christian public, perceiving no genuine integration between the scientific reality and the religious reality.8

Deism and Its Clockwork Universe

As scientific knowledge in Europe continued to increase exponentially, the gap between faith and reason continued to widen. Faith had grown detached from reason in ever more literal interpretations of the Bible and the sola fide, or “faith alone,” dogma of Protestantism, whereas reason increasingly freed itself from reference to faith and instead found its abode in the empirical sciences and “natural theology,” an approach to religion based on reason and experience rather than speculation and appeal to revelation, of Enlightenment thinkers like Descartes.9

Traditional Christianity, with its miracles and saints, came increasingly to be viewed as outdated and superstitious.10 This was especially true in the light of Newtonian physics. A mechanistic universe which operated consistently according to a standard set of laws did not allow for “alleged miracles and faith healings, self-proclaimed religious revelations and spiritual ecstasies, prophecies, symbolic interpretations of natural phenomena, encounters with God or the devil” and so on and so these ideas increasingly came to be viewed “as the effects of madness, charlatanry, or both.”11 According to Jacques Barzun, “religion as such [was] not attacked; it [was] redefined into simplicity.”12 In the light of this new scientific knowledge and the new views of religion it engendered, a new religious movement was needed.

The new religious movement that emerged from this situation was deism. Deism allowed that “one may well be overawed by the Great Archetict and His handiwork;”13 after all, “Newton’s cosmic architecture demanded a cosmic architect.”14 However, “the attributes of such a God could be properly derived only from the empirical examination of his creation, not from the extravagant pronouncements of revelation.”15 The deists also prescribed that religion include much emphasis on “good morals,” as they, like the belief in a creator, “are universal” as well.16

This rather tenuous set of beliefs, however, could not hold for long. Samuel Clarke, an early English Enlightenment philosopher, noted in a letter to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz that

The notion of the world’s being a great machine, going on without the interposition of God as a clock continues to go without the assistance of a clockmaker, is the notion of materialism and fate and tends (under pretense of making God a supramundane intelligence) to exclude providence and God’s government in reality out of the world. And by the same reason that a philosopher can represent all things going on from the beginning of the creation without any government or interposition of providence, a skeptic will easily argue still further backward and suppose that things have from eternity gone on (as they now do) without any true creation or original author at all but only what such arguers call all-wise and eternal nature.17

As more thinkers began to realize this, “the rationalist God … soon began to lose philosophical support.”18

The Advent of Athéisme

While “most of these empiricists of the first generation acknowledged God as the Creator, the Great Watchmaker, who set the cosmos in motion and then let it run on its own,” writes Barzun,

the thought then occurred that sensations imply the existence of matter; therefore ideas, feelings, knowledge – life itself – are but the interplay of bits of stuff. Matter in motion acts as cause, and the effect is another part of matter in some other motion. God has no point of entry into the relation; very likely He does not exist. There is in truth no need for Him.19

From this line of reasoning arose the first adherents to athéisme, the denial of the existence of any God at all.

The first known person to claim this position for himself was Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach. In his book The System of Nature or, the Laws of the Moral and Physical World, originally published in 1770, d’Holbach became the first Western thinker to explicitly deny the existence of God and apply the term “atheism” to his belief system.20 In the same book, he expounded a view of the universe which was very similar to that of the deists. He posited an universe which functioned entirely according to mechanical laws and free of any divine or otherwise spiritual outside intervention, holding to such a strict materialistic determinism as to rule out free will entirely. In it, d’Holbach, like the deists, also argues that religious beliefs like miracles are superstitions from a more ignorant age and the product of misunderstanding and fear. He goes a step farther than the deists, however, and includes the idea of God in his list of religious concepts in this category.

Denis Diderot, who edited and annotated d’Holbach’s volume, also came to espouse similar beliefs. Throughout his lifetime, he made “the gradual transformation … from religious belief to Deism, then to skepticism, and finally to a materialism ambiguously joined with a deistic ethics.”21 In his life and even on this latter point, ethics, Diderot passed “from critical effort based on Reason to a conception of man and society in which impulse and instinct are seen as stronger than Reason.”22

The physician and philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie was willing to go a step further, drawing out the logical conclusions of atheism and a determinist and materialist worldview, in his book Man a Machine, first published in 1748.23 As the title implies, La Mettrie asserted that, as man is a part of the universe and its mechanical laws, man must himself be mechanical, “an organic machine whose illusion of possessing an independent soul or mind was produced simply by the interplay of its physical components.”24 A human being was, in short, nothing more than “a chemical, glandular, and electrical machine.”25 As Richard Tarnas points out, the ethical implications of this were obvious: “hedonism was the ethical consequence of such a philosophy, which La Mettrie did not fail to advocate.”26 Atheism had grown from deism, which, in turn, had grown out of Medieval Christianity; with his rejection of Christian ethics, La Mettrie had severed the last tie between the unbelief of Enlightenment thinkers and their roots in the Western Christian tradition.

