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

What is chiefly significant from our present standpoint is that the great ethical teacher had no significant message to give the world regarding the physical sciences. He apparently had no sharply defined opinions as to the mechanism of the universe; no clear conception as to the origin or development of organic beings; no tangible ideas as to the problems of physics; no favorite dreams as to the nature of matter. Virtually his back was turned on this entire field of thought. He was under the sway of those innate ideas which, as we have urged, were among the earliest inductions of science. But he never for a moment suspected such an origin for these ideas. He supposed his conceptions of being, his standards of ethics, to lie back of all experience; for him they were the most fundamental and most dependable of facts. He criticised Anaxagoras for having tended to deduce general laws from observation. As we moderns see it, such criticism is the highest possible praise. It is a criticism that marks the distinction between the scientist who is also a philosopher and the philosopher who has but a vague notion of physical science. Plato seemed, indeed, to realize the value of scientific investigation; he referred to the astronomical studies of the Egyptians and Chaldeans, and spoke hopefully of the results that might accrue were such studies to be taken up by that Greek mind which, as he justly conceived, had the power to vitalize and enrich all that it touched. But he told here of what he would have others do, not of what he himself thought of doing. His voice was prophetic, but it stimulated no worker of his own time.

Plato himself had travelled widely. It is a familiar legend that he lived for years in Egypt, endeavoring there to penetrate the mysteries of Egyptian science. It is said even that the rudiments of geometry which he acquired there influenced all his later teachings. But be that as it may, the historian of science must recognize in the founder of the Academy a moral teacher and metaphysical dreamer and sociologist, but not, in the modern acceptance of the term, a scientist. Those wider phases of biological science which find their expression in metaphysics, in ethics, in political economy, lie without our present scope; and for the development of those subjects with which we are more directly concerned, Plato, like his master, has a negative significance.

ARISTOTLE (384-322 B.C.)

When we pass to that third great Athenian teacher, Aristotle, the case is far different. Here was a man whose name was to be received as almost a synonym for Greek science for more than a thousand years after his death. All through the Middle Ages his writings were to be accepted as virtually the last word regarding the problems of nature. We shall see that his followers actually preferred his mandate to the testimony of their own senses. We shall see, further, that modern science progressed somewhat in proportion as it overthrew the Aristotelian dogmas. But the traditions of seventeen or eighteen centuries are not easily set aside, and it is perhaps not too much to say that the name of Aristotle stands, even in our own time, as vaguely representative in the popular mind of all that was highest and best in the science of antiquity. Yet, perhaps, it would not be going too far to assert that something like a reversal of this judgment would be nearer the truth. Aristotle did, indeed, bring together a great mass of facts regarding animals in his work on natural history, which, being preserved, has been deemed to entitle its author to be called the "father of zoology." But there is no reason to suppose that any considerable portion of this work contained matter that was novel, or recorded observations that were original with Aristotle; and the classifications there outlined are at best but a vague foreshadowing of the elaboration of the science. Such as it is, however, the natural history stands to the credit of the Stagirite. He must be credited, too, with a clear enunciation of one most important scientific doctrine—namely, the doctrine of the spherical figure of the earth. We have already seen that this theory originated with the Pythagorean philosophers out in Italy. We have seen, too, that the doctrine had not made its way in Attica in the time of Anaxagoras. But in the intervening century it had gained wide currency, else so essentially conservative a thinker as Aristotle would scarcely have accepted it. He did accept it, however, and gave the doctrine clearest and most precise expression. Here are his words:[2]