As the title already states shall in this contemplation a small sketch be given of the history of Western spiritualistic and materialistic orientations. This is not a small subject. The West knows a history of explicated thought that encompasses more than twenty-five hundred years. In this time numerous great thinkers have stepped to the fore, either to contribute to the general thought of the mass in their time, or to simply explicate this general thought, and perhaps to do both. It would be interesting to work out all the details with their relations with general mass-thought and to put these on the time-scale of history. But the result would be at its least a very thick volume. This taken in account it shall be clear that in a short contemplation such as this one only a small and very general sketch can be given. Details may perhaps be worked out in other contemplations later on, but this does not have a high priority. It should also be emphasized here that in this contemplation we are mainly concerned with the streams of Western thought that have been flowing through people as a whole, and that we are less concerned with individual philosophical polemics which may have had not much influence or which may have not been very representative for the general orientations of their or other times. At the same time however, whether the well known individuals of Western orientation have been the directors or simply the representatives of the mainstream orientations of the West, the explications of these orientations are generally to be found with the legacies of these individuals. So although we are mainly concerned with the dominant mainstream orientations in this contemplation, we often gain theoretical access to these through individual explications.
With this all said it must also be brought to the fore that before the regarded sketch can be worked out, first a few working definitions and clarifications of terms should be given. This shall be done in the coming three paragraphs. After this is done the way shall be clear to give the intended sketch of the history of Western spiritualistic and materialistic orientations.
Spiritualism and materialism are two concepts that come naturally to the fore in the consideration of spiritualistic and materialistic orientations. In this contemplation these concepts shall be used in line with their philosophical usage. In philosophy these terms denote two polar opinions or sets of theory. Materialism (taken in its most radical sense) holds that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications,1, 2, 3, 4, 5 whereas spiritualism attests that spirit instead of matter is the ultimate substance. 6, 7
This polar opposition is in line with the polarity of spirit and matter itself, and the contemplating of spiritualism and materialism does raise the question for the nature of these two. Now the difficulty is that both materialism and spiritualism come in various opinions and theories and that according to the theory also the conception of matter and spirit may vary. A solution could be found in coming to our own conclusions regarding these two concepts. However for this a separate contemplation is needed, and there is no space here to contemplate matter and spirit comprehensively. To meet the needs of the present contemplation however it is possible to posit without arguments two general and very encompassing working definitions. Their encompassingness should make them valid for all materialistic or spiritualistic theories, and their generality should make them acceptable for most readers. Matter, we shall posit, is quantity. And spirit, we shall posit, is quality. Thus, according to these posited working definitions, are materialists of opinion that only quantity is real and that quality is derived from quantity (for instance ancient atomism, which thought that quality was derived from difference in quantity of material atoms and their arrangement in space and time).8 And spiritualists on their turn emphasize quality as the prime reality standing at the base of all quantity (for instance the Christians who believe that the material world was created by a spiritual god).9 So materialists hold that quality only comes from quantity and spiritualists hold that quantity only comes from quality. It should be noted here that these opinions are spiritualistic and materialistic in their most polarized and radical form. Usually some kind of nuance shall be found in the diverse theories.
The term ‘the West’ is used synonymously with terms such as ‘the Western world’ and ‘the occident’.10 Etymologically these terms refer to the region where the sun goes down. ‘Occident’ comes from the Latin ‘occidens’, which denotes this very same thing.11 And ‘West’ ultimately comes from the proto-Indo-European ‘wes’,12 which also carries meanings pertaining to the setting of the sun. Now in the old world of Asia and Europe (with inclusion of Mediterranean Africa) were the European countries geographically placed towards the direction where the sun set. Thus the regarded terms came into use to refer to the countries of Europe. With the widespread settling of European people with their culture in the new world during colonial times, the regarded terms came to refer to the colonized countries of this new world as well. Thus in contemporary days are ‘the West’, ‘the Western world’ and ‘the occident’ used to refer to (Western) Europe, North-America, South-America, Australia and New Zealand, sometimes with inclusion also of Israel (and formerly South-Africa). Of course the impact of Western thought and culture has not been limited to the aforementioned countries of the new world. Colonization of Africa and Asian countries such as India have certainly spread Western thought to Southern and Eastern places as well, whether this thought has become dominant or not. And in contemporary times the influence of the U.S.A as a Western superpower of course has had a worldwide impact as well. It are all these, the roots, the trunk, the branches and the twigs, that are referred to in this contemplation with ‘the West’. With its roots in the Mediterranean area, its trunk in (Western) Europe and its branches in the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, Western thought has spread its twigs globally.
