Materialism Old and New

Materialism didn’t start with atheism.

Our historical narrative tells us that materialism (the belief that the material universe is all there is to reality) came along in the Enlightenment, and then kicked into third gear in the 1800s with evolution and Marxism. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and it’s now the dominant worldview in the West. This is, so we believe, unprecedented.

Now, that narrative is basically true, but with an important caveat: widespread materialism is not unprecedented. Far from it.

In most of the ancient world, despite belief in the gods, non-material reality was both inconceivable and unbelievable. People were, by default, materialists.

This was followed by a time when, due to the rise of Platonic philosophy and the spread of Christianity, non-material reality became both conceivable and believable.

Now, I’d suggest, it is conceivable, but not believable.

And I’d also suggest that, if my analysis is correct, this is probably important – though I’m still puzzling out why and how.

But let’s examine the first claim: that the ancients were materialists.

Ancient Materialists?

This idea is quite counter-intuitive to us. Pre-modern times were dominated by religion and superstition, by belief in capricious deities and tricksy spirits, so how on earth can that be “materialist”?

Let’s put it this way: what would ancient pagans have believed were the differences between their gods and Yahweh? It is not simply that their gods are a) multiple and b) different in character. They are also metaphysically different. The pagan gods had material causes (i.e. they were made out of something).

Consider this, from the Theogony of Hesiod (born c.750 BC), the “standard” account of the Greek creation myths. It describes the creation of the universe and the first gods:

Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth [the goddess Gaia], the ever-sure foundations of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus [Hell] in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros [god of love], fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them. From Chaos came forth Erebus [god of darkness] and black Night; but of Night were born Aether [god of brightness] and Day, whom she conceived and bore from union in love with Erebus. And Earth first bare starry Heaven [the god Uranus], equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. She bore also the fruitless deep with his raging swell, Pontus, without sweet union of love.

So here, “Chaos” is the first thing to come to be. From Chaos springs everything else, including the first gods, or “primordial deities”, including Gaia and Uranus, who were the parents of Cronus and Rhea, who were the parents of Zeus et al.

Obvious question: “where did Chaos come from?” Greek philosophers suggested various theories of some “first principle” which caused Chaos – usually one of the four elements. Others suggested some fifth “prime” element. But whatever it was, it was something which was still a part of material reality.

Ancient pagans, then, were thoroughgoing materialists. Yes they believed in the gods, but these gods were simply a higher part of the created order, not something above or outside of it. It’s not that they believed their gods to be just as spiritual as Christians believe God to be, but simply more prone to wed themselves to material things like idols. No, they were entirely different kinds of beings.

Augustine and Non-Material Reality

We could think of ancient pagans as even more materialistic than us, because they could not even conceive of non-material reality. You see this fact played out when reading Augustine’s Confessions, written just before 400 AD. Prior to his conversion, Augustine really could not conceive of a God who didn’t somehow take up space. It took me a very long time to understand Augustine’s problem here, since I find immaterial reality entirely conceivable and believable – but he didn’t! He describes his pre-conversion mindset:

I had not realised God is a Spirit (John 4:24), not a figure whose limbs have length and breadth and who has a mass. For mass is less in a part than in its whole, and if it is unlimited, it is less in a part defined within a given space than in its unlimited extension. It is not everywhere entire as a Spirit and as God.”

III.vii (12), p.44 (Oxford World Classics Edition, Henry Chadwick trans.)

When he first moved to Milan, and began hearing the preaching of St. Ambrose, he started seriously scrutinising Manicheism, the materialistic pagan religion he had adopted. Reflecting on that time, he writes:

If I had been able to conceive of spiritual substance, at once all their imagined inventions would have collapsed and my mind would have rejected them.”

V.xiv (25), p.89

His disbelief in the immaterial was deep, since he also believed that “evil is a kind of material substance with its own foul and misshapen mass, either solid which they use to call earth, or thin and subtle, as is the body of air. They imagine it to be a malignant mind creeping through the earth.” (V.x (19), p.85).

Two things began to wean Augustine off of his materialism: the preaching of Ambrose, and a study of Platonic philosophy. Christian readers will understand how preaching would do this, but why use Platonic philosophy too?

Well this is where we need to understand how radically different Platonism was from other pagan belief systems. Building on the foundation of the pre-Socratic philosophers, Plato (5th/4th century BC) concluded that God must be “the intelligent, wise, powerful, and personal first principle or cause of the totality of the sensible universe and ground of morality.”[1] Others developed his philosophy, especially the Neo-Platonists of Augustine’s day.[2] They concluded also that “because the One [i.e. God] was not a supreme being within space and time, it was not a being that could be reached, or contacted, at a distance. It was infinite and so, one might say, it was beyond spatial relationality entirely.”[3]

The overlap between this and the Christian view of God’s nature should be obvious – especially in contrast to the materialistic Greek gods. This is why Christianity has, historically, made great use of Platonic philosophy. When people get shirty these days about ancient Christians adopting Platonism (though we should really say adapting Platonism), I’m increasingly of the opinion that this is because they don’t get just how much of an outlier this belief in the non-material is in the history of philosophy and religion.

