A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 1, chapter VIII
Post-socratic science at Athens
Plato, Aristotle, and Theophrastus
Doubtless it has been noticed that our earlier scientists were as far removed as possible from the limitations of specialism. In point of fact, in this early day, knowledge had not been classified as it came to be later on. The philosopher was, as his name implied, a lover of knowledge, and he did not find it beyond the reach of his capacity to apply himself to all departments of the field of human investigation. It is nothing strange to discover that Anaximander and the Pythagoreans and Anaxagoras have propounded theories regarding the structure of the cosmos, the origin and development of animals and man, and the nature of matter itself. Nowadays, so enormously involved has become the mass of mere facts regarding each of these departments of knowledge that no one man has the temerity to attempt to master them all. But it was different in those days of beginnings. Then the methods of observation were still crude, and it was quite the custom for a thinker of forceful personality to find an eager following among disciples who never thought of putting his theories to the test of experiment. The great lesson that true science in the last resort depends upon observation and measurement, upon compass and balance, had not yet been learned, though here and there a thinker like Anaxagoras had gained an inkling of it.

For the moment, indeed, there in Attica, which was now, thanks to that outburst of Periclean culture, the centre of the world's civilization, the trend of thought was to take quite another direction. The very year which saw the birth of Democritus at Abdera, and of Hippocrates, marked also the birth, at Athens, of another remarkable man, whose influence it would scarcely be possible to over-estimate. This man was Socrates. The main facts of his history are familiar to every one. It will be recalled that Socrates spent his entire life in Athens, mingling everywhere with the populace; haranguing, so the tradition goes, every one who would listen; inculcating moral lessons, and finally incurring the disapprobation of at least a voting majority of his fellow-citizens. He gathered about him a company of remarkable men with Plato at their head, but this could not save him from the disapprobation of the multitudes, at whose hands he suffered death, legally administered after a public trial. The facts at command as to certain customs of the Greeks at this period make it possible to raise a question as to whether the alleged "corruption of youth," with which Socrates was charged, may not have had a different implication from what posterity has preferred to ascribe to it. But this thought, almost shocking to the modern mind and seeming altogether sacrilegious to most students of Greek philosophy, need not here detain us; neither have we much concern in the present connection with any part of the teaching of the martyred philosopher. For the historian of metaphysics, Socrates marks an epoch, but for the historian of science he is a much less consequential figure.

Similarly regarding Plato, the aristocratic Athenian who sat at the feet of Socrates, and through whose writings the teachings of the master found widest currency. Some students of philosophy find in Plato "the greatest thinker and writer of all time."[1] The student of science must recognize in him a thinker whose point of view was essentially non-scientific; one who tended always to reason from the general to the particular rather than from the particular to the general. Plato's writings covered almost the entire field of thought, and his ideas were presented with such literary charm that successive generations of readers turned to them with unflagging interest, and gave them wide currency through copies that finally preserved them to our own time. Thus we are not obliged in his case, as we are in the case of every other Greek philosopher, to estimate his teachings largely from hearsay evidence. Plato himself speaks to us directly. It is true, the literary form which he always adopted, namely, the dialogue, does not give quite the same certainty as to when he is expressing his own opinions that a more direct narrative would have given; yet, in the main, there is little doubt as to the tenor of his own opinions - except, indeed, such doubt as always attaches to the philosophical reasoning of the abstract thinker.

What is chiefly significant from our present standpoint is that the great ethical teacher had no significant message to give the world regarding the physical sciences. He apparently had no sharply defined opinions as to the mechanism of the universe; no clear conception as to the origin or development of organic beings; no tangible ideas as to the problems of physics; no favorite dreams as to the nature of matter. Virtually his back was turned on this entire field of thought. He was under the sway of those innate ideas which, as we have urged, were among the earliest inductions of science. But he never for a moment suspected such an origin for these ideas. He supposed his conceptions of being, his standards of ethics, to lie back of all experience; for him they were the most fundamental and most dependable of facts. He criticised Anaxagoras for having tended to deduce general laws from observation. As we moderns see it, such criticism is the highest possible praise. It is a criticism that marks the distinction between the scientist who is also a philosopher and the philosopher who has but a vague notion of physical science. Plato seemed, indeed, to realize the value of scientific investigation; he referred to the astronomical studies of the Egyptians and Chaldeans, and spoke hopefully of the results that might accrue were such studies to be taken up by that Greek mind which, as he justly conceived, had the power to vitalize and enrich all that it touched. But he told here of what he would have others do, not of what he himself thought of doing. His voice was prophetic, but it stimulated no worker of his own time.

Plato himself had travelled widely. It is a familiar legend that he lived for years in Egypt, endeavoring there to penetrate the mysteries of Egyptian science. It is said even that the rudiments of geometry which he acquired there influenced all his later teachings. But be that as it may, the historian of science must recognize in the founder of the Academy a moral teacher and metaphysical dreamer and sociologist, but not, in the modern acceptance of the term, a scientist. Those wider phases of biological science which find their expression in metaphysics, in ethics, in political economy, lie without our present scope; and for the development of those subjects with which we are more directly concerned, Plato, like his master, has a negative significance.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.