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The Origins of Greek Philosophy


Richard Carrier

Copyright 2000

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The earliest civilization that could be called “Greek” was the sophisticated bronze-age empire of Mycenae, an inheritor of the more near-eastern Minoan society that preceded it. The downfall of the Mycenaean culture in 1200 or 1100 B.C.E.–to war, famine, or disease, or some combination thereof–left an ensuing dark age, lasting roughly to 800 B.C.E. In a sense, some event like this was a crucial factor in the dawn of Western philosophy, for to make a radical advance, a catalyst is needed to topple or sever old ways and force the construction of new ones. The Greek Dark Ages allowed a revolution to occur that had not been stirred to success in any other place on Earth before it. But numerous other factors contributed.

The nature of the climate and geography of Greece played a role in developments there. Hovering on the brink of famine at every step, cooperation among communities and neighbors became a necessity. Yet movement on land was hindered by the terrain, and the lack of large river valleys limited the feasibility of monumental irrigation projects, such as contributed to the rise of empires in Egypt, India, China, and Mesopotamia. Instead, the broken terrain and scattered islands led to the development of small, independent communities, widely sharing similar cultural features, such as language and religion, and including a sea-faring mercantile nature and a penchant for small independent farms. Greece also stood in a precarious position on the less-fertile edge of several large empires, while at the same time enjoying access to a huge region of largely-unclaimed wealth in the Western Mediterranean and Black Sea. In order to adapt to this environment and situation, the Greeks evolved into a culture based on cooperation tempered by competition, with reliance on trade more than staple agriculture. Ultimately, due to the dissolution of the Mycenaean command economy, the opportunity eventually arose for the undisturbed inhabitants of the relatively poor and difficult territories of Greece and the Aegean to freely pursue economic recovery on an individual basis.

In the 8th and 7th centuries there was a rise in prosperity. This was due in part to a growing population and the improvement of agriculture, but perhaps facilitated by the relatively inexpensive and rapid trade opportunities created by sea travel over a vast area–for land transport is costlier, while river transport is more limited and more easily monopolized. This prosperity led many of these communities to establish colonies abroad, to enhance trade and relieve excess population, and like the American westward expansion this resulted in a greater leveling of wealth and opportunity than had ever been the case before. For example, it was typical for the landless who joined colonizing expeditions to be apportioned equal lots, and the whole experience supported a simple form of free market competition and abundant opportunity for mercantile success.

In a sense, colonies became a primitive corporate venture, and in modern terms a “middle class” was growing, a class still miles above the majority in wealth and situation, yet substantially lower than the upper class–enough to be practically excluded from it at first–and growing larger by the year. This “middle class” can be defined not so much by an awareness of itself, but by a similar economic situation and shared values: its members were somewhat wealthy, owning their own land and turning enough of a profit to trade, but still dependent upon continued diligence and industry in order to maintain their security. This in turn bred a strong work ethic and a belief in neighborly loyalty, frankness and frugality, as we find in the Works and Days of Hesiod. This stood in contrast to the upper class, who were wealthy enough that they did not have to work apart from managing their estates and enterprises, and had a tendency to think in terms of social superiority and family privilege, the values of an aristocracy–or in contrast with the lower class, still the vast majority, who were enslaved or landless or otherwise barely surviving, and somewhat dependent upon the stability of a government that they had little time or wealth to influence. Though the middle class never reached the proportions witnessed in modern America or many other modern nations, it was arguably larger and more influential in Greece than in any other culture before.

This growth and expansion brought the Greeks into conflict with other civilized cultures, especially the Phoenicians, but also the Egyptians and Assyrians and many others. Distant contacts even went as far as Babylon and India. The need to seek a common identity and sense of community against these foreign competitors drew the Greeks to find more in common with each other. A sense of being “Greek” developed even in the absence of a unified Greek state, and even alongside an internally competitive mindset that kept the various “city-states” at odds or even at war.

