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A History of Science, Volume 1 by Henry Smith Williams

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interwoven with almost every thought and deed of the life of the
people. Professor Sayce assures us that the Assyrians and
Babylonians counted no fewer than three hundred spirits of
heaven, and six hundred spirits of earth. "Like the Jews of the
Talmud," he says, "they believed that the world was swarming with
noxious spirits, who produced the various diseases to which man
is liable, and might be swallowed with the food and drink which
support life." Fox Talbot was inclined to believe that exorcisms
were the exclusive means used to drive away the tormenting
spirits. This seems unlikely, considering the uniform association
of drugs with the magical practices among their people. Yet there
is certainly a strange silence of the tablets in regard to
medicine. Talbot tells us that sometimes divine images were
brought into the sick-chamber, and written texts taken from holy
books were placed on the walls and bound around the sick man's
members. If these failed, recourse was had to the influence of
the mamit, which the evil powers were unable to resist. On a
tablet, written in the Accadian language only, the Assyrian
version being taken, however, was found the following:

1. Take a white cloth. In it place the mamit,
2. in the sick man's right hand.
3. Take a black cloth,
4. wrap it around his left hand.
5. Then all the evil spirits (a long list of them is given)
6. and the sins which he has committed
7. shall quit their hold of him
8. and shall never return.

The symbolism of the black cloth in the left hand seems evident.
The dying man repents of his former evil deeds, and he puts his
trust in holiness, symbolized by the white cloth in his right
hand. Then follow some obscure lines about the spirits:

1. Their heads shall remove from his head.
2. Their heads shall let go his hands.
3. Their feet shall depart from his feet.

Which perhaps may be explained thus: we learn from another tablet
that the various classes of evil spirits troubled different parts
of the body; some injured the head, some the hands and the feet,
etc., therefore the passage before may mean "the spirits whose
power is over the hand shall loose their hands from his," etc.
"But," concludes Talbot, "I can offer no decided opinion upon
such obscure points of their superstition."[15]

In regard to evil spirits, as elsewhere, the number seven had a
peculiar significance, it being held that that number of spirits
might enter into a man together. Talbot has translated[16] a
"wild chant" which he names "The Song of the Seven Spirits."

1. There are seven! There are seven!
2. In the depths of the ocean there are seven!
3. In the heights of the heaven there are seven!
4. In the ocean stream in a palace they were born.
5. Male they are not: female they are not!
6. Wives they have not! Children are not born to them!
7. Rules they have not! Government they know not!
8. Prayers they hear not!
9. There are seven! There are seven! Twice over there are

The tablets make frequent allusion to these seven spirits. One
starts thus:

1. The god (---) shall stand by his bedside;
2. These seven evil spirits he shall root out and shall expel
them from his body,
3. and these seven shall never return to the sick man

Altogether similar are the exorcisms intended to ward off
disease. Professor Sayce has published translations of some of
these.[18] Each of these ends with the same phrase, and they
differ only in regard to the particular maladies from which
freedom is desired. One reads:

"From wasting, from want of health, from the evil spirit of the
ulcer, from the spreading quinsy of the gullet, from the violent
ulcer, from the noxious ulcer, may the king of heaven preserve,
may the king of earth preserve."

Another is phrased thus:

"From the cruel spirit of the head, from the strong spirit of the
head, from the head spirit that departs not, from the head spirit
that comes not forth, from the head spirit that will not go, from
the noxious head spirit, may the king of heaven preserve, may the
king of earth preserve."

As to omens having to do with the affairs of everyday life the
number is legion. For example, Moppert has published, in the
Journal Asiatique,[19] the translation of a tablet which contains
on its two sides several scores of birth-portents, a few of which
maybe quoted at random:

"When a woman bears a child and it has the ears of a lion, a
strong king is in the country." "When a woman bears a child and
it has a bird's beak, that country is oppressed." "When a woman
bears a child and its right hand is wanting, that country goes to
destruction." "When a woman bears a child and its feet are
wanting, the roads of the country are cut; that house is
destroyed." "When a woman bears a child and at the time of its
birth its beard is grown, floods are in the country." "When a
woman bears a child and at the time of its birth its mouth is
open and speaks, there is pestilence in the country, the Air-god
inundates the crops of the country, injury in the country is

Some of these portents, it will be observed, are not in much
danger of realization, and it is curious to surmise by what
stretch of the imagination they can have been invented. There is,
for example, on the same tablet just quoted, one reference which
assures us that "when a sheep bears a lion the forces march
multitudinously; the king has not a rival." There are other
omens, however, that are so easy of realization as to lead one to
suppose that any Babylonian who regarded all the superstitious
signs must have been in constant terror. Thus a tablet translated
by Professor Sayce[20] gives a long list of omens furnished by
dogs, in which we are assured that:

1. If a yellow dog enters into the palace, exit from that
palace will be baleful.
2. If a dog to the palace goes, and on a throne lies down, that
palace is burned.
3. if a black dog into a temple enters, the foundation of that
temple is not stable.
4. If female dogs one litter bear, destruction to the city.

It is needless to continue these citations, since they but
reiterate endlessly the same story. It is interesting to recall,
however, that the observations of animate nature, which were
doubtless superstitious in their motive, had given the
Babylonians some inklings of a knowledge of classification. Thus,
according to Menant,[21] some of the tablets from Nineveh, which
are written, as usual, in both the Sumerian and Assyrian
languages, and which, therefore, like practically all Assyrian
books, draw upon the knowledge of old Babylonia, give lists of
animals, making an attempt at classification. The dog, lion, and
wolf are placed in one category; the ox, sheep, and goat in
another; the dog family itself is divided into various races, as
the domestic dog, the coursing dog, the small dog, the dog of
Elan, etc. Similar attempts at classification of birds are found.
Thus, birds of rapid flight, sea-birds, and marsh-birds are
differentiated. Insects are classified according to habit; those
that attack plants, animals, clothing, or wood. Vegetables seem
to be classified according to their usefulness. One tablet
enumerates the uses of wood according to its adaptability for
timber-work of palaces, or construction of vessels, the making of
implements of husbandry, or even furniture. Minerals occupy a
long series in these tablets. They are classed according to their
qualities, gold and silver occupying a division apart; precious
stones forming another series. Our Babylonians, then, must be
credited with the development of a rudimentary science of natural


We have just seen that medical practice in the Babylonian world
was strangely under the cloud of superstition. But it should be
understood that our estimate, through lack of correct data,
probably does much less than justice to the attainments of the
physician of the time. As already noted, the existing tablets
chance not to throw much light on the subject. It is known,
however, that the practitioner of medicine occupied a position of
some, authority and responsibility. The proof of this is found in
the clauses relating to the legal status of the physician which
are contained in the now famous code[22] of the Babylonian King
Khamurabi, who reigned about 2300 years before our era. These
clauses, though throwing no light on the scientific attainments
of the physician of the period, are too curious to be omitted.
They are clauses 215 to 227 of the celebrated code, and are as

215. If a doctor has treated a man for a severe wound with a
lancet of bronze and has cured the man, or has opened a tumor
with a bronze lancet and has cured the man's eye, he shall
receive ten shekels of silver.

216. If it was a freedman, he shall receive five shekels of

217. If it was a man's slave, the owner of the slave shall give
the doctor two shekels of silver.

218. If a physician has treated a free-born man for a severe
wound with a lancet of bronze and has caused the man to die, or
has opened a tumor of the man with a lancet of bronze and has
destroyed his eye, his hands one shall cut off.

219. If the doctor has treated the slave of a freedman for a
severe wound with a bronze lancet and has caused him to die, he
shall give back slave for slave.

220. If he has opened his tumor with a bronze lancet and has
ruined his eye, he shall pay the half of his price in money.

221. If a doctor has cured the broken limb of a man, or has
healed his sick body, the patient shall pay the doctor five
shekels of silver.

222. If it was a freedman, he shall give three shekels of silver.

223. If it was a man's slave, the owner of the slave shall give
two shekels of silver to the doctor.

224. If the doctor of oxen and asses has treated an ox or an ass
for a grave wound and has cured it, the owner of the ox or the
ass shall give to the doctor as his pay one-sixth of a shekel of

225. If he has treated an ox or an ass for a severe wound and has
caused its death, he shall pay one-fourth of its price to the
owner of the ox or the ass.

226. If a barber-surgeon, without consent of the owner of a
slave, has branded the slave with an indelible mark, one shall
cut off the hands of that barber.

227. If any one deceive the surgeon-barber and make him brand a
slave with an indelible mark, one shall kill that man and bury
him in his house. The barber shall swear, "I did not mark him
wittingly," and he shall be guiltless.


Before turning from the Oriental world it is perhaps worth while
to attempt to estimate somewhat specifically the world-influence
of the name, Babylonian science. Perhaps we cannot better gain an
idea as to the estimate put upon that science by the classical
world than through a somewhat extended quotation from a classical
author. Diodorus Siculus, who, as already noted, lived at about
the time of Augustus, and who, therefore, scanned in perspective
the entire sweep of classical Greek history, has left us a
striking summary which is doubly valuable because of its
comparisons of Babylonian with Greek influence. Having viewed the
science of Babylonia in the light of the interpretations made
possible by the recent study of original documents, we are
prepared to draw our own conclusions from the statements of the
Greek historian. Here is his estimate in the words of the quaint
translation made by Philemon Holland in the year 1700:[23]

"They being the most ancient Babylonians, hold the same station
and dignity in the Common-wealth as the Egyptian Priests do in
Egypt: For being deputed to Divine Offices, they spend all their
Time in the study of Philosophy, and are especially famous for
the Art of Astrology. They are mightily given to Divination, and
foretel future Events, and imploy themselves either by
Purifications, Sacrifices, or other Inchantments to avert Evils,
or procure good Fortune and Success. They are skilful likewise in
the Art of Divination, by the flying of Birds, and interpreting
of Dreams and Prodigies: And are reputed as true Oracles (in
declaring what will come to pass) by their exact and diligent
viewing the Intrals of the Sacrifices. But they attain not to
this Knowledge in the same manner as the Grecians do; for the
Chaldeans learn it by Tradition from their Ancestors, the Son
from the Father, who are all in the mean time free from all other
publick Offices and Attendances; and because their Parents are
their Tutors, they both learn every thing without Envy, and rely
with more confidence upon the truth of what is taught them; and
being train'd up in this Learning, from their very Childhood,
they become most famous Philosophers, (that Age being most
capable of Learning, wherein they spend much of their time). But
the Grecians for the most part come raw to this study, unfitted
and unprepar'd, and are long before they attain to the Knowledge
of this Philosophy: And after they have spent some small time in
this Study, they are many times call'd off and forc'd to leave
it, in order to get a Livelihood and Subsistence. And although
some, few do industriously apply themselves to Philosophy, yet
for the sake of Gain, these very Men are opinionative, and ever
and anon starting new and high Points, and never fix in the steps
of their Ancestors. But the Barbarians keeping constantly close
to the same thing, attain to a perfect and distinct Knowledge in
every particular.

