24. The Ionian Philosophical Revival – from Death to Life

These Greek ruins in Ionia signify the Ionian Enlightenment and the birth of Greek philosophy.
Ancient Greek City of Ionia

The Greek Dark Ages commenced with the fall of Troy in the 12th century.1 It continued for several centuries until a ray of light finally dawned in the region of Ionia in western Asia Minor in the eighth and seven centuries BC.2 This flourishing of art and culture is known as the Ionian Enlightenment or the Ionian Renaissance. The Dark Ages continued in the rest of the Greek territories for a while longer. Why was Ionia different?

The answer to that question is geography. After the fall of Troy, the Mycenaean culture collapsed.3 Eventually, groups of Mycenaeans carrying Greek culture made their way to the western coastal area of Asia Minor. By the ninth century, a new Greek culture began to rise out of the ruins. This is when and where Homer and Hesiod crafted their poems. The location of these early Greek colonies in Asia Minor brought them into contact with the Persian Empire to the East, resulting in their influence over it.

We tend to think of this time as the birth of modern philosophy with the Presocratic philosophers, but it was much more than that. This renaissance involved, not only philosophy, but a blossoming of poetry, literature, art, sculpture, and architecture.4 Builders constructed the great Greek temples we know in Ephesus, Samos, and Miletus. It would be no exaggeration to say that because of their enlightenment, the Ionians laid the cornerstone of Classical and subsequently Western Civilization.

The Birth of the Polis, the Greek City-State

As mentioned above, what made the Ionian Greeks different from their counterparts on the mainland is that their geographical location put them in contact with the Persians. This is the reason that they emerged from the dark ages compared to the non-Ionian Greeks.5 According to Dawson, the reason that the ancient Greeks in Ionia revived is because of the uniting of, “the oriental sacred city with the Indo-European warrior tribe.6 Of course, the Persians were Indo-European as well with their language being from the Indo-Iranian group of the Indo-European language family. And the oriental sacred city ultimately had its origin in the Mesopotamian city-state. This Mesopotamian influence came to the Persians through the Elamites.

The ancient Persian cities were indeed a sight to behold with all of their beauty, opulence, and majesty. They were not only beautiful, but projected regal power and authority.7 One practice that emphasized the difference in the Greek and Persian mindset was in how the viewed rulers.8 The Greeks thought that prostrating oneself to the king was going too far since only a god deserved such a show of reverence. In general, people in the West looked at the kingdoms of the East such as the Persians as being overly ostentatious.

Nevertheless, the Ionian Greeks were influenced by the Oriental culture of Persia for two reasons. First of all, whenever two cultures are in physical proximity to one another, there is always opportunity for cross pollination. Secondly and more specifically, the Ionian Greeks were attracted to the stability of the Persian cities which they eventually adopted and modified, thus tempering their violent and bellicose tendencies.

It was this warrior spirit, so aptly portrayed by Homer in the Iliad, which helped contribute to their destruction initially, leading to the Greek Dark Ages. The Ionian Greeks emerged from the Dark Ages with the emergence of the Greek city-state, the polis, that was born from the union of the dynamic Greek warrior culture with the stability of the regal Persian city. The polis continued to provide a foundation for Greek culture until the death of Alexander the Great. 

So then, time span between the fall of Troy and Homer’s epics witnessed the fusion of the Greek warrior tribes with the ancient city.9 All the while, as this was happening, their Greek counterparts in northwestern Greece “remained a semi-barbarous population of war-like tribesmen and peasants, without literature, without science, and without the city state.”10

The polis created the fertile milieu in which philosophical speculation was born. Rational discussion and deliberation replaced violence and bloodshed on the battlefield in order to settle disputes. The pursuit of truth replaced the pursuit of glory in battle. Out of this emerged works of poetry, drama, music, and philosophy. Debate and deliberation in these new city-states created a prototype of what later became the Platonic dialogues.

