The Rise and Fall of Greek Science

This fortunate circumstance, still more than political freedom, wrought in the human mind, among the Greeks, an independance, the surest pledge of the rapidity and greatness of its future progress.

In the mean time their learned men, their sages, as they were called, but who soon took the more modest appellation of philosophers, or friends of science and wisdom, wandered in the immensity of the two vast and comprehensive plan which they had embraced. They were desirous of penetrating both the nature of man, and that of the Gods; the origin of the world, as well as of the human race. They endeavoured to reduce all nature to one principle only, and the phenomena of the universe to one law. They attempted to include, in a single rule of conduct, all the duties of morality, and the secret of true happiness.

Thus, instead of discovering truths, they forged systems; they neglected the observation of facts, to pursue the chimeras of their imagination; and being no longer able to support their opinions with proofs, they sought to defend them by subtleties.

Geometry and astronomy, however, were cultivated with success by these men. Greece owed to them the first elements of these sciences, and even some new truths, or at least the knowledge of such as they had brought with them from the East, not as established creeds, but as theories, of which they understood the principles and proofs.

We even perceive, in the midst of the darkness of those systems, two happy ideas beam forth, which will again make their appearance in more enlightened ages.

Democritus considered all the phenomena of the universe as the result of the combinations and motion of simple bodies, of a fixed and unalterable form, having received an original impulse, and thence derived a quantity of action that undergoes modifications in the individual atoms, but that in the entire mass continues always the same.

Pythagoras was of opinion that the universe was governed by a harmony, the principles of which were to be unfolded by the properties of numbers; that is, that the whole phenomena of nature depended upon general laws capable of being ascertained by calculation.

In these two doctrines we readily perceive the bold systems of Descartes, and the philosophy of Newton.

Pythagoras either discovered by his own meditation, or learned from the priests of Egypt or of Italy, the actual disposition of the heavenly bodies, and the true system of the world. This he communicated to the Greeks. But the system was too much at variance with the testimony of the senses, too opposite to the vulgar opinions, for the feeble proofs by which it could then be supported to gain much hold upon the mind. Accordingly it was confined to the Pythagorean school, and afterwards forgotten with that school, again to appear at the close of the sixteenth century, strengthened with more certain proofs, by which it now triumphed not only over the repugnance of the senses, but over the prejudices of superstition, still more powerful and dangerous.

The Pythagorean school was chiefly prevalent in Upper Greece, where it formed legislators, and intrepid defenders of the rights of mankind. It fell under the power of the tyrants, one of whom burnt the Pythagoreans in their own school. This was sufficient, no doubt, to induce them not to abjure philosophy, not to abandon the cause of the people, but to bear no longer a name become so dangerous, or observe forms that would serve only to wake the lion rage of the enemies of liberty and of reason.

A grand basis of every kind of sound philosophy is to form for each science a precise and accurate language, every term of which shall represent an idea exactly determined and circumscribed; and to enable ourselves to determine and circumscribe the ideas with which the science may be conversant, by the mode of a rigorous analysis.

The Greeks on the contrary took advantage of the corruptions of their common language to play upon the meaning of words, to embarrass the mind by contemptible equivoques, and lead it astray by expressing successively different ideas by the same sign: a practice which gave acuteness to the mind, at the same time that it weakened its strength against chimerical difficulties. Thus this philosophy of words, by filling up the spaces where human reason seems to stop before some obstacle above its strength, did not assist immediately its progress and advancement, but it prepared the way for them; as we shall have farther occasion to observe.

The course of philosophy was stopped from its first introduction by an error at that time indeed excusable. This was the fixing the attention upon questions incapable perhaps for ever of being solved; suffering the mind to be led away by the importance or sublimity of objects, without thinking whether the means existed of compassing them; wishing to establish theories, before facts had been collected, and to frame the universe, before it was yet known how to survey it. Accordingly we see Socrates, while he combated the sophists and exposed their subtleties to ridicule, crying to the Greeks to recal to the earth this philosophy which had lost itself in the clouds. Not that he despised either astronomy, or geometry, or the observation of the phenomena of nature; not that he entertained the puerile and false idea of reducing the human mind to the study of morality alone: on the contrary, it was to his school and his disciples that the mathematical and physical sciences were indebted for their progress; in the ridicule attempted to be thrown upon him in theatrical representations, the reproach which afforded most pleasantry was that of his cultivating geometry, studying meteors, drawing geographical charts, and making experiments upon burning-glasses, of which it is pleasant to remark, the earliest mention that has been transmitted to us, we owe to a buffoonery of Aristophanes.

Socrates merely wished by his advice to induce men to confine themselves to objects which nature has placed within their reach; to be sure of every step already taken before they attempted any new one, and to study the space that surrounded them, before they precipitated themselves at random into an unknown space.

The death of this man is an important event in the history of the human mind. It is the first crime that the war between philosophy and superstition conceived and brought forth.


Condorcet chronicles the Greek sciences, with their propensity for for philosophizing and fantasy, ending with Socrates, who demanded empiricism.

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 Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Condorcet, Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat (1795), Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind, Retrieved on 2012-08-06
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  • Folksonomies: philosophy