Can we be good without God?
INSIGHTS FROM GRECO-ROMAN TIMES
A Christian Response
by Rex Dale
(Dog Ear Publishing, Indianapolis, USA. ISBN 978-1-4575-3477-5. Available from Amazon Books UK, approx $25.00)
One of the most enduring claims of contemporary secularists is that we do not need to believe in God to be good. One difficulty today is that because of the pervasive influence of Christian culture in Western society, it is very difficult to know how a non-Christian thinker would address this issue.
Putting it another way: you don't have to be Christian to be influenced by assumptions about good and evil which originate in Christianity.
It was arising from a conversation of this type that the authro set out to explore how the great thinkers of the pre-Christian world addressed this question.
In this short book, Rex Dale sets out succinctly what some of the great thinkers of the classical era thought on this question. Beginning with Seneca, born about 2000 years ago, he looks at how he identified a "good life", and traces the development of Greek and Roman stoicism which sought to find the principle on which a rationally-ordered universe could exist.
He then turns his attention to the Roman philosopher-Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations have been a constant source of insight to people throughout history.
Dale then examines the writings of Epicurus (341-270BC), the ancient Greek philosopher whose writings have given us the word "epicurean".
Epicurus believed that the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterised by ataraxia-peace and freedom from fear-and aponia-the absence of pain-and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends.
He taught that pleasure and pain are the measures of what is good and evil; death is the end of both body and soul and should therefore not be feared.
His influence can be seen in the American Declaration of Independence which asserted, as inalienable rights, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". For these reasons, he has become something of a cult figure in modern society.
While accepting that there are many commendable features to epicurean life, Dale points out that for Christians, it is basically empty.
The pursuit of pleasure is ultimately a form of selfishness, and falls short of the fundamental principle which underpins Christianity, "Love thy neighbour."
There is a brief exposition of the writings of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and a conclusion which discusses the question of why Christianity prevailed over the pre-Christian philosophies, as a principle of life.
Rex Dale's answer is that Christianity was far more convincing in its explanation of the purpose of life: of pain, sin and death. The Apostle Paul, who was certainly familiar with the pre-Christian philosophies, dismissed them, saying that it was impossible to arrive at the truth through reason alone.
Paul argued persuasively that only through God's revelation was it possible to find a purpose in life.
This short book should prompt us to reflect on the great issues of life, culture and civilisation.