The Five Stages of Ideological Development

by David MacMinn


Webster’s Dictionary does little to discern the words ‘philosophy’ and ‘religion’, two terms which unanimously simplify to mean: a group or individual’s system of beliefs, concepts, or attitudes. In fact, the only concrete difference between the two is a presence of the resolute bond, that is to say, faith, between one and one’s religion. In considering ancient biographies of quintessential devout and philosophical characters, not only can Webster’s single discrepancy between the two terms be disavowed, but philosophy and religion can be proven fundamentally synonymous.

Through examining the tendencies of historical religious and philosophical figures, the same pattern of development becomes evident. Five definitive stages identify the presence of a complex belief system. Although some variation in the way each is presented, the fundamental quality of each stage is always evident in devoted followers of an ideology.


The first stage, dissonance, attributes the founding of an ideology to a state of conflicting emotions. Within all societies lies a powerful reverence for both the elegance of life and its offerings. Similar can be said of its fragility as fear of death appears instinctual. Though all animals are driven to avoid harm, self awareness and knowledge of mortality are primarily human traits. Therefore, humans have the capacity to fear an inevitable end, this inhibits their ability to enjoy life thereby causing a state of discomfort and a longing for reason. This sort of transition is an evident turning point in Saint Augustine’s life. Upon the loss of a dear friend Augustine recounts in his Confessions: “I became a conundrum to myself, asking my soul ‘why, in its anguish, it was whirling about in me… weeping was my only comfort” (Augustine 67). Despite the fact that Augustine’s reaction to this great sense of dissonance is to assert that God is a “wraith” who resides beneath any man, this event causes him to explore higher meaning. Augustine ultimately attributes his sorrow to him having mistakenly allowed himself to feel greater affection for man than God; he compares the consequences of love: “That is what love of friends means. It makes us feel guilty if we do not reciprocate…But ‘happy are the one who loves you,’ and loves his friend in you, and loves his enemy because of you” (Augustine 70-71). This emotional turmoil, instilled by loss, tells Augustine that love is held meaninglessly if not for God.

Dissonance is of course present in the inspiration of philosophy as well. For example, in Diogenes Laertius’ account of Pythagoras, little is said about his first experiences or questions while studying under Pherecydes nor of any significant revelations before achieving fame; yet despite this, Pythagoras publically flaunts his great dissonance. Diogenes references details provided by Heraclides of Puntus which claim that Pythagoras “…was accounted to be Hermes’ son, and Hermes told him he might choose any gift he liked except immortality; so he asked to retain through life and through death a memory of his experiences” (Diogenes 323). Although it is not readily apparent, Pythagoras’ ornate vision shows his clear concern for understanding the afterlife. Because memories are required to perceive existence both past and present Pythagoras’ aversion to relinquish his memories conveys a fear of not existing. In other words, if Pythagoras developed such fantasies simply because they pleased him he would most likely assume his complete immortality; however, he ultimately decided on preserving his consciousness after death thereby compromising what is certain, death, with a conscious afterlife which cannot be outright discredited.


Once dissonance presides the natural inclination is to begin the construction of hypothetical models to help rationalize the universal concern of death. The development stage typically emulates a combination of the values and beliefs of an individuals’ society and of the individuals themselves in an attempt to comprehend, justify, or even cheat death. In Pythagoras’ case, he conceded that the existence of an afterlife as certain and his relation to Hermes resulted in his arrangement to retain his memories in such an afterlife. The Pythagorean philosophy thereby sustains an argument against fearing death as it can never truly take a life.

In other examples, the development stage resembles the recognition or conversion to an already existing belief. Many religious examples including Saint Augustine demonstrate this. He writes: “This book, however, urges philosophy upon the reader –it is known as Hortensius and it changed my life. It transformed my prayers to you O Lord, and changed the character of my striving hopes” (Augustine 45). In searching for answers Augustine stumbled across exactly what he was looking for. Though a very educated man, his passion for God and selflessness in friendship indicate he would write more profoundly of someone else than himself. With respect to the multitude of written works he completed it is likely he found this therapeutic. A desire to write about what he had learned rather than preach what he already knew allotted for him to find reason in Catholicism rather than create reason.


After the foundation of an ideology is developed, more characteristics of the current life are gradually observed and factored into the model of the afterlife. At this stage depth is added, overall the model of the ideology becomes more complex and detailed as though its existence is a well known location. Similar complexities later surrounded Pythagoras’ perception of his life after death. Pythagoras’ desire to maintain his memories is not greatly discussed after he gains popularity and begins giving talks. Many of the additional details justifiably get brought to the surface such as the location of the gods and the essences of good and evil. Pythagoras expanded the original construct of his own afterlife stating: “The sun, the moon, and the other stars are gods; for, in them, there is a preponderance of heat, and heat is the cause of life” (Diogenes 343). As the other natural phenomenon appeared far beyond reach Pythagoras logically associated them with gods and the sensation of heat, for which neither biological nor chemical causes was well understood, with an essence of life.

