Before Socrates – Origins of Western Philosophy (Part 1 of 2)

It is ironic, really – a man who made it his point to never write down any of his thoughts and claimed that he knew nothing is also the man who is among the most famous western philosophers. One of the “founding fathers”, so to speak. I am referring to Socrates, of course. Luckily, his devoted student Plato (another philosophical superstar) did not have anything against writing and it is largely thanks to him and his dialogues that we can speak of Socrates’ thoughts more than 2,400 years after the man’s death. Yet, Socrates was just one man. He did not “invent” philosophy, although he is a revolutionary figure. Nonetheless, anything as sophisticated as a philosophical way of thinking is a process that is developing over time, not a project created during one man’s lifetime and handed over like a ready “product”. So, this last weekend I asked myself the question – what was philosophy like before Socrates? There have been philosophers before him. For the moment though, I thought it would be a good idea to start with a little broader perspective. Namely – the historical background of the origins of what we call western philosophy. Perhaps this will also give us some ideas about the potential reasons for the so-called ‘Greek miracle’ (sudden and extraordinary manifestation of philosophy in Ancient Greece in ~6th century BC – that’s roughly 2,600 years ago). This article is split into 2 parts, of which this is the first one.

As usual, I start with listing my sources. This time there are 2 main ones:

  1. Peter Adamson “Classical Philosophy”, the first volume in his series “A history of philosophy without any gaps”, Oxford University Press 2014 
  2. Peter Rietbergen “Europe: A Cultural History”, Routledge, third edition 2015

The period for which I am drawing a historical background is sometimes called in the Ancient Greek philosophy ‘the pre-Socratics’. As the name suggests, it stretches up until Socrates and goes back into the past to the beginning of Greek philosophy, at least to what is agreed as the recorded beginning. In terms of time, it is a period from ~6th century BC to ~mid-5th century BC (469 BC if we want to be very precise – that’s the year Socrates was born). Immediately we can see that it took the Greek philosophical thought only approximately 150 years to develop into the rich intellectual environment of Athens that we commonly associate with it (when Socrates and then Plato come on stage). The first Greek philosopher on record is a man named Thales who was active some time in the 6th century BC. Moreover, he was not from Athens but from another Greek city called Miletus on the coast of Ionia (modern-day Turkey). This is where we will start drawing our historical background of Greek philosophy and going back in time to see if we can find out what made them take up this intellectual ‘hobby’. I think it is safe to assume that Thales did not wake up one morning feeling incredibly bored and decided to start philosophizing. 

The first question I looked at was how did the Greeks end up on the western coast of modern-day Turkey in the first place. That took me some 600 years further into the past. Around the time of 13th-9th century BC mainland Greece saw newcomers settling in. They were Indo-European tribes called Dorian and they moved into a territory where the previous civilization has already come to its end (Mycenaean and Crete). Such migration of new tribes around that period of time seems to have been a wide-spread phenomenon in the region, so Greece was not unique in this respect. There are several versions of how well the newcomers were received by the locals. Some sources consider them invaders that the local population tried to escape, others speak of eventual mutual assimilation. I assume there was something of both scenarios. For our story, it is important to note that during this period writing largely disappeared. The culture was, therefore, mostly transferred orally by bards singing tributes to the heroes in epic poems. This is where the roots of Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” lie before they were captured in written form in ~8th century BC (so, these stories could have lived in only spoked tradition for several hundreds of years). Soon after the arrival of the Dorian people, parts of the local population moved across the Aegean Sea to the opposite coast of Ionia (modern-day Turkey). There, several cities were established or resettled based on previously existing ones. Among them – Miletus. At this point, we are in the time of ~11th century BC, which is still some 500 years before our first philosopher who will call this city his home. The location of these new colonies was very strategic and beneficial for trade. Greeks developed successful commerce relations with various international partners. Among them – the Phoenicians (coming from roughly the territories of modern-day Near East) – with whom the Greeks started trading from ~10th/9th century BC, soon after settling in their new Ionian cities. This business partnership will give the Greeks much more than wealth. They will adopt the Phoenician alphabetic writing and improve it by adding signs for vowels making the scripture less ambiguous. This, eventually, will be crucial for a broader spread of ideas.

We are roughly half-way through our time journey and this is the end of part one. In the second part of this article, I will finish our historical background story at the end of which we will reach the first Greek philosopher – Thales – still some 300-400 years into the future from our current stop.

Until then – keep exploring!

Photo by jimmy teoh from Pexels

4 thoughts on “Before Socrates – Origins of Western Philosophy (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Pingback: Before Socrates – Origins of Western Philosophy (Part 2 of 2) – humanfactor

  2. Pingback: Thales of Miletus or the First Greek Philosopher – humanfactor

  3. Pingback: 130 Years Before Socrates: Historical Exploration (Introduction) – humanfactor

  4. Pingback: Spreading the Word: Collapse of Civilizations at the End of Bronze Age – humanfactor

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