Greek Philosophy 1: The Origins of Ancient Greece

The Origins of Ancient Greece in the Context of the Ancient World


Cosmology is the word used to describe the philosophy, science and religion of the ancient world when such subjects were not as separate and specialized as they are today.  The cosmology of the ancient world was dominated by the astronomy and astrology of the Babylonians and later Persians and Egyptians.  Their understandings spread along trade lines across the interconnected ancient world, forming a background for the thought of not only ancient Greece and Rome but also of India and China.

babylon gatesBy observing the stars and recording regular patterns of the skies and earth, it was thought that the cosmos worked according to regular principles and that knowing these principles and patterns gave power and control.  Aristotle speaks of the Babylonians, who devoted much time and energy to the study of the stars, as the major source of this cosmological science.  The sun was identified with either a central father god or son of the father god, planets were identified with major gods, and stars with minor gods and spirits.  We still use the major Roman gods to name the planets today.  In addition, we still use the 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes to an hour and 360 degrees in a circle from the base 6 Babylonian numerical system used along with Babylonian sundials.

Tigris_River_At_DiyarbakirMuch mythology of the ancient world, including the earliest traditions of the Greeks and Israelites, are allegorical metaphors for the processes of the cosmos.  As the city states of ancient Greece rose and became more powerful centers of culture and trade, earlier Greek polytheistic mythology was brought into line with the increasingly monotheistic cosmologies of the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile valleys.  This paved the way for Greek and Roman Christianity, which then became the dominant culture of Europe.  The golden age of Greek philosophy, which we study in this class, is central to this transformation.  Most Greek philosophers were moving away from the earlier traditions of Homer and Hesiod while remaining polytheistic, and then Plato and Aristotle, who were also polytheists of an increasingly abstract solar monotheistic bent, became central philosophers of Christianity and thus the European tradition.

babylonian_worldModern science is indebted not only to the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks, but also to Muslims, who began to surpass Aristotle in understanding and observing nature with the invention of algebra.  By using algebra to code-break nature, the sciences surpassed earlier ancient cosmology in the Islamic Golden Age (around 800 to 1200 CE), and from there went on to find another golden age in the Italian Renaissance.  Thus, while many say that it was the ancient Greeks and particularly Aristotle who started the sciences, it is more correct to say that first were the Babylonians (as far as systems of writing reveal), then the Egyptians, then the Greeks and Aristotle, then the Muslims, then the Renaissance, and finally modern Europe, each building on and surpassing the previous culture.  In fact, we do get much from cultures not mentioned in this lineage (such as prehistoric Africa, ancient China, ancient India and the Americas) but we are concerned here with the complex relationship between ancient Greece and our modern society.

Anu Temple Babylon

In ancient world cosmology, the cosmos was seen as a stack of elements from lightest above to heaviest downward, an order still carried today in the periodic table.  If one looks out into nature, one sees water, on top of which is earth, on top of which is air, on top of which float fiery lights such as the sun, moon and stars.  Just as the lights move in circles above, so too do the complex situations of plants, animals and people move in cycles below, often corresponding to the seasons which correspond to the positions of the lights above.  The Babylonians and Assyrians of the Tigris-Euphrates valley believed that the sky god Anu, earth god Enlil and water god Ea were a primary trinity of deities presiding over the order of the cosmos.  When the elements of the cosmos are in order, harmony prevails.  When they fall out of order, chaos prevails.

Babylonian Chaos and Sun God

cosmologyIn addition, the cosmos was understood to be shaped like a great person, and the elements/levels of the cosmos corresponded to the levels/faculties of a human individual.  Fire was identified with mind and sight, air with speech/breath/emotion, earth with stomach/desire, and water with lower regions and functions associated with desires and chaos.  In Plato’s Republic, possibly the most famous work of ancient Greek philosophy, we are told that the levels of a human individual (desire, emotion and mind) correspond to the levels of society (workers, guardians and philosophers) and the levels of the cosmos (earth, air and fire).  Plato argues that just as the mind rules over emotion which rules over desire in the best individual, philosophers rule over guardians who rule over workers in the best society.

aristotle-platoBoth Plato and Aristotle argue against other Greek thinkers who do not believe in the divinity of the stars and elements, accusing them of atheism.  Both of them viewed the cosmos as an intelligent, purposeful organism composed of other intelligences.  This placed them between the early Greek polytheists and later Greek monotheists, as previously mentioned.

jupiter with thunder boltIt is interesting to consider that the ancient Greeks considered ideas and theories to be god-like visions or views (hence the ‘theo’ in ‘theory’).  To have a theory or view of fire was to share fires own view of itself, to rise into a higher view of fires just as an individual rises into a higher view of reality by climbing a mountain or rising into a higher level of authority and ability in an institution.  The ideas and views that human beings have were understood to be alive and independent and waiting to share themselves.  The cosmos is ordered because the cosmos is itself reasonable.

