For a distance of ninety miles, from the confines of Thessaly to the middle part of the coast of Attica, the shore is protected, as it were, by the long island of Euboea. Deep in the innermost gulf, where the waters of the Aegean retreat far within the land, over against the northern parts of this island, is the pass of Thermopylae, where a handful of Greek warriors had defied all the hosts of Asia.
In the crescent-like bay on the shore of Attica, near the southern extremity of the same island, is the maritime sanctuary of Marathon, where the battle was fought which decided that Greece was never to be a Persian Satrapy.
The port of Athens itself possesses all the advantages of shelter and good anchorage, deep water, and sufficient space. Themistocles, seeing that the pre-eminence of his country could only be maintained by her maritime power, fortified the Piraeus as the outpost of Athens, and enclosed the basin of the harbor as a dock within the walls. In the long period through which Athens had been losing its political power, these defenses had been neglected and suffered to fall into decay, or had been used as materials for other buildings: but there was still a fortress on the highest point; the harbor was still a place of some resort; and a considerable number of seafaring people dwelt in the streets about the seashore.
When the republic of Athens was flourishing, the sailors were a turbulent and worthless part of its population. And the Piraeus under the Romans was not without some remains of the same disorderly class, as it doubtless retained many of the outward features of its earlier appearance.
Had Apostle Paul come to this spot four hundred years before, he would have been in Athens from the moment of his landing at the Piraeus. At that time the two cities were united together by the double line of fortification, which is famous under the name of the "Long Walls." The space included between these two arms of stone might be considered (as, indeed, it was sometimes called) a third city; for the street of five miles in length thus formed across the plain was crowded with people, whose habitations were shut out from all view of the country by the vast wall on either side.
What is true of the Agora is still more emphatically true of the Acropolis, for the spirit which rested over Athens was concentrated here. The feeling of the Athenians with regard to the Acropolis was well, though fancifully, expressed by the rhetorician who said that it was the middle space of five concentric circles of a shield, whereof the outer four were Athens, Attica, Greece, and the world.
The platform of the Acropolis was a museum of art, of history, and of religion. The whole was "one vast composition of architecture and sculpture, dedicated to the national glory and to the worship of the gods." By one approach only, through the Propylaea built by Pericles, could this sanctuary be entered. If Apostle Paul went up that steep ascent on the western front of the rock, past the Temple of Victory, and through that magnificent portal, we know nearly all the features of the idolatrous spectacle he saw before him.
Formed from the brazen spoils of the battle of Marathon, the Minerva Promachus rose in gigantic proportions above all the buildings of the Acropolis, and stood with spear and shield as the tutelary divinity of Athens and Attica. It was the statue which may have caught the eye of Apostle Paul himself, from the deck of the vessel in which he sailed round Sunium to the Piraeus. Now he had landed in Attica, and beheld all the wonders of that city which divides with one other city all the glory of Heathen antiquity. He had seen the creations of mythology represented to the eye, in every form of beauty and grandeur, by the sculptor and the architect. And the one overpowering result was the response from Paul.
Now those who were conducting Paul brought him to Athens; and after receiving Paul's command to Silas and Timothy to come to him as quickly as possible, they departed. But while Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he saw that the city was wholly given to idolatry, and his spirit was sorely moved within him. (Acts 17:15 - 16, HBFV).
But we must associate Apostle Paul, not merely with the Religion, but with the Philosophy, of Greece. And this, perhaps, is our best opportunity for doing so, if we wish to connect together, in this respect also, the appearance and the spirit of Athens.
If the Apostle looked out from the pedestal of the Acropolis over the city and the open country, he would see the places which are inseparably connected with the names of those who have always been recognized as the great teachers of the pagan world. In opposite directions he would see the two memorable suburbs where Aristotle and Plato, the two pupils of Socrates, held their illustrious schools. Their positions are defined by the courses of the two rivers to which we have already alluded.
Paul traveled that he might give to others the knowledge of salvation. His sorrow was only the cloud that kindled up into the bright pillar of the divine presence. He ever forgot himself in his Master's cause. He gloried that God's strength was made perfect in his weakness. It is useful, however, to us, to be aware of the human weakness of that heart which God made strong. Paul was indeed one of us. He loved his friends, and knew the trials both of anxiety and loneliness.
The mere enumeration of the visible objects with which the city of the Athenians was crowded, bears witness (to use Apostle Paul's own words) to their "carefulness in Religion." The judgment of the Christian Apostle agreed with that of his Jewish contemporary Josephus, - with the proud boast of the Athenians themselves, exemplified in Isocrates and Plato, - and with the verdict of a multitude of foreigners, from Livy to Julian, - all of whom unite in declaring that Athens was peculiarly devoted to religion.
It was a religion which ministered to art and amusement, and was entirely destitute of moral power. Taste was gratified by the bright spectacle to which the Athenian awoke every morning of his life. Excitement was agreeably kept up by festal seasons, gay processions, and varied ceremonies. But all this religious dissipation had no tendency to make him holy. It gave him no victory over himself: it brought him no nearer to God. A religion which addresses itself only to the taste is as weak as one that appeals only to the intellect.
The Greek religion was a mere deification of human attributes and the powers of nature. It was doubtless better than other forms of idolatry which have deified the brutes; but it had no real power to raise him to a higher position than that which he occupied by nature. It could not even keep him from falling continually to a lower degradation.
When we turn from the Religion of Athens to take a view of its Philosophy, the first name on which our eye rests is again that of Socrates. This is necessarily the case, not only because of his own singular and unapproached greatness; but because he was, as it were, the point to which all the earlier schools converged, and from which the later rays of Greek philosophy diverged again.
Epicureans versus Stoics
The essential principle of the Epicurean philosopher was that there was nothing to alarm him, nothing to disturb him. His furthest reach was to do deliberately what the animals do instinctively. His highest aim was to gratify himself. With the coarser and more energetic minds, this principle inevitably led to the grossest sensuality and crime; in the case of others, whose temperament was more commonplace, or whose taste was more pure, the system took the form of a selfishness more refined.
As the Stoic sought to resist the evil which surrounded him, the Epicurean endeavored to console himself by a tranquil and indifferent life. He avoided the more violent excitements of political and social engagements, to enjoy the seclusion of a calm contentment. But pleasure was still the end at which he aimed; and if we remove this end to its remotest distance, and understand it to mean an enjoyment which involves the most manifold self-denial, - if we give Epicurus credit for taking the largest view of consequences, - and if we believe that the life of his first disciples was purer than there is reason to suppose, - the end remains the same.
Two different impressions were produced by Apostle Paul's words according to the disposition of those who heard him. Some said that he was a mere "babbler," and received him with contemptuous derision. Others took a more serious view, and, supposing that he was endeavoring to introduce new objects of worship, had their curiosity excited, and were desirous to hear more.
Two such classes are usually found among those to whom truth is presented. When Paul came among the Athenians, he came "not with enticing words of man's wisdom," and to some of the "Greeks" who heard him the Gospel was "foolishness;" (See 1Corinthians 1:18 - 2:5) while in others there was at least that curiosity which is sometimes made the path whereby the highest truth enters the mind; and they sought to have a fuller and more deliberate exposition of the mysterious subjects, which now for the first time had been brought before their attention.