The term ‘history’ can etymologically be traced back to the proto-Indo-European ‘wid’, simply meaning ‘knowledge’.13 Without going deep into the etymological evolution of ‘history’, it can be said that from its root meaning it has grown through Greek and Latin usage into contemporary English meanings which pertain to knowledge through recorded accounts of in time and place related events.14 Events which did not influence situations in other places or other times are generally not included in contemporary historical narratives. That in contemporary days the term ‘history’ is used to refer to events that have been recorded, shows the distinction that is made between history and prehistory. For ‘prehistory’ (with ‘pre’ meaning ‘before’) is used only to refer to events of which no records are known.15 Considering history and prehistory in this way, it may rightfully dawn that prehistory and history may vary according to location. While in Greece for instance events were already recorded, placing it in history, the tribes living in Germany were at that time still prehistoric. This given has importance for this contemplation. For if a strict sketch of the history of Western spiritualistic and materialistic orientations is given, then we are bound to leave out the prehistoric orientations of North-Western Europe. This while these have been of importance too for the development of Western thought. So reckoning the aforementioned, shall in the present sketch also a part of prehistory be taken in account, even under the term of ‘history’.
Now normally historical accounts are given in a chronological order. And in this order then distinctions are made between certain major time periods. How the distinction is made will often depend on the type of discipline under which the regarded research is done. Examples of generally accepted major time periods are ‘the ancient period’, ‘the antique period’, ‘the medieval period’, ‘the modern period’ and ‘the contemporary period’. In this contemplation however we shall be less strict in following a chronological order. This order shall be kept in mind and will be followed where possible, but the main focus shall be laid on the diversity of Western orientations. Thus a different division shall be used. In this contemplation we shall distinct between the pagan, the Christian and the scientific period.
The word ‘pagan’ comes from the Latin ‘pāgānus’, which was used to refer to the inhabitants of the countryside or to civilians as opposed to soldiers.16 In Christian times it came to refer to non-Christians or heathens, as the practitioners of the pre-Christian religions were considered to be civilians in comparison to the ‘soldiers’ of Christ.17 Thus may the pagan period also be termed as ‘the pre-Christian period’. Indeed this period is long and varied. It starts deep in the prehistory of the West with the first orientations of its early inhabitants, and ends with the rise of Christianity. And as the spread of Christianity throughout the West has been gradual, so has also the ending of Western paganism been gradual.
The above mentioned pagan period may be divided into two main orientations, namely the polytheistic orientations and the preceding animistic orientations. Besides ‘animism’ are also terms like ‘spiritism’, ‘nature religion’ and ‘primitive religion’ used to refer to these regarded early orientations.
The term ‘primitive religion’ is used because the regarded apprehension of reality is found mostly with so called ‘primitive’ people and cultures. The term ‘prehistoric religion’ may also be applied because these primitive religions were found with those ancient tribes that were not yet using true forms of writing to account important events.
This considering it shall be clear that we cannot gain access to these orientations of the prehistoric West through the written accounts of individuals. Our only way of theoretical access seems to be through interpretations of archaeological findings and through the study of the orientations of contemporary still existing tribes and primitives.18 And one of the best known forms of contemporary animism, and thus one of the best doors to gain access to the orientations of animistic cultures, concerns contemporary shamanism. Central in shamanism is the belief of a spirit world, of a world of spirits, which governs the surrounding nature.19 Tribal people see themselves placed in very simple and natural surroundings. And by means of their religious practices they relate to these surroundings and try to influence these. Therefore also a term like ‘nature religion’ is used to refer to these orientations.