At the same time, the prosperous tradesmen and independent small and mid-range farmers demanded more power in the state, and did so sooner than anything like a monarchy could rise again from the ashes of the past. The landed aristocracy were not excluded from the new prosperity and individualism that was dawning in Greece at this time, and they were inspired to consolidate against these interlopers, not by backing kings (except in Sparta and Macedon), but by uniting and sharing control of the government, in effect dividing its functions, decentralizing authority, and, to a limited but still unique extent, allowing the masses to have a greater share of participation in political debates.

The central royal authority extending from a palace center, which typified Mycenae, was replaced by a government of various officials among whom governmental functions, and thus power, was divided. Moreover, these offices were held for short terms–the aristocracy sharing them among each other, often in a kind of rotation. And instead of centering on a royal palace, the new system was centered on the public square, the agora, which had an ancient function as the area where the people were martialed as troops for war, but which had taken on many other public duties–as a marketplace, and as a center of political debates and legal trials.

Government was now more decentralized and public than ever before, an unprecedented innovation. In time, “tyrannies” (unconstitutional governments, usually run by one man or small cadres) were supported in the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.E. by the middle and lower classes, tired of being excluded from power and despised by the aristocrats. These popular tyrants usurped aristocratic power and were followed, sometimes by design and sometimes not, by democracies of various forms all over the Greek territories in the 6th and 5th centuries. What had begun as an aristocratic innovation had toppled into what we now know as democracy, that special invention of the Greeks to whom we owe a great debt.

Greek Warfare

Several other factors served to tip the balance into this new and untried direction, one of which was a fortuitous military innovation. The development of “hoplite” warfare gave a tremendous military advantage to any state that could exploit it. Some plausible arguments, along with archaeological evidence, credits the development to the tyrant Pheidon, who used it to rally the middle class of Argos against Spartan conquerers, bringing about a smashing and unexpected defeat at Hysiae in 669 B.C.E. After this, the Spartans rapidly adopted and mastered the system themselves, and other city-states were quick to follow suit–such a military advantage could not go unexploited, and the opportunities it afforded for the rising middle class (to acquire significant power in the state) ensured their interest.

In essence, the hoplite system involved the combination of uniquely Greek (and expensive) heavy armaments–large heavy spear and shield, heavy breastplate, backplate, helmet, arms and greaves–with the old Assyrian method of disciplined formation fighting. Fighting in close-knit formations with interlocking shields, used as a wall over which to stab at the enemy, the whole line moving and maneuvering in unison, was as potent a development as the tank would be in the early 20th century. But it required disciplined, trained, relatively well-to-do soldiers. That meant it was limited to states with a middle class large enough to be fielded as an army, since it was only they who both could and would outfit and train themselves in the expensive arms, and maintain their equipment over their lifetime. Their economic superiors could, and often did, participate in this process, but they tended to spend their wealth instead on horses, a better option in both attack and retreat. Moreover, it was largely the middle class who was eager to spend the years of training, and share the necessary bonds of mutual unit loyalty, to make the highly-disciplined hoplite formation work. The rich were usually too few to become an effective phalanx on their own.

As a result, only Greece mastered this powerful military technology (until, of course, the Macedonians and then the Romans improved upon it). This gave more power to the middle class: it organized them in close-knit groups, fostered (if not required) the proliferation of middle class values of loyalty and neighborliness and community spirit, and rendered the aristocracy dependent on the small landholders–the more so in constricted terrains such as that of Attica and the Pelopponesus, and the mountainous coasts of Ionia, where cavalry were less decisive in battle, in contrast with more open terrains such as that of Thessaly and lower Macedonia, where aristocracies tended to endure. It is perhaps a truism that when the army holds the real power in the state, and is sufficiently independent and organized, it is all but impossible not to grant concessions to its members, and the rise of the “citizen soldier” contributed significantly to the popularization of Greek government. This radical social and political development naturally contributed to new ways of thinking.

Greek Identity

The break with the divine kingship system of the Mycenaean period allowed the Greeks to assert a cultural distinction, a unique identity separate from other, competing groups like the Syrians, Lydians, Persians, Egyptians, and Phoenicians (collectively referred to here as “Asians”), and also in effect with their own forgotten past. And this striving to mark themselves as different, aided by several other factors described above, led several contrasts to be emphasized. Though these features all had their own separate causes, the Greek search for a cultural identity resulted in these features being emphasized, celebrated, and strengthened.