The Influence of Ancient Egypt on the Greeks

Egyptian Pharaoh StatueWhile astronomy and cosmology comes originally from the Tigris-Euphrates, the ancient Egyptians had a tremendous impact on the thought and culture of ancient Greece.  It should also be noted that sub-Saharan Africa is the original home of humanity, culture, civilization and technology, such that African civilization, including thousands of years of Egyptian civilization, is possibly the most influential in all of human history.  Just as Babylonian cosmology affected an interconnected humanity from Ireland to China, so too do we find parallels between Egyptian mythology and myths from around the world.  Consider that the Egyptian and Tibetan books of the dead are strikingly similar.

egyptian couple senejem and wifeEgypt is often thought to have been a brutal slave driving civilization, compared to democratic Greece.  This results from the Book of Exodus of the Old Testament and the very recent celebration of Greece as the birthplace of true politics and democracy.  However, everyone in Egypt did not obey the Pharaoh without question.  There were cycles of regional and central control in the thousands of years of Egyptian civilization, sometimes with regions having more autonomy and others with central Pharaoh control.  The central power of the Pharaoh was challenged by other powerful regional lords, and so both the Pharaoh and lords had to appeal to the people and please them with rights and charity to get their support against the other.  Egypt had a complex society with many competing powers, popular uprisings were common and bureaucracy of scribes and viziers provided modestly positioned people with opportunities for upward class mobility.

All Giza PyramidsEgyptians, like Muslims, often portrayed as intolerant and monolithic but had the best diverse marketplaces in their times with many foreigners, creating a rich culture.  Consider that there are Indian statues, some argue Buddhas, found in Alexandria around 300 BCE.  Alexandria was made the capital of Alexander’s empire after he conquered Egypt, and it, not Athens, became the greatest center of learning for hundreds of years.  Egypt treated women better, giving them more rights and acceptance, than the Greek city states, though admittedly it could not be called a culture of gender equality.  In one of my favorite passages of Egyptian wisdom, we are warned that we should provide for our women and value them, though never go to court with them, or let them take over your house.  Women did not have the right to speak in courts of law in Athens, but they could in Egypt.

hl-ancient-egypt-board-gamesGreece also had a higher percentage of slaves in the population compared to Egypt and most other ancient civilizations, quite high even in Athens during the brief period of democracy.  Greeks were less tolerant of foreigners, giving them less rights and treating them with suspicion.  They were even intolerant towards Greeks from other Greek city states.  Aristotle was viewed as a foreigner in Athens, had no rights or ability to become a citizen.  Alexander was the first to unify Greece as a land beyond a common culture, and of course Alexander united it together with other non-Greek lands such as Egypt and Persia in his brief empire.  Alexander, interestingly, was Macedonian, and he is proudly claimed by Greeks today even though Macedonians (as well as Turks, the other half of ancient Greece) are discriminated against and denied immigration.

Egyptian Medicine PapyrusEgyptian scholarship and study was incredible for thousands of years.  Egypt was the place to seek education for Greek elites, and even in the greatest times of Athens many prominent Greeks such as Euclid and Pythagoras went to Egypt to become educated at the greatest centers of knowledge of their time.  Greeks clearly borrowed from Egyptian math, medicine, technology, use of chemicals and minerals, and study of animals and plants.  Our word ‘Chemistry’ means ‘Egypt Study’, as it comes from the Egyptian word for Egypt, ‘Kemer’, which means ‘The Dark/Black/Rich Land’ after the black Nile soil.  Consider that the Egyptians were the preferred doctors of the Romans in the beginning of the Roman empire, but were replaced by Greek doctors toward its end.  The Egyptians were also the best at math and geometry, which they not only understood abstractly but used for the purposes of building the largest monuments of their day.  Much of cosmology that sets the background for Greek philosophy comes from building things, such as the pyramids (top lightest, balance of opposites, aligning lowest and highest elements).

Egyptian PriestsPlato, a big fan of Egyptian education and hierarchy, says in his Republic (as Socrates) that his ideal state, which is designed for producing intellectual philosophers and placing them on top of society, is the same as the Egyptians.  Thus, Plato believed that Egypt was the most rational and beneficial society, that the Egyptian priests were comparable to Greek philosophers in their pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, and that Athens should copy Egypt.   Critics of Plato and his Republic at the time mocked Plato for ripping off Egypt.  In his Phaedrus, Plato (again, as Socrates) says that Thoth, the Egyptian god of knowledge, invented math, language and science.  Aristotle, like his teacher Plato, believed that Egypt was the most ancient of societies, was the birthplace of math and science, and that this was because the Egyptians had set the priests as a caste above everyone allowing them the leisure to study and discover.  While Aristotle was critical of parts of Plato’s theoretical republic, on this, the central defining and ruling structure of society, they are in complete agreement, as we will see when studying Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s politics.

thothThe Egyptians were excellent and influential in art and sculpture.  Some believe that Egyptian performances of heroic and tragic tales inspired the comedies and tragedies of Greek Drama.  While the Greeks, who were first known in the ancient world as excellent mercenaries and sculptors before they rose considerably in wealth and power, were indeed phenomenal at carving the human form, we can see that this in part comes from thousands of years of the Egyptians slowly developing sculpture in a more human, complex way from earlier representations.  One famous example is Akhenaten lounging with family, compared to more rigid formal human forms of earlier periods.  The world’s first colossal statues were Egyptian, and the celebrated Greek styles of columns derive from similar Egyptian styles.