Often within such tribes there are found religious specialists, such as the shaman in shamanism. This religious specialist is able to interact with the spirit world. In certain rituals for instance are shamans brought into a trance in which their spirit leaves their body to travel to the spirit world, and sometimes also the shaman’s body is being possessed by spirits in such a trance.20 The kind of spirits that can be contacted are numerous. There are animal spirits, greater spirits that are reminiscent of the later polytheistic gods and spirits of deceased ancestors.21 Thus it can be understood why such orientations are also referred to with a term like ‘spiritism’. (Sometimes also ‘spiritualism’ is used to refer to the same. However in such cases this term is not used in its philosophical meaning, which is the way we are using it in our present contemplation.)
As said are these spirits considered to be the governors of the surrounding nature. They are, so to speak, the souls inhabiting nature. It is because of this thought that the term ‘animism’ is often applied. The English ‘animism’ can be traced back through the Latin ‘anima’ and ‘animus’ (meaning ‘soul’ or ‘mind’),22 and the Greek ‘anemos’ (meaning ‘wind’),23 to the Sanskrit 'āna' (meaning ‘breath’).24 This root meaning of ‘breath’ also applies to the word ‘spirit’,25 and so it can be said that animists orient themselves on spirits as inspiring their surrounding nature.
It are these orientations that can be found in the West of tribal times. For as mentioned is animism originally closely connected with tribal living. The orientations here are a combination of materialistic and spiritualistic orientations. There is no denial of the material world in which these tribal people normally live. However that material world is considered to be ruled by a spirit world. For to influence their material surroundings, tribals try to connect to the spirits that are supposed to animate these surroundings. And these are very spiritualistic orientations. Thus it can be said that the orientations of the animistic period are both materialistic and spiritualistic, with perhaps an emphasis on the last.
The movement from animistic orientations towards polytheistic ones has most likely not been characterized by a revolutionary turn, but more by a steady development. Thus we can see animism and polytheism overlapping each other in certain orientations. This development could be explained (but not necessarily should be explained) by the steady agricultural cultivation of the surrounding nature and the growth of the tribal settlements into villages, towns and cities. The thought which such an explanation may follow is that the changing environment necessarily brings about different orientations. Finding themselves living less close to nature the orientations of people will become less naturalistic. Also the development of agriculture may have been a factor of importance. For agriculture is in a way the cultivation of nature, and in agriculture people gain a grip on nature. Such a grip makes nature less unpredictable and thus the need to commune with the spirits of nature to manipulate nature’s ways becomes less.
However the need for intervention of greater powers stays where still uncontrollable elements are concerned. Such elements may be the earth’s fertility, volcanic eruptions, weather conditions such as storms, influences of heavenly bodies such as the sun and the moon and other supposed astrological influences. This we see reflected in polytheistic orientations throughout the world.26 There relations are established with certain gods which are considered to rule over the aforementioned elements. Thus the term ‘polytheism’ was given to such orientations. The word ‘polytheism’ comes from the Greek ‘polytheos’. And with ‘poly’ meaning ‘many’ and ‘theos’ meaning ‘god’, does the word ‘polytheism’ refer to the belief in, or worship of many gods.27 Where the West is concerned are the best known polytheistic orientations probably those of the Greek, the Romans and the Germanics.
Although all three mentioned polytheistic orientations of the West are unique in themselves, similar features can be recognized. What they have in common for instance is their close relation to the more primitive religions. It is hard to say where exactly animism ends and where polytheism begins. Because also in polytheistic orientations can be found hierarchies of gods and spirits. Greek polytheism for instance has besides its gods such as Zeus and Hera also giants, nymphs, satyrs and other mystical creatures that are reminiscent of the spirits of nature religions.28 And right where the polytheistic orientations are still difficult to distinguish from animistic orientations, it shows that the gods of the regarded pantheon are still very abstract and less anthropomorphic as in more developed polytheistic orientations. Exemplary here is Italic-Roman polytheism, which only after being cultural influenced by Greece (who’s cultural developments preceded the Roman) developed anthropomorphic conceptions of its gods.29 It is here where a clearer distinction with animism becomes possible. Where animism lays its emphasize on more abstract nature spirits, there does developed polytheism lay its emphasize on humanoid depicted gods.30 Humanoid, but not human. For the gods surpass humans greatly in power and splendor, with their main distinction of immortality.31 These gods do further not inhabit the direct surrounding environment of humans, as do the nature spirits of primitive people, but live in more heavenly worlds (such as Asgard, to take an example from Germanic polytheism)32 from which they rule over the human world.
