Greek Science in the Alexandrine Period -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

Greek Science in the Alexandrine Period

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The barrenness of idealist philosophy is shown by the fact that it was incapable of further development. Plato’s philosophy ended with the death of Plato. His Academy was taken over by a series of second-raters, who contributed nothing new to the development of thought. This was not the case with Aristotle’s Lyceum. His emphasis on investigation stimulated his pupils to engage in fruitful practical research. The voluminous studies in different fields bequeathed by the Master laid the basis for the development of various sciences. The great museum of Alexandria was an offshoot of the Lyceum, which produced important treatises on botany, physics, anatomy, physiology, mathematics, astronomy, geography, mechanics, music and grammar.

Aristotle’s first successor, Theophrastus, made a breakthrough in biology, being the first to draw a firm distinction between plants and animals to establish the science of botany. Theophrastus also began to question the validity of teleology, and proposed to place a limit on its application to biology:

"We must try to set a limit on the assigning of final causes," he wrote. "This is the prerequisite of all scientific inquiry into the universe, that is, into the conditions of existence of real things and their relations with one another." (See Farrington, p. 162.)

He went back to the materialist explanations of the pre-Socratic philosophers, in order to overcome the contradictions in which Aristotle had found himself in relation to matter and movement.

Strato, who was head of the Lyceum from 287 to 267 B.C., can be considered the father of scientific experiment. According to Polybius, he earned the nickname "The Physicist," which at that time denoted anyone interested in the investigation of nature. Cicero says, in a disapproving tone, that he "abandoned ethics, which is the most necessary part of philosophy, and devoted himself to the investigation of nature" (ibid, p. 182). In 1893, Hermann Diels analysed a fragment attributed to Hero of Alexandria, the Pneumatics, written in the second half of the 1st century A.D., which clearly lays down the basis of the experimental method worked out by Strato.

The scientists of the Alexandrine period made great advances in all fields of knowledge. In mechanics, for example, they produced mathematical explanations of a whole host of operations: the lever, the balance, the pulley, the potter’s wheel, the wedge, the oars of a boat, the problem of inertia, etc. In the field of botany, the work of Theostratus remained without parallel until modern times, according to Farrington. Strato is now considered to be the author of the document Mechanical Problems, originally attributed to Aristotle, which contains the germ of an important principle of mechanics, the principle of virtual velocities (the principle of virtual displacements). Erastothenes calculated the circumference of the earth, using scientific methods, and appears to have come within 0.4% of the correct result. Hero of Alexandria even invented a steam engine, although it could not be put to use. The question invariably arises in our minds why such extraordinary discoveries did not lead to a technological and industrial revolution 2,000 years ago. The answer to this question lies in the nature of the slave economy itself.

In general, with certain exceptions like mining, war engines and public works, the rulers of Greece and Rome were uninterested in the application of scientific discoveries for practical purposes. In the period when slavery became the dominant mode of production, the divorce between science and technology was almost total. Philosophical and scientific speculation was regarded as an intellectual pastime for the wealthy. Philosophers and mathematicians looked with contempt at the men of practical affairs. Euclid, the great geometrician, when asked by an incautious pupil what he would gain by studying geometry, ordered a slave to give him a few coins, "since he must make a gain out of what he learns." In point of fact, no practical use was found for Euclid’s theories until the 17th century, when Galileo discovered that projectiles move in parabolas and Kepler found that planets move in ellipses.