The Greeks saw these distinctions in a particular way: Asians were supposed to have divine kings and be slaves, but Greeks were supposed to be free and equal; Asian politics centered on the unquestionable commands of the king, but Greek politics centered on public debate in the marketplace; Asian worldviews tended to justify the king’s divine right to rule and were enforced from above, ending and suppressing all argument, but Greek worldviews tended to justify equality, individuality and the idea of the commonwealth, and they were not enforced by any authority but the people, who were largely free to vary and differ, producing open argument; Asian worldviews tended toward hierarchy (even the Greek pantheon, older than the new Greek cultural phenomena, retained echoes of this), but Greek worldviews tended toward notions of a division of powers, and thus equilibrium, symmetry, equality of elements.

The effect of this on intellectual culture is easy enough to see. If Asian beliefs appealed to the gods through the king, Greek beliefs had to appeal to the natural order through individual observation, and if Asian beliefs appealed to tradition, Greek beliefs had to appeal to justification from evidence and from principles of reason, for there was no longer any centralized authority among the Greeks, who were awash in many competing claims. These distinctions, of course, are merely idealizations. The truth often drifted away from these ideals in practice, but they were real enough to send Greek culture on a peculiar path.

All this was catalyzed by other cultural developments, such as colonization. Individualism and competition, in the concepts of trade and land-division, stood in contrast to the Asian system where aristocrats and the king controlled and regulated all trade and owned almost all the land. As Hesiod describes in Works and Days (25-6), the Greek ideal was a world of free and open competition and contest, and this ideal was reflected in the popularity of the distinctive Hellenic games (such as the original Olympics), poetry and drama contests, and even political debate and rivalry, which were more often accepted as ordinary and beneficial rather than rebellious or catastrophic. This led to the seeming contradiction of Panhellenism, a self-recognized unity of Greek cultural identity, being found side-by-side with often-violent rivalry and political independence. In a sense, this notion of individualism and competition can only truly thrive in tandem with some notion of equality and liberty, so these ideals became mutually supportive in the minds and actions of the Greeks. This, too, became an important contributor to the distinct Greek mindset.

Greek Writing

There was another essential technological development thrown into this mixing pot, one that gelled and spread these developments more effectively still: the alphabet. The invention of vowels, the one unique development added by the Greeks to what was otherwise the borrowed syllabary of the Phoenicians, allowed their language to be written and understood without specialization. In the past, all writing was very difficult to read. Any one series of symbols (usually representing whole syllables) could represent a number of possible words, and the number of symbols was also large. The outcome was that writing could only easily be read by experts and specialists. Accountants would not have an easy time reading what engineers wrote, and vice versa. Mastering the skill of reading in many fields took time and thus wealth, which could have been spent on broader learning. But with the Greek system, a small set of simple symbols, each with generally one and only one sound, made it possible for any literate person to read anything with relative ease.

This allowed a literate culture to spread universally among wealthier classes, and a great many more could probably read simple inscriptions and clearly written text. Though reading books or documents would still require some skill in reading handwriting, and writing itself was as difficult as always, the bare basics of the Greek alphabet could be relatively easily learned. And this was crucial to the rise of Greek culture, especially in the fields of science and philosophy, but also in poetry and prose–particularly history–since now knowledge could be read and shared widely throughout an entire class, and often beyond. However, oral culture was not dead. Instead, it was facilitated by the ability to read written texts out loud, requiring less time and expertise than memorization and thus allowing recitals to become more common. This was equivalent in significance to the contribution the printing press had upon the development of science and knowledge during the Renaissance, although the degree of the effect was not nearly as great. And though the means for disseminating knowledge were advanced by the alphabet, this advantage was not always as ably exploited as it could have been. Moreover, books remained extremely expensive, as they had to be copied by hand onto material (papyrus) that was very hard to come by. Nevertheless, it is hard not to see something of a contributing effect.

