Posted on 11 December 2019
Philosophy began by questioning the mythological world view of how humanity was created.
Mankind created mythology as a sacred narrative to explain how the world evolved and what was to be humanity’s role within it.
For example in Norse mythology thunder could be explained by Thor’s hammer or in ancient Egyptian mythology the god Khnum controlled the annual flooding of the river Nile.
A mythological world picture also existed in Greece where the first Western philosophy evolved.
The stories of the Greek gods had been handed down from generation to generation for centuries. In Greece there were a multitude of gods such as Zeus, Apollo, Athene, Dionysos, Asclepios, Heracles and Hephaestos, to mention only a few.
Around 700 BC, much of the Greek mythology was written down by Homer and Hesiod. This created a whole new situation. Now that the myths existed in written form, it was possible to discuss them.
The earliest Greek philosophers criticized Homer’s mythology because the gods resembled mortals too much and were just as egotistical and treacherous. For the first time it was said that the myths were nothing but human creations – the gods hadn’t created man, but rather man had created the gods.
One exponent of this view was the philosopher Xenophanes, who lived from about 570 BC. He believed mankind had created the gods in its own image, stating:
“But if cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do the work that men can do, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make their bodies such as they each had themselves.”
Xenophanes dismissed the Greek Gods further by saying:
There is one God – supreme among gods and men – who is like mortals in neither body nor mind.
The Rise of the Greek Empire and its freethinking citizens
During this period the Greeks founded many city-states, both in Greece itself and in the Greek colonies in Southern Italy and Asia Minor. Therefore, the Greek Empire came into existence and with it came slaves who did all the manual work.
This left the empire’s citizens free to devote time to politics and culture. In essence they were free to think and in these newly created city environments they began to think in a completely new way.
Purely on their own behalf, any citizen could question the way society ought to be organized. Individuals could thus also ask philosophical questions without using ancient myths as an explanation for how the world worked.
The aim of the early Greek philosophers was to find natural, rather than supernatural, explanations for the processes that made the world work.
The transformation from a mythological mode of thought to one based on experience and reason had begun.
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