The Death of God

Disbelief was no longer just the doubt and needs for “proofs” that had been present in Medieval thought. It was no longer theoretical and it was no longer subservient to the needs of religious thinkers in their attempts to strengthen the case for faith. Disbelief had become a new and distinct religious category in its own right. Later generations of Western thinkers, drawing on the thought of the Enlightenment in religious matters just as they did in political and economic matters, carried on the Enlightenment’s new movement of disbelief. According to Richard Tarnas,

It would be the nineteenth century that would bring the Enlightenment’s secular progression to its logical conclusion as Comte, Mill, Feuerbach, Marx, Haeckel, Spencer, Huxley, and, in a somewhat different spirit, Nietzsche all sounded the death knell of traditional religion. The Judaeo-Christian God was man’s own creation, and the need for that creation had necessarily dwindled with man’s modern maturation.27

Most Western philosophy after the Enlightenment, in fact, no longer felt the need to even argue for or against the existence of God. Rather, philosophers like those named by Tarnas as well as many others simply assumed the nonexistence of God as a fact and formulated their philosophy without regard to the existence of a deity. Ludwig Feuerbach, one of these nineteenth century philosophers who built on the work of the Enlightenment philosophers, stated explicitly that

The question as to the existence or non-existence of God, the opposition between theism and atheism, belongs to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but not to the nineteenth. I deny God. But that mans for me that I deny the negation of man. In place of the illusory, fantastic, heavenly position of man which in actual life necessarily leads to the degradation of man, I substitute the tangible, actual and consequently also the political and social position of mankind. The question concerning the existence or non-existence of God is not important but the question concerning the existence or non-existence of man is.28

For the philosophers of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and even the Enlightenment, “the question concerning the existence or non-existence of God” had, of course, been seen as being of the utmost importance. Only a philosopher who lived in the wake of the Enlightenment and accepted its presuppositions in materialism and determinism would have been able to make such a statement as Feuerbach’s; his words are demonstrative of how influential the atheism of the Enlightenment had become. Though his words about himself can only fairly be applied specifically to Feuerbach and do play an important role in his unique philosophy, much the same sentiments can with confidence be assigned to the vast majority of other great philosophers who followed the Enlightenment.

The disbelief of the Enlightenment has also had a major effect on popular philosophy and religion, especially in Europe. According to the 2005 Eurobarometer Poll, approximately 18% of the citizens of countries in the European Union report that they “don’t believe there is any kind of spirit, God or life force.”29 This is a significant change, of course, from the situation in Europe during the Middle Ages, when Anselm, Aquinas, and others like them directed their arguments for the existence of God against vague, theoretical, and unnamed “skeptics” and “heretics.”

The new prominence and popularity of disbelief also had a major effect within Christianity for much the same reason. Unbelievers were now real and unbelief itself now a viable alternative to religious faith; as a result, many believers felt a need to go on the defensive. Doubt, and even any application of reason to Christianity and to issues of faith, came to be viewed as insidious enemies, not as the means to the strengthening and further understanding of faith as in previous generations.30 In removing a rational element from faith, faith came to be ever more irrational and, occasionally in later Western history, even anti-rational, as is evidenced by the growth and influence of Christian and semi-Christian sects focused on otherworldly mysticism, ecstatic experience, and emotionalism to the exclusion of logical thought and scientific knowledge in America and Europe during and following the Enlightenment. Christian apologetic also took on a more forceful character, as Christian apologists found it necessary to concede as little as possible to the unbelievers, such as defending extremely literal interpretations of the six-day creation and worldwide flood described in the biblical book of Genesis, whereas earlier generations of Christians had generally interpreted these events in allegorical and mystical terms.31 Christian apologists also found it necessary to attack their unbelieving opponents with a new zeal, labeling them as “missionaries of evil” and focusing the bulk of their apologetic efforts on disbelief rather than on other religions or Christian heresies.32 The attempts to reconcile faith and reason and the use of doubt as a faith-building tool had become things of the past.