The contact with the gods in heaven then is normally mediated with rituals and sacrifices by special priests and priestesses,33 who have devoted their lives to service of the gods.34 Which of the many gods is evoked through the rituals depends on what is asked for. For every god has its special domain over which it reigns. In Italic-Roman polytheism for instance does Mars rule over warfare,35 Saturn over agriculture,36 Uranus over the sky,37 Venus over spring, fertility and sexuality,38 and Vulcanus over fire and craftsmanship.39 Generally, and in any way in Greek, Italic-Roman and Germanic polytheism, there is also one god revered as standing at the top of the polytheistic hierarchy. In ancient Greece this was Zeus,40 with the Romans it was Jupiter,41 and in Germanic polytheism Odin or Wodan was seen as head of the gods.42 This seems like a move towards monotheism, and it should be set clear that polytheism indeed does not necessarily exclude monotheistic orientations.43
So what does this move from animism towards polytheism mean in terms of materialistic en spiritualistic orientations? We saw that in animism the orientations were both materialistic and spiritualistic with an emphasize on the latter. Animists see their surrounding material world as infused with different kind of spirits, through which they try to influence that material world. This changes in polytheism somewhat. The gods are separated from their material habitat, taken away from human surroundings and placed in spiritual heavens. Thus does in the development from animism to polytheism a schism take place between the material and the spiritual. Natural phenomena are no longer imbibed with spirits and gods, although both are maintained. And the relation that is now given to them is that one is the cause of the other. Natural phenomena are no longer expressions of spirits or gods, but they have become results of godly acts. After the schism the gods are seen as the heavenly cause of earthly phenomena. This means that the material is seen as secondary in relation to the primal spiritual. So polytheism in its more evolved forms is highly spiritualistic in its orientations.
And thus is the pagan period characterized by a development from somewhat balanced orientations towards spiritualistic orientations.
As been stated does the pagan period in the West end with the rise and spread of Christianity. This spread has been following a rather gradual course, with here and there some revolutionary peaks. This means that the pagan period was already replaced by Christian orientations at some places in the West, while at the same time in other places pagan orientations were still dominant. The Roman emperor Constantine the Great (c. 285-337 A.D.)44 for instance had already converted to Christianity around the year 312 A.D. This conversion of Rome’s most powerful individual paved the way for a relatively early spread of Christianity in Rome,45 bringing Roman polytheism to its end, while in Scandinavia the Germanic polytheistic orientations would still stay dominantly in sway until after the so called ‘Viking age’,46 an age which is generally set between c. 750 and c. 1100.47 Many factors have been involved in the success of Christianity’s spread throughout the West, of which the conversion of Constantine is only one. All of these factors can obviously not be treated in this contemplation. The subject of Christianity is so vast that only some of the largest lines of its characteristics can be sketched here. Sketching these lines in chronological order will then also give some insight in the factors which enabled its spread.
It is not for nothing that the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) called Christianity ‘Platonism for the people’.48 For Plato’s life and the explication of his thought have been very important for Christianity, as we shall see, even though these took place long before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Plato lived between 427 and 347 B.C. in ancient Greece,49 and is often considered to be the first true philosopher in the Western philosophical tradition.50 Indeed may his predecessor Socrates (469-399 B.C.)51 be named with Plato in one breath, for it is mainly through the accounts of Socrates’ talks that Plato in his oeuvre works out his thought.52 However since it is not clear whether Plato’s writings with talks of Socrates are true accounts of real happenings, or whether he just used Socrates’ name to introduce his own thought, is Plato’s name often given primacy to the regarded teachings. Notions that Plato’s works are not fully limited to accounts of conversations of Socrates, and that his philosophical interests seem to have been wider than those of Socrates do also play a role in giving primacy to Plato as the first true philosopher.53
Now that Plato lived at the mentioned time and place means that he found himself set in a Greek polytheistic setting where gods such as Zeus and Apollo were revered. This reverence of the Greek gods during his time is reflected many times in his works.54 Nevertheless did Plato orientate himself differently. For without truly refuting the polytheistic orientations of his Greek fellowmen, did he often use their belief to maneuver himself to less pagan and more philosophical thoughts.55
So what are these thoughts of Plato? Since it is not possible to give an exposition of the entirety of Plato’s thoughts and philosophy we shall focus here on those thoughts that have been of importance for Christianity (which by the way are also considered to be the most important thoughts in his oeuvre). And for this we shall in particular turn to Plato’s work ‘Politeia’, known under the English name of ‘Republic’.