With an abundance of cheap slave labour, there was no incentive to move towards labour-saving technology. The market for refined products was restricted to a small class of wealthy people. The question of mass production therefore did not arise. Even in agriculture, which in the later period of Roman history was based on large-scale latifundia, there was a disincentive to introduce machinery. First, because of the abundant supply of slaves, and second, because the slaves, unlike free labourers, could not be relied upon to look after delicate and costly machines. In a perceptive footnote in the first volume of Capital, Marx explains the reason for the impossibility of introducing advanced technology on the basis of slavery:

"This is one of the circumstances that makes production by slave labour such a costly process. The labourer here is, to use a striking expression of the ancients, distinguishable only as instrumentum vocale, from an animal as instrumentum semi-vocale, and from an implement as instrumentum mutum. But he himself takes care to let both beast and implement feel that he is none of them, but is a man. He convinces himself with immense satisfaction, that he is a different being, by treating the one unmercifully and damaging the other con amore. Hence the principle, universally applied in this method of production, only to employ the rudest and heaviest implements and such as are difficult to damage owing to their sheer clumsiness. In the slave-states bordering on the Gulf of Mexico, down to the date of the civil war, ploughs constructed on old Chinese models, which turned up the soil like a hog or a mole, instead of making furrows, were alone to be found. (Conf. J. E. Cairnes, The Slave Power, London, 1862, p. 46 sqq.) In his Sea Board Slave States, Olmsted tell us: "I am here shown tools that no man in his senses, with us, would allow a labourer, for whom he was paying wages, to be encumbered with; and the excessive weight and clumsiness of which, I would judge, would make work at least ten per cent greater than with those ordinarily used with us. And I am assured that, in the careless and clumsy way they must be used by the slaves, anything lighter or less rude could not be furnished them with good economy, and that such tools as we constantly give our labourers and find our profit in giving them, would not last out a day in a Virginia cornfield—much lighter and more free from stones though it be than ours. So, too, when I ask why mules are so universally substituted for horses on the farm, the first reason given, and confessedly the most conclusive one, is that horses cannot bear the treatment that they always must get from Negroes; horses are always soon foundered or crippled by them, while mules will bear cudgelling, or lose a meal or two now and then, and not be materially injured, and they do not take cold or get sick, if neglected or overworked. But I do not need to go further than to the window of the room in which I am writing, to see at almost any time, treatment of cattle that would ensure the immediate discharge of the driver by almost any farmer owning them in the North." (Capital, Vol. 1, p. 196, note.)

The rise of slavery undermined the free peasantry, crushed by military service, debt, and the competition of slavery. Paradoxically, the productivity of slave-labour was lower than that of the small peasants they displaced. But with a huge supply of slaves from foreign wars of conquest, the low level of productivity of the individual slave was compensated for by the cheapness of labour power of a large number of slaves subjected to forced labour. The replacement of small peasant holdings by vast latifundia, worked by armies of slaves, gave rise to huge surpluses, as long as the supply of cheap slaves continued. Where slavery is the main mode of production, the very concept of labour becomes debased, identified in men’s minds with all things base and degraded. No wonder Aristotle could not stomach Anaxagoras’ theory that human intelligence depended on the hands!

This is not the place to analyse in detail the contradictions of the slave mode of production, which finally led to its demise. Suffice it to note that, despite the common attempt to compare the slave system with modern capitalism, in many ways it was the exact opposite. For example, the proletariat, which today, along with nature, produces all the wealth of society, in the period of the Roman empire was a parasitic class, which lived on the backs of the slaves. On the other hand, whereas the modern capitalist depends on the continual search for avenues of reinvestment, the possibilities for investment open to the Roman capitalist were limited by the nature of slave production itself.

The key to the expansion of the productive forces under present-day capitalism is the production of the means of production, the manufacture of new machines, which leads to a constant increase in capital. In Antiquity, however, the conditions for the development and application of machinery were lacking. The first of these is the existence of a large class of free labourers, who are compelled to sell their labour power to the owners of industry. There was no incentive to invent machines which could not be put to practical use. The relatively small class of craftsmen devoted themselves to the production of luxury articles for the gratification of the wealthy who, unlike the modern capitalists, having no productive outlet for their surpluses, devoted themselves to conspicuous consumption on a grand scale.

