In this series I will explain Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, chapter by chapter, in digestible pieces.
In this first chapter, Russell concerns himself with laying the foundations of Greek culture. This is integral to further discussion because many of the foundational aspects of early Greek culture persisted in, and influenced, the philosophy following it. Much influence can be seen even today, as we shall see.
Russell asserts that the early history and culture of the Greeks is so impressive that we can but only gape in awe at it. What was so impressive was their rapid acceleration of culture. He partly puts this down to the development of language. Other cultures had started using pictograms to represent thought. This started with the Egyptians, and was closely followed by the Mesopotamians, who developed cuneiform. This was 4,000 BCE – 3000 BCE. The first major alphabet was created by the Greeks, who added vowels to language, before which, there were only consonants.
The first real examples of Greek language in action were Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, dated between 750 and 550 BCE. They were likely written by a number of people over many years, not by a single author. Science and philosophy both flourished towards the end of the Homeric age. One example of this is the influence of Thales. We can date him to 585 BCE quite accurately because he predicted the date of an eclipse with astounding accuracy. He put to paper some knowledge borrowed from the Babylonians, and his own ideas, such as the division of a day into 24 hours, the division of the circle into 360 degrees, the study of constellations, and our ability to work farming around the seasons.
Politically, Greek society varied from city to city. Farming towns and cities believed in the equality of all, and were fairly democratic. Large cities, such as Sparta, had a more hierarchical social order. Ownership of slaves was a prominent feature of their culture, although these slaves were usually captured Ionians, not other Greeks. The country was democratic, but neither women nor slaves were granted the right to vote. The wealth of the big cities was generated through a monopoly of Gold and Silver from places such as Lydia, whilst farming, fishing, and trade, were also highly profitable.
Greek religion contained the endemic beliefs of the Cretans, but was prominently a blend of Mycenaean and Minoan. The Mycenaean religion was the religion as depicted in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. The Minoan culture spread to mainland Greece around 1,600 BCE and survived until around 900 BCE. At this point, the Cretan beliefs became synthesised into the remnants of the Mycenaean religion. The Cretans themselves had learned much from the Egyptians because they relied a lot on sea commerce.
One thing which remained from the Minoans was the fertility cults, which persisted through all Greek cities. The cities became synonymously known with their own local Gods, from an earlier point when religion was tribal. As citied expanded, traded, and engaged in wars, a victory for a city would consequently be a victory for their local Gods. In this way, a unified religion was eventually born by surviving against the beliefs of other cities. Each city was, up to this point, theocratic in that their rulers, their laws, their cultures, were all thought to be divinely inspired by their local Gods. Eventually, one cultural religion emerged. The invention of formal writing helped solidify this, which was one of the reasons the Homeric Gods became so culturally prominent.
As well as the Homeric Gods, they also had ‘higher’ Gods, such as Fate and Destiny, which existed as forces of nature, and were respected for their own powers. Talking about destiny 2,600 years ago was very different, to talking about it now.
The Homeric writings see people sacrificing bulls to the Gods. In Greek culture, the fertility cults sacrificed Goats. This was due to their poverty, goats being all they could afford. However, goats were more prominent in their lives because of what they farmed, so goats had a more personal significance to them. From the image of the Goat, the God Pan emerged.
The most prominent God of the fertility cults was Dionysus, also known as Bacchus. People praised him through sheer abandon, drinking inordinate quantities of wine, which he was the personal God of, and eating raw animal flesh. The practitioners of the religions of Bacchus were profoundly liberal compared to their surrounding culture. They refused to condone violence, and held women and men in equal regard.
The Bacchic rituals emerged as an antidote to the prevalence of science and philosophy. To be educated is important, but it is to work beyond innate human instinct, and as such, removed us from our basic human nature. The Greeks soon decided that we needed to balance the serious (science + philosophy) with the abandon of the Bacchic ritual (the instinctive) to gain a full, well balanced life.
The consumption of wine made one feel full of emotion and excitement. The Greeks called this ‘enthusiasm’ (the word the use today). Wine drinking (becoming ‘enthused’) allowed our mind to become one with the mind of Bacchus, and therefore become God-like.
Orpheus followed shortly. He was a priest who borrowed ideas of the afterlife from the Egyptians, and synthesised them into Greek religion. He taught and wrote much about his belief of the transmigration of souls. We will see this discussed further in future chapters, such as in how he influenced Plato and Pythagoras.
He believed that humanity was an intermediary between the earth and the Gods. This belief led him to shun the Bacchic wine rituals as sheer indulgence. Our connection with the Gods became more inward and spiritual, and his followers were staunchly ascetic. Wine was still an important part of religion, but it was instead treated as a symbol. They worshiped through symbols (wine) instead of participating in the symbols, which were the privilege of Bacchus. They engaged with the passions, but they did so by observing them. This is something which has been influential throughout religion, and has an undeniable influence on the communion in Christianity. This provides an important lesson about the place symbols have in the world.
To the Orphic, this life is a life of pain and suffering. People of poorer backgrounds invented the idea of heaven to console their suffering. Wealthier people created the idea of Hell, in knowledge of how much worse life could be. Orpheus’s theology and cosmogony synthesised the ideas of heaven, hell, and the current life. The symbolism of wine, and the invention of heavens and hells, Russell believes, shows how far Christianity eventually borrowed from the Greeks.
One final consideration is that the Orphics believed that the soul must be more than a ‘feeble double of the self’, and is only pure when out of the body. The feeling of enthusiasm temporarily lifted the soul from the body, but was no more than a sign of what devotion could lead us to. The discussion of the Soul is one which carries on to this day.
Tomorrow we will look at the Milesian School- Thales, Anaximenes, and Anaximander.
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