The Greek word λόγος, or logos, is a word with various meanings. It is often translated into English as “Word,” but can also mean thought, speech, meaning, reason, proportions, principle, standard, or logic, among other things. In religious contexts, it can indicate the divine Word, wisdom, or truth. It is also used widely with varied meanings in the fields of philosophy, analytical psychology, and rhetoric.
Similar concepts are found in non-western traditions, such as Dao (Tao), the Vedic notion of rta, and the Hindu and Buddhist conception of dharma and Aum. These concepts in diverse traditions are based upon the common insight that certain principles regulate the orders of existence in both the universe and human reason.
The Greek word “logos” means “order,” “word,” and “reason.” It indicates a rational explanation in contrast to a mythological explanation. Among Greek philosophers, the first philosopher who used the term is Heraclitus. By using the term logos, he meant the principle of the cosmos that organizes and orders the world that had the power to regulate the birth and decay of things in the world. The cosmos was, as he saw it, constantly changing, and he conceived logos as the organizing principle of change. In the context of Ancient Greek philosophy, logos was a divine principle which transcended the world of mortals.
The Stoics developed the notion of logos and conceived it as the principle that gave life and order to all beings in the universe. In their view, logos existed both in the human soul and the universe, and identified justice within the life of a man who lived according to this order of the universe.
The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (Philo Judaeus) tried to explain the relationship between God and the world by applying the Stoic concept of logos. Logos was the most universal among all things in the world, an intermediary between the transcendent God and the created world. He developed the idea that God created the world with logos as the intermediate being. In Christianity, various doctrines about logos were also developed.
Ancient Greek philosophy
In ancient philosophy, Logos was used by Heraclitus, a Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. He used the term logos to describe the universal Law, or the principle that inherently ordered the cosmos and regulated its phenomena. Some fragments ascribed to Heraclitus read:
The Law (of the universe) is as here explained; but men are always incapable of understanding it, both before they hear it, and when they have heard it for the first time. For though all things come into being in accordance with this Law, men seem as if they had never met with it, when they meet with words (theories) and actions (processes) such as I expound, separating each thing according to its nature and explaining how it is made.
Therefore one must follow (the universal Law, namely) that which is common (to all). But although the Law is universal, the majority live as if they had understanding peculiar to themselves.
Heraclitus also used the term Logos to mean the undifferentiated material substrate from which all things came: “Listening not to me but to the Logos it is wise to agree that all [things] are one.” In this sense, Logos is Heraclitus’ answer to the Pre-Socratic question of what the arche is of all things. Logos, therefore, designates both the material substrate itself and the universal, mechanical, “just” way in which this substrate manifests itself in, and as, individual things. What this means is, it encompasses within itself the later Platonic distinction (in Timaeus) between “form” and “matter.”
By the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, logos was the term established to describe the faculty of human reason and the knowledge men had of the known world and of other humans. Plato allowed his characters to engage in the conceit of describing logos as a living being in some of his dialogues. The development of the Academy with hypomnemata brought logos closer to the literal text. Aristotle, who studied under Plato and who was much more of a practical thinker, first developed the concept of logic as a depiction of the rules of human rationality.
The Stoics understood Logos as the animating power of the universe, (as it is also presently understood today in Theosophical terms) and by the Rosicrucians in their “conception of the cosmos,” which further influenced how this word was understood later on (in twentieth century psychology, for instance).
In rhetoric, logos is one of the three modes of persuasion (the other two are pathos, emotional appeal; and ethos, the qualification of the speaker). Logos refers to logical appeal, and in fact the term logic evolves from it. Logos normally implies numbers, polls, and other mathematical or scientific data.
In Christianity, the prologue of the Gospel of John calls Jesus “the Logos” (usually translated as “the Word” in English bibles, such as the King James Version) and plays a central role in establishing the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity and the Trinity. The opening verse in the KJV reads: “In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word [Logos] was with God, and the Word [Logos] was God.”
Some scholars of the Bible have suggested that John made creative use of double meaning in the word “Logos” to communicate to both Jews, who were familiar with the Wisdom tradition in Judaism, and Hellenists, especially followers of Philo. Each of these two groups had its own history associated with the concept of the Logos, and each could understand John’s use of the term from one or both of those contexts. Especially for the Hellenists, however, John turns the concept of the Logos on its head when he claimed “the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us” (v. 14).
Gordon Clark famously translated Logos as “Logic” in the opening verses of the Gospel: “In the beginning was the Logic, and the Logic was with God and the Logic was God.” He meant to imply by this translation that the laws of logic were contained in the Bible itself and were therefore not a secular principle imposed on the Christian worldview.
On April 1, 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who would later become Pope Benedict XVI) referred to the Christian religion as the religion of the Logos:
From the beginning, Christianity has understood itself as the religion of the Logos, as the religion according to reason. … It has always defined men, all men without distinction, as creatures and images of God, proclaiming for them … the same dignity. In this connection, the Enlightenment is of Christian origin and it is no accident that it was born precisely and exclusively in the realm of the Christian faith. … It was and is the merit of the Enlightenment to have again proposed these original values of Christianity and of having given back to reason its own voice … Today, this should be precisely [Christianity’s] philosophical strength, in so far as the problem is whether the world comes from the irrational, and reason is not other than a “sub-product,” on occasion even harmful of its development—or whether the world comes from reason, and is, as a consequence, its criterion and goal. … In the so necessary dialogue between secularists and Catholics, we Christians must be very careful to remain faithful to this fundamental line: To live a faith that comes from the Logos, from creative reason, and that, because of this, is also open to all that is truly rational.
He referred to this concept again in a controversial speech, in September 2006.
Within Eastern religions, there are ideas with varying degrees of similarity to the philosophical and Christian uses of the term logos. Five concepts with some parallels to Logos are the Tao, the Vedic notion of rta, the Hindu and Buddhist conception of dharma, Aum (from Hindu cosmology), and the Egyptian Maat. These are all iconic terms of various cultures that have the meaning that Logos has: The order and orderliness of the world. At the same time, the material source of the world is the word as well.
In New Age mysticism, the Odic force is sometime described as “the physical manifestation of the creative Logos.”
In ancient Egyptian mythology, Hu was the deification of the word spoken to create existence. Maàt was the concept, and goddess, of divine order.
In Surat Shabd Yoga, Shabda is considered to be analogous to the Logos as representative of the supreme being in Christianity.