Chapter 1: The Rise of Greek Civilization

As I already promised you last Sunday, today I'm gonna summarize chapter 1 from Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy. After reading the first chapter and the content pages, I think write summaries of every chapter of the book for every week is going to take a really long time. There are 76 chapters, so with the plan that I have it will take 76 weeks to complete summarizing the book. That will be 1 year and 6 months. Too long. So, I change my plan. I'll try to write 2 or 3 times a week. Of course, that with an exception if I'm not too busy or I'm not too lazy. :P

Before we go on to chapter 1, let me tell you first the contents of this book. This book is divided into three sections. Section one (or book one according to Mr. Russell wrote it) is Ancient Philosophy. It has three parts: The Pre-Socratics; Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; Ancient Philosophy after Aristotle. Book two is Catholic Philosophy. It has two parts: The Fathers and The Schoolmen. Book three is Modern Philosophy. It has two parts: From the Renaissance to Hume and From Rousseau to the Present Day. For the record, what Russell means with the present day is obviously his days. Russell was born in 1872 and he died in 1970 at the age of 98. So, you now know, or at least you can google, philosophers in his era. :P

So, here we go...

Book 1: Ancient Philosophy
Part 1: The Pre-Socratics
Chapter 1: The Rise of Greek Civilization

We can say the early prominent philosophers are from Greek. Names such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle ring a bell? Before we come to the golden era in Greek philosophy, we will talk first the Pre-Socratics era. Today, we will learn the rise of Greek civilization. 

Greek civilization wasn't the first civilization on Earth. Long before Greek there had existed Egypt and Mesopotamia civilization for thousands of years. My history teacher in junior high school once said primordial men could live and survive because they lived near water and the same thing happened to any kingdom or any civilization. Egypt and Mesopotamia developed because due to the Nile, the Tigris, and the Euphrates.

picture was taken from here

The Egyptians were preoccupied with death. They believed that the souls of the dead would descend to the underworld, where they would be judged by Osiris, the god of the afterlife, the underworld, and the dead. 

picture was taken from here 

The Egyptian also believed that ultimately the soul would return to the body. This led them to mummification and building splendid tombs or known as pyramids. About 1800 B.C. Egypt was conquered by Hyksos. They ruled Egypt for about two centuries. 

If you pay attention the map above, you'll know how vast Mesopotamia was. It encompassed the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. If you look at the modern map today, Mesopotamia encompasses Iraq, Kuwait, the northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, and smaller parts of southwestern Iran. And it has long periods of civilizations. Heroes rise and fall, so does kingdom. Russell didn't cover all those kingdoms that ruled in Mesopotamia. He only talked about Babylonia

Russell wrote Babylonia had a more warlike development than Egypt. At first the ruling race were not Semites, but Sumerians. There was a period where the cities fought each other, but in the end Babylon became supreme and established an empire. Their god was Marduk

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The oldest legal code was the code of Hammurabi, king of Babylon (2067 - 2025 B.C.). It was believed the code was passed to Hammurabi from Marduk. Babylonian religion, unlike Egypt, was more concerned with prosperity in this world than afterlife. Magic, divination, and astrology were developed in Babylonia. The Babylonians found the division of the day into twenty-four hours, the circle into 360 degrees, and the discovery of eclipses cycle so now we can predict lunar eclipses with certainty and solar eclipses with probability. As we know later this Babylonian knowledge was acquired by Thales.

We already know Egypt and Mesopotamia civilizations were agricultural because they were near to the Niles, the Tigris, and the Euphrates. Next we will learn the early development of commerce which was almost entirely maritime. In commerce, the island of Crete was the pioneer. There was an evident that there was a commerce between Egypt and Crete. One thing we can learn from the early commerce was they didn't only bring goods to sell, but also they brought culture, art, and religion into their country. Same thing happened, no wonder actually, to Crete. It was found that there were affinities in religion between Cretan religion and the religions of Syria and Asia Minor. There was also found affinities in art between Crete and Egypt.

picture was taken from here

If you look at the Crete map above, you can see Crete was an island surrounded by sea. The city was peaceful and unwalled, solely defended by sea power. The civilization in Crete was called Minoan civilization

According to Russell, before the destruction of Minoan civilization, about 1600 B.C. it spread to the mainland of Greece and established the new civilization which was Mycenaean civilization

picture was taken from here

Russell wrote:

The Greeks came to Greece in three successive waves, first the Ionians, then the Archaeans, and last the Dorians. The Ionians appear, though conquerors, to have adopted the Cretan civilization pretty completely, as, later, the Romans adopted the civilization of Greece. But the Ionians were disturbed, and largely dispossessed, by their successors, the Achaeans. The Achaeans are known, from the Hittite tablets found at Boghaz-Keui, to have had a large organized empire in the fourteenth century B.C. The Mycenaean civilization, which had been weakened by the warfare of the Ionians and Achaeans, was practically destroyed by the Dorians, the last Greek invaders. (page 19)

Russell stressed that although the above account seemed probable, we still didn't know whether the Mycenaeans were Greek or not. During Mycenaean age, the invaders settled down and became agriculturists, while some pushed on to the island and Asia Minor, then into Sicily and southern Italy. Here they built maritime cities.