The Ionian Greeks came to realize that a stable social order was essential for a culture to survive and thrive. A stable city-state ordered the souls of individuals and the stable souls of individuals helped bring stability to the city-state.11 They mutually reinforced one another. This enlightenment eventually spread beyond Ionia with sixth century reformers like Solon taking the polis model and applying it to the city of Athens. 

The Ionian Enlightenment

Sometime in the late seventh century, the Ionian miracle occurred when philosophy emerged in Ionia: Thales, the first philosopher, arrived on the scene. This is also known as the Ionian Enlightenment.

Thales and those who came after him are called the Presocratic philosophers. As we will see, they tried to find rational explanations for things without denying the divine. It could be said that they were both scientific and philosophic. They saw that the universe was ordered and followed predictable laws that could be determined through observation and reason. They were the first scientists but they were also natural philosophers. In addition, Aristotle described them using the term phusikoi or “physicists.”12 He described as such:

“Well, of the first philosophers the majority thought that the causes in the form of matter were alone the principles of all things. For that from which all entities come, from which each thing primarily arises and into which it is at the end resolved, the substance remaining but changing as to its affections, this they announced to be the element and principle of all entities, and for this reason they thought that nothing either came to be or was destroyed, since this sort of nature was always preserved…”13

Aristotle, Metaphysics [983b]

Aristotle then goes on to name Thales as the founder of the Presocratics or phusikoi:

“Thales, the founder of this school of philosophy, says the permanent entity is water…”14

-Aristotle, Metaphysics [983b]

The End of the Ionian Renaissance

As mentioned above, even though the Persians heavily influenced the Greeks in the development of the polis, the Ionian Greeks remained independent until they were invaded by Cyrus II in 546 B.C.15 Cyrus attacked and defeated King Croesus of Lydia at Sardis in Asia Minor. This was the beginning of Persia’s rise to power to become an empire. Eventually, the Ionian Greek revolted and attempted to throw off their Persian overlords in what is called the Ionian Revolt (499-494 B.C.).16 Darius I of Persia eventually crushed the revolt.17 Although the Ionians did achieve a level of autonomy afterwards, they nevertheless remained a tributary state of Persia.

The effects of this partially unsuccessful revolt were so devastating that the Ionian Renaissance in effect came to and end, although this did not happen all at once.18 The presence of great thinkers like Heraclitus at this time illustrate that Greek intellectual life continued to flourish for some time in Iona. But after the revolt, Ionia was ruled by a series of heavy handed tyrants. This had the effect of stifling intellectual freedom and creativity. In addition to that, the philosophers and artists of Ionia stopped receiving patronage from the governing authorities. All of this had the effect of eventually snuffing out the smoldering wick of the Ionian Enlightenment. Do you see any parallels in the modern West?

Having said that, what began in Ionia, eventually spread to the rest of the Greek city-states and then eventually the Roman Empire. This had repercussion in thought that rippled down through history and is still with us today.

Political philosopher Eric Voegelin stated that there have been two “leaps in being” in Western Civilization.19 There was the leap in being among the Ionian Greeks who discovered the mind or philosophy, and there was the leap in being among the Israelites who were enlightened by revelation. These two leaps in being formed the foundation of Western Civilization.

The Athenian reformer Solon stated:  

“…a polis is ruined by its great men, and a people falls into the servitude of a tyrant through its simplemindedness.”

The New Dark Age

History is not a continual period of enlightenment or a continual period of darkness, but rather fluctuations between periods of light and darkness. It is apparent for anyone who has eyes to see that the West is in a period of incredible spiritual darkness. This has lead to a paucity of wisdom unparalleled in Western Civilization. Technology is not wisdom, but mere knowledge. Wisdom is needed to know how to use technology in a virtuous manner.

The good news, and what history has taught us, is that centuries of darkness are often followed by incredible revivals, both spiritual and cultural. The consequent revivals often dwarf the darkness by comparison. We need to be patient and think of cultural change in terms of decades and centuries rather than years. What is left for us to do in the meantime is to preserve the truth as the medieval monks did in times of cultural upheaval. The best way to do this is to pass the truth down to the next generation. This is our most valuable legacy, more so than material possessions. We have to start thinking in these terms. And who knows, maybe we will have our own Ionian Revival someday, or something far greater.

