By Georgia Mystrioti |
In this day and age, technological progress and the sciences have reached levels previously thought impossible. However, it can be easy to forget the important role Classics have played behind the scenes, especially in the midst of the heated debate between classicists and non-classicists about the importance of Classics for the progress of humanity. For example, many students who want to follow Classical studies can be zealous about them to the point of considering other sciences as ‘inferior’. On the other hand, many students interested in the more modern sciences may tend to dismiss Classics as ‘useless’ and ‘outdated’. Sadly, this polarising attitude seems to be prevalent in the Greek educational system, reflected in the recent reduction of Latin courses and Thucydides’ ‘Epitaph’ being ousted from the school curriculum. The fact is that Classics helped inspire the advancement of the positive sciences such as Mathematics, Psychology, Natural Sciences, Geography, Medicine and Technology. The roots of chemical and medical sciences can be traced back to the preoccupation of the Ancients regarding herbs and their powerful properties, while the Antikythera mechanism and mythological figures such as Talos and Hephaestus foreshadow the fascination about the workings of the artificial world and engineering.
Pre-Socratic philosophers were fascinated with the Cosmos and sought to gain an understanding of it. One of them, Democritus, proposed his atomic theory which had a significant impact on science, even though it has been put to controversial use. (i.e. atomic bombs). Their thirst for knowledge led them to travel widely and write about their experiences, influencing Herodotus, Pausanias, Strabo and Diodorus Siculus in exploring the myths, history and geography of the places they travelled to.
Another pre-Socratic philosopher, Thales of Miletus influenced Pythagoras, who placed numbers at the forefront of his theory. He was mainly interested in the Decad, which possibly influenced the current Metric system. Every number from one (which was considered the ‘absolute’) to ten was regarded as a god. He used them in order to make sense of the cosmos, thus combining philosophy with mathematics. Of course, those numerical values went on to become the basis for many sciences, music being one of the first to use them in order to signify harmonia.
Pythagoras left his mark on Plato’s theory. Plato focused on education in his Republic and the importance of music for the morals instilled in the youth. Aristotle, despite spending years in Plato’s Academy, disagreed with many of his teachings and went on to explore the natural world along with politics and ethics. This exploration was pivotal for setting the basis for many branches of science, going as far as setting the basis for psychology with his treatises about dreams and establishing his geocentric theory which resulted in Aristarchus’ of Samos heliocentric one falling out of favour at least until Copernicus and Galileo proposed their own theories. Euclid of Alexandria established a system of theorems which constitute the Euclidean geometry and Archimedes showcased the importance of mathematics by not only managing to accurately calculate pi, but also by conceiving machines for defence against the Romans. Unfortunately, the Romans eventually killed him.
As for medicine, there are interesting mythological examples in Classical Antiquity, such as Chiron, who taught the science of healing to Achilles and Asclepius. The rod of Asclepius is still used as a symbol in many pharmacies and medical institutions around the world. There is also an Athenian hospital named Asclepeion. Apart from the mythological sphere, medicine has its basis on Hippocrates, evident by the Hippocratic Oath, which is recited by the graduating doctors to this day. Galen popularized the theory of humours, which was accredited to Hippocrates, (black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm) in medicine, which became the basis of Western Medicine for many centuries, until developments in medical research led to the theory being cast aside.
The influences of Classics in the modern world would not have been possible without the heightened interest in the Ancient Studies during the Renaissance, as they became increasingly popular and left their mark in scientific achievements. During this time, many texts, especially from the Roman years, came to light showing interesting efforts in passing knowledge about many sciences, such as Manilius’ didactic epic poem Astronomica, Columella’s De Re Rustica and Vitruvius’ De Architectura.
The aforementioned examples merely demonstrate a few of the cases in which Classics left their mark on the modern technological and scientifically advanced world. Classics and modern sciences have a lot to offer to each other instead of being separated, tucked into ‘boxes’. In fact, the findings in modern sciences can give new breath to the scholarship of Classics and vice versa.
Georgia Mystrioti is an MA student in Classics, majoring in Ancient Greek Literature at the University of Athens. Her research interests are mostly centered around the reception of Classics in Modern times, especially in philosophy and music, and the interdisciplinary dialogue between Classics and other sciences, such as psychology and mathematics. Her MA thesis is about prophetic dreams in Homer, lyric poetry and tragedy.
(both pictures © wikipedia)