Ionian Science before Socrates F. M. CORNFORD From Before and After Socrates (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1932/1950), pp. 527. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.
In an essay of 3-5 paragraphs explain the elements of Ionian Science before Socrates. In this reading, Cornford provides a general overview and analysis of preSocratic philosophy, with particular attention to the ancient doctrine of atomism.
[W]e must now consider the early Ionian science of Nature, its character, and how it arose. This science is called Ionian because it was begun by Thales and his successors at Miletus, one of the Ionian colonies on the coast of Asia Minor. Thales lived at the beginning of the sixth century. The development of Ionian science culminated two centuries later in the Atomism of Democritus, a contemporary of Socrates and Plato. All the histories of Greek philosophy, from Aristotles time to this day, begin with Thales of Miletus. It is generally agreed that with him something new, that we call Western science, appeared in the worldscience as commonly defined: the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, not for any practical use it can be made to serve. Thales . . . found that the Egyptians possessed some rough rules of land measurement. Every year the inundation of the Nile obliterated the landmarks, and the peasants fields had to be marked out afresh. The Egyptians had a method of calculating rectangular areas, and so solved their practical problem. The inquisitive Greek was not interested in marking out fields. He saw that the method could be detached from that particular purpose and generalized into a method of calculating areas of any shape. So the rules of land measurement were converted into the science of geometry. The problem something to be donegave place to the theoremsomething to be contemplated. Reason found a fresh delight in knowing that the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are always equal, and why they must be equal. The land surveyor still makes use of this truth in constructing maps; the philosopher is content to enjoy it because it is true.In the same way the Greeks turned the art of astrology into the science of astronomy. For many centuries the Babylonian priests had recorded the movements of the planets, in order to predict human events, which the stars were believed to govern. The Greeks borrowed the results of observation, and Thales predicted an eclipse which occurred in Asia Minor in 585 B.C. But they ignored the whole fabric of astrological superstition which had hitherto provided the practical motive for observing the heavens. There is hardly a trace of astrology in Greek thought. . . . Looking back across some 2,500 years, we see the cosmogonies of the Milesian School as the dawn or infancy of science. . . . [We should see pre-Socratic] speculation [not] as rudimentary and infantile, but as the crowning epoch in a development covering many more ages than history can record. I have spoken of this epoch as the discovery of Naturea phrase which calls for explanation. I mean the discovery that the whole of the surrounding world of which our senses give us any knowledge is natural, not partly natural and partly supernatural. Science begins when it is understood that the universe is a natural whole, with unchanging ways of its ownways that may be ascertainable by human reason, but are beyond the control of human action. To reach that point of view was a great achievement. If we would measure its magnitude, we must take a backward glance at certain features of the pre-scientific age. These are (1) the detachment of the self from the external objectthe discovery of the object; (2) the preoccupation of intelligence with the practical needs of action in dealing with the object; (3) the belief in unseen, supernatural powers, behind or within the object to be dealt with. . . . [With regard to the third] then, the scope of [pre-scientific] thought was bounded by the imperious needs of action. External things were selected for notice in proportion as they entered into human activities. They were not interesting for what they are in themselves, but as things we can do something with, or that can act upon us. Let us now consider them in this second capacity, as agents.To go back to [the primitive] ape, pausing in his thwarted desire to seize the banana. In the interval of suspended action, we may imagine him feeling that things are opposing his desire with some contrary will of their ownan experience familiar enough in his dealings with his brother apes. There are resistances to be overcomepowers to be circumvented by his own power. And when he perceives that the boxes will help him to gain his end, he will feel that the world is not all against him: there are also things with benevolent intentions that sympathize with and forward his wishes. These helpful or harmful intentions, these unseen forces that further or thwart action, are fragmentary elements of personality. They are the raw material from which man, when he began to reflect, constructed the supernatural world. In Roman religion we find countless numinapowers whose whole content is expressed in abstract nouns, nomina: Janus is not a fully personal god presiding over doorways, but simply the spirit of doorness, conceived as a power present in all doors, that can help or harm one who passes through them. From such elementary numina there is a scale ranging through spirits of various kinds up to the completely anthropomorphic god, like the gods of Homer.These fragmentary elements of personality at first simply reside in things. In a sense, they are projected from mans