"But the Grecians, cunningly catching at all Opportunities of
Gain, make new Sects and Parties, and by their contrary Opinions
wrangling and quarelling concerning the chiefest Points, lead
their Scholars into a Maze; and being uncertain and doubtful what
to pitch upon for certain truth, their Minds are fluctuating and
in suspence all the days of their Lives, and unable to give a
certain assent unto any thing. For if any Man will but examine
the most eminent Sects of the Philosophers, he shall find them
much differing among themselves, and even opposing one another in
the most weighty parts of their Philosophy. But to return to the
Chaldeans, they hold that the World is eternal, which had neither
any certain Beginning, nor shall have any End; but all agree,
that all things are order'd, and this beautiful Fabrick is
supported by a Divine Providence, and that the Motions of the
Heavens are not perform'd by chance and of their own accord, but
by a certain and determinate Will and Appointment of the Gods.

"Therefore from a long observation of the Stars, and an exact
Knowledge of the motions and influences of every one of them,
wherein they excel all others, they fortel many things that are
to come to pass.

"They say that the Five Stars which some call Planets, but they
Interpreters, are most worthy of Consideration, both for their
motions and their remarkable influences, especially that which
the Grecians call Saturn. The brightest of them all, and which
often portends many and great Events, they call Sol, the other
Four they name Mars, Venus, Mercury, and Jupiter, with our own
Country Astrologers. They give the Name of Interpreters to these
Stars, because these only by a peculiar Motion do portend things
to come, and instead of Jupiters, do declare to Men before-hand
the good- will of the Gods; whereas the other Stars (not being of
the number of the Planets) have a constant ordinary motion.
Future Events (they say) are pointed at sometimes by their
Rising, and sometimes by their Setting, and at other times by
their Colour, as may be experienc'd by those that will diligently
observe it; sometimes foreshewing Hurricanes, at other times
Tempestuous Rains, and then again exceeding Droughts. By these,
they say, are often portended the appearance of Comets, Eclipses
of the Sun and Moon, Earthquakes and all other the various
Changes and remarkable effects in the Air, boding good and bad,
not only to Nations in general, but to Kings and Private Persons
in particular. Under the course of these Planets, they say are
Thirty Stars, which they call Counselling Gods, half of whom
observe what is done under the Earth, and the other half take
notice of the actions of Men upon the Earth, and what is
transacted in the Heavens. Once every Ten Days space (they say)
one of the highest Order of these Stars descends to them that are
of the lowest, like a Messenger sent from them above; and then
again another ascends from those below to them above, and that
this is their constant natural motion to continue for ever. The
chief of these Gods, they say, are Twelve in number, to each of
which they attribute a Month, and one Sign of the Twelve in the

"Through these Twelve Signs the Sun, Moon, and the other Five
Planets run their Course. The Sun in a Years time, and the Moon
in the space of a Month. To every one of the Planets they assign
their own proper Courses, which are perform'd variously in lesser
or shorter time according as their several motions are quicker or
slower. These Stars, they say, have a great influence both as to
good and bad in Mens Nativities; and from the consideration of
their several Natures, may be foreknown what will befal Men
afterwards. As they foretold things to come to other Kings
formerly, so they did to Alexander who conquer'd Darius, and to
his Successors Antigonus and Seleucus Nicator; and accordingly
things fell out as they declar'd; which we shall relate
particularly hereafter in a more convenient time. They tell
likewise private Men their Fortunes so certainly, that those who
have found the thing true by Experience, have esteem'd it a
Miracle, and above the reach of man to perform. Out of the Circle
of the Zodiack they describe Four and Twenty Stars, Twelve
towards the North Pole, and as many to the South.

"Those which we see, they assign to the living; and the other
that do not appear, they conceive are Constellations for the
Dead; and they term them Judges of all things. The Moon, they
say, is in the lowest Orb; and being therefore next to the Earth
(because she is so small), she finishes her Course in a little
time, not through the swiftness of her Motion, but the shortness
of her Sphear. In that which they affirm (that she has but a
borrow'd light, and that when she is eclips'd, it's caus'd by the
interposition of the shadow of the Earth) they agree with the

"Their Rules and Notions concerning the Eclipses of the Sun are
but weak and mean, which they dare not positively foretel, nor
fix a certain time for them. They have likewise Opinions
concerning the Earth peculiar to themselves, affirming it to
resemble a Boat, and to be hollow, to prove which, and other
things relating to the frame of the World, they abound in
Arguments; but to give a particular Account of 'em, we conceive
would be a thing foreign to our History. But this any Man may
justly and truly say, That the Chaldeans far exceed all other Men
in the Knowledge of Astrology, and have study'd it most of any
other Art or Science: But the number of years during which the
Chaldeans say, those of their Profession have given themselves to
the study of this natural Philosophy, is incredible; for when
Alexander was in Asia, they reckon'd up Four Hundred and Seventy
Thousand Years since they first began to observe the Motions of
the Stars."

Let us now supplement this estimate of Babylonian influence with
another estimate written in our own day, and quoted by one of the
most recent historians of Babylonia and Assyria.[24] The estimate
in question is that of Canon Rawlinson in his Great Oriental
Monarchies.[25] Of Babylonia he says:

"Hers was apparently the genius which excogitated an alphabet;
worked out the simpler problems of arithmetic; invented
implements for measuring the lapse of time; conceived the idea of
raising enormous structures with the poorest of all materials,
clay; discovered the art of polishing, boring, and engraving
gems; reproduced with truthfulness the outlines of human and
animal forms; attained to high perfection in textile fabrics;
studied with success the motions of the heavenly bodies;
conceived of grammar as a science; elaborated a system of law;
saw the value of an exact chronology--in almost every branch of
science made a beginning, thus rendering it comparatively easy
for other nations to proceed with the superstructure.... It was
from the East, not from Egypt, that Greece derived her
architecture, her sculpture, her science, her philosophy, her
mathematical knowledge--in a word, her intellectual life. And
Babylon was the source to which the entire stream of Eastern
civilization may be traced. It is scarcely too much to say that,
but for Babylon, real civilization might not yet have dawned upon
the earth."

Considering that a period of almost two thousand years separates
the times of writing of these two estimates, the estimates
themselves are singularly in unison. They show that the greatest
of Oriental nations has not suffered in reputation at the hands
of posterity. It is indeed almost impossible to contemplate the
monuments of Babylonian and Assyrian civilization that are now
preserved in the European and American museums without becoming
enthusiastic. That certainly was a wonderful civilization which
has left us the tablets on which are inscribed the laws of a
Khamurabi on the one hand, and the art treasures of the palace of
an Asshurbanipal on the other. Yet a candid consideration of the
scientific attainments of the Babylonians and Assyrians can
scarcely arouse us to a like enthusiasm. In considering the
subject we have seen that, so far as pure science is concerned,
the efforts of the Babylonians and Assyrians chiefly centred
about the subjects of astrology and magic. With the records of
their ghost-haunted science fresh in mind, one might be forgiven
for a momentary desire to take issue with Canon Rawlinson's
words. We are assured that the scientific attainments of Europe
are almost solely to be credited to Babylonia and not to Egypt,
but we should not forget that Plato, the greatest of the Greek
thinkers, went to Egypt and not to Babylonia to pursue his
studies when he wished to penetrate the secrets of Oriental
science and philosophy. Clearly, then, classical Greece did not
consider Babylonia as having a monopoly of scientific knowledge,
and we of to-day, when we attempt to weigh the new evidence that
has come to us in recent generations with the Babylonian records
themselves, find that some, at least, of the heritages for which
Babylonia has been praised are of more than doubtful value.
Babylonia, for example, gave us our seven-day week and our system
of computing by twelves. But surely the world could have got on
as well without that magic number seven; and after some hundreds
of generations we are coming to feel that the decimal system of
the Egyptians has advantages over the duodecimal system of the
Babylonians. Again, the Babylonians did not invent the alphabet;
they did not even accept it when all the rest of the world had
recognized its value. In grammar and arithmetic, as with
astronomy, they seemed not to have advanced greatly, if at all,
upon the Egyptians. One field in which they stand out in
startling pre- eminence is the field of astrology; but this, in
the estimate of modern thought, is the very negation of science.
Babylonia impressed her superstitions on the Western world, and
when we consider the baleful influence of these superstitions, we
may almost question whether we might not reverse Canon
Rawlinson's estimate and say that perhaps but for Babylonia real
civilization, based on the application of true science, might
have dawned upon the earth a score of centuries before it did.
Yet, after all, perhaps this estimate is unjust. Society, like an
individual organism, must creep before it can walk, and perhaps
the Babylonian experiments in astrology and magic, which European
civilization was destined to copy for some three or four thousand
years, must have been made a part of the necessary evolution of
our race in one place or in another. That thought, however, need
not blind us to the essential fact, which the historian of
science must needs admit, that for the Babylonian, despite his
boasted culture, science spelled superstition.


Before we turn specifically to the new world of the west, it
remains to take note of what may perhaps be regarded as the very
greatest achievement of ancient science. This was the analysis of
speech sounds, and the resulting development of a system of
alphabetical writing. To comprehend the series of scientific
inductions which led to this result, we must go back in
imagination and trace briefly the development of the methods of
recording thought by means of graphic symbols. In other words, we
must trace the evolution of the art of writing. In doing so we
cannot hold to national lines as we have done in the preceding
two chapters, though the efforts of the two great scientific
nations just considered will enter prominently into the story.

The familiar Greek legend assures us that a Phoenician named
Kadmus was the first to bring a knowledge of letters into Europe.
An elaboration of the story, current throughout classical times,
offered the further explanation that the Phoenicians had in turn
acquired the art of writing from the Egyptians or Babylonians.
Knowledge as to the true origin and development of the art of
writing did not extend in antiquity beyond such vagaries as
these. Nineteenth-century studies gave the first real clews to an
understanding of the subject. These studies tended to
authenticate the essential fact on which the legend of Kadmus was
founded; to the extent, at least, of making it probable that the
later Grecian alphabet was introduced from Phoenicia--though not,
of course, by any individual named Kadmus, the latter being,
indeed, a name of purely Greek origin. Further studies of the
past generation tended to corroborate the ancient belief as to
the original source of the Phoenician alphabet, but divided
scholars between two opinions: the one contending that the
Egyptian hieroglyphics were the source upon which the Phoenicians
drew; and the other contending with equal fervor that the
Babylonian wedge character must be conceded that honor.

But, as has often happened in other fields after years of
acrimonious controversy, a new discovery or two may suffice to
show that neither contestant was right. After the Egyptologists
of the school of De Rouge[1] thought they had demonstrated that
the familiar symbols of the Phoenician alphabet had been copied
from that modified form of Egyptian hieroglyphics known as the
hieratic writing, the Assyriologists came forward to prove that
certain characters of the Babylonian syllabary also show a
likeness to the alphabetical characters that seemingly could not
be due to chance. And then, when a settlement of the dispute
seemed almost hopeless, it was shown through the Egyptian
excavations that characters even more closely resembling those in
dispute had been in use all about the shores of the
Mediterranean, quite independently of either Egyptian or Assyrian
writings, from periods so ancient as to be virtually prehistoric.