In this work, in book 7, we find Plato’s famous allegory of the cave,56 which can be considered to be exemplary for Plato’s thought. In this allegory Plato depicts an underground cavelike dwelling. In it are prisoners chained by hands and neck, in such a way that they can only see the wall in front of them. Behind them fires are burning, which cast their light on the wall. Between the prisoners and the fires, people are passing, carrying artifacts such as statues of people and animals. These cast shadows on the wall, and also the voices of the passing people are echoed against the wall. Knowing nothing but the shadows on the wall the prisoners take these shadows to be the only reality. Then Plato imagines one prisoner being freed from his chains. When he would turn around, and go upward to the light of the day, he would first be blinded by the light, and he would in first instance not believe the now seen objects and people to be real. However after some adjustment to the light he would learn to see the people and objects as real, and the shadows as mere shadows. However returning to his old fellow prisoners out of empathy, these still bound prisoners would not believe him. They would think that his eyesight was ruined, for the freed prisoner’s eyes would have a hard time seeing the shadows again when returning to the dark cave after a stay in the sunlight.
Plato explains after this allegory that the cavelike dwelling is like the visible world. The shadows are the visible things and the fire is the sun’s power. The journey upward from the cave to the surface compares Plato to the journey of the soul towards the realm of intelligible forms. And the sun finally is the form or the idea of the good, for the good is the highest and last to be known.
In this explanation we see that Plato distinguishes between an earthly realm and an intelligible realm of forms, of which the form of the good is the highest. From the explanation it becomes also clear that of these two realms Plato gives primacy to the realm of forms. The nature of the shadows on the wall is determined by the true objects. So also are the perceptible things determined by the intelligible forms. Plato’s thought is that things are attributed with their specific qualities because they participate in a higher world of forms, which is a world of pure qualities.57 A particular perceptible thing is beautiful for instance because it participates in the abstract form of beauty. Something is beautiful because it participates in beauty,58 just as something is big because it participates in bigness or something is small because it participates in smallness.
These Platonic philosophical thoughts may seem to be quite different from the polytheistic thoughts that surrounded Plato, however in analogy they are very similar. For just as polytheistic Greece of that time thought of the earthly things as being ruled by a multitude of gods, with Zeus as the highest, so did Plato think of perceptible things as being determined by a multitude of intelligible forms, with the form of the good as the highest. So in a way did Plato strip the polytheistic orientations of his time from their gods, maintaining the primal structures and orientations. This stripping off of gods, while keeping the structures on which they were placed intact, would eventually give room for Christianity to cloth these bare structures again with its own Christian figures. These figures Christianity would find in Judaism and in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. This Christian clothing of the by Plato bared structure would however not take place soon after Plato lived his life, for still more than three centuries had to pass before Jesus of Nazareth himself would find birth.
