Ok guys, this post is going to be slightly harder work than the last one, but stick with it and I promise you that you’re going to gain something interesting to think about. In this post we’re going to think about consciousness and how it developed into the form that we all know and recognise today. Let’s do this:

It is easy to assume that the experience of consciousness has always taken the same form across the history of humanity. Our daily lives are shaped by a relatively uniform experience of what it is to be a conscious being.  Yes, most of us are familiar with the experience of different conscious states – be that through intoxication, religious experience, or, most familiarly, through the mental states surrounding sleep. Nevertheless, we intuit these different states of consciousness as outlier states – modifications of a natural, baseline level of sober consciousness. It is this “natural” state of consciousness that we tend to project across history, onto each and every human that has ever existed.

But this historical, “natural” consciousness is almost certainly not representative of reality. To begin with we must remember the obvious – yet easily overlooked – fact that we are all descended from animals. Just as we tend to understand that animals minds are devoid of reason and are instead driven by instinct, so too must we understand that, as animals, human minds were also once structured in such a way. The consciousness we observe within ourselves today – with an apparent separation between our instincts, emotions, and reason – has slowly developed over the course of a very long time.

With this said, there appear to be certain privileged historical locations – namely, Ancient Greece – within which we can witness a consciousness that we recognise as our own starting to emerge. Ancient Greek society was a society whose thought was structured around a myriad of religious, poetic myths. Stories of gods, goddesses, heroes, heroines and mythical creatures. Stories of Zeus, Odysseus, Hercules, Agamemnon, Achilles, and Helen of Troy. These great myths united poetry, philosophy and religious thought. Within this epic poetry, religious stories were proclaimed and philosophical ideas were debated. These poems would deal with themes ranging from the creation of the world to the form of the good life. Within these works, reason, faith, and beauty created a harmonious, poetic whole.  Within the words and minds of the ancient poets faith, reason and beauty were united as one. The ancient poet was, indeed, first and foremost a poet, but he was also a priest and a philosopher united in one mortal soul.

The unified consciousness of the poets, a unity of the rational and irrational – of faith, reason and beauty – exemplifies the structure of the minds of the ancients. Yet this unified consciousness appears very foreign to us. Intuitively, it is hard for us to suspend our mental separation of these spheres and perceive like the ancients would have done. To observe a more familiar shape of consciousness we must wait for the emergence of Socrates, around 470 BC. With the figure of Socrates we witness the birth of philosophy and the emergence of our modern, western consciousness. In Ancient Athenian society Socrates cut an extremely annoying – yet, also, an extremely influential – figure. Socrates would spend his days hanging out in the marketplace and demanding that influential Athenians provide a rational account of their virtues. He would ask questions such as “what is justice?”, “what is happiness?”, “what is good?”, “what is evil?”.  At first the noblemen of Athens would believe this an easy task – of course they could define the virtues that made themselves and their society great. After all, these virtues were constantly invoked by the poets of old! However, Socrates would use reason to demonstrate that their definitions of virtue were, in fact, logically unsound. These dialogues would almost always end with the noblemen feeling perplexed and annoyed – having been shown that they did not know that which they were previously certain that they had known.

The problem for the Athenian noblemen was that whilst reason had previously worked in harmony with man’s other poetic, religious, irrational capacities, Socrates elevated reason to a position of dominance, which all our other capacities were to be answerable to. Socrates assumed that if our other capacities could not provide a rational account of themselves then they were, in some sense, understood to be deficient. Philosophers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger identify the figure of Socrates and the emergence of philosophy with the death of Ancient Greek culture. With the figure of Socrates consciousness divides itself, with reason emerging as a separate (and dominant) capacity. It is this rational dominance that continues to pervade our modern psyche today.

With reason emerging as a separate capacity we witness a split between poetry and philosophy occurring around 2500 years ago. The poet and the philosopher become separate figures, concerned with expressing different elements of the psyche. Around the same time – and made most explicit 500 years later with the dawning of Christianity – we witness a split between the poet and the priest. The priest ceases to share the concern of the poet for the beautiful – rather, his object of expression (and obsession) becomes that of faith. With the collapse of Ancient Greek culture beauty, faith and reason lose their conscious unity and become separate, disparate realms of specialisation for the poet, the priest, and the philosopher.

Ancient Greek society interests me immensely because with its glorification of great, poetic myths we witness a society primarily ordered by the pursuit of beauty, rather than the pursuit of truth. It thus stands in stark contrast to the ordering of our society today. As such, it presents us with a glimpse of what it would be to live a different kind of life, to be a different kind of human. Different lives, different societies, different ways of being human, are possible.

Besides this, the primacy of the poet in Ancient Greek society interests me for another reason. It is from the ancient poet that we witness the characters of the priest and the philosopher emerge. Religion and philosophy appear to stem from poetry. That is, they appear to have emerged from the human pursuit of beauty. Eventually, we witness the scientist emerge from the figure of the philosopher. Indeed, these first scientists went by the title of “natural philosopher”. As such, we can trace a lineage beginning with poetry, through philosophy and theology, to science. This heritage is easily forgotten, especially with the modern tendency to view these subjects as completely separate disciplines. Knowledge of this history reveals to us that this separation is perhaps not as clear as it first appears. The maternal pursuit of beauty that underlies the origins of philosophy, theology and science has been forgotten. Perhaps, just perhaps, there is the room – and the need – for its reincorporation?

[[ Disclaimer: In my first post I claimed that I would try to produce works of aesthetic philosophy: uniting truth and beauty, poetry and philosophy through my words. Admittedly this post is not particularly poetic, but it does provide more of the theoretical background as to why a (re-)unification of poetry and philosophy may be useful. In my next post I intend to express the theory of this post in a more rhetorically dramatic fashion. ]]

3 thoughts on “Ancient Greece and the Emergence of Modern Consciousness

    1. That’s an interesting question and I’m uncertain of the answer. In terms of the Greek narrative, I’d say that consciousness has not changed in that the capacities which the conscious mind has possessed have not changed as such – they were always there, just functioning in a different way. However, consciousness has changed in that the relative importance – and, as such, the power relations – between each conscious capacity has been definitively restructured. This results in a difference first-person experience of consciousness, and results in society being structured in a different way. Whether this is a change in consciousness or a change in the awareness of consciousness is unclear. I’m inclined to say it is both.

      Outside of the Greek narrative I think we probably have to acknowledge a real change in consciousness at some point, as reason emerges as a reified capacity, distinct from that of the instincts. Well, that’s the most easily justifiable answer that conforms to scholarly tradition and to some extent commonsense. I’ve got a lot of sympathies towards the view that reason and rational behaviour is not really distinct from the instincts and instinctual behaviour at all, but that requires a lot of philosophical groundwork to argue.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Interesting. I am hoping you will talk about the difference between the brain (thoughts) and consciousness in a future blog. Is this real or perceived? I wonder if reason and rational thought are associated with the brain and instinct linked to consciousness. Looking forward to your next blog.

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