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

Last week I wrote the first part of this article. In it, I started drawing the historical background leading up to the first recorded ancient Greek philosopher – Thales. In this second part, I finish the article and bring our time journey from its last stop (­~10th/9th century BC) some 300-400 years ahead to the days when Thales started philosophizing. So, let’s continue our trip!

Before we go, I will just add a third resource that I have used for this part of the article (the first two are mentioned in the part published last week):

  • Norman Davies “Europe: a history”, HarperPerennial, first edition 1998
Map of ancient Greece 8th-5th centuries BCE (1) reference at the end of the article

This is where we are – in that yellow circle on the map: Miletus, the ancient Greek city-state on the south-western coast of modern-day Turkey, some time after 800 BC at the turn of the centuries. The city is growing wealthier on its trade with various neighbours. Among the business partners are the great maritime peoples the Greek called Phoenicians. From them, the Greeks have already adopted the alphabet and improved it by adding vowels. Soon, this development will allow to write down the great epics of “Iliad” and “Odyssey” that until then had survived in oral tradition. Miletus engages in trade also with other Greek city-states and soon it will establish colonies and trade posts of its own (e.g. in southern Italy). At this point, people have lived in the city for ~200 years. 

Miletus has been resettled by Greeks and rebuilt on the site of a previous fortress established here by a civilization long-gone, the Mycenaeans. They were the great peoples of mainland Greece from times before the nomadic tribes came (likely Indo-European). Their civilization built Troy and, perhaps along with the Minoan Crete, could have served as an inspiration for the nostalgic memory of later Greeks about their lost paradise of the “Golden Age”. 

It is worth noting here that some of the well-known Greek city-states from their later glory days, like Athens, Sparta and the mentioned Miletus, were all (re)established on the sites of previous Mycenaean fortresses. Moreover, the famous Greek heroes from their epic stories – Hercules, Achilles, Odysseus etc. – stem from long-preserved oral traditions stretching back to the times of the great Bronze Age European civilizations (Mycenaeans and Minoan Crete). Potentially more likely though – to the times of their fall. It is when Empires fall that the semi-divine heroes are most needed. 

Despite the general destructiveness of that empires downfall time (~12th century BC) and the ancient “Dark Age” that followed (some 400 years until the rise of Greek city-states), the deeds of the epic warriors might have spurred the Greeks to come up with their mythological “Age of Heroes”. For them, this heroic age came after the golden age and before their own contemporary period. The latter they referred to as the “Age of Iron”, perhaps indicating that they were not overly optimistic about the future. 

Be it as it may, I think it is an interesting chronological parallel that can be observed here if we assume the proposed interpretation of the inspirations for the Greek mythological timeline is correct. This is how reality might have seeped into epic stories and they both intertwined. 

The Greek “Golden Age” might have coincided with the great Bronze Age European civilizations of Minoan Crete and mainland Greece Mycenaeans, both of which had contact with each other allowing for the exchange of cultural influences. Remember the Greek myth about Theseus killing the monstrous Minotaur and escaping the labyrinth with the help of Ariadne’s cord? Well, that happened on the island of Crete where the mythological king Minos ruled. There, in the ruins of the palace at Knossos an ancient fresco was found depicting youth in their practice of “bull-leaping”. 

Bull-leaping fresco from Knossos (2) reference at the end of the article

The Greek “Age of Heroes” might have coincided with what is sometimes called “the general systems breakdown” when these previously glorious empires fell within a rather short period due to not entirely clear reasons. It is safe to assume that during this tumultuous time there have been a lot of warriors around and some of their deeds could have inspired epic tales. Remember Achilles and the defeat of Troy and then the long homeward journey of Odysseus? Well, the city of Troy did exist and it is estimated to have fallen to the invading armies in 1184 BC.

Finally, the name Greeks gave to their own contemporary times – “Age of Iron” – aptly coincides with what historians refer to as the Iron Age (when iron replaced bronze as the new material of choice). It came to the Aegean region ~1000 BC (around the same time when Greeks started resettling Miletus).   

