Chapter 3

The Greeks


71 The sciences we possess have been principally derived from the Greeks.

The addition of the Roman, Arabic, or more modern writers, are only few and of small importance. They are founded on the basis[47] of Greek invention.

But the wisdom of the Greeks was professional and disputatious. Thus, it was most adverse to the investigation of truth.

The sophists rejected and transferred to the rhetoricians—Gorgias,[36] Protagoras, Hippias, Polus—might well suit the whole tribe, such as Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, Theophrastus, and their successors—Chrysippus, Carneades, and the rest.

There was only this difference between them—the former were mercenary vagabonds, travelling about to different states, making a show of their wisdom, and requiring pay.

The latter more dignified and noble, in possession of fixed habitations, opening schools, and teaching philosophy gratuitously.

Both, however:

  • were professorial
  • reduced every subject to controversy
  • established and defended certain sects and dogmas of philosophy, so that their doctrines were nearly (what Dionysius not unaptly objected to Plato) the talk of idle old men to ignorant youths.

The more ancient Greeks were:

  • Empedocles
  • Anaxagoras
  • Leucippus
  • Democritus
  • Parmenides
  • Heraclitus
  • Xenophanes
  • Philolaus, etc[37]

I omit Pythagoras as being superstitious[48].

They did not open schools. Instead, they investigated truth with greater silence and with more severity and simplicity, with less affectation and ostentation.

They acted more advisedly, however their works may have been eclipsed in course of time by those lighter productions which better correspond with and please the apprehensions and passions of the vulgar

Time is like a river. [38]

  • It bears down to us that[49] light things float, heavy and solid things sink.

These more ancient philosophers were not free from the national defect.

  • They inclined too much to:
    • the ambition and vanity of forming a sect, and
    • captivating public opinion.

Any inquiry on the truth will despair when it condescends to such trifles.

An Egyptian priest prophesized that the Greeks would forever remain children, without any antiquity of knowledge or knowledge of antiquity.

  • The Greeks are like children who are prone to talking, and incapable of generation.
    • Their wisdom is loquacious and unproductive of effects.
    • This is why the external signs derived from Greece, the birthplace of our present philosophy, are not favorable.

71 Back then, the Greek knowledge of time and of the world was confined and meagre. This is one of the worst evils for those who rely entirely on experience. They did not have 1,000 years of history but mere fables and ancient traditions.

They knew but a small portion of the countries of the world. They indiscriminately called all nations:

  • far north as Scythians
  • to the west, as Celts

They knew nothing of Africa, and only the nearest part of Ethiopia, or of Asia beyond[50] the Ganges.

  • They did not even know of the New World.

Besides, a vast number of climates and zones, in which innumerable nations live and breathe, were pronounced by them to be uninhabitable; nay,

The travels of Democritus, Plato, and Pythagoras were:

  • not extensive.
  • mere excursions from home

They considered these travels as something vast.

But in our times many parts of the New World, and every extremity of the Old, are well known, and the mass of experiments has been infinitely increased; wherefore, if external signs were to be taken from the time of the nativity or procreation (as in astrology), nothing extraordinary could be predicted of these early systems of philosophy.

73 Of all signs there is none more certain or worthy than that of the fruits produced, for the fruits and effects are the sureties and vouchers, as it were, for the truth of philosophy.

Now, from the systems of the Greeks, and their subordinate divisions in particular branches of the sciences during so long a period, scarcely one single experiment can be culled that has a tendency to elevate or assist mankind, and can be fairly set down to the speculations and doctrines of their philosophy. Celsus candidly and wisely confesses as much, when he observes that experiments were first discovered in medicine, and that men afterward built their philosophical systems upon them, and searched for and assigned causes, instead of the inverse method of discovering and deriving experiments from philosophy and the knowledge of causes; it is not, therefore, wonderful that the Egyptians (who bestowed divinity and sacred honors on the authors of new inventions) should have consecrated more images of brutes than of men, for the brutes by their natural instinct made many discoveries,[51] while men derived but few from discussion and the conclusions of reason.