Doubt has been implicit within and an aspect of religious belief for as long as religious ideas have existed. This is especially true of the Christian religious tradition, whose most intellectual adherents found reasonable arguments for the existence of God to be necessary in the course of their attempts to reconcile the inheritances they had received from both ancient Judaism and ancient Athens. The eventual reconciliation of faith with reason, though accomplished during the Middle Ages, fell apart as the Middle Ages ended, largely under the influence of William of Occam. With the dawn of the Enlightenment in Europe and especially the new scientific knowledge which it brought with it, the separation that had been wrought between faith and reason widened continually and ever more deeply. Deism originally rose from the “reason” side of this split as a supposedly reasonable alternative to religious superstition; it attempted to formulate a set of religious beliefs that was pared down to the basics of the existence of a creator God and a moral system he had ordained alongside the laws of the universe. As the universe and human beings themselves came to be viewed increasingly as natural machines, however, there was less and less need for the existence of a God or the plausibility of holding to a moral system based on one. With d’Holbach, athéisme found its first outspoken spokesman, extolling a worldview in which there was no God and everything that existed was part of the material world. As with much Enlightenment philosophy, this view subsequently gained such popularity and influence among philosophers that it became the assumed standpoint of later generations of philosophers. As with any great new idea, the effects became tremendous once atheism reached the ears of the people at large, reshaping the nature of both religious belief and disbelief throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and continuing through to today.


1 Hans Küng, Great Christian Thinkers (New York: Continuum, 1994), 108-9.

2 William Raeper and Linda Smith, A Brief Guide to Ideas (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1997), 55.

3 Sarah Stroumsa, Freethinkers of Medieval Islam: Ibn al-Rawandi, Abu Bakr al-Razi and their Impact on Islamic Thought (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 122-3.

4 Raeper, A Brief Guide, 59.

5 Nils Ch. Rauhut, ed., Readings on the Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, Second Edition (New York: Penguin Academics, 2007), 380-3.

6 Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 472.


Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 302.


Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 5: Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), 66.

11 Tarnas, The Passion, 303.

12 Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 years of Western Cultural Life (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), 361.

13 Ibid.

Tarnas, The Passion, 308.


Barzun, From Dawn, 361.

17 Samuel Clarke, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Philosophical Papers and Letters: A Selection, ed. Leroy E. Loemaker (Norwell: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989), 677.

Tarnas, The Passion, 308.

Barzun, From Dawn, 365.

Paul Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, The System of Nature or, the Laws of the Moral and Physical World, tr. H.D. Robinson (New York: G.W. and A.J. Matsell, 1835).

21 Tarnas, The Passion, 310.

Barzun, From Dawn, 373.

Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Machine Man and Other Writings, ed. Ann Thomson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Tarnas, The Passion, 310.

Barzun, From Dawn, 367.

Tarnas, The Passion, 310.


Ludwig Feuerbach, quoted in Raeper, Brief Guide, 122.

European Commission, Directorate General Press and Communication, Eurobarometer: Social values, Science, and Technology (June 2005) (accessed 19 November 2011).

30 James C. Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 144.

Turner, Without God, 143-4.

Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 181.


Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 years of Western Cultural Life. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.

d’Holbach, Paul Henri Thiry, Baron. The System of Nature or, the Laws of the Moral and Physical World. Translator H.D. Robinson. New York: G.W. and A.J. Matsell, 1835.

European Commission, Directorate General Press and Communication. Eurobarometer: Social values, Science, and Technology. June 2005. (accessed 19 November 2011).

Küng, Hans. Great Christian Thinkers. New York: Continuum, 1994.

La Mettrie, Julien Offray de. Machine Man and Other Writings. Editor Ann Thomson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Loemaker, Leroy E., editor. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Philosophical Papers and Letters: A Selection. Norwell: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition, A History of the Development of Doctrine, Volume 5: Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Raeper, William and Linda Smith. A Brief Guide to Ideas. Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1997.

Rauhut, Nils Ch., editor. Readings on the Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, Second Edition. New York: Penguin Academics, 2007.

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

Stroumsa, Sarah. Freethinkers of Medieval Islam: Ibn al-Rawandi, Abu Bakr al-Razi and their Impact on Islamic Thought. Leiden: Brill, 1999.

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.

Turner, James C. Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

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.


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) (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) (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) (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.


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) (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) (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) (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.

