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

Book 1, chapter XI
A retrospective glance at classical science
It is a favorite tenet of the modern historian that history is a continuous stream. The contention has fullest warrant. Sharp lines of demarcation are an evidence of man's analytical propensity rather than the work of nature. Nevertheless it would be absurd to deny that the stream of history presents an ever-varying current. There are times when it seems to rush rapidly on; times when it spreads out into a broad - seemingly static - current; times when its catastrophic changes remind us of nothing but a gigantic cataract. Rapids and whirlpools, broad estuaries and tumultuous cataracts are indeed part of the same stream, but they are parts that vary one from another in their salient features in such a way as to force the mind to classify them as things apart and give them individual names.

So it is with the stream of history; however strongly we insist on its continuity we are none the less forced to recognize its periodicity. It may not be desirable to fix on specific dates as turning-points to the extent that our predecessors were wont to do. We may not, for example, be disposed to admit that the Roman Empire came to any such cataclysmic finish as the year 476 A.D., when cited in connection with the overthrow of the last Roman Empire of the West, might seem to indicate. But, on the other hand, no student of the period can fail to realize that a great change came over the aspect of the historical stream towards the close of the Roman epoch.

The span from Thales to Galen has compassed about eight hundred years - let us say thirty generations. Throughout this period there is scarcely a generation that has not produced great scientific thinkers - men who have put their mark upon the progress of civilization; but we shall see, as we look forward for a corresponding period, that the ensuing thirty generations produced scarcely a single scientific thinker of the first rank. Eight hundred years of intellectual activity - thirty generations of greatness; then eight hundred years of stasis - thirty generations of mediocrity; such seems to be the record as viewed in perspective. Doubtless it seemed far different to the contemporary observer; it is only in reasonable perspective that any scene can be viewed fairly. But for us, looking back without prejudice across the stage of years, it seems indisputable that a great epoch came to a close at about the time when the barbarian nations of Europe began to sweep down into Greece and Italy. We are forced to feel that we have reached the limits of progress of what historians are pleased to call the ancient world. For about eight hundred years Greek thought has been dominant, but in the ensuing period it is to play a quite subordinate part, except in so far as it influences the thought of an alien race. As we leave this classical epoch, then, we may well recapitulate in brief its triumphs. A few words will suffice to summarize a story the details of which have made up our recent chapters.

In the field of cosmology, Greek genius has demonstrated that the earth is spheroidal, that the moon is earthlike in structure and much smaller than our globe, and that the sun is vastly larger and many times more distant than the moon. The actual size of the earth and the angle of its axis with the ecliptic have been measured with approximate accuracy. It has been shown that the sun and moon present inequalities of motion which may be theoretically explained by supposing that the earth is not situated precisely at the centre of their orbits. A system of eccentrics and epicycles has been elaborated which serves to explain the apparent motions of the heavenly bodies in a manner that may be called scientific even though it is based, as we now know, upon a false hypothesis. The true hypothesis, which places the sun at the centre of the planetary system and postulates the orbital and axial motions of our earth in explanation of the motions of the heavenly bodies, has been put forward and ardently championed, but, unfortunately, is not accepted by the dominant thinkers at the close of our epoch. In this regard, therefore, a vast revolutionary work remains for the thinkers of a later period. Moreover, such observations as the precession of the equinoxes and the moon's evection are as yet unexplained, and measurements of the earth's size, and of the sun's size and distance, are so crude and imperfect as to be in one case only an approximation, and in the other an absurdly inadequate suggestion. But with all these defects, the total achievement of the Greek astronomers is stupendous. To have clearly grasped the idea that the earth is round is in itself an achievement that marks off the classical from the Oriental period as by a great gulf.

In the physical sciences we have seen at least the beginnings of great things. Dynamics and hydrostatics may now, for the first time, claim a place among the sciences. Geometry has been perfected and trigonometry has made a sure beginning. The conception that there are four elementary substances, earth, water, air, and fire, may not appear a secure foundation for chemistry, yet it marks at least an attempt in the right direction. Similarly, the conception that all matter is made up of indivisible particles and that these have adjusted themselves and are perhaps held in place by a whirling motion, while it is scarcely more than a scientific dream, is, after all, a dream of marvellous insight.

In the field of biological science progress has not been so marked, yet the elaborate garnering of facts regarding anatomy, physiology, and the zoological sciences is at least a valuable preparation for the generalizations of a later time.