How is this relevant to our time journey and story? It is relevant for the broader picture of the historical background before Greeks started philosophizing. I hope I managed to show how Greek myths intertwine with actual events and feed the reality into great stories that have survived in oral tradition for centuries before being captured in written form. This cultural heritage was, therefore, important enough for the Greeks to not only keep it alive but also thriving. It was very well known and established also later during the days of Greek philosophers. Some of them will directly address and criticize the works of the epic poets.

Therefore, we may say that the myths and epic stories served as a medium for shared self-identification of a people who all lived in various autonomous city-states, spoke the same language but had no single political power centre ruling them all as opposed to the centralized power structures of many large empires. 

Incidentally, another civilization already had a city-state power structure long before the Greeks. We have met them already – the Phoenicians. Theirs was an older version of ancient “democracy”, although we wouldn’t call it that today. For their time, however, it must have seemed like a very flat power structure. During their maritime explorations in the Meditteranean and active trading, Phoenicians inspired the Greeks not only to adopt and improve their alphabet but also, potentially, to take their city-state power structure, flatten it even more, and turn into the famous ancient Greek version of democracy. It is really tempting to say that the ancient Greeks were eager to learn. 

Ancient Miletus theatre (3) reference at the end of the article

We are back in Miletus, the 8th century has passed, the Greeks had their first Olympiad (estimated ~776 BC) and we have approached the 7th century BC, just 100 years before our first recorded philosopher takes the stage. Besides Miletus growing ever wealthier and establishing its own colonies, another culturally important thing happens during these 100 years. The word Europe gets mentioned in the written record for the first time (~7th century BC). 

It is important because like the myths it testifies to the shared self-identification of a people, of how they perceived themselves (also – as opposed to others known to them). I must warn you – from our modern perspective this may sound pretty snobbish. Yet, let’s try and stay with the point of view of the ancient Greeks. 

Europe was a word of their own creation. There is another myth for that, of course, which curiously enough involves a Phoenician princess Europa being abducted by the main Greek god Zeus to the island of his own birth – Crete. The story is intertwined with reality, as we saw before. Greeks seem to have recognized the cultural influence of the Phoenicians as well as the importance of Crete in the development of what they would call Europe. 

For the ancient Greeks, Europe was their own cultural community, their shared civilization with a balance of power maintained among several mutually politically independent city-states, each ruled according to their free, democratic model. This self-identification with and the notion of a “civilized culture” was contrasted against the other world known to them – Asia (at first, it included also North Africa), which was generally seen as less “civilized” but this varied depending on the peoples and cultures in question. Therefore, the first written mention of Europe is a description of the Greek sphere of influence. It developed into a geographical term with their identity attached to it. This was the broader context that was in place when Thales, our first recorded Greek philosopher, took the stage in Miletus in the 6th century BC. 

We have concluded our time journey and have returned to… well, to the past but a less distant one. Our journey took us through roughly 600 years and showed how complex it is to identify a single clear source of the beginning of a culture, a tradition or a civilization. As we have seen, ancient Greek philosophy came after their traditional myths and religion, which, in turn, were shaped by impacts of, at least partly, non-European origin. To me, this is a valuable example of recognizing how things that appear disconnected on close-up view turn out to be interconnected in webs of mutual influences when viewed from a broader perspective.     

On a final note, I would like to add that all we know about the history of philosophy is available from written records that we have found and have been able to read. In other words, it might be that other, much older cultures and civilizations practised some form of philosophizing but never wrote it down (or, we haven’t found it yet or couldn’t decode it yet). However, if we shift our focus away from pursuing the golden medal for the oldest philosopher on Earth to the value and meaning of the development of a philosophical way of thought as such, one suggestion that I would like to make is that philosophy might be seen as an emerging property of an increasingly complex civilization. 

keep exploring!

Matteis Abduction of Europe, 17th century (4) reference at the end of the article

Image references:

(1) By User:Megistias – Own work data fromGrece Archaice (620-480 Avant J.C.),ISBN 978-960-6709-90-6Blank map from Image:Map greek sanctuaries-fr.svg., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3201392 (my emphasis on Miletus added)

(2) By George Groutas – originally posted to Flickr as Bull-leaping, fresco from the Great Palace at Knossos, Crete, Heraklion Archaeological Museum, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5079969

(3) By Tomisti – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84793658

(4) By Paolo de Matteis – http://www.tygielkultury.eu, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20331782

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

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

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

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

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