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

Book 1, chapter VI
The early greek philosophers in Italy
Xenophanes and Parmenides
There is a whimsical tale about Pythagoras, according to which the philosopher was wont to declare that in an earlier state he had visited Hades, and had there seen Homer and Hesiod tortured because of the absurd things they had said about the gods. Apocrypbal or otherwise, the tale suggests that Pythagoras was an agnostic as regards the current Greek religion of his time. The same thing is perhaps true of most of the great thinkers of this earliest period. But one among them was remembered in later times as having had a peculiar aversion to the anthropomorphic conceptions of his fellows. This was Xenophanes, who was born at Colophon probably about the year 580 B.C., and who, after a life of wandering, settled finally in Italy and became the founder of the so-called Eleatic School.

A few fragments of the philosophical poem in which Xenophanes expressed his views have come down to us, and these fragments include a tolerably definite avowal of his faith. "God is one supreme among gods and men, and not like mortals in body or in mind," says Xenophanes. Again he asserts that "mortals suppose that the gods are born (as they themselves are), that they wear man's clothing and have human voice and body; but," he continues, "if cattle or lions had hands so as to paint with their hands and produce works of art as men do, they would paint their gods and give them bodies in form like their own - horses like horses, cattle like cattle." Elsewhere he says, with great acumen: "There has not been a man, nor will there be, who knows distinctly what I say about the gods or in regard to all things. For even if one chance for the most part to say what is true, still he would not know; but every one thinks that he knows."[6]

In the same spirit Xenophanes speaks of the battles of Titans, of giants, and of centaurs as "fictions of former ages." All this tells of the questioning spirit which distinguishes the scientific investigator. Precisely whither this spirit led him we do not know, but the writers of a later time have preserved a tradition regarding a belief of Xenophanes that perhaps entitles him to be considered the father of geology. Thus Hippolytus records that Xenophanes studied the fossils to be found in quarries, and drew from their observation remarkable conclusions. His words are as follows: "Xenophanes believes that once the earth was mingled with the sea, but in the course of time it became freed from moisture; and his proofs are such as these: that shells are found in the midst of the land and among the mountains, that in the quarries of Syracuse the imprints of a fish and of seals had been found, and in Paros the imprint of an anchovy at some depth in the stone, and in Melite shallow impressions of all sorts of sea products. He says that these imprints were made when everything long ago was covered with mud, and then the imprint dried in the mud. Further, he says that all men will be destroyed when the earth sinks into the sea and becomes mud, and that the race will begin anew from the beginning; and this transformation takes place for all worlds."[7] Here, then, we see this earliest of paleontologists studying the fossil-bearing strata of the earth, and drawing from his observations a marvellously scientific induction. Almost two thousand years later another famous citizen of Italy, Leonardo da Vinci, was independently to think out similar conclusions from like observations. But not until the nineteenth century of our era, some twenty-four hundred years after the time of Xenophanes, was the old Greek's doctrine to be accepted by the scientific world. The ideas of Xenophanes were known to his contemporaries and, as we see, quoted for a few centuries by his successors, then they were ignored or quite forgotten; and if any philosopher of an ensuing age before the time of Leonardo championed a like rational explanation of the fossils, we have no record of the fact. The geological doctrine of Xenophanes, then, must be listed among those remarkable Greek anticipations of nineteenth -century science which suffered almost total eclipse in the intervening centuries.

Among the pupils of Xenophanes was Parmenides, the thinker who was destined to carry on the work of his master along the same scientific lines, though at the same time mingling his scientific conceptions with the mysticism of the poet. We have already had occasion to mention that Parmenides championed the idea that the earth is round; noting also that doubts exist as to whether he or Pythagoras originated this doctrine. No explicit answer to this question can possibly be hoped for. It seems clear, however, that for a long time the Italic School, to which both these philosophers belonged, had a monopoly of the belief in question. Parmenides, like Pythagoras, is credited with having believed in the motion of the earth, though the evidence furnished by the writings of the philosopher himself is not as demonstrative as one could wish. Unfortunately, the copyists of a later age were more concerned with metaphysical speculations than with more tangible things. But as far as the fragmentary references to the ideas of Parmenides may be accepted, they do not support the idea of the earth's motion. Indeed, Parmenides is made to say explicitly, in preserved fragments, that "the world is immovable, limited, and spheroidal in form."[8]

Nevertheless, some modern interpreters have found an opposite meaning in Parmenides. Thus Ritter interprets him as supposing "that the earth is in the centre spherical, and maintained in rotary motion by its equiponderance; around it lie certain rings, the highest composed of the rare element fire, the next lower a compound of light and darkness, and lowest of all one wholly of night, which probably indicated to his mind the surface of the earth, the centre of which again he probably considered to be fire."[9] But this, like too many interpretations of ancient thought, appears to read into the fragments ideas which the words themselves do not warrant. There seems no reason to doubt, however, that Parmenides actually held the doctrine of the earth's sphericity. Another glimpse of his astronomical doctrines is furnished us by a fragment which tells us that he conceived the morning and the evening stars to be the same, a doctrine which, as we have seen, was ascribed also to Pythagoras. Indeed, we may repeat that it is quite impossible to distinguish between the astronomical doctrines of these two philosophers.

The poem of Parmenides in which the cosmogonic speculations occur treats also of the origin of man. The author seems to have had a clear conception that intelligence depends on bodily organism, and that the more elaborately developed the organism the higher the intelligence. But in the interpretation of this thought we are hampered by the characteristic vagueness of expression, which may best be evidenced by putting before the reader two English translations of the same stanza. Here is Ritter's rendering, as made into English by his translator, Morrison:

 "For exactly as each has the state of his limbs many-jointed, So invariably stands it with men in their mind and their reason; For the system of limbs is that which thinketh in mankind Alike in all and in each: for thought is the fulness."[10]

The same stanza is given thus by George Henry Lewes:

 "Such as to each man is the nature of his many-jointed limbs, Such also is the intelligence of each man; for it is The nature of limbs (organization) which thinketh in men, Both in one and in all; for the highest degree of organization gives the highest degree of thought."[11]

 Here it will be observed that there is virtual agreement between the translators except as to the last clause, but that clause is most essential. The Greek phrase is . Ritter, it will be observed, renders this, "for thought is the fulness." Lewes paraphrases it, "for the highest degree of organization gives the highest degree of thought." The difference is intentional, since Lewes himself criticises the translation of Ritter. Ritter's translation is certainly the more literal, but the fact that such diversity is possible suggests one of the chief elements of uncertainty that hamper our interpretation of the thought of antiquity. Unfortunately, the mind of the commentator has usually been directed towards such subtleties, rather than towards the expression of precise knowledge. Hence it is that the philosophers of Greece are usually thought of as mere dreamers, and that their true status as scientific discoverers is so often overlooked. With these intangibilities we have no present concern beyond this bare mention; for us it suffices to gain as clear an idea as we may of the really scientific conceptions of these thinkers, leaving the subtleties of their deductive reasoning for the most part untouched.




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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.