Texts in Context:
A Cry From the East

By Gabriel Blanchard

Or rather, two cries. A revolution in intellectual culture was followed by a revolt, and that revolt was only a hint of the great drama soon to play out on the Hellene stage.

This post is part of a series on the historical context of our Author Bank; it includes introductory posts on historiographyperiodization, and pseudohistory.

The Axial Age

Last week, we touched on the inventions of Archaic Greece, many of which we still know and use today (such as alphabetic script and tyranny). We also mentioned that there was one we left out; for this was the time of what is sometimes called the Axial Age. Over a span of about six hundred years, at least five major flowerings of religious and philosophical thought took place. Confucianism and Daoism were founded in China (and thrive to this day), alongside a host of more minor ideologies, like Mohism. The Biblical prophets were active in the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, and also during and for a short while after the return of the Judahite nobility who had been exiled to Babylon. In Persia and Turkestan, the Zoroastrian religion took shape, characterized by a sharp moral dualism (and, from the reign of Cyrus the Great, an interesting cross-fertilization with the aforementioned Judahites). The Vedas of India—a large collection of hymns, prayers, ritual manuals, and commentaries—began to be questioned; this prompted both the development of “heterodox Hindu” schools of thought, like Buddhism, and the composition of the Upanishads, philosophical and mystical commentaries on the Vedas that lie behind much “orthodox Hinduism.”* And, last but not least, we find the beginning of the tradition that, today, we call Western philosophy, in the little Hellene city-states around the Ægean Sea.

Now, this beginning should not be misunderstood. The ancient world had many repositories of wisdom and knowledge; before the Late Bronze Age collapse, every major city in the Near East and Egypt had an archive preserving its own history and the important literature of the society to which it belonged, and no society can build architecture without knowing mathematics. People before this were not stupid. But, in the seventh century in the Greek-colonized region of Ionia, a man named Thales did start doing something different.

It is difficult, even today, to describe this new thing without sounding a bit silly. In substance, what Thales did, and what several dynasties of Greek intellectuals did after him, went like this. We all know that various sorts of things exist: humans, gemstones, fish, mountains, books, et cetera. In addition to these, there are certain things that are (more or less broadly) agreed to exist, even though they are not easily got hold of: virtues, numbers,** ghosts, inferences, et even more cetera. And we also know that some objects are made up of parts. So, couldn’t we take all of the things and declare them to be parts of one gigantic object named, I don’t know, “Nature,” and then try to figure out how Nature works?

The canny reader might observe that, while nothing prevents us from doing this, there seems to be no particular reason to do it, or to expect any great return on our mental investment if we do! Why on earth should we assume, in advance of all evidence, that Nature (which you’ve literally just made up, Thales) works according to consistent rules at all? But, humans being what we are, common sense rarely holds its territory against curiosity. Philosophy—beginning principally with what is sometimes called “natural philosophy,” though today we usually use the moniker “the sciences”—had been born. And it saw striking successes right from the beginning: Thales successfully measured the height of the Great Pyramid, predicted a solar eclipse, and (though the details of this one vary) cornered the olive oil market of Miletus, his native city. He ultimately earned the distinction of being accounted one of the Seven Sages of Greece.

“The Light That Enlighteneth Every Man”

Time would fail us to discuss all the pre-Socratic philosophers, even in brief: Anaximander, who first proposed that the earth was spherical†; Xenophanes, famous for the sarcastic observation that if horses could carve statues, we would doubtless see their Zeus in the shape of a horse; Parmenides, who maintained that all is one and that, for this reason, motion is an illusion; Empedocles, who believed existence was a cyclical exchange between the forces of Eris (“strife”) and Eros (“love”) dividing and recombining the elements; Democritus, an early proponent of atomic theory; and the list goes on! Even to discuss the major schools (Milesian, Eleatic, Atomist, etc.) would be a tall task. But we should, and can, briefly discuss two: Heraclitus and Pythagoras.‡

Some say a mounted army is the finest
Sight on this earth; others say infantry,
And others still, a fleet of ships. But I
Reply: 'Tis what one loves,

As anyone can understand. Consider:
When Helen had seen twice ten thousand men
And last beheld the loveliest, she judged
That that man was the best,

Reckoning not the sanctity of Troy,
Nor husband, nor her child; rather, Love
Led her to bear her heart away with him ...

Heraclitus is famous for stating that “No man can step in the same river twice, for the second time, it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.” This articulated his view that everything was in ceaseless flux (not unlike the opinion of Siddartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, who may have been Heraclitus’ contemporary). He did have other views as well; for instance, he set forth the idea of a universal order underlying Nature, and called this order the logos. However, flux is what he is most remembered for. This contrasts with Pythagoras, whose monomania was about not flux, but mathematics. “All is number,” according to Pythagoras; in fairness, this probably meant “everything can be measured with numbers,” which is not nearly such a baffling assertion. This arithmetic mysticism led Pythagoras to discover not only his famous theorem in geometry, but the mathematical relationships between different tones on a scale in music, and even—albeit to his horror—the existence of irrational numbers.