Gradually, through Plato and Ambrose, Augustine became able to conceive of the possibility of immaterial reality. In something akin to C.S. Lewis’ famous conversion to theism in his room at Magdalen College (prior to his conversion to Christianity in the car on the way to Whipsnade Zoo), Augustine describes the moment he was “converted” to the immaterial, whilst considering the reality of beauty:

At that point [my mind] had no hesitation in declaring that the unchangeable is preferable to the changeable, since, unless it could somehow know this, there would be no certainty in preferring it to the mutable. So in the flesh of a trembling glance it attained to that which is [i.e. immaterial, divine reality]. At that moment I saw your ‘invisible nature understood through the things which are made’ (Rom. 1:20).

VII.xvii (23), p.127

Convinced of this, he turned himself intensely to studying Scripture, especially Paul, and “found that all the truth [he] had read in the Platonists was stated [t]here together with the commendation of [God’s] grace” (VII.xxi (27), p.130-131). In short order, he finally came to that which Plato could not provide him: new life in Christ, the Word made flesh.

Augustine’s personal turn to the immaterial is reflective of a widespread, cultural turn. He died in 430 AD, just 50 years after Christianity became the state religion of Rome. In the following millenia, orthodox Christianity would come to dominate Europe and extinguish paganism entirely.

Immateriality won out – the perishable was clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. Immaterial reality was no longer inconceivable and unbelievable. It was thoroughly conceivable, and universally believed.

Conceivable, But Unbelievable

Things have, of course, changed. Although non-material reality remains thoroughly conceivable, it has once again become unbelievable.

On one level, Plato and Christianity are still victorious, because when Westerners think of God they think, almost inescapably, of a being who has no material body, does not change, is self-existent, and is fundamentally separate from creation. Unlike the pre-conversion Augustine, they do know a way of thinking of God as something except a physical mass.

But they just don’t believe in him. And, usually, they don’t even find the idea of him believable.

Now, if my (admittedly broad-brushstroke) analysis is correct, this seems significant. It seems to be a historically unique situation. We regularly overlook how unique it is that we now live in a post-Christian society, something the world has never truly seen before. I think we usually discuss this in terms of shifting values and ethics. But what does it mean for the Church to be carrying out its mission in a world where the immaterial is conceivable but not believable?

My preliminary thoughts go to evangelism, and how we imagine it. In Augustine’s day, we can perhaps view society as moving towards the acceptance of the immaterial, and we can trace a genuine progression through pre-Socratic, Platonic, and Neo-Platonic philosophy towards an increasingly Christian view of God and immaterial reality. The arrival of Christianity provided the end of all their exploring, gifting them that which no amount of reason could ever have obtained. Evangelism in this context was perhaps a “calling forward” – telling the Hellenistic world that it’s been on the right track by progressing to Platonism from materialistic polytheism, but that they needed the special revelation of the Word made flesh for everything to make sense. Augustine describes unconverted Platonists in just this way in The City of God: “You see in a fashion, although at a distance, although with a filmy eye, the country in which we should abide; but the way to it you know not.” (Book X.29, Dods translation). Augustine seemed to view himself as calling Platonists (and the materialists lagging behind them) forward into their home country. This was both because they needed the Gospel, and also because even the best Neo-Platonists retained materialistic elements in their philosophy, giving a big role to “Henads” – beings or entities who mediated between the material world and the immaterial God. Although the Neo-Platonists comprehended God’s “eternal power and divine nature” (Rom. 1:20), they could not imagine him intervening directly in the material world.

Perhaps, in our context, we should imagine ourselves as calling people back into a metaphysical home country from which they have strayed. As with so much in Christendom, our post-Christian neighbours take the immaterial reality of God for granted: “if there is a God then I’m sure that’s what he’s like, but I just don’t believe in him.” We have to discern an arrogance here, if people are willing to walk away from centuries of settled Christian belief in the immaterial. Augustine faced arrogance in his day too of course, but it was the arrogance of recalcitrant pagans, not complacent Westerners who want the fruits of Christianity without its doctrine and metaphysics. That kind of arrogance will mean, in all likelihood, slow going in evangelism. It takes a certain humility to admit that your culture is wrong, and to accept the novel gift of Christianity. It takes another kind of humility entirely to admit that you had Christiantiy handed to you on a plate at birth, and that your culture was right about it for centuries, but that you walked away from it and have made a mess of life, the universe, and everything.

It’s probably much harder work to call people back to the home country than it was to call them in.

  1. This quote is taken from the soon-to-be-published Davenant Press book Natural Theology: A Biblical and Historical Introduction and Defense by David Haines, p.63.

  2. “Thinking about the difficult and often obscure claims that Plato made, later Platonists disputed the implications of these claims and their precise meaning. It is the Platonism so reformulated and expanded that Christian philosophers later encountered and sought to appropriate.” Lloyd P. Gerson, “The Perennial Value of Platonism” in Christian Platonism: A History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), p.22.

  3. John Peter Kenney, “Platonism and Christianity in Late Antiquity” in Christian Platonism: A History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), p.169.


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