New Book: Science in the Ancient World: From Antiquity through the Middle Ages

            Ancient science was the intellectual pursuit to understand the origins and workings of nature and humanity. Science is a term that encompasses many methods and varied disciplines over time. Science has engaged human thought for millennia. The questions that scientists ask tend to remain largely the same even as the answers differ according to time and culture. The strange and sometimes simple explanations that the ancient Greeks and Romans gave for natural phenomena appear less absurd to the modern mind when one considers that the answers of today may appear ridiculous to observers a thousand years from now. Among ancient scientists–the Mesopotamians, Persians, Indians, Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Africans, Americans–the Greeks were far and away the leaders in scientific inquiry because they asked the most penetrating questions, many of which still elude a complete answer.             There is a temptation to view the past according to the standards and precepts of the present. The historian encounters countless similarities when comparing modern and ancient science; clearly the building blocks of today’s science were formed two to three thousand years ago in the ancient Mediterranean. Nevertheless, the development of ancient science occurred in a pre-industrial age before the dawn of Islam or Christianity, during a polytheistic, superstitious time. Magic and astrology were considered as legitimate as medicine and astronomy. The earth was the center of a finite universe; the planets twinkled like gods watching from above; the moon governed the fertility of nature and woman. Fertility symbols and statuettes of priestesses and mother goddesses dot the archeological finds from the dozens of millennia BCE, reminding us of the power women once had in ancient societies before the coming of male gods reflecting male dominance. Rhea, Cybele, Artemis, Hera, Isis, and Ishtar were early fertility goddesses who represented the universal mother image who brought life, love, and death to her children the humans.

            In some ways ancient scientists would be scarcely recognizable to contemporary, twenty-first century scientists. The scientists described and portrayed in this book were priests, government officials, kings, emperors, slaves, merchants, farmers, and aristocrats. They wrote history, biography, essays. They were artists, explorers, poets, musicians, abstract thinkers, sensualists. The demands upon scientific study then were different than today. The study of astrology was necessary to know one’s fate, the future. Astronomy and mathematics were essential to forming calendars to fit the cycles of nature and seasons of the year. The ancient scientist was often seeking a practical result rather than pursuing scientific thought for its own sake. At the same time, the ancient scientist was something of a wise person, a community savant who was expected to know–or at least to have thought about, or investigated–all things natural, spiritual, and human. The Greeks called such a thinker polumathes, which is the origin for our word polymath, someone who is learned in many fields of knowledge.             At the same time ancient scientists pursued some of the same goals as their modern counterparts. Modern physicists and chemists seek to know the basic particles that comprise matter in the universe; ancient Stoics and Epicureans hypothesized the same particles and sought the same knowledge of the movement and patterns of atoms. Albert Einstein the theoretical physicist wanted to know the mind of God, the ultimate secrets of the universe, which was a continuing search inaugurated three thousand years before in the ancient Mediterranean. Einstein would have liked Plato; Neils Bohr the twentieth-century Danish physicist would have found a friend in Aristotle. What are the abstract patterns present in the universe? Mathematicians today and millennia ago have been united in the quest to find out, to impose the rational human mind upon the most complex and least concrete inquiry. Psychologists today still work in the shadow of the great psychologists of the past, though the present concern to know the human mind and the nature of personality is a more secular pursuit than it once was. Political scientists today still rely on the initial systematic inquiries into human government that Plato and Aristotle made in the fourth century BCE. Students at modern medical schools take the Hippocratic Oath, recognizing that if the techniques of medicine have changed from the days of Hippocrates and Galen, the ultimate goals and humanitarian concerns have not. In short, the college arts and science curricula and professional scientific careers of today are not a recent development. Rather the moderns in pursuit of knowledge of man and the universe continually ascend the intellectual and methodological building blocks constructed during antiquity.

(From the Introduction, Science in the Ancient World: From Antiquity through the Middles Ages, published by ABC Clio, 2021).

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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