Wednesday, January 27, 2016

How to get ancient Greek Science almost completely wrong

When we think of ancient Greek science, we tend to imagine Raphael’s great fresco “The School of Athens” featuring philosophers in togas lost in thought. The picture suggests that science in the ancient world was a single school of thought, much like modern science purports to be. But as the great Thony Christie pointed out on his blog a few months ago, there was no such monolithic science in the ancient world. Instead, there were all sorts of different sciences spread across the Mediterranean during the thousand odd years that separate the pre-Socratics from John Philoponus.

We also tend to think of the story of science being a single thread that begins with the pre-Socratics and wends its way down through time via Athens, Alexandria, Baghdad, Florence, Oxford and Harvard. I’ve just finished The Forgotten Revolution: HowScience Was Born in 300 BC and Why it Had to Be Reborn by Lucio Russo and translated into English by Silvio Levy (Springer, 2004) which takes this trope a great deal further than it can realistically go. Russo imagines something very like modern science arose in the Hellenistic era around 250BC. Rather stupidly, the Romans forgot all about it. For Russo, the scientific revolution was simply the rediscovery of the Greek science that had been lost. Unfortunately, although there were lots of different Greek sciences, none of them looked much like modern science. In fact, judged by the standards of modern science (which is, of course, a completely anachronistic thing to do), most Greek natural philosophy is wrong, as is Greek medicine. It is only in mathematics that many achievements of the Greeks are still part of the body of knowledge.
Finally, we imagine the Greeks, as a people, being particularly interested in science. However, science was the preoccupation of a small number of thinkers at the highest echelons of society in a few of the largest cities. It was practiced by a minority of a minority of a minority of the population. Papyri unearthed in Egypt show us just what an unusual pursuit it was. You can play around with the Mertens Pack papyrus database online to see this first hand. Homer features in 1,708 papyri on the database, Menander in 121, and Thucydides in 101. By contrast, Euclid and Ptolemy appear six times each (but only really in schoolbook editions of their ideas), while of Aristotle’s 15 appearances, only two are from his works of natural philosophy. Our impression that science and mathematics were subjects of widespread interest among the Greeks is caused by the bias of later Christian and Muslim copyists in preserving scientific texts, rather than the proclivities of the pagan Greeks themselves. 
In summary, the popular picture of Greek science is wrong in almost all respects.
And there’s one final point about which many people are mistaken. It’s widely assumed that the rise of Christianity put a stop to Greek science. This is surprising, because the vast majority of surviving ancient Greek science and medicine dates from the second century AD onwards. While it was once common to declare late Greek science as derivative and (frankly) boring, more recent studies of the work of John Philoponus mean that view can no longer be maintained. It is also being realised that the versions of Euclid and Ptolemy that we possess today are the product of careful philological and editorial work in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. In other words, Greeks of the Christian era were not just handing down the masterworks of previous eras, they were amending and improving them. That said, Christians did have a different set of interests to pagans so they used Greek philosophy for their own purposes rather than simply carrying forward a pagan agenda.
In The Forgotten Revolution, Russo blames the Roman annexation of Greece and Egypt for a decline in scientific knowledge. For the Romans, science was of little interest. They enjoyed Greek literature and art, but scientific works were not something any upwardly mobile Roman would be interested in patronising. Russo may have a point here. Nonetheless, his central contention that the work of Copernicus and Galileo was anticipated in the Hellenistic era is a great deal more dubious. As far as he is concerned, all the good bits in late Greek natural philosophy come from lost Hellenistic sources.

All this means I can't really recommend his book. It's a case of "I've read it so you don't have to".

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Anonymous said...

Ptolemy and Galen were both reaching new heights of understanding in the second century AD. Galen,in particular, as a man who used science creatively in the service of his patients ( and gained his prestige through his success in curing quite difficult illnesses) is on the up among academics. See the excellent Susan Mattern , The Prince of Medicine, Galen in the Roman Empire. One point that was fascinating was the enormous number of scientific treatises that Galen read before he began writing his own (although personal observation of the body always came first) . The author of this piece is right that there were too many schools of science. As Mattern shows, even second century AD Rome was a buzz of intellectual activity, contrary to some outmoded ideas about intellectual life being dead by this time.

James said...

Thanks for your comment Anon.

I'm not sure I'd say Ptolemy reached new heights of understanding as plainly he did not understand how the planets move. He did reach new heights of sophistication with his model, but that is not quite the same thing.

As for Galen, we can be sure he never "cured" anyone since his medical theories would not have supplied him with the knowledge to do so. Yes, there is a lot of common sense in his voluminous works, not to mention plenty of self promotion. We can't take for granted his claims he cured "quite difficult illnesses". His patients got better (and he declined to mention the ones who didn't).

Second century Rome was indeed abuzz with intellectual activity. Hardly any of it was science or maths in the sense we would understand them.

Anonymous said...

Where Aristotle, Galen and others scored was in their appreciation of the importance of observation and . and this is increasingly recognised for Galen, the use of logic to organise material. Armand Marie Leroi's The Lagoon, How Aristotle invented Science is excellent on this. Despite their many misconceptions, these men were not inhibited by any outside institutions that judged or condemned their work and it was the better for it. It is good that practicing scientists such as Leroi are now getting into Greek science.
Read Mattern on Galen if you have not already done so. He was above all a practical man and able to spot patterns of disease that others could not. So it is not really a question of his theories not curing anyone. i suspect like really good doctors today a lot was by instinct and experience and he certainly knew how to avoid treatments that would, from his own experience, do more harm than good.
We really have to wait until Leonardo before we get such a sustained concentration on observing and it was, of course, of a higher quality that led to the the gradual dismantling of earlier misconceptions. A retired surgeon I met said that he now lectures on Leonardo after he discovered that he could have used his drawings as a template for his own surgery!
Of course, we have to wait until the late nineteenth century before doctors actually began to cure people!