The industry of the alchemists has produced some effect, by chance and casualty, or from varying their experiments (as mechanics also do), and not from any regular art or theory, the theory they have imagined rather tending to disturb than to assist experiment. Those, too, who have occupied themselves with natural magic (as they term it) have made but few discoveries, and those of small import, and bordering on imposture; for which reason, in the same manner as we are cautioned by religion to show our faith by our works, we may very properly apply the principle to philosophy, and judge of it by its works, accounting that to be futile which is unproductive, and still more so if, instead of grapes and olives, it yield but the thistle and thorns of dispute and contention.

74 Other signs may be selected from the increase and progress of particular systems of philosophy and the sciences; for those which are founded on nature grow and increase, while those which are founded on opinion change and increase not. If, therefore, the theories we have mentioned were not like plants, torn up by the roots, but grew in the womb of nature, and were nourished by her, that which for the last two thousand years has taken place would never have happened, namely, that the sciences still continue in their beaten track, and nearly stationary, without having received any important increase, nay, having, on the contrary, rather bloomed under the hands of their first author, and then faded away. But we see that the case is reversed in the mechanical arts, which are founded on nature and the light of experience, for they (as long as they are popular) seem full of life, and uninterruptedly thrive and[52] grow, being at first rude, then convenient, lastly polished, and perpetually improved.

75 There is yet another sign (if such it may be termed, being rather an evidence, and one of the strongest nature), namely, the actual confession of those very authorities whom men now follow; for even they who decide on things so daringly, yet at times, when they reflect, betake themselves to complaints about the subtilty of nature, the obscurity of things, and the weakness of man’s wit.

If they would merely do this, they might perhaps deter those who are of a timid disposition from further inquiry, but would excite and stimulate those of a more active and confident turn to further advances. They are not, however, satisfied with confessing so much of themselves, but consider everything which has been either unknown or unattempted by themselves or their teachers, as beyond the limits of possibility, and thus, with most consummate pride and envy, convert the defects of their own discoveries into a calumny on nature and a source of despair to every one else. Hence arose the New Academy, which openly professed scepticism,[39] and consigned mankind to eternal darkness; hence the notion that forms, or the true differences of things (which are in fact the laws of simple action), are beyond man’s[53] reach, and cannot possibly be discovered; hence those notions in the active and operative branches, that the heat of the sun and of fire are totally different, so as to prevent men from supposing that they can elicit or form, by means of fire, anything similar to the operations of nature; and again, that composition only is the work of man and mixture of nature, so as to prevent men from expecting the generation or transformation of natural bodies by art. Men will, therefore, easily allow themselves to be persuaded by this sign not to engage their fortunes and labor in speculations, which are not only desperate, but actually devoted to desperation.

76 We should not omit the sign afforded by the great dissension formerly prevalent among philosophers, and the variety of schools, which sufficiently show that the way was not well prepared that leads from the senses to the understanding, since the same groundwork of philosophy (namely, the nature of things), was torn and divided into such widely differing and multifarious errors.

And although in these days the dissensions and differences of opinions with regard to first principles and entire systems are nearly extinct,[40] yet there remain innumerable questions and controversies with regard to particular branches of philosophy. So that it is manifest that there is nothing sure or sound either in the systems themselves or in the methods of demonstration.[41]

77 People think that there is a general unanimity as to the philosophy of Aristotle because[54]:

  • it is so well determined and founded, as to have united the suffrages of ancient and modern
  • the other systems of the ancients have ceased and became obsolete after Aristotle
  • nothing better has been since discovered

we will observe

  1. The other ancient systems have not ceased after the publication of Aristotle’s works.

The works of the other systems continued long after that event, even to the time of Cicero and the subsequent ages.

  • But they were destroyed during the fall of the Roman empire
  • Only the systems of Aristotle and Plato were preserved
  1. There is no unanimous approval of Aristotle’s system.

True unanimity comes from a free judgment. It arrives at the same conclusion after an investigation of facts.

Most of those who have assented to Aristotle’s philosophy, bound themselves to it from prejudice and the authority of others.

  • It is based on obsequiousness and concurrence than unanimity.

But even if it were real and extensive unanimity, so far from being esteemed a true and solid confirmation, it should even lead to a violent presumption to the contrary.

For there is no worse augury in intellectual matters than that derived from unanimity, with the exception of divinity and politics, where suffrages are allowed to decide. For nothing pleases the multitude, unless it strike the imagination or bind down the understanding, as we have observed above, with the shackles of vulgar notions. Hence we may well transfer Phocion’s remark from morals to the intellect: “That men should immediately examine what error or fault they have committed, when the[55] multitude concurs with, and applauds them.”[42] This then is one of the most unfavorable signs.