Coupled with this disconcerting discovery are the revelations
brought to light by the excavations at the sites of Knossos and
other long-buried cities of the island of Crete.[2] These
excavations, which are still in progress, show that the art of
writing was known and practised independently in Crete before
that cataclysmic overthrow of the early Greek civilization which
archaeologists are accustomed to ascribe to the hypothetical
invasion of the Dorians. The significance of this is that the art
of writing was known in Europe long before the advent of the
mythical Kadmus. But since the early Cretan scripts are not to be
identified with the scripts used in Greece in historical times,
whereas the latter are undoubtedly of lineal descent from the
Phoenician alphabet, the validity of the Kadmus legend, in a
modified form, must still be admitted.

As has just been suggested, the new knowledge, particularly that
which related to the great antiquity of characters similar to the
Phoenician alphabetical signs, is somewhat disconcerting. Its
general trend, however, is quite in the same direction with most
of the new archaeological knowledge of recent decades---that is
to say, it tends to emphasize the idea that human civilization in
most of its important elaborations is vastly older than has
hitherto been supposed. It may be added, however, that no
definite clews are as yet available that enable us to fix even an
approximate date for the origin of the Phoenician alphabet. The
signs, to which reference has been made, may well have been in
existence for thousands of years, utilized merely as property
marks, symbols for counting and the like, before the idea of
setting them aside as phonetic symbols was ever conceived.
Nothing is more certain, in the judgment of the present-day
investigator, than that man learned to write by slow and painful
stages. It is probable that the conception of such an analysis of
speech sounds as would make the idea of an alphabet possible came
at a very late stage of social evolution, and as the culminating
achievement of a long series of improvements in the art of
writing. The precise steps that marked this path of intellectual
development can for the most part be known only by inference; yet
it is probable that the main chapters of the story may be
reproduced with essential accuracy.


For the very first chapters of the story we must go back in
imagination to the prehistoric period. Even barbaric man feels
the need of self-expression, and strives to make his ideas
manifest to other men by pictorial signs. The cave-dwellers
scratched pictures of men and animals on the surface of a
reindeer horn or mammoth tusk as mementos of his prowess. The
American Indian does essentially the same thing to-day, making
pictures that crudely record his successes in war and the chase.
The Northern Indian had got no farther than this when the white
man discovered America; but the Aztecs of the Southwest and the
Maya people of Yucatan had carried their picture- making to a
much higher state of elaboration.[3] They had developed systems
of pictographs or hieroglyphics that would doubtless in the
course of generations have been elaborated into alphabetical
systems, had not the Europeans cut off the civilization of which
they were the highest exponents.

What the Aztec and Maya were striving towards in the sixteenth
century A.D., various Oriental nations had attained at least five
or six thousand years earlier. In Egypt at the time of the
pyramid-builders, and in Babylonia at the same epoch, the people
had developed systems of writing that enabled them not merely to
present a limited range of ideas pictorially, but to express in
full elaboration and with finer shades of meaning all the ideas
that pertain to highly cultured existence. The man of that time
made records of military achievements, recorded the transactions
of every-day business life, and gave expression to his moral and
spiritual aspirations in a way strangely comparable to the manner
of our own time. He had perfected highly elaborate systems of


Of the two ancient systems of writing just referred to as being
in vogue at the so-called dawnings of history, the more
picturesque and suggestive was the hieroglyphic system of the
Egyptians. This is a curiously conglomerate system of writing,
made up in part of symbols reminiscent of the crudest stages of
picture-writing, in part of symbols having the phonetic value of
syllables, and in part of true alphabetical letters. In a word,
the Egyptian writing represents in itself the elements of the
various stages through which the art of writing has developed.[4]
We must conceive that new features were from time to time added
to it, while the old features, curiously enough, were not given

Here, for example, in the midst of unintelligible lines and
pot-hooks, are various pictures that are instantly recognizable
as representations of hawks, lions, ibises, and the like. It can
hardly be questioned that when these pictures were first used
calligraphically they were meant to represent the idea of a bird
or animal. In other words, the first stage of picture-writing did
not go beyond the mere representation of an eagle by the picture
of an eagle. But this, obviously, would confine the presentation
of ideas within very narrow limits. In due course some inventive
genius conceived the thought of symbolizing a picture. To him the
outline of an eagle might represent not merely an actual bird,
but the thought of strength, of courage, or of swift progress.
Such a use of symbols obviously extends the range of utility of a
nascent art of writing. Then in due course some wonderful
psychologist--or perhaps the joint efforts of many generations of
psychologists--made the astounding discovery that the human
voice, which seems to flow on in an unbroken stream of endlessly
varied modulations and intonations, may really be analyzed into a
comparatively limited number of component sounds--into a few
hundreds of syllables. That wonderful idea conceived, it was only
a matter of time until it would occur to some other enterprising
genius that by selecting an arbitrary symbol to represent each
one of these elementary sounds it would be possible to make a
written record of the words of human speech which could be
reproduced--rephonated--by some one who had never heard the words
and did not know in advance what this written record contained.
This, of course, is what every child learns to do now in the
primer class, but we may feel assured that such an idea never
occurred to any human being until the peculiar forms of
pictographic writing just referred to had been practised for many
centuries. Yet, as we have said, some genius of prehistoric Egypt
conceived the idea and put it into practical execution, and the
hieroglyphic writing of which the Egyptians were in full
possession at the very beginning of what we term the historical
period made use of this phonetic system along with the
ideographic system already described.

So fond were the Egyptians of their pictorial symbols used
ideographically that they clung to them persistently throughout
the entire period of Egyptian history. They used symbols as
phonetic equivalents very frequently, but they never learned to
depend upon them exclusively. The scribe always interspersed his
phonetic signs with some other signs intended as graphic aids.
After spelling a word out in full, he added a picture, sometimes
even two or three pictures, representative of the individual
thing, or at least of the type of thing to which the word
belongs. Two or three illustrations will make this clear.

Thus qeften, monkey, is spelled out in full, but the picture of a
monkey is added as a determinative; second, qenu, cavalry, after
being spelled, is made unequivocal by the introduction of a
picture of a horse; third, temati, wings, though spelled
elaborately, has pictures of wings added; and fourth, tatu,
quadrupeds, after being spelled, has a picture of a quadruped,
and then the picture of a hide, which is the usual determinative
of a quadruped, followed by three dashes to indicate the plural

It must not be supposed, however, that it was a mere whim which
led the Egyptians to the use of this system of determinatives.
There was sound reason back of it. It amounted to no more than
the expedient we adopt when we spell "to," "two," or "too," in
indication of a single sound with three different meanings. The
Egyptian language abounds in words having more than one meaning,
and in writing these it is obvious that some means of distinction
is desirable. The same thing occurs even more frequently in the
Chinese language, which is monosyllabic. The Chinese adopt a more
clumsy expedient, supplying a different symbol for each of the
meanings of a syllable; so that while the actual word-sounds of
their speech are only a few hundreds in number, the characters of
their written language mount high into the thousands.


While the civilization of the Nile Valley was developing this
extraordinary system of hieroglyphics, the inhabitants of
Babylonia were practising the art of writing along somewhat
different lines. It is certain that they began with
picture-making, and that in due course they advanced to the
development of the syllabary; but, unlike their Egyptian cousins,
the men of Babylonia saw fit to discard the old system when they
had perfected a better one.[5] So at a very early day their
writing--as revealed to us now through the recent
excavations--had ceased to have that pictorial aspect which
distinguishes the Egyptian script. What had originally been
pictures of objects--fish, houses, and the like--had come to be
represented by mere aggregations of wedge-shaped marks. As the
writing of the Babvlonians was chiefly inscribed on soft clay,
the adaptation of this wedge-shaped mark in lieu of an ordinary
line was probably a mere matter of convenience, since the
sharp-cornered implement used in making the inscription naturally
made a wedge-shaped impression in the clay. That, however, is a
detail. The essential thing is that the Babylonian had so fully
analyzed the speech-sounds that he felt entire confidence in
them, and having selected a sufficient number of conventional
characters--each made up of wedge-shaped lines--to represent all
the phonetic sounds of his language, spelled the words out in
syllables and to some extent dispensed with the determinative
signs which, as we have seen, played so prominent a part in the
Egyptian writing. His cousins the Assyrians used habitually a
system of writing the foundation of which was an elaborate
phonetic syllabary; a system, therefore, far removed from the old
crude pictograph, and in some respects much more developed than
the complicated Egyptian method; yet, after all, a system that
stopped short of perfection by the wide gap that separates the
syllabary from the true alphabet.

A brief analysis of speech sounds will aid us in understanding
the real nature of the syllabary. Let us take for consideration
the consonantal sound represented by the letter b. A moment's
consideration will make it clear that this sound enters into a
large number of syllables. There are, for example, at least
twenty vowel sounds in the English language, not to speak of
certain digraphs; that is to say, each of the important vowels
has from two to six sounds. Each of these vowel sounds may enter
into combination with the b sound alone to form three syllables;
as ba, ab, bal, be, eb, bel, etc. Thus there are at least sixty
b-sound syllables. But this is not the end, for other consonantal
sounds may be associated in the syllables in such combinations as
bad, bed, bar, bark, cab, etc. As each of the other twenty odd
consonantal sounds may enter into similar combinations, it is
obvious that there are several hundreds of fundamental syllables
to be taken into account in any syllabic system of writing. For
each of these syllables a symbol must be set aside and held in
reserve as the representative of that particular sound. A perfect
syllabary, then, would require some hundred or more of symbols to
represent b sounds alone; and since the sounds for c, d, f, and
the rest are equally varied, the entire syllabary would run into
thousands of characters, almost rivalling in complexity the
Chinese system. But in practice the most perfect syllabary, Such
as that of the Babylonians, fell short of this degree of
precision through ignoring the minor shades of sound; just as our
own alphabet is content to represent some thirty vowel sounds by
five letters, ignoring the fact that a, for example, has really
half a dozen distinct phonetic values. By such slurring of sounds
the syllabary is reduced far below its ideal limits; yet even so
it retains three or four hundred characters.

In point of fact, such a work as Professor Delitzsch's Assyrian
Grammar[6] presents signs for three hundred and thirty-four
syllables, together with sundry alternative signs and
determinatives to tax the memory of the would-be reader of
Assyrian. Let us take for example a few of the b sounds. It has
been explained that the basis of the Assyrian written character
is a simple wedge-shaped or arrow-head mark. Variously repeated
and grouped, these marks make up the syllabic characters.

To learn some four hundred such signs as these was the task set,
as an equivalent of learning the a b c's, to any primer class in
old Assyria in the long generations when that land was the
culture Centre of the world. Nor was the task confined to the
natives of Babylonia and Assyria alone. About the fifteenth
century B.C., and probably for a long time before and after that
period, the exceedingly complex syllabary of the Babylonians was
the official means of communication throughout western Asia and
between Asia and Egypt, as we know from the chance discovery of a
collection of letters belonging to the Egyptian king Khun-aten,
preserved at Tel-el-Amarna. In the time of Ramses the Great the
Babylonian writing was in all probability considered by a
majority of the most highly civilized people in the world to be
the most perfect script practicable. Doubtless the average scribe
of the time did not in the least realize the waste of energy
involved in his labors, or ever suspect that there could be any
better way of writing.

