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James: Philosophical Background of Logos

The Greek word logos has a rich variety of meanings in ancient Greek philosophy, all occurring within the general semantic field of language, discourse, and reason. In philosophical contexts, the Latin equivalent is ratio.

Divine Principle of Cosmic Form and Order

In Stoic thought, the logos is the universal force that forms and sustains all things.

  • Marcus Aurelius Med. 6.1 “The Universal Substance is docile and ductile; and the Reason (logos) that controls (dioikeô) it has no motive in itself to do wrong…all things come into being and fulfill their purpose as it (logos) directs” (Haines 1916, 131).
  • Diogenes Laërtius Vit. Phil. 7.134 “They [Stoics] hold that there are two principles (archai) in the universe, the active principle (to poioun) and the passive (to paschon). The passive principle, then, is a substance without quality, i.e. matter, whereas the active is the reason (logos) inherent in this substance, that is God” (Hicks 1925, 2:238–39).

As seen in the above quotation, the Stoics closely associated reason with God:

  • Cicero Leg. 2.10 “For the divine mind (mens divina) cannot exist without reason (ratio), and divine reason cannot but have this power to establish right and wrong…reason came into existence simultaneously with the divine mind” (Keys 1928, 380–83).
  • Diogenes Laërtius Vit. Phil. 7.136 “God, who is the seminal reason (logos spermatikos) of the universe” (Hicks 1925, 2:241).

Speech and Rational Thought

Logos is closely tied to thought and language, insofar as language expresses significance and meaning.

  • Aristotle Int. 4 [16b] understands logos as a “meaningful utterance” (phônê semanikê), a group of words that carries semantic meaning (a sentence), making either a positive (kataphasis) or a negative judgment (apophrasis; Cooke 1938, 120–21).
  • Plato Theaet. 206d comments that the primary function of logos is to “make one’s own thought (dianoia) clear through speech by means of verbs and nouns” (Fowler 1921, 240–41).
  • Plato Soph. 263e “thought and speech (logos) are the same; only the former, which is a silent inner conversation (dialogos) of the soul with itself, has been the special name of thought (dianoia)…vocal utterance through the mouth has the name of speech” (logos; Fowler 1921, 440–41).

James uses logos in this outer sense in Jas 3:2, “if someone does not go astray in his speech” (logos)

A Defining Characteristic of Human Beings

Logos is what distinguishes humans from animals.

  • Aristotle Pol. 1.1.10–11 [1253A]: logos is what distinguishes humans from animals, and enables humans to live in community and distinguish right (to dikaion) from wrong (to adikon; Rackham 1932, 11).
  • Seneca Ep. 76.9–10 “And what quality is best in man? It is reason (ratio); by virtue of reason he surpasses the animals, and is surpassed only by the gods. Perfect reason (ratio perfecta) is therefore the good peculiar to man; all other qualities he shares in some degree with animals and plants…When this is right and has reached perfection, man’s felicity is complete” (Gummere 1917, 2:151–53).

Logos and the Human Soul

Reason is closely associated with the human soul:

  • Plato Resp. 439–41: In the Platonic tradition, the soul is tripartite: the rational (logistikon) should govern the “spirited” (thumoeides) and “appetitive” (epithumêtikon) parts of the soul (Jones 2013, 417–27); cf. Philo Conf. 21). Plato Phaedr. 245c–254e has a famous allegory which depicts the logistikon as a charioteer controlling two unruly horses.

  • Aristotle Eth. Nic. 1.13.10 [1102a] “the soul consists of two parts, one irrational (alogon) and the other capable of reason” (logon exon; Rackham 1934, 63).

In Greek philosophy, then, the soul is the battleground between rational and irrational powers. Reason is associated with virtues and true happiness, irrationality is associated with vices and unhappiness.

Stoic Thought: Reason the Key to Human Action

Reason is key to the Stoic analysis of a person’s actions. The senses provide a person with “presentations” (phantasia); human reason endows these presentations with rational propositions. A person’s reason assents to these propositions, resulting in an impulse that leads to an action.

  • Plutarch Stoic. rep. 11 [1037F] reports Chrysippus’ teaching that “impulse (hormê) of man is reason prescriptive of action for him…Repulsion is prohibitive reason” (Cherniss 1976, 451).
  • Stobaeus Anth. 2.88: A passion, on the contrary, “is an impulse (hormê) which is excessive and disobedient to the dictates of reason, or a movement of soul which is irrational and contrary to nature” (Long and Sedley 1987, 1:410).

James refers to the impulse (hormê) of a ship’s pilot in Jas 3:4