Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
1. The Cosmological Character of Early Greek Philosophy 3. Homer

From Burnet's Introduction

II. The Traditional View of the World
It must, however, be remembered that the world was already very old when science and philosophy began. In particular, the Aegean Sea had been the seat of a high civilisation from the Neolithic age onwards, a civilisation as ancient as that of Egypt or of Babylon, and superior to either in most things that matter. It is becoming clearer every day that the Greek civilisation of later days was mainly the revival and continuation of this, though it no doubt received certain new and important elements from the less civilised northern peoples who for a time arrested its development. The original Mediterranean population must have far outnumbered the intruders, and must have assimilated and absorbed them in a few generations, except in a state like Sparta, which deliberately set itself to resist the process. At any rate, it is to the older race we owe Greek Art and Greek Science.2 It is a remarkable fact that every one of the men whose work we are about to study was an Ionian, except Empedokles of Akragas, and this exception is perhaps more apparent than real. Akragas was founded from the Rhodian colony of Gela, its οἰκιστής was himself a Rhodian, and Rhodes, though officially Dorian, had been a centre of the early Aegean civilisation. We may fairly assume that the emigrants belonged mainly to the older population rather than to the new Dorian aristocracy. Pythagoras founded his society in the Achaian city of Kroton, but he himself was an Ionian from Samos.

This being so, we must be prepared to find that the Greeks of historical times who first tried to understand the world were not at all in the position of men setting out on a hitherto untrodden path. The remains of Aegean art prove that there must have been a tolerably consistent view of the world in existence already, though we cannot hope to recover it in detail till the records are deciphered. The ceremony represented on the sarcophagus of Hagia Triada implies some quite definite view as to the state of the dead, and we may be sure that the Aegean people were as capable of developing theological speculation as were the Egyptians and Babylonians. We shall expect to find traces of this in later days, and it may be said at once that things like the fragments of Pherekydes of Syros are inexplicable except as survivals of some such speculation. There is no ground for supposing that this was borrowed from Egypt, though no doubt these early civilisations all influenced one another. The Egyptians may have borrowed from Crete as readily as the Cretans from Egypt, and there was a seed of life in the sea civilisation which was somehow lacking in that of the great rivers.

On the other hand, it is clear that the northern invaders have assisted the free development of the Greek genius by breaking up the powerful monarchies of earlier days and, above all, by checking the growth of a superstition like that which ultimately stifled Egypt and Babylon. That there was once a real danger of this is suggested by certain features in the Aegean remains. On the other hand, the worship of Apollo seems to have been brought from the North by the Achaians,3 and indeed what has been called the Olympian religion was, so far as we can see, derived mainly from that source. Still, the artistic form it assumed bears the stamp of the Mediterranean peoples, and it was chiefly in that form it appealed to them. It could not become oppressive to them as the old Aegean religion might very possibly have done. It was probably due to the Achaians that the Greeks never had a priestly class, and that may well have had something to do with the rise of free science among them.

Burnet's Notes


2. See Sir Arthur Evans, "The Minoan and Mycenean Element in Hellenic Life" (J.H.S. xxxii. 277 sqq.), where it is contended (p. 278) that "The people whom we discern in the new dawn are not the pale-skinned northerners--the 'yellow-haired Achaeans' and the rest--but essentially the dark-haired, brown-complexioned race . . . of whom we find the earlier portraiture in the Minoan and Mycenean wall-paintings." But, if the Greeks of historical times were the same people as the "Minoans," why should Sir Arthur Evans hesitate to call the "Minoans" Greeks? The Achaians and Dorians have no special claim to the name; for the Graes of Boiotia, who brought it to Cumae, were of the older race. I can attach no intelligible meaning either to the term "pre-Hellenic." If it means that the Aegean race was there before the somewhat unimportant Achaian tribe which accidentally gave its name later to the whole nation, that is true, but irrelevant. If, on the other hand, it implies that there was a real change in the population of the Aegean at any time since the end of the Neolithic age, that is untrue, as Sir Arthur Evans himself maintains. If it means (as it probably does) that the Greek language was introduced into the Aegean by the northerners, there is no evidence of that, and it is contrary to analogy. The Greek language, as we know it, is in its vocabulary a mixed speech, like our own, but its essential structure is far liker that of the Indo-Iranian languages than that of any northern branch of Indo-European speech. For instance, the augment is common and peculiar to Sanskrit, Old Persian, and Greek. The Greek language cannot have differed very much from the Persian in the second millennium B.C. The popular distinction between centum and satem languages is wholly misleading and based on a secondary phenomenon, as is shown by the fact that the Romance languages have become satem languages in historical times. It would be more to the point to note that Greek, like Old Indian and Old Persian, represents the sonant n in the word for "hundred" (ἑκατόν=satam, satem) by a, and to classify it with them as a satem language on that ground.

3. See Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, vol, iv. pp. 98 sqq.

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