self into the object; but we must not think of them as the creations of any conscious theory. In a census return, primitive man would not have entered his religion as Animist, or even as Pre-animist. The assumption that helpful or harmful things have the will to help or harm is made as unreflectingly as by the child who kicks a door that has pinched his finger, or by the man who curses his golf club for slicing a stroke. If such a man were logical, he would pray to his golf clubs before beginning a match; or he would murmur some spell to charm them into hitting straight. For these projected elements of personality are the proper objects of magical art. They are supernatural in that their behavior is not regular and calculable; you cannot be sure which way they will act, as you can be sure that if you touch flame you will be burnt. Magic includes a whole collection of practices designed to bring these supernatural forces under some measure of control. And if they are to be controlled, the more we can know of their nature and habits the better. Mythology supplies this need by fabricating a history of the supernatural, with the effect of fixing the unseen powers in more definite shape and endowing them with more concrete substance. They become detached from the things in which at first they resided, and are filled out into complete persons. So magic and mythology occupy the immense outer region of the unknown, encompassing the small field of matter-of-fact ordinary knowledge. The supernatural lies everywhere within or beyond the natural; and the knowledge of the supernatural which man believes himself to possess, not being drawn from ordinary direct experience, seems to be knowledge of a different and higher order. It is a revelation, accessible only to the inspired or (as the Greeks said) divine manthe magician and the priest, the poet and the seer.Now the birth of science in Greece is marked by the tacit denial of this distinction be- tween two orders of knowledge, experience and revelation, and between the two corresponding orders of existence, the natural and the supernatural. The Ionian cosmogonists assume . . . that the whole universe is natural, and potentially within the reach of knowledge as ordinary and rational as our knowledge that fire burns and water drowns. That is what I meant by the discovery of Nature. The conception of Nature is extended to incorporate what had been the domain of the supernatural. The supernatural, as fashioned by mythology, simply disappears; all that really exists is natural. Enough, perhaps, has been said to justify the statement that the discovery of Nature was one of the greatest achievements of the human mind. Like all other great achievements, it was the work of a very few individuals with exceptional gifts. Why were these individuals Ionian Greeks of the sixth century?The Ionian cities in Asia Minor were then at the height of Western civilization. There were men in them who had outgrown the magical practices that were never to die out among the peasantry. They had also outgrown the Olympian religion of Homer. Thanks to the poets, the anthropomorphic tendency of myth had over-reached itself. The Greek imagination was, perhaps, unique in visual clarity, far surpassing the Roman in this respect. The supernatural powers had taken human shapes so concrete and well defined that a Greek could recognize any god by sight. When the tall and bearded Barnabas and the restless eloquent Paul came to Lystra, the inhabitants at once identified them as Zeus and Hermes. It was inevitable that, when the gods had become completely human persons, some skeptical mind should refuse to believe that a thunderstorm in Asia Minor was really due to the anger of a deity seated on the summit of Olympus. In the sixth century Xenophanes attacked anthropomorphic polytheism with devastating finality: If horses or oxen had hands and could draw or make statues, horses would represent the forms of the gods like horses, oxen like oxen. Henceforth natural science annexed to its province all that went on aloft in the sky orunder the earth. Thunder and lightning, Anaximander said, were caused by the blast of the wind. Shut up in a thick cloud, the wind bursts forth, and then the tearing of the cloud makes the noise, and the rift gives the appearance of a flash in contrast with the blackness of the cloud. This is a typically scientific explanation. There is no longer a supernatural back- ground, peopled with fragmentary or complete personalities accessible to prayer and sacrifice or amenable to magical compulsion. Intelligence is cut off from action. Thought is left con- fronting Nature, an impersonal world of things, indifferent to mans desires and existing in and for themselves. The detachment of self from the object is now complete. To the few advanced intellects who had reached this point of view, it probably seemed that they had disposed of mythology, once for all, as simply false. It is important to bear in mind that they did not carry with them the rest of the Greek world. For a thousand years the smoke of sacrifice was still to rise from the altars of Zeus. . . . So myth was destined to survive the contempt of Ionian rationalism and to await reinterpretation. But at the moment we are now considering science seems to have swept mythology away. The systems of the sixth century are cast in the form of cosmogony. Two principal questions are answered. First, how did the world we see come to be arranged as it is: at the center, the earth with the great masses of water in the hollow seas; round it the airy region of mist and cloud and rain;and beyond that the heavenly fires? Secondly, how did life arise