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

Book 1, chapter VIII
Post-socratic science at Athens
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)
When we pass to that third great Athenian teacher, Aristotle, the case is far different. Here was a man whose name was to be received as almost a synonym for Greek science for more than a thousand years after his death. All through the Middle Ages his writings were to be accepted as virtually the last word regarding the problems of nature. We shall see that his followers actually preferred his mandate to the testimony of their own senses. We shall see, further, that modern science progressed somewhat in proportion as it overthrew the Aristotelian dogmas. But the traditions of seventeen or eighteen centuries are not easily set aside, and it is perhaps not too much to say that the name of Aristotle stands, even in our own time, as vaguely representative in the popular mind of all that was highest and best in the science of antiquity. Yet, perhaps, it would not be going too far to assert that something like a reversal of this judgment would be nearer the truth. Aristotle did, indeed, bring together a great mass of facts regarding animals in his work on natural history, which, being preserved, has been deemed to entitle its author to be called the "father of zoology." But there is no reason to suppose that any considerable portion of this work contained matter that was novel, or recorded observations that were original with Aristotle; and the classifications there outlined are at best but a vague foreshadowing of the elaboration of the science. Such as it is, however, the natural history stands to the credit of the Stagirite. He must be credited, too, with a clear enunciation of one most important scientific doctrine - namely, the doctrine of the spherical figure of the earth. We have already seen that this theory originated with the Pythagorean philosophers out in Italy. We have seen, too, that the doctrine had not made its way in Attica in the time of Anaxagoras. But in the intervening century it had gained wide currency, else so essentially conservative a thinker as Aristotle would scarcely have accepted it. He did accept it, however, and gave the doctrine clearest and most precise expression. Here are his words:[2]

 "As to the figure of the earth it must necessarily be spherical.... If it were not so, the eclipses of the moon would not have such sections as they have. For in the configurations in the course of a month the deficient part takes all different shapes; it is straight, and concave, and convex; but in eclipses it always has the line of divisions convex; wherefore, since the moon is eclipsed in consequence of the interposition of the earth, the periphery of the earth must be the cause of this by having a spherical form. And again, from the appearance of the stars it is clear, not only that the earth is round, but that its size is not very large; for when we make a small removal to the south or the north, the circle of the horizon becomes palpably different, so that the stars overhead undergo a great change, and are not the same to those that travel in the north and to the south. For some stars are seen in Egypt or at Cyprus, but are not seen in the countries to the north of these; and the stars that in the north are visible while they make a complete circuit, there undergo a setting. So that from this it is manifest, not only that the form of the earth is round, but also that it is a part of a not very large sphere; for otherwise the difference would not be so obvious to persons making so small a change of place. Wherefore we may judge that those persons who connect the region in the neighborhood of the pillars of Hercules with that towards India, and who assert that in this way the sea is one, do not assert things very improbable. They confirm this conjecture moreover by the elephants, which are said to be of the same species towards each extreme; as if this circumstance was a consequence of the conjunction of the extremes. The mathematicians who try to calculate the measure of the circumference, make it amount to four hundred thousand stadia; whence we collect that the earth is not only spherical, but is not large compared with the magnitude of the other stars."

But in giving full meed of praise to Aristotle for the promulgation of this doctrine of the sphericity of the earth, it must unfortunately be added that the conservative philosopher paused without taking one other important step. He could not accept, but, on the contrary, he expressly repudiated, the doctrine of the earth's motion. We have seen that this idea also was a part of the Pythagorean doctrine, and we shall have occasion to dwell more at length on this point in a succeeding chapter. It has even been contended by some critics that it was the adverse conviction of the Peripatetic philosopher which, more than any other single influence, tended to retard the progress of the true doctrine regarding the mechanism of the heavens. Aristotle accepted the sphericity of the earth, and that doctrine became a commonplace of scientific knowledge, and so continued throughout classical antiquity. But Aristotle rejected the doctrine of the earth's motion, and that doctrine, though promulgated actively by a few contemporaries and immediate successors of the Stagirite, was then doomed to sink out of view for more than a thousand years. If it be a correct assumption that the influence of Aristotle was, in a large measure, responsible for this result, then we shall perhaps not be far astray in assuming that the great founder of the Peripatetic school was, on the whole, more instrumental in retarding the progress of astronomical science that any other one man that ever lived.

