Greek philosophy once played a vital role as the backbone of Western Civilisation, and it continues to underpin our world view. But what do we mean by Civilisation anyway, and how did it start?
Civilisation is generally said to originate from the time that people started farming. This is because farming requires forethought, and forethought made people progress beyond purely instinctive preoccupations, or rather, no preoccupations at all. When you farm, you think ahead, you secure food in the summer for the winter months, you plan. Farming, then, was the first step along the road to the condition of being civilised, with all the associated problems that it brought.
Because of this major change in our way of thinking and being, instinct was progressively set aside in favour of forethought. Personal sacrifice too became necessary — the future must come before the present, harvest would be the reward of toil, and this had huge consequences on the way that people lived, thought and developed as societies. They became prudent; the preoccupations of everyday life began to engulf them. But prudence was a burden; people regretted the instinctive existence they had sacrificed, and so they created an eternal representation of what they had lost through the medium of passion and ritual – they made gods of men.
One of the earliest Greek gods was Bacchus or Dionysus, known today as the god of wine and pleasure. Dionysus still continues to embody the Christmas spirit even after centuries of Christianisation. But eventually Dionysus was censured, like the riotous drunkard he was; spiritual intoxication and violent passions were considered dangerous, and Greek society eventually became divided between those who continued to worship such gods, and those who had by then gravitated towards a more rational, restrained way of thinking and being. Later this split grew even deeper, creating the divide between religion and science, and it is a split that still divides us today.
Eventually, then, the old worship of Dionysus was given a more spiritual dimension, and the early religion of the Greeks came to be based on the myth of Orpheus, with all its undertones of reincarnation.
A religious community grew up called the mysteries of the Orphics, which later inspired a man called Plato, the most famous of Greek philosophers. But it was Pythagoras who really brought science and religion back together again, by putting forward the idea that God is a mathematician, and that geometry is the proof of this. Religion became intellectualized; Pythagoras paved the way for Christian thinking, even if ironically such theories would one day be repudiated by Christian thinkers when Catholic theologian Augustine warned that Scripture should not be questioned, it should be defended. But there were other great Greeks who took up Plato’s arguments, and the theories they would put forward would take rationality to new heights.
Simple forethought, significant as it was, became just the first small step in a long, eventful journey.
Read Part II next week…