Great thinkers do not live in a vacuum. When they enter their writing chambers, or perch upon some grand vista to compose a foundational treatise they don’t throw off the fetters of their reality. In fact, it’s that dominating, driving force of history which often dictates a great deal of what they argue. I tried to show how that interaction works in an essay I wrote about Pericles, Cicero and Paul. You can read the whole thing here; excerpt:
Pericles, Marcus Cicero, and Paul the apostle, three of the great thinkers of the ancient world, through their writings and speeches helped frame their civilizations and ideals. Set side by side, the most glaring difference among these thinkers was that between the classical thought of Pericles and Cicero and the Christian philosophy of Paul. Where Pericles saw a state whose good citizens would seek its glory above all, and Cicero saw Rome’s greatest citizens as those who harnessed the state to improve the welfare of its subjects, Paul judged a Christian good not because of his or her relationship to the state but because of his or her unquestioning faith in Jesus Christ, expressed in belief and action.
Further, where Pericles and Cicero argued that the rewards to good citizenry were given by the state, with worldly action rewarded by worldly goods, Paul posited that the actions of a good Christian would be rewarded by salvation at the end of days. Thus, while the classical tradition promoted by such men as Pericles and Cicero took the state as the stage for important moral action, Paul saw action and belief on an individual level as the dominating moral field. Behind these ideals stood the reality of each leader’s historical context, contexts that help explain why these thinkers thought along the lines they did. Pericles’ devotion to the state was sensible coming from a leader within the melee of city-states that was ancient Greece, Cicero’s attachment to just governance is in part explained by the corrupt government in an all-powerful Roman state, and Paul’s radically different approach to goodness stems to some degree from the weakness of the Jewish state and a search for new, non-state goals. It was thus partially Paul’s lack of power – Paul, as a Jew in a Roman-governed nation, had almost no political power – that set up his break from classical, state-based ideals.