All the signs, therefore, of the truth and soundness of the received systems of philosophy and the sciences are unpropitious, whether taken from their origin, their fruits, their progress, the confessions of their authors, or from unanimity.

78 These are sufficiently numerous and powerful to remove all wonder, that what we now offer should have so long been concealed from, and have escaped the notice of mankind, and to render it more worthy of astonishment, that it should even now have entered any one’s mind, or become the subject of his thoughts; and that it should have done so, we consider rather the gift of fortune than of any extraordinary talent, and as the offspring of time rather than wit.

But, in the first place, the number of ages is reduced to very narrow limits, on a proper consideration of the matter. For out of twenty-five[44] centuries, with which the memory and learning[56] of man are conversant, scarcely six can be set apart and selected as fertile in science and favorable to its progress. For there are deserts and wastes in times as in countries, and we can only reckon up three revolutions and epochs of philosophy. 1. The Greek. 2. The Roman. 3. Our own, that is the philosophy of the western nations of Europe: and scarcely two centuries can with justice be assigned to each. The intermediate ages of the world were unfortunate both in the quantity and richness of the sciences produced. Nor need we mention the Arabs, or the scholastic philosophy, which, in those ages, ground down the sciences by their numerous treatises, more than they increased their weight. The first cause, then, of such insignificant progress in the sciences, is rightly referred to the small proportion of time which has been favorable thereto.

LXXIX. A second cause offers itself, which is certainly of the greatest importance; namely, that in those very ages in which men’s wit and literature flourished considerably, or even moderately, but a small part of their industry was bestowed on natural philosophy, the great mother of the sciences. For every art and science torn from this root may, perhaps, be polished, and put into a serviceable shape, but can admit of little growth. It is well known, that after the Christian religion had been acknowledged, and arrived at maturity, by far the best wits were busied upon theology, where the highest rewards offered themselves, and every species of assistance was abundantly supplied, and the study of which was the principal occupation of the western European nations during the third epoch; the rather because[57] literature flourished about the very time when controversies concerning religion first began to bud forth. 2. In the preceding ages, during the second epoch (that of the Romans), philosophical meditation and labor was chiefly occupied and wasted in moral philosophy (the theology of the heathens): besides, the greatest minds in these times applied themselves to civil affairs, on account of the magnitude of the Roman empire, which required the labor of many. 3. The age during which natural philosophy appeared principally to flourish among the Greeks, was but a short period, since in the more ancient times the seven sages (with the exception of Thales), applied themselves to moral philosophy and politics, and at a later period, after Socrates had brought down philosophy from heaven to earth, moral philosophy became more prevalent, and diverted men’s attention from natural. Nay, the very period during which physical inquiries flourished, was corrupted and rendered useless by contradictions, and the ambition of new opinions. Since, therefore, during these three epochs, natural philosophy has been materially neglected or impeded, it is not at all surprising that men should have made but little progress in it, seeing they were attending to an entirely different matter.

LXXX. Add to this that natural philosophy, especially of late, has seldom gained exclusive possession of an individual free from all other pursuits, even among those who have applied themselves to it, unless there may be an example or two of some monk studying in his cell, or some nobleman in his villa.[45] She has rather been made a passage and bridge to other pursuits.


Thus has this great mother of the sciences been degraded most unworthily to the situation of a handmaid, and made to wait upon medicine or mathematical operations, and to wash the immature minds of youth, and imbue them with a first dye, that they may afterward be more ready to receive and retain another. In the meantime, let no one expect any great progress in the sciences (especially their operative part), unless natural philosophy be applied to particular sciences, and particular sciences again referred back to natural philosophy. For want of this, astronomy, optics, music, many mechanical arts, medicine itself, and (what perhaps is more wonderful), moral and political philosophy, and the logical sciences have no depth, but only glide over the surface and variety of things; because these sciences, when they have been once partitioned out and established, are no longer nourished by natural philosophy, which would have imparted fresh vigor and growth to them from the sources and genuine contemplation of motion, rays, sounds, texture, and conformation of bodies, and the affections and capacity of the understanding. But we can little wonder that the sciences grow not when separated from their roots.


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