Greek Philosophy 2: Identity, Mythology & Tragedy

What Is Philosophy?

Arabic Aristotle

Before examining Greek Poetry, Mythology and Tragedy as the precursors to Greek philosophy, we should discuss what philosophy itself is.

Human thought, and thus the human world, is dominated by pairs of opposites. It is often useful to think of these opposites in terms of positive and negative. Good is positive, while bad is negative. Happy is positive, while sad is negative. Being is positive, while non-being is negative. Full is positive, while empty is negative.  Notice that “positive” does not always mean happy or good and “negative” does not always mean sad or bad. When we say “order” and “chaos”, closure (stability) sounds good and openness (instability) sounds bad. However, when we say “freedom” and “restraint”, openness (unconstrained) sounds good and closure (constrained) sounds bad. When we want stability or order, openness is bad (“chaos”). When we want to be free and unconstrained, openness is good (“freedom”). A person, place or thing can be positive in some ways and negative in others. It depends on context, position and location.


Human belief/judgment has its own special pairs of opposites. The most basic is belief (positive) and doubt (negative).  Belief is an answer or answering, and doubt is a question or questioning. In politics, conservatives lean towards believing and affirming the institution (often looking to the stability and consistency of the past) while progressives lean towards doubting and questioning the institution (often looking to the openness and change of the future). In systems of thought, dogmatists lean towards answers and affirming the truths of the system (“There are certain facts, morals and truths.”) while skeptics lean towards questions and doubting the truths of the system (“Are there ever absolute certainties, facts, morals or truths?”).  According to Hegel, one of my favorite philosophers, human thought is an endless battle between dogmatism and skepticism. This battle is also a symbiotic evolution requiring both sides.  Questioning and answering, believing and doubting, work together by working against one another.

Thomas Kuhn

When we look at the history of human thought, from its origins in shamanism to its evolution and specialization with religion, philosophy, art and science, we can see that both dogmatism and skepticism play necessary roles. Without a base that is assumed and unquestioned, nothing new can be produced. However, without reaching for the new and questioning the old there is no growth to improve and fit new circumstances. The great thinkers in human thought, across all systems, incorporate the old while bringing us the new. Often they are called heretics in their time and only canonized after they are safely dead because they have to question the very system that they stand for.


Many unfortunately believe that philosophy was born in ancient Greece, when in fact wisdom is universal to human kind even though it is difficult to achieve.  The wise, though rarer than we would like, have been celebrated in all cultures, and their wisdom is similar across all cultures even though beliefs differ widely.  While the word ‘philosophy’ is an ancient Greek word meaning “love (philo) of wisdom (sophos)”, great thinkers and questioners can be called philosophers and sages in any culture.

Heraclitus sad painting

It should also be mentioned that philosophers were not welcome in ancient Greece as they questioned the ways of things (traditional polytheism) and as such Socrates was put to death for “inciting the youth to riot”, Aristotle was chased out of Athens after the death of his student Alexander (a foreign Macedonian who conquered Athens by the sword, Aristotle being an unwelcome foreigner from Strageira in Athens himself), and Heraclitus, my favorite Greek philosopher, complains that his city state Ephesus exiled their best thinker for questioning things and it would be best if all Ephesians went and hanged themselves to leave the city in the abler hands of children.


Philosophy has been called “thinking about thinking”, questioning and answering the very process of questioning and answering itself. The ancient Greek philosophers (such as Heraclitus, Socrates and Plato, who we will study) critically examined their own thinking and their traditions of thought and brought new answers by questioning the human mind and society. While these Greek thinkers should be read and admired, they were not the first or only ancient thinkers to ask abstract questions about thought itself.

If “philosophy” means “love of wisdom”, then what is wisdom?  The German philosophers Kant and Hegel tell us that there are dueling parts of our individual mind that fight and cooperate on the individual level just as dogmatism and skepticism fight and cooperate on the social level. These two parts are understanding and reason, and these correspond to knowledge and wisdom. Understanding tries to hold things set and steady (the conservative force) while reason tries to challenge and rearrange things (the progressive force). Knowledge is a set understanding, while wisdom is the ability to reason. All systems of thought use both understanding and reason to produce both knowledge (set answers) and wisdom (the ability to find new or contradictory answers, which requires deep questioning).