Jesus of Nazareth
The life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who by Christians is named ‘Jesus Christ’, have obviously been the most important of all factors for the spread of Christianity. Jesus was born probably around the year 0,59 and found his end a bit after he started teaching around the age of thirty.60 Where gaining access to his life and teachings is concerned is the situation somewhat similar to that of Socrates. For also Jesus has not written down his teachings, leaving us dependent on the accounts of those that surrounded him. These accounts have through a process of centuries been selected and gathered in what is now known as ‘The New Testament’.61 In this work we find accounts of Jesus’ life and of his teachings. These teachings then must be understood contextual. Jesus lived and taught primarily amongst Jews.62 So Jesus’ teachings must also be understood as being embedded in Judaic teachings. This thought seems to make sense because Christianity has accepted also the Judaic teachings under the name of ‘the Old Testament’.63
So what are the major Judaic thoughts that have contributed to Christianity? What catches the eye in the context of the present contemplation is that Judaism (and accordingly also Christianity) maintains a hierarchy of beings. First there are ordinary people. These are the ones not descendent of Abraham, who therefore are not bound by the covenant of Abraham and Yhwh.64 (In the Hebrew texts of the Old Testament is God often signified with the four Hebrew letters ‘yhwh’ or ‘jhvh’. It is from these letters that the names ‘Yahweh’ and ‘Jehovah’ originated, because it is not exactly clear how the four letters should be pronounced in one breath.65 In this contemplation the name of the Abrahamic god shall be written without vowels as ‘Yhwh’). Then, in contrast with the ordinary people, there are the people who are descendent of Abraham, and thus have a covenant with Yhwh. The human realm is completed with the prophets, who are intermediate between Yhwh and the people.66 (In the Old Testament Moses is the most important prophet, ratifying the covenant of Yhwh with Abrahamites by mediating to them Yhwh’s commandments).67 A third class of beings then are Yhwh’s angels. These, like the prophets, are given the role of mediating between Yhwh and his people. However where the prophets reside as humans on earth, there do the angels reside in heaven. And finally on the top of the hierarchical ladder is found Yhwh (beautifully depicted by Jacobs dream), the one and only god of the Abrahamites.68
It are these ideas that, as the context of Jesus’ life and teachings, are being placed on Plato’s god-bared structure. (Note that it was amongst the Greek speaking Jews outside Palestine that the earliest Christianity spread).69 Yhwh there takes the place of the highest idea or form of the good. The minor intelligible forms are represented by the angels. The seers of the form of the good, whom Plato thinks of as true philosophers (metaphorized by the escaped prisoner in the cave allegory), are in Christianity the prophets. And the ordinary, unchosen people are through Christianity replacing those that are metaphorized by Plato as bounded prisoners. The chosen ones then may be thought of as prisoners heeding and following the words of the freed prisoner. We see all this reflected in the thoughts of several early Christian thinkers. As an example Augustine of Hippo (354-430), one of the most important Christian thinkers, may be mentioned. For his theology is clearly shaped by the philosophy of the neo-Platonist Plotinus (204/205-270).70
As sketched above could the by Plato god-bared structure of Greek polytheism be clothed very well again with the Jewish religion. This would however have been less likely to happen if this religion wasn’t brought in by the teachings of and about Jesus of Nazareth. So what were these teachings with which Jesus enriched the Judaic teachings and which made it possible for even non-Jews to accept the latter? Important teachings of Jesus are indeed the two main commandments to love God and to love one’s neighbor.71 However these are not the most important. The utter most important teaching was that Jesus was the son of God.72 This was important because he had not come to earth as a god, but as a man. The son of God walked the earth as a son of man.73 (‘The son of man’ is also a Jewish expression, denoting the redeemer in the likeness of a man).74 That Jesus Christ, as part of the Holy Trinity with the Father and the Holy Ghost, walked the earth as a man is important for two reasons.
In the light of this contemplation this thought is important because it is of significance for Christian orientations. From the embraced Jewish thought it is clear that the Christian orientations in the West have been overall spiritualistic. The material earth has been created by the spiritual God. Just like in polytheistic orientations there is in Christian thought a clear separation between the earth and heaven. Contact with heaven then is in Christianity mediated through angels, prophets, and in later instances also by religious specialists such as popes and priests. Now that Jesus Christ as son of God was born as a mortal man is of great significance, because as such does he bridge the gap between heaven and earth. Indeed does Greek polytheism also know its direct interaction between men and gods. Herakles (or ‘Hercules’) for instance was a demigod, born out of the union of the god Zeus with the mortal Alkmene.75 However figures such as Herakles in Greek polytheistic orientations did not play such a pivotal role as did Jesus in Christianity, where contact between earth and heaven is concerned. For in Christian orientations may no man reach the highest god than through Jesus Christ.76 A thought which is new in comparison with Greek polytheism. At the same time however, as important as this thought may be, does Jesus fail to be a true permanent overbridging. For he too went to heaven,77 leaving Christians thus to turn towards heaven even for the bridge between earth and heaven. Jesus came to bridge, but the bridge got withdrawn into heaven again. This left Christians with spiritualistic instead of more balanced orientations.