The entire system began to break down when the supply of cheap slave labour dried up, as the empire reached its limits. In the absence of a revolutionary overturn, the whole of society entered into a prolonged phase of decline and decay. The barbarian invasions did not cause the collapse, but were an expression of the fact that the system of slavery had exhausted itself. The all-pervading sense of decay affected the outlook of every class. The feeling of weariness, of moral decadence, of disgust with a world that had outlived itself, finds its expression in the prevailing philosophies of the period—the words for two of them, cynicism and scepticism, have passed into the vocabulary of our own times, although with meanings completely different to the originals.

The cynics were followers of Diogenes of Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, who professed his open contempt for all existing morals and customs. His more famous disciple, also named Diogenes, from Sinope, carried this idea to the extreme of wishing to live "like a dog," hence the word "cynic’’ (from the Greek word for a dog). It is said that he lived in a barrel. The idea, like that of present-day "drop-outs," was to reduce one’s dependence on material things to a minimum. According to legend, when Alexander the Great offered him anything he wanted, he answered, "step out of my light." The whole idea, in contrast to the modern cynics, was to despise worldly things.

This idea of turning away from the world to seek spiritual salvation in oneself reflected the profound social and cultural crisis caused by the decline of the Greek city-states. Even Pythagoras and Plato, despite their idealist philosophy, did not actually renounce the world entirely. Both tried to influence it by trying to persuade rulers to put their philosophical views into practice. Both appealed to logic and reason. What we see here is something different. A complete renunciation of this world, and a total denial of the possibility of knowing anything.

While the Lyceum produced important scientific results, the Academy fell increasingly under the influence of scepticism. The sceptic philosophy, represented by Pyhrro, Sextus Empiricus and others, questioned the possibility of objective knowledge of reality. "We can never know anything, not even that we know nothing." This was their central tenet. It was, to some extent, the logical outcome of the method of deduction, which was held up by the idealists as the only means of arriving at the truth, not by reference to the real world of observation and experiment, but by deriving ideas from other ideas, axioms and "first principles," like those of Euclid in geometry, which are regarded as self-evident, and in no need of proof.

Sceptics like Timon denied the possibility of finding such principles. Everything had to be proved by something else, and that in turn by something else, and so on ad infinitum. And therefore, nothing can be known.

This marks a degeneration from objective idealism, which, for all its defects, was capable of reaching some important conclusions, to subjective idealism, the lowest, most primitive and sterile form of idealism. Ultimately, it leads to solipsism, the notion that only "I" exist. Everything depends on my subjective impressions. There is no objective truth. For example, I cannot assert that honey is sweet, only that it seems sweet to me. To most people this seems absurd. But it is basically no different to the views later put forward by Hume and Kant, which have been widely accepted by modern bourgeois philosophers and scientists. For example, the idea advanced by the sceptics that you cannot say anything for certain about the world, but only that certain things are "probable" is the philosophical basis for a false interpretation of the results of quantum mechanics put forward in our own century by Werner Heisenberg and others and uncritically assimilated by many scientists.

Ideas like this do not drop from the clouds. They are the indirect and confused reflection in men’s brains of an existing social reality. Scepticism in all its guises, including the modern ones, is the expression of a period in which a particular form of society has entered into irreversible decline, when the old ideals are breaking down, but the new ones have not yet asserted themselves. A general mood of uncertainty and malaise spreads through society, beginning with the educated layer, which feels it has lost its bearings. The most common expression of such moods is precisely scepticism, the insistence upon the relativity of all human knowledge, doubt, agnosticism. In the 18th century, the period of the revolutionary ascent of the bourgeoisie, the scepticism of Montaigne and others played a progressive role in criticising the religious dogmas of the theologians. However, the scepticism of Hume and Kant, which attempted to place a limit on the possibilities of human understanding, opened the door to the re-entry of religious faith. Not accidentally, it is this latter variant which has been taken over by modern bourgeois philosophy, in the guise of logical positivism.

