The history of civilization in the West (i.e. Europe) goes back many thousands of years. Since well before 1000 BC there have been people living in what is now Turkey, Greece, and even Italy, in such cities as Miletus and Troy. For much of their history, people living in the West were content with their traditional mythology and legend as explanations of the world around them. In the 7th century BC, Homer came around and developed perhaps the greatest collection of myth and legend in Western literature. However, it was just that: myth, quite unsubstantiated and irrational, though incredibly important nevertheless.

But then something seemed to change. In the late 7th century BC there came a man named Thales, and he was not satisfied with the traditions of old. Instead, he developed his own theories on what the world is made of, declaring among other things that "water is the first principle" from which all things come, and that there is a single entity "God" which "shaped and created all things from water."

And he wasn't the only one determined to come up with a more reasoned and physical explanation of things. Soon there came Anaximenes, Parmenides, Pythagoras, Anaxagoras, all of whom had their own decidedly un-mythological theories of the world. And with that the discipline of Ancient Philosophy was born, and soon there were tens, hundreds, thousands of people who at least tried to work things out on their own.

Why, though? When people had been living with myth for many centuries, why did they start to look for their own answers, independent of tradition or legend? Admittedly some of their theories were still quite absurd, but at least they generally didn't involve various gods and goddesses giving birth to the Earth and its creatures. The new theories were much more physical and separate from the gods, and they tried to break down what the world is made of, how it came to be, and how things should work in a much less divine sort of way (though God or the Mind or some other entity often played a role in cosmogony, the field that is still quite a mystery to us today).

So, what led to the birth of philosophical thought as opposed to mythological tradition in the Ancient West?

  • There's definitely a lot of theories about this and I'm curious to see what research may turn up. Some of the most convincing explanations (to me anyway) will sometimes point out that a lot of the most important early "Western" philosophers had travelled to the near East
    – Joseph Weissman
    Dec 21, 2012 at 17:39
  • 1
    Probably the most obvious, if least satisfying, explanation involves the agricultural revolution. I don't think it was so much that the myths and traditions were satisfying, but that they were necessary to stave off one's curiosity when there was no "free" time. It's also a mistake to assume that myths were, by nature, incurious. It might be that myths were mnemonic devices to aid in learning the systems that kept communities alive. Dec 21, 2012 at 17:53

6 Answers 6


So, what led to the birth of philosophical thought as opposed to mythological tradition in the Ancient West?

This is not really a philosophy question, but a question of history.

A good, provocative book on the subject is Thomas McEvilley's The Shape of Ancient Thought, which looks at the historical connections between the philosophical traditions of the ancient Greek and Indian worlds, and the background they grew out of.

But I suppose that most histories of philosophy will attempt to answer this question in one form or another.

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    A very fair answer (especially given whole books have tried to answer to this...)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Dec 22, 2012 at 16:18

In the contemporary modern world science is seen as a distinct discipline from philosophy; in the ancient world there wasn't such a clear distinction.

There was natural philosophy - in fact it seemed that the presocratics were interested in various rational cosmologies (a kind of prescience, they lacked the technology to make definitive experiments - atomism for example wasn't definitely proven until the early 20C with brownian motion, even though that was one of the atomists key example, see Lucretious de Rerum Natura)

Many of them lived & worked in what is now modern Turkey. Further they wrote in a cryptic, poetic form - not far removed from versified mythology (this makes sense for societies emerging out of an oral tradition - poetic utterance would be seen as the privileged & inspired artform) . One could argue that Nietszche reinvented this form for modern western philosophy - in its continental guise; not for nothing does he see himself a modern Zarathrustha thrusting aside the superstitions of a decadent Christian society. Plato indulged in mysticism, as did Pythagoras; and no doubt many others. It seems incredible considering the high level of civilisation that ancient Mesopotamia & Egypt achieved that there could not have been some degree of influence by them on greek thought. The key question is what form that influence takes.

Professor Klaus Karttunen, a specialist in the relations between the Indian subcontinent and the western world in classical antiquity writes in a review of McEvilleys book The Shape of Ancient Thought:

"The idea of Greek philosophy arising out of nowhere, without any antecedents or outside impulses just on the force of a supposed mental superiority of Greeks belongs, I hope, to a distant past, at least in scholarship. A considerable debt owed to Egypt and Mesopotamia, even to Thrace and Scythia was acknowledged by the Greeks themselves and in addition, research has succeeded in pointing out other, important but forgotten, ties to ancient Anatolian and Near Eastern cultures. Even an Iranian impact was apparently felt".

(But contra McEvilley he writes "India is just too far away".)

To summarise: in the ancient world, poetry/myth/philosophy/science/theology & religon were closely implicated in each other (they formed a kind of topos where the world was reimagined), and not seen as the dramatically distinct disciplines as they are today; and in that context it is possible to establish that there were outside influences operating on that topos coming from other civilisations close by.

