I’m pretty certain that a fair number of people reading the title of this post will be going, ‘what the hell is he talking about? We heard all about Greek science at primary (grade) school, secondary school, high school, college, university” or “I’ve read about Greek science in that popular history of science book, popular science journal, that website, on Wikipedia, in that magazine at the hairdressers!” “Of course there is such a thing as Greek science you can hear/read about it all over the place. Has he gone barmy or something?” Others are probably thinking he’s about to go on about how the word science when used for the ancient Greeks is anachronistic and we shouldn’t call it science but … This chain of thought is in fact correct but is not the topic of this post. In fact for the moment I’m quite happy to use the word science in this context as a shorthand way of describing all of the intellectual disciplines practiced by the ancient Greeks that are related to the disciplines that we call the sciences today, even if this usage is more than somewhat anachronistic. What I’m objecting to, in fact rejecting is the whole term ‘Greek science’ it doesn’t exist has never existed and its usage leads to a series of dangerous misconceptions; dangerous that is for our understanding of the history of western science. Why do I say this and what misconceptions?
The usage of the term Greek science implies that there is a coherent, albeit, abstract object that can be indicated by this term, no such object has ever existed. This becomes very obvious if one takes the time to look closely at what is usually labelled Greek science.
If we look at the time dimension we are talking about a set of activities that begins some what earlier than six hundred BCE with the earliest of the so-called pre-Socratic philosophers i.e. Thales and co. It carries on in the western world until the death of the last of the so-called encyclopaedists Isidore of Seville in 632 C. That is a time span of more than twelve hundred years. Just to put that in perspective, if we go back twelve hundred and fifty years from today Pippin the Short, the first of the Carolingians to become King of the Franks, was on the throne. His son Karl der Große, or Charlemagne, as the English call him, might be better known to you. Twelve hundred years is a lot of human history and a lot can happen in a time span that long.
A geographical examination yields a similar result. The pre-Socratics lived in what became known as Asia Minor and is now part of Turkey. It stretches over the Greek island and mainland in its development to Southern Italy. It took in the whole of the Hellenistic Empire of Alexander the Great and later the whole of the Roman Empire. Our last representative Isidore, as his name tells us, lived in Seville in Spain. Up till now I’ve not mentioned the final Greek Empire, Byzantium, which begins when the Roman Emperor Constantine moved his capital from Rome to Constantinople and ended with the fall of that noble city to the Turks in 1453. It occupied a large part of what is now Turkey. Geo-politically over our twelve hundred plus years we progress from ancient Greek culture through Hellenistic culture, on to Romano-Hellenistic culture and finishing up in post-classical Roman late antiquity or the Early Medieval period. It should be clear by now that to refer to Greek science is a fairly pointless exercise from the point of view of time, geography, and politics and culture. It’s about as meaningless as referring to European science and using the term to designate some sort of coherent whole beginning with Charlemagne and going up to the present and encompassing the whole of the continent of Europe. That coherent whole simply doesn’t exist.
Of course the time, special and politico-cultural dimensions are only part of the problem and not even the most important part. Despite the vast diversity that we have just sketched people still insist in talking about a single coherent science and it is here that the real damage caused by misconception takes place. Let us start with one typical example to illustrate what I mean. In popular presentations of the study of the theory of optics I constantly stumble across statement of the type, ‘the Greeks believed that we see by beams projected from the eyes to the objects perceived’. Such standpoint is know technically as an extramission theory of vision and is indeed one of the theories of vision proposed and discussed by the ancient Greeks. The important phrase here is ‘one of the theories’; the various groups in ancient Greece proposed at least five different contrasting, conflicting and contradictory theories of vision over a number of centuries that they investigated and discussed. These theories were then taken up and debated further by both the Islamic and the European scholars in the Middle Ages. We don’t have a case of ‘the Greeks thought/believed this’ but rather the Atomists believed this, the Platonists believed this, the Aristotelians believed this, the Stoics believe this and the mathematical optical theorists believed this. In other words we have conflicting competing theories presented by different schools of thought each of which was different at different times and often in different areas during those twelve hundred years that Greek culture existed. Those who just present the extramission theory as being what the Greeks thought seem to be motivated by presenting the Greeks in a bad light. Look how stupid the Greeks were, they actually believed that the eyes send out rays of fire enabling people to see.
One could of course argue that this is one example and doesn’t necessarily represent the whole of Greek science but it does. The list of groups that I named as holding differing theories of vision is basically the list of principle schools of thought within ancient Greek culture who developed and presented views on a multitude of scientific topics throughout the Greek cultural period. They are others who didn’t necessarily have views on optics, such as the Pythagoreans, but did develop theories in other areas. Each of the named schools came into being and enjoyed a period of prominence as their ideas were shiny new and stimulating then falling somewhat into the background as new schools emerged with other shiny new ideas.
A second example is provided by the disciplines of astronomy and cosmology. It is a commonplace that the Greeks believed the heavens to be divided into two spheres, the sublunar and the supralunar, the latter being perfect and the former corruptible. They, the Greeks, also believed that comets being corruptible inhabit the sublunar sphere. These views are not the views of the Greeks but of Aristotle and the Aristotelians. Another school of thought the Stoics regarded the entire heavens to be of one nature with no division and comets to be phenomena of the supralunar region. The Stoics and there cosmology were in general more dominant in later antiquity than the Aristotelians.
The opinion that the views of the Aristotle were those of the Greeks comes from adoption of those views by Europeans in the High Middle Ages and the misconception that they and they alone dominated European thought until deposed by the ‘modern’ astronomy in the Early Modern Period. In fact modern research into the history of astronomy has revealed that a renaissance of the Stoic cosmology in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries played a significant role in the so-called astronomical revolution.
I could go on producing examples from every branch of Greek knowledge that display the diversity of Greek thought across the centuries. Even the much-quoted Greek mathematics was in reality a varying range of diverse and oft conflicting schools. The two most famous Greek mathematicians Euclid and Archimedes represent two conflicting approaches to the subject, Euclid synthetic, Archimedes analytical. These two fundamentally different approaches resurfaced in conflict with each other during the seventeenth century following the renaissances of synthetic Euclidian mathematics in the fifteenth century and analytic Archimedean mathematics in the sixteenth century.
Any extensive in depth survey of science carried out in the Greek language in the Mediterranean region in antiquity should convince anybody that there never was anything that could reasonably be called Greek science and we should all endeavour to stop using the term and instead talk about the Platonic theory of vision, Aristotelian cosmology, Euclidian geometry or whatever label correctly identifies the topic under discussion. By pure chance Mary Beard, a leading British classicist, tweeted the following statement during the week that perfectly sums up the message of this post in 140 characters:
Afraid I bridle at generalising “did THE GREEKS think?” M Finley always said “which Greeks? when?” Not unitary culture – @wmarybeard