Reference

An obvious distinction between the classical and mediaeval epochs may be found in the fact that the former produced, whereas the latter failed to produce, a few great thinkers in each generation who were imbued with that scepticism which is the foundation of the investigating spirit; who thought for themselves and supplied more or less rational explanations of observed phenomena. Could we eliminate the work of some score or so of classical observers and thinkers, the classical epoch would seem as much a dark age as does the epoch that succeeded it.

The successors of Mohammed showed themselves curiously receptive of the ideas of the western people whom they conquered. They came in contact with the Greeks in western Asia and in Egypt, and, as has been said, became their virtual successors in carrying forward the torch of learning. It must not be inferred, however, that the Arabian scholars, as a class, were comparable to their predecessors in creative genius. On the contrary, they retained much of the conservative oriental spirit.

We have previously referred to the influence of the Byzantine civilization in transmitting the learning of antiquity across the abysm of the dark age. It must be admitted, however, that the importance of that civilization did not extend much beyond the task of the common carrier. There were no great creative scientists in the later Roman empire of the East any more than in the corresponding empire of the West. There was, however, one field in which the Byzantine made respectable progress and regarding which their efforts require a few words of special comment.

We have seen that the Ptolemaic astronomy, which was the accepted doctrine throughout the Middle Ages, taught that the earth is round. Doubtless there was a popular opinion current which regarded the earth as flat, but it must be understood that this opinion had no champions among men of science during the Middle Ages. When, in the year 1492, Columbus sailed out to the west on his memorable voyage, his expectation of reaching India had full scientific warrant, however much it may have been scouted by certain ecclesiastics and by the average man of the period.

After Galileo had felt the strong hand of the Inquisition, in 1632, he was careful to confine his researches, or at least his publications, to topics that seemed free from theological implications. In doing so he reverted to the field of his earliest studies —namely, the field of mechanics; and the Dialoghi delle Nuove Scienze, which he finished in 1636, and which was printed two years later, attained a celebrity no less than that of the heretical dialogue that had preceded it.

In recent chapters we have seen science come forward with tremendous strides. A new era is obviously at hand. But we shall misconceive the spirit of the times if we fail to understand that in the midst of all this progress there was still room for mediaeval superstition and for the pursuit of fallacious ideals. Two forms of pseudo-science were peculiarly prevalent —alchemy and astrology. Neither of these can with full propriety be called a science, yet both were pursued by many of the greatest scientific workers of the period.

Of the half-dozen surgeons who were prominent in the sixteenth century, Ambroise Pare (1517-1590), called the father of French surgery, is perhaps the most widely known. He rose from the position of a common barber to that of surgeon to three French monarchs, Henry II., Francis II., and Charles IX. Some of his mottoes are still first principles of the medical man.

We have travelled rather far in our study of Greek science, and yet we have not until now come to Greece itself. And even now, the men whose names we are to consider were, for the most part, born in out- lying portions of the empire; they differed from the others we have considered only in the fact that they were drawn presently to the capital. The change is due to a most interesting sequence of historical events.

Doubtless it has been noticed that our earlier scientists were as far removed as possible from the limitations of specialism. In point of fact, in this early day, knowledge had not been classified as it came to be later on. The philosopher was, as his name implied, a lover of knowledge, and he did not find it beyond the reach of his capacity to apply himself to all departments of the field of human investigation.

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