Cultural Preconditions of Ionian Self-Enlightment – Katarina Nebelin

The emergence of early Greek philosophy and science was influenced by ‘foreign’ (mainly Babylonian, Egyptian and Phoenician) cosmological and astronomical ideas and methods. The Greeks themselves assumed to be highly indebted to the older and more advanced cultures of the East, as numerous stories about the fruitful contacts of early thinkers to typical places and agents of ‘oriental wisdom’ illustrate. Many of these stories are connected to Ionia, where intercultural contacts must have been a daily experience. That all of the earliest Greek natural philosophers and investigators were Ionians fits well into this picture of Ionia as a stimulating meeting place as well as a centre of trade and exchange of ideas. However, it is much disputed how this intellectual exchange worked in practice. In order to explain the way these interactions with foreign cultures fostered and stimulated an ‘Ionian self-enlightment’, it is therefore necessary to take a closer look at the social actors and as the social spaces involved in this process.

In the fragments of early philosophers, not a single reference to a specific foreign thinker, or school of thought, or set of ideas has survived. Does this mean that Greek philosophy emerged autochthonously? Or did Ionian thinkers play down all foreign influences on their thinking? In the first section of my talk, I will introduce three alternative answers to these questions that will help explore the specific setting of the early Greek intellectual field and the sociocultural setting of archaic Ionia as well:

  1. Ancient sources never give us individual names of specific philosophers’ Eastern teachers. Instead, we are told that they had been taught by ‘priests’, ‘Chaldaeans’ or ‘scribes’. This suggests that the Greeks did not possess an intimate knowledge about Eastern cultures of wisdom, but tended to regard them as rather homogeneous and cohesive systems of belief.
  2. That the early philosophers never mention a foreign thinker indicates that references to foreign wisdom would simply have not brought any profit of social distinction. In archaic Greece, the status of wisdom itself was highly contested. There was no defined intellectual role, nothing comparable to the undisputed, commonly acknowledged and institutionalized social position of priesthoods and scribal schools in Babylonian, Egyptian or Persian society.
  3. It was not only that early Ionian philosophers never mentioned foreign thinkers; they rarely referred to other Greek thinkers, and if they did, they mostly criticized and abused them. This was due to the extreme competitiveness among them.

In the second part of my talk, I will try to contextualise these considerations by looking at social spaces in which intellectual exchange between Greeks and non-Greeks could have taken place in archaic Ionia. A set of sociocultural preconditions separated Ionia from its non-Greek environment and also partially from the rest of Greece and offered a wide range of possible intercultural contact zones:

  • Religious setting: In this point, Ionia was not much different from the rest of Greece. Generally, there were no officials – like priests or seers – who possessed a superior religious authority or could claim exclusive wisdom about the gods.
  • Economic setting: Trade and commerce offered various possibilities for informal, multilateral contacts between Ionians, but also between Ionians and other Greeks and Ionians and Non-Greeks.
  • Political setting: In this field, the differences between Ionia and the rest of Greece are the most evident. The Ionian poleis were not located in a political vacuum, but had to cope and coexist with much larger and militarily stronger empires, above all the Lydian and Persian kingdoms. They had to face political pressure, competition and even dominance by non-Greeks.

Given these sociopolitical preconditions as well as the specific setting of the archaic intellectual field, some forms of contact and exchange are more plausible than others. For example, practical wisdom is publicly present and thus more accessible than theoretical thinking. To travelling Ionians, it must have been easier to take over certain methods and practices than to gain access to more restricted and distinctive sets of knowledge that were controlled by priesthoods or similar specialists and embedded in a peculiar cultural setting. It seems unlikely that foreigners were initiated into such forms of sacral and secret wisdom. Rather, there may have been contacts based on transcultural elite networks that were held together by gift exchange. Especially the symposion, a key institution of elite culture all around the Mediterranean, could have been an important social space of intellectual exchange.

To conclude my talk, I will try to specify how foreign ideas and concepts stimulated an ‘Ionian self-enlightment’. On the one hand, the playful atmosphere of the symposion encouraged allegorical interpretations and adaptations. On the other hand, the lack of authorities and institutionalised intellectual roles forced the Ionian thinkers to focus on themselves and ascribe a central role to their individual sophia. Both aspects led to an inwardly directed perspective, combined with a broad, open-minded and critical outlook. The combination of pan-Ionian interconnectedness and various other forms of contacts to other Greeks and especially to non-Greeks in several relatively open social fields stimulated a growing sensibility for similarities as well as dissimilarities. As a result, the early Ionian thinkers were encouraged to take a closer look at different forms of living, of thinking and of explaining the world and its order. They tended to take an outsider’s perspective towards their own culture, but also towards human civilization in general. Other traditions of thought could influence and inspire, but not restrict or determine them. The emergence of Ionian philosophy by self-enlightment was thus a product of the relatively free exchange with other conceptions about the order of cosmos and nature.