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Why the ancient Greeks failed?

by on 11/05/2014

The Greeks since the fifth century had the tools and capacity and philosophical sophistication to introduce scientific revolution. All we know about their knowledge is probably only a fraction of what they knew.
Why Archimedes couldn’t be the ancient Galileo? Archimedes did not have problem to fight church to distribute his knowledge. He knew mathematics at least as good as Galileo. And he has done many technological inventions. Was it because of lack of printing machine that Galileo used so successfully? Even if murdered by Romans, they were interested in his knowledge, and most probably he had followers who were aware of his findings and his books where in their disposition. If Eutocius of Ascalon wrote about his work more than 700 years latter, his work had to been far from forgotten. And it is well known, he was not the only great mathematician and inventor of the classical world, far from it.
Lucretius poem of “On the Nature of Things”, amazing as it can be, may be only fraction of what the Greeks discovered by system of meditation and deductive reasoning. And yet they had not done it into the modernity.
The claim that in society of slaves there is no need for technological inventions seems to me folly. If not for economic reasons, the Roman war machine and probably also the Greek one needed military technology as much as we do. In contrary, Roman society, was free enough to support technological initiative, definitely more than the renaissance society in western Europe.

If there is any answer to the question why the Greeks and Romans did not do it to the modernity, even if they had almost 1000 years from the first philosophers until the Christianity closed on their knowledge, it seems to me modern scientific technological development was a pure accident. Several factors came together in the right time, somewhere in the mid thirteen century, which started with the black death plague decimation of European population, that brought huge social and economic upheavals. Then the Mongol invasion weekend the Muslim world and reduced the military pressure from the Christian Europe, at the same time the classic philosophers following the christian conquest of Spain was rediscovered. Exactly in these years Fibonacci introduced mathematical revolution partly imported from the Arabs and partly developed by him. Some importance played probably the fact that Italy was a country of competing city states rather than one autocratic statehood, as was the Roman empire. Add to it the new Gothic architecture just recently introduced, invention of perspective and some more major events that i haven’t mention and you have completely new tools to judge the reality of the being. The result is new European perspective of understanding the earthly reality and the way to the new knowledge was opened for the scholars and intellectuals, Yet these new discoveries could go easily down of the drainage of the history, if not the patronage of Medici and some other Italian rulers, who competed with each other on prestige, but non of them had the absolute power to overcome the others. Probably without this, these very first discoveries wouldn’t continue to thrive.

Many start the modern way of thinking with Copernicus. I don’t agree with them. The idea of heliocentric world was probably quite widespread in the classical world. Even if Copernicus ideas helped to shake the dogmas of the church, it couldn’t make a scientific revolution by itself. To my opinion after Galileo and Kepler, who both connected mathematics to empiric data, the road to the modern scientific method was paved. So the question remains, how come, the Greeks did not succeed to produce within a whole millennia, what the Europeans had in few hundred years? And lets not forget that the renaissance scholars needed to overcome the burden of religious dogmatic thinking tradition, the classical Greeks did not had to cope with?

As to the findings of Kepler, they happened because of several fortunate sequential events. Brahe Tycho had to die, so Kepler could inherit his observations. If not he would remain probably with his esoteric theory of perfect spheres of planet movements. Also he needed a crazy king like Rudolph II, who was rather strange for a catholic emperor of holly Roman Empire. Then you had the accidental discovery of telescope, Galileo copied and redeveloped. There had to be such an arrogant self possessed man like Galileo, who so strongly believed, that the circumstantial evidence is verified proof for heliocentric planetary system, that he opposed all the Catholic establishment. Someone less self possessed wouldn’t do it all the way.

Modern science is based on connection and verification of philosophical (mainly ontological) understandings derived from rational reasoning with the empirical evidence, translated to practical technological achievements. The Greeks did not make this two necessary step far enough, and this is the source of their failure. Why they have not done it, this still has to be answered.

