VII. GREEK SCIENCE IN THE EARLY ATTIC PERIOD
This led to a truly startling thought. Since the heavenly bodies are of the same composition as the earth, and since they are observed to be whirling about the earth in space, may we not suppose that they were once a part of the earth itself, and that they have been thrown off by the force of a whirling motion? Such was the conclusion which Anaxagoras reached; such his explanation of the origin of the heavenly bodies. It was a marvellous guess. Deduct from it all that recent science has shown to be untrue; bear in mind that the stars are suns, compared with which the earth is a mere speck of dust; recall that the sun is parent, not daughter, of the earth, and despite all these deductions, the cosmogonic guess of Anaxagoras remains, as it seems to us, one of the most marvellous feats of human intelligence. It was the first explanation of the cosmic bodies that could be called, in any sense, an anticipation of what the science of our own day accepts as a true explanation of cosmic origins. Moreover, let us urge again that this was no mere accidental flight of the imagination; it was a scientific induction based on the only data available; perhaps it is not too much to say that it was the only scientific induction which these data would fairly sustain. Of course it is not for a moment to be inferred that Anaxagoras understood, in the modern sense, the character of that whirling force which we call centrifugal. About two thousand years were yet to elapse before that force was explained as elementary inertia; and even that explanation, let us not forget, merely sufficed to push back the barriers of mystery by one other stage; for even in our day inertia is a statement of fact rather than an explanation.
But however little Anaxagoras could explain the centrifugal force on mechanical principles, the practical powers of that force were sufficiently open to his observation. The mere experiment of throwing a stone from a sling would, to an observing mind, be full of suggestiveness. It would be obvious that by whirling the sling about, the stone which it held would be sustained in its circling path about the hand in seeming defiance of the earth's pull, and after the stone had left the sling, it could fly away from the earth to a distance which the most casual observation would prove to be proportionate to the speed of its flight. Extremely rapid motion, then, might project bodies from the earth's surface off into space; a sufficiently rapid whirl would keep them there. Anaxagoras conceived that this was precisely what had occurred. His imagination even carried him a step farther—to a conception of a slackening of speed, through which the heavenly bodies would lose their centrifugal force, and, responding to the perpetual pull of gravitation, would fall back to the earth, just as the great stone at aegespotomi had been observed to do.
Here we would seem to have a clear conception of the idea of universal gravitation, and Anaxagoras stands before us as the anticipator of Newton. Were it not for one scientific maxim, we might exalt the old Greek above the greatest of modern natural philosophers; but that maxim bids us pause. It is phrased thus, "He discovers who proves." Anaxagoras could not prove; his argument was at best suggestive, not demonstrative. He did not even know the laws which govern falling bodies; much less could he apply such laws, even had he known them, to sidereal bodies at whose size and distance he could only guess in the vaguest terms. Still his cosmogonic speculation remains as perhaps the most remarkable one of antiquity. How widely his speculation found currency among his immediate successors is instanced in a passage from Plato, where Socrates is represented as scornfully answering a calumniator in these terms: "He asserts that I say the sun is a stone and the moon an earth. Do you think of accusing Anaxagoras, Miletas, and have you so low an opinion of these men, and think them so unskilled in laws, as not to know that the books of Anaxagoras the Clazomenaean are full of these doctrines. And forsooth the young men are learning these matters from me which sometimes they can buy from the orchestra for a drachma, at the most, and laugh at Socrates if he pretends they are his-particularly seeing they are so strange."
The element of error contained in these cosmogonic speculations of Anaxagoras has led critics to do them something less than justice. But there is one other astronomical speculation for which the Clazomenaean philosopher has received full credit. It is generally admitted that it was he who first found out the explanation of the phases of the moon; a knowledge that that body shines only by reflected light, and that its visible forms, waxing and waning month by month from crescent to disk and from disk to crescent, merely represent our shifting view of its sun-illumined face. It is difficult to put ourselves in the place of the ancient observer and realize how little the appearances suggest the actual fact. That a body of the same structure as the earth should shine with the radiance of the moon merely because sunlight is reflected from it, is in itself a supposition seemingly contradicted by ordinary experience. It required the mind of a philosopher, sustained, perhaps, by some experimental observations, to conceive the idea that what seems so obviously bright may be in reality dark. The germ of the conception of what the philosopher speaks of as the noumena, or actualities, back of phenomena or appearances, had perhaps this crude beginning. Anaxagoras could surely point to the moon in support of his seeming paradox that snow, being really composed of water, which is dark, is in reality black and not white—a contention to which we shall refer more at length in a moment.