I'm reading Bertrand Russel's The History of Western Philosophy, where he quotes Jon Burnett (in Early Greek Philosophy) as saying:

It looked as if Greek religion were about to enter the same stage as that already reached by religions of the East; and, but for the rise of science, it is hard to see what could have checked this tendency. It is usual to say the Greeks were saved from a religion of the Oriental type by their having no priesthood; but... It was not so much the absence of a priesthood as the existince of scientific schools that saved Greece.

It seems both authors take for granted that the reader will understand what is meant by "a religion of the Oriental type," and why these were a bad thing from which Ancient Greece was "saved" -- but as a modern reader, neither of these things are clear to me.

To which religions was he referring, and what aspects of those religions did he consider problematic?

2 Answers 2


If you look at Burnett's book ("Early Greek Philosophy"), you'll find this passage on page 87, near the beginning of section 2. Burnett prefaces this comment about 'religions of the Oriental type' with this:

It would certainly be wrong to credit the Thracians themselves with any very exalted views; but there can be no doubt that, to the Greeks, the phenomenon of ecstasy suggested that the soul was something more than a feeble double of the self, and that it was only when "out of the body" it could show its true nature. [...]

Before the time with which we are dealing, tradition shows us dimly an age of inspired prophets — Bakides and Sibyls — followed by one of strange medicine-men like Abaris and Aristeas of Prokonnesos.

What he means, then, is revelatory systems in which a prophet, wise man, seer, or etc reveals a fundamental truth about the universe, and people organize around some understanding of that truth. Burnett uses the term 'oriental' (in the manner typical of his time) to mean everything from Palestine to China, and we have to keep in mind that at the time of the ancient Greeks the exemplars available were Hinduism and Jainism, Judaism and other semitic faiths, and possibly early Buddhism Occidental faiths (faiths from areas north and west of the Black Sea) were invariably animistic polytheisms, with multiple gods and supernatural being representing features of the human and natural worlds. Burnett believes the Greeks were shifting from the animistic type to the revelatory, type, but that the rise of philosophy and science took the culture in a different direction.


I would guess the underlying issue is the loss of the idea of Unity from Greek philosophy, a loss Heidegger disapprovingly notes. Once this idea goes then philosophy is forced to be dualistic and inconclusive and a fundamental theory becomes impossible. This is the philosophy we inherited.

The issue is not really about 'religion of the Oriental type'. The rejection of Unity means the rejection of the Perennial philosophy and 'mysticism', thus also a certain philosophical interpretation of non-Oriental monotheistic teachings. Greek philosophy, or at least the philosophy that came afterwards, did not save us from this or that religion, it prevented us from making sense of any religion and also philosophy itself.

It was not science that 'saved' us from Oriental religion and philosophy, it was unnecessary assumptions about the nature of Reality. To be truly saved from the Perennial philosophy we would have to falsify it, and neither science nor Greek philosophy has ever gotten around to doing this.

I don't buy it that Greek philosophy was much guided by science and the idea seems anachronistic. I would suggest that today we need a scientific approach to save us from Greek philosophy and allow us to move on.


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