Classical and Christian Influences on Literature #1


The semester is almost over and to celebrate this wonderful moment, and the ever nearing end-terms, I decided to share my newly acquired knowledge with all of you!

For reasons only known to myself and my dog I’ve split this particular topic into two separate posts. The first post will be specifically about the Classical and the second about the Christian influences on literature.

The subjects for this post are:

  • Classical Period and the Renaissance
  • Classical Mythology
    • Myths and allegory
  • Classical Philosophy
    • Archaic
    • Socrates, Plato and Aristotle
    • Stoicism
  • Influential works

I will insert links to other useful websites to keep it clear and I also want you to know that most information was provided by my lecturer and from Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry; a student guide, by Isabel Rivers.

Classical Period and Renaissance

The Classical period ends round and about 500 CE, when the West-Roman Empire falls and the Middle Ages come into existence. The Middle Ages come to an end a thousand years later, giving way to the period now referred to as: the Renaissance (or the Early Modern Period).

After the fall of the West-Roman Empire, the knowledge of Greek declined, causing the language to be practically non-existent throughout the Middle Ages. At the end of the 15th century however, knowledge of the Greek language slowly returned to Italy, right after the fall of the East-Roman Empire. This fall of the Empire sent many eastern scholars towards Italy, bringing with them books and knowledge of the Greek language and scholarship. The renaissance is the period of the rebirth of the study and use of classical Greek and Latin literature and culture, the term itself dates from the 19th century. Back then, the view was pretty simple: the classical period was interesting, the Middle Ages completely boring and the renaissance was just total epicness.
The renaissance didn’t just bring a rebirth but it also created a new movement called Humanism (For more on Humanism click here). During the renaissance a basis was formed for the later modern period.

Classical Mythology

For a long time the Classic mythology was a part of the basis of education and common knowledge for a large audience. Because of this the mythological references, in poetry for example, worked as a language or a code in order to communicate meaning.

The term mythology is a combination of two words. Myth (myhtos) meaning word and Logos which is connected to reason and thought. Myth later became a narrative, a story, while Logos became associated with the telling of a story or study/analysis.
Mythology itself is actually a logical system that connects the myths with one another. But even though mythology was used as a way of communicating meaning, that didn’t mean that it was a fixed system.

Myths and allegory

Myths were originally created to interpret the aspects of the world, to explain phenomena.
The Classical myths became well known throughout the renaissance and even now most of the people know at least a few of those myths. I already mentioned that the myths were used to communicate but it is not like there is a guideline to myths. There is no fixed system, no commonly used interpretation of a certain myths. What the myths stands for and how it is interpreted depends entirely on the author, who can adapt a myth to support his or her example. Through time myths have transformed, most of them have been written and rewritten over and over again by different authors from a different period in time. By rewriting the myths or using them in contemporary works, they’re kept alive and so in a way myths have an afterlife. This is called intertextuality (here’s a lovely definition of this word provided by the interrelationship between texts, especially works of literature; the way that similar or related texts influence, reflect, or differ from each other.
In this case a myth can be present in a text in more than one way. It can be a quotation (adaption of a text into another text), an allusion (implicit reference), an appropriation (make the earlier text part of the current) or a palimpsest (a document which has been repeatedly written over, the authors are aware of the ‘previous editions’).

Before I explain the different forms of allegory, let’s first find out what it actually means. According to allegory is:

  1. A representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another.
  2. A symbolical narrative

Now that we’ve established that, let’s continue.
There is one thing that must be mentioned before continuing with allegory. It is important to know that allegory already existed in the classical period. Around the 5th century BC rationalism attacked the traditional myths. Socrates used an outright attack, the Epicurus school said that gods were too far removed from earth so they probably didn’t bother and then there was allegory: people started to interpret the myths (and Gods), giving them different meanings:

  • Physical, as a way to deal with natural phenomena.
  • Historical, the gods were once earthly rulers or benefactors.
  • Moral (see more about moral allegory under Plato)

Do remember that there was no separation of state and religion at that time. By defying religion one defied the state and that could end very nasty like Socrates proved.

