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“The Origins of Greek Thought” by Jean-Pierre Vernant Essay

Jean-Pierre Vernant’s book, “The Origins of Greek Thought,” is a critical reassessment of a dominant historical trope for Western antiquity: that Greek philosophy amazingly materialized out of thin air after the Dorian Invasion. As an alternative to this popular idea, Vernant rationalizes the revolution of Greek thought as it pertains to the development of the polis (city), the development of philosophy, along with the idea that logic was developed by accompanying death of the monarchy and the birth of democracy. This paper will focus on the relationship between the emergence of the polis, the origin of rational thought (logic) and its connection to the Greeks. Vernant posits that the development and expansion of the polis is diametrically related to the development of logic and philosophy.

In the first few pages of his book “The Origins of Greek Thought”, Jean-Pierre Vernant maps out ways to “document the birth of rational thought.”(Vernant pg. 11) In order to do this we need to compare and contrast certain aspects of Mycenaean history, specifically the time before the Dorian invasion, and follow the trail out of The Dark Ages.

We can begin to understand the life of an ancient polis by trying to understand the religious culture inside the palace and learning why that culture failed. Early Greek philosophers were deeply concerned with the cosmos, religious myths, and science. The first known Greek scientist believed that the architect of the world and all its inhabitants were somehow connected to science and the cosmos. Thales was supposedly the first philosopher linking scientific thought to the discovery of nature, around 585 B.C. Thales and Anaximander struggled with the puzzle of the origin of the universe, what was here at the beginning, and what things are made of. Thales suggested that in the beginning there was only water, so somehow everything was made of it. (Baaird / Kaufmann pg.7)

Sprinkled throughout their explanations of the cosmos were bits of religious thought. Simply stated, early Greek thinkers were involved with explaining the infinity of things in the universe or (“the many”) and tying it to religion. Thales and Anaximander believed that many separate things could be traced back to one specific thing; for example, there are many stars, but there is only one concept of a star. Parmenides argued that the every-day perception of reality of the physical is mistaken, and that the reality of the world is ‘One Being.’ (Baird / Kaufmann pg.19) Parmenides is important because he represents major turning point in the development of Greek thought. Thus, the early Greeks reasoned that this single, unifying thing was some material substance, like water, or air and all of these substances originated from one source (“the one”).

Jean-Pierre Vernant believes that the idea of many things originating from one source is an important discovery. The genesis of Greek philosophy was exploratory, that is, it wasn’t concerned with unnatural occurrences as much as it was concerned with the reasoning process itself. For this reason and according to Vernant, Greek thought can been understood or seen as a deviation from religious thought. He believed that with the decline of mythological thought came the birth of rational understanding.

Political Thought and Myths

In order for us to understand what Vernant means by the birth of reason or the significance of rational thought we must first look at Mycenaean culture before the Dorian conquered them (c. 1150 -750). Prior to the invasion, the sitting king ruled with absolute authority and in concert with his scribes and palace dignitaries, centered social life around the palace. The king’s scribes were a professional class of writers who worked directly for the king. They archived everything from livestock, land, specialized trade, employment, slaves, taxes, and sacrifices to the gods and the standard rates for offerings.

In addition, social, military, economics and religious activities were organized through the palace as well. Thus, there was no room for private commerce under this structure or for any deviation from his standard religious practices. According to Vernant, this palace structure directly resembled the monarchies of the East. The king controlled every aspect of life for its inhabitants. This kind of sovereignty provided the platform for an absolute monarchy. However, this would all change after the invasion of the Dorians, the disappearance of the king and the advent of the polis around 750 BCE.

The Disappearance of the King

When ancient kings were overthrown, which happened often enough, they were simply replaced by other kings. All of the Greek cities all had traditional kings. But in Greece, the institution of kingship lost its traction. At Athens, the office of archon or (“ruler” or “regent”) pushed aside the authority of the king (who eventually became another elected archon). So it is clear that the fall of Mycenae concluded with the overthrow of the king, left a political void in the government, set the stage for philosophy to materialize, and broke tradition by failing to installing a new king. Finally, the Dorian invasion gave birth to the archon, broke monarch tradition, helped forth philosophy, and gave birth to a new kind of new kind of city (polis).

With the monarchy of the king abolished, traces of authority that had been organized by the king were no longer present either and the Greek society slipped into The Dark Age and this left a void in the government. This was a transitional period for the Greeks and historically difficult because there were only remnants of the Mycenaean society scattered about. Consequently, everything historians knew about societal life before the fall of Mycenaean, including writing and archiving vanished. Vernant describes this time as a dark period of “isolation” and a definite period of rebirth and reconstruction (Vernant pg. 6). These were drastic changes leading to a new society.

Emergence of The Polis

It was after the Dorian invasion (c.1150-750) that Vernant argues we begin to see some definite changes in society and the first appearance of the polis. The invasion marked the way for a societal transition, established a new physical environment inside the polis, and established a new political system. The invasion also left two social forces positioning for political power: the villagers and the warrior-aristocrats. The search for balance gave birth to persuasive speaking in the agora and philosophy. What happened in Greek cities politically and socially was extraordinary enough, but it is also our clue about the origin of philosophy.

Pericles (Athenian statesman) used philosophy in speeches as a way of explaining the abstract nature of equality. Because of his persuasive style, Athens witnessed an influx of people coming to hear him speak. Already regarded as a respected politician, Pericles was also a rationalist trained in music by the Sophists. Like that of his mentor Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, Pericles reasoned that pure intelligence, another persuasive tool that was used by the arche, governed the universe.

If pure intelligence governs the universe, and all people in Athens have access to pure intelligence, then all people are equal and have the right to govern or take part in the government. Not everyone enjoyed Pericles speeches and his rational and philosophical approach to life was also a bit unpopular. Furthermore, his democratic ideas began to bother some Athenian conservatives. In retrospect, the Dorian invasion brought about several distinct changes in the polis; such as, the materialization of philosophy, public speaking in the agora, two new social forces and the concept of being equal.

With the emergence of the new city, we see a set of new ideas. There was a new concept that all Athenian citizens who shared the state were “equals-homoioi- men who were alike-and later more abstractly as isoi, or equals.” (Vernant pg. 61) Thus, all men could govern equally. This shift from the one ruler (the king) to the many (the equal) would gain momentum as time progressed forward.

Athens was indeed an improvement from past feudal societies allowing citizens to debate openly for elected positions and providing a communal life centered on the agora. This new society was a stark contrast to Mycenaean society where the king ruled and had no equals. In this new polis, men who contended with words or who opposed speech with speech became in this hierarchical society a class of equals.

The fall of Mycenaean and the Dorian invasion (c.1150-750) witnessed the birth of philosophy and a shift away from mythological to the rational, which is rational thought separated from religion. Additionally, there is the merger of two social classes, the village and the aristocrats, and the reappearance of writing with the aid of the Phoenician alphabet, and apolitical society unmatched by any society before Athens. Jean-Pierre Vernant shows us that the birth of philosophy is in no way due to magic. He asserts that there are steps we can follow in history to make meaning out of the unexplainable. The geneses of Greek philosophy were the consequences of a new polis which sprouted individual political ideas.

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