within this order? The answer is a history of the birth of a world order out of an initial state of things (a beginning, arch). Take for illustration the most complete and daring of these cosmogonies, the system of Thaless successor, Anaximander, which set the pattern for the Ionian tradition. At first there was an unbounded and unordered mass of indiscriminate stuff, containing the antagonistic powers of heat and cold. This mass had the living property of eternal motion. At some point a nucleus, pregnant with these warring powers, took shapea rationalized equivalent of the world-egg of mythical cosmogony. Perhaps because the hostility of the hot and the cold drove them apart, the nucleus was differentiated. The cold became a watery mass of earth enveloped in cloud; the hot, a sphere of flame enwrapping the whole, like bark round a tree. Then the sphere of flame burst, and was torn off to form rings of fire enclosed and hidden in dark mist. Sun, moon, and stars, the points of light we see in the sky, are spouts of fire issuing from holes in these opaque rings, as the air issues from the nozzle of a bellows. The earth was then dried by the heat of the heavenly fires, and the seas shrank into their hollow beds. At last, life arose in the warm slime. The first animals were like sea urchins enclosed in prickly shells. From these sea creatures, land animals, including man, were evolved. The significance of this cosmogony lies not so much in what it contains as in what it leaves out. Cosmogony has been detached from the ogony. There is not a word about the gods or any supernatural agency. . . . It was an extraordinary feat of rational thinking, to dissipate this haze of myth from the origins of the world and of life. Anaximanders system pushes back to the very beginning the operation of ordinary forces such as we see at work in Nature every day. The formation of the world becomes a natural, not a supernatural, event. Such were the Ionian cosmogonies of the sixth century: they told how an ordered world was evolved out of an undifferentiated initial state of things. In the fifth century, science takes a somewhat different line, which it has followed ever since. Retaining the form of cosmogony, it becomes more particularly an inquiry into the ultimate constitution of material substance the uniform and permanent nature of things. Let us consider, in conclusion, the outcome of this inquirythe Atomism of Democritus.Atomism is a theory of the nature of tangible bodily substance. The notion of substance is taken from common sense. The belief in substantial things outside ourselves goes back to the original detachment of self from the object. A substance is something that exists independently of my seeing or touching itsomething that endures, as the same thing, whether I am there to see it or not. The problem for science is: What is this substance that endures when it has ceased to yield us sensations? I have under my eyes what I call a sheet of paper. What I actually see is a white area with black marks. When I touch it, I feel the resistance of a smooth surface, and I can trace with my finger its rectangular shape. These sensations are my only assurance that something is there, outside me. If I turn my eyes in another direction, the whiteness and the black marks disappear. I have only the tactile sensations of the resistance of the smooth rectangular surface. If I lift my finger, these sensations also disappear. Yet I am absolutely certain that something is still therea substance which does not depend upon my having sensations derived from it. Which of these propertieswhite and black, resistance, smoothness, shapereally belong independently to the thing outside me, and continue to exist when I am not looking and touching? The Atomists held that the tactile properties are the real ones; the visual properties are not substantial or objective. They are not there when I am not looking. In a dark room the sheet of paper would lose its color; I should see nothing. But I should still feel the shape and resistance of the surface. If I could not detect those properties, I should feel nothing and be sure the thing was not there. If I did detect them, I should be certain that, when I turned on the light, the visual properties would spring into existence again. By this train of thought common sense can be led towards the fundamental doctrines of Atomism. The atoms of Democritus are hard bodies, too small to be seen, and deprived of all properties except shape and resistancethe tangible properties necessary and sufficient to convince us that something real is there. A larger body is not destroyed when it is broken up into atoms. All the pieces are still there, and they can be reassembled. Also they can move in space without suffering any change of quality. Atomism held that the realthe enduring and unchanging core of substanceis nothing but atoms, moving in empty space. Not only are these atoms real, but they are the whole of reality. I do not mean to suggest that the Atomism of Democritus was actually reached by the train of thought I have outlined. In historical fact, it arose as a mathematical theory that matter consists of discrete units. But the result is the same. The atoms of Democritus are tiny bodies, into which larger bodies can be cut up, but which cannot themselves be cut into smaller pieces. They are absolutely solid, compact, impenetrable. Where scientific Atomism went beyond common sense was in its demand that the atoms of body shall be absolutely indestructible and unchanging. This was a requirement of the reason. Common sense, untutored by science, would suppose that bodies can be, and constantly are