Miguel Leon Portilla Aztec Thought and CultureThe Greek philosophers were known for wisdom, for questioning the ways that individuals and societies can have knowledge, beliefs and answers. Were the Greeks the first or only ancient people to have philosophers? In Miguel Leon-Portilla’s book Aztec Thought and Culture, he argues that the Aztec and Mayan poets questioned their societies and systems of knowledge, asking open ended questions such as “Do we know the gods exist?”, “Is there an afterlife, like the ancestors said there is?”, and “Can we ever know these things?”. Indeed, when we look at ancient cultures we find both questioning and answering, knowledge as well as wisdom, in ancient Greece and ancient everywhere else. No society would survive without pushing in both directions.  Systems of thought are always sites of disagreement as much as they are of agreement.

Mayan PaintingRecently, the Attorney General of Arizona crafted legislation against teachers who provide programs celebrating Latino culture as they are dangerously “anti-Western”, and pointed specifically to teaching that Aztecs and Mayans had philosophers as Leon-Pontilla argues.  Apparently, it is biased and thus un-Western to teach that concepts such as “you are my other self” (much like Confucius) and “continue to investigate things endlessly” (much like Heraclitus, who we will study) is evidence that the Aztecs and Mayans had philosophy.  It is perceived as a threat to American culture to equate the ancient Mayans with the ancient Greeks.  It is not just the Attorney General who thinks this, but academics with PhDs who continue to provide the ground for this belief in their publications.

tribe mother and childThe most primitive societies value individual achievement, which often becomes the subject of legend and mythology.  It is difficult and frightening to oppose common opinion, but worth it.  While many think that Western thought is more individual and free than other traditions, arguments over the meaning of common knowledge and traditions are found everywhere.  In the logic class, we read a text by anthropologist Malinowski who studied the tribes of Papua, New Guinea in the 1940s.  He asks, “Are primitive people logical?”, and he argues that they are.  Human language typically has words for ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘if-then’, and all the operations of ancient Greek, ancient Indian, and modern European logic.  He gives an excellent example of a tribesman tripping and falling, accusing an evil spirit of causing it, and his fellow tribes-people rebuking him and saying that he is merely clumsy.

Paul Radin Primitive Man as PhilosopherAnother anthropologist, Radin, notes in his book Primitive Man as Philosopher that if you bring tribal elders together to discuss the myths of their tribe, they will each tell a slightly different version of each story and even when they tell the same version they argue over its interpretation.  Some such as Barthes and Latour argue that it is modern people such as ourselves who are unwise enough to think that there is simple objective truth without perspective and interpretation, as tribal people know all too well that the version of history their uncle tells them is as good as meaning gets, while modernity gives us institutions that, while still all too human, are monolithic and difficult for the average person to question.  Perhaps it is more that it is difficult for human beings to question traditions and institutions, but they inevitably question anyways, and so value the wisdom of those who can see the counterintuitive beyond the intuitive, the deeper truths beyond the surface.

Who Were The Greeks?

The mythology and history of ancient Greece, like that of other ancient cultures such as the Indians and the Mayans, was recorded in poetry and song.  As mentioned last time, it was only with Alexander and his brief empire that the city states of ancient Greece were united as a single state, though they shared a common language and tradition for centuries before.  The two largest ethnic groups were the Ionians (of the Turkish eastern half of ancient Greece) and the Dorians (of the western half, what is today the modern European nation of Greece).  There was a genealogical myth shared by these and other groups of a King Helen who had three sons (Aiolos, Doros & Xouthos) whose descendants became the tribes of interrelated but distinct ancient Greeks.  This is very similar to the Old Testament narrative of Noah, whose three sons repopulated the world after the great flood.  Both stories explain the diversity of human ethnicities and cultures by way of a single family of origin.

Ancient Greece Map

As a side note, Nazi historians along with other Europeans theorized that a Germanic invasion of the Dorian lands was the ethnic spark that gave birth to Athens and the West, giving European civilization a Germanic Western European origin, the so-called ‘Dorian Invasion’ theory.

Greek Persian plate

A Greek depiction of a Persian on the left and Greek on the right dueling in combat. Note the similar features both share, compared to modern depictions like in the movie The 300.

While Alexander was the first to bring the city states together as one political entity, much of ancient Greece was brought together with a common purpose during the fifty years of the Greco-Persian War (499  – 449 BCE), just as ancient Greece was beginning to rise and a hundred years before Alexander’s empire.  Cyrus, emperor of Persia mentioned last time, conquered Ionia in 547 BCE, but the Ionians revolted fifty years later with support from the Dorians and others.  The center of the rebellion was Miletus, near the modern day Turkish city of Anatolia, the home of the first Greek philosophers (Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, known as the Milesian School).  Darius, son of Cyrus and heir to the Persian Empire, sought to secure Ionia and then attack Athens and other city states that supported the Ionian rebellion.  In 490 BCE, the Persians were defeated at the battle of Marathon.  While Darius’ son Xerxes succeeded in overrunning all of Greece ten years later, the Persians were eventually expelled and the city states formed the Delian League with Athens as a leading member.  After Ionia was freed from Persian rule, a treaty between Athens and Persia brought an end to the wars.  It was at this time that Athens rose to wealth and power, and it had it’s period of great thinkers at home and traveling in from abroad.

