Ask anyone to define philosophy and generally people think of the Greek culture and its numerous stories, poems and mythologies. But in fact philosophy is the love of wisdom1 and still is actively studied today. Every culture seems to have there own philosophy or set of beliefs that are crucial to the way they think about themselves and the world around them. Yet, most will admit are difficult to prove. For much of the history of our species, people have addressed the question of our origins by using these different methods of dissertation2.
For a long time these supernatural philosophies, taken on faith, provided at least some satisfaction in answering the most profound questions and for many they still do. However, others have chosen to adopt the evidence that science offers, which through a different process, attempts to answer the very same things. It is interesting to think about how and why the Greeks came up with their philosophies. Both then and now, philosophical dissertations have assisted in expanding our knowledge of human and animal behavior, as well as why things occur in nature.
Hesiod’s myth of how the cosmos came to be, and Protagoras’ story on the inception of humanity are prime example of such mentality. One can only venture to guess why the pre-Socratics of that time created such extraordinary and fantastical stories. But at that time people were probably beginning to ask questions about how things like rain, thunder, snow and all of nature’s wonders occurred. Today, it is common knowledge that when humans are afraid, they try to control or justify the fear by explaining it. In the past it was inconceivable to control such anomalies but, through philosophizing they did attempt at explaining them.
Having said that, it would make sense that the ancient Greeks would conclude all of these things to be caused by something supernatural. Consequently they invented god(s) and myth which marked the beginning of modern philosophy. In ancient times, Hesiod’s creation story, also known as the ‘Theogony,’ tells of how the cosmos was created and acquaints us with the different beings that were involved in creating it. The gods or immortals depicted by Hesoid possessed supernatural abilities, yet they resembled humans in form, feelings, and emotions.
According to the author of the text Reading in ancient Greek Philosophy “Hesiod invokes the Muses as both the authority for his claims and the source of his information. “3 The Muses seem to give Hesoid a creative explanation of how the universe came into being, which at the time was probably told in the form of a story, poem, or a play. One can imagine that, in this form, Hesiod’s claims would not only be pleasing to the crowd, but also by getting this information through divine intervention, was all the evidence needed (for him) and enough to plant the seeds of ‘the myth’ in the minds of others.
Understanding where we came from is almost as important to us as knowing who created it. By examining Hesiod’s myth and others like it, we have a good idea of what he may have been thinking at the time of its development (or conception? ). Each god in Hesiod’s account of the cosmos has their own unique personality. Some are the protectors of certain areas, where others are merely personifications. For example, “Gaia” is used as a personification, yet we know “Gaia” does not have a human form; the earth is just given human qualities.
Others are anthropomorphic, like “Eros” who had a human form and was said to be the “loveliest of all the Immortals. ” All of the twelve immortals were created with a purpose which was to give a reason of how the cosmos came to be. It would seem that this first myth assisted in creating an underlying foundation of how life was created and destroyed, as well as describing love and hate. Yet he still allows himself room for error by naming all other titans/gods with each having their own powers, proposes, and emotions.
For example, he begins with the “Abyss,” which is nothingness, then moves on to “Gaia,” which is mother earth, caring and nurturing everything else. From there he speaks about “Tararos,” or the underworld, which was, and still is important due to the harsh reality that is inevitable. Our desire to understand death stems from our fear of the unknown, ergo, the creation of an afterlife (or the underworld). Being an illusive piece of rhetoric4 meant that no one would be able to argue or prove this story false.
Even if people didn’t believe in the myth completely, it gave them a temporary excuse or reason for why things happened. This may have been one of the first myths, but it was certainly not the last. When looking at ancient Greek mythology, it’s important to keep in mind that most of these philosophies have been told and re-told before they were actually written down. In some cases, the story or myth was recorded years after the philosopher had passed on (e. g. Protagoras’ story was written by Plato, for the purpose of allegorizing).
So when reading it one must remember that although Protagoras is said to have spoken this, the actual story is being told by Plato, so to what degree of truth and accuracy exists, is completely unknown. The Protagoras myth as told by Plato was Protagoras’ method to illustrate how virtue was teachable to a young and inquisitive Socrates. The wise Protagoras decided that this explanation would be best understood through story or myth. His apologue did not attempt to explain the beginning of the cosmos, but detailed the beginning of the earth and life as we know it.
This is evident when he starts his argument with “There once was a time when the gods existed but mortal races did not. “5 It continues that, two titans, a clever Prometheus and his brother, Epimetheus, were spared imprisonment after the war between the Olympians and the Titans because they had stayed neutral. According to the legend, the gods shaped man out of mud, and then allowed Epimetheus to dispense various qualities to the animals and man. Epimetheus started off with the animals to which he gave the best traits (swiftness, courage, cunning, stealth, etc. ) and soon found he had nothing left to give man.
So Prometheus took over and after long deliberation gave man the practical arts, together with fire that he stole from Athena and Hephaestus. This enabled man to survive. Although man had practical wisdom and fire, they were not given the wisdom of for living together in society or political wisdom which was under the watchful eye of Zeus6. He goes on to say that because the human race was not living and working together, they were going to be destroyed by wild beasts. Zeus who did not want to see the annihilation of humanity, ended up giving them the knowledge they needed to work together in order to stay alive.
Protagoras’ story gives an account of how humanity was created, but the most important part of his myth was when Zeus gave humanity “the art of politics, of which the art of war is a part. “7 As well as, “justice and a sense of shame … and bonds of friendship to unite. “8 His version of creation also justifies deism. As the myth says, “it is because humans had a share of the divine dispensation that they alone among animals worshipped the gods. “9 At the time, Hesiod and Protagoras’, dissertations were taken as absolute truths and just like religions today, sometimes they were questioned.
However, by today’s definition a myth is a traditional story accepted as history and serves to explain the world view of a people10; something we would describe by science today. When we look at the sciences in comparison, nothing is ever taken as absolutely true. And just as in philosophy there is a process in developing these scientific theories. Auxiliary assumptions are created through careful observation, and people constantly attempt to disprove them, it’s only after they hold up under massive criticism and are highly corroborated that we elevate these hypotheses to theories.
In turn we have religion, in which people all throughout history have developed their own individual ideologies by saying “god has shown me the truth. ” Yet, these people know full well this is an un-testable theory. Since the theory of god(s) has existed for as long as anyone can remember, it’s taken to be an authoritative source. Today, Greek philosophy stigmatizes myth as ‘irrational. ‘ Such an approach ignores the important roles played by myth, stories and poetry in Greek philosophy, they are not just as completely obscure, but they work as a mode of philosophical thought and play an important part in learning about our past.