From → History, MENUE, Science

  1. To look at the reality out of accepted frame of reference is always a problem, either due to difficulty to find new ways of thinking, either due to opposition any act of noncomformity will raise.


  2. At the risk of continuing my heretical ways, I am going to ask, why should they have tried to succeed? As Patrice noted, those who everyone admired were treated like dirt. Now, look at someone like Aristarchus, who postulated the heliocentric theory. He was dismissed even by the intellectuals because he had the cheek to go against Aristotle. The fact that even then he was likely to be right was irrelevant. The fact is, that is how humans act. Even now, scientists are extremely reluctant to challenge accepted authority UNLESS the challenge comes from another authority.

    The next question you have to address is, have you tried to provide an alternative to a theory or a paradigm? If not (statistically probable, because few do) why not? The answer is probably that what is there seems good enough. You probably need a very good reason to enter that type of field, and unless you succeed, and unless your success is accepted, your life and career go nowhere. That is now. Think of what it would have been like then, when the main view was, “Who cares anyway?” Just to give an example that happened to me, in my PhD I entered a field in which there was a controversy, and just as the “accepted paradigm” was getting formed, my results refused to comply. No answer presumably would mean no PhD, so I had to come up with something, and I did. I eventually published a few papers that unfortunately started with a flaw. The one time a peer reviewer could have been useful, I got nothing. The flaw was, to keep the paper within the required page count, I omitted something that was painfully obvious at the start, namely an explanation for why the relationship between an electric field strength and work done moving charge could be presented in an alternative way that meant you could actually solve the integrals, provided you a lowed one constant. So, nobody believed me. However, that is not the point. What happened next was that a review came out that “proved” the “accepted paradigm” was true, and it did that by ignoring all the evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, I had a living to make. Later, I wrote a fuller review, and submitted it to a journal that published this sort of thing. Basically, I found that sixty different types of phenomena were incompatible with the standard theory. The review was rejected because there were too many mathematics! Another review journal refused because the issue was understood and there was no reason to revisit it. Other Chemistry journals refused on the grounds they did not publish logic analyses. I later met one of the authors of one of the papers that had come out against this standard approach. He was a bit embarrassed, and said, “Oh that.” His attitude had been, who cares about the truth. Much better not to fight it, go on and do something else, and he reached the heights of US chemistry.

    So my first answer to your question is, there was no incentive to try. My second answer won’t be very helpful. I wrote two SF novels on this problem, and my approach here was to show how a Roman could have done it, but only because he was severely prodded into doing it. You probably would not believe it was possible, which it probably wasn’t, because at the time there really was a too many things to do.


  3. Even if murdered by Romans, Archimedes was supposed to invent science?
    What killed, literally, intellectuality around 300 BCE.
    P L U T O C R A C Y.
    Aristotle fled for his life. You know how Archimedes died. Do you know how Demosthenes died? Both died a few years apart. From violence by plutocrats. Think of it: the Einsteins and Nietzsches of the times were killed like rats.

    [More in a full essay on my site, soon; thanks for the interesting question. And comments.]


    • Yes it is so painful to think that all these wonderful minds, that were just murdered by some brutal primitive force. In twenties century it happened also.


    • Dear Patrice, If you are into an essay about the subject of “Why the Greeks failed to introduce modern science”, maybe even more interesting is why the Greeks-Romans of classical times and the Arabs of 8-13 century did not do the breakthrough. I would add, that even if the social and economic fabric of the time, based on work of slaves did not support need for technological change (as many claim), the army and militarism did. If you study the Roman technological achievements, many of them are for military. You are right that some important intellectuals of the time were murdered or persecuted, but it was not very different in the 17-18 century Europe. Take as example Italy, where the renaissance and most of the modern science was concentrated. When the Catholic church as reaction to reformation strengthened persecution and policy of strangling new ideas, the new ideas started to come from Germany, France and Great Britain. To my opinion the turning point, from where there was no reverse to ignorance was reached at 17 century. After all you can’t not to know what you know.


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