Basic to modern European thought are Greek philosophy and science. It is usual to begin their study with Thales, Anaximander, and their successors in the sixth century B.C. , not the roots but the lowest surviving branches of a far mightier tree. Through the centuries behind stretches the parent stem, the thought of the race, the system of beliefs whereby the race rendered intelligible to itself for many generations the life of man and the world in which man lives; a working faith, slightly different, doubtless, in one quarter than in another, and growing gradually with the thoughts of individuals whose contributions cannot now be distinguished and whose names are for ever lost. Its roots are buried deep as the converging races from whose happy union sprang the stock we know. Later 'philosophies', the theories of individuals and of schools, are criticisms and improvements, ever more far-reaching, upon this racial scheme, and are not likely to be understood aright except in relation to it. In itself, if it could be recovered, it must be supremely interesting, the fundamental beliefs concerning life and mind and human destiny, beliefs determining the words and the actions of every man. And not only for the Greeks. In a sense we shall be exploring the roots of civilisation in Europe and beyond. It will, I think, appear that the fundamental beliefs traceable in the language and the earliest literature of Greece and Rome were shared by the Germanic, Celtic, and other peoples; were, in some cases at least, already current in the Old Stone Age, explaining curious practices then; and live on unrecognised in customs and idioms of to-day.
Five or six centuries before Thales of Miletus was born, the inhabitants of mainland Greece and of the islands, including Crete, had shown their unity by the ten years' siege of Troy and, still several centuries before Thales, in some place not yet conclusively ascertained, had produced two lasting monuments to their ways of living and thinking, the Iliad and the Odyssey, much the earliest accounts we possess of life and thought in Europe. Behind these lies the 'Minoan-Mycenaean' world, some few of whose outward trappings the spade has revealed and some tiny fragments of whose history the memories of later Greece and the records of Hittites and Egyptians appear to have preserved, but which else is dark and silent. Of its inner life and meaning, distinctive hopes and fears, no word remains save in a script (and possibly a language) to which as yet we have no key. The treasures of graves and the debris of palaces, relics of a god (or gods), a goddess (or goddesses), caves, trees, birds, snakes, double axes, 'horns of consecration' and other symbols and cult and funeral furniture must be eked out with our knowledge of later cults, myths, and legends, of uncertain relevance, and with analogies no less uncertain. After Homer, again,for centuries there is little or nothing comparable to him -Hesiod, meagre epic fragments, hymns and lyric and elegiac poems, no continuous or nearly complete illumination of changing life and thought. When in the fifth century the clear day shines, it is through a different atmosphere and upon a different world. It is to Homer, above all, that we must look for hints of the earlier beliefs. To men of his own time and race, sharing his environment and his beliefs, his picture was clear. They understood not only with ourselves the plain story which he tells, the explicit descriptions, but also the allusive references to things and thoughts not ours. In the light of what is clear in him and of what we know from later Greek writers and from excavated remains we may approach outstanding problems, freed from the alien ways and preconceptions of modern thought. The perfection of his art and the rationalism of his race must not blind us to the strangeness of his world. Of its points of likeness to our own we need not be reminded. Many, indeed, are older than the species, than our common humanity. Many of the virtues we unite with him to honour, such as affection for wife and offspring, and courage in their defence, are also shared by the wild beasts, to which, indeed, he repeatedly likens his heroes. The points wherein we differ are more instructive. A few may serve to suggest or recall the living background of the beliefs about to be considered.