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Τίς γαρ αρχά δέξατο ναυτιλίας και
'Επει δ' εμβόλου
PINDAR. Pyth. iv. 124, 849.
Whence came their voyage ? them what peril held With adamantine rivets firmly bound?
But soon as on the vessel's bow
The anchor was hung up,
In hands a golden cup,
Swept by the hurrying blast ;
And loved return at last.
HISTORY OF THE GREEK SCHOOL PHILOSOPHY, WITH REFERENCE
TO PHYSICAL SCIENCE.
PRELUDE TO THE GREEK SCHOOL PAILOSOPHY. Sect. 1.-First Attempts of the Speculative Faculty in Physical
Inquiries. T an early period of history there appeared in men a propensity to
pursue speculative inquiries concerning the various parts and properties of the material world. What they saw excited them to meditate, to conjecture, and to reason : they endeavored to account for natural events, to trace their causes, to reduce them to their principles. This habit of mind, or, at least that modification of it which we have here to consider, seems to have been first unfolded among
the Greeks. And during that obscure introductory interval which elapsed while the speculative tendencies of men were as yet hardly disentangled from the practical, those who were most eminent in such inquiries were distinguished by the same term of praise which is applied to sagacity in matters of action, and were called wise men-dopo. But when it came to be clearly felt by such persons that their endeavors were suggested by the love of knowledge, a motive different from the motives which lead to the wisdom of active life, a name was adopted of a more appropriate, as well as of a more modest signification, and they were termed philosophers, or lovers of wisdom. This appellation is said to have been first assumed by Pythagoras. Yet he, in Herodotus, instead of having this title, is called a powerful sophist—'Eadówv ου των ασθενεστάτω σοφιστή Πυθαγόρη; the historian using this word, as it would seem, without intending to imply that misuse of reason which the term afterwards came to denote. The historians of literature
1 Cic. Tusc. v. 3.
2 Herod. iv. 95.
placed Pythagoras at the origin of the Italic School, one of the two main lines of succession of the early Greek philosophers : but the other, the Ionic School, which more peculiarly demands our attention, in consequence of its character and subsequent progress, is deduced from Thales, who preceded the age of Philosophy, and was one of the sophi, or wise men of Greece.”
The Ionic School was succeeded in Greece by several others; and the subjects which occupied the attention of these schools became very extensive. In fact, the first attempts were, to form systems which should explain the laws and causes of the material universe; and to these were soon added all the great questions which our moral condition and faculties suggest. The physical philosophy of these schools is especially deserving of our study, as exhibiting the character and fortunes of the most memorable attempt at universal knowledge which has ever been made. It is highly instructive to trace the principles of this undertaking ; for the course pursued was certainly one of the most natural and tempting which can be imagined; the essay was made by a nation unequalled in fine mental endowments, at the period of its greatest activity and vigor; and yet it must be allowed (for, at least so far as physical science is concerned, none will contest this), to have been entirely unsuccessful. We cannot consider otherwise than as an utter failure, an endeavor to discover the causes of things, of which the most complete results are the Aristotelian physical treatises; and which, after reaching the point which these treatises mark, left the human mind to remain stationary, at any rate on all such subjects, for nearly two thousand years.
The early philosophers of Greece entered upon the work of physical speculation in a manner which showed the vigor and confidence of the questioning spirit, as yet untamed by labors and reverses. It was for later ages to learn that man must acquire, slowly and patiently, letter by letter, the alphabet in which nature writes her answers to such inquiries. The first students wished to divine, at a single glance, the whole import of her book. They endeavored to discover the origin and principle of the universe; according to Thales, water was the origin of all things, according to Anaximenes, air ; and Heraclitus considered fire as the essential principle of the universe. It has been conjectured, with great plausibility, that this tendency to give to their Philosophy the form of a Cosmogony, was owing to the influence of the poetical Cosmogonies and Theogonies which had been produced and admired at a still earlier age. Indeed, such wide and ambitious doctrines as those which have been mentioned, were better suited to the dim magnificence of poetry, than to the purpose of a philosophy which was to bear the sharp scrutiny of reason. When we speak of the principles of things, the term, even now, is very ambiguous and indefinite in its import, but how much more was that the case in the first attempts to use such abstractions! The term which is commonly used in this sense (ápx"), signified at first the beginning; and in its early philosophical applications implied some obscure mixed reference to the mechanical, chemical, organic, and historical causes of the visible state of things, besides the theological views which at this period were only just beginning to be separated from the physical. Hence we are not to be surprised if the sources from which the opinions of this period appear to be derived are rather vague suggestions and casual analogies, than any reasons which will bear examination. Aristotle conjectures, with considerable probability, that the doctrine of Thales, according to which water was the universal element, resulted from the manifest importance of moisture in the support of animal and vegetable life.' But such precarious analyses of these obscure and loose dogmas of early antiquity are of small consequence to our object.
