So far we have heard the modern view of man (part 1) and the Christian view of man (part 2 and part 3), and we’ve seen that these two views are not compatible. What remains is to examine the classical view of man. We’ll get to the key question concerning man’s nature in a short while. But since we’ve heard the modern view and the Christian view of the origin of man, we should begin similarly with the classical view. Therefore, let us ask Hesiod, Apollodorus, Ovid, Aristophanes, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, and Plutarch: what is the origin of man, and is man by nature good or evil?
According to the Greeks and Romans, man can trace his source to the gods, though there’s some cloudiness regarding the exact manner in which man came into existence. Hesiod’s Theogony is one of the oldest documented classical origin myths (700 BC), and partway through he suddenly begins speaking of man as a race without any explanation of whence man came. Not long before the birth of Christ, Apollodorus wrote in his Bibliotheca, “And Prometheus, after forming men from water and earth, also gave them fire” (Bibliotheca, 1.71).
Ovid (born 43 BC) includes a similar account of man’s creation in Book I of his Metamorphoses:
Man was born: whether that crafter of things, the beginning of a better world, made him with divine seed, or the ground, young and recently parted from the lofty sky, yet retained seeds of kindred heaven, which, being mixed with rain waters, the son of Iapetus [i.e. Prometheus] fashioned into the image of the gods who regulate all things. (Metamorphoses, I.78-83)
While in Ovid’s Metamorphoses there’s a rather high view of man, in the older account man seems a mere pawn and afterthought on the stage of the gods.
Thus far the creation of man. Now what of man’s relations with the gods? According to Homer’s Odyssey (which, along with the Iliad, was the equivalent of the Bible to the ancient Greeks), man rebelled against the gods. When Odysseus journeys among the dead in book 11 of the Odyssey, he sees a woman named Iphimedeia, of whom it says:
And she bore two sons, but they were both short-lived,
Godlike Otus and far-famed Ephialtes,
Whom the budding earth brought up by far the tallest
And much the fairest, after glorious Orion.
For at nine years old they were both nine cubits
Broad, and nine fathoms tall;
Who indeed did even threaten against the immortals on Olympus
To raise the battle cry of furious war.
They endeavored to set Ossa upon Olympus, then upon Ossa
Pelion with its quaking leaves, in order that heaven might be scaled.
And they would have accomplished it, if they had reached the measure of hardy youth.
But the son of Zeus, whom fair-haired Leto bore, destroyed
Them both, before the first whiskers under their temples
Bloomed to cover their cheeks with blossoming down.
The boys purposed to stack two mountains, one atop the other, and so ascend to Mount Olympus, the realm of the gods, and raise war. Apollo nipped that in the bud, and killed the two lads. They perished for their rebellion. Yet did their rebellion affect them alone?
In Plato’s Symposium (Greek for “drinking party”), a man named Aristophanes gives a discourse on man’s original state, and how it changed at this rebellion. Aristophanes rather humorously describes man as originally having four hands and four feet, one head with two faces – in many ways rather like two people joined together. Man could walk on his legs, like we do; or alternatively, using all eight limbs as something like spokes on a wagon wheel, could roll around at great speed. Aristophanes says, “Now fearful was their strength and might, and they had great thoughts, and they attacked the gods” (Symposium, 190b).
As the punishment for man’s insolence, Zeus decided to cut everyone in half, and he assigned Apollo the task of patching up the severed bodies of mankind. The result was the present human form. While we might giggle at Zeus’s threat to halve people again and make them hop about on one leg should they attempt another uprising, we nevertheless see how, according to at least some Greeks, that first rebellion against the gods had drastic consequences for man’s physical nature. After that attempt on Olympus, man was never the same again.
Now this isn’t to say that the gods hated mankind. Some gods and goddesses took a particular liking to certain people. If grey-eyed Athena hadn’t felt sympathy for Odysseus, he would still be stuck on an island with the nymph Calypso. And if Athena had withdrawn from Odysseus, Poseidon would have eagerly obliterated the poor sea-tossed man. But Athena did have sympathy, and was a bulwark for Odysseus throughout his journey.
In all of this we see how close the classical authors come to the truth in some cases. Now since we have the real truth in the Scriptures concerning God and creation and original sin and our heavenly Father’s steadfast love toward us, we therefore do not hold the classics as reliable sources regarding our origin, nature, standing in the world, or value in the eyes of God.
But the classical authors do have this over modern man: they’ll at least open their eyes and take an honest look at the world. Something made us. We are creatures, not accidents of nature. There is also something wrong with us. We long to be whole; we yearn for a restoration to some former way of things, even if, left to our own devices, we can’t figure out exactly what that former way of things was. There is some being in the universe who is greater and more powerful than we are, to whom we owe our obedience and willing service, of whom we can inquire, and to whom we can pray.
Christians share some ground with the ancient Greeks and Romans (even if we often find ourselves having to correct them). We share some ground because we have dwelt in the same world, which itself testifies to God, as it says in Romans 1:20, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.”