being, destroyed. A thing will remain the same thing for a time, though some of its properties change; but then it may simply cease to exist and something else will come into being. But ancient science, holding to the principle that nothing can come out of nothing, demanded some permanent and indestructible being behind the screen of shifting appearances. This postulate met the same rational need that has prompted the assertion by modern science of the principle of conservation in various forms: the law of inertia, the conservation of mass, the conservation of energy. It has been observed that all these propositions were at first announced either without proof of any sort or as the result of a priori demonstration, although later they have often been regarded as purely empirical laws. 1 The somethingwhatever it may beof which modern science has required the conservation corresponds to the permanent being or nature of things required by the ancients. For the Atomists it was impenetrable particles of material substance. Ancient science, having deduced the indestructible atom, thought it had arrived at the real nature of things. The variable qualities which things seem to have, but atoms have notcolors, tastes, and so forthwere disposed of as mere sensations which fall inside our organs of per- ception. They are not substantial, for they depend on us for their existence. Atoms alone are real, with the void in which they move and strike one another. The essential feature of this Atomism is that it is a materialist doctrine. By that I do not mean merely that it is an account of the nature of material substance or body. It is materialist in the sense that it declares that material substance, tangible body, is not only real but the whole of reality. Everything that exists or happens is to be explained in terms of these bodily factors. The world is resolved into an invisible game of billiards. The table is empty space. The balls are atoms; they collide and pass on their motion from one to another. That is all: nothing else is real. There are no players in this game. If three balls happen to make a cannon, that is a mere stroke of lucknecessary, not designed. The game consists entirely of flukes; and there is no controlling intelligence behind. Considered as a theory of the nature of material substance, Atomism was a brilliant hypothesis. Revived by modern science, it has led to the most important discoveries in chemistry and physics. But, as I have said, ancient Atomism went farther than this. It claimed to be an account of the whole of realitynot a mere scientific hypothesis, but a complete philosophy. As such, it should include an account of the spiritual aspect of the world, as well as of the material. But when we consider the system from that standpoint, we find that anything we can recognize as spiritual has simply disappeared. When the Atomist is asked for an account of the soul, he replies that the soul (like everything else) consists of atoms. These soul-atoms are of the same impenetrable substance as all others; only they are spherical in shape, and so can move very easily and slip in between the angular and less mobile atoms of the body. Sensation is due to atoms from outside knocking up against the soul-atoms. The variety of qualities we perceive corresponds to the variety of atomic shapes. As late as 1675, a French chemist, whose treatise remained classical for half a century, wrote: The hidden nature of a thing cannot be better explained than by attributing to its parts shapes corresponding to all the effects it produces. No one will deny that the acidity of a liquid consists in pointed particles. All experience confirms this. You have only to taste it to feel a pricking of the tongue like that caused by some material cut into very fine points. That statement might have been written by [the Atomist] Lucretius, and (so far as it goes) it is a reasonable explanation of the mechanical cause of a certain sensation. But if I turn from the mechanical cause to the sensation itself, and then to the soul which has the sensation, and also has feelings, thoughts, and desires, I am not so easily convinced that the soul itself consists of round atoms, and that nothing really happens except collisions. It is much harder to believe that a process of thought or an emotion of anger is either totally unreal or else actually consists of a number of solid particles banging together. If man had begun by studying himself, rather than external Nature, he would never have reached so fantastic a conclusion. Perhaps what I said earlier about the peculiar visual clarity of Greek mythology, may ex- plain how science came at last to ignore or deny the spiritual, as distinct from the material. If the world has a spiritual aspect, man can only give an account of it in terms of his own spirit or mind. At first he projected elements of his own personality into external things. Then the Greek imagination developed these elements into the complete human personalities of anthropomorphic gods. Sooner or later the Greek intelligence was bound to discover that such gods do not exist. Thus mythology overreached itself and discredited the very existence of a spiritual world. Science drew the conclusion, not that the spiritual world had been misconceived, but that there was no such thing: nothing was real except the tangible body composed of atoms. The result was a doctrine that philosophers call materialism, and religious people call atheism.
Ionian Science before Socrates F. M. CORNFORD From Before and After Socrates (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1932/1950), pp. 527. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.