Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Birth of Hellas



What we now know as the Greek culture was originally a periphery of the Middle Eastern world. The Mycenaean civilization (1600-1100 BC) was an offshoot of Crete's Minoan culture, which in turn was deeply influenced by the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations. The Middle Eastern pattern of palace-centered cultures and economies was present in the major Greek centers of this period - Mycenae, Argos, Tiryns and Pylos.

In the late second millennium BC the entire Middle Eastern world collapsed, along with its Mycenaean periphery (in Greece it is known as the Greek Dark Ages). The Hittite, Middle Assyrian and Egyptian Empires fell, while cities across the entire region were ruined, the level of literacy plummeted, trade links were disrupted, and barbarians were roaming the land.

This event, known as the Bronze Age collapse, is comparable to the collapse of the Greco-Roman civilization in the 3rd-5th centuries AD (along with the subsequent Dark and Middle Ages), the fall of the Maya and Teotihuacán civilizations in the late first millennium AD, the sunset of the so-called Islamic Golden Age in the 12th-13th centuries AD, and, unfortunately, to the current collapse of the West. It would be very useful to look into the reasons of the Bronze Age collapse from a rational perspective. However, the modern academia's explanations seem to be either superficial or nonsensical. I will reserve judgment as to these reasons for the time being due to a lack of data.

In the midst of this darkness, a few tentative signs of a renaissance emerged (which resembles the Scholastic revival of culture in Western Europe). First, the Phoenicians introduced a new cultural pattern - that of a trader and explorer (they might even have circumnavigated Africa). No culture had ventured so far before and achieved such remarkable successes in colonization. Moreover, the Phoenicians introduced the most convenient and advanced form of writing - the alphabet, which greatly facilitated intellectual progress by removing the necessity of memorizing vast amounts of unnecessary data (such as hieroglyphs). The alphabet subsequently triumphed in all centers of civilization, except China and Mesoamerica.

The Phoenicians seem to have provided a cultural prototype for the Archaic Greeks. In the 8th century BC the Greeks borrowed both the maritime explorer spirit of the Phoenicians (they started their great colonization of the Mediterranean) and their alphabet (moreover, they perfected it by adding symbols for vowels).

At the same time, a more profound change was at work - a change that would transform the world in a way never seen before. That was the replacement of mythos with logos and mythology with philosophy. A man of the mythological era had perceived the world as chaotic and inexplicable. Nothing could be predicted or planned in advance, and no rational explanation of past or present events was possible (with rare exceptions). Understandably, such a worldview entailed fear and despair. Gods were perceived as zoomorphic and terrible. It strikes me as odd that this era had a lot in common with the current epoch - that of skepticism and subjectivism. Both are concrete-bound, both are chaotic, both reject reason (the former rejected it out of ignorance, the latter rejects it by choice). It seems that the modern civilization has reverted to the same irrational ideas, albeit in a totally different form and at a much more advanced stage of the cycle.

Ancient civilizations had emerged as an exception to the mythological principle. Any civilization - however primitive - requires a use of reason at least in a limited number of fields. However, if not rejected explicitly, an idea tends to run its course to a logical conclusion. Myth is inimical to the very essence of civilization and tends to corrupt it at its core. I might conjecture that mythological thinking was the cause of pre-Hellenic civilizational collapses.

The first man to explicitly reject mythos and embrace logos was Thales, the first philosopher in history (ca. 624 BC–ca. 546 BC). He lived in the city of Miletus in Ionia on the western coast of Asia Minor. He recognized order (cosmos), permanence and predictability in the universe. He realized that laws of nature could be grasped by reason and saw no need to resort to supernatural explanations. Before Thales, reason had been applied selectively to some fields (because otherwise survival would have been impossible) and rejected in others. The Milesian genius was the first to apply reason to the total of human knowledge, to integrate the sum of human existence into a comprehensive whole. That was an event of tremendous importance, comparable in scale to the emergence of the first civilizations in the fourth millennium BC.

It is interesting that at this time the first world maps were created – the less coherent Babylonian world map and the more advanced map by Anaximander, a student of Thales. Moreover, the early Greek philosophers were the first to hypothesize a spherical Earth (disputably this could be attributed to Thales and definitely to Pythagoras).

The importance of what happened in Ionia in the early 6th century BC is difficult to overestimate. It was the cradle of our world, the undisputed cultural center of the early Greek civilization. It is hardly a coincidence that Ionia was the birthplace of Homer (ca 8th century BC). The Ionic dialect of Greek initially became the main literary language in the Greek-speaking world (along with Doric and Aeolic, which were of secondary importance) until being replaced by the Attic-derived Koine in the Hellenistic period (though Attic was a close relative of Ionic, and elements of Ionic proper were integrated into the Koine). At that time, Miletus became the predominant maritime power in the eastern Mediterranean until being replaced by Samos (also an Ionian polis) under Polycrates (ca. 538 BC - 522 BC).

The entire subsequent Greek philosophy sprang from Ionia and areas with close cultural ties to that region. Anaximander and Anaximenes were Thales’ successors in the Milesian school, while Heraclitus lived in the Ionian city of Ephesus. Xenophanes, who was born in the Ionian city of Colophon and emigrated to Elea in Southern Italy (Magna Graecia), is believed to have been the teacher of Parmenides, the founder of the Eleatic school. Pythagoras, who was born on the island of Samos off Ionia's coast and studied under Anaximander, emigrated to Croton in Magna Graecia and founded his famous school there. Anaxagoras was born in the Ionian city of Clazomenae and brought philosophy to Athens. Leucippus, the founder of the Atomist school, is variously believed to have been born either in Miletus or Abdera, a Thracian colony of Clazomenae. Protagoras was also born in Abdera. Prodicus was a native of Ceos, an Ionic-speaking island in the Aegean. Diogenes of Appolonia was from the Milesian colony of Appolonia in Thrace. Bias, one of the “seven sages of Greece”, lived in the Ionian city of Priene. Pherecydes was born in the Ionic-speaking island of Syros near Attica. Finally, Aristotle was born in Stageira, an Ionic-speaking colony in Thrace.

Ionia’s history also provides us with an example of how tyranny destroys the human mind. The region was first conquered by Croesus, king of Lydia (ca. 560 BC – ca. 547 BC), though he was on relatively friendly terms with the Greeks and cannot be called a tyrant. Subsequently Ionia was conquered by Persian King Cyrus (559 BC-529 BC). As a result, the center of Greek philosophy moved from Ionia to Southern Italy (and afterwards to Athens). Subsequently Ionia revolted from the Persian rule (499 BC - 493 BC) but it was soon restored. As a result, after Heraclitus no prominent philosopher was born in Ionia, and the region fell into oblivion. The Persians attempted to invade mainland Greece as well, and we owe our entire civilization to the heroes who halted their advance at Marathon, Thermopylae and Plataea.

Ionia sparked a period of vigorous intellectual activity in the Greek world (6th to 4th centuries BC) unparalleled in previous history and, in some philosophical respects, still unsurpassed. Similar attempts to go beyond mythological thinking were made in India and China at approximately the same time but they were far less successful and, as a result, did not lead to similar revolutions in science, ethics and politics. The philosophical and scientific achievements of the late Archaic and Classical Greece were summed up and further advanced by Aristotle, ushering in what we call the Western civilization.

by ReaganX

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