One interesting decision in Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Macrina gave a new and personal sense of depth to an already flourishing religion. Upon her betrothal, the unenthused Macrina was prepared to marry a well off young man in accordance with her father’s wishes. Once dead, Macrina declined future proposals stating: “…it was absurd and unlawful not to be faithful to the marriage that had been arranged for her by her father, but to be compelled to consider another” (Macrina 8). Despite the fact that this is not a traditional Christian custom, Macrina’s definition of the way in which she identifies with her ideology as an individual coincidentally allows her to remain single and follow the path she feels is right for her. Macrina also conveys depth when she describes the many tragedies in her life. When describing such losses Macrina’s brother describes her view as: “The first test was the loss of the one brother, the second the parting from her mother, the third was when the common glory of the family, great Basil, was removed from human life” (Macrina 11-12), thereby indicating Macrina’s faith is maintained by interpreting the cause of her sorrow as ‘tests’. Because she observes these incidences as evidence of the accuracy of her beliefs rather than as the unreasonable acts that discredit the presence of a wise higher power, Macrina can be said to have established depth through strong devotion.


Regardless of any complications, all ideologies ultimately come to rely on careful use of discretion. Having developed similarly, philosophical and religious ideals both spread best through passive advertising rather than aggressive indoctrination. Although this is primarily due to the esteem held for fundamental moral principals, as naturally their function as socio-economic stabilizers leads to their recognition as fundamental aspects of the belief system in the development stage, the driving force behind the passive approach is the strength of the ideology’s development. That is to say, the most devout ideologists are not compelled to seek self validation through the recognition of others. Pythagoras provides strong evidence of his use of discretion. Despite how Diogenes’ description: “…men came to hear his words from afar…” (Diogenes 333) gives testimony to the growing popularity of Pythagorean teachings, his later provision of Xenophilus’ personality supplements the observable qualities of Pythagoras’ teachings. In reference to the young disciple, Diogenes’ reports that when Xenophilus “…asked by some one how he could best educate his son, replied, “By making him the citizen of a well-governed state”. At face value these details merely convey the importance of citizenship in Pythagorean philosophy. Fortunately in Diogenes’ style of writing, references to other characters are made specifically for the purpose of fully defining his main subject. In this case, Diogenes in fact uses this anecdote as evidence of the Pythagorean belief: “…that not all his doctrines were for all men to hear…” (Diogenes 335). As this proclamation defines neither specific teachings nor which men are best suited to learn them, it stands to reason that only the followers of this ideology may understand which doctrines they are suited to hear. Therefore Xenophilus’ response can be attributed to the Pythagorean value of discretion rather than citizenship. The Pythagorean ideology supports the notion that personal beliefs should be discussed and learned through inquiry instead of mandated instruction.

Discretion is present, although elusive, in religious examples as well. Macrina, while known for her intense devotion, did little to actively convince the public to follow her beliefs. Even though Macrina often worked to appease the many visitors to her home, they were at no point forced to recognize the Christian faith. In fact, in accordance with the discretion stage, during famine “…crowds from all quarters were frequenting the retreat where they lived, drawn by the fame of their benevolence…” (Macrina 11). Although Macrina could have approached the situation with a haughty proclamation that due to her faith she is unaffected by famine, she instead followed her faith and helped those in need. Overall, careful interpretation shows that discretion is present despite the cause of their fame being their good deeds; they were not kind for the purpose of gaining fame, however their ideals compelled courteous behavior which was later attracted the attention of the public.


The final stage in the development of a strict belief system, similar to the discretion stage, tests the strength of the ideologist’s devotion to their belief. Upon approaching death, people are forced to revisit the original source of their dissonance. In both the philosophical and the religious there is strong evidence of unconditional faith even when faced with imminent death. For example, Diogenes reports: “…he [Pythagoras] got as far as a certain field of beans, where he stopped, saying he would be captured rather than cross it, and be killed rather than prate about his doctrine…” (Diogenes 355). Pythagoras deemed beans as nauseous and immoral, therefore his word, that he might die before contradicting his belief, is tested by him having to act in accordance with his beliefs under penalty of death. Pythagoras proves that he has maintained his faith to the ultimate extent when his throat is cut while he stood before the bean field. Similarly Macrina demonstrates her unyielding level of faith in the face of death. As it is described, “…and she published abroad the secret disposition of her heart-her hurrying towards Him Whom she desired” (Macrina 15) Macrina appears to be longing for her late fiancé. In considering her thought process however, Macrina must wholeheartedly believe in order for this to happen. After many losses, the final test shows Macrina’s faith is unaffected by the reality of her own death.


Philosophy and religion are solely distinguished by their respective connotations. In society, people tend use the word ‘religion’ in reference to larger and more distinguished organizations. The term ‘philosophy’ is usually used to describe an individual’s beliefs or a single poignant phrase meant to guide one through life. Despite these different connotations, the denotations of philosophy and religion vary only by the presence of faith which in reality proves, through the examination of philosophical persons such as Pythagoras, to be profoundly evident in both. Furthermore, philosophy and religion can be shown to have developed through the same process, that is, the five stages of ideological development.