Religion: help or hindrance to philosophy?

apollo-100x134The Greeks were the first to do philosophy, and one of the perennially great questions is: Why the Greeks and not some others? Various answers focus on their cosmopolitan trading economy, their concurrent development of democratic politics, or some other combination of factors.

I have long thought that the Greeks’ naturalistic religion was a positive, contributing factor. Since their deities were naturalistic beings, the Greeks were less likely to think of the world as governed by other-worldly beings beyond their comprehension. Since the Greek deities intervened in human affairs for motives we can understand (lust, rivalry, envy, revenge), the Greeks were more likely to think of the world as intelligibly cause and effect. And so on.

So let me turn to the dissenting view, from the estimable John Stuart Mill, which I only recently came across. In an 1846 review of George Grote’s History of Greece, Mill takes up the question of philosophy’s birth and says this about the Greeks and their religion:

mill“With a religious creed eminently unfavourable to speculation, because affording a ready supernatural solution of all natural phenomena, they yet originated freedom of thought.”

Mill’s suggestion is that since the Greek religion already provided easy and intelligible explanations for natural events, there would no reason to seek further. Religion of the Greek sort is thus a hindrance to the development of philosophy.

Thoughts? Should I stick with my original view, or should I switch to Mill’s intriguing hypothesis?

Source: Mill’s “A Review of the first Two Volumes of ‘Grote’s History of Greece’” from the Edinburgh Review, October 1846, can be read online here.]

Related post: “Why Philosophy Begins with Thales.”

5 thoughts on “Religion: help or hindrance to philosophy?

  • December 10, 2009 at 7:45 am

    Shouldn’t we take a look at the first philosopher, Thales? From Wikipedia: “Many philosophers followed Thales’ lead in searching for explanations in nature rather than in the supernatural; others returned to supernatural explanations, but couched them in the language of philosophy rather than of myth or of religion.

    Looking specifically at Thales’ influence during the pre-Socratic era, it is clear that he stood out as one of the first thinkers who thought more in the way of logos than mythos. The difference between these two more profound ways of seeing the world is that mythos is concentrated around the stories of holy origin, while logos is concentrated around the argumentation.”

    The question should be, where did Thales get his ideas? Did they just suddenly spring up, or was there something about ancient Greek society that helped? If commerce had anything to do with the start of philosophy, then why didn’t the Phoenicians develop it too? Here is one view I found by searching for Phoenicians+philosophy”:

    “Still, the Phoenicians (and their cousins, the Carthaginians) had the alphabet first, and were excellent sea traders as well. Why weren’t they the founders of western intellectual history? Perhaps it had to do with centralization. The Phoenicians had an authoritarian government controlled by the most powerful merchants. The Carthaginians had the same. Perhaps being surrounded by powerful authoritarian empires forced them to adopt that style of government to survive.

    The Greeks, on the other hand, were divided into many small city-states, each unique, each fiercely independent, always bickering and often fighting. It may seem disadvantageous, but when it comes to ideas, diversity and even conflict can be invigorating! Consider that when Greece was finally united under Macedonian rule, the flurry of intellectual activity slowed. And when the Romans took over, it practically died.”

  • December 10, 2009 at 9:33 am

    If the Greek religion “hinders” the development of philosophy why were they the first to develop it? Is it a testament to their intellect as a people, culture, race? I would tend to concur with your original view.

  • April 21, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    I believe that their mythological gods did not and could not “provide easy and intelligible explanations for natural events,” which is exactly why they had to seek out truth. I also think that because they were traders, they heard what other cultures thought were “truths,” which made them question their own beliefs.

  • August 7, 2013 at 8:56 am

    “why the Greeks and not some others?” The question is false, because it was not the Greeks who were the first to do philosophy. The oldest tradition of philosophy in the world is the Indian tradition. There is significant evidence to show the Greeks first inherited their philosophy from the Indians. Thomas Mcevilly has done significant research in this area and documents it in his tome “The shape of ancient thought” For example, there is significant evidence to show that Pythagoras was influenced by Hinduism, as all features of his philosophical contributions and beliefs have older precursors in India. Several scholars have noted, such as the illustrious indologist Max Muller, the unmistakable parallels between the Hindu philosophy Samkhya and Pythagorean philosophy e.g., the 5 elements(fire, earth, air, water, ether) and his belief in transmigration of souls, vegetarianism and not eating certain food. There are also strong parallels between Platonism and Yoga.

    One who is familiar with the Indian philosophical tradition can clearly see that the oldest philosophical musings took place in India, as early in the Vedas, such as in the later hymns like the hymn of creation(Nasadiya Sukta) evincing profound thought and the beginning of skeptical inquiry, later reaching maturity in the Upanishads, considered the oldest philosophical texts in the world and were heralded by many enlightenment philosophers and poets.
    By the time Greek Philosophy started to take off, the Indian tradition had already reached maturity and sophistication, evidenced by the vast literature, philosophical and scientific treatises that were produced in this period.

    There is unfortunately a myopia in Western philosophy which when tracing the origins of philosophy and science, fails to see the influence of other parts of the world, notably the East. It tries to reduce the history of philosophy and science to the Greeks, conveniently forgetting other great traditions which were contemporaneous or even older such as Indian and Chinese traditions. Till recently, non-western contributions like the decimal system and and the zero were attributed to the Greeks and not the Indians. The Indians have made very significant contributions to philosophy and science, arguably even greater than the Greeks and Arabs, whose impact is only now starting to be recognized. It is time we start to give them their due and stop pretending the Greeks did everything.

  • August 7, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    Hi Raj: Do you have a good, scholarly source that covers India’s contributions to the foundations of philosophy? What I know of McEvilley’s thesis is that there was more interchange between East and West in ancient times, including intellectual exchange, than often thought. Several cultures prior to the Greeks had occasional ideas or speculations that could be considered philosophical; but the question is about doing philosophy in a systematic, deliberate way, and as far as I know the Greeks were first to do that. I’m open to new evidence, though.

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