Since knowledge from multiple fields could now be shared widely this way, at least among those who had the time and inclination to explore them, philosophers could develop a wider acquaintance with many areas of knowledge, and read and debate each other’s ideas even when separated by distance or time. The first philosophers did not yet have at hand a great many books, since the new medium was first used for the dissemination of mythology or traditional lore, but the first philosophers used this new medium to challenge these traditions. Once in print, their challenges were much harder for later generations to forget or ignore.

The first philosophers can also be contrasted with equivalent men in other cultures. In Asian civilizations such thinkers were generally employed by the aristocracy to educate their children in traditional ways, or to maintain priesthoods in orthodox religions. They were not encouraged to think on their own (even when they did), and they were generally not intellectually independent, as the free landholders of Greece were. There was no way to punish a philosopher for criticizing Homer, no king or church to threaten or influence skeptics. And while the Asian cultures thrived by holding on to traditions and reinforcing them, the Greeks thrived on experimentation and variation, having all but lost their traditions in the Greek Dark Age, and then been upheaved by numerous other radical developments, surveyed above, that demanded some new response. Forced in a sense to start over, to adjust, now free to diverge and debate, it happened: well-educated, wealthy, at leisure and at liberty, at the nexus of a dozen different cultures to draw ideas from, or contrast oneself with, the Greeks found themselves in a position perhaps never known by mankind before their time, and rarely known since.

Greek Society

In the meantime, as aristocratic and middle-class values of loyalty to the state and other moral norms were pressed further and further, to bring about order and direction, and to protect the interests of the landed, there arose a Lyric counterculture, an explosion of a provocative and popular brand of music, somewhat akin to the Rock-and-Roll counterculture of the modern age. People began to question ethical norms, myths, legends, ideals. This created a need for intellectuals to replace the criticized myths and norms with something else that could be justified on its own, defended against those who would attack it. Since there was no effective political authority to compel the populace to accept an orthodoxy, it followed that persuasion–and thus an appeal to what can be commonly observed and agreed upon, an appeal to logic and empirical facts–had to be the basis of any new claim to intellectual authority.

In the meantime, with a dominant politics of public debate, speech became a crucial tool. It was the vehicle of authority. Well-mastered, it could be easier and more effective than force. And those who would influence society could not rely on swaying a single king or aristocrat but had to appeal to a wider, often divergent and competing group. Thus, rhetoric and logic became arts to be mastered, and this in turn gave rise to serious questions of truth and fact. Whereas in other civilizations this could be checked from above by authoritative declarations by those who controlled all the real knowledge in the state–and who had institutions and resources in place to use force effectively to ensure it stayed that way–in Greece knowledge had become public: what were once palace epic songs became sung or acted in theatres open to all people; literate men retained private, independent land-interests of their own, while rotating through many public offices, giving them wide experience and interests beyond the narrow specializations that dominated in palace systems, and then they often returned to private life. This was also echoed in the writing and inscribing of laws. Information was becoming public, no longer the private prerogative of a king or aristocracy, or priestly caste.

The rise of middle class and democratic thought and values, combined with a democratization of knowledge and inquiry, and the resulting need for logic, science, and debate, led to the dawn of empiricism, and the origin of philosophy and science. With this climate in mind, we shall begin the next installment with the Presocratics, the first philosophers, who came before Socrates.


J. Bryant, Moral Codes and Social Structure in Ancient Greece: a Sociology of Greek Ethics from Homer to the Epicureans and Stoics (1996).

A.R. Burn, The Penguin History of Greece: From the Neolithic Pioneers to the Closing of Athens’s Philosophic Schools (1990).

Richard Buxton, ed., From Myth to Reason: Studies in the Development of Greek Thought (1999).

Alan Cromer, Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science (1993).

Jeffrey Hurwit, The Art and Culture of Early Greece: 1100–480 B.C. (1985).

Sarah Pomeroy, et al., Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History (1999).

Anthony Snodgrass, Archaic Greece: The Age of Experiment (1980).

J.-P. Vernant, Origins of Greek Thought (1982).

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