Meanwhile the “advanced” secular humanist has advanced all the way to a Neverland that exists only in pseudo-science and wishful thinking, and that can only be seen on the backs of his eyelids. It turns out, historically speaking, that we’re not the odd ones: believing in a divine creator, worshiping, holding religion as an integral part of what it means to be human. The infantile voices of John Dewey and his ilk find themselves drowned out by the booming chorus of antiquity.
The Nature of Man
But now what of the real question of man’s nature? We’ve heard what Aristophanes said about the changed physical nature of man. But, according to the classical world, is man by nature good or evil?
We have one of the clearest answers to this question in Plato’s Republic. In Book 4, Socrates and Glaucon dialogue about what have come to be known as the cardinal virtues (prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice). Here follows part of the conversation about temperance, with Socrates doing the bulk of the speaking:
S: Temperance is a sort of order and control over certain pleasures and passions. As they say, ‘He is quite a master of himself,’ I know not in what manner, and other such phrases, by which one picks up its tracks, so to speak. Is it not so?
G: Most certainly.
S: Then is not the phrase ‘master of himself’ absurd? For he who is master of himself would doubtless also be the slave of himself, and the slave the master, for the same man is addressed in all these phrases.
S: Rather, this phrase seems to me to want to say that there is in the same man, regarding his soul, a better part and a worse part, and whenever the part that is better by nature is master of the worse part, the phrase ‘master of himself’ expresses this – it is praise indeed! But whenever, by bad upbringing or certain company, the better part, being smaller, is overcome by the magnitude of the worse part, the saying censures this with a rebuke, and also calls the man who is thus disposed a slave of himself and undisciplined.
Socrates speaks of man much in the same way we speak of regenerate man. There is an internal battle between good and evil, which we recognize as the Holy Spirit warring against our corrupt flesh. Now to be clear, the classical authors were not regenerate men, and there is no “better part” of unregenerate man. Nevertheless, this pagan Socrates rightly recognizes that there is an evil part of man, and that evil part is to be resisted.
Fundamental to Socrates’ thinking is his belief in objective right and wrong. As Christians, Romans 2:14-15 helps us to understand why pagans still believe in right and wrong:
For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.
The law of God is written on the human heart. Now after the Fall, that writing is blurred in some places and can only be known in its fullness from the divine revelation of the Holy Scriptures. Still, objective morality remains largely intact. While modern man generally tries to silence the voice of conscience as it reads that law on the heart, the ancients generally heeded conscience and the law of God, even if they didn’t realize why they called right right and wrong wrong.
The ancients believed in the objective nature of morality, and they were honest enough to say that acting morally upright did not come naturally, at least not for most. And so Socrates and Glaucon and others conversed about virtues, and how to instill them. Aristotle wrote the Nicomachean Ethics, in which he expounded the Golden Mean and showed that we can stray from virtue by two extremes. For example, when commenting on courage, or fortitude, Aristotle notes that an excess of fear makes one cowardly, and that an excess of fearlessness makes one rash (III.vii). Aristotle also shows the danger of vice: while we can voluntarily form ourselves in a habit of vice, that doesn’t mean we can voluntarily stop. A man can throw himself into a pit, but he can’t throw himself out (III.v).
Besides the philosophers, the ancient historians also focus on morals, and they wrote their histories with a view of turning their readers away from vice and toward virtue. Herodotus does this very well, although Plutarch’s Lives is the most masterly example of moral history. In the course of history we see that the same vices accompany the downfall of man again and again; whereas men are honored for the same virtues generation after generation.
Now you only care about instilling sound morals if you believe that there’s something in man that you must hinder or correct (or bolster). However, if you believe that man is just right as he is, then all you’ll care about is self-affirmation, and entertainment, and silencing the voice of conscience (and the voices of those who agree with your conscience). Here we see very clearly how the view of man’s nature determines his education.
Well now, what have we learned from all of this reflection on man’s nature? May I put it bluntly? We have learned that the modern approach to education is based on a lie about man’s nature: the lie that man is the result of unguided evolutionary change and is by nature neither good nor evil. This is false and wrong, and Christian parents should think twice about entrusting their children to such liars who will deaden their consciences and teach them to affirm sin.
Man is by nature evil, and it is only by the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ that we are anything other than that. But thanks be to him, he has saved us through his Gospel and given us his Holy Spirit, who fights against the sinful nature. This means that there is a great battle being waged within every Christian, including Christian children.
Our war-torn Christian children need the shield and soothing balm of God’s Word. When our children go to school, they should be like Solomon dwelling securely within the walls of Jerusalem, and not like Uriah forsaken on the front lines and left to die.
Even though they were pagans, and even though, when it comes to religion, they had ugly stick figures compared to the beautiful portrait of Christ in the Holy Scriptures, the ancient Greeks and Romans do have masterpieces on morality and ethics and language that can be of great use to us in raising our children.
So let us give our children God’s Word, and employ a selection of the Greek and Roman classics. Let us give them Christ, and sound instruction in right and wrong. Let us treat them like what they are; let us treat them according to their nature. And let us forsake the lie.
Painting: The School of Athens by Raphael, 1511
Scripture quotations are from the King James Version.
Translations of classical authors are my own.
Thank you to Dr. Christian Kopff for pointing me toward Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, and to Rev. Christian Preus for introducing me to Hesiod’s Theogony.