Yet the analysis of any one of these hundreds of syllables into
its component phonetic elements--had any one been genius enough
to make such analysis-- ould have given the key to simpler and
better things. But such an analysis was very hard to make, as the
sequel shows. Nor is the utility of such an analysis
self-evident, as the experience of the Egyptians proved. The
vowel sound is so intimately linked with the consonant--the
con-sonant, implying this intimate relation in its very
name--that it seemed extremely difficult to give it individual
recognition. To set off the mere labial beginning of the sound by
itself, and to recognize it as an all-essential element of
phonation, was the feat at which human intelligence so long
balked. The germ of great things lay in that analysis. It was a
process of simplification, and all art development is from the
complex to the simple. Unfortunately, however, it did not seem a
simplification, but rather quite the reverse. We may well suppose
that the idea of wresting from the syllabary its secret of
consonants and vowels, and giving to each consonantal sound a
distinct sign, seemed a most cumbersome and embarrassing
complication to the ancient scholars--that is to say, after the
time arrived when any one gave such an idea expression. We can
imagine them saying: "You will oblige us to use four signs
instead of one to write such an elementary syllable as 'bard,'
for example. Out upon such endless perplexity!" Nor is such a
suggestion purely gratuitous, for it is an historical fact that
the old syllabary continued to be used in Babylon hundreds of
years after the alphabetical system had been introduced.[7]
Custom is everything in establishing our prejudices. The Japanese
to-day rebel against the introduction of an alphabet, thinking it

Yet, in the end, conservatism always yields, and so it was with
opposition to the alphabet. Once the idea of the consonant had
been firmly grasped, the old syllabary was doomed, though
generations of time might be required to complete the
obsequies--generations of time and the influence of a new nation.
We have now to inquire how and by whom this advance was made.


We cannot believe that any nation could have vaulted to the final
stage of the simple alphabetical writing without tracing the
devious and difficult way of the pictograph and the syllabary. It
is possible, however, for a cultivated nation to build upon the
shoulders of its neighbors, and, profiting by the experience of
others, to make sudden leaps upward and onward. And this is
seemingly what happened in the final development of the art of
writing. For while the Babylonians and Assyrians rested content
with their elaborate syllabary, a nation on either side of them,
geographically speaking, solved the problem, which they perhaps
did not even recognize as a problem; wrested from their syllabary
its secret of consonants and vowels, and by adopting an arbitrary
sign for each consonantal sound, produced that most wonderful of
human inventions, the alphabet.

The two nations credited with this wonderful achievement are the
Phoenicians and the Persians. But it is not usually conceded that
the two are entitled to anything like equal credit. The Persians,
probably in the time of Cyrus the Great, used certain characters
of the Babylonian script for the construction of an alphabet; but
at this time the Phoenician alphabet had undoubtedly been in use
for some centuries, and it is more than probable that the Persian
borrowed his idea of an alphabet from a Phoenician source. And
that, of course, makes all the difference. Granted the idea of an
alphabet, it requires no great reach of constructive genius to
supply a set of alphabetical characters; though even here, it may
be added parenthetically, a study of the development of alphabets
will show that mankind has all along had a characteristic
propensity to copy rather than to invent.

Regarding the Persian alphabet-maker, then, as a copyist rather
than a true inventor, it remains to turn attention to the
Phoenician source whence, as is commonly believed, the original
alphabet which became "the mother of all existing alphabets" came
into being. It must be admitted at the outset that evidence for
the Phoenician origin of this alphabet is traditional rather than
demonstrative. The Phoenicians were the great traders of
antiquity; undoubtedly they were largely responsible for the
transmission of the alphabet from one part of the world to
another, once it had been invented. Too much credit cannot be
given them for this; and as the world always honors him who makes
an idea fertile rather than the originator of the idea, there can
be little injustice in continuing to speak of the Phoenicians as
the inventors of the alphabet. But the actual facts of the case
will probably never be known. For aught we know, it may have been
some dreamy-eyed Israelite, some Babylonian philosopher, some
Egyptian mystic, perhaps even some obscure Cretan, who gave to
the hard-headed Phoenician trader this conception of a
dismembered syllable with its all-essential, elemental,
wonder-working consonant. But it is futile now to attempt even to
surmise on such unfathomable details as these. Suffice it that
the analysis was made; that one sign and no more was adopted for
each consonantal sound of the Semitic tongue, and that the entire
cumbersome mechanism of the Egyptian and Babylonian writing
systems was rendered obsolescent. These systems did not yield at
once, to be sure; all human experience would have been set at
naught had they done so. They held their own, and much more than
held their own, for many centuries. After the Phoenicians as a
nation had ceased to have importance; after their original script
had been endlessly modified by many alien nations; after the
original alphabet had made the conquest of all civilized Europe
and of far outlying portions of the Orient--the Egyptian and
Babylonian scribes continued to indite their missives in the same
old pictographs and syllables.

The inventive thinker must have been struck with amazement when,
after making the fullest analysis of speech-sounds of which he
was capable, he found himself supplied with only a score or so of
symbols. Yet as regards the consonantal sounds he had exhausted
the resources of the Semitic tongue. As to vowels, he scarcely
considered them at all. It seemed to him sufficient to use one
symbol for each consonantal sound. This reduced the hitherto
complex mechanism of writing to so simple a system that the
inventor must have regarded it with sheer delight. On the other
hand, the conservative scholar doubtless thought it distinctly
ambiguous. In truth, it must be admitted that the system was
imperfect. It was a vast improvement on the old syllabary, but it
had its drawbacks. Perhaps it had been made a bit too simple;
certainly it should have had symbols for the vowel sounds as well
as for the consonants. Nevertheless, the vowel-lacking alphabet
seems to have taken the popular fancy, and to this day Semitic
people have never supplied its deficiencies save with certain
dots and points.

Peoples using the Aryan speech soon saw the defect, and the
Greeks supplied symbols for several new sounds at a very early
day.[8] But there the matter rested, and the alphabet has
remained imperfect. For the purposes of the English language
there should certainly have been added a dozen or more new
characters. It is clear, for example, that, in the interest of
explicitness, we should have a separate symbol for the vowel
sound in each of the following syllables: bar, bay, bann, ball,
to cite a single illustration.

There is, to be sure, a seemingly valid reason for not extending
our alphabet, in the fact that in multiplying syllables it would
be difficult to select characters at once easy to make and
unambiguous. Moreover, the conservatives might point out, with
telling effect, that the present alphabet has proved admirably
effective for about three thousand years. Yet the fact that our
dictionaries supply diacritical marks for some thirty vowels
sounds to indicate the pronunciation of the words of our
every-day speech, shows how we let memory and guessing do the
work that might reasonably be demanded of a really complete
alphabet. But, whatever its defects, the existing alphabet is a
marvellous piece of mechanism, the result of thousands of years
of intellectual effort. It is, perhaps without exception, the
most stupendous invention of the human intellect within
historical times--an achievement taking rank with such great
prehistoric discoveries as the use of articulate speech, the
making of a fire, and the invention of stone implements, of the
wheel and axle, and of picture-writing. It made possible for the
first time that education of the masses upon which all later
progress of civilization was so largely to depend.


Herodotus, the Father of History, tells us that once upon a
time--which time, as the modern computator shows us, was about
the year 590 B.C. --a war had risen between the Lydians and the
Medes and continued five years. "In these years the Medes often
discomfited the Lydians and the Lydians often discomfited the
Medes (and among other things they fought a battle by night); and
yet they still carried on the war with equally balanced
fortitude. In the sixth year a battle took place in which it
happened, when the fight had begun, that suddenly the day became
night. And this change of the day Thales, the Milesian, had
foretold to the Ionians, laying down as a limit this very year in
which the change took place. The Lydians, however, and the Medes,
when they saw that it had become night instead of day, ceased
from their fighting and were much more eager, both of them, that
peace should be made between them."

This memorable incident occurred while Alyattus, father of
Croesus, was king of the Lydians. The modern astronomer,
reckoning backward, estimates this eclipse as occurring probably
May 25th, 585 B.C. The date is important as fixing a mile-stone
in the chronology of ancient history, but it is doubly memorable
because it is the first recorded instance of a predicted eclipse.
Herodotus, who tells the story, was not born until about one
hundred years after the incident occurred, but time had not
dimmed the fame of the man who had performed the necromantic feat
of prophecy. Thales, the Milesian, thanks in part at least to
this accomplishment, had been known in life as first on the list
of the Seven Wise Men of Greece, and had passed into history as
the father of Greek philosophy. We may add that he had even found
wider popular fame through being named by Hippolytus, and then by
Father aesop, as the philosopher who, intent on studying the
heavens, fell into a well; "whereupon," says Hippolytus, "a
maid-servant named Thratta laughed at him and said, 'In his
search for things in the sky he does not see what is at his
feet.' "

Such citations as these serve to bring vividly to mind the fact
that we are entering a new epoch of thought. Hitherto our studies
have been impersonal. Among Egyptians and Babylonians alike we
have had to deal with classes of scientific records, but we have
scarcely come across a single name. Now, however, we shall begin
to find records of the work of individual investigators. In
general, from now on, we shall be able to trace each great idea,
if not to its originator, at least to some one man of genius who
was prominent in bringing it before the world. The first of these
vitalizers of thought, who stands out at the beginnings of Greek
history, is this same Thales, of Miletus. His is not a very
sharply defined personality as we look back upon it, and we can
by no means be certain that all the discoveries which are
ascribed to him are specifically his. Of his individuality as a
man we know very little. It is not even quite certain as to where
he was born; Miletus is usually accepted as his birthplace, but
one tradition makes him by birth a Phenician. It is not at all in
question, however, that by blood he was at least in part an
Ionian Greek. It will be recalled that in the seventh century
B.C., when Thales was born--and for a long time thereafter--the
eastern shores of the aegean Sea were quite as prominently the
centre of Greek influence as was the peninsula of Greece itself.
Not merely Thales, but his followers and disciples, Anaximander
and Anaximenes, were born there. So also was Herodotas, the
Father of History, not to extend the list. There is nothing
anomalous, then, in the fact that Thales, the father of Greek
thought, was born and passed his life on soil that was not
geographically a part of Greece; but the fact has an important
significance of another kind. Thanks to his environment, Thales
was necessarily brought more or less in contact with Oriental
ideas. There was close commercial contact between the land of his
nativity and the great Babylonian capital off to the east, as
also with Egypt. Doubtless this association was of influence in
shaping the development of Thales's mind. Indeed, it was an
accepted tradition throughout classical times that the Milesian
philosopher had travelled in Egypt, and had there gained at least
the rudiments of his knowledge of geometry. In the fullest sense,
then, Thales may be regarded as representing a link in the chain
of thought connecting the learning of the old Orient with the
nascent scholarship of the new Occident. Occupying this position,
it is fitting that the personality of Thales should partake
somewhat of mystery; that the scene may not be shifted too
suddenly from the vague, impersonal East to the individualism of

All of this, however, must not be taken as casting any doubt upon
the existence of Thales as a real person. Even the dates of his
life--640 to 546 B.C.--may be accepted as at least approximately
trustworthy; and the specific discoveries ascribed to him
illustrate equally well the stage of development of Greek
thought, whether Thales himself or one of his immediate disciples
were the discoverer. We have already mentioned the feat which was
said to have given Thales his great reputation. That Thales was
universally credited with having predicted the famous eclipse is
beyond question. That he actually did predict it in any precise
sense of the word is open to doubt. At all events, his prediction
was not based upon any such precise knowledge as that of the
modern astronomer. There is, indeed, only one way in which he
could have foretold the eclipse, and that is through knowledge of
the regular succession of preceding eclipses. But that knowledge
implies access on the part of some one to long series of records
of practical observations of the heavens. Such records, as we
have seen, existed in Egypt and even more notably in Babylonia.
That these records were the source of the information which
established the reputation of Thales is an unavoidable inference.
In other words, the magical prevision of the father of Greek
thought was but a reflex of Oriental wisdom. Nevertheless, it
sufficed to establish Thales as the father of Greek astronomy. In
point of fact, his actual astronomical attainments would appear
to have been meagre enough. There is nothing to show that he
gained an inkling of the true character of the solar system. He
did not even recognize the sphericity of the earth, but held,
still following the Oriental authorities, that the world is a
flat disk. Even his famous cosmogonic guess, according to which
water is the essence of all things and the primordial element out
of which the earth was developed, is but an elaboration of the
Babylonian conception.