If with a map before us we glance at the portion of the globe which was known to the workers of the period now in question, bearing in mind at the same time what we have learned as to the seat of labors of the various great scientific thinkers from Thales to Galen, we cannot fail to be struck with a rather startling fact, intimations of which have been given from time to time - the fact, namely, that most of the great Greek thinkers did not live in Greece itself. As our eye falls upon Asia Minor and its outlying islands, we reflect that here were born such men as Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Anaxagoras, Socrates, Aristarchus, Hipparchus, Eudoxus, Philolaus, and Galen. From the northern shores of the aegean came Lucippus, Democritus, and Aristotle. Italy, off to the west, is the home of Pythagoras and Xenophanes in their later years, and of Parmenides and Empedocles, Zeno, and Archimedes. Northern Africa can claim, by birth or by adoption, such names as Euclid, Apollonius of Perga, Herophilus, Erasistratus, Aristippus, Eratosthenes, Ctesibius, Hero, Strabo, and Ptolemy. This is but running over the list of great men whose discoveries have claimed our attention. Were we to extend the list to include a host of workers of the second rank, we should but emphasize the same fact.

All along we are speaking of Greeks, or, as they call themselves, Hellenes, and we mean by these words the people whose home was a small jagged peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean at the southeastern extremity of Europe. We think of this peninsula as the home of Greek culture, yet of all the great thinkers we have just named, not one was born on this peninsula, and perhaps not one in five ever set foot upon it. In point of fact, one Greek thinker of the very first rank, and one only, was born in Greece proper; that one, however, was Plato, perhaps the greatest of them all. With this one brilliant exception (and even he was born of parents who came from the provinces), all the great thinkers of Greece had their origin at the circumference rather than the centre of the empire. And if we reflect that this circumference of the Greek world was in the nature of the case the widely circling region in which the Greek came in contact with other nations, we shall see at once that there could be no more striking illustration in all history than that furnished us here of the value of racial mingling as a stimulus to intellectual progress.

But there is one other feature of the matter that must not be overlooked. Racial mingling gives vitality, but to produce the best effect the mingling must be that of races all of which are at a relatively high plane of civilization. In Asia Minor the Greek mingled with the Semite, who had the heritage of centuries of culture; and in Italy with the Umbrians, Oscans, and Etruscans, who, little as we know of their antecedents, have left us monuments to testify to their high development. The chief reason why the racial mingling of a later day did not avail at once to give new life to Roman thought was that the races which swept down from the north were barbarians. It was no more possible that they should spring to the heights of classical culture than it would, for example, be possible in two or three generations to produce a racer from a stock of draught horses. Evolution does not proceed by such vaults as this would imply. Celt, Goth, Hun, and Slav must undergo progressive development for many generations before the population of northern Europe can catch step with the classical Greek and prepare to march forward. That, perhaps, is one reason why we come to a period of stasis or retrogression when the time of classical activity is over. But, at best, it is only one reason of several.

The influence of the barbarian nations will claim further attention as we proceed. But now, for the moment, we must turn our eyes in the other direction and give attention to certain phases of Greek and of Oriental thought which were destined to play a most important part in the development of the Western mind - a more important part, indeed, in the early mediaeval period than that played by those important inductions of science which have chiefly claimed our attention in recent chapters. The subject in question is the old familiar one of false inductions or pseudoscience. In dealing with the early development of thought and with Oriental science, we had occasion to emphasize the fact that such false inductions led everywhere to the prevalence of superstition. In dealing with Greek science, we have largely ignored this subject, confining attention chiefly to the progressive phases of thought; but it must not be inferred from this that Greek science, with all its secure inductions, was entirely free from superstition. On the contrary, the most casual acquaintance with Greek literature would suffice to show the incorrectness of such a supposition. True, the great thinkers of Greece were probably freer from this thraldom. of false inductions than any of their predecessors. Even at a very early day such men as Xenophanes, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and Plato attained to a singularly rationalistic conception of the universe.

We saw that "the father of medicine," Hippocrates, banished demonology and conceived disease as due to natural causes. At a slightly later day the sophists challenged all knowledge, and Pyrrhonism became a synonym for scepticism in recognition of the leadership of a master doubter. The entire school of Alexandrians must have been relatively free from superstition, else they could not have reasoned with such effective logicality from their observations of nature. It is almost inconceivable that men like Euclid and Archimedes, and Aristarchus and Eratosthenes, and Hipparchus and Hero, could have been the victims of such illusions regarding occult forces of nature as were constantly postulated by Oriental science. Herophilus and Erasistratus and Galen would hardly have pursued their anatomical studies with equanimity had they believed that ghostly apparitions watched over living and dead alike, and exercised at will a malign influence.