In more limited and more definite examples of inquiry concerning the causes of natural appearances, and in the attempts made to satisfy men's curiosity in such cases, we appear to discern a more genuine prelude to the true spirit of physical inquiry. One of the most remarkable instances of this kind is to be found in the speculations which Herodotus records, relative to the cause of the floods of the Nile. “ Concerning the nature of this river,” says the father of history,“ “ I was not able to learn any thing, either from the priests or from any one besides, though I questioned them very pressingly. For the Nile is flooded for a hundred days, beginning with the summer solstice; and after this time it diminishes, and is, during the whole winter, very small. And on this head I was not able to obtain any thing satisfactory from any one of the Egyptians, when I asked what is the power by which the Nile is in its nature the reverse of other rivers.”
We may see, I think, in the historian's account, that the Grecian iniud felt a craving to discover the reasons of things which other nations did not feel. The Egyptians, it appears, had no theory, and felt no want of a theory. Not so the Greeks; they had their reasons to render, though they were not such as satisfied Herodotus.
. Metaph. i. 8.
4 Herod. ii. 19.
of the Greeks,” he says,
“ who wish to be considered great philosophers (Ελλήνων σινες επισήμοι βουλόμενοι γενέσθαι σοφίην), have propounded three ways of accounting for these floods. Two of them," he adds, " I do not think worthy of record, except just so far as to mention them.” But as these are some of the earliest Greek essays in physical philosophy, it will be worth while, even at this day, to preserve the brief notice he has given of them, and his own reasonings upon the same subject.
"One of these opinions holds that the Etesian winds (which blew from the north) are the cause of these tools, by preventing the Nile from flowing into the sea." Against this the historian reasons very simply and sensibly. “Very often when the Etesian winds do not blow, the Nile is flooded nevertheless. And moreover, if the Etesian winds were the cause,
all other rivers, which have their course opposite to these winds, ought to undergo the same changes as the Nile; which the rivers of Syria and Libya so circumstanced do not.”
“The next opinion is still more unscientific (dvs 105 nuovegrépn), and is, in truth, marvellous for its folly. This holds that the ocean flows all round the earth, and that the Nile comes out of the ocean, and by that means produces its effects.” “Now," says the historian, " the man who talks about this ocean-river, goes into the region of fable, where it is not easy to demonstrate that he is wrong. I know of no such river. But I suppose that Homer and some of the earlier poets invented this fiction and introduced it into their poetry.”
He then proceeds to a third account, which to a modern reasoner would appear not at all unphilosophical in itself, but which he, nevertheless, rejects in a manner no less decided than the others. third opinion, though much the most plausible, is still more wrong than the others; for it asserts an impossibility, namely, that the Nile proceeds from the melting of the snow. Now the Nile flows out of Libya, and through Ethiopia, which are very hot countries, and thus comes into Egypt, which is a colder region. How then can it proceed from snow?” He then offers several other reasons "to show," as he says, “ to any one capable of reasoning on such subjects (avopi γε λογίζεσθαι τοιούτων πέρι οίω σε έoντι), that the assertion cannot be true. The winds which blow from the southern regions are hot; the inhabitants are black; the swallows and kites (ixtīvoi) stay in the country the whole year; the cranes fly the colds of Scythia, and seek their warm winter-quarters there ; which would not be if it snowed ever so little.” He adds another reason, founded apparently upon