When we turn to the other field of thought with which the name of
Thales is associated--namely, geometry--we again find evidence of
the Oriental influence. The science of geometry, Herodotus
assures us, was invented in Egypt. It was there an eminently
practical science, being applied, as the name literally suggests,
to the measurement of the earth's surface. Herodotus tells us
that the Egyptians were obliged to cultivate the science because
the periodical inundations washed away the boundary-lines between
their farms. The primitive geometer, then, was a surveyor. The
Egyptian records, as now revealed to us, show that the science
had not been carried far in the land of its birth. The Egyptian
geometer was able to measure irregular pieces of land only
approximately. He never fully grasped the idea of the
perpendicular as the true index of measurement for the triangle,
but based his calculations upon measurements of the actual side
of that figure. Nevertheless, he had learned to square the circle
with a close approximation to the truth, and, in general, his
measurement sufficed for all his practical needs. Just how much
of the geometrical knowledge which added to the fame of Thales
was borrowed directly from the Egyptians, and how much he
actually created we cannot be sure. Nor is the question raised in
disparagement of his genius. Receptivity is the first
prerequisite to progressive thinking, and that Thales reached out
after and imbibed portions of Oriental wisdom argues in itself
for the creative character of his genius. Whether borrower of
originator, however, Thales is credited with the expression of
the following geometrical truths:

1. That the circle is bisected by its diameter.

2. That the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are

3. That when two straight lines cut each other the vertical
opposite angles are equal.

4. That the angle in a semicircle is a right angle.

5. That one side and one acute angle of a right-angle triangle
determine the other sides of the triangle.

It was by the application of the last of these principles that
Thales is said to have performed the really notable feat of
measuring the distance of a ship from the shore, his method being
precisely the same in principle as that by which the guns are
sighted on a modern man-of-war. Another practical demonstration
which Thales was credited with making, and to which also his
geometrical studies led him, was the measurement of any tall
object, such as a pyramid or building or tree, by means of its
shadow. The method, though simple enough, was ingenious. It
consisted merely in observing the moment of the day when a
perpendicular stick casts a shadow equal to its own length.
Obviously the tree or monument would also cast a shadow equal to
its own height at the same moment. It remains then but to measure
the length of this shadow to determine the height of the object.
Such feats as this evidence the practicality of the genius of
Thales. They suggest that Greek science, guided by imagination,
was starting on the high-road of observation. We are told that
Thales conceived for the first time the geometry of lines, and
that this, indeed, constituted his real advance upon the
Egyptians. We are told also that he conceived the eclipse of the
sun as a purely natural phenomenon, and that herein lay his
advance upon the Chaldean point of view. But if this be true
Thales was greatly in advance of his time, for it will be
recalled that fully two hundred years later the Greeks under
Nicias before Syracuse were so disconcerted by the appearance of
an eclipse, which was interpreted as a direct omen and warning,
that Nicias threw away the last opportunity to rescue his army.
Thucydides, it is true, in recording this fact speaks
disparagingly of the superstitious bent of the mind of Nicias,
but Thucydides also was a man far in advance of his time.

All that we know of the psychology of Thales is summed up in the
famous maxim, "Know thyself," a maxim which, taken in connection
with the proven receptivity of the philosopher's mind, suggests
to us a marvellously rounded personality.

The disciples or successors of Thales, Anaximander and
Anaximenes, were credited with advancing knowledge through the
invention or introduction of the sundial. We may be sure,
however, that the gnomon, which is the rudimentary sundial, had
been known and used from remote periods in the Orient, and the
most that is probable is that Anaximander may have elaborated
some special design, possibly the bowl- shaped sundial, through
which the shadow of the gnomon would indicate the time. The same
philosopher is said to have made the first sketch of a
geographical map, but this again is a statement which modern
researches have shown to be fallacious, since a Babylonian
attempt at depicting the geography of the world is still
preserved to us on a clay tablet. Anaximander may, however, have
been the first Greek to make an attempt of this kind. Here again
the influence of Babylonian science upon the germinating Western
thought is suggested.

It is said that Anaximander departed from Thales's conception of
the earth, and, it may be added, from the Babylonian conception
also, in that he conceived it as a cylinder, or rather as a
truncated cone, the upper end of which is the habitable portion.
This conception is perhaps the first of these guesses through
which the Greek mind attempted to explain the apparent fixity of
the earth. To ask what supports the earth in space is most
natural, but the answer given by Anaximander, like that more
familiar Greek solution which transformed the cone, or cylinder,
into the giant Atlas, is but another illustration of that
substitution of unwarranted inference for scientific induction
which we have already so often pointed out as characteristic of
the primitive stages of thought.

Anaximander held at least one theory which, as vouched for by
various copyists and commentators, entitles him to be considered
perhaps the first teacher of the idea of organic evolution.
According to this idea, man developed from a fishlike ancestor,
"growing up as sharks do until able to help himself and then
coming forth on dry land."[1] The thought here expressed finds
its germ, perhaps, in the Babylonian conception that everything
came forth from a chaos of waters. Yet the fact that the thought
of Anaximander has come down to posterity through such various
channels suggests that the Greek thinker had got far enough away
from the Oriental conception to make his view seem to his
contemporaries a novel and individual one. Indeed, nothing we
know of the Oriental line of thought conveys any suggestion of
the idea of transformation of species, whereas that idea is
distinctly formulated in the traditional views of Anaximander.


Diogenes Laertius tells a story about a youth who, clad in a
purple toga, entered the arena at the Olympian games and asked to
compete with the other youths in boxing. He was derisively denied
admission, presumably because he was beyond the legitimate age
for juvenile contestants. Nothing daunted, the youth entered the
lists of men, and turned the laugh on his critics by coming off
victor. The youth who performed this feat was named Pythagoras.
He was the same man, if we may credit the story, who afterwards
migrated to Italy and became the founder of the famous Crotonian
School of Philosophy; the man who developed the religion of the
Orphic mysteries; who conceived the idea of the music of the
spheres; who promulgated the doctrine of metempsychosis; who
first, perhaps, of all men clearly conceived the notion that this
world on which we live is a ball which moves in space and which
may be habitable on every side.

A strange development that for a stripling pugilist. But we must
not forget that in the Greek world athletics held a peculiar
place. The chief winner of Olympian games gave his name to an
epoch (the ensuing Olympiad of four years), and was honored
almost before all others in the land. A sound mind in a sound
body was the motto of the day. To excel in feats of strength and
dexterity was an accomplishment that even a philosopher need not
scorn. It will be recalled that aeschylus distinguished himself
at the battle of Marathon; that Thucydides, the greatest of Greek
historians, was a general in the Peloponnesian War; that
Xenophon, the pupil and biographer of Socrates, was chiefly famed
for having led the Ten Thousand in the memorable campaign of
Cyrus the Younger; that Plato himself was credited with having
shown great aptitude in early life as a wrestler. If, then,
Pythagoras the philosopher was really the Pythagoras who won the
boxing contest, we may suppose that in looking back upon this
athletic feat from the heights of his priesthood--for he came to
be almost deified--he regarded it not as an indiscretion of his
youth, but as one of the greatest achievements of his life. Not
unlikely he recalled with pride that he was credited with being
no less an innovator in athletics than in philosophy. At all
events, tradition credits him with the invention of "scientific"
boxing. Was it he, perhaps, who taught the Greeks to strike a
rising and swinging blow from the hip, as depicted in the famous
metopes of the Parthenon? If so, the innovation of Pythagoras was
as little heeded in this regard in a subsequent age as was his
theory of the motion of the earth; for to strike a swinging blow
from the hip, rather than from the shoulder, is a trick which the
pugilist learned anew in our own day.

But enough of pugilism and of what, at best, is a doubtful
tradition. Our concern is with another "science" than that of the
arena. We must follow the purple-robed victor to Italy--if,
indeed, we be not over-credulous in accepting the tradition--and
learn of triumphs of a different kind that have placed the name
of Pythagoras high on the list of the fathers of Grecian thought.
To Italy? Yes, to the western limits of the Greek world. Here it
was, beyond the confines of actual Greek territory, that Hellenic
thought found its second home, its first home being, as we have
seen, in Asia Minor. Pythagoras, indeed, to whom we have just
been introduced, was born on the island of Samos, which lies near
the coast of Asia Minor, but he probably migrated at an early day
to Crotona, in Italy. There he lived, taught, and developed his
philosophy until rather late in life, when, having incurred the
displeasure of his fellow-citizens, he suffered the not unusual
penalty of banishment.

Of the three other great Italic leaders of thought of the early
period, Xenophanes came rather late in life to Elea and founded
the famous Eleatic School, of which Parmenides became the most
distinguished ornament. These two were Ionians, and they lived in
the sixth century before our era. Empedocles, the Sicilian, was
of Doric origin. He lived about the middle of the fifth century
B.C., at a time, therefore, when Athens had attained a position
of chief glory among the Greek states; but there is no evidence
that Empedocles ever visited that city, though it was rumored
that he returned to the Peloponnesus to die. The other great
Italic philosophers just named, living, as we have seen, in the
previous century, can scarcely have thought of Athens as a centre
of Greek thought. Indeed, the very fact that these men lived in
Italy made that peninsula, rather than the mother-land of Greece,
the centre of Hellenic influence. But all these men, it must
constantly be borne in mind, were Greeks by birth and language,
fully recognized as such in their own time and by posterity. Yet
the fact that they lived in a land which was at no time a part of
the geographical territory of Greece must not be forgotten. They,
or their ancestors of recent generations, had been pioneers among
those venturesome colonists who reached out into distant portions
of the world, and made homes for themselves in much the same
spirit in which colonists from Europe began to populate America
some two thousand years later. In general, colonists from the
different parts of Greece localized themselves somewhat
definitely in their new homes; yet there must naturally have been
a good deal of commingling among the various families of
pioneers, and, to a certain extent, a mingling also with the
earlier inhabitants of the country. This racial mingling,
combined with the well-known vitalizing influence of the pioneer
life, led, we may suppose, to a more rapid and more varied
development than occurred among the home-staying Greeks. In proof
of this, witness the remarkable schools of philosophy which, as
we have seen, were thus developed at the confines of the Greek
world, and which were presently to invade and, as it were, take
by storm the mother-country itself.