HerodotusHerodotus, who grew up during this period, noted that the Persians did not build statues of gods when they conquered a place, as they did not have anthropomorphic gods.  Last time it was mentioned that Persian Zoroastrian monotheism was influential on the ancient Greek philosophers, pushing them to abstract beyond their common tradition of polytheistic gods.  In another parallel with Islam, European Protestant Christianity was influenced by Islamic art in the centuries following the crusades.  As Muslim armies made inroads into Europe, the Europeans wondered why Islam was so successful.  Turning to the Bible, reading that God uses foreign enemies to punish his people for doing wrong, and he punished the Israelites for worshiping idols as images, the Iconoclasts of Europe (the origin of the term, which today denotes those who go against the ways of things) ditched the statues of saints and other icons to be more like the successful Muslims who avoided images of saints and preferred to represent God and the order of nature through abstract geometric patterns.  These Iconoclasts paved the way for the Protestant reformation.  In both ancient Greece and medieval Europe, we see an imitation of an intimidating enemy that results in abstraction, seeking truth in a form deeper than immediate appearances.

Miletus Greek Theater

Freedom and Ancient Greece

Much has been made of Greek freedom.  The freedom of the ancient Greeks is often celebrated as the origin of Greek philosophy and the distinct culture of ‘The West’.  The theory is that the ancient Greeks were a culture that appreciated freedom, which led Greek philosophers to be independently individual in their free reasoning, which created a culture that was distinct from the rest of the ancient world in terms of freedom and reason, which led to later European distinction in science and philosophy.  As the Greeks repelled the Persians, at the time they were rising in power and wealth, much was said and written about the Greeks sharing a sense of freedom and autonomy.

braveheart battleThis was not freedom for individuality, but political freedom of the city states, both from Persia and from each other.  Socrates was killed in Athens for leading the youth astray from the traditional understanding of the gods.  There are similar parallels with struggles in later Europe and the American Revolution.  In the movie Braveheart, when William Wallace (played by a blue-painted Mel Gibson) famously yells, “They will take our lives, but they will never take OUR FREEDOM!”, he does not mean individual rights and liberties, but rather that the common people should be owned and controlled by the local Scottish noble lords, and not the noble lords of England.

founding fathers AmericaDuring the American Revolution, the colonies wanted freedom from Britain and each other, but they did not want freedom for their slaves any more than the ancient Greeks did.  The Bill of Rights originally did not grant freedom of speech, religion or gun ownership to individual citizens, but prevented the federal government from limiting the state’s rights to limit their own individual citizens.  Several states had particular denominations of Protestant Christianity as their official state religions, because the federal government could not limit their ability to practice a collective religious freedom that limited individual religious freedom.  One British lawmaker wrote a rebuttal to the Declaration of Independence, arguing that the American slave-masters had no right to speak of appreciating liberty or standing for freedom.  British spies circulated rumors among slave plantations that the British would free the slaves if the slaves revolted and sided with the British against the revolution, which was likely mere propaganda rather than a sincere political promise.

tell me another story about freedom bald eagleToday American conservatives argue that limiting the freedom of religious groups and business interests is anti-freedom and therefore un-American, while progressives argue that religious groups should not have the freedom of state-sanctioned proselytizing, and corporations should not have the freedom to change laws and precedents, as both limit the freedom of individuals to challenge their dominance.  If a teacher has the freedom to lead a classroom in prayer, this limits the freedom of individuals who wish to pray differently or not pray at all.  If a corporation has the freedom to change laws or affect which laws are enforced, this limits the freedom of individuals who are harmed or seek to prevent harm by that corporation.

cakeIn sum, while the ancient Greeks did appreciate a particular freedom from Persia, what was freedom for some was slavery for others.  If I have the freedom to eat as much of a cake as I want, this prevents anyone else from having any cake and thus this same freedom to have cake.  As Heraclitus argues, what is good for one can be bad for another, such as salt water being poisonous to us but drinkable for fish.  Considering that the freedom of first-world consumerism is bought at the price of third-world indentured servitude (the debt and control not by accident but by design), the freedom of ‘The West’ is its opposite for others.

