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

Book 1, chapter VI
The early greek philosophers in Italy
Diogenes Laertius tells a story about a youth who, clad in a purple toga, entered the arena at the Olympian games and asked to compete with the other youths in boxing. He was derisively denied admission, presumably because he was beyond the legitimate age for juvenile contestants. Nothing daunted, the youth entered the lists of men, and turned the laugh on his critics by coming off victor. The youth who performed this feat was named Pythagoras. He was the same man, if we may credit the story, who afterwards migrated to Italy and became the founder of the famous Crotonian School of Philosophy; the man who developed the religion of the Orphic mysteries; who conceived the idea of the music of the spheres; who promulgated the doctrine of metempsychosis; who first, perhaps, of all men clearly conceived the notion that this world on which we live is a ball which moves in space and which may be habitable on every side.

A strange development that for a stripling pugilist. But we must not forget that in the Greek world athletics held a peculiar place. The chief winner of Olympian games gave his name to an epoch (the ensuing Olympiad of four years), and was honored almost before all others in the land. A sound mind in a sound body was the motto of the day. To excel in feats of strength and dexterity was an accomplishment that even a philosopher need not scorn. It will be recalled that aeschylus distinguished himself at the battle of Marathon; that Thucydides, the greatest of Greek historians, was a general in the Peloponnesian War; that Xenophon, the pupil and biographer of Socrates, was chiefly famed for having led the Ten Thousand in the memorable campaign of Cyrus the Younger; that Plato himself was credited with having shown great aptitude in early life as a wrestler. If, then, Pythagoras the philosopher was really the Pythagoras who won the boxing contest, we may suppose that in looking back upon this athletic feat from the heights of his priesthood - for he came to be almost deified - he regarded it not as an indiscretion of his youth, but as one of the greatest achievements of his life. Not unlikely he recalled with pride that he was credited with being no less an innovator in athletics than in philosophy. At all events, tradition credits him with the invention of "scientific" boxing. Was it he, perhaps, who taught the Greeks to strike a rising and swinging blow from the hip, as depicted in the famous metopes of the Parthenon? If so, the innovation of Pythagoras was as little heeded in this regard in a subsequent age as was his theory of the motion of the earth; for to strike a swinging blow from the hip, rather than from the shoulder, is a trick which the pugilist learned anew in our own day.

But enough of pugilism and of what, at best, is a doubtful tradition. Our concern is with another "science" than that of the arena. We must follow the purple-robed victor to Italy - if, indeed, we be not over-credulous in accepting the tradition - and learn of triumphs of a different kind that have placed the name of Pythagoras high on the list of the fathers of Grecian thought. To Italy? Yes, to the western limits of the Greek world. Here it was, beyond the confines of actual Greek territory, that Hellenic thought found its second home, its first home being, as we have seen, in Asia Minor. Pythagoras, indeed, to whom we have just been introduced, was born on the island of Samos, which lies near the coast of Asia Minor, but he probably migrated at an early day to Crotona, in Italy. There he lived, taught, and developed his philosophy until rather late in life, when, having incurred the displeasure of his fellow-citizens, he suffered the not unusual penalty of banishment.