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Deo Gratias

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  1. Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, pp. 143-4, Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020
  2. Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, pp. 145-6
  3. Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 2: Greece and the Polis, p. 113, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, 1956-1987 as cited in Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, p. 143
  4. Pedersen, Poul, “The Ionian Renaissance,” University of Southern Denmark (SDU), https://www.sdu.dk/en/om_sdu/institutter_centre/ih/forskning/forskningsprojekter/halikarnassos/ionic_renaissance
  5. Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, p. 151
  6. Dawson, Christopher, The Age of the Gods: A Study in the Origins of Culture in Prehistoric Europe and the Ancient East, p. 381, Sheed and Ward, New York, 1950 as cited in Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, p. 151
  7. For an interesting visual on the ancient Persian cities, please check out this video entitled, “Persia’s Forgotten Empire,” by Tracks, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eV30XIkDubo
  8. “Proskynesis,” Livius.org, Articles on Ancient History, 2019, https://www.livius.org/articles/concept/proskynesis
  9. Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, p. 149
  10. Dawson, Christopher, The Age of the Gods: A Study in the Origins of Culture in Prehistoric Europe and the Ancient East, p. 360, as cited in Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, p. 151
  11. Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, pp.148-153
  12. Curd, Patricia and Graham, Daniel W., “The Oxford Handbook of Presocratic Philosophy,” published online Sept. 2009, https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195146875.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780195146875-e-1
  13. Aristotle, The Metaphysics, pp. 12-3, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred, Penguin Books, London, 1998, reprint 2004
  14. Ibid.
  15. Kerrigan, Michael. “Siege of Sardis”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 21 Mar. 2017, https://www.britannica.com/event/Siege-of-Sardis-546-BCE
  16. “The Ionian Revolt,” ehistory, Department of History, The Ohio State University, https://ehistory.osu.edu/articles/ionian-revolt#:~:text=About%20BC%20550%2C%20Cyrus%20I,with%20their%20new%2C%20dictatorial%20rulers.
  17. “How did the Ionian Revolt (499-493 BC) change the Ancient World?” DailyHistory.org, updated Dec. 5, 2020, https://dailyhistory.org/How_did_the_Ionian_Revolt_(499-493_BC)_change_the_Ancient_World%3F
  18. Vondung, Klaus. “Rereading Eric Voegelin’s ‘Order and History.’” International Journal of the Classical Tradition, vol. 11, no. 1, 2004, pp. 80–94. JSTOR
  19. “How did the Ionian Revolt (499-493 BC) change the Ancient World?” DailyHistory.org

Bibliography and Sources:

Aristotle, The Metaphysics, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred, Penguin Books, London, 1998, reprint 2004

Copleston, Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book 1, Image Press, Cicero, N.Y., 1981

Dawson, Christopher, The Age of the Gods: A Study in the Origins of Culture in Prehistoric Europe and the Ancient East, Sheed and Ward, New York, 1950

Dawson, Christopher, The Dynamics of World History, public domain

Hollis, Christopher, The Noble Castle, Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1941

Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020

Vandiver Ph.D., Elizabeth, Herodotus: the Father of History, Great Courses, Chantilly, VA, 2002 

Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 2: Greece and the Polis, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, 1956-1987

Waterfield, Robin, The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists, 1st ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009

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  1. Thank you for your corrections. Of course you are correct. The Persians (Iranians) were/are Indo-European. That was an oversight on my part. And yes, since city-states were a development of the Mesopotamian culture that influenced the Persians, we can surely trace the development of the city-state ultimately to the Mesopotamia. I will make the appropriate changes thanks to your insightful comments.

  2. Thank you for your excellent work.
    Your contrast between the Greek Ionian Indo-European “warrior” mentality with the “city-building” attitude of the Persians may need to be tweaked. Because the Persians were Indo-European, too. I think the deeper explanation is that the Persians had adopted their city-ways through their conquest of non-Indo-Europeans in Mesopotamia, who were semitic.