Reference

Modern systematic botany and zoology are usually held to have their beginnings with Linnaeus.

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.

Herodotus, the Father of History, tells us that once upon a time—which time, as the modern computator shows us, was about the year 590 B.C. —a war had risen between the Lydians and the Medes and continued five years. "In these years the Medes often discomfited the Lydians and the Lydians often discomfited the Medes (and among other things they fought a battle by night); and yet they still carried on the war with equally balanced fortitude. In the sixth year a battle took place in which it happened, when the fight had begun, that suddenly the day became night.

Diogenes Laertius tells a story about a youth who, clad in a purple toga, entered the arena at the Olympian games and asked to compete with the other youths in boxing. He was derisively denied admission, presumably because he was beyond the legitimate age for juvenile contestants. Nothing daunted, the youth entered the lists of men, and turned the laugh on his critics by coming off victor. The youth who performed this feat was named Pythagoras.

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