  • Building on your some of your observations, I think that a pivotal factor leading to the birth of pre-Socratic natural philosophy was the dual influence of both Egyptian and Babylonian astrologies in tandem. Perhaps the Greeks were the first to really notice that Egyptian astronomy made correct predictions without Babylonian ritual and mythology, and vice versa, and so realize that the mythological components aren't all that important in obtaining reliable astronomical knowledge. From there, it's not a great leap to wonder if the same is true of other disciplines.
    – David H
    Sep 27, 2014 at 21:07
  • @DavidH: Possibly and an interesting speculation; the Pre-socratics are a very mixed bunch; I'm not sure that any single one can clearly be said to have eliminated all myths from their cosmological speculations; and I think one ought to be careful not to project back from our contemporary age our own world-view so as to let them speak in their own name; rationality can mean very different things - after all consider how Hesiod rationalised the genealogy of the Greek gods. Sep 27, 2014 at 21:45
  • Frege in one this paper wrote "The discovery that the rising sun is not new every morning, but always the same, was one of the most fertile astronomical discoveries"; this for example might be Ra travelling on two solar boats, one through the sky and the other through the underworld; this implicitly (and thus speculatively) gives the sun a single identity and that the earth rather than extending endlessly all around us in a 'flat earth' cosmology makes it plausible that it is finite Sep 27, 2014 at 22:08
  • ie does the sun 'smash' into the earth when it sets? Its this sort of thing that makes one realise the continuity of myth & cosmology across the wider ancient world; Personally I find the ancient world fascinating because they freely mixed what is now kept far apart. Sep 27, 2014 at 22:15
  • Alexander The Great, from what is now a province of modern Greece, got to northern India. Too far? Rubbish. Pyrho is said to have studied philosophy in India. And mathematics, including 'Arabic' numerals and zero came from India.
    – CriglCragl
    May 23, 2018 at 22:13

Along a simpler vein than pure historians, we can note that Philosphy was best codified among the first long-lived experiment in pure (non-Republican) Democracy. If you feel the survival of your culture relies less on the reputation of your royal family, or your ability to raise effective warriors, than on what people say and do in public, and others' opinions of that, then the attention you pay to language and interactions of opinion and fact are going to become important almost to the point of obsession.

I think this perspective gives us an empathy for the peculiar language-obsessed form of Greek Philosophy and for their combining it with other language-like endeavors like music and mathematics. (Like, humorously to me, why Plato's creation myth includes mathematical measurements for a giant xylophone.) The pressure this puts on the products of philosophy, especially ethics and politics, helps us understand the degree to which they accelerated its development, and pushed specific forms to the fore.

Our notion that this kind of discovery kind of 'started' then may also have more to do with Athens recording it more liberally, than with its actual occurrence.


Consider the seperate parallel schools of logic, in China https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohism and India https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_logic both from a similar era to Ancient Greece.

The centralised nature of the Chinese state allowed this school to be suppressed, similarly to how gunpowder, compasses, canals, paper & printing were invented there but didn't have the transformative effect they had in the West (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Needham#Needham_Question), with it's fragmented islands and political squabbling (Rome may have fallen because of lead poisoning from the plumbing - it could have been far more centralised but for that).

India had a cultural and religious unity rather than a political one, that began to flourish in a similar era to the unification of China. There is fascinating evidence that derivations of pi, geometry, zero and infinity all came from India, mainly developed for religious purposes: In Our Time, 'Indian Mathematics' https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0038xb0 These reached Ancient Greece from there.

Ancient Greece was profoundly shaped by the conflict between Athens & Sparta, and crucially by the values of Athens who prevailed, a democracy (of sorts). City of Athena, prophesied to overthrow Zeus. The goddess of teknos, and philo-sophia. Plato's Symposium illustrates a culture where philosophy, rhetoric, mathematics, didn't simply have the roles we give them. But were for a kind of performance. Consider how https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eratosthenes#Measurement_of_the_Earth's_circumference got within 15% of the true value of the Earth's circumference - but no one used that to understand how much of the globe remained undiscovered. Theatre and the sports (eg the Olympic Games) developed as competitions, which refined both.

City states, warring states, religious diversity and conflicts, meant technology, theology, and philosophy, gave groups a crucial edge as the mediterranean cultures and Europe developed, driving developments and uptake of new ideas. There are remarkable parallels between developments of ideas in different regions of the world, probably relating to the spread of agriculture & writing (from seperate emergences). Geographical and political differences have been crucial to the different outcomes from these over time.

Edited to add: Jared Diamond backs up this speculation on geography in Guns Germs & Steel: Variables. The Shapes Of Continents http://www.pbs.org/gunsgermssteel/variables/continents.html


A Minoan heritage might be the missing link? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minoan_civilization

We still do not know much about Minoan Intellectual life. Some hints can be gotten from mystery cults https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greco-Roman_mysteries , and some from the Mycenean civilisation that took over from the Minoans. That SOME diffusion from Minoan to Greek culture has occurred is proven: For example is "Dionysos" (the god) discovered to be a Minoan name.

