Classical Greek Thought
A New Approach to Nature

  1. Unique Features of Classical Greek (c.500 BC-300 BC) Approach to Nature
    1. Cultural context
      1. Different than Egypt, China, elsewhere, in that large bureaucratic kingdoms do not develop
      2. Small city states on islands or isolated mountain villages
      3. Poor soil and deforestation meant Greeks dependent on trade, as well as need to export excesses population to found colonies
      4. Thus aware of many cultures, open to ideas from many places
      5. Politics of the Greek city-state
        1. Most communities had small population
        2. Importance of street and market life created a very intimate context
        3. Modest wealth of city-states limits growth in gap between elites and masses
        4. All this fosters a belief in the importance of the individual citizen and vigorous political debate
          1. Political debate also fostered by the multiple forms and examples of different governments in city-states
          2. Competition between city-states also fostered debate
          3. Political debate increasingly hinges on logical persuasion in the public forum
          4. From debate over politics, debate over functioning of nature is not a large leap
    2. Invention of Natural Philosophy
      1. Effort to develop a theoretical understanding of nature from which individual phenomena could be explained
      2. Detached from any practical consideration
        1. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge, not to be able to build thins or make predictions
        2. Self consciously theoretical inquiries into the state of nature
        3. Plato (427-347 BC) argued that pursuit of knowledge for improving a craft was inferior to pursuit of knowledge for understanding true nature of the universe
      3. De-individualizes nature - seeks to find cause of all earthquakes, all floods, all cycles of growth and reproduction, etc, not just individual cases
    3. Lack of state support for education and scholarship
      1. Unlike China, Mesopotamia, Egypt and elsewhere, no state-sponsored schools to train scribes, engineers, etc.
      2. Some informal schools sponsored by tuition and wealth individuals
      3. Natural philosophers were independently wealthy or supported themselves as teachers, doctors, and engineers
      4. Thus approach to study of nature was highly individualistic
    4. Scientific authorship
      1. Theories of nature attributed to individual philosophers
      2. Gives rise to recognizable schools of thought
    5. Secularizes nature - seeks natural causes for phenomena, not spiritual ones
    6. Importance of theories of matter
      1. Various schools of though seeking to explain universe by studying what its underlying constituent parts or substances are
      2. While "fire, earth, air, and water" approach becomes most important. a minor school called the atomists originates idea that universe is built out of small, indivisible particles
    7. The Pythagoreans and the importance of mathematics and numbers
      1. Pythagoras (c. 569-475) founds a "school" (more of a cult) devoted to, among other things, the study of numbers
      2. Introduces abstract mathematics to the study of nature
      3. Places number as the basis of the universe
      4. Believed that the universe was constructed out of pure, abstract mathematical forms
      5. Will lead, by c.300 BC, to the development of the mathematical proof with the the work of Euclid in geometry
  2. Plato (428-347 BC)
    1. Founds the Academy
    2. Begins the creation of a synthesis of ideas from a number of earlier thinkers
      1. Imagined a geometric universe, based on perfect geometric forms
      2. Saw the universe as a collection of nested spheres, with the planets circling the Earth in perfect circles
    3. This theory will prompt research and further study by other thinkers, particularly on the problem of planetary motion
      1. Distinct schools of thought emerge based on work derived from Plato's model
      2. Communication between scholars, references to each other's work , indicates the emergence of a community of natural philosophers
  3. Aristotle (384-332 BC)
    1. Founds the Lyceum (informally, becomes more institutionalized after his death)
    2. Will be extraordinarily influential over Roman, medieval Christian and medieval Islamic thought
    3. Engaged in purely theoretical research with no practical purpose in mind
    4. Believed science came after technology; once practical problems were solved, men of leisure had time to think about nature
    5. Believed sensation and observation, understood through logic, to be only reliable route to knowledge
    6. Depended on common-sense approach to observation and theory
    7. Aristotle's Universe
      1. Agreed with Plato about the four elements - fire, earth, air, and water
        1. Believed however that underlying this were four qualities: hot, cold, wet, and dry
        2. Manipulating these four qualities could change matter
        3. This created the theoretical bases for Western and Islamic alchemy
      2. Divided physics of Earth from that of the heavens - since things went up and down on Earth but in circles in the heavens, the heavens must be different
      3. Saw motion as a crucial phenomenon for understanding universe
        1. Natural motion on Earth was cause by a things nature - air is light so it moves up, stone is heavy so it moves down, etc.
        2. In its perfect form, all things in the universe or in place and static, until set in motion by a Prime Mover (would be used as a proof for existence of God in medieval Christian theology)
        3. Forced motion depends on a mover, such as a horse pulling a cart
        4. All movement must be through some kind of medium, like air or water
          1. Without friction, speed and motion would be infinite
          2. Without a medium to push against, nothing could move
          3. Aristotle argued that therefore the planets must move through "aether," a perfect, unchanging substance
          4. Since nothing moves at infinite speed, there can be no vacuum
    8. Aristotle also very influential in biology
      1. Developed an extensive taxonomy
      2. Study of embryos reinforced his belief that the process of "becoming" was simply an expression of the natural potentials inherent in all things in the universe
    9. His ideas give rise to research and debate, providing a theoretical model for investigation of nature in European and Islamic worlds