As to the personality of these pioneer philosophers of the West,
our knowledge is for the most part more or less traditional. What
has been said of Thales may be repeated, in the main, regarding
Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Empedocles. That they were real
persons is not at all in question, but much that is merely
traditional has come to be associated with their names.
Pythagoras was the senior, and doubtless his ideas may have
influenced the others more or less, though each is usually spoken
of as the founder of an independent school. Much confusion has
all along existed, however, as to the precise ideas which were to
be ascribed to each of the leaders. Numberless commentators,
indeed, have endeavored to pick out from among the traditions of
antiquity, aided by such fragments, of the writing of the
philosophers as have come down to us, the particular ideas that
characterized each thinker, and to weave these ideas into
systems. But such efforts, notwithstanding the mental energy that
has been expended upon them, were, of necessity, futile, since,
in the first place, the ancient philosophers themselves did not
specialize and systematize their ideas according to modern
notions, and, in the second place, the records of their
individual teachings have been too scantily preserved to serve
for the purpose of classification. It is freely admitted that
fable has woven an impenetrable mesh of contradictions about the
personalities of these ancient thinkers, and it would be folly to
hope that this same artificer had been less busy with their
beliefs and theories. When one reads that Pythagoras advocated an
exclusively vegetable diet, yet that he was the first to train
athletes on meat diet; that he sacrificed only inanimate things,
yet that he offered up a hundred oxen in honor of his great
discovery regarding the sides of a triangle, and such like
inconsistencies in the same biography, one gains a realizing
sense of the extent to which diverse traditions enter into the
story as it has come down to us. And yet we must reflect that
most men change their opinions in the course of a long lifetime,
and that the antagonistic reports may both be true.

True or false, these fables have an abiding interest, since they
prove the unique and extraordinary character of the personality
about which they are woven. The alleged witticisms of a Whistler,
in our own day, were doubtless, for the most part, quite unknown
to Whistler himself, yet they never would have been ascribed to
him were they not akin to witticisms that he did originate--were
they not, in short, typical expressions of his personality. And
so of the heroes of the past. "It is no ordinary man," said
George Henry Lewes, speaking of Pythagoras, "whom fable exalts
into the poetic region. Whenever you find romantic or miraculous
deeds attributed, be certain that the hero was great enough to
maintain the weight of the crown of this fabulous glory."[1] We
may not doubt, then, that Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Empedocles,
with whose names fable was so busy throughout antiquity, were men
of extraordinary personality. We are here chiefly concerned,
however, neither with the personality of the man nor yet with the
precise doctrines which each one of them taught. A knowledge of
the latter would be interesting were it attainable, but in the
confused state of the reports that have come down to us we cannot
hope to be able to ascribe each idea with precision to its proper
source. At best we can merely outline, even here not too
precisely, the scientific doctrines which the Italic philosophers
as a whole seem to have advocated.

First and foremost, there is the doctrine that the earth is a
sphere. Pythagoras is said to have been the first advocate of
this theory; but, unfortunately, it is reported also that
Parmenides was its author. This rivalship for the discovery of an
important truth we shall see repeated over and over in more
recent times. Could we know the whole truth, it would perhaps
appear that the idea of the sphericity of the earth was
originated long before the time of the Greek philosophers. But it
must be admitted that there is no record of any sort to give
tangible support to such an assumption. So far as we can
ascertain, no Egyptian or Babylonian astronomer ever grasped the
wonderful conception that the earth is round. That the Italic
Greeks should have conceived that idea was perhaps not so much
because they were astronomers as because they were practical
geographers and geometers. Pythagoras, as we have noted, was born
at Samos, and, therefore, made a relatively long sea voyage in
passing to Italy. Now, as every one knows, the most simple and
tangible demonstration of the convexity of the earth's surface is
furnished by observation of an approaching ship at sea. On a
clear day a keen eye may discern the mast and sails rising
gradually above the horizon, to be followed in due course by the
hull. Similarly, on approaching the shore, high objects become
visible before those that lie nearer the water. It is at least a
plausible supposition that Pythagoras may have made such
observations as these during the voyage in question, and that
therein may lie the germ of that wonderful conception of the
world as a sphere.

To what extent further proof, based on the fact that the earth's
shadow when the moon is eclipsed is always convex, may have been
known to Pythagoras we cannot say. There is no proof that any of
the Italic philosophers made extensive records of astronomical
observations as did the Egyptians and Babylonians; but we must
constantly recall that the writings of classical antiquity have
been almost altogether destroyed. The absence of astronomical
records is, therefore, no proof that such records never existed.
Pythagoras, it should be said, is reported to have travelled in
Egypt, and he must there have gained an inkling of astronomical
methods. Indeed, he speaks of himself specifically, in a letter
quoted by Diogenes, as one who is accustomed to study astronomy.
Yet a later sentence of the letter, which asserts that the
philosopher is not always occupied about speculations of his own
fancy, suggesting, as it does, the dreamer rather than the
observer, gives us probably a truer glimpse into the
philosopher's mind. There is, indeed, reason to suppose that the
doctrine of the sphericity of the earth appealed to Pythagoras
chiefly because it accorded with his conception that the sphere
is the most perfect solid, just as the circle is the most perfect
plane surface. Be that as it may, the fact remains that we have
here, as far as we can trace its origin, the first expression of
the scientific theory that the earth is round. Had the Italic
philosophers accomplished nothing more than this, their
accomplishment would none the less mark an epoch in the progress
of thought.

That Pythagoras was an observer of the heavens is further
evidenced by the statement made by Diogenes, on the authority of
Parmenides, that Pythagoras was the first person who discovered
or asserted the identity of Hesperus and Lucifer--that is to say,
of the morning and the evening star. This was really a remarkable
discovery, and one that was no doubt instrumental later on in
determining that theory of the mechanics of the heavens which we
shall see elaborated presently. To have made such a discovery
argues again for the practicality of the mind of Pythagoras. His,
indeed, would seem to have been a mind in which practical
common-sense was strangely blended with the capacity for wide and
imaginative generalization. As further evidence of his
practicality, it is asserted that he was the first person who
introduced measures and weights among the Greeks, this assertion
being made on the authority of Aristoxenus. It will be observed
that he is said to have introduced, not to have invented, weights
and measures, a statement which suggests a knowledge on the part
of the Greeks that weights and measures were previously employed
in Egypt and Babylonia.

The mind that could conceive the world as a sphere and that
interested itself in weights and measures was, obviously, a mind
of the visualizing type. It is characteristic of this type of
mind to be interested in the tangibilities of geometry, hence it
is not surprising to be told that Pythagoras "carried that
science to perfection." The most famous discovery of Pythagoras
in this field was that the square of the hypotenuse of a
right-angled triangle is equal to the squares of the other sides
of the triangle. We have already noted the fable that his
enthusiasm over this discovery led him to sacrifice a hecatomb.
Doubtless the story is apocryphal, but doubtless, also, it
expresses the truth as to the fervid joy with which the
philosopher must have contemplated the results of his creative

No line alleged to have been written by Pythagoras has come down
to us. We are told that he refrained from publishing his
doctrines, except by word of mouth. "The Lucanians and the
Peucetians, and the Messapians and the Romans," we are assured,
"flocked around him, coming with eagerness to hear his
discourses; no fewer than six hundred came to him every night;
and if any one of them had ever been permitted to see the master,
they wrote of it to their friends as if they had gained some
great advantage." Nevertheless, we are assured that until the
time of Philolaus no doctrines of Pythagoras were ever published,
to which statement it is added that "when the three celebrated
books were published, Plato wrote to have them purchased for him
for a hundred minas."[2] But if such books existed, they are lost
to the modern world, and we are obliged to accept the assertions
of relatively late writers as to the theories of the great

Perhaps we cannot do better than quote at length from an
important summary of the remaining doctrines of Pythagoras, which
Diogenes himself quoted from the work of a predecessor.[3]
Despite its somewhat inchoate character, this summary is a most
remarkable one, as a brief analysis of its contents will show. It
should be explained that Alexander (whose work is now lost) is
said to have found these dogmas set down in the commentaries of
Pythagoras. If this assertion be accepted, we are brought one
step nearer the philosopher himself. The summary is as follows:

"That the monad was the beginning of everything. From the monad
proceeds an indefinite duad, which is subordinate to the monad as
to its cause. That from the monad and the indefinite duad proceed
numbers. And from numbers signs. And from these last, lines of
which plane figures consist. And from plane figures are derived
solid bodies. And from solid bodies sensible bodies, of which
last there are four elements--fire, water, earth, and air. And
that the world, which is indued with life and intellect, and
which is of a spherical figure, having the earth, which is also
spherical, and inhabited all over in its centre,[4] results from
a combination of these elements, and derives its motion from
them; and also that there are antipodes, and that what is below,
as respects us, is above in respect of them.

"He also taught that light and darkness, and cold and heat, and
dryness and moisture, were equally divided in the world; and that
while heat was predominant it was summer; while cold had the
mastery, it was winter; when dryness prevailed, it was spring;
and when moisture preponderated, winter. And while all these
qualities were on a level, then was the loveliest season of the
year; of which the flourishing spring was the wholesome period,
and the season of autumn the most pernicious one. Of the day, he
said that the flourishing period was the morning, and the fading
one the evening; on which account that also was the least healthy

"Another of his theories was that the air around the earth was
immovable and pregnant with disease, and that everything in it
was mortal; but that the upper air was in perpetual motion, and
pure and salubrious, and that everything in that was immortal,
and on that account divine. And that the sun and the moon and the
stars were all gods; for in them the warm principle predominates
which is the cause of life. And that the moon derives its light
from the sun. And that there is a relationship between men and
the gods, because men partake of the divine principle; on which
account, also, God exercises his providence for our advantage.
Also, that Fate is the cause of the arrangement of the world both
generally and particularly. Moreover, that a ray from the sun
penetrated both the cold aether and the dense aether; and they
call the air the cold aether, and the sea and moisture they call
the dense aether. And this ray descends into the depths, and in
this way vivifies everything. And everything which partakes of
the principle of heat lives, on which account, also, plants are
animated beings; but that all living things have not necessarily
souls. And that the soul is a something tom off from the aether,
both warm and cold, from its partaking of the cold aether. And
that the soul is something different from life. Also, that it is
immortal, because that from which it has been detached is

"Also, that animals are born from one another by seeds, and that
it is impossible for there to be any spontaneous production by
the earth. And that seed is a drop from the brain which contains
in itself a warm vapor; and that when this is applied to the womb
it transmits virtue and moisture and blood from the brain, from
which flesh and sinews and bones and hair and the whole body are
produced. And from the vapor is produced the soul, and also
sensation. And that the infant first becomes a solid body at the
end of forty days; but, according to the principles of harmony,
it is not perfect till seven, or perhaps nine, or at most ten
months, and then it is brought forth. And that it contains in
itself all the principles of life, which are all connected
together, and by their union and combination form a harmonious
whole, each of them developing itself at the appointed time.