There are different forms of allegory that were used and are still used. (To see the use of allegory in the Middle Ages see Medieval England #5).

  1. Didactic allegory: conveying moral truths in a pleasing form.
    1. Simple: single level of meaning, exposed to interpretation.
    2. Complex: has more than one level of meaning. Different levels can be present in different places of the work but they rarely exist simultaneously. Levels of complex allegory:
      1. moral
      2. political/historical
      3. religious or philosophical
  2. Allegory can only be understood by those who were serious readers (deserving) of the knowledge of the so called ‘deeper meaning’. The allegory could not be understood by the superficial reader who was only capable of conceiving the surface meaning.
  3. By using allegory one was able to express what would normally be inexpressible.

Allegory can also take literal forms, for example a narrative or static development. Typical forms are quests, dream visions, public ceremonials, debates or emblems.
The second post on this topic will explain how Christianity used allegory on the classical pagan myths.

Classical Philosophy

Previously I mentioned that around the 5th century BC, rationalism kicked in. It’s around that time that classical philosophy gains support. The world by then is no longer explained by using myths but people start to use reason. It’s a slow transition from mythos to logos.


The archaic philosophies are basically the ideas that existed before Socrates. There were two different groups at that time, the natural philosophers and the sophist.
The Natural philosophers started thinking about the universe and abstract things. Examples of natural philosophers: Tales, Heraclitus and Parmenides.
The Sophists became Greek teachers of wisdom. (More on Sophists click here.)

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle

Socrates was a great Greek philosopher who rejected relativism and applied distinction between being and becoming to human behaviour and ethics. He never wrote any of his ideas down, what is now known about him came from his students, one of them was Plato. Socrates thought of a teaching and research method later referred to as the Socratic Method. He came with the idea that one could ask questions to multiple people, (inductive method:) then take the overall definition/meaning and finish by gathering all the pieces of information so that one could come up with a general definition. (More on Socrates click here)

Plato is one of the main sources of information. He was a student of Socrates but became an important philosopher himself later in his life. Plato’s work can be divided into three periods:

  1. Follows Socrates, writes works in a dialogue.
  2. His own notions: Platonism
  3. Theory of knowledge; abstract philosophy (can we be certain of what we know?)

In the second stage of his work Plato created the belief that there are two worlds. The first is the world of ideas and form, world of being. This world is stable, eternal and perfect. Everything that exists in this world is ‘the original model’; the material world (our world) is just a weak lookalike.
The second world is an exact copy of the first world, sensible by senses and not real in itself, the world of becoming. This world is ever changing and so not perfect.
According to Plato’s theory the human soul comes from the first world into  the body that is in the second world, causing that the soul actually wants to escape the body to go back to that first world.
Philosophers have already reached the first world and so have the duty to come back to the second world in order to apply his knowledge for social and political purposes. (In short: click here)
Plato also thought that a philosopher knows the urge of Eros (love and desire). This is not a physical love but a love for intellect and higher reality.

Platonism lost ground for a while, returning however as Neo-Platonism in the first the centuries CE and in 15th century Italy.
Plotinus was the founder of Neo-Platonism and shaped Plato’s thoughts so that it would fit into the new Christian society. He created a hierarchy of being that was easily assimilated to Christianity: the ultimate principle (the one) transcends being and is followed by the divine mind, who’s thoughts are the world of being. The soul is the link between worlds and the soul strives to unite with the ultimate principle.
According to Plotinus there were two souls:

  1. greater soul
  2. individual soul (is divided into three parts):
    1. Intelligible
    2. material
    3. free to turn in both directions

He also believed that the soul passed through multiple bodies and so knowledge was a recollection by the soul of its previous existence.

In 15th century Italy the Italian Neo-Platonist translated the original works from Greek into Latin. One of them called Marsilio Ficino added comments to the works and created the platonic theory and platonic love. The latter is seen as a combination of Plato’s love and the Medieval Courtly Love. It’s seen as an emotional flirtation that is denied a proper fulfilment. For more on Ficino click here.