Doubtless the Egyptian of the period considered the work, of the Ptolemaic anatomists an unspeakable profanation, and, indeed, it was nothing less than revolutionary - so revolutionary that it could not be sustained in subsequent generations. We have seen that the great Galen, at Rome, five centuries after the time of Herophilus, was prohibited from dissecting the human subject. The fact speaks volumes for the attitude of the Roman mind towards science. Vast audiences made up of every stratum of society thronged the amphitheatre, and watched exultingly while man slew his fellow-man in single or in multiple combat. Shouts of frenzied joy burst from a hundred thousand throats when the death-stroke was given to a new victim. The bodies of the slain, by scores, even by hundreds, were dragged ruthlessly from the arena and hurled into a ditch as contemptuously as if pity were yet unborn and human life the merest bauble. Yet the same eyes that witnessed these scenes with ecstatic approval would have been averted in pious horror had an anatomist dared to approach one of the mutilated bodies with the scalpel of science. It was sport to see the blade of the gladiator enter the quivering, living flesh of his fellow-gladiator; it was joy to see the warm blood spurt forth from the writhing victim while he still lived; but it were sacrilegious to approach that body with the knife of the anatomist, once it had ceased to pulsate with life. Life itself was held utterly in contempt, but about the realm of death hovered the threatening ghosts of superstition. And such, be it understood, was the attitude of the Roman populace in the early and the most brilliant epoch of the empire, before the Western world came under the influence of that Oriental philosophy which was presently to encompass it.

In this regard the Alexandrian world was, as just intimated, far more advanced than the Roman, yet even there we must suppose that the leaders of thought were widely at variance with the popular conceptions. A few illustrations, drawn from Greek literature at various ages, will suggest the popular attitude. In the first instance, consider the poems of Homer and of Hesiod. For these writers, and doubtless for the vast majority of their readers, not merely of their own but of many subsequent generations, the world is peopled with a multitude of invisible apparitions, which, under title of gods, are held to dominate the affairs of man. It is sometimes difficult to discriminate as to where the Greek imagination drew the line between fact and allegory; nor need we attempt to analyse the early poetic narratives to this end. It will better serve our present purpose to cite three or four instances which illustrate the tangibility of beliefs based upon pseudo-scientific inductions.

Let us cite, for example, the account which Herodotus gives us of the actions of the Greeks at Plataea, when their army confronted the remnant of the army of Xerxes, in the year 479 B.C. Here we see each side hesitating to attack the other, merely because the oracle had declared that whichever side struck the first blow would lose the conflict. Even after the Persian soldiers, who seemingly were a jot less superstitious or a shade more impatient than their opponents, had begun the attack, we are told that the Greeks dared not respond at first, though they were falling before the javelins of the enemy, because, forsooth, the entrails of a fowl did not present an auspicious appearance. And these were Greeks of the same generation with Empedocles and Anaxagoras and aeschylus; of the same epoch with Pericles and Sophocles and Euripides and Phidias. Such was the scientific status of the average mind - nay, of the best minds - with here and there a rare exception, in the golden age of Grecian culture.

Were we to follow down the pages of Greek history, we should but repeat the same story over and over. We should, for example, see Alexander the Great balked at the banks of the Hyphasis, and forced to turn back because of inauspicious auguries based as before upon the dissection of a fowl. Alexander himself, to be sure, would have scorned the augury; had he been the prey of such petty superstitions he would never have conquered Asia. We know how he compelled the oracle at Delphi to yield to his wishes; how he cut the Gordian knot; how he made his dominating personality felt at the temple of Ammon in Egypt. We know, in a word, that he yielded to superstitions only in so far as they served his purpose. Left to his own devices, he would not have consulted an oracle at the banks of the Hyphasis; or, consulting, would have forced from the oracle a favorable answer. But his subordinates were mutinous and he had no choice. Suffice it for our present purpose that the oracle was consulted, and that its answer turned the conqueror back.

One or two instances from Roman history may complete the picture. Passing over all those mythical narratives which virtually constitute the early history of Rome, as preserved to us by such historians as Livy and Dionysius, we find so logical an historian as Tacitus recording a miraculous achievement of Vespasian without adverse comment. "During the months when Vespasian was waiting at Alexandria for the periodical season of the summer winds, and a safe navigation, many miracles occurred by which the favor of Heaven and a sort of bias in the powers above towards Vespasian were manifested." Tacitus then describes in detail the cure of various maladies by the emperor, and relates that the emperor on visiting a temple was met there, in the spirit, by a prominent Egyptian who was proved to be at the same time some eighty miles distant from Alexandria.