"The senses in general, and especially the sight, are a vapor of
excessive warmth, and on this account a man is said to see
through air and through water. For the hot principle is opposed
by the cold one; since, if the vapor in the eyes were cold, it
would have the same temperature as the air, and so would be
dissipated. As it is, in some passages he calls the eyes the
gates of the sun; and he speaks in a similar manner of hearing
and of the other senses.

"He also says that the soul of man is divided into three parts:
into intuition and reason and mind, and that the first and last
divisions are found also in other animals, but that the middle
one, reason, is only found in man. And that the chief abode of
the soul is in those parts of the body which are between the
heart and the brain. And that that portion of it which is in the
heart is the mind; but that deliberation and reason reside in the

Moreover, that the senses are drops from them; and that the
reasoning sense is immortal, but the others are mortal. And that
the soul is nourished by the blood; and that reasons are the
winds of the soul. That it is invisible, and so are its reasons,
since the aether itself is invisible. That the links of the soul
are the veins and the arteries and the nerves. But that when it
is vigorous, and is by itself in a quiescent state, then its
links are words and actions. That when it is cast forth upon the
earth it wanders about, resembling the body. Moreover, that
Mercury is the steward of the souls, and that on this account he
has the name of Conductor, and Commercial, and Infernal, since it
is he who conducts the souls from their bodies, and from earth
and sea; and that he conducts the pure souls to the highest
region, and that he does not allow the impure ones to approach
them, nor to come near one another, but commits them to be bound
in indissoluble fetters by the Furies. The Pythagoreans also
assert that the whole air is full of souls, and that these are
those which are accounted daemons and heroes. Also, that it is by
them that dreams are sent among men, and also the tokens of
disease and health; these last, too, being sent not only to men,
but to sheep also, and other cattle. Also that it is they who are
concerned with purifications and expiations and all kinds of
divination and oracular predictions, and things of that kind."[5]

A brief consideration of this summary of the doctrines of
Pythagoras will show that it at least outlines a most
extraordinary variety of scientific ideas. (1) There is suggested
a theory of monads and the conception of the development from
simple to more complex bodies, passing through the stages of
lines, plain figures, and solids to sensible bodies. (2) The
doctrine of the four elements--fire, water, earth, and air--as
the basis of all organisms is put forward. (3) The idea, not
merely of the sphericity of the earth, but an explicit conception
of the antipodes, is expressed. (4) A conception of the sanitary
influence of the air is clearly expressed. (5) An idea of the
problems of generation and heredity is shown, together with a
distinct disavowal of the doctrine of spontaneous generation-- a
doctrine which, it may be added, remained in vogue, nevertheless,
for some twenty-four hundred years after the time of Pythagoras.
(6) A remarkable analysis of mind is made, and a distinction
between animal minds and the human mind is based on this
analysis. The physiological doctrine that the heart is the organ
of one department of mind is offset by the clear statement that
the remaining factors of mind reside in the brain. This early
recognition of brain as the organ of mind must not be forgotten
in our later studies. It should be recalled, however, that a
Crotonian physician, Alemaean, a younger contemporary of
Pythagoras, is also credited with the same theory. (7) A
knowledge of anatomy is at least vaguely foreshadowed in the
assertion that veins, arteries, and nerves are the links of the
soul. In this connection it should be recalled that Pythagoras
was a practical physician.

As against these scientific doctrines, however, some of them
being at least remarkable guesses at the truth, attention must be
called to the concluding paragraph of our quotation, in which the
old familiar daemonology is outlined, quite after the Oriental
fashion. We shall have occasion to say more as to this phase of
the subject later on. Meantime, before leaving Pythagoras, let us
note that his practical studies of humanity led him to assert the
doctrine that "the property of friends is common, and that
friendship is equality." His disciples, we are told, used to put
all their possessions together in one store and use them in
common. Here, then, seemingly, is the doctrine of communism put
to the test of experiment at this early day. If it seem that
reference to this carries us beyond the bounds of science, it may
be replied that questions such as this will not lie beyond the
bounds of the science of the near future.


There is a whimsical tale about Pythagoras, according to which
the philosopher was wont to declare that in an earlier state he
had visited Hades, and had there seen Homer and Hesiod tortured
because of the absurd things they had said about the gods.
Apocrypbal or otherwise, the tale suggests that Pythagoras was an
agnostic as regards the current Greek religion of his time. The
same thing is perhaps true of most of the great thinkers of this
earliest period. But one among them was remembered in later times
as having had a peculiar aversion to the anthropomorphic
conceptions of his fellows. This was Xenophanes, who was born at
Colophon probably about the year 580 B.C., and who, after a life
of wandering, settled finally in Italy and became the founder of
the so-called Eleatic School.

A few fragments of the philosophical poem in which Xenophanes
expressed his views have come down to us, and these fragments
include a tolerably definite avowal of his faith. "God is one
supreme among gods and men, and not like mortals in body or in
mind," says Xenophanes. Again he asserts that "mortals suppose
that the gods are born (as they themselves are), that they wear
man's clothing and have human voice and body; but," he continues,
"if cattle or lions had hands so as to paint with their hands and
produce works of art as men do, they would paint their gods and
give them bodies in form like their own--horses like horses,
cattle like cattle." Elsewhere he says, with great acumen: "There
has not been a man, nor will there be, who knows distinctly what
I say about the gods or in regard to all things. For even if one
chance for the most part to say what is true, still he would not
know; but every one thinks that he knows."[6]

In the same spirit Xenophanes speaks of the battles of Titans, of
giants, and of centaurs as "fictions of former ages." All this
tells of the questioning spirit which distinguishes the
scientific investigator. Precisely whither this spirit led him we
do not know, but the writers of a later time have preserved a
tradition regarding a belief of Xenophanes that perhaps entitles
him to be considered the father of geology. Thus Hippolytus
records that Xenophanes studied the fossils to be found in
quarries, and drew from their observation remarkable conclusions.
His words are as follows: "Xenophanes believes that once the
earth was mingled with the sea, but in the course of time it
became freed from moisture; and his proofs are such as these:
that shells are found in the midst of the land and among the
mountains, that in the quarries of Syracuse the imprints of a
fish and of seals had been found, and in Paros the imprint of an
anchovy at some depth in the stone, and in Melite shallow
impressions of all sorts of sea products. He says that these
imprints were made when everything long ago was covered with mud,
and then the imprint dried in the mud. Further, he says that all
men will be destroyed when the earth sinks into the sea and
becomes mud, and that the race will begin anew from the
beginning; and this transformation takes place for all
worlds."[7] Here, then, we see this earliest of paleontologists
studying the fossil-bearing strata of the earth, and drawing from
his observations a marvellously scientific induction. Almost two
thousand years later another famous citizen of Italy, Leonardo da
Vinci, was independently to think out similar conclusions from
like observations. But not until the nineteenth century of our
era, some twenty-four hundred years after the time of Xenophanes,
was the old Greek's doctrine to be accepted by the scientific
world. The ideas of Xenophanes were known to his contemporaries
and, as we see, quoted for a few centuries by his successors,
then they were ignored or quite forgotten; and if any philosopher
of an ensuing age before the time of Leonardo championed a like
rational explanation of the fossils, we have no record of the
fact. The geological doctrine of Xenophanes, then, must be listed
among those remarkable Greek anticipations of nineteenth -century
science which suffered almost total eclipse in the intervening

Among the pupils of Xenophanes was Parmenides, the thinker who
was destined to carry on the work of his master along the same
scientific lines, though at the same time mingling his scientific
conceptions with the mysticism of the poet. We have already had
occasion to mention that Parmenides championed the idea that the
earth is round; noting also that doubts exist as to whether he or
Pythagoras originated this doctrine. No explicit answer to this
question can possibly be hoped for. It seems clear, however, that
for a long time the Italic School, to which both these
philosophers belonged, had a monopoly of the belief in question.
Parmenides, like Pythagoras, is credited with having believed in
the motion of the earth, though the evidence furnished by the
writings of the philosopher himself is not as demonstrative as
one could wish. Unfortunately, the copyists of a later age were
more concerned with metaphysical speculations than with more
tangible things. But as far as the fragmentary references to the
ideas of Parmenides may be accepted, they do not support the idea
of the earth's motion. Indeed, Parmenides is made to say
explicitly, in preserved fragments, that "the world is immovable,
limited, and spheroidal in form."[8]

Nevertheless, some modern interpreters have found an opposite
meaning in Parmenides. Thus Ritter interprets him as supposing
"that the earth is in the centre spherical, and maintained in
rotary motion by its equiponderance; around it lie certain rings,
the highest composed of the rare element fire, the next lower a
compound of light and darkness, and lowest of all one wholly of
night, which probably indicated to his mind the surface of the
earth, the centre of which again he probably considered to be
fire."[9] But this, like too many interpretations of ancient
thought, appears to read into the fragments ideas which the words
themselves do not warrant. There seems no reason to doubt,
however, that Parmenides actually held the doctrine of the
earth's sphericity. Another glimpse of his astronomical doctrines
is furnished us by a fragment which tells us that he conceived
the morning and the evening stars to be the same, a doctrine
which, as we have seen, was ascribed also to Pythagoras. Indeed,
we may repeat that it is quite impossible to distinguish between
the astronomical doctrines of these two philosophers.

The poem of Parmenides in which the cosmogonic speculations occur
treats also of the origin of man. The author seems to have had a
clear conception that intelligence depends on bodily organism,
and that the more elaborately developed the organism the higher
the intelligence. But in the interpretation of this thought we
are hampered by the characteristic vagueness of expression, which
may best be evidenced by putting before the reader two English
translations of the same stanza. Here is Ritter's rendering, as
made into English by his translator, Morrison:

"For exactly as each has the state of his limbs many-jointed,
So invariably stands it with men in their mind and their
reason; For the system of limbs is that which thinketh in
mankind Alike in all and in each: for thought is the

The same stanza is given thus by George Henry Lewes:

"Such as to each man is the nature of his many-jointed limbs,
Such also is the intelligence of each man; for it is The nature
of limbs (organization) which thinketh in men, Both in one and
in all; for the highest degree of organization gives the
highest degree of thought."[11]

Here it will be observed that there is virtual agreement between
the translators except as to the last clause, but that clause is
most essential. The Greek phrase is .
Ritter, it will be observed, renders this, "for thought is the
fulness." Lewes paraphrases it, "for the highest degree of
organization gives the highest degree of thought." The difference
is intentional, since Lewes himself criticises the translation of
Ritter. Ritter's translation is certainly the more literal, but
the fact that such diversity is possible suggests one of the
chief elements of uncertainty that hamper our interpretation of
the thought of antiquity. Unfortunately, the mind of the
commentator has usually been directed towards such subtleties,
rather than towards the expression of precise knowledge. Hence it
is that the philosophers of Greece are usually thought of as mere
dreamers, and that their true status as scientific discoverers is
so often overlooked. With these intangibilities we have no
present concern beyond this bare mention; for us it suffices to
gain as clear an idea as we may of the really scientific
conceptions of these thinkers, leaving the subtleties of their
deductive reasoning for the most part untouched.