The field of science in which Aristotle was pre-eminently a pathfinder is zoology. His writings on natural history have largely been preserved, and they constitute by far the most important contribution to the subject that has come down to us from antiquity. They show us that Aristotle had gained possession of the widest range of facts regarding the animal kingdom, and, what is far more important, had attempted to classify these facts. In so doing he became the founder of systematic zoology. Aristotle's classification of the animal kingdom was known and studied throughout the Middle Ages, and, in fact, remained in vogue until superseded by that of Cuvier in the nineteenth century. It is not to be supposed that all the terms of Aristotle's classification originated with him. Some of the divisions are too patent to have escaped the observation of his predecessors. Thus, for example, the distinction between birds and fishes as separate classes of animals is so obvious that it must appeal to a child or to a savage. But the efforts of Aristotle extended, as we shall see, to less patent generalizations. At the very outset, his grand division of the animal kingdom into blood-bearing and bloodless animals implies a very broad and philosophical conception of the entire animal kingdom. The modern physiologist does not accept the classification, inasmuch as it is now known that colorless fluids perform the functions of blood for all the lower organisms. But the fact remains that Aristotle's grand divisions correspond to the grand divisions of the Lamarckian system - vertebrates and invertebrates - which every one now accepts. Aristotle, as we have said, based his classification upon observation of the blood; Lamarck was guided by a study of the skeleton. The fact that such diverse points of view could direct the observer towards the same result gives, inferentially, a suggestive lesson in what the modern physiologist calls the homologies of parts of the organism.

Aristotle divides his so-called blood-bearing animals into five classes: (1) Four-footed animals that bring forth their young alive; (2) birds; (3) egg-laying four- footed animals (including what modern naturalists call reptiles and amphibians); (4) whales and their allies; (5) fishes. This classification, as will be observed, is not so very far afield from the modern divisions into mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes. That Aristotle should have recognized the fundamental distinction between fishes and the fish- like whales, dolphins, and porpoises proves the far from superficial character of his studies. Aristotle knew that these animals breathe by means of lungs and that they produce living young. He recognized, therefore, their affinity with his first class of animals, even if he did not, like the modern naturalist, consider these affinities close enough to justify bringing the two types together into a single class.

The bloodless animals were also divided by Aristotle into five classes - namely: (1) Cephalopoda (the octopus, cuttle-fish, etc.); (2) weak-shelled animals (crabs, etc.); (3) insects and their allies (including various forms, such as spiders and centipedes, which the modern classifier prefers to place by themselves); (4) hard-shelled animals (clams, oysters, snails, etc.); (5) a conglomerate group of marine forms, including star-fish, sea-urchins, and various anomalous forms that were regarded as linking the animal to the vegetable worlds. This classification of the lower forms of animal life continued in vogue until Cuvier substituted for it his famous grouping into articulates, mollusks, and radiates; which grouping in turn was in part superseded later in the nineteenth century.

What Aristotle did for the animal kingdom his pupil, Theophrastus, did in some measure for the vegetable kingdom. Theophrastus, however, was much less a classifier than his master, and his work on botany, called The Natural History of Development, pays comparatively slight attention to theoretical questions. It deals largely with such practicalities as the making of charcoal, of pitch, and of resin, and the effects of various plants on the animal organism when taken as foods or as medicines. In this regard the work of Theophrastus, is more nearly akin to the natural history of the famous Roman compiler, Pliny. It remained, however, throughout antiquity as the most important work on its subject, and it entitles Theophrastus to be called the "father of botany." Theophrastus deals also with the mineral kingdom after much the same fashion, and here again his work is the most notable that was produced in antiquity.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.