There is no such thing as Greek science.

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



Filed under Myths of Science

11 responses to “There is no such thing as Greek science.

  1. If the Greeks had been of one mind, Socrates would have had no need for Apologia…

  2. The two most famous Greek mathematicians Euclid and Archimedes represent two conflicting approaches to the subject, Euclid synthetic, Archimedes analytical.

    Not sure what you mean by this. Are you referring to Archimedes’ work The Method of Mechanical Theorems?

  3. I think this post is spot on although, as I am sure Thony would admit, it is simply an empirical observation that raises a host of interesting questions. Foremost among them is why the Greeks were quite happy to entertain multiple theories and, indeed, entire natural philosophies. A late antique commentator like Simplicius sometimes reads like “on one hand/on the other hand” with no firm conclusions at all. And Simplicius himself is just one author who is aiming for some sort of philosophical coherence.
    I’d answer that question by saying Greeks had no way to distinguish between the “right” theories and the “wrong” ones. That makes it impossible to tell the story of science in the classical world as a story of progress. It also raises the further question of why they couldn’t distinguish theories. The obvious answer is that they had no experimental method to do so. But I think that is neither quite true, or to the point. Rather, Greeks simply weren’t bothered about which of their theories could produce useful predictions, or which of their natural philosophies most closely reflected the real world. That isn’t what they were for.

    At a risk of generalising, would it be true to say that Stoic cosmology was intended to provide a basis for Stoic philosophy; that is, to explain the universe in a way that meant Stoicism had to be true? Likewise, Epicurean atomism is a foundation for Epicurean doctrines of freedom. That enabled Lucretius to write a poem on the nature of the universe the message of which was almost entirely ethical. I would go even further and say that all Greek natural philosophies (always in the plural), and perhaps a fair chunk of their maths and medicine too, were devised to buttress worldviews. They were certainly not intended to provide objective visions of reality.

    Going a bit further, the key to understanding early Christian responses to Greek natural philosophy is to realise that they knew all this. They are not being anti-science. They were just perfectly aware that pagan visions of the universe were intended to buttress pagan worldviews. Since Christians didn’t agree with the conflicting Epicurean, neo-Platonic or Stoic ethical and metaphysical claims, it would be madness for them to buy into any of their natural philosophies. So while early Christians could take useful elements from pagan natural philosophy (and some, like St Basil, were highly knowledgeable about it), they can hardly be blamed for wanting to replace them with a new Christian natural philosophy that supported their religion in the same way the other natural philosophies had buttressed particular non-Christian schools of thought.

  4. This post was so interesting and I think you are exactly right! It made we question so many interesting things, thanks!

  5. The two most famous Greek mathematicians Euclid and Archimedes represent two conflicting approaches to the subject, Euclid synthetic, Archimedes analytical.

    On further reflection, I’m wondering if you had in mind Apollonius vs. Archimedes; their differing mathematical styles has been a theme of historiography at least since Heath, if I’m not mistaken.

    In any case, I’d like to push back a little on the (in)coherence of the term “Greek mathematics” (not the more general Greek science, though). Would you find the term “19th century German mathematics” likewise incoherent? Yet it encompasses such disparate styles as Riemann, Weierstrass, Kronecker, and Cantor.

    I’ve always understood the “Greek” in “Greek mathematics” to refer to the language and not the region, by the way.

  6. Matt J.

    True, it is not a “unitary culture”,but there really is –despite all the difference of opinions between pre-Socratics, Aristotelians and what have you — there was still a wider unity uniting all the philosophers engaging in the philosoophical reasoning some now call “Greek science”. It was, after all the Ionian philosophers (definitely Greek even though we later called the geographical area “Asia Minor”), who first introduced a way of thinking about these topics, a way of thinking that was new at the time and eventually led to what we now call “the scientific method”.

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  8. I disagree. (And I agree with the end of Michael Weiss’s 2nd comment.) It’s a mystery to me why people interpret the ‘Greek’ in ‘Greek science’ to refer to the nebulous concept of the Greek people as opposed to the more straightforward category of texts written in Greek. This is a distinction with concrete and very non-abstract ramifications: either you can read Greek and have access to these texts or you can’t and don’t (or must receive them through intermediaries and translations). Thus when considering the history of the transmission of ideas, grouping a corpus of texts by language is not only not crazy, it’s probably one of the more sensible categories to impose.

    • Matt J.

      One reason was right in front of you: the “wider unity” I already mentioned. Another reason is that for a long period of their history, speaking Greek was the lion’s share of what made one a Greek.

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  10. Joe

    There actually were no “Greeks.” There was no “Hellas.”

    The common claim that Christians were the first to associate the word Hellene with pagan, is nonsense. Aristides of Athens converted from the Hellenes to the Christians. Likewise Clement of Alexandria and Tatian the Assyrian. We understand Greek to be an ethnicity because in the 1800’s a country was named that.

    The ancient world however did not. Macedonians could be Hellenes but were a different nationality from the Epirotes and Thassalians, etc. There was a Macedonian language which called the the month of June “Luz” according to Plutarch. “Hecatombeon” in Hellenic.

    It was impossible to be a Christian AND a Hellene BECAUSE Hellenes WERE pagans. If you want to understand it in modern terminology it was a pagan religious cult. The ancients, Christian or pagan, referred to religion as “Philosophy.” Christianity and Judaism were “Barbarian philosophies” and the Hellenes were various sects of pagan philosophers.

    Porphyry was Aramaean/Phoenician, but was a Hellene. Plotinus nationality is a mystery because he didn’t care to tell anyone.

    I think your article missed the more important point. Science has never been Greek, true, but Greece didn’t exist until the 1800’s. If you read about a land called Greece in translations of ancient literature you will notice that it is impossible to tell where they are talking about.

    Aristotle places the Hellenic lands in the town of Dodona in Epirus, only part of modern Greece itself, in Meteorologica and agreed with Homer who refers to them as the “Selli” but “Hellenes” in Strabo.

    Clearly before the time of Alexander the Hellenes weren’t important. Alexander was Macedonian. Nobody was ethnically Greek because there was no nation that carried the name. Not even a city. At best it was the colloquial way of referring to an ares within Dodona, Epirus.

    Why do so few people realize this it’s super obvious. Ancient Greece wasn’t called Greece. Or Hellas. It was annexed into the Kingdom of Macedonia and was not independent until… truth be told its not really independent today. That is a country that cannot take care of itself.

    Before Alexander it was several independent kingdoms. Poleis doesn’t mean “city-state” just “city.” Egyptian city, “On” is called “Heliopolis.” “Sun-city.” A metropolis is a “mother-city” not a “mother city state.”

    It’s no less than a lie to pretend to the existence of the concept of the city-state in ancient times. These so called city states were capital cities or just cities, in actual nations. Nations which had kings, monarchies not democratic. Eusebius” Chronicon” has a list of the Kings of Thessaly, and all of nations that were annexed by the Macedonians, clearly historians are trying to rewrite history to insert themselves in the only regions ancient history cares about, Asia and Africa. Modern Greece is barely in Europe and wasn’t considered part of Europe when it was populated by Muslims and ruled by the Turks. Neither is al-Andalus considered to be part of European history. I wonder why…?

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