It must be admitted that Tacitus, in relating that Vespasian caused the blind to see and the lame to walk, qualifies his narrative by asserting that "persons who are present attest the truth of the transaction when there is nothing to be gained by falsehood." Nor must we overlook the fact that a similar belief in the power of royalty has persisted almost to our own day. But no such savor of scepticism attaches to a narrative which Dion Cassius gives us of an incident in the life of Marcus Aurelius - an incident that has become famous as the episode of The Thundering Legion. Xiphilinus has preserved the account of Dion, adding certain picturesque interpretations of his own. The original narrative, as cited, asserts that during one of the northern campaigns of Marcus Aurelius, the emperor and his army were surrounded by the hostile Quadi, who had every advantage of position and who presently ceased hostilities in the hope that heat and thirst would deliver their adversaries into their hands without the trouble of further fighting. "Now," says Dion, "while the Romans, unable either to combat or to retreat, and reduced to the last extremity by wounds, fatigue, heat, and thirst, were standing helplessly at their posts, clouds suddenly gathered in great number and rain descended in floods - certainly not without divine intervention, since the Egyptian Maege Arnulphis, who was with Marcus Antoninus, is said to have invoked several genii by the aerial mercury by enchantment, and thus through them had brought down rain."

Here, it will be observed, a supernatural explanation is given of a natural phenomenon. But the narrator does not stop with this. If we are to accept the account of Xiphilinus, Dion brings forward some striking proofs of divine interference. Xiphilinus gives these proofs in the following remarkable paragraph:

"Dion adds that when the rain began to fall every soldier lifted his head towards heaven to receive the water in his mouth; but afterwards others hold out their shields or their helmets to catch the water for themselves and for their horses. Being set upon by the barbarians . . . while occupied in drinking, they would have been seriously incommoded had not heavy hail and numerous thunderbolts thrown consternation into the ranks of the enemy. Fire and water were seen to mingle as they left the heavens. The fire, however, did not reach the Romans, but if it did by chance touch one of them it was immediately extinguished, while at the same time the rain, instead of comforting the barbarians, seemed merely to excite like oil the fire with which they were being consumed. Some barbarians inflicted wounds upon themselves as though their blood had power to extinguish flames, while many rushed over to the side of the Romans, hoping that there water might save them."

We cannot better complete these illustrations of pagan credulity than by adding the comment of Xiphilinus himself. That writer was a Christian, living some generations later than Dion. He never thought of questioning the facts, but he felt that Dion's interpretation of these facts must not go unchallenged. As he interprets the matter, it was no pagan magician that wrought the miracle. He even inclines to the belief that Dion himself was aware that Christian interference, and not that of an Egyptian, saved the day. "Dion knew," he declares, "that there existed a legion called The Thundering Legion, which name was given it for no other reason than for what came to pass in this war," and that this legion was composed of soldiers from Militene who were all professed Christians. "During the battle," continues Xiphilinus, "the chief of the Pretonians , had set at Marcus Antoninus, who was in great perplexity at the turn events were taking, representing to him that there was nothing the people called Christians could not obtain by their prayers, and that among his forces was a troop composed wholly of followers of that religion. Rejoiced at this news, Marcus Antoninus demanded of these soldiers that they should pray to their god, who granted their petition on the instant, sent lightning among the enemy and consoled the Romans with rain. Struck by this wonderful success, the emperor honored the Christians in an edict and named their legion The Thundering. It is even asserted that a letter existed by Marcus Antoninus on this subject. The pagans well knew that the company was called The Thunderers, having attested the fact themselves, but they revealed nothing of the occasion on which the leader received the name."[1]

Peculiar interest attaches to this narrative as illustrating both credulousness as to matters of fact and pseudo-scientific explanation of alleged facts. The modern interpreter may suppose that a violent thunderstorm came up during the course of a battle between the Romans and the so-called barbarians, and that owing to the local character of the storm, or a chance discharge of lightning, the barbarians suffered more than their opponents. We may well question whether the philosophical emperor himself put any other interpretation than this upon the incident. But, on the other hand, we need not doubt that the major part of his soldiers would very readily accept such an explanation as that given by Dion Cassius, just as most readers of a few centuries later would accept the explanation of Xiphilinus. It is well to bear this thought in mind in considering the static period of science upon which we are entering. We shall perhaps best understand this period, and its seeming retrogressions, if we suppose that the average man of the Middle Ages was no more credulous, no more superstitious, than the average Roman of an earlier period or than the average Greek; though the precise complexion of his credulity had changed under the influence of Oriental ideas, as we have just seen illustrated by the narrative of Xiphilinus.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.