HerodotosHerodotus, wrongly called the ‘Father of History’, as other ancient Greek historians before him, wrote that the Egyptians colonized areas of Greece in the centuries before its golden age.  While this is disputed by scholars today, it was widely believed by the ancient Greeks themselves.

The Influence of Ancient Persia

Persia conquered Egypt in 525 BCE.  Before that, in the centuries just before the flourishing of ancient Greece and the compiling of the Old Testament, Egypt and Persia were fighting over alliances with and conquests of Greece and Israel.  The Persian Empire stretched from Greece to India, encompassing the crossroads of most of the world’s culture and trade.  Persian culture had a massive effect on everyday Greek life.  Persian dress and adornments were copied, as well as styles of plates and cups.  Greek warriors would even curl their hair like the Assyrians and Persians before battle to inspire awe.  Athenian nobles often had ties to Persia that including intermarriage and business ventures.

Persian Emptire

Phoenicia, a civilization in what is today Lebanon that was a powerful trade center before the rise of Persia, became a vital part of the Persian empire after their conquest.  The Phoenician navy was the most feared part of the Persian military.  We not only get the legend of the Phoenix, the bird that is reborn by fire, from Phoenicia, but also the Phoenician alphabet, the ancestor of the Greek alphabet and the Roman-European alphabet we use here today.  The finest togas worn in Athens were made of Asian silks, brought over the silk road to Phoenicia, where it was there patterned and died.  Far from being white bedsheets, Athenian nobles would show off by wearing the finest Phoenician cloth in the latest styles.

cyrusCyrus, the first Persian great emperor, was venerated by many Greeks as a model king who benefited his subjects and helped them to flourish unlike a greedy tyrant.  Cyrus is also presented as the first messiah in the Old Testament, the liberator of the Jews from Babylon.  The New Testament, originally written in Greek, clearly presenting Jesus as the second, confirmed by the three Persian maji following the stars, and then later predicts an apocalyptic third messiah.  This puts the Bible in line with Persian Zoroastrianism, the world’s first great solar monotheism, spread by Cyrus’ empire, which predicted three Saoshyants (Messiah in Hebrew), who would lead the forces of good to triumph over the forces of darkness.  Regardless of one’s beliefs, the Jews and Christians presented themselves as in agreement with Zoroastrianism (for Christians, as its fulfillment) during periods of Persian influence.  Christianity first spread in Syria and Greece, and from there to Rome, Egypt and elsewhere.  Unlike Cyrus, the Greeks were not known as benevolent conquerors.  In the brief period of Athenian empire,  several states including Cyprus rebelled and appealed to Persia as they had been treated better by the Persian empire.

Persian Zigurat

The Idea of the West

FicinoSadly, Europeans believed that the Egyptians and Persians were the great teachers of wisdom and philosophy to the Greeks for two thousand years after the golden age of Greek philosophy.  In the Renaissance, the two greatest philosophers, Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, both Neo-Platonists, believed that there was one true philosophy which was passed from the Egyptian priests and Persian maji to the Greek philosophers and Indian sages, and then that this wisdom was incarnated on earth as Jesus.  The Neo-Platonic academy of Florence, center of Renaissance art and philosophy, was modeled on Plato’s Republic under the assumption that this was a recreation of ancient Egyptian institutions.

Aristotle German PrintIt was only when Europe rose in power and wealth in the late 1600s and spoke of itself as unique and like no other culture on earth in terms of reason and freedom that the ancient Greeks were similarly said to be unique in reason and freedom and separate from the rest of the ancient world.  The idea that ‘The West’ is a unique and separate culture beginning in ancient Athens and resulting in the power of European nations today is clearly dominant in American and European scholarship.  This can be seen by reading the first paragraphs of most history and science textbooks.

barthes mythologiesRoland Barthes, the french literary critic and theorist, warns us in his book Mythologies that we must beware of the modern mythology of History with a capital ‘H’ and Science with a capital ‘S’.  Our modern Greek mythology, not to be confused with the ancient Greek mythology we will be discussing next week, would have astounded the ancient Greeks themselves.  Considering the overwhelming majority of ancient Greek slaves came from the Germanic and Celtic tribes of Europe, and were considered a race of people incapable of reason and thus incapable of freedom, it would have astounded Plato and Aristotle to hear Europeans today say that the ancient Greeks invented civilization and that the Europeans receive civilization as their descendants.

4 thoughts on “Greek Philosophy 1: The Origins of Ancient Greece

  1. ModWestMuse

    Great overview and discussion. 🙂

    It would be useful if you provided a brief ‘Further Reading’ section. But thanks. (Incidentally, is there a core book you would recommend, specifically concerning the indebtedness of the Ancient Greeks to the Ancient Egyptians, Persians / Babylonians? Cheers.)


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