The Invention of Political Philosophy. It is important to stress that Greece was peripheral to Egypt and Mesopotamia but not isolated from them. India, by contrast, was substantially more isolated and China nearly wholly separated.
Although they started later, the Chinese seem to have, in many respects, moving through stages of development similar to that of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Thus there is a considerable similarity between a Chinese emperor and his dominion and a Mesopotamian emperor or an Egyptian Pharaoh. The Greeks, however, seem to have done something fundamentally different, to have, as we suggested earlier in evolutionary language, crossed a threshold in the development of humankind.
In Greece, politics began to be differentiated from religion, and philosophy and/or science began to be differentiated from myth. These are distinctions contemporary Western man takes for granted. The distinctions indeed are, even today, much sharper in the West than in the East, and this is no accident, for it is the Western man and not Eastern man who is the direct cultural descendant of the Greeks.
In the contemporary world, we can easily distinguish between an account of the sun’s transit across the sky that describes a chariot of fire being driven along a certain path In heaven and an account that describes a gigantic, scorching ball of gas that appears to move because the earth rotated on its axis. The former account mythological, the latter scientific.
The form of the myth is that of a story: the chariot is drawn by eight horses or by four oxen; some specific individual drives it; swallowed by a giant bird (during an eclipse) and later reemerge; thee form of science is an abstract principle, precise objective description. No attribution of personality is involved in the strictly scientific account.
Note carefully that the story is not a symbolic account; it is a literal description. For the ancient Egyptians, the sun did not stand for or represent a god, it was not controlled by a personal all-powerful, but invisible god (this was the discovery of the Hebrews), the sun (Ra) was a god. It is the mark of a modern mind to explicitly create a “myth” to influence others (as, for example, Plato does in the Republic). In its original sense,e, myth is a literal description.
Anthropology and children’s stories make us think of myth as merely a collection of simplistic, fanciful stories. The evidence suggests, however, that in the case of the ancient Egyptians and some measure the ancient Mesopotamians, while their understanding of the relationship between man, the earth, and the heavens was very much mn the form of myth, their actual handling of this fundamental subject matter was exact and sophisticated.
The ancient astronomers of Egypt and Mesopotamia observed that the sky’s varying activity takes place in a celestial pathway 14° wide-sound, what astronomers call the ecliptic plane. The sun, the moon, and the planets move across the sky in this path, while the remainder of the sky constitutes a “vault of the heavens,” providing a background to this activity. The zodiac’s familiar constellations occupy this celestial pathway-thus astrological expressions such as “Jupiter rising in Sagittarius.” The behavior of the sun, moon, and planets in the various constellations was expressed in mythic form. Still, it was observed and calculated in an exact and highly imaginative mathematical way.
These circumstances built up an extremely complex occult religion-scientific set of teachings preserved by a priesthood whose members were masters of mathematics, astronomy (which was undifferentiated from what we would call astrology), a complex style of writing, and the interpretation of the myths.
The evidence suggests that the residents of the river valley, civilizations understood their rivers as earthly reflections or earthly. Aspects of the ecliptic or path of the sun across the sky. Their king was the so,n, who was a certain god personality.
Residents connected the earthly realm with the heavenly one by temple-towers (of which the Tower of Babel and perhaps the great pyramid of Cheops are examples). The Greeks were to call these tower-temple places “omphalos,” meaning navel. Apparently, they served as a sort of umbilical cord connecting earth and sky.
That this is the stuff of myth that is easy to see, buts the astronomical-mathematical precision sophistication of the building, the placement of the towers, the calendars and, the astronomical record is s represented considerably greater advancements than the Greeks with their more ‘scientific’ approach were able to achieve.
Some scholars suggest that Egypt was carefully surveyed and laid out according to the celestial model and that the Great Pyramid of Cheops was an astronomical observatory and indeed a precise model of the northern hemisphere!
For all of the turmoil and imperfection that characterized the ancient Middle East’s history, a kind of political model is nonetheless discernible. The political order is focussed on a god-king, supported and surrounded by a priestly bureaucracy whose members interpret the world through the form of myth refined into a mathematical astronomy-astrology.
The barbarian Greeks contacted this civilization with its ancient wisdom late in its life and long after the zenith of its perfection. Just as the Greeks learned to write using an alphabet that is a vastly simplified adaptation of cuneiform or hieroglyphics, they discerned the power of a celestial, mathematical-geometrical, ‘‘natural’’ grounding for political order. .But they grasped this style of thinking in demythologized form. McNeill has argued that the Greeks read their master social institution, the polis or city-state (which will be discussed in detail in the next chapter), into the cosmos:
Contact with Oriental and barbarian societies acquainted the lonians with the diversity of existing religious doctrines. Though they had outgrown Homer’s theology, they retained his concept of an impersonal and inexorable Fate, brooding over and ultimately controlling both gods and men. But the really decisive factor takes us right back to the polis.
In sixth-century Sonia, human affairs were regulated quite successfully by impersonal, uniform, necessary, and-hopefully-just laws. Obviously, the laws of nature, which the lonian philosophers thought they could detect in the universe at large, bore a striking resemblance to the laws of the polis, which surely, though invisibly, governed their own individual lives. Therefore, Greek philosophy’s beginnings may be viewed as a naive but enormously fruitful projection upon the cosmos of the polis’ busy, ordered world.
Earlier thinkers, both Greek and barbarian, had likewise projected their social environment upon the cosmos. But in nearly all earlier societies, men had been narrowly subjected to the vagaries of nature or the arbitrary will of social superiors or, most often, to both at once.
As long as the food of the community depended upon capricious weather, while the common welfare hung upon, the good pleasure of some perhaps distant overlord and life itself was constantly exposed to the chance arithmetic of raid and pestilence, any view of the universe which did not emphasize the irregular and unpredictable nature of things was evidently absurd.
But in a prosperous and independent city like Miletus, the citizens lives and welfare depended primarily upon their own co-ordinated activity, regulated by law. Local crop failures lost part of their terror when ships, trading afar, could bring grain to the city as needed.
No distant monarch held the fate of the Milesians in the hollow of his hand. Even the chances of war depended largely upon the training and discipline of the citizen-soldiers. The polis thus interposed a cushion between its members and the whims of nature, wove a Straitjacket around the arbitrary impulses of magistrate and ruler, and, through military training, even succeeded in reducing the risks of war to a minimum.
A citizen of such a city was as free as a man can be from subjection to any alien will, yet his life was rigorously bound by law. Thus it is scarcely surprising that a few speculatively inclined citizens imagined that the universe might be similarly governed.
Yet this implausible guess gave a distinctive bent to all subsequent Greek (and European) thought. This was remarkable enough; far more remarkable is the fact that behind all the variety of particular occurrences, laws of nature do, in fact, seem to exist.
In the polis, a political theory began, and it is to the polis that we now turn.
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