The Eastern foundations : Near Eastern influence on the Ionian Presocratics and the transmission of Eastern religious ideas to Ionia

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


In the Ionian town of Miletus, at the beginning of the sixth century B. C. E., Thales emerged as Greece's first philosopher. After Thales came Anixamander and Anaximenes of Miletus, Xenophanes of Colophon, and Heraclitus of Ephesus. As a group, these philosophers are the Ionian Presocratics. In Early Greek Thought and the Orient. M. L. West showed similarities between early Greek philosophy and Near Eastern religious ideas. But West’s work is not widely accepted. It also raised more questions than it answered. How were Near Eastern ideas transmitted to Ionia? How do they fit into Near Eastern concepts? How was Ionia different from the rest of the Greek world? Strong Near Eastern influence on Ionian Presocratic philosophy must have come from consistent contact with the Near East. Similarities in the ideas of different cultures are not evidence of a transmission of ideas: all that this shows are parallels. To go beyond parallels requires pinpointing the routes of transfer. The Archaic ivory carver is singled out as a medium of transfer for religious ideas. Ivory carvers had a knowledge of both Near Eastern and Greek religion. As ivory carvers traveled throughout the religious centers of the Aegean, they spread Near Eastern religious ideas to Greece. The transfer of the Phoenician alphabet to Greece demonstrates a transfer of ideas. The transfer of the alphabet shows both that there was an intimate level of contact between Greeks and Phoenicians, and that the two peoples communicated complex knowledge effectively, Ionia's cultural and political context exposed it to Near Eastern ideas. The author argues that Ionia adopted Anatolian religion, making it religiously part of the Near East. Ionia's elite families inter-married with the Lydian aristocracy thus closely connecting Ionia to Lydia. Also, political conquest by Lydia and Persia opened Ionia to Anatolian and Iranian culture. Near Eastern influence on Ionian Presocratics demonstrates that Greeks and people of the Near East communicated complex ideas. Transmission of Near Eastern ideas to Greece provides compelling proof that the foundations of Ionian Presocratic philosophy are Near Eastern.




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