What do you suppose the reactions of Paul were as he came to Athens on his second missionary journey? He himself had been trained in Tarsus, one of the great university centers, where he had been born and grew up. The fact that Paul seemed perfectly at home in the intellectual setting of Athens reveals something of his background. He came from a distinguished university. He was visiting a distinguished university. Yet Paul was disturbed as he interacted with the Athenian philosophers. Luke tells us that they were Epicureans and Stoics, the two great schools of thought in Paul’s day.
1. The Epicureans. Epicureans derived their world view from Epicurus who had lived in the second and third centuries B.C. According to Epicurus, the chief goal in life is to attain the maximum amount of pleasure and the minimum amount of pain. We use the word “Epicurean” to refer to a person who is a mere hedonist, but the Epicureans were not quite hedonists in our sense. Hedonists abandon themselves to pleasure. The Epicureans did not do that exactly. They sought a balance between pain and pleasure. Nevertheless, they were great materialists. They said in effect, “This life is all there is; you only go around once. So if it feels good, do it. If it doesn’t feel good, stay away from it. Avoid what hurts.” They tried to create a lifestyle that would achieve the maximum good defined by their philosophy.
2. The Stoics. The second group of philosophers were Stoics. Stoicism says, “I can’t control everything that is going on out there, and things are going to happen to me that I will not like. But I am still in charge of myself. Therefore, I am going to stand tall, stick out my chin, and take it—whatever comes.” These people were great in their way. They were willing to endure hardship for some greater good, and they contributed much to society, as the Epicureans for the most part did not. Yet theirs was still a rather dismal philosophy.
There are many Stoics around us. They are people who have no sense of a divine presence or of divine guidance in their lives. They just do the best they can. If bad things come, well, they think they just have to be strong and endure it. Paul was troubled by these faulty philosophies, but Luke says that what bothered him most was the Greeks’ idolatry, their worship of false gods. The reason is clear, of course. The idolatry was father to the philosophy. This is because our ideas of God (or denial of God) will always give shape to what we think. If we have a high idea of God, if we know the true God, then we will have a godly, uplifting, helpful, positive philosophy. But if we do not have a knowledge of the true God, if instead we have a god who is made merely in our image or, as was the case in those days, in the image of things less even than God intended man to be, then our idea even of man will drop to that level and our philosophy will become as degenerate, negative, and despairing as the philosophies of the Stoics and Epicureans.