In Philip Wogaman's "Christian Ethics: A historical Introduction", the influence of ancient philosophical traditions is evident. To what extent have these traditions influenced early Christian thought?
Is Christianethical thought an extension of earlier philosohpical traditions, or is itbased upon its own principles and ideologies? With these questions in mind,what and who is the basic foundational structure of this discipline?
History witnesses that the ideas similar to Christian moral had appeared long ago before the birth of Christ, as Christian moral has lots of concepts that originate in common natural laws, fundamentals of peaceful coexistence and simple human moral.
Historians argue nowadays about the origins of Christianity and are looking for analogical moral teaching and philosophical ideas that existed in last centuries of BC both in Palestine and in Ancient Greece. Most of moral concepts of Christianity came into new religion from Judaism and from different religious and moral tendencies of Ancient word, both eastern and western. Fatalism, humility, ascetic way of life and self perfection teachings already existed long before Christianity and had made an incredible influence on Christian ethics supplementing existing religion by universality and availability of its philosophy. As a result, Christianity became nearly the first religion that got a global spread, as it was no longer a class religion, it was the religion, accepted by all classes, as everyone could find salvation in all-mighty god who considered every person to be his earthly child who were all equal for him, despite heritage, merit and race. Christian philosophy was accumulating the achievements of ancient Jewish, Greek and Roman philosophical and ethic thought and was supplemented by them even during the second-third century after its foundation. Christianity accepted metaphysics of Aristotle, stoic beliefs, Judaist concept of monotheism and many other aspects.
Especially when studying the origins of Christian ethics scientists refer to the moral teaching of Stoics and their brightest representatives: Seneca and Epicurus. Stoics taught that people have to live according to the laws of nature and laws of universal harmony. They considered nature’s laws and nature of things to be the ideal of one’s life, and their teaching was telling about the rules of harmonic coexistence in this world. Stoics believed that everything is decided by natural laws, that individual’s destiny is planned before. So anyone who would try to act contrary to destiny will fail anyway as it’s impossible to act contrary to nature. These ideas are quite similar to some of Christian beliefs, for example in the dogma about almighty God and predestination. Besides, teaching of stoics was promoting moderate and simple way of life, ideas of humanism and good attitude, search for the truth and a skill to live a happy life. Stoics saw happiness in freedom from passions, in tranquility of spirit and indifference. Some of similar ideas are common to Christian moral as well.
The teaching of Seneca, who belonged to Stoics, was adopted by Christian church, and his influence on the development of Christian ethics and philosophy was considerable in later years as well. Christianity adopted a set of stoic ethics concepts, and a lot of Christian authors of the Western Roman Empire cited Seneca and referred to his essays in their works. In 4 century AD there was even composed a correspondence between St. Paul and Seneca, Seneca’s literary works were popular among Humanists of Renaissance and Enlightenment. Still philosophical beliefs of Seneca were not consistent. His discourses were concentrated on the place of philosophy in human’s life and on the problems of practical moral. Philosophy according to Seneca was a balsam for human’s soul. The main task of Seneca’s discourses was to find the best answer on the question how to live and how to die, to give spiritual independence from routine problems and fears. Seneca considered all people to be equal: “they are slaves,-no they are people! They are slaves, no they are friends! They are slaves! No, they are modest friends!”, but still Seneca’s discourses were directed to give a hope to roman aristocracy, but not to common people, as he was not really close to commons. Seneca’s view about material goods were also non single valued, he preached intricate way of life, modest behavior and humility, but he didn’t stand against wealth, moreover in his poems he glorified the wealth of Rome. Justifying sinful and immoral human nature which is inclined to temptation and hypocrisy (as moral ideas are violated by majority), he stated that human nature is sinful and weak, but still people have to work on themselves.
The same concepts about human nature are found in basics of Christian ethics as well. The believes of Seneca are also similar to Christian beliefs about life after death, as Seneca taught that earthly life has to be a preparation for death: “one life bad is not able to die good”. For the sake of that it’s important to stand hardships, pain, fears and dangers met in route life; at the same time one has to fight his passions and temptations. And the heroic image of gladiator is an ideal for Seneca.
Religious origins of Christianity which are found in Judaism were modified nearly a century before Christ by a Greek philosopher, Philon of Alexandria. Philon tried to combine the Old Testament with the teaching of Stoics, Pythagoreans and followers of Plato. At the same time he explained the essence of god which was transcendental, if compared to Judaist concept of god only for chosen people. According to Philon two forcers served God- Word (Logos) and Holly spirit (hagion pneuma), this was something similar to the Christian dogma about holly trinity. According to Philon, a man was an image of word or Logos, as the world was created by god by means of word.
Echoes of Philon’s religious and moral teaching are found in moral and ethical concepts of late Christianity: the meaning of charity, universality of sin, etc. Everything that was mentioned above allows considering Philon’s teaching as Christianity without Christ. By the opinion of many scientists, it would be hard to determine the origins and fundamentals of late Christian moral concepts and religious particularities if the was nothing known about activity of Philon. Such canonic Christian works as Holly gospels of disciples become clearer from ethical and philosophical point of view only when comparing them to the teaching of Philon.
Christianity was also influenced by Stoic ideas of Roman emperor Mark Aurelius, who by the way cruelly persecuted Christians. That’s why to consider that Christianity introduced something new into ethics and morality would be incorrect, as it executed the role of a synthesis of different teachings and ideas that existed long before Christ in order to make Christianity really universal.