The other reason why it is of importance that Jesus walked the earth as part of the Holy Trinity is because this thought itself would eventually and also ironically help to cause the downfall of the Christian orientations in Western Europe. This downfall would however not happen for a multitude of centuries, for Christianity has since it made its entry in the West overall been superbly dominant. A number of shifts however would crack Christianity’s sturdy building, making it crumble since the 17th century, and leaving much of it in ruins in contemporary days. How the aforementioned thought about Jesus is important for these turnabouts should become clear in the coming paragraph.
As has been explicated at the ending of the previous paragraph have there been several events that have eventually caused a shift away from Christian orientations. This shift would be towards scientific orientations, a shift which has probably been the most important one in the history of Western spiritualistic and materialistic orientations. The explication of this shift shall again be worked out through the most important exponents of the regarded orientation.
Thematizing Aristotle with regards to the shift from Christian towards scientific orientations may seem rather remarkable, since Aristotle lived more than three hundred years before even Jesus of Nazareth found birth. For he lived between 384 and 322 B.C.78 However when it is considered that Aristotle refuted Plato’s teachings on the forms, 79 which were so important for Christianity, then it may dawn that Aristotle’s teachings were important for undermining Christian thought.
Aristotle entered the academy of Plato at the age of eighteen, and remained there until Plato’s death.80 Some time after that Aristotle taught Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) when the latter was thirteen years of age,81 and later he set up his own school, known as ‘the Lyceum’.82 And with this school Aristotle brought his own philosophical teachings to the fore, independent from and even opposite to those of Plato. Plato’s and Aristotle’s teachings are in a way opposite to each other where the gaining of true knowledge is concerned. According to Plato it was through the intelligible grasping of the abstract forms or ideas that exist in a non-material world of forms that truth became known. Aristotle however went away from that thought and laid his emphasize on sense perception of the surrounding material world for gaining true knowledge.83 In this Aristotle did not sweep away the thought of forms entirely, but he taught that forms did not exist apart from particular material things.84 It was according to Aristotle primarily through sense perception that knowledge of abstract forms was gained.85 With this thought did Aristotle, already then, lay the foundations on which science in post-Christian times could build. Not for nothing did Aristotle write a number of volumes on the subject of natural science (such as physics, meteorology and biology), mainly on the base of empirical study.86
Thomas Aquinas (1224/6–1274)87 was the most famous Christian philosopher who adapted Aristotle’s thought in his theology. This thought had come fully available in Latin only since the start of the thirteenth century, first through Arabian translations (Arabian philosophers had translated Aristotelian Greek texts earlier), after which direct Latin translations from original Greek texts followed.88 Being imbedded in a strong and forceful Christian context did Aquinas of course not refute God and heaven. However, like Aristotle, did he lay an emphasize on sense perception where knowledge is concerned.89 Thus after many centuries of Platonism did Aristotelian empiricism awake from its long slumber. The seed that Aristotle had laid many centuries back had now taken root in the orientations of the Western world through thinkers like Aquinas. The overall dominant Platonic orientations towards a metaphysical world did now find competition in Aristotelian empiricism, which gave importance also (and primarily) to the material world of sense perception.
