Spirituality in Ancient Occidental Tradition


With the reflective understanding of religiosity and spirituality explained in the first article of our small series, “Spirituality and Rationality – A first Approximation“, we now want to continue our journey. As a reminder: we distinguish between the two, insofar as we understand the culturally and historically conditioned positive part of the customs and rites of a traditional religion as different concrete expressions of a core common, but more abstract, to all religions – namely as an expression of the human relationship to the unconditional, the infinite, the absolute or the divine in general, whatever one may call it. We call the individual cultivation of this infinity spirituality.

With this understanding, the various traditional religions are now given back their true right, because they are able to grasp their ever “holy” core without being restricted by customs and letters. Biblical passages, for example, fall into a completely different light, such as the words: The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:9). It is man’s participation in the infinity of meaning in general which underpins all his concrete life’s accomplishments1: the miracle of man as a fully conscious spirit bearer in an otherwise perhaps unconscious universe.

The entire occidental cultural history thus becomes a treasure trove of deep poetic truths about man. The Greeks already spoke of man as ζῷον λόγον ἔχον (zōon logon echon), literally: an animal that has logos (“spirit”). In general, the Greek philosophers already seem to me to have had very reflected notions of the human reference to infinity, which go far beyond their anthropomorphic (“human-shaped”) mythology.

According to tradition, the pre-docratic philosopher Anaximander already wrote of the infinite (τὸ ἄπειρον, “to apeiron”) as the origin (ἀρχή, “archē”) of all things (τῶν ὄντων, “tōn ontōn”):”Ἀναξίμανδρος…ἀρχήν…εἴρηκε… τῶν ὄντων τὸ ἄπειρον …” (“Anaximandros  … archēn … eirēke … tōn ontōn to apeiron”), literally:“Anaximander said that infinity is the origin of all things.”

The Greek logos concept, which is so difficult to translate, appears to me to be particularly suitable for describing the infinite sense of meaning in which we all share. What the pre-docrat Heraclitus said about the connection of the human “soul” (ψυχῆ,”psyche”) with the “logos” is surprisingly profound and modern: “ψυχῆς πείρατα ἰὼν οὐκ ἂν ἐξεύροιο, πᾶσαν ἐπιπορευόμενος ὁδόν· οὕτω βαθὺν λόγον ἔχει.” (“psychēs peirata iōn ouk an exeuroio, pasan epiporeuomenos hodon, houtō bathyn logon echei”, fragment 45). Literally: “You cannot locate the limits of the soul/psyche by going, even if you travel every path: It has such deep logos.”

It is the infinity of every single human consciousness that Heraclitus grasps here: the infinite depth of the psyche of every human being, which establishes his inviolable dignity and instills respect and admiration for the miracle of individuality. And this “inner” infinity corresponds to the infinity of mind and sense and the world which is reflected in our consciousness.

Our newly gained insight into the logos also sheds new light on the familiar beginning of the New Testament, especially on the well-known problems of translation:

’Tis writ, “In the beginning was the Word.”
I pause, to wonder what is here inferred.
The Word I cannot set supremely high:
A new translation I will try.
I read if by the spirit I am taught,
This sense: “In the beginning was the Thought.”
This opening I need to weigh again,
Or sense may suffer from a hasty pen.
Does Thought create, and work, and rule the hour?
’Twere best: “In the beginning was the Power.”
Yet, while the pen is urged with willing fingers,
A sense of doubt and hesitancy lingers.
The spirit comes to guide me in my need,
I write, “In the beginning was the Deed.”

Goethe‘s “Faust” is probably the most prominent example of the most common problems encountered in the translation of the Greek word “logos”. Of all its variations,”sense” seems to me to be the most popular. In contrast, we can easily see how poor the translation of “logos” with “Word”, which Martin Luther established in this context and has become a classical translation of “logos”, is when we turn to the original text and instead of a translation, we simply leave the word “logos” with all its untranslatable depth in the explained sense: “ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος καὶ ὁ Λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν Θεὸν καὶ Θεὸς ἦν ὁ Λόγος” (“en archē ēn ho Logos kai ho Logos ēn pros ton Theon kai Theos ēn ho Logos”).

Literally:“In the beginning, there were the logos, and the logos were with God and God was the logos.” Never again, once you have understood the depth of the word “logo” discussed here, will you from now on only fend off a naïve anthropomorphic notion in the talk of “God”, because you know that to say “God” can also mean everything. We also get an idea of how (spiritual) poetry and religion come close together.

Also in Latin poetry, there are such outstanding passages. Ovid writes in his “Metamorphoses” about the special position of man:”pronaque cum spectent animalia cetera terram / os homini sublime dedit caelumque videre / iussit et erectos ad sidera tollere vultus.”. (“And while the other beasts gaze down upon the earth, he gave man a raised face, and commanded that the righteous see the heavens and lift up their faces to the stars”). Ovid has immortalized here in his verses the deep, real-symbolic meaning of the upright passage of man. It is so simple to see “to the stars” and so concrete, yet it also describes the whole infinite depth of the human mind, which finds its equivalent in the infinity of the universe.

With this, however, we want to conclude our brief look at the traditions of European antiquity for the time being. Of course, I was only able to provide a very small selection. Nor should my interpretative approach suggest that all authors of the passages presented would have been so explicitly aware of all possible general human significance, as we have presented it. It is often similar in the different confessions.

But it is precise as we have been able to see to some extent that similar observations have always been made about a man in different ways of speaking over the ages, that this is significant and remarkable, and it bears witness to a deeper, experiential truth. Anyone who understands how to read will find more similarity than diversity everywhere. Yes, he will begin to love the differences in another way, where he will get a sense of what they have in common! It brings all humanity closer together.

I hope to have been able to give a small first impression, even if I could only draw on the European cultural sphere in which I am somewhat familiar. This journey to European antiquity was, however, only a kind of insurance of origin before we turn to some poets of the German language as we continue our series on spirituality and poetry.


1 Cf. Johannes Heinrichs: Integral Philosophy. Saint Augustine 2014, p. 40ff.


Image Title Author License
Infinity_hexagonal_axonometric. Infinity_hexagonal_axonometric. Nevit Dilmen CC BY-SA 3.0

Discussion (One Comment)

  1. […] (Article: Spirituality in the ancient occidental tradition) […]