VIII. POST-SOCRATIC SCIENCE AT ATHENS—PLATO, ARISTOTLE, AND THEOPHRASTUS

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. It is nothing strange to discover that Anaximander and the Pythagoreans and Anaxagoras have propounded theories regarding the structure of the cosmos, the origin and development of animals and man, and the nature of matter itself. Nowadays, so enormously involved has become the mass of mere facts regarding each of these departments of knowledge that no one man has the temerity to attempt to master them all. But it was different in those days of beginnings. Then the methods of observation were still crude, and it was quite the custom for a thinker of forceful personality to find an eager following among disciples who never thought of putting his theories to the test of experiment. The great lesson that true science in the last resort depends upon observation and measurement, upon compass and balance, had not yet been learned, though here and there a thinker like Anaxagoras had gained an inkling of it.

For the moment, indeed, there in Attica, which was now, thanks to that outburst of Periclean culture, the centre of the world's civilization, the trend of thought was to take quite another direction. The very year which saw the birth of Democritus at Abdera, and of Hippocrates, marked also the birth, at Athens, of another remarkable man, whose influence it would scarcely be possible to over-estimate. This man was Socrates. The main facts of his history are familiar to every one. It will be recalled that Socrates spent his entire life in Athens, mingling everywhere with the populace; haranguing, so the tradition goes, every one who would listen; inculcating moral lessons, and finally incurring the disapprobation of at least a voting majority of his fellow-citizens. He gathered about him a company of remarkable men with Plato at their head, but this could not save him from the disapprobation of the multitudes, at whose hands he suffered death, legally administered after a public trial. The facts at command as to certain customs of the Greeks at this period make it possible to raise a question as to whether the alleged "corruption of youth," with which Socrates was charged, may not have had a different implication from what posterity has preferred to ascribe to it. But this thought, almost shocking to the modern mind and seeming altogether sacrilegious to most students of Greek philosophy, need not here detain us; neither have we much concern in the present connection with any part of the teaching of the martyred philosopher. For the historian of metaphysics, Socrates marks an epoch, but for the historian of science he is a much less consequential figure.

Similarly regarding Plato, the aristocratic Athenian who sat at the feet of Socrates, and through whose writings the teachings of the master found widest currency. Some students of philosophy find in Plato "the greatest thinker and writer of all time."[1] The student of science must recognize in him a thinker whose point of view was essentially non-scientific; one who tended always to reason from the general to the particular rather than from the particular to the general. Plato's writings covered almost the entire field of thought, and his ideas were presented with such literary charm that successive generations of readers turned to them with unflagging interest, and gave them wide currency through copies that finally preserved them to our own time. Thus we are not obliged in his case, as we are in the case of every other Greek philosopher, to estimate his teachings largely from hearsay evidence. Plato himself speaks to us directly. It is true, the literary form which he always adopted, namely, the dialogue, does not give quite the same certainty as to when he is expressing his own opinions that a more direct narrative would have given; yet, in the main, there is little doubt as to the tenor of his own opinions—except, indeed, such doubt as always attaches to the philosophical reasoning of the abstract thinker.