Search This Blog

Saturday, 27 March 2010

The Origin of Greek Philosophy

A philosopher’s thought is influenced by the surrounding in which he lives. Just like a particular type of soil supports particular plants, the culture and conditions of a place give rise to particular ideas or philosophies. It’s not a matter of chance that Buddha happened to be in India or Mohammad in Arabia, it was the conditions prevalent in the 6th century BCE India that gave rise to Buddhism and 7th Century AD Arabia that gave rise to Islam. Therefore before I delve into the origin of Greek philosophy which is believed to begin with Thales (6th century BCE), let me outline the origin of Greek civilization and its theology. What we know today distinctly as the School of science and School of Philosophy was a common school in around 6th century BC at the times of Thales. The Greek acquired this knowledge from the Egyptians and the Sumerians (Mesopotamia)

Influence of Egypt and Mesopotamia on Greece

The oldest of civilizations developed in Egypt around river Nile and in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) around river Tigris and river Euphrates around 5th millennium BC.

Though contemporary and proximate both the civilizations were marked different in their theology. The Egyptian believed that after death soul descends into the underworld where it is judged by Osiris based on the life on the Earth and eventually it will return to the body. This belief led to the mummification of body and construction of tomb. About 1800 B.C Egypt was conquered by Semites known as Hykos. In their two centuries of rule the Hykos must have spread the Egyptian civilization in current day Syria and Palestine (Phoenicia).

In Mesopotamia Sumerians were the rulers. They invented cuneiform writing. Later Semites conquered the Mesopotamia and learned the cuneiform from Sumerian. Initially there were many independent cities but eventually city of Babylon became supreme and every other city became its subordinate and the God of Babylon ‘Marduk’ become the supreme god. Babylonian culture unlike the Egyptian was more concerned with happiness in this life rather than in after life. It was more scientific. The division of circle in 360 degrees, days in 24 hours, prediction of lunar eclipse were discovered by the Babylonians.

The civilization of Egypt and Mesopotamia and was agricultural. The surrounding cultures were primarily pastoral. Gradually maritime trade developed. In commerce the island of Crete seems to have been pioneers. For about eleven century i.e. from 2500 BC to 1400 BC Minoan culture is believed to be existent in Crete. Minoans were artistically advanced culture. The Minoan were in close touch with Egyptians and also had proximity with Syria and Asia Minor. They worshipped goddesses and most prominent was the ‘mistress of animals’ who was a huntress and probably source of Artemis (The Greek goddess of hunting). Before the destruction of Minoan culture; it spread about 1600 BC to mainland Greece.

The Greek Civilization

In mainland Greece the civilization that existed is called the Mycenaean. The origin of Mycenaean is uncertain but it can be conjectured with a lot of certainty is that at least the aristocracy consisted of fair haired invaders from north, who brought Greek language with them. The Mycenaean came to Greece in three successive waves, first the Ionians, then the Achaeans and last the Dorians.

The Ionians were the first to conquer Greece and they adapted the Minoan culture, but subsequently were overthrown by Achaeans who also embraced Minoan culture. But the last of the conquerors the Dorians were who retained their Indo-European religion of their ancestors. During the later part of Mycenaean culture some of the inhabitants became agriculturist while some settled into the island of Asia Minor and then into Sicily and southern Italy where they founded cities which lived by maritime commerce.

In mainland Greece the land is mountainous and largely infertile but there are patches of fertile valleys with easy access to sea. These valleys later became independent city states. Greece was divided into large number of independent states. Notable among them were Sparta for its martial superiority, Athens for its cultural superiority, Corinth was rich, prosperous and a great commercial center, Arcadia was primarily agricultural. As the resources in these cities became constraint they started colonializing other cities. In administration there was a general development, first from monarchy to aristocracy, and then alternation of tyranny and democracy.

The Greek Literature

The Greek learned the art of writing from Phoenicians (present day Syria and Palestine) , who like other inhabitants of Syria were exposed to both Egyptian and Babylonian Influences. Phoenicians were the maritime superpower till the rise of Greek cities of Ionian, Italy and Sicily.

The Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey was first notable literary contribution of Hellenic civilization. It is believed that Home was not one person but a series of poets from 750 to 550 BC. In both the epic the leading family is house of Pelops. A brief outline is given below (from ‘Primitive culture in Greece’, H.J. Rose)

Tantalos, the Asiatic founder of the dynasty, began its career by direct offence against the Gods; some said, by trying to cheat them into eating human flesh, that of his own son Pelops. Pelops, having been miraculously restored to life, offended in his turn. He won his famous charioteer race against Oinomaos, King of Pisa, by connivance of latter’s charioteer, Myrtilos, and then got rid of his confederate, whom he had promised to reward, by flinging him into the sea. The curse descended to his son, Atreus and Thyestes, in the form of what the Greeks called Ate, a strong if not irresistible impulse to crime. Thyestes corrupted his brother’s wife and thereby managed to steal the ‘luck’ of the family, the famous golden-fleeced ram. Atreus’s son Agamemnon, who offended Artemis by killing a sacred stag, sacrificed his own daughter Iphigenia to appease the goddess and obtain a safe passage to Troy for his fleet, and was in turn murdered by his faithless wife Klytaimnestra and her paramour Agisthos, a surviving son of Thyestes. Orestes, Agamemnon’s son , in turn avenged his father by killing his mother and Aigisthos.”

Iliad and Odyssey were the products of Ionia i.e. part of Hellenic Asia Minor and Adjacent Island.

Greek Mythology and its impact on Philosophy

Among the multitude of gods that Greeks worshipped one was ‘Dionysus’ or ‘Bacchus’ the disreputable god of wine and drunkenness. Out of his worship arose profound mysticism, which greatly influenced many of the philosophers. Anybody who wished to study the development of Greek thought it is imperative to understand the evolution of Dionysus.


Dionysus or Bacchus was a Thracian god. Thrace was an agricultural state and culturally inferior to Greece. Like primitive agriculturalist Thrace had a fertility cult and worshipped a god who improved fertility. His name was Bacchus. When Thracian learned making beer and wine and got intoxicated they found it divine and attributed it to Bacchus. Thus his function of promoting fertility got associated with wine and intoxication.

The cult of Bacchus passed from Thrace to Greece where it was vehemently opposed by the Orthodox. The cult of Bacchus contained many barbaric acts like tearing wild animals to pieces and eating the whole of them raw. Adherents would spent the whole night on the bare hills in dance which stimulated ecstasy and in an intoxication perhaps partly alcoholic but mainly mystical. The worship of Bacchus in its original form was savage and in many way repulsive. It was not in this form that it influenced the philosopher, but in spiritualized form attributed to Orpheus, which was ascetic and substituted mental for physical intoxication.

Orpheus origin is uncertain. He can be an actual person or a God. Like Bacchus he came from Thrace but it seems probable that the movement associated with his name came from Crete. This is because the orphic doctrine contain much that seems to have provenance in Egypt and it is chiefly through Crete that Egypt would have influenced Greece. Orpheus would said to have been a reformer who was torn to pieces by frenzied Maenads actuated by Bacchic orthodox. Though less is known about Orpheus his teachings are well known. The Orphic believed in transmigration of souls; they thought that soul hereafter might achieve eternal bliss or suffer eternal or temporary torment according to its way of life on earth. They aimed at becoming pure partly by ceremonies of purification, partly by avoiding certain kinds of contamination.

The Orphic were an ascetic sect; wine to them, was only a symbol. The intoxication that they sought was that of “enthusiasm” of union with the god. They believed in acquiring mystic knowledge unattainable by ordinary means. This mystical element entered into Greek philosophy with Pythagoras, who was reformer of Orphism. From Pythagoras Orphic elements entered into the Philosophy of Plato, and from Plato into most later philosophy that was in any degree religious.

1 comment:

Varun said...

the Minoans were not in mainland Greece I think. They were present in the island of Crete. The mynecians in about 1000 BC invaded Crete, thus ending the Minoan civilisation.

also, Dionysus was a greek god, where Bacchus was Roman. the Romans bborrowed their gods from Greeks.

Incidently, Dionysus was one of the most "sculptured" gods in Greece. His statues and pottery abound.