Science Is Thinking About the World in the Greek Way

01/29/2014 02:14 pm 14:14:03 | Updated Mar 31, 2014

Science has always been a contested terrain, especially its origins.

In early twentieth century, the British scholar Richard Livingstone explained science as a product of truthfulness among the Greeks.

He said this was not because the Greeks told fewer lies than other people:

"[The Greeks] had the desire and the power to see the world as it is. By this essential quality they gave Europe the conception of philosophy and science. These we inherit from them alone; Palestine and our German ancestors neither created them, nor show any signs of the temper that creates them, and Rome received her share from Greece."

In 1930, another British classical scholar, John Burnet, outraged many of his academic class with his praise of the Greeks and their invention of science:

"My aim has been to show that a new thing came into the world with the early Ionian [Greek] teachers [of seventh to fifth centuries BCE] -- the thing we call science -- and that they first pointed the way which Europe has followed ever since, so that... it is an adequate description of science to say that it is 'thinking about the world in the Greek way.' That is why science has never existed except among peoples who have come under the influence of Greece."

In the early 1950s, the German scholar Bruno Snell gave credit to the Greeks for inventing scientific thought, indeed tracing science out of the Greek language. He explained how that happened:

"Greek is the only language which allows us to trace the true relation between speech and the rise of science; for in no other tongue did the concepts of science grow straight from the body of the language. In Greece, and only in Greece, did theoretic thought emerge without outside influence, and nowhere else was there an autochthonous formation of scientific terms. All other languages are derivative; they have borrowed or translated or got their terms by some other devious route from the Greeks. And it was only with the help of the unique achievement of the Greeks that the other societies were able to progress beyond their own pace of conceptual development."

The Dutch historian of science, E. J. Dijksterhuis, explained that our present-day knowledge comes straight from Hellas. This is particularly true on mathematics and natural science where "Aristotle, like no other Hellene, perhaps like no other scholar of any age, dominated the evolution of scientific thought."

In 1978, Arpad Szabo of the Mathematical Institute, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, suggested the Greeks might have borrowed some of their scientific knowledge from the Egyptians and Mesopotamians. But he saw a difference in the science of the Greeks and the science of Egyptians and Babylonians:

"The most substantial difference between Greek and Oriental sciences is that the former is an ingenious system of knowledge built up according to the method of logical deduction, whereas the latter is nothing more than a collection of instructions and rules of thumb, often accompanied by examples, having to do with how some particular mathematical tasks are to be carried out."

Despite this truth, modern scientists to some degree continue the Christian slander that the Greeks plagiarized the Egyptian and Mesopotamian achievement in science.

In 1979, Geoffrey Lloyd, professor of ancient philosophy and science at Cambridge University, explained the scientific contributions of the Egyptians and Babylonians and the Greeks:

"[The Greeks] were certainly not the first to develop a complex mathematics -- only the first to use, and then also to give a formal analysis of, a concept of rigorous mathematical demonstration. They were not the first to carry out careful observations in astronomy and medicine, only the first -- eventually -- to develop an explicit notion of empirical research and to debate its role in natural science. They were not the first to diagnose and treat some medical cases without reference to postulated divine or daemonic agencies, only the first to express a category of the 'magical' and to attempt to exclude it from medicine."

Lloyd concluded that Western science "is continuous with, and may be said to originate in, that of ancient Greece... [T]he Greeks provided science with its essential framework, asserting the possibility of the inquiry and initiating the debate that continues today on its aims and methods."

In the late 1990s, a group of French, Italian, British and American scholars wrote a guide to classical knowledge, which they called "Greek Thought." In their introduction, the editors wrote about the "unparalleled originality" of the Greeks.

The Greek past, they said, is also the past of the Western people, our past. The Greeks nourished us with their countless texts. With the Greeks, they continued, "We are on home ground in a distant land; we are traveling without leaving our own room. All our thinking, in one way or another, passes through reflection on the Greeks."