The 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:
“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.”