And what if the Antikythera mechanism was produced in Crete? By unknown Minoan survivors? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antikythera_mechanism

And ... to round it off: Did not philosophy begin at what earlier was Minoan Colonies?
Thales is considered by tradition to be the first philosopher. He lived in Miletos, a former minoan colony.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milesian_school All of a sudden philosophy became popular ... There was Thales pupil Anaximander with his friend Anaximenes ... these are the ones we KNOW ABOUT in Miletos because they became famous.

Theres also the Ionian school:

The Ionian school of Pre-Socratic philosophy was centred in Miletus, Ionia in the 6th century BC. Miletus and its environs was a thriving mercantile melting pot of current ideas of the time.(Do we know why?)

The Ionian School included such thinkers as Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras, and Archelaus. The collective affinity of this group was first acknowledged by Aristotle who called them physiologoi,meaning 'those who discoursed on nature'.

(There were perhaps other types of philosopers in other former Minoan colonies? If there was a Minoan heritage it was by then almost a millennium old! Orally transported from parent to child and also by secret societies. Why many of the secret societies started to teach philosophy and building philosophical schools around 600 BC is an open question.)

The classification can be traced to the second-century historian of philosophy Sotion. They are sometimes referred to as cosmologists, since they were largely physicalists who tried to explain the nature of matter. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pre-Socratic_philosophy

While some of these scholars are included in the Milesian school of philosophy, others are more difficult to categorize.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Presocratic_graph.svg

Be it how it may with the Minoan heritage... its interesting to read about Ancient times anyway so heres a book by Diogenes Laertius: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Lives_of_the_Eminent_Philosophers/Book_I#Bias

  • But what was special about Crete? Geography. Able to control trade in the Mediterranean, until the earthquake - which as a 'judgement' drove a diaspora more than through destruction, sending 'civilised' people from one of the times few large cities, to the coast of Greece & what is now Italy. The rise of Venice from city state to global power, and the empire of Sardinia, also illustrate the roll of this geography.
    – CriglCragl
    May 23, 2018 at 22:06
  • Also that it had been inhabited tens of thousands of years... And becoming a Thalassocracy. jarnaes.wordpress.com/1-minoan-crete-linear-a And reached at least Norway :) nationalgeographic.com/archaeology-and-history/magazine/2017/… Some fans also think they reaced America! May 23, 2018 at 22:31

There is no real clear answer to this question. It is one of those questions which necessitates a theoretically based explanation rather than a scientifically or factually rooted explanation. (As a former History Instructor, I will try my best to provide you with a sound THEORETICALLY BASED explanation).

If one looks at the Greek world during the year 600 BC/BCE, one will see that, geographically speaking, the land of Greece expanded well beyond Greece proper. Shortly after Homer's death-(circa 800-750 BC/BCE), the Greeks began to sail the Mediterranean and Black Seas whereby trading colonies were founded-(which included, the Southern Italian city of Naples, as well as the Southern French city of Nice). In addition to these Mediterranean and Black Sea trade colonies, the Anatolian coast-(present-day Turkish coast), was also, an important region for Greek settlement. (Incidentally, it was on the Anatolian coast that Philosophy or really, The Philosophy of Science, was born with Thales, specifically, in the town of Miletus).

By the time Thales arrived on the world historical stage, Greece-(and its trading colonies), became very wealthy and dominant in commerce, as well as in geopolitics. Greece had virtually no major commercial or geopolitical competitors during Thales' time, expect for Carthage in North Africa-(present-day Tunis, Tunisia). This lack or near lack of competition may have given the Greeks the unique and inadvertent advantage of Time.

  1. The time to expand its territories well beyond its homeland uninterruptedly, due to the speediness and accelerated rate of commercialized shipping, versus the much slower form of land based trade.
  2. The time to accumulate, invest and reinvest its revenues into large public works projects.
  3. The time to build its civilization beyond "myth making" and to develop a more sophisticated and scientifically based civilization....(beginning with Thales).

The Ancient Greeks, were also blessed with a landscape that was:

  1. A peninsula
  2. A series of closely linked archipelagos directly West and East of its mainland, as well as having two large islands, such as Crete and Cyprus, which were geographic gateways to North Africa and West Asia.
  3. The Anatolian coast-(present-day Turkish coast), which was both the gateway to Asia, as well as the gateway to the Mediterranean.
  4. Access to major waterways, such as the Hellespont-(present-day Dardanelles), as well as the Bosporus.

In addition to their unique geographic configuration, Greece-(then and now), was also blessed with a fabulously mild annual climate which RARELY required any routine battling with the elements-(except for the occasional earthquake or volcanic eruption).

Put all this together and you have enormous geographical advantages over your ancient competitors.

The Greeks were essentially, no different than any other people on the planet; however, they were somewhat different in terms of their geographical location, as well as their advanced scientific and philosophical developments that were achieved during an age which had few commercial, geopolitical or environmental disruptions. Without sounding overly simplistic, the Ancient Greeks were...."in the right place, at the right time".

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