When you take time to read history, you’ll be fascinated. This morning I found something very intriguing, what we call science had been here many centuries ago, they just didn’t know it was the future. No science leapt, fully formed, from a particular worldview, culture, religion or philosophy.
Modern science isn’t so modern: the ancient Ionians got there first, but their work was suppressed for centuries.
For most people, modern science has some sort of association with the Enlightenment or with the likes of Copernicus and da Vinci, who were themselves products of the sixteenth-century Renaissance.
But in fact, modern science has much deeper roots. The Ionians of Greece were its forefathers.
Ionia was a region in the eastern Mediterranean: what we might think of now as the eastern Greek islands and the western coast of Turkey. In ancient times, it stood at the crossroads of civilization. Not only was Ionia a center of trade, but the region was also influenced by Egyptians, Babylonians and other mighty civilizations.
Each of these civilizations had its gods, who were thought to reign over the territory.
This left the Ionians a little confused. Who were they to worship, the Greek god Zeus or the Babylonian Marduk? The conclusion they came to was startling. They determined that principles of physics and laws of nature governed the world instead. They saw the world as something ordered and intelligible, its history following an explicable course and its different parts arranged in a comprehensible system. Most historians agree that Thales, one of the Seven Sages of Greece, started this movement by predicting a solar eclipse that actually occurred, though some believe this feat to be false.
The Ionians started experimenting and so ushered in a scientific revolution. Perhaps most famously, Democritus invented the concept of the atom in around 430 BCE. It’s a Greek word that means “uncuttable.” He argued that when you cut an apple, your knife is actually passing through the empty spaces between atoms. Consequently, he determined that every object could be thought of as comprising atoms and empty spaces.
Sadly, however, experimental Ionian approaches and learning were suppressed for centuries. We can blame the Greek Pythagoras for this.
Pythagoras and his disciples believed that the world, being perfect and divine, obeyed set geometrical laws. All they needed was pure thought and nothing else. Experimentation had no place in this academic mind-set.
Critically, the greatest philosophers of the classical world, Plato and Aristotle among them, were profoundly influenced by Pythagoras’ ideas.
In the fifth to fourth centuries BCE, they started to make the argument that experimenting was no different from manual work in the fields. It was, therefore, work only suitable for slaves. Pure intellectual work should, conversely, be theoretical.
When Christianity grew dominant, it also took the Pythagorean notion of a perfect divine world. Consequently, scientific endeavors that might have led to new doctrine-threatening discoveries were suppressed.
This censorship cast a long shadow. It took until the sixteenth century before the scientific method of observation and experimentation was revived.