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Sententia Cotidiana IV (part I)

Early does not = Primitive

To Classicists, Historians, and Art Historians, I am probably preaching to the converted. No one looking at the picture of the stunning Cape Sounion below can doubt the Ancients' sophistication in art, engineering, and even technology set in the context of the time, and I am not just talking about the Greeks and Romans.

Aqueducts, roads, sanitation, irrigation, building materials all saw efficient contributions from masterly designers (no, this is not, 'What have the Romans ever done for us?').

However, today's sententia wishes to suggest that their thought showed far greater sophistication than they are sometimes given credit for. It is very easy to dismiss ancient writers and thinkers as being 'of their time', or as having 'no notion' of concepts such as the economy, or science in the same way that we do. Of course, these things were at a much earlier stage and form than they are now. The scale and complexity has grown exponentially with the internet and increased global connections adding a whole new layer, scope, and variation; but have the core concepts really changed that much? The way these are practised, investigated, and executed might be different. However what drives science and discovery, monetary exchange or trade, advancement, exploration, and development, I would argue has not changed a great deal, and that ancient thinkers' ideas still have a great deal to teach us, perhaps in subject matter (electronics, complex medical procedures, and Bitcoin, for example), but in terms of what drives the development of ideas, cultures, societies, and knowledge, I think they are the supreme teachers.

Today, I shall look at scientific discovery in the ancient world. Tomorrow will continue today's exploration, looking at:

  • Philosophy and Politics

  • The importance of History

  • Curiosity and Education

  • Human needs - driving Maslow's pyramid

Scientific Discovery

What do we mean by scientific discovery? I suppose now our first thoughts are black holes, dark matter, new cures, new species, new ways of helping our ailing planet, advances in DNA research and our genetics. Okay, the ancients did not have these amazing and illuminating finds, and I am not decrying or belittling them in any way. But our ancient predecessors certainly set the ball rolling. Essentially, they were doing exactly the same as us, with the tools and knowledge that they had and their own, often astoundingly impressive reasoning and analysis.

Ancient astronomy might not have found black holes, the red shift, light years, but accurate estimated measurements of the earth existed, theories of the world being spherical, and mappings of the constellations can all be found right back to the Babylonians. Geography found its advocates (Strabo and Polybius, for example). Medicine had Hippocrates and others, including the author of Airs, Waters, Places, a highly interesting work on man, his health, and his environment. Myths might seem like a primitive or even silly explanation for the natural world, but I would argue the point is that they had that same impetus to explain and understand. Moreover, not all ancient thinkers were content with the mythological or divine attribution. Polybius certainly was not. He said, one should only give up and blame the gods or fortune when a 'human' explanation could not be found. This, in his opinion, was rare (36.17, The Histories). His predecessor Thucydides would have agreed. But, I shall end today's sententia with Lucretius. He rejected traditional Greco-Roman religion and followed his predecessor Democritus in espousing an atomistic view of the world, its developments, events.

Scientific discovery simply means a quest for greater knowledge and deeper understanding. It is not and should not be used as a label of superiority in the modern world.

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