A few passages from Jean-Pierre Vernant’s brilliant Origins of Greek Thought:

The search for a balance and accommodation between these opposing forces, set loose by the collapse of the palace-centered system and occasionally coming into violent confrontation, gave rise in a time of troubles to moral thought and political speculation, that amounted to an early form of human “wisdom.” This sophia appeared as early as the dawn of the seventh century, and was associated with a rather odd assortment of figures who came to be clothed with an almost legendary radiance and whom the Greeks continued to revere as their first true sages. Sophia was concerned not with the universe of physis [nature] but with the human world: the elements that made it up, the forces that divided it against itself, and the means by which they might be harmonized and unified so that their conflict might give birth to order of the city… The problems of power, of the forms it took and the factors that formed its substance, were immediately posed in new terms. (40)

In this connection, Vernant chronicles how the collapse of the centralized Mycenaean social system, created a void within the social system that was not subsequently filled. A cascade of consequences followed from the appearance of this void. I am tempted to repeat the Deleuzo-Spinozist declaration, “we do not yet know what a body can do!” with “we do not yet know what a void can do.” The void in question, of course, was the voided place of the monarch and transcendent divinity.

Later Vernant observes that,

The recourse to a spatial image to express the self-awareness that a human group has acquired, its sense of existing as a political unit, is of value not only as a comparison; it also reflects the creation of a social space that was altogether new. Indeed, urban buildings were no longer grouped, as before, about a royal palace ringed by fortifications. The city now centered on the agora, the communal space and seat of the hestia koine [the central or public hearth], a public area where problems of general interest were debated. (47)


The advent of the polis constitutes a decisive event in the history of Greek thought… With the polis, social life and human relations took on a new form and the Greeks were fully aware of its originality.

The system of the polis implied, first of all, the extraordinary preeminence of speech over all other instruments of power. Speech became the political tool par excellence, the key to all authority in the state, the means of commanding and dominating others. This power of speech– which the Greeks made into a divinity, Peitho, the force of persuasion– brings to mind the efficacy of words and formulas in certain religious rituals, or the value attributed to the “pronouncements” of the king when he rendered final themis [judgment]. Actually, however, we are dealing with quite a different matter (my emphasis). Speech was no longer the ritual word, the precise formula, but open debate, discussion, argument. It presupposed a public to which it was addressed, as to a judge whose ruling could not be appealed, who decided with hands upraised between the two parties who came before him. It was this purely human choice that measured the persuasive force of the two addresses, ensuring the victory of one speaker or adversary.

All questions of general concern that the sovereign had to settle, and which marked out the domain of arche [sovereignity], were now submitted to the art of oratory and had to be resolved at the conclusion of the debate. They therefore had to be formulated as a discourse, poured into the mold of antithetical demonstrations and opposing arguments. There was thus a close connection, a reciprocal tie, between politics and logos. The art of politics became essentially the management of language; and logos from the beginning took on an awareness of itself, of its rules and its effectiveness, through its political function. Historically, rhetoric and sophistry, by analyzing the forms of discourse as the means of winning the contest in the assembly and the tribunal, opened the way for Aristotle’s inquiries, which in turn defined the rules of proof along with the technique of persuasion, and thus laid down the logic of the verfiably true, a matter of theoretical understanding, as opposed to the logic of the apparent or probable, which presided over the hazardous debates on practical questions. (49-50)

This is simply gorgeous. Where the sovereign in the Mycenaean system, had decided these issues, these issues are now, in the Greek system, a contested, agonistic, or polemical space. Philosophy here emerges out of a particular rhetorical situation, brought to the fore through these social and political issues. As logos, speech, gains prominence and these issues are debated, focus shifts to the grounds of persuasion. In this focus on grounds, the basic concepts of philosophy begin to be generated as these are grounds of persuasion: cause, being, form, criteria of beauty, qualities of virtue and character, etc., etc. Philosophy here does not so much pose problems, but rather it emerges as a response to a problem. With that emergence it takes on an autonomy of its own. Where initially it is the handmaiden of rhetoric, a special branch of rhetoric that investigates the grounds of persuasion, it now undergoes a speciation, becoming an autonomous form of engagement.