Of the three other great Italic leaders of thought of the early period, Xenophanes came rather late in life to Elea and founded the famous Eleatic School, of which Parmenides became the most distinguished ornament. These two were Ionians, and they lived in the sixth century before our era. Empedocles, the Sicilian, was of Doric origin. He lived about the middle of the fifth century B.C., at a time, therefore, when Athens had attained a position of chief glory among the Greek states; but there is no evidence that Empedocles ever visited that city, though it was rumored that he returned to the Peloponnesus to die. The other great Italic philosophers just named, living, as we have seen, in the previous century, can scarcely have thought of Athens as a centre of Greek thought. Indeed, the very fact that these men lived in Italy made that peninsula, rather than the mother-land of Greece, the centre of Hellenic influence. But all these men, it must constantly be borne in mind, were Greeks by birth and language, fully recognized as such in their own time and by posterity. Yet the fact that they lived in a land which was at no time a part of the geographical territory of Greece must not be forgotten. They, or their ancestors of recent generations, had been pioneers among those venturesome colonists who reached out into distant portions of the world, and made homes for themselves in much the same spirit in which colonists from Europe began to populate America some two thousand years later. In general, colonists from the different parts of Greece localized themselves somewhat definitely in their new homes; yet there must naturally have been a good deal of commingling among the various families of pioneers, and, to a certain extent, a mingling also with the earlier inhabitants of the country. This racial mingling, combined with the well-known vitalizing influence of the pioneer life, led, we may suppose, to a more rapid and more varied development than occurred among the home-staying Greeks. In proof of this, witness the remarkable schools of philosophy which, as we have seen, were thus developed at the confines of the Greek world, and which were presently to invade and, as it were, take by storm the mother-country itself.

As to the personality of these pioneer philosophers of the West, our knowledge is for the most part more or less traditional. What has been said of Thales may be repeated, in the main, regarding Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Empedocles. That they were real persons is not at all in question, but much that is merely traditional has come to be associated with their names. Pythagoras was the senior, and doubtless his ideas may have influenced the others more or less, though each is usually spoken of as the founder of an independent school. Much confusion has all along existed, however, as to the precise ideas which were to be ascribed to each of the leaders. Numberless commentators, indeed, have endeavored to pick out from among the traditions of antiquity, aided by such fragments, of the writing of the philosophers as have come down to us, the particular ideas that characterized each thinker, and to weave these ideas into systems. But such efforts, notwithstanding the mental energy that has been expended upon them, were, of necessity, futile, since, in the first place, the ancient philosophers themselves did not specialize and systematize their ideas according to modern notions, and, in the second place, the records of their individual teachings have been too scantily preserved to serve for the purpose of classification. It is freely admitted that fable has woven an impenetrable mesh of contradictions about the personalities of these ancient thinkers, and it would be folly to hope that this same artificer had been less busy with their beliefs and theories. When one reads that Pythagoras advocated an exclusively vegetable diet, yet that he was the first to train athletes on meat diet; that he sacrificed only inanimate things, yet that he offered up a hundred oxen in honor of his great discovery regarding the sides of a triangle, and such like inconsistencies in the same biography, one gains a realizing sense of the extent to which diverse traditions enter into the story as it has come down to us. And yet we must reflect that most men change their opinions in the course of a long lifetime, and that the antagonistic reports may both be true.

True or false, these fables have an abiding interest, since they prove the unique and extraordinary character of the personality about which they are woven. The alleged witticisms of a WhistLer, in our own day, were doubtless, for the most part, quite unknown to WhistLer himself, yet they never would have been ascribed to him were they not akin to witticisms that he did originate - were they not, in short, typical expressions of his personality. And so of the heroes of the past. "It is no ordinary man," said George Henry Lewes, speaking of Pythagoras, "whom fable exalts into the poetic region. Whenever you find romantic or miraculous deeds attributed, be certain that the hero was great enough to maintain the weight of the crown of this fabulous glory."[1] We may not doubt, then, that Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Empedocles, with whose names fable was so busy throughout antiquity, were men of extraordinary personality. We are here chiefly concerned, however, neither with the personality of the man nor yet with the precise doctrines which each one of them taught. A knowledge of the latter would be interesting were it attainable, but in the confused state of the reports that have come down to us we cannot hope to be able to ascribe each idea with precision to its proper source. At best we can merely outline, even here not too precisely, the scientific doctrines which the Italic philosophers as a whole seem to have advocated.

