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The human race has found it almost impossible to believe in nothing, for man is always seeking theories to explain his higher nature and why it is he recognizes so early the difference between right and wrong. Far back in the third and fourth centuries before Christ, Greek philosophers had discussed the problem of the human soul, and some of them had laid down rules for leading the best life possible.
Epicurus taught that since our present life is the only one, man must make it his object to gain the greatest amount of pleasure that he can. Of course this doctrine gave an opening to people who wished to live only for themselves; but Epicurus himself had been simple, almost ascetic in his habits, and had clearly stated that although pleasure was his object, yet ‘we cannot live pleasantly without living wisely, nobly, and righteously’. The self-indulgent man will defeat his own ends by ruining his health and character until he closes his days not in pleasure but in misery.
Another Greek philosopher was Zeno, whose followers were called ‘Stoics’ from the stoa or porch of the house in Athens in which he taught his first disciples. Zeno believed that man’s fortune was settled by destiny, and that he could only find true happiness by hardening himself until he grew indifferent to his fate. Death, pain, loss of friends, defeated ambitions, all these the Stoic must face without yielding to fear, grief, or passion. Brutus, the leader of the conspirators who slew Julius Caesar, was a Stoic, and Shakespeare in his tragedy shows the self-control that Brutus exerted when he learned that his wife Portia whom he loved had killed herself.
The teaching of Epicurus and Zeno did something during the Roman Empire to provide ideals after which men could strive, but neither could hold out hopes of a happiness without end or blemish. The ‘Hades’ of the old mythology was no heaven but a world of shades beyond the river Styx, gloomy alike for good and bad. At the gates stood the three-headed monster Cerberus, ready to prevent souls from escaping once more to light and sunshine.
Paganism was thus a sad religion for all who thought of the future: and this is one of the reasons why the tidings of Christianity were received so joyfully. When St. Paul went to Athens he found an altar set up to ‘the unknown God’, showing that men and women were out of sympathy with their old beliefs and seeking an answer to their doubts and questions. He tried to tell the Greeks that the Christ he preached was the God they sought; but those who heard him ridiculed the idea that a Jewish peasant who had suffered the shameful death of the cross could possibly be divine.
The earliest followers of Christianity were not as a rule cultured people like the Athenians, but those who were poor and ignorant. To them Christ’s message was one of brotherhood and love overriding all differences between classes and nations. Yet it did not merely attract because it promised immortality and happiness; it also set up a definite standard of right and wrong. The Jewish religion had laid down the Ten Commandments as the rule of life, but the Jews had never tried to persuade other nations to obey them--rather they had jealously guarded their beliefs from the Gentiles. The Christians on the other hand had received the direct command ‘to go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature’; and even the slave, when he felt within himself the certainty of his new faith, would be sure to talk about it to others in his household. In time the strange story would reach the ears of his master and mistress, and they would begin to wonder if what this fellow believed so earnestly could possibly be true.