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The Beginning of Philosophy: Why did philosophy emerge in ancient Greece?

Updated: Jan 29

Written by Dilvin Lacin


The coastal region between Izmir and the Gulf of Gokova, also known as Ionia in ancient times, holds great significance in the beginnings of philosophy. It is believed that philosophy began in this region, particularly in Miletus, in the 6th century BC. While some may argue against this, the widely accepted view is that philosophy had its origins in ancient Greece. Have you ever thought about why philosophy emerged in ancient Greece and not in the Mesopotamian civilizations, despite the remarkable advancements in fields like astronomy and mathematics in those civilizations? [2]


To begin with, let's define philosophy. Philosophy is the systematic and rational inquiry into fundamental questions concerning knowledge, ethics, existence, religion, reality, reason, and value. Its purpose is to interrogate these perennial human concerns with logical and reasoned arguments, seeking to provide meaning to these concepts throughout human history. [1][3][4] With this definition in mind, we can explore why philosophy emerged in ancient Greece.



The Nature of Greek Religion


One key factor contributing to the emergence of philosophy in ancient Greece was the unique nature of Greek religion. Unlike other popular religions of the time, Greek religion allowed for the creation of a free-thinking environment. In ancient Greece, there was no class of priests dedicated to preserving specific dogmas. The Greek religion was flexible, allowing individuals to interpret religious myths in their own ways. Priests were more like ordinary civil servants, serving temples and overseeing rituals. Anyone could become a priest, and their social status was not considered "sacred" outside their temple duties. The absence of a rigid religious hierarchy made Greek religion open to individual interpretations and encouraged thinking about religious myths. [1][5]



Philosophers' Perspective on Religion


When we examine the mythologies of other civilizations of the time, we find that they often sought to explain the origins of the universe, the beginning of life, and natural phenomena through either logical or illogical explanations, interweaving religious elements into their narratives. However, ancient Greek philosophers like Thales, often considered the first philosopher, attempted to answer these questions without relying on supernatural forces. Thales, for instance, addressed these questions by excluding all kinds of supernatural powers. This approach did not mean that all philosophers rejected Greek religion entirely; rather, they interpreted myths and legends according to their understanding. [6]



Authority of Rulers and the Environment of Free Thought


In contrast to rulers in Mesopotamia and Egypt, who had absolute authority and whose words were considered law, ancient Greece did not have a single all-powerful ruler. The limited power of rulers in Greece was shared with the people's assemblies and councils. This political structure created an environment that supported freedom of thought and intellectual inquiry, providing fertile ground for the birth of philosophy. [1][5][8]



City-State Structure


The city-state, or "polis," was the predominant form of governance in ancient Greece, and these city-states were often independent and self-governing. This system allowed individuals who disagreed with the authorities in their city-state to migrate to another one and continue their philosophical pursuits. For example, when the philosopher Pythagoras had a falling out with the ruler of Samos, he moved to another city-state and continued to spread his ideas there. [1]



Political Life and Democracy


In ancient Greece, tyrants replaced kings, but their rule was often short-lived due to their antagonism with the aristocratic and wealthy class. From the 6th century BC onwards, Greek governance became increasingly democratic. Greek democracy, as it existed, differed from most modern democracies. In ancient Greece, the people themselves participated directly in the decision-making process. Only free males aged 18 and above had the right to vote and participate in government affairs. Decisions were made through group discussions, and the decisions were subject to public criticism. [9] The development of a rapidly changing political landscape led people to question which form of governance was correct, fostering the growth of philosophical thought. This questioning is evident in the writings of philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. The political turmoil also directed focus towards the individual and their role in society. [8]



Geographical Features


Ancient Greece was a country surrounded by the sea and characterized by rugged terrain. This geographical setting served as a natural defense against external threats. It was difficult for external forces to invade Greece due to its mountainous landscapes, and even in cases of invasions from the north, the mountainous regions made occupation challenging. The mountainous terrain limited living space, forcing people with different worldviews, professions, and social statuses to coexist, promoting interactions among individuals with diverse backgrounds. [1][11]



Economy and Prosperity


As mentioned earlier, the mountainous and infertile nature of Greek land led Greeks to explore and establish colonies in other regions. Engaging in maritime activities, the Greeks became increasingly wealthy as trade expanded. These trade ventures and the founding of colonies contributed to the Greek economy. Additionally, raw materials from the colonies were used in trade, and Greek products found markets elsewhere. Therefore, the Greek economy was continuously growing. [1][12]



Cultural Interaction


Ancient Greek city-states were at the crossroads of trade routes, both land-based and maritime. These extensive trade networks exposed the Greeks to different cultures, and their interactions with other societies enriched their own culture. Greeks not only interacted with various external cultures but also communicated and exchanged ideas among themselves. Greek colonies, established through maritime activities, facilitated cultural exchange, contributing to the cultural enrichment of Greece. [1]



Ability to Utilize Knowledge


While the Greeks did not necessarily make all the theoretical discoveries themselves, they excelled in applying acquired knowledge in their daily lives. The Greeks had a remarkable ability to adapt and utilize theoretical knowledge in practical ways. Their innovations and the effective use of knowledge in everyday life set them apart from other civilizations. [1][5][11]


Every event, whether direct or indirect, has unpredictable consequences for societies. The reasons mentioned here, which led to the birth of philosophy in ancient Greece, are by no means exhaustive, and further exploration could provide even more detailed insights into this phenomenon. However, for the article, these factors should suffice.



References:

  1. Arslan, A. (2023). Ilkcag Felsefe Tarihi (pp. 21-61). Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları.

  2. DİNÇKOL, B. (n.d.). From Democracy Of Athens To The Republic Of Rome– From "Demos" To "Populus Romanus". Home » DergiPark. https://dergipark.org.tr/tr/download/article-file/456981

  3. Friedell, E. (1999). Antik Yunanin Kultur Tarihi (p. 18).

  4. Grayling, A. C. (1996). Philosophy: A guide through the subject. Choice Reviews Online, 33(06), 33-3248-33-3248. https://doi.org/10.5860/choice.33-3248

  5. History of Mesopotamia - Ancient culture, civilization, art. (2000, February 5). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/place/Mesopotamia-historical-region-Asia/The-character-and-influence-of-ancient-Mesopotamia#ref55485

  6. (n.d.). Home » DergiPark. https://dergipark.org.tr/tr/download/article-file/288252

  7. Russell, B. (2020). Bati Felsefesi Tarihi Cilt 1 (pp. 100-111).

  8. Saltoğlu, R. (2016, April 1). Mitostan Logosa… Doğa Felsefesi neden Antik Yunan’da doğdu? Bilim ve Gelecek. https://bilimvegelecek.com.tr/index.php/2016/04/01/mitostan-logosa-doga-felsefesi-neden-antik-yunanda-dogdu/

  9. SEVİNÇ, H. (2021, October 25). Political Structure In Ancient Greece And Political Thought Within The Framework. Home » DergiPark. https://dergipark.org.tr/tr/download/article-file/1632267

  10. Teichman, J., & Evans, K. C. (1991). Philosophy: A beginner's guide. Wiley-Blackwell.

  11. Veyne, P. (1988). Did the greeks believe in their myths?: An essay on the constitutive imagination (p. 74). University of Chicago Press.

  12. Günay, E. (2015). Antik Çağ Ekonomileri ve Gelenek ile Çok Tanrılı Dinlerin Etkisinde Oluşan Antik Çağdaki İktisadi Düşüncelerin Özellikleri. International Journal of Academic Values Studies, (1), 46-64. https://dergipark.org.tr/tr/pub/ijavs/issue/28382/301735
















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