Our modern society would have you convinced that we owe a great deal to the likes of Plato and Aristotle. School books are filled with praise for these so called “lovers of wisdom”. We are all too familiar with Plato, but how many of us are familiar with the teachings of Democritus? How many of us even know the name Aristarchus?
Before we get to know some of these lesser known giants of ancient Greece, I contend that we owe very little to Plato and his protégé, Aristotle. Plato expressed hostility to observation and experiment. He taught contempt for the real world and had disdain for the practical application of scientific knowledge. Plato’s unease with the world as revealed by our senses was to dominate and stifle western philosophy and scientific understating for almost 2,000 years.
But first, a little history…
The time: ~600 BCE, the place: The Ionian coast of ancient Greece (modern day Turkey). Perfect in its location, at the far reaches of empires, the first conflict between science and mysticism took root. It was around this time that people started to formulate ideas on evolution, atoms, and the cosmos. A strange new argument was spreading, that the universe was knowable!
No longer was sickness caused by demons or gods. The Ionians began to realize that there was order and regularity in nature, that its secrets can be uncovered. Nature was not entirely unpredictable; there were rules that even “she” had to obey. The order was called “Cosmos”. This was in stark contradiction to the idea of chaos. Here is the first conflict between science and mysticism, between nature and the gods.
There were many gods living in ancient Greece, but which one was the true god? Some Greeks knew better…Marduk or Zeus? If one was invented, why not both? Here is when the understanding of nature without the gods began…Where science was born!
Ironically, the earliest pioneers of science were merchants, artisans, and their children. We owe much to the practical people that keep society together. Plato would have these people enslaved and kept ignorant, but we’ll get to that in just a second.
Ionia was also the home of a quite different intellectual tradition, whose founder was Pythagoras, from Samos. Pythagoras believed that a mathematical harmony underlies all of nature. There were deep ironies and contradictions in his thoughts. Many Ionians believed the underlying harmony of the universe was accessible through observation, experiment, many of the methods we have today. Pythagoras and his cronies had a very different method. They believed that the laws of nature can be deduced by pure thought. They were mathematicians, but also thoroughgoing mystics.
The lore of Pythagoras was not in his mathematics, but in mysticism. Plato affirms that, above all else, Pythagoras was famous for leaving behind him a way of life. In all honesty, Pythagoras was a bit of a nut. He believed in transmigration, or the reincarnation of the soul again and again into the bodies of humans, animals, or vegetables until it became immortal. Heraclides Ponticus reports the story that Pythagoras claimed that he had lived four lives that he could remember in detail, and, according to Xenophanes, Pythagoras heard the cry of his dead friend in the bark of a dog. Aristotle described Pythagoras as a wonder-worker and somewhat of a supernatural figure, attributing to him such aspects as a golden thigh, which was a sign of divinity.
The followers of this mad man were called Pythagoreans. They were fascinated with perfect polygons, such as triangles, squares, pentagons, etc. The Pythagoreans considered that knowledge of these polygons was too dangerous for the public. Ordinary people were to be kept ignorant of this new found knowledge of numbers and their connection to nature.
The Pythagoreans loved whole numbers and taught that all other numbers can be derived from them. So a crisis ensued when it was discovered that that square root of 2 was irrational, that is, an irrational number. The square root of 2 could not be represented as the ratio of two whole numbers no matter how small or big they were.
This is what irrational originally meant, that you couldn’t write a number as a ratio. For the Pythagoreans, this was threatening. It hinted that their world view might not make sense (which is the other meaning used today of irrational.) Instead of wanting everyone to share in knowing of their discovery, the Pythagoreans suppressed the square root of 2 as many other things. The outside world was not to know.
The Pythagoreans had discovered two of the most powerful tools in science: mathematics and experiments. But instead of using their insight to advance the collective voyage of human discovery, they made a hocus pocus of a mystery cult. Science and mathematics were to be removed form the hands of merchants, artisans and the every day people of society. It was an old Pythagorean maxim that “every thing was not to be told to every body”. 
This tendency to hide the truth from fellow man found its most effective advocate in a follower of Pythagoras: Plato.
Plato preferred the perfections of these mathematical abstractions to the imperfections of every day life. He believed that ideas were far more real that the natural world [See Plato’s Forms]. He advised the astronomers not to waste their time observing the stars and planets. It was better to just think about them.
But there was much more to Plato’s ideas than these perfect abstractions. Plato was an aristocrat in every sense of the word. In his position of authority, Plato provided his contemporaries an intellectual and respectable justification for a corrupt social order.
Athens in the time of Plato and Aristotle had a vast slave population. All the great talk about Athenian democracy applied only to a privileged few. Plato and Aristotle were very comfortable in a slave society. They offered justifications for oppression, they served tyrants, and they taught the alienation of the body from the mind, a natural enough idea in a salve society.
Plato believed strongly in class division and held the idea of Democracy with much contempt. The notion that people are able to choose for themselves was a non-starter. In his Republic, book 5 and 7, the merchants, artisans, and the everyday people of society are to be kept ignorant on purpose since they had little to do with the political life of the city. The art of persuasion and philosophy was never to be shared with the likes of this class. The producer’s only political task is to obey! 
The word idiot makes its first appearance around this time. An individual who retreated from politics and public life was called idiotes — a person who lacks the knowledge and social skills that mature individuals can be expected to posses. 