The Ancient Greek Poets & Epics

Homer bustThe two poets Homer and Hesiod, both of whom are thought to have lived and composed the great Greek epics about 700 BCE, are two of the central sources from which the ancient Greeks drew a common cultural tradition.  Homer is said by most ancient sources to have been Ionian but by some to have been Babylonian.  He is the great original Greek poet/historian, followed by Hesiod who many consider to be an inferior imitator.  Homer wrote the Iliad, the story of Achilles and the Trojan War, and the Odyssey, the story of Odysseus or Ulysses’ ten year quest to sail home from the Trojan War.

HesiodMyths are not monolithic, but subject to various telling and interpretation.  Homer and Hesiod both brought together the various mythologies of ancient Greece and through the medium of poetry and song created new consolidated versions that became the central common cultural standards, institutionalized and ritualized.  This is a typical pattern found accross human cultures, found also in the great Indian epics (the Ramayana and Mahabharata) as well as the Old and New testaments of the Bible.  Modern scholarship finds discrepancies between various parts of these central traditional texts and theorizes about the various versions and why they differ.

Achilles Trojan War

Asklepios snake staff aesclipiusHomer’s Iliad takes place during the Trojan War, which famously began after Paris kidnaps Helen and takes her to Troy, prompting a war with the Greek alliance.  The Iliad begins as the Greek King Agamemnon refuses to return the daughter of a Trojan priest of Apollo he has captured as a slave.  In response to Agamemnon’s refusal, Apollo responds with a plague.  Apollo, who was originally a local god of shepherds and musicians, had become the Greek god of light, the sun, truth and music.  Apollo’s son, Asclepius, became the god of mystical knowledge and wisdom.  When Socrates dies, in Plato’s account the last thing Socrates says is that he owes a rooster to Asclepius, apparently wishing to perform an animal sacrifice as a thanks for the gift of wisdom which sees beyond life and death.

Odysseus, the protagonist of Homer’s Odyssey, brings the priest’s daughter back to Troy, prompting a disagreement between Achilles and Agamemnon.  Achilles, refusing to fight, allows the Trojans gain the upper hand, prompting the great Greek gods to interfere with the conflict on all sides, themselves in conflict over the outcome.  Later in this course, we will find that Heraclitus and other philosophers criticize both Homer and Hesiod for presenting the gods as bloodthirsty and irrational beings, arguing that the gods must be far better than humans and would not get involved in partisan conflicts.

Greek Muses

Hesiod’s Theogony gives an account of the origin of the world and the gods, bringing together various myths and versions to create an orthodox account.  The text has eastern influences from earlier Babylonian and Assyrian mythology and cosmology.  As Hesiod explains, gods are born but they do not die, or if they die they are reborn and live in spite of death.  The gods can take many forms, such as animals or particular human individuals, but have a true form which is anthropomorphic.  While we use the world ‘epiphany’ to mean any sort of revelation today, it originally signified a god revealing himself or herself to a mortal in their true anthropomorphic form.

Hesiod’s cosmology sets a standard picture of the world followed by the first Milesian philosophers (Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes), but Hesiod concentrates on the pantheon of gods while the philosophers concentrate on the order of the elements such as fire, air and water.  Hesiod’s account of creation unfolds in stages, likely inspired by a series of empires conquering and reconquering the same land.  First, Chaos gives birth to Darkness and Night, and from these come Aether (bright upper air, supposed to be a separate element by the ancient Greeks, Buddhists and Isaac Newton) and Day.

Roman Uranos and TerraOuranos (also Uranus), god of the sky, gets it on with Gaia, mother goddess of the earth, producing the Titans.  The head titan, Kronos, god of time, castrates Ouranos and assumes his place as king father god.  On new years day, European cultures present the ending year as an old man in a toga with a scythe, a caricature of Kronos and his snippy personality.  Kronos then has children with the titan Rhea, but eats them as soon as they are born, all except Zeus who escapes with the help of Rhea and Gaia.  Zeus produces the other Olympic gods as his children in a multitude of ways.  Athena, goddess of wisdom, spontaneously bursts from Zeus’ forehead after a headache.  The Olympic gods defeat the Titans and assume control of the cosmos with Zeus as their king(power, wisdom, and justice personified) on the advice of their compassionate grandmother, Gaia.

