XI. A RETROSPECTIVE GLANCE AT CLASSICAL SCIENCE
It is a favorite tenet of the modern historian that history is a continuous stream. The contention has fullest warrant. Sharp lines of demarcation are an evidence of man's analytical propensity rather than the work of nature. Nevertheless it would be absurd to deny that the stream of history presents an ever-varying current. There are times when it seems to rush rapidly on; times when it spreads out into a broad—seemingly static—current; times when its catastrophic changes remind us of nothing but a gigantic cataract. Rapids and whirlpools, broad estuaries and tumultuous cataracts are indeed part of the same stream, but they are parts that vary one from another in their salient features in such a way as to force the mind to classify them as things apart and give them individual names.
So it is with the stream of history; however strongly we insist on its continuity we are none the less forced to recognize its periodicity. It may not be desirable to fix on specific dates as turning-points to the extent that our predecessors were wont to do. We may not, for example, be disposed to admit that the Roman Empire came to any such cataclysmic finish as the year 476 A.D., when cited in connection with the overthrow of the last Roman Empire of the West, might seem to indicate. But, on the other hand, no student of the period can fail to realize that a great change came over the aspect of the historical stream towards the close of the Roman epoch.
The span from Thales to Galen has compassed about eight hundred years—let us say thirty generations. Throughout this period there is scarcely a generation that has not produced great scientific thinkers—men who have put their mark upon the progress of civilization; but we shall see, as we look forward for a corresponding period, that the ensuing thirty generations produced scarcely a single scientific thinker of the first rank. Eight hundred years of intellectual activity —thirty generations of greatness; then eight hundred years of stasis—thirty generations of mediocrity; such seems to be the record as viewed in perspective. Doubtless it seemed far different to the contemporary observer; it is only in reasonable perspective that any scene can be viewed fairly. But for us, looking back without prejudice across the stage of years, it seems indisputable that a great epoch came to a close at about the time when the barbarian nations of Europe began to sweep down into Greece and Italy. We are forced to feel that we have reached the limits of progress of what historians are pleased to call the ancient world. For about eight hundred years Greek thought has been dominant, but in the ensuing period it is to play a quite subordinate part, except in so far as it influences the thought of an alien race. As we leave this classical epoch, then, we may well recapitulate in brief its triumphs. A few words will suffice to summarize a story the details of which have made up our recent chapters.
In the field of cosmology, Greek genius has demonstrated that the earth is spheroidal, that the moon is earthlike in structure and much smaller than our globe, and that the sun is vastly larger and many times more distant than the moon. The actual size of the earth and the angle of its axis with the ecliptic have been measured with approximate accuracy. It has been shown that the sun and moon present inequalities of motion which may be theoretically explained by supposing that the earth is not situated precisely at the centre of their orbits. A system of eccentrics and epicycles has been elaborated which serves to explain the apparent motions of the heavenly bodies in a manner that may be called scientific even though it is based, as we now know, upon a false hypothesis. The true hypothesis, which places the sun at the centre of the planetary system and postulates the orbital and axial motions of our earth in explanation of the motions of the heavenly bodies, has been put forward and ardently championed, but, unfortunately, is not accepted by the dominant thinkers at the close of our epoch. In this regard, therefore, a vast revolutionary work remains for the thinkers of a later period. Moreover, such observations as the precession of the equinoxes and the moon's evection are as yet unexplained, and measurements of the earth's size, and of the sun's size and distance, are so crude and imperfect as to be in one case only an approximation, and in the other an absurdly inadequate suggestion. But with all these defects, the total achievement of the Greek astronomers is stupendous. To have clearly grasped the idea that the earth is round is in itself an achievement that marks off the classical from the Oriental period as by a great gulf.
In the physical sciences we have seen at least the beginnings of great things. Dynamics and hydrostatics may now, for the first time, claim a place among the sciences. Geometry has been perfected and trigonometry has made a sure beginning. The conception that there are four elementary substances, earth, water, air, and fire, may not appear a secure foundation for chemistry, yet it marks at least an attempt in the right direction. Similarly, the conception that all matter is made up of indivisible particles and that these have adjusted themselves and are perhaps held in place by a whirling motion, while it is scarcely more than a scientific dream, is, after all, a dream of marvellous insight.
In the field of biological science progress has not been so marked, yet the elaborate garnering of facts regarding anatomy, physiology, and the zoological sciences is at least a valuable preparation for the generalizations of a later time.