First and foremost, there is the doctrine that the earth is a sphere. Pythagoras is said to have been the first advocate of this theory; but, unfortunately, it is reported also that Parmenides was its author. This rivalship for the discovery of an important truth we shall see repeated over and over in more recent times. Could we know the whole truth, it would perhaps appear that the idea of the sphericity of the earth was originated long before the time of the Greek philosophers. But it must be admitted that there is no record of any sort to give tangible support to such an assumption. So far as we can ascertain, no Egyptian or Babylonian astronomer ever grasped the wonderful conception that the earth is round. That the Italic Greeks should have conceived that idea was perhaps not so much because they were astronomers as because they were practical geographers and geometers. Pythagoras, as we have noted, was born at Samos, and, therefore, made a relatively long sea voyage in passing to Italy. Now, as every one knows, the most simple and tangible demonstration of the convexity of the earth's surface is furnished by observation of an approaching ship at sea. On a clear day a keen eye may discern the mast and sails rising gradually above the horizon, to be followed in due course by the hull. Similarly, on approaching the shore, high objects become visible before those that lie nearer the water. It is at least a plausible supposition that Pythagoras may have made such observations as these during the voyage in question, and that therein may lie the germ of that wonderful conception of the world as a sphere.

To what extent further proof, based on the fact that the earth's shadow when the moon is eclipsed is always convex, may have been known to Pythagoras we cannot say. There is no proof that any of the Italic philosophers made extensive records of astronomical observations as did the Egyptians and Babylonians; but we must constantly recall that the writings of classical antiquity have been almost altogether destroyed. The absence of astronomical records is, therefore, no proof that such records never existed. Pythagoras, it should be said, is reported to have travelled in Egypt, and he must there have gained an inkling of astronomical methods. Indeed, he speaks of himself specifically, in a letter quoted by Diogenes, as one who is accustomed to study astronomy. Yet a later sentence of the letter, which asserts that the philosopher is not always occupied about speculations of his own fancy, suggesting, as it does, the dreamer rather than the observer, gives us probably a truer glimpse into the philosopher's mind. There is, indeed, reason to suppose that the doctrine of the sphericity of the earth appealed to Pythagoras chiefly because it accorded with his conception that the sphere is the most perfect solid, just as the circle is the most perfect plane surface. Be that as it may, the fact remains that we have here, as far as we can trace its origin, the first expression of the scientific theory that the earth is round. Had the Italic philosophers accomplished nothing more than this, their accomplishment would none the less mark an epoch in the progress of thought.

That Pythagoras was an observer of the heavens is further evidenced by the statement made by Diogenes, on the authority of Parmenides, that Pythagoras was the first person who discovered or asserted the identity of Hesperus and Lucifer - that is to say, of the morning and the evening star. This was really a remarkable discovery, and one that was no doubt instrumental later on in determining that theory of the mechanics of the heavens which we shall see elaborated presently. To have made such a discovery argues again for the practicality of the mind of Pythagoras. His, indeed, would seem to have been a mind in which practical common-sense was strangely blended with the capacity for wide and imaginative generalization. As further evidence of his practicality, it is asserted that he was the first person who introduced measures and weights among the Greeks, this assertion being made on the authority of Aristoxenus. It will be observed that he is said to have introduced, not to have invented, weights and measures, a statement which suggests a knowledge on the part of the Greeks that weights and measures were previously employed in Egypt and Babylonia.

The mind that could conceive the world as a sphere and that interested itself in weights and measures was, obviously, a mind of the visualizing type. It is characteristic of this type of mind to be interested in the tangibilities of geometry, hence it is not surprising to be told that Pythagoras "carried that science to perfection." The most famous discovery of Pythagoras in this field was that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the squares of the other sides of the triangle. We have already noted the fable that his enthusiasm over this discovery led him to sacrifice a hecatomb. Doubtless the story is apocryphal, but doubtless, also, it expresses the truth as to the fervid joy with which the philosopher must have contemplated the results of his creative imagination.

