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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 punished. The decline of the myth started the day that the sages discussed human order: they searched for a definition to the world in forms of accessible intelligence (Vernant, 2013/1962). It started with Homer and Hesiod rationalizing myths and writing those that used to be oral. Therefore religion and mythology have been impacted by the creation of the polis and by the weight that speech and argumentation took in that period.

Having concrete and sovereign gods who organized the world was necessary in an oral world, and the myth was the emblem of that period. However, with the formation of the polis, individuals were now able to understand a primordial element that did not have human form. This is because traditional societies can be distinguished from ‘modern’ societies by the tools that enable the exercise of constructive rumination; not by their lack of rational thought (Goody, 1979/1977, p. 97). Writing, a tool that the polis divulged, enabled mythology to progress. Moreover, writing permitted individuals to grasp an understanding of nature that did not necessitate human rhetoric and metaphors, i.e. it enabled the birth of philosophy. The written form allowed for the study of a text: it allowed an individual to read, and re-read until understanding and it permitted the reader to follow all the paths of an argument. Through this linear perspective, “[T]he works of philosophy thus appear as the elucidation and clarifying of religious, or even pre-religious, material” (Cornford, 1957, p. 126). Development took place from mythology to philosophy and this was possible by the creation of the polis.

Figure 3: The School of Athens, by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino

Before the establishment of the polis, the words muthos and logos did not oppose themselves. However, with the polis and its implementation of the tool of writing, muthos came to signify 'vain assertions', and logos came to signify 'logic', which later became the principle of philosophy. These words represent a dichotomy, however, when we look back to history, a more linear development happened. Mythology became more human and more complex with Hesiod and Homer using the tool of writing, and, as more time advanced in the polis, the arguments became more complex. It was this until the texts of philosophy were not considered as encompassing signs of the religious. Thus, a linear development took place between mythology and philosophy, and this development resulted in the newly embodied tool of writing that could flourish in the polis. This allowed philosophy to eliminate religious imagery and the devotional, permitting the creation of a new method of exploring the fundamental questions of the human mind and the world.


Cornford, F.M. (1957). From Religion to Philosophy, a study in the origins of western speculation. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers Publishers

Couprie, D. L. (2011). Heaven and Earth in Ancient Greek Cosmology: From Thales to Heraclides Ponticu. London, UK: Springer

Goody, J. (1979). La Raison Graphique, la domestication de la pensée sauvage. (J. Bazin & A. Bensa, Trans.) Paris, FR : Les éditions de Minuit. (Original work published 1977)

Hesiod (1983). Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. (Original work published c.725 BCE)

Hountondji, P. J. (2008). Une pensée pré-personnelle. L’Homme, 185-186, 343-363

Korab-Karpowicz, W. J. (2002), Rethinking philosophy, myth and science. Philosophy today, 46(2), 1-7

Vernant, J-P. (2013). Les origines de la pensée grecque. Paris, FR: Presses Universitaires de France. (Original work published 1962)

Image references

Figure 2: Herget Herbert M. (1885-1950). Men vote to ostracize a fellow citizen in the Athenian Agora (colour lithograph), National Geographic Creative.


Author Photo

Altea Vaccaro

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