Ancient or Modern: Atomists Are Atomists, Martyrs Are Martyrs


Whether ancient or modern, atomists are atomists and martyrs are martyrs. With regard to human nature, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The second book of Maccabees is a witness to us in the twenty-first century of the truth of this quote from Ecclesiastes. Second Maccabees was written in Greek within two hundred years of Christ’s birth. The author would have been familiar with the full development of Greek philosophy which reached its pinnacle in the fourth century BC.

In his magnificent lecture tracing the historical development of the defining philosophical error of our time, voluntarism, which places the will over the intellect, Benedict XVI prescribed as the antidote the re-Hellenization of human thought. Even though the Jewish people in the second century BC suffered under Greek occupation, Benedict judged the merging of Greek philosophical thought at its apex with the revelation of God to the Jews as an act of divine providence. That merging was a necessary preparation for the culmination of revelation in Jesus Christ and for the spread of the gospel.

Thus, despite the bitter conflict with those Hellenistic rulers who sought to accommodate it forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the Greeks, biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature. Today we know that the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced at Alexandria—the Septuagint—is more than a simple (and in that sense really less than satisfactory) translation of the Hebrew text: it is an independent textual witness and a distinct and important step in the history of revelation, one which brought about this encounter in a way that was decisive for the birth and spread of Christianity. A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act “with logos” is contrary to God’s nature.

The Ancient Atomists

I am taking a step back in time from the apex of Greek thought to the stage of the early atomists. The atomists proposed that all of reality was composed of elementary particles or atoms. An implication of this philosophy is that reality, as atomic, is beyond human sensation. However, identifying the atomic as reality is de facto identifying the virtual as real and implicitly denying that immediate human experience is the experience of reality. In this philosophy, it is that which is beyond the scope of human experience, which is real. The atomic, which can only be conceptual, i.e. virtual to human experience, is taken to be reality.

The Modern Atomists

Modern atomists have taken this implication to its logical conclusion. By mistaking the virtual for the intelligibility of material reality, modern atomists are left with direct human experience as inherently non-intelligible because immediate experience cannot be fully explained at the virtual, atomic level. In the atomist philosophy, restoring human experience to some semblance of intelligibility requires an act of the human will. This inverts the proper order in which the human will is obligated to act within the scope of reason.

The Cal Tech cosmologist, Sean Carroll, clearly delineates these two aspects of the modern version of philosophical atomism. First, for him, even an elementary particle, the basic unit of reality, is totally virtual. The nature of an elementary particle is its coordinates in virtual space as those virtual coordinates vary with virtual time. (See his virtual depiction of a simple, possible universe at minute 9:47.) A more complex universe, such as ours, is simply more of the same. Second, what we perceive with our senses are simply conglomerates of elementary particles in motion. If we choose to claim any meaning for these conglomerates as such, we must willfully create such meaning (minute 4:50).

The View of Judeo Revelation/Later Greek Philosophy

The view expressed in Greek by the author of 2 Maccabees is beyond the stunted view of both ancient Greek and modern atomism. He recognizes, in accord with the acme of the Greek philosophy of his day, the inherent intelligibility of material reality at the level at which we humans experience it:

I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. And in the same way the human race came into being. (2 Maccabees 7:28)

Materiality is real and inherently intelligible at the level at which we experience it. Reality is not virtual, being solely defined by the mathematical coordinates of virtual space and virtual time, as the modern atomists propose.

Also, in the Judeo/Greek/Christian synthesis, in contrast to the atheistic philosophy of modern atomists, God is both knowing and known. That synthesis is God’s full revelation, our Catholic Faith.

Ancient Martyrdom, Witness to a Knowing and Known God

Implicit in the passage from 2 Maccabees is our allegiance to our knowing and known creator, based on acknowledging an intelligible hierarchy of God, then man, then the rest of material creation. Man knows this hierarchy both through the revelation to the Jews and through the immediate experience of material creation.

Yet the Greek rulers of the Jews at the time of the Maccabees demanded an inversion of the hierarchy, putting themselves above God. 2 Maccabees 7 recounts the martyrdom of seven brothers and their mother who are killed serially in an attempt to persuade those in line for death to renounce God. Yet each before his death encourages the others to persevere.

Modern Martyrdom, Witness to a Knowing and Known God

In early 2015, twenty-one foreign workmen, captured by Isis in Libya were serially threatened with death unless they acknowledged Allah, who is inscrutable to the human mind and who’s capricious will must be obeyed. Allah’s will is not bound by reason. True to the rational Christian God, creator of the intelligible material world, each martyr was beheaded in turn.

Twenty of the workmen were Coptic Christians from Egypt. The twenty-first was from Ghana, Mathew Ayariga, who may not have been a Christian. It is reported that when in turn he was given the choice either to accept the inscrutable Allah as God or death, he may have said, “My God is their God” or “I am a Christian and I am like them.” Mathew Ayariga chose death in faithfulness to the rational God of intelligible creation rather than adore Allah, whose capricious will his faithful must accept without understanding.


The acme of Greek philosophy is the realization that material reality is inherently intelligible at the level of sensation at which we experience it, thereby testifying to an intelligent being of pure actuality, who is the creator of material reality. Judeo-Christianity reveals his personal love for us, which is reciprocated if need be in martyrdom.

We live in a time when two of the strongest forces in global society are forms of irrational voluntarism. The West has lost its sense of a reasonable material world in favor of a philosophy of atomism, which restricts rationality to that of a virtual universe and leaves meaning in the material universe, in which we live, to be optional, to be an act of the human will.  This irrational philosophy is violently opposed by an irrational religion, which worships a deity, who is not bound by reason, while his will, revealed through his prophet, cannot be questioned even though it is apparently capricious. We must hope to resolve this conflict through prayer and self-denial, by avoiding personal sin, which is the inversion of nature, our will over our intellect.

How far we have come from the fullness of time, when God became incarnate in his material, but inherently intelligible, creation. In the final paragraph of an essay on the de-Hellenization of Western thought, Michael Hanby draws attention to a detail of the crucifixion that succinctly expresses that fullness, which our world has nearly dissipated. The crime of the Incarnate Word was his being “King of the Jews.” His crime was written on the Cross in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.

What could this detail even mean to our de-Hellenized minds, except perhaps to indicate an early example of sociological “inculturation”? But for the traditional Christian, on whom the ends [sic] of the ages had come, and for whom the universe itself is a symbol crying out to us to recognize its Creator, it would have meant much more. It would signify that the whole world was united in judgment under the Cross of Christ in … the language of true worship, the language of power, and the language of the wise ….

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1 thought on “Ancient or Modern: Atomists Are Atomists, Martyrs Are Martyrs”

  1. Pingback: SATVRDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

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