Plato makes it very clear that women are inferior to men in all ways, including intellect. All poets [the equivalent of modern day artists] are to be banished from society because poetry naturally appeals to the worst parts of the soul and diverts attention from its rational state.
In fact, one quick read of Plato’s Republic and you’ll realize that it’s a recipe for fascism! His Republic is nothing more than a totalitarian state and his value system represses the individual in favor of the State.
Aristotle’s views on society were right on par with his teacher [Plato]. Aristotle teaches that wealth and honors should be bestowed to the most virtuous. Women, working men, and slaves cannot exercise real virtue, so they will receive a lesser share in the city’s wealth. That male aristocrats should rule is pretty much unquestioned by Aristotle. 
Christians would later share the same values as Plato and Aristotle. It doesn’t take a genius to see why Dante describes Plato and Aristotle as virtuous pagans in his Christian novel [see the Divine Comedy].
Did anyone stand up to Plato’s ridiculous ideas? Yes and his name was Democritus.
Because Democritus held beliefs that were unpopular with many of his more influential contemporaries such as Plato, Democritus remained a relatively obscure Greek philosopher for many centuries. Aristoxenus, a pupil of Aristotle, wrote that Plato wanted to burn all the works of Democritus but was unable to do so because the books were so popular and widely distributed. Other sources suggest that the loss of most of Democritus’ writings is evidence that Plato succeeded. In either event, Plato managed to avoid any mention of Democritus in his own writings. Certainly, Socrates’ brand of argument might not have fared well against Democritus, who was described as “the guardian of discourse, a keen witted disputant”. 
Democritus was a man of vision who, in the 5th Century BCE, developed an atomic theory that anticipated modern principles of matter and energy. He recognized the Milky Way as light from other stars, and much to Plato’s discontent, he didn’t believe in any of the gods! Democritus taught that man was responsible for his own future.
Democritus was an original thinker in ethical theory, setting high standards of personal integrity and social responsibility, without invoking supernatural sanctions. Indeed, it is probably the banishment of supernatural and non-material agencies by atomic theory that upset Plato so much and subsequently led to its neglect for over a thousand years.
Brilliant in his conceptions, so long ago and yet so close to our modern understanding of chemistry and the natural world…Democritus positively deserve first prize for the best guess in antiquity.
Another great man of science and reason who was ridiculed by the Greek establishment was Aristarchus. Also born in Samos, Aristarchus was an astronomer and mathematician who presented the first known heliocentric model of the solar system, placing the Sun, not the Earth, at the center of the known universe [and you thought it was Copernicus all this time] 
Aristarchus was accused of heresy. His ideas were rejected in favor of the geocentric theories of Plato, Aristotle and Ptolemy until they were successfully revived nearly 1800 years later by Copernicus.
In criticizing Aristarchus, the scholar Dercyllides announced that “we must assert the Earth, the Hearth of the house of the Gods, according to Plato, to remain fixed, and the planets with the whole embracing heaven to move and reject the view of those who brought to rest the things which move and set in motion the things which by their nature and position are unmoved, such a supposition being contrary to the theories of mathematicians.” 
Plato’s followers succeeded in extinguishing the light of science and experiment that had been kindled by Democritus and other Ionians. They separated thought from matter. They divorced the earth from the heavens, these divisions that were to dominate western thinking for more then 2000 years. Even as late as 1600 c.e. Kepler was still struggling to interpret the structure of the cosmos in terms of these Pythagorean shapes and platonic perfections. We are thankful that he abandoned the old ideas and stuck to observation and experimentation.
The books of the Ionian scientists are entirely lost. We will never know the extent of their true wisdom. Their views were suppressed, ridiculed and forgotten by the Platonists and by the Christians who adopted much of the philosophy of Plato.
In the recognition by Pythagoras and Plato that the cosmos is knowable, that there is a mathematical underpinning to nature, they greatly advanced the cause of science. But, in the suppression of disquieting facts, the sense that science should be kept for a small elite, the distaste for experiment, the embrace of mysticism, the easy acceptance of slave societies, their influence has significantly set back the human endeavor.
I hope that this article has help shed some light on all the hype surrounding these “great” philosophers. They were not great, but useful in creating totalitarian societies. We might as well elevate our modern day tyrants to the level of Plato and Aristotle; it would have made them very proud.
Thanks for reading,
This article is dedicated to the late, great Carl Sagan. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the world would be a better place if everyone read Carl Sagan’s works.
- A new classical dictionary of Greek and Roman biography, mythology, and geography: partly based upon the Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology, Sir William Smith, Harper & Brothers, 1851, Pg. 730
- Plato, The Republic: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html
- Plato: The Failure of Democracy: http://faculty.frostburg.edu/phil/forum/PlatoRep.htm
- Politics by Aristotle: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.html
- The Presocratic Philosophers – by G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven; The University Press, Cambridge, England, 1962. Selections from Early Greek Philosophy by Milton C. Nahm. http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/democritus.htm
- Carl Sagan – Cosmos 07, The Backbone of Night: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4704681445702433281#
- Theon of Smyrna (ed. Hiller) p. 200, 7-12. Cf. Heath, Aristarchus of Samos, p. 304
- June 19, 240 B.C.: The Earth Is Round, and It’s This Big: http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2008/06/dayintech_0619