The common feature of all these philosophies of the period of decline of slave society is the idea of a retreat from the world. It is the philosophy of despair. The world is seen as a vale of tears, from which it is necessary to escape, seeking individual salvation by various means. In the period of decline of the Roman empire, the philosophies of Epicureanism and Stoicism, dominant from the 1st century A.D. displayed the same tendency, although, as often happens, there was frequently a discrepancy between theory and practice. For example, Seneca, the stern moral philosopher of stoicism, who taught ethics to the emperor Nero, made a fortune out of lending money at exorbitant rates of interest, which provoked the rebellion of Bodicea against the Romans in Britain. This prophet of poverty left behind one of the biggest fortunes of the time—300 million sesterces.

In his masterly study of Antiquity, The Foundations of Christianity, Karl Kautsky describes the intellectual and moral climate in which these ideas took root:

"Epicurus called philosophy an activity that brings about a happy life by means of concepts and proofs. He believed this would be achieved by striving for pleasure, but only for rational lasting enjoyment, not for transitory sensual dissipations, which lead to the loss of health and wealth, and hence to pain.

"This was a philosophy very well suited to a class of exploiters that found no other employment for their wealth than to consume it. What they needed was a rational regulation of the life of enjoyment. But this theory gave no consolation to those, and their number kept growing, who had already suffered bodily, spiritual or financial shipwreck; nor to the poor and wretched, nor to the satiated, those who were revolted by pleasures. And not to those who still had an interest in the traditional forms of the community and still followed goals beyond their own personality, those patriots who grieved to see the decline of state and society, without being able to prevent it. For all these groups the pleasures of this world seemed stale and vain. They turned to the Stoic doctrine, which valued not pleasure but virtue as the highest good, as the only blessedness, and held external goods, health, wealth, etc., to be matters just as indifferent as external evils.

"This ended by leading many people to turn away from the world altogether, to despise life, even to long for death. Suicide became common in Imperial Rome; it actually became fashionable." (Kautsky, op. cit., p. 89.)

Here we stand on the threshold between philosophy and religion. A society which has exhausted itself economically, morally and intellectually finds its expression in a general mood of pessimism and despair. Logic and reason provide no answers, when the existing order of things is itself shot through with irrationality. Such circumstances are not conducive to the growth of scientific thought and bold philosophical generalisations. They are much more likely to produce an inward-looking tendency, reflecting social atomisation, mysticism and irrationality. From this world we can expect nothing, and even understand nothing. Far better to turn our backs on it, and prepare ourselves for a better life to come. In place of philosophy, we have religion, in place of reason, mysticism.

We already see this phenomenon in the period of decline of the Greek city-states when, in the words of Professor Gilbert Murray, "Astrology fell upon the Hellenic mind as a new disease falls upon some remote Pacific island people." (Quoted by Russell, p. 237.) The same phenomenon was multiplied a thousandfold in the long drawn-out decline of the Roman empire. The epidemic of Oriental religions and cults which afflicted Roman society at this time is well documented—not just Christianity and Judaism, but the cult of Mithras, the cult of Isis and Osiris, and a thousand other exotic sects proliferated at the expense of the official religion.

Many of these cults had similar ceremonies and rituals. The sacrament of Mithras included a sacred meal, in which consecrated bread and a chalice of wine were served to the faithful in anticipation of the future life. In fact, many elements of Christianity were taken over from other religions, and most of its doctrines from pagan philosophers. A special role was played by Plotinus (205-270), the Greek mystic and founder of the neo-Platonist school. Here we have the final decadence of classical idealism. The world is supposed to consist of the One, which is unknowable and inexpressible. We can only know it by mystical means, ecstatic communion, trances, and the like. This, in turn, is achieved through the mortification of the flesh, and the emancipation of our better self from the bondage of matter. Plotinus sets out from the idea of a Holy Trinity. Matter has no independent reality, but is the creation of the soul. The only question is, why the soul bothered to create such stuff in the first place. But one is not supposed to ask such questions here, only to accept it as a "mystery." All this was taken over, bag and baggage, by the early Christian apologists, who produced a theology which is the bastard child of Oriental religion and Greek idealism in the period of its decadence. Such was to become the staple diet of European culture for 2,000 years, with the most negative results for science.

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