No line alleged to have been written by Pythagoras has come down to us. We are told that he refrained from publishing his doctrines, except by word of mouth. "The Lucanians and the Peucetians, and the Messapians and the Romans," we are assured, "flocked around him, coming with eagerness to hear his discourses; no fewer than six hundred came to him every night; and if any one of them had ever been permitted to see the master, they wrote of it to their friends as if they had gained some great advantage." Nevertheless, we are assured that until the time of Philolaus no doctrines of Pythagoras were ever published, to which statement it is added that "when the three celebrated books were published, Plato wrote to have them purchased for him for a hundred minas."[2] But if such books existed, they are lost to the modern world, and we are obliged to accept the assertions of relatively late writers as to the theories of the great Crotonian.

Perhaps we cannot do better than quote at length from an important summary of the remaining doctrines of Pythagoras, which Diogenes himself quoted from the work of a predecessor.[3] Despite its somewhat inchoate character, this summary is a most remarkable one, as a brief analysis of its contents will show. It should be explained that Alexander (whose work is now lost) is said to have found these dogmas set down in the commentaries of Pythagoras. If this assertion be accepted, we are brought one step nearer the philosopher himself. The summary is as follows:

 "That the monad was the beginning of everything. From the monad proceeds an indefinite duad, which is subordinate to the monad as to its cause. That from the monad and the indefinite duad proceed numbers. And from numbers signs. And from these last, lines of which plane figures consist. And from plane figures are derived solid bodies. And from solid bodies sensible bodies, of which last there are four elements - fire, water, earth, and air. And that the world, which is indued with life and intellect, and which is of a spherical figure, having the earth, which is also spherical, and inhabited all over in its centre,[4] results from a combination of these elements, and derives its motion from them; and also that there are antipodes, and that what is below, as respects us, is above in respect of them.

"He also taught that light and darkness, and cold and heat, and dryness and moisture, were equally divided in the world; and that while heat was predominant it was summer; while cold had the mastery, it was winter; when dryness prevailed, it was spring; and when moisture preponderated, winter. And while all these qualities were on a level, then was the loveliest season of the year; of which the flourishing spring was the wholesome period, and the season of autumn the most pernicious one. Of the day, he said that the flourishing period was the morning, and the fading one the evening; on which account that also was the least healthy time.

"Another of his theories was that the air around the earth was immovable and pregnant with disease, and that everything in it was mortal; but that the upper air was in perpetual motion, and pure and salubrious, and that everything in that was immortal, and on that account divine. And that the sun and the moon and the stars were all gods; for in them the warm principle predominates which is the cause of life. And that the moon derives its light from the sun. And that there is a relationship between men and the gods, because men partake of the divine principle; on which account, also, God exercises his providence for our advantage. Also, that Fate is the cause of the arrangement of the world both generally and particularly. Moreover, that a ray from the sun penetrated both the cold aether and the dense aether; and they call the air the cold aether, and the sea and moisture they call the dense aether. And this ray descends into the depths, and in this way vivifies everything. And everything which partakes of the principle of heat lives, on which account, also, plants are animated beings; but that all living things have not necessarily souls. And that the soul is a something tom off from the aether, both warm and cold, from its partaking of the cold aether. And that the soul is something different from life. Also, that it is immortal, because that from which it has been detached is immortal.

"Also, that animals are born from one another by seeds, and that it is impossible for there to be any spontaneous production by the earth. And that seed is a drop from the brain which contains in itself a warm vapor; and that when this is applied to the womb it transmits virtue and moisture and blood from the brain, from which flesh and sinews and bones and hair and the whole body are produced. And from the vapor is produced the soul, and also sensation. And that the infant first becomes a solid body at the end of forty days; but, according to the principles of harmony, it is not perfect till seven, or perhaps nine, or at most ten months, and then it is brought forth. And that it contains in itself all the principles of life, which are all connected together, and by their union and combination form a harmonious whole, each of them developing itself at the appointed time.