The latest of the important pre-Socratic philosophers of the
Italic school was Empedocles, who was born about 494 B.C. and
lived to the age of sixty. These dates make Empedocles strictly
contemporary with Anaxagoras, a fact which we shall do well to
bear in mind when we come to consider the latter's philosophy in
the succeeding chapter. Like Pythagoras, Empedocles is an
imposing figure. Indeed, there is much of similarity between the
personalities, as between the doctrines, of the two men.
Empedocles, like Pythagoras, was a physician; like him also he
was the founder of a cult. As statesman, prophet, physicist,
physician, reformer, and poet he showed a versatility that,
coupled with profundity, marks the highest genius. In point of
versatility we shall perhaps hardly find his equal at a later
day--unless, indeed, an exception be made of Eratosthenes. The
myths that have grown about the name of Empedocles show that he
was a remarkable personality. He is said to have been an
awe-inspiring figure, clothing himself in Oriental splendor and
moving among mankind as a superior being. Tradition has it that
he threw himself into the crater of a volcano that his otherwise
unexplained disappearance might lead his disciples to believe
that he had been miraculously translated; but tradition goes on
to say that one of the brazen slippers of the philosopher was
thrown up by the volcano, thus revealing his subterfuge. Another
tradition of far more credible aspect asserts that Empedocles
retreated from Italy, returning to the home of his fathers in
Peloponnesus to die there obscurely. It seems odd that the facts
regarding the death of so great a man, at so comparatively late a
period, should be obscure; but this, perhaps, is in keeping with
the personality of the man himself. His disciples would hesitate
to ascribe a merely natural death to so inspired a prophet.

Empedocles appears to have been at once an observer and a
dreamer. He is credited with noting that the pressure of air will
sustain the weight of water in an inverted tube; with divining,
without the possibility of proof, that light has actual motion in
space; and with asserting that centrifugal motion must keep the
heavens from falling. He is credited with a great sanitary feat
in the draining of a marsh, and his knowledge of medicine was
held to be supernatural. Fortunately, some fragments of the
writings of Empedocles have come down to us, enabling us to judge
at first hand as to part of his doctrines; while still more is
known through the references made to him by Plato, Aristotle, and
other commentators. Empedocles was a poet whose verses stood the
test of criticism. In this regard he is in a like position with
Parmenides; but in neither case are the preserved fragments
sufficient to enable us fully to estimate their author's
scientific attainments. Philosophical writings are obscure enough
at the best, and they perforce become doubly so when expressed in
verse. Yet there are certain passages of Empedocles that are
unequivocal and full of interest. Perhaps the most important
conception which the works of Empedocles reveal to us is the
denial of anthropomorphism as applied to deity. We have seen how
early the anthropomorphic conception was developed and how
closely it was all along clung to; to shake the mind free from it
then was a remarkable feat, in accomplishing which Empedocles
took a long step in the direction of rationalism. His conception
is paralleled by that of another physician, Alcmaeon, of Proton,
who contended that man's ideas of the gods amounted to mere
suppositions at the very most. A rationalistic or sceptical
tendency has been the accompaniment of medical training in all

The words in which Empedocles expresses his conception of deity
have been preserved and are well worth quoting: "It is not
impossible," he says, "to draw near (to god) even with the eyes
or to take hold of him with our hands, which in truth is the best
highway of persuasion in the mind of man; for he has no human
head fitted to a body, nor do two shoots branch out from the
trunk, nor has he feet, nor swift legs, nor hairy parts, but he
is sacred and ineffable mind alone, darting through the whole
world with swift thoughts."[8]

How far Empedocles carried his denial of anthropomorphism is
illustrated by a reference of Aristotle, who asserts "that
Empedocles regards god as most lacking in the power of
perception; for he alone does not know one of the elements,
Strife (hence), of perishable things." It is difficult to avoid
the feeling that Empedocles here approaches the modern
philosophical conception that God, however postulated as
immutable, must also be postulated as unconscious, since
intelligence, as we know it, is dependent upon the transmutations
of matter. But to urge this thought would be to yield to that
philosophizing tendency which has been the bane of interpretation
as applied to the ancient thinkers.

Considering for a moment the more tangible accomplishments of
Empedocles, we find it alleged that one of his "miracles"
consisted of the preservation of a dead body without putrefaction
for some weeks after death. We may assume from this that he had
gained in some way a knowledge of embalming. As he was
notoriously fond of experiment, and as the body in question
(assuming for the moment the authenticity of the legend) must
have been preserved without disfigurement, it is conceivable even
that he had hit upon the idea of injecting the arteries. This, of
course, is pure conjecture; yet it finds a certain warrant, both
in the fact that the words of Pythagoras lead us to believe that
the arteries were known and studied, and in the fact that
Empedocles' own words reveal him also as a student of the
vascular system. Thus Plutarch cites Empedocles as believing
"that the ruling part is not in the head or in the breast, but in
the blood; wherefore in whatever part of the body the more of
this is spread in that part men excel."[13] And Empedocles' own
words, as preserved by Stobaeus, assert "(the heart) lies in seas
of blood which dart in opposite directions, and there most of all
intelligence centres for men; for blood about the heart is
intelligence in the case of man." All this implies a really
remarkable appreciation of the dependence of vital activities
upon the blood.

This correct physiological conception, however, was by no means
the most remarkable of the ideas to which Empedoeles was led by
his anatomical studies. His greatest accomplishment was to have
conceived and clearly expressed an idea which the modern
evolutionist connotes when he speaks of homologous parts--an idea
which found a famous modern expositor in Goethe, as we shall see
when we come to deal with eighteenth-century science. Empedocles
expresses the idea in these words: "Hair, and leaves, and thick
feathers of birds, are the same thing in origin, and reptile
scales too on strong limbs. But on hedgehogs sharp-pointed hair
bristles on their backs."[14] That the idea of transmutation of
parts, as well as of mere homology, was in mind is evidenced by a
very remarkable sentence in which Aristotle asserts, "Empedocles
says that fingernails rise from sinew from hardening." Nor is
this quite all, for surely we find the germ of the Lamarckian
conception of evolution through the transmission of acquired
characters in the assertion that "many characteristics appear in
animals because it happened to be thus in their birth, as that
they have such a spine because they happen to be descended from
one that bent itself backward."[15] Aristotle, in quoting this
remark, asserts, with the dogmatism which characterizes the
philosophical commentators of every age, that "Empedocles is
wrong," in making this assertion; but Lamarck, who lived
twenty-three hundred years after Empedocles, is famous in the
history of the doctrine of evolution for elaborating this very

It is fair to add, however, that the dreamings of Empedocles
regarding the origin of living organisms led him to some
conceptions that were much less luminous. On occasion, Empedocles
the poet got the better of Empedocles the scientist, and we are
presented with a conception of creation as grotesque as that
which delighted the readers of Paradise Lost at a later day.
Empedocles assures us that "many heads grow up without necks, and
arms were wandering about, necks bereft of shoulders, and eyes
roamed about alone with no foreheads."[16] This chaotic
condition, so the poet dreamed, led to the union of many
incongruous parts, producing "creatures with double faces,
offspring of oxen with human faces, and children of men with oxen
heads." But out of this chaos came, finally, we are led to infer,
a harmonious aggregation of parts, producing ultimately the
perfected organisms that we see. Unfortunately the preserved
portions of the writings of Empedocles do not enlighten us as to
the precise way in which final evolution was supposed to be
effected; although the idea of endless experimentation until
natural selection resulted in survival of the fittest seems not
far afield from certain of the poetical assertions. Thus: "As
divinity was mingled yet more with divinity, these things (the
various members) kept coming together in whatever way each might
chance." Again: "At one time all the limbs which form the body
united into one by love grew vigorously in the prime of life; but
yet at another time, separated by evil Strife, they wander each
in different directions along the breakers of the sea of life.
Just so is it with plants, and with fishes dwelling in watery
halls, and beasts whose lair is in the mountains, and birds borne
on wings."[17]

All this is poetry rather than science, yet such imaginings could
come only to one who was groping towards what we moderns should
term an evolutionary conception of the origins of organic life;
and however grotesque some of these expressions may appear, it
must be admitted that the morphological ideas of Empedocles, as
above quoted, give the Sicilian philosopher a secure place among
the anticipators of the modern evolutionist.


We have travelled rather far in our study of Greek science, and
yet we have not until now come to Greece itself. And even now,
the men whose names we are to consider were, for the most part,
born in out- lying portions of the empire; they differed from the
others we have considered only in the fact that they were drawn
presently to the capital. The change is due to a most interesting
sequence of historical events. In the day when Thales and his
immediate successors taught in Miletus, when the great men of the
Italic school were in their prime, there was no single undisputed
Centre of Greek influence. The Greeks were a disorganized company
of petty nations, welded together chiefly by unity of speech; but
now, early in the fifth century B.C., occurred that famous attack
upon the Western world by the Persians under Darius and his son
and successor Xerxes. A few months of battling determined the
fate of the Western world. The Orientals were hurled back; the
glorious memories of Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea stimulated
the patriotism and enthusiasm of all children of the Greek race.
The Greeks, for the first time, occupied the centre of the
historical stage; for the brief interval of about half a century
the different Grecian principalities lived together in relative
harmony. One city was recognized as the metropolis of the loosely
bound empire; one city became the home of culture and the Mecca
towards which all eyes turned; that city, of course, was Athens.
For a brief time all roads led to Athens, as, at a later date,
they all led to Rome. The waterways which alone bound the widely
scattered parts of Hellas into a united whole led out from Athens
and back to Athens, as the spokes of a wheel to its hub. Athens
was the commercial centre, and, largely for that reason, it
became the centre of culture and intellectual influence also. The
wise men from the colonies visited the metropolis, and the wise
Athenians went out to the colonies. Whoever aspired to become a
leader in politics, in art, in literature, or in philosophy, made
his way to the capital, and so, with almost bewildering
suddenness, there blossomed the civilization of the age of
Pericles; the civilization which produced aeschylus, Sophocles,
Euripides, Herodotus, and Thucydides; the civilization which made
possible the building of the Parthenon.


Sometime during the early part of this golden age there came to
Athens a middle-aged man from Clazomenae, who, from our present
stand-point, was a more interesting personality than perhaps any
other in the great galaxy of remarkable men assembled there. The
name of this new-comer was Anaxagoras. It was said in after-time,
we know not with what degree of truth, that he had been a pupil
of Anaximenes. If so, he was a pupil who departed far from the
teachings of his master. What we know for certain is that
Anaxagoras was a truly original thinker, and that he became a

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