In some Orthodox churches and monasteries there are images of pre-Christian philosophers, such as Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, etc. For example, such murals can be found in the Great Meteoron Monastery in Meteora (Greece), as well as the Great Lavra and the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos. The question arises how it is possible that these non religious figures are depicted next to Christian saints?
Many Christian saints were interested in Greek philosophy, considering it a source of spiritual instruction. For example, it is widely known that St Justin Martyr received a first-class education in the field of classical philosophy, which ultimately led him to believe in Christ. After studying all existing schools of thought, he declared the Christian faith to be the most sublime philosophy. Even after his conversion to Christianity, Saint Justin continued to wear his attire of a philosopher, thus witnessing that there is no contradiction between being a philosopher and a Christian. He was the first among the holy fathers to put forward the idea of Greek Philosophy being an interpretation of the Old Testament for the Gentiles and a preparation for the New Testament. He often referred to the Greek philosophers as “friends of Christ”, and even called Socrates “a Christian before Christ”. St Justin’s ideas was later approved by many holy fathers.
Clement of Alexandria, a renowned theologian, agreed with St Justin, arguing that Greek philosophy had a propaedeutic role for the Greeks, serving them in the same way as the Law of Moses serves the Jews. In addition, in one of his works, titled Stromata, he wrote that Jewish culture had the most powerful influence on the Greeks. Given this and the fact that Clement received an excellent classical Greek education, he often described philosophy as having a particle of divine wisdom. On top of that, Clement argued that all science and art came from God Himself: “Scripture calls all the achievements of human thought contained in the worldly sciences and arts, by the common name “wisdom” … for all art and all knowledge comes from God”.
Saint Basil the Great, one of the most educated people of his time, approached reading pagan philosophical literature more cautiously, although he also assured that it could undoubtedly be of great benefit, if treated with the right reasoning. On this occasion, the saint left a recorded discourse titled To Young Men on How to Benefit from Pagan Writings. In this piece of writing he taught how to distinguish between good and bad, virtue and vice.
The above list of names does not include all Christian teachers and saints who approved of philosophy, but only gives us a first glimpse of the correct perception of philosophy within our Holy Tradition. For example, St John Chrysostom, despite noticing some philosophers’ lack of morality, defined philosophy as “having a pure heart, proceeding from the mind”. Saint Gregory of Nyssa identified philosophy with the bride from the Song of Songs. Saint Irenaeus of Lyon demonstrated an excellent knowledge of the ancient Greek texts, often citing them in his works. Blessed Hieronymus of Stridon also studied philosophy at a young age. This list can be continued with an extensive number of names.
However, in all fairness, some prominent Christian teachers did not share these views of philosophy. Tertullian, for example, saw serious contradictions between Christian faith and philosophy: “What is similar between a philosopher, a disciple of Greece and a Christian, a disciple of heaven? One seeks glory and the other seeks salvation; one is a sage in words and the other shows his wisdom in deed; one destroys and the other creates; one is a friend of error and the other is its adversary; one is a forger who spirits away the truth and the other faithfully guards and interprets it”. Tatian the Syrian, despite being a disciple of St Justin, began to change his theological views after his teacher’s death, rejecting the entire cultural heritage of the Hellenistic world: “What noble thing have you produced by your pursuit of philosophy? Who of your most eminent men has been free from vain boasting? Diogenes, who made such a parade of his independence with his tub, was seized with a bowel complaint from eating a raw polypus, and so lost his life by gluttony. Aristippus, walking about in a purple robe, led a profligate life, in accordance with his professed opinions. Plato, a philosopher, was sold by Dionysius for his gormandizing propensities”. It is important to note that Tatian ended up completely departing from the Orthodox faith and beginning to profess Gnostic views.
Despite the few opinions condemning Greek philosophy, most of the holy fathers agreed that it could be of great spiritual benefit. Proceeding from the role of Greek philosophy, which can thus be described as a preparatory step for the New Testament, the images of Greek philosophers are placed in the narthex of some churches, opposite the Holy Altar where the main New Testament sacrament of the Eucharist takes place.