"The senses in general, and especially the sight, are a vapor of excessive warmth, and on this account a man is said to see through air and through water. For the hot principle is opposed by the cold one; since, if the vapor in the eyes were cold, it would have the same temperature as the air, and so would be dissipated. As it is, in some passages he calls the eyes the gates of the sun; and he speaks in a similar manner of hearing and of the other senses.

"He also says that the soul of man is divided into three parts: into intuition and reason and mind, and that the first and last divisions are found also in other animals, but that the middle one, reason, is only found in man. And that the chief abode of the soul is in those parts of the body which are between the heart and the brain. And that that portion of it which is in the heart is the mind; but that deliberation and reason reside in the brain.

Moreover, that the senses are drops from them; and that the reasoning sense is immortal, but the others are mortal. And that the soul is nourished by the blood; and that reasons are the winds of the soul. That it is invisible, and so are its reasons, since the aether itself is invisible. That the links of the soul are the veins and the arteries and the nerves. But that when it is vigorous, and is by itself in a quiescent state, then its links are words and actions. That when it is cast forth upon the earth it wanders about, resembling the body. Moreover, that Mercury is the steward of the souls, and that on this account he has the name of Conductor, and Commercial, and Infernal, since it is he who conducts the souls from their bodies, and from earth and sea; and that he conducts the pure souls to the highest region, and that he does not allow the impure ones to approach them, nor to come near one another, but commits them to be bound in indissoluble fetters by the Furies. The Pythagoreans also assert that the whole air is full of souls, and that these are those which are accounted daemons and heroes. Also, that it is by them that dreams are sent among men, and also the tokens of disease and health; these last, too, being sent not only to men, but to sheep also, and other cattle. Also that it is they who are concerned with purifications and expiations and all kinds of divination and oracular predictions, and things of that kind."[5]

 A brief consideration of this summary of the doctrines of Pythagoras will show that it at least outlines a most extraordinary variety of scientific ideas. (1) There is suggested a theory of monads and the conception of the development from simple to more complex bodies, passing through the stages of lines, plain figures, and solids to sensible bodies. (2) The doctrine of the four elements - fire, water, earth, and air - as the basis of all organisms is put forward. (3) The idea, not merely of the sphericity of the earth, but an explicit conception of the antipodes, is expressed. (4) A conception of the sanitary influence of the air is clearly expressed. (5) An idea of the problems of generation and heredity is shown, together with a distinct disavowal of the doctrine of spontaneous generation - a doctrine which, it may be added, remained in vogue, nevertheless, for some twenty-four hundred years after the time of Pythagoras. (6) A remarkable analysis of mind is made, and a distinction between animal minds and the human mind is based on this analysis. The physiological doctrine that the heart is the organ of one department of mind is offset by the clear statement that the remaining factors of mind reside in the brain. This early recognition of brain as the organ of mind must not be forgotten in our later studies. It should be recalled, however, that a Crotonian physician, Alemaean, a younger contemporary of Pythagoras, is also credited with the same theory. (7) A knowledge of anatomy is at least vaguely foreshadowed in the assertion that veins, arteries, and nerves are the links of the soul. In this connection it should be recalled that Pythagoras was a practical physician.

As against these scientific doctrines, however, some of them being at least remarkable guesses at the truth, attention must be called to the concluding paragraph of our quotation, in which the old familiar daemonology is outlined, quite after the Oriental fashion. We shall have occasion to say more as to this phase of the subject later on. Meantime, before leaving Pythagoras, let us note that his practical studies of humanity led him to assert the doctrine that "the property of friends is common, and that friendship is equality." His disciples, we are told, used to put all their possessions together in one store and use them in common. Here, then, seemingly, is the doctrine of communism put to the test of experiment at this early day. If it seem that reference to this carries us beyond the bounds of science, it may be replied that questions such as this will not lie beyond the bounds of the science of the near future.




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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.