Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 13.djvu/276

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III.—The Period of Speculative and Æsthetic Contemplation of Nature.

In the next place, from the nature of the country inhabited by the Hellenes, Buckle infers the symmetry of the Hellenic mind. Here, says he, for the first time the imagination was in some degree tempered and confined by the understanding, though without impairing its strength or diminishing its vitality; and, though originally the Greeks may have borrowed a good deal from the Egyptian priests, they were nevertheless the first people in