The Christian Rescue of the Greco-Roman Intellectual Tradition

The Christian Church of the Middle Ages has become somewhat of a boogeyman in the modern popular imagination. It is fairly typical to hear even supposedly educated individuals claim that Christianity quashed out all science, philosophy, and learning, which aspects of civilization would only reemerge from the darkness of the “Dark Ages” with the Renaissance and, still later, with the Enlightenment.1 The destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, supposedly at the hands of a violently anti-intellectual Christian mob, the gruesome murder of the Alexandrian female mathematician Hypatia, supposedly at the hands of a similarly violently anti-intellectual (and anti-woman) mob of Christian monastics, and the supposed stagnation of scientific knowledge, along with other similar examples, are paraded out as evidence for this assertion. However, many of these examples, such as the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, are myths,2 others, such as the murder of Hypatia, are vastly exaggerated and wildly misreported,3 and still others, such as the decline of scientific knowledge, are outright fabrications of Christianity’s Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment detractors such as Edward Gibbon and John William Draper.4 Contrary to the common misconception of history, the advent and eventual triumph of Christianity was a great boon to the intellectual tradition of the Greco-Roman world, as it freed this tradition from superstitious presuppositions and encouraged its proliferation within a more logical worldview.

As much as the pre-Christian scientific tradition of the Greco-Roman world has been hailed and lauded by some in the course of criticizing medieval Christians, if there is anything for which modern people can pass blame on the Christians of the Middle Ages it is that they so long held on to so many of the methods and notions of the Greco-Roman world, a world whose intellectual tradition had been on the decline for many years before the triumph of Christianity.5 As David C. Lindberg, a historian of science, observed, “It is agreed by most historians of ancient science that creative Greek science was on the wane, perhaps as early as 200 B.C., certainly by A.D. 200.”6 The field of cosmology is a notable example.

Aristotle’s model of the universe, based upon his philosophical concepts and not upon anything even remotely resembling modern scientific research, posited that the universe was composed of a series of concentric “celestial spheres” which moved in a perfectly circular motion around a perfectly spherical earth and “that the heaven as a whole neither came into being nor admits of destruction … but is one and eternal.”7 It was only with the advent of Christianity that these assumptions, now shown ridiculous by modern science, of an eternal and perfect symmetry and harmony in the universe, began to be questioned. Importantly, the questioning of these ancient pagan presuppositions was engaged in upon the basis of uniquely Judeo-Christian concepts.

The Judeo-Christian beliefs that only God is inherently eternal, that he created all that exists ex nihilo, and that all things continue to exist only because he sustains them, not because of any inherent immortality on their part, clearly stood in stark contradiction to Aristotelian cosmology. It was upon this uniquely Judeo-Christian basis that the assumptions of Aristotle and the many who had followed him were criticized by philosophers and scientists such as the Byzantine Christian philosopher John Philoponus (490-570 CE).8 Philoponus would be read, admired, and heavily borrowed from by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642 CE), whose theory of a heliocentric universe, in spite of its infamous and habitually misrepresented condemnation by the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church, would be foundational for modern scientific views of cosmology.9

Medieval Islam, by contrast, would never produce such a flowering of scientific thought as did the Christian world in spite of handling the same Greco-Roman texts and observing the same astronomical phenomena as the Christians for a nearly equal period of time. Although Muslims, such as the theologian Ghazali (1058-1111 CE), did question certain aspects of the cosmological models received from the Greco-Roman tradition, they typically did so only by arguing from another aspect of the Greco-Roman tradition.10 For instance, the Muslim polymath Averroës (1126-1198 CE) opposed the Ptolemaic model of the universe primarily by arguing for the superiority of the Aristotelian model.11

In spite of the mythology propagated by Christianity’s fashionable enemies during the Enlightenment and since and still held in the popular consciousness today, Christianity not only is not responsible for any kind of disappearance or weakening of the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition, it is in fact responsible for having saved that intellectual tradition, in many ways from itself. As the modern Christian philosopher and historian David Bentley Hart has pointed out, “despite all our vague talk of ancient or medieval ‘science,’ pagan, Muslim, or Christian, what we mean today by science … came into existence, for whatever reasons, and for better or worse, only within Christendom, and under the hands of believing Christians.”12


1 A popular recent example of such erroneous thinking can be found in Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise and Fall of Reason (New York: Knopf, 2003).

2 David Bentley Hart, The Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith (London: Quercus, 2007), 47.

3 ibid., 97.

4 David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. To A.D. 1450 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

5 Arnold J. Toynbee, Hellenism: The History of A Civilization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959).

6 David C. Lindberg, “Science and the Early Church,” in God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, eds. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 30.

7 Aristotle, “On the Heavens,” Book II, Chapter 1.

8 Alister E. McGrath, A Scientific Theology: Nature (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001), 95-8.

9 Edward Grant, Science and Religion, 400 B.C. to A.D. 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

10 Eric L. Ormsby, Ghazali: The Revival of Islam (Oxford: Oneworld, 2008).

11 David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Ann Arbor: Sheridan Books, 2009), 59.

12 ibid., 63.