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From Mythology to Philosophy: The Polis as a Historical Turning Point

When thinking of our western world, a great dichotomy emerges; the one between mythology and philosophy. However, both were proper to the Ancient Greeks, and if one looks far enough, there is explicit interaction between the two. But then, what was the breaking point - what gave the Greeks the possibility to go further than mythology and enter the world of philosophy?

To begin with, it is important to define both mythology and philosophy. The first has the word myth, which originates from the Ancient Greek muthos, meaning ‘word’, ‘story’; therefore, it did not oppose itself to logos whose first meaning was ‘word’ and ‘discourse’ (Vernant, 2013/1962). Logos has come today to be defined as 'reasoning' and 'intelligence', but we ought to keep in mind that its primary meaning was more similar to muthos. It is only by the progression of time that the two words came to be seen as opposed, and that muthos was assigned a pejorative connotation, designating vain assertions (Vernant, 2013/1962). Opposed to that, philosophy begins with a position taking, and this, to be philosophical, must give its reasons and produce its valid titles (Huntonji, 2008). Philosophy has encapsulated the logos but not anymore as ‘word’, but as 'logic'. The firsts who are said to have been using these logical tools proper to philosophy were the scholars of the Milesian School. Western philosophy has begun in Ancient Greece with the school of Miletus during the 6th century (Couprie, 2011; Korab-Karpowicz, 2002; Vernant, 2013/1962; Cornford, 1957), and it is believed that their scholars questioned the world and responded without the use of theological concepts (Korab-Karpowicz, 2002).

Figure 1: The Gods of Olympus, by Giulio Romano

The birth of philosophy could not have happened alone - something that would revolutionize the world had to happen - this was the creation of the polis. In order to pass from logos recognized as discourse to logos recognized as logic, society in its entirety had to change. The polis marked a series of economic and political transformations but more importantly it implicated a change of mentality. It rotated around men, and not anymore around a sovereign king (Vernant, 2013/1962); political life, instead of being enclosed inside the palace’s walls, was moved to the agora, the public square. Speech became the instrument of political life and writing became accessible to all and allowed a better knowledge distribution (Vernant, 2013/1962). The polis’s wisdom also penetrated the religious realm, which based itself on mythology; this spiritual world, before reserved to an aristocracy, became the element of a commune culture. Religion was not anymore conserved as an act of power in the secrets of family traditions; instead, the publications of myths, which contained strong religious connotations, were nourishing different interpretations and passionate debates. In that sense, the temple was now open to all, and the sages debated the knowledge of the gods.

Figure 2: Men vote to ostracize a fellow citizen in the Athenian Agora, by Herget Herbert M.

Homer and Hesiod are two authors for which mythology has entered the written sphere of the polis and the literary form has taken the upper hand over the mythological one (oral form). From their works, one can see elements of the profane entering into the myth - that is why the gods depicted by both authors do not have only divine facets but also human characteristics (Korab-Karpowicz, 2002). This view is reflected in multiple passages of Hesiod’s theogony, hence the following passage in which Gaia (the earth) says to her children: “Yours is a reckless father; obey me, if you will, that we may all punish your father’s outrageous deed, for he was first to plot shameful actions” (Hesiod, 1983/725 BCE, line n° 190). Here, we can discern that Gaia speaks from emotions (passion and revenge) that could be proper to humans; Gaia could easily be one of us speaking about her husband which offended her and her children and has, therefore, to be