The social system was different across Greece. In Sparta, a small aristocracy opressed serfs of different race; in the poorer regions, the populations consisted mainly farmers cultivating their own lands with the help of their families. But the regions where commerce and industry flourished, there was slavery. The free citizen became rich by having slaves. Male slaves worked in mines and women worked in textile industry.

Greek has experienced different kinds of government. First from monarchy to aristocracy, then to tyranny and democracy. The kings were not absolute because they were advised by a council. The tyranny was the rule of a man whose claim to power was not hereditary. And democracy was government by all citizens, excluded slaves and women.

As my friend, Desti, said in one of my post, history of civilization started from writings. Without writings it will be hardly to say for civilization to arise. The Greeks borrowed from Phoenicians' alphabet then altered it to suit their language. Russell concluded the acquisiton of this method of writing greatly hastened the rise of Greek civilization (page 21). The first notable writer from Greek was Homer, the author of Illiad and Odyssey. 

When discussing about Greek religion, Russell didn't really write much about Zeus, instead he wrote Dionysus. According to him, the way worshippers worshiped Dionysus arose a profound mysticism, which greatly influenced many philosophers, and even had a part in shaping Christian teology (page 24). 

Dionysus, or Bacchus, was originally a Thracian god. Dionysus was god of wine, merry making, theatre, and ecstasy. When his worship was migrated from Thrace to Greece was unknown. His worship was contained barbaric element, such as tearing animals to pieces and eating them raw. There was a ritual which respectable matrons and maids would spend the whole nights on the bare hills in dances, stimulated ecstasy and intoxicated by alcohol. (page 25)

Russell said it was no surprise to see Dionysus was a success in Greece. Because like in any civilizations, there would be proportions of people who would develop a love of the primitive and a hankering after a more instinctive and passionate way of life than a life that sanctioned by current morals (page 25). To some people who put behavior than in feeling, rationality is irksome and virtue is a burden and a slavery. 

The civilized man is distinguished from the savage mainly by prudence, or, to use a slightly wider term, forethought. He is willing to endure present pains for the sake of future pleasures, even if the future pleasures are rather distant. ... True forethought only arises when a man does something towards which no impulse urges him, because his reason tells him that he will profit by it at some future date. (page 25)

Civilization is not only through forethought, but also through law, custom, and religion. Then, what the influence of Dionysus on later philosophers? Russell wrote:

The worshipper of Dionysus reacts against prudence. In intoxication, physical or spiritual, he recovers an intensity of feeling which prudence had destroyed; he finds the world full of delight and beauty, and his imagination is suddenly liberated from the prison of every day occupation. The Bacchic ritual produced what was called "enthusiasm", which means, etymologically, having the god enter into the worshipper, who believed that he became one with the god. Much of what is greatest in human achievement involves some element of intoxication, some sweeping away of prudence by passion. Without the Bacchic element, life would be uninteresting; with it, it is dangerous. Prudence versus passion is a conflict that runs through history. It is not a conflict in which we ought to side wholly with either party. (page 26)

He continued:

In the sphere of thought, sober civilization is roughly synonymous with science. But science, unadulterated, is not satisfying; men need also passion and art and religion. Science may set limits to knowledge, but should not set limits to imagination. Among Greek philosophers, as among those of later in times, there were those who were primarily scientific and those who were primarily religious; the latter owed much, directly or indirectly, to the religion of Bacchus. (page 26)

So, that was for the first chapter of History of Western Philosophy. Please, feel free to say anything or give comment below. I would be so glad if you want to share anything that you know in accordance with what I've just written here. 

Thank you for reading this long post. See you at chapter 2: The Milesian School! \m/


  1. Aku yg akademisi filsafat aja baru baca yg versi terjemahannya. Belum baca yg versi aslinya.

    Malu aku, Kim. Maluuuuuuuu.... *lari ke hutan.

  2. Albar wajid fayardiMarch 9, 2014 at 4:28 PM

    Simpulan setelah baca resume diatas : bahasa inggris gw buruk. Baru baca bentar, udah beberapa kali cek kamus..( T__T )
    Semoga gw mampu baca sampe chapter 76..


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