All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. Acts 17.21
Luke the physician, the companion of Paul and the chronicler of his exploits, has many virtues, and one of these is his ability to be cool, in at least one sense of that many-sensed word. He is able to provide the reader with detached, descriptive details, providing us (particularly in the so called ‘we’ passages) with off-the-cuff remarks which enhance and enliven his account. He tells us that Paul had a haircut at Cenchrea, and that he made tents, and that the ship in which Paul and he sailed into Rhegium en route to Rome had as a figurehead the twin gods Castor and Pollux.
His words here , (‘All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas’) have this character. This is an aside. In the NIV it is placed in brackets as if to emphasise this fact. It is not a general remark about Athens, of course, but about the Areopagus. For a few verses earlier we are told that Athens also had a synagogue attended by Jews and some God-fearing Greeks. And there was a market, with buyers and sellers. But the people who turned up at the Areopagus, perhaps at stated meetings, the ‘Council’, as Luke also calls them, spent their time in doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. So (in my view) we are not to understand Luke (in saying what he does) to be moralising. He is not tut-tutting at the Athenians, but simply setting the scene in which Paul quickly found himself.
In fact it seems to me that he presents the Athenians in a rather positive light. They are portrayed as behaving in fairly seriously, you’ll notice. When the group of Stoics and Epicureans that Paul had been disputing with in the market took him from there to a Council meeting of the Areopagus, they tell him that they want to know about his strange ideas and particularly about what they might mean. These were serious men, men who held views of their own, Stoics and Epicureans, but men who are also interested in any new ideas. in order to dispute about them from their own respective points of view. Certainly Paul himself takes them seriously, but that’s another story.
Not only is Luke not moralising, he is not (or should not be) telling us anything about academic life, or the life of the mind, that we ourselves should not know already. But I have to say that it took me a while to realise the truth of what Luke tell us. Let us call it the Athenian Factor. When I arrived in Oxford as quite a young man, and settled down to study philosophy I was in awe of the place, and especially of its teachers. In those days, in philosophy, Oxford prided itself on being the centre of the philosophical world, at least in its Anglophone form. Somewhat immodestly, you may think, Oxford philosophers thought that the entire course of western philosophy had reached its climax in what they believed and taught there in the 1950’s and 1960’s. For this was the hey-day of ‘linguistic philosophy’, as it was called, of ‘ordinary language philosophy’, whose proponents and exponents held (it was said) that simply by attention to the detail of language, and especially to its ambiguities, all of the philosophical problems that had hitherto bothered mankind could be solved. For all of them rested only upon linguistic confusions of one sort or another. Western philosophy, the story went, ended in Oxford, in two senses. Oxford linguistic philosophy was both the climax and the demise of the centuries of western philosophising.
So graduate students from the United States, Australia, and no doubt Canada and other places came to sit at the feet of Gilbert Ryle , grandson of J.C. Ryle, the staunchly evangelical first Bishop of Liverpool, an the author of The Concept of Mind; and J.L. Austin, the person who developed speech-act theory and who died early, in his forties, during my time there; and A.J. Ayer, lately returned to Oxford, clever and flashy and funny, who had some years earlier, when in his twenties, already made his name by writing Language, Truth and Logic, a short handbook of Logical Positivism. In that work he argued, among other things, that the language of religion was literally meaningless, indeed he argued that the language of anything other than that of the natural sciences was literally meaningless.
My mistake, I now realise, though it took some time for this to dawn, was to suppose that the Oxford to which I came was how it was and was to be. Partly, I believed this propaganda about the all-importance of language. But partly also I invested the people that I have mentioned with a permanent significance with which, now I look back, they probably did not give themselves, despite their Oxford arrogance. It took me rather a long time to rid myself of this notion. This was not because I was sucked into this world and so lost perspective, because my own Christian convictions, such as they were, and the influence of friends, of one friend in particular, gave me some detachment and perspective. Some other students whom I knew were less fortunate. But I failed to reckon with the Athenian factor.
For it has subsequently become obvious to me that philosophy, present-day philosophy, but nevertheless the philosophy that is historically continuous with the Stoicism and Epicureanism that Paul encountered, is subject to changes which are not intrinsically philosophical. Philosophy has to do with clarity, and argument, and philosophers thrive best when they successfully argue against other philosophers. I was certainly aware of that, and the changes that it could bring. But what I was not so ready for was the influence of fashion, and the changes that it could bring.
When we think of fashion, we may think of clothes, and hair-dos, (When I said to someone that I was going to talk about fashion in the Chapel, she said ‘Then I’d better be careful what I wear!’), and music, and so on. But fashion reaches further, into the life of the mind. There are fashions of the mind as well as of the body. And besides the legitimate philosophical interest in ideas and arguments, there is also the interest in novelty for its own sake. I said earlier that when he told us about the Athenians, Luke was simply reporting the activity of serious men. But maybe, come to think of it, he had this idea of intellectual fashion in mind. To coin a phrase, the Athenian philosophers, besides being serious men, were also dedicated followers of fashion.
That was the point that for a long time I did not grasp. The point that the life of the mind does not only consist of disinterested enquiries after the truth, but is also subject to the vagaries of what is ‘in’, and what is ‘out’. Perhaps it is this side of things that Paul meant when, a little later on after his encounter with the Athenians, he wrote of ‘the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind’. Not just the desires of the flesh, but desires of the mind; and no doubt one sort of such desire is the itch for something new, not necessarily the idea that what is newest is best, but that what is newest is most interesting and engaging.
But perhaps it is that in our pride and academic pretentiousness we fail to see that arguments and evidence maybe less powerful than this other influence. Now, as then, at the Areopagus of Paul’s day, philosophers seek to know what other thinkers mean, to clarify concepts, to present arguments, to use reason (in one sense of that multi-sensed term). They pride themselves on their reason and its powers. Somewhat infatuated by these powers, they may think that changes in philosophical views are due solely to the impact of arguments.
Arguments certainly have an impact. I would not want you to think otherwise. I mentioned Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic. Though I must not here go into details, the arguments of that book are now largely discredited, and you would be pressed these days to find a living, breathing logical positivist. That race is well-nigh extinct. But what about Gilbert Ryle? Largely forgotten. Does any one read Ryle? Do people find help from his writings, do research on them`? I rather doubt it. Austin? Well, somewhat more positive. Theologians may certainly have heard of him, but then that may be because yesterday’s philosophy is today’s theology. But that’s also another story.
Even the fact that logical positivists are well-nigh extinct on the planet – and this is what it took me a long time to see – is not due only to the pressure of argument, and perhaps not due mainly to that pressure, but rather to the working of the Athenian factor. This is the fact that it is typical of philosophers, and not only of philosophers, but of proponents of other academic disciplines too, and of human nature more generally, to look, beyond the arguments, for something new. There is academic tiredness. Positions become well worn, and then worn out. There is nothing more to say: no papers to write, no seminars to be arranged, the topic, or issue, or person is played out, exhausted. Here’s the paradox. While the Oxford trio are passé, historical figures, philosophers such as Leibniz, say, or Thomas Reid, or Thomas Aquinas, dismissed by the trio, are now actively read and discussed.
People make their careers, as they make their fortunes, by being, accidentally at the right place at the right time, with their thesis topics and their book proposals. It’s that that has taken me some time to realise.