Greek Lyre PoetPoetry was not only publicly performed epic.  At symposiums, meetings of all men or all women would gather to hear poetry sung over the stringed lyre.  Lyric could be sung solo or by a choir, just like the chorus of tragedies.  Choral performances of poetry featured various instruments and choreographed dance.  Songs were not just for entertainment, but for tying groups together through celebrations of heroic feats and tragic defeats.  Loyal heroes and friends were praised, enemies and traitors mocked.  In one archaic poem of Archilochos, a friend who betrayed the poet is cursed: hope of shipwreck, washes up naked on enemy shore and be condemned to slavery.

archilochusArchilochos is the first major archaic poet, but the most famous is the Lesbian Sappho.  First, some wisdom quotes from Archilochos which sound very similar to quotes from Egyptian wisdom we study in other classes, as well as to the fragments of Heraclitus we will study soon::

Don’t exalt openly in victory, nor in defeat collapse at home and weep, but do not rejoice in joys or be sore at evils much.  Recognize what rhythm holds men.

Attribute all to the gods.  Often they raise up out of evils men who lie on the dark earth, but often they knock flat on their backs those who walk tall.

The fox knows many things, the hedgehog, one big thing.

(This is similar to the Daoist parable of the frog in the well, illustrating that our reality is that with which we are most familiar.)

Pain strikes one, then another.  Now it turns to us and we groan over a bloody wound.  Next it will turn to someone else.  So now endure, driving back womanly grief.

sapphoThis last line shows us how remarkable it is that Sappho of Lesbos succeeded in becoming the most famous of the nine preserved archaic Greek poets.  Unlike other poets, Sappho did not write passively, but actively as an ‘I’, putting herself in the picture.  Sappho’s poetry was preserved along with the other eight archaic poets at Alexandria, Egypt, where they were copied by scholars onto papyrus.  Her poems are said to have been burned in pre-Renaissance Europe for their subversive nature, but this is in dispute.

Sappho_bustSappho is history’s most famous lesbian, and because her poetry speaks erotically of other women, it is due to her that, while the men of Lesbos were as much Lesbians as Sappho was, the female homosexual community bears this as its name.  While Sappho’s poetry and others seems homoerotic, attraction is expressed but not overt sexuality.  Men praising men as desirable and women praising women as desirable was an acceptable genre as a toast at a wedding.  Modern scholars argue whether or not Sappho and other Greek poets are simply giving “my friend is a real catch” wedding toasts or whether they are using the accepted genre as a barely concealed cover.

sappho and ladies

Sappho seems to have a treasured circle of young women as her admirers and aspiring disciples, some of whom she laments she has lost to other attractive poets, her competition.  Lesbian relationships are thought to have been common among women of Lesbos and Sparta.  While young men were presumed to have erotic relationships with older men in a mentor relationship, adult men were not supposed to have sexual relationships with each other.  Thus, the mentorship is mediated by sex just as the history is mediated by poetry and song.

Sappho’s most famous passage reads:

Some say an army of horsemen, others say foot-soldiers, still others, a fleet, is the fairest thing on the dark earth.  I say it is whatever one loves…

I would rather see her lovely step and the radiant sparkle of her face than all the war-chariots in Lydia and soldiers battling in shiny bronze.

Notice that Sappho is appealing to a culture of mercenaries and warriors.  Her perspectivism, the idea that truth is in the eye of the beholder, will be paralleled by Xenophanes, Heraclitus and others.  In other poems, Sappho uses Helen of Troy as an example of desire eclipsing all else.

Tragedy and Paradox

tragedy maskTragedy allows the audience to remove themselves from while simultaneously identify with the paradoxes and contradictions of life.  Like the polytheistic gods themselves, who do not behave ideally but as powerful yet fallible individuals, tragedies show the audience the most powerful and famous in the worst of downfalls, much like tabloid journalism today.

One of the themes of Greek tragedy is hamartia, the fatal flaw.  Paradoxically, the greatest strength of the protagonist that allows them to rise is also their greatest fault which brings about their downfall.  One primary example is from Aeschylus’ Oresteia, which retells the story of Agamemnon found in Homer’s Iliad.  Agamemnon is proud and strong, which is what allows him to be successful as a military commander but causes him to fall because he is too proud to compromise, a necessary skill for political leadership along with courage.

306ba-antigoneAnother example is Antigone from the Sophocles play by the same name.  Antigone has two brothers who fight over the title of King of Thebes.  After both slay each other, Creon takes the throne and declares that one brother is to be honored as a hero but the other is to be refused burial and left to decay on the battlefield.  Antigone, drawn between obeying the dictates of the state and the honor of her family, defies the new king and tries to bury her brother and is condemned to death in court.  Antigone is loyal, but she must make a choice: Which is the greater loyalty, family or state?  Either way, loyalty to someone is disloyalty to someone else, just as freedom for someone is limitation for someone else.

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