“Ionia.” “Uonimee? No, Ionimee.”

All this was a fairly predictable bloom of the Ionian Greek temperament. The expansion of the Achæmenid Persian Empire under Darius the Great, however, was unpredictable enough to earn Belshazzar of Babylon the cryptic warning Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin (related in Daniel 5). After Darius went on to defeat King Croesus of Lydia around 547 BC and destroy his great empire, the Hellene colonists in Anatolia were absorbed into the satrapy, or Persian province, ruled from the ancient city of Sardis. The Persians preferred to rule mildly and flexibly, so there were local rulers; these were generally tyrants, reigning over cities like Ephesus, Colophon, Miletus, Smyrna, and Magnesia—but these tyrants were armed and armied by, and loyal to, the Persian king.

Eventually, the bold and mercurial Ionians became dissatisfied with Persian rule. In 499 BC, a rebellion erupted, beginning (as philosophy had) in Miletus: its tyrant Aristagoras, following a botched attempt to conquer one of the nearby Greek islands, abruptly abdicated from the tyranny and declared Miletus a democracy, just as their Athenian cousins had declared a little over ten years before. In addition to winning the Milesians over to Aristagoras’s side, this sparked the sympathies of the Athenians, who sent aid to the Ionian rebellion.

The Achæmenid counterattack was masterful in two ways. The first was military: to adapt a phrase from Aristotle, the Persians had not become one of the first world powers in history merely to keep warm. They conclusively put down the revolt in the space of about six years. The second, a characteristically Persian bit of good sense, was that once the revolt had been put down, they actually listened to their Hellene subjects’ complaints. Most Ionian tyrannies were replaced with still-subject but locally-autonomous democracies; Persian nobles made a point of intermarrying with Greek aristocracies and giving their children Greek names; Darius even encouraged Persian participation in Greek religious rites, particularly those of Apollo (perhaps seeing in the god of light and reason an analogue to Ahuramazda, the supreme deity and spirit of truth in the Zoroastrian faith). In the light of these concessions, and some thoughtful reexamination of taxation rates in the region, the mainland Greeks west of the Ægean began to seem like the unreasonable ones. Ionia became once more a fairly content satrapy under the benevolent eye of the Kshâyathiya Kshâyathiyânâm—in English, “the King of kings.”

But neither Achæmenid security nor Achæmenid pride were satisfied. They could not tolerate the presence of such clannish, disorderly, muck-raking city-states on the very hem of their skirts; and there was, of course, the small matter of meting out appropriate punishment upon the Ionians’ former allies in Attica, who did not yet know what Kshâyathiya Kshâyathiyânâm meant. They soon would. The prologue to the Græco-Persian Wars had drawn to a close in 493 BC; the next year, their first chapter proper would begin.

*Hinduism is a difficult topic for Westerners, not because of any lack of mysticism in the West or of reason in the East, but because the term Hinduism is not well-defined. The word Hindu descends from the Sanskrit sindhu, like the name India itself; all three referred to the Indus River, and by extension the culture local to it. In other words, “Hinduism” is not a religion, but a collection of religions, defined in geographical and cultural terms. These can be usefully divided in two groups: the āstika or “orthodox” schools (which accept the Vedas as authoritative Scripture), and the nāstika or “heterodox” schools (which do not). However, this distinction only gets you about as far as the distinction between trinitarian and unitarian religions from the Abrahamic group. The category “unitarian Abrahamic religions” is rational enough, but nobody who understands the subject is going to call Reform Judaism and Shia Islam “forms of the same religion” because they both belong to this category!
**”Certainly we see egg, egg, egg, egg, egg, egg—but can any man see six, apart from the eggs? No man hath seen an integer at any time.” —Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker.
†About which he was, of course, wrong: the earth is an oblate spheroid.
‡”Heraclitus” is most often pronounced hê-rà-klī-tŭs, though hê-răk-lĭ-tŭs is also accepted. “Pythagoras” is pronounced pĭ-thăg-ø-ràs (though Britons will sometimes strengthen the first syllable to -, without moving the stress).

Gabriel Blanchard is what someone who knows no Persian might call CLT’s Zirak Zirakanâm, or editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

Thank you for reading the Journal. If you enjoyed this piece, you might like our author profiles of Herodotus and Æschylus, who lived around this time, or our seven-part miniseries on the meanings of wisdom (religious and otherwise) in Western culture.

Published on 20th May, 2024. Page image of the Parthenon, formerly a temple to the goddess Athene and one of the most celebrated landmarks of Athens; photograph by Steve Swayne, taken in 1978 and used under a CC BY 2.0 license (source).

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