The French philosopher René Descartes lived between 1596 and 1650,90 and is generally held to be of paramount importance for the development of Western thought.91 It is usually with his thought that the modern philosophy of the enlightenment in Europe is given its beginning.92 Pivotal in his thought and in the turn from Christian towards scientific orientations is the probably most famous philosophical expression “I think, hence I am”, which appears in the work ‘Discourse de la méthode’ (or in English; ‘Discourse on the Method’).93 In this work Descartes sets out to doubt everything until he bumps upon an undoubtable evidence.94 And this evidence he finds eventually in himself. He may doubt, but he cannot doubt that he is doubting. He doubts, he thinks, and hence he is. Finding thus himself as thinking human subject to be the first evidence is of great importance, because before that the Christian God had been the first evidence. Since the times of Descartes is the first truth no longer to be found in God, but in the human subject. A thought for which Christians had already been made perceptible by the theological doctrines about Jesus, who was in a way considered to be God being born as a human. It is this Cartesian turn towards the human subject that made Nietzsche about two hundred years later proclaim the death of God.95, 96
Now this thinking human subject as first evidence did Descartes consider to be a spiritual entity, a soul.97 That he thought thus did however definitely not mean that Descartes discarded the reality of the material world altogether. For Descartes considered the existence of two separate substances to be real. The physical body (res extensa) was just as real as the mind (res cogitans),98 regardless of his considerations of the latter to be the first evidence. In fact this first evidence and the split between the spiritual and the material was used by Descartes especially for the support of his theory of physics, which reduced natural phenomena fully to mechanics of length, depth and breadth.99 To explain natural phenomena in this way Descartes could not use Aristotelian empiricism which kept spiritual forms intermingled with material objects. The spiritual had to be separated from the material. So despite being remembered mainly for a more or less metaphysical philosophical expression, were Descartes’ orientations dominantly physical and scientific.
This Cartesian dualism has been considered philosophically problematic in the modern times that followed.100 For how could a spiritual soul interact with a material body if both are so distinct to each other?101 Much of modern philosophy was engaged in solving this problem, and the body of philosophical polemics about this subject in those days is enormous. Now the easiest way to solve the problem seemed to simply cross out one of the two poles. And this is exactly what eventually happened. However this was not so much established by philosophy but more by science. Scientific inventions kept most modern Westerners more in awe than complicated philosophical polemics. It were the achievements of empirical science that made people turn to their sense perception more and more. Not Gods wonders but human inventions were now received as impressive. This was a development that set in during modern times, but it would grow into full maturity in contemporary days.
So Aquinas’ embrace of Aristotelian empiricism soaked people loose from pure spiritualistic orientations. Descartes discarded God as first evidence and placed this first evidence in the human subject. This spiritual subject he separated from matter so he would be able to focus fully on empirical science without having to consider spirits (or Aristotelian forms) as intertwined with material objects. The resulting problem of the Cartesian duality then was solved by science by crossing out the spiritual pole and reducing it to workings of matter (for instance by reducing thought processes scientifically to workings of a physical brain). And thus we find ourselves today in a Western world which is very dominantly oriented to materialistic conceptions.
We set out in this contemplation to draw a small sketch of the history of western spiritualistic and materialistic orientations. After giving some clarifications on spiritualism, materialism, the West, history and pre-history a division was made between the pagan, the Christian and the scientific periods.
In the pagan period we started with sketching animism, a prehistoric orientation in which materialism and spiritualism are more or less balanced, with a slight emphasis on the latter. These orientations are in a way balanced by viewing material nature as an expression of spiritual beings. In polytheistic times a schism took place between the material surroundings and the spirits. The latter were placed as gods in heavens, apart from earthly human habitat. Because the emphasis was laid on the gods as ruling the human material world these polytheistic orientations were considered to be highly spiritualistic.
The Christian period was sketched as being influenced by Plato, Judaism and Jesus of Nazareth. Plato had stripped the Western polytheistic structure from its gods. This enabled Christianity to cloth the bared structure again with Jewish figures, which were brought in by its prophet Jesus. That Jesus went to his heavenly father instead of staying on earth meant that he failed to be a constant bridge between matter and spirit. For now Christians still had to turn to heaven for redemption. This made the Christian period highly spiritualistic.
As major influencers of the scientific period Aristotle and René Descartes were mentioned. Aristotle already defied the Platonic structure in pre-Christian times, but his emphasis on sense perception was brought in much later by Thomas Aquinas during the Christian period. Jesus, by being depicted as God in a human form, had made Christians already perceptible for turning their attention to the human subject. Something which would eventually happen radically since Descartes’ explication of the human subject as the first evidence. The problem of the resulting Cartesian duality was solved by empirical science by crossing out the spiritual pole, leaving us thus in contemporary days with highly materialistic orientations.