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    Myth and Philosophy in the Ancient World

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    Imagine a man in the ancient world who is seeking desperately for an answer. This man is neither a scholar or seeks to become one. He simply looks to make sense of the complex world around him. This man does not have modern science or modern religion to aid him in this, so he is forced to rely on what his impressionable mind can conceive to make sense of his surroundings. He questions what makes the sun rise in the morning and what makes the moon come out at night. He questions why the seasons change and why all men must die. He questions why war and famine happens. To answer these questions, the mind of man in the Homeric era concluded that the visible world must be supported by some supernatural realm and that each event or occurrence in nature is attributed to a god. This, for a period of time, was sufficient in answering these questions. The belief in gods and the supernatural controlling the world established some sense of order which all men demand.

    As a result, the belief in Greek gods and the attributes of those gods which men followed dictated society for centuries and things were relatively stable in the world. However, man began to demand more. As time moved on and society became more advanced, man was no longer complacent with mythology and looked to reason and human intellect to explain his world. Because of this, the works of mythological writers such as Hesiod and Homer gave way to the pre-Socratic writers, Plato and Aristotle. Their works and their interpretations of the world took man out of the complacency of the Homeric Age and took the mind of man out of darkness and into the “light” of intellect and reason. Although both mythology and philosophy were attempts to explain the world, the rise of the philosophical mind forced man to use reason to explain the world in which he lived. In my essay, I will show how and why this change occurred and why it was important in shaping western ideas.

    It is widely debated whether Homer was a real person or whether a collection of writers wrote about their world under a pen name. Whether Homer was a real person or a collection of different writers, the point of views and actions of the characters in The Iliad by both men and gods capture in brief how the whole Homeric world viewed society. In The Iliad, we can see through various clear examples of how the stories that made up Greek mythology became the paradigmatic model for nearly all human activities during that era. Things such as debauchery, adultery, murder and rape that are taboo in western culture today were often glorified during that time as honor and capitalizing upon the spoils of war were emphasized.

    Likewise, the Greek gods were guilty of these sins so they provided justification of these acts instead of holding man accountable as the pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle aimed to do and made man complacent. The nature of man is to be complacent and we can see this every day in modern western society. Man has to often be challenged to change his way of thinking. There are several specific examples from The Iliad that I can point too to prove this. “We everlasting gods…Ah what chilling blows we suffer…thanks to our own conflicting wills…whenever we show these mortal men some kindness” (Homer, Book 5)

    This quote was by Ares when he was wounded by Diomedes. This quote is important because it shows the relationship between men and gods in the mythological world. People of the Homeric era viewed themselves as being attached to the gods and viewed their wills as not being independent but attached to the will of the gods. Another example can be seen in this quote, “Remember your own father, great godlike Achilles-as old as I am, pass the threshold of deadly old age! No doubt the countrymen round about him plague him now, with no one there to defend him, beat away disaster, No one- but least he hears you still alive and his old heart rejoices, hopes rising , day by day, to see his beloved son come sailing home from Troy.” (Homer, Book 24)

    This quote, and the background behind it, can be used as an example of how the Homeric era values of honor and capitalizing on spoils played into their world. Achilles denied Hector the respectable death that he asked but rather degraded his body by dragging it on the back of a chariot around the city of Troy. This would be considered completely morally unacceptable today and by the Greek philosophers but the men of the Iliad valued their perceived right to enjoying war spoils and getting revenge more than almost anything else. Achilles only agreed to let Hector’s body go when he remembered that he was fated to soon die.

    Mythology addressed our complex and intricate environment by emphasizing many of the phenomena of the natural world such as the changing of the seasons and death. People living in ancient times had no way of knowing that seasons are caused by the rotation of the Earth on its axis. Likewise, they had no way of knowing that death, not caused by accident or murder, is caused by the death of cells and RNA proteins which causes aging. Therefore, to answer what was unanswerable in the ancient world, mythology emphasized the idea that every known phenomenon was caused directly or indirectly by divine intervention by a god either directly or indirectly. Mythology ultimately failed in being adequate enough for a plethora of reasons.

    First of all, mythology was too simplified in explaining reality to be sufficient. Mythology was just a collection of stories about people and gods which man outgrew as he began to demand principles, reason and natural explanations. Mythology gave room for a plethora of explanations often to describe or explain one thing. These explanations often did not make much rational sense and the Pre-Socratics demanded both rational backing behind everything and a single theory behind the order of the world. Also, the mythological concepts were in direct contrast to the idea of human advancement as they were slow to change. Perhaps the most important of all of these is that the Pre-Socratics recognized that the vast majority of myths justified the behavior of humans instead of holding them accountable for their actions.

    Instead of teaching humans a lesson and encouraging them to correct their morally incorrect behavior, myths gave humans a “scapegoat” for their behavior by allowing them to place the blame of all human behavior and interaction, both good and bad, on supernatural beings instead of themselves. This leads into the main objection of the Pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle against mythology. Mythology in and of itself is very morally ambivalent. Things that we consider immoral could be interpreted as being encouraged by mythology. This moral ambivality was the greatest difference between the myths and the ideas expressed by philosophers and between the two, there could be seen an evolution in the minds of men that led to such thoughts as those expressed by Plato and Aristotle.

    Eventually, as time progressed, men in the Ancient World demanded more sound ideas on what shaped the world around them. With this, we began to see a shift towards reason and philosophy in Greek society. Man advanced to the point where philosophy was required to continue towards a palpable sense of belonging in the world. More complex questions were starting to be asked that mythology could not answer such as how humans are different than animals and why men have souls. In mythology, none of these things which the philosophers pondered were a priority. Because of this, men began to question the myths on which they once relied to understand the world.

    In the opening line of Politics, Aristotle states that “Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good” (Core Texts Reader p. 86). He then goes on to say that we must “acknowledge then that each one has just so much happiness as he has virtue and wisdom, and of virtuous and wise action.” In his Politics, Aristotle is saying that every man and every society must work towards some common good and that things are interwoven and do not happen at random. He then goes on to say that every person is virtuous to a certain extent and has an opportunity to happiness. This is a complete shift from mythology in suggesting that man can shape his own destiny and that he is not bound by external forces such as gods. Aristotle even goes as far as to insinuate that no supernatural realm controls man but that man controls himself. Whether Aristotle was an atheist or not is still debated and he was poisoned on the charge. Plato says in the Allegory of the Cave that “… If they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?” (Core Texts Reader p. 44)

    In stating this, Plato is suggesting that men can use intellectualism and reason to share ideas and shape what the moral code should be and how they should live their lives according to their own ideas and not external forces. Real or made up. This marked a notable shift in the way that men saw the world. Man began to take control of his curiosity and asked questions about how the world really worked. This was the spark that ignited the intellectual age.

    In conclusion, it can be clearly evidenced that both mythology and the rise of philosophy played a major role in how the Greeks viewed their place in the world. The challenges to the former way of mythological thinking and reasoning gave way to the spark which is intellectual thought. The ideas of the pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle are still at the heart of what makes up the ideas and values of western democracy. Man awoke from his self imposed “darkness” and walked into the “light” of free and critical thinking starting with Plato and Aristotle. The socratic thinkers were merely the beginning of the movement that shaped the ideas of western society. Plato and Aristotle were two very different men with contrasting views on many topics but they were in agreement on the principle that man can control their own destiny through reasoning and practicality. Those two men took the excuses that mythology gave man for having a lack of self awareness away.

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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