Unlike Plato, Aristotle wasn’t interested in the science of the idea but rather in the science of the actual. While Plato wished to escape the world of becoming, Aristotle decided to find being inside becoming.
Aristotle was Plato’s student and he in return became the tutor of Alexander the Great. He was the complete opposite of Plato and his philosophy became the basis of present day science. His major contributions were:

  1. Logic
    could only be established when based on axiom (a principle, the statement that will be generally accepted to be true).
    Aristotle created the syllogism (deductive method), the logical way. For this to work one needs two axioms and a conclusion. Both of the axioms have to be true for the conclusion to be true, or else the conclusion is false.
  2. Natural philosophy and science
    this field was one of great influence to the development of science. Being a pragmatical and practical thinker Aristotle actually carried out experiments to find the truth whenever possible.
  3. Metaphysics
    The philosophy of being as being, the nature of reality. According to Aristotle there is an ultimate principle of being. The potentiality is incomplete but had to potential of being actualized while the actuality is more complete and perfect. He believed in a supreme cause: ultimate actuality/perfection of the potential. All actions consist in bringing what is potentially contained in something, into the actuality.
  4. Practical philosophy
    Deals with ethics and politics. A man is a being who is reason and is most happy when using reason. Another important element of happiness is friendship, since man is a social animal. The right choice is always the middle way, avoid excess and defect.
  5. Poetics
    was the most influential book on literary criticism written. It wasn’t a guide for writing but an analytic piece of work.

In the Middle Ages Aristotle became very popular. His works were often available in Latin and so people knew more about him. His teaching was of great influence in Christian and Eastern societies.
For more on Aristotle’s life click here.


Stoic philosophy has three periods in time and three focus points. Early stoicism lasted from the 3rd to the 2nd century BC; Middle stoicism from the 2nd to the 1st century BC and the Late stoicism lasted from the 1st till the 2nd century CE. Early and Middle stoicism was mostly interested in physics and logic, while the Late stoicists were more interested in Ethics.
They believed that a man should learn to live well and they disagreed with the classical philosophies. According to the stoicists one could only achieve happiness when one followed virtue, which can be found when following nature. Reason teaches a man to distinguish good and evil from the unimportant things. There was no state between virtue and sin. It was believed that a man could become wise in different stages. For more detail on stoicism click here.

Influential works

The greatest works from the classical period were written by a figure called Homer and Virgil. There’s little known about Homer except for that he wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. These two are both primary epics, meaning that they are the end products of poems that were not composed by one person but by generations of poems. These poems were never written down before Homer because they were oral poems.
Virgil wrote the Aeneid and his work is a literary/secondary epic, meaning that it was the result of what one person created.

The Iliad became the inspiration for drama and tragedy while the odyssey eventually leads to the novel.


This isn’t yet the actual end to the influence of the classical period on literature, since that period also influenced the Christian in their time. So to be quite honest there is no real conclusion to this yet, if you want to know that you’ll have to read the next post on this topic!
But for know I hope I’ve been able to give a clear picture of the influence of the classical period in the renaissance which in turn became the basis for the modern period.

I also think that I can safely say that the last couple of years, at least as far as I know the classics are again gaining ground. I only have to talk about Troy with Brad Pitt and nine out of ten people know what I’m talking about, then there are the tons of Hercules movies and lately even the Percy Jackson series. The classics are still popular and if you look good enough, there is always a figure resembling an Achilles, an Odysseus, a Hercules or a Helen or other goddess like figure in most stories.

Hope to see you back for the second part of this topic: Christian influences on literature. If you have any feedback or something nice to say: just do it! Don’t let your dreams be dreams!



One thought on “Classical and Christian Influences on Literature #1

  1. Hi Cindy, thank you for explaining platonism and neo-platonism. I initially missed that so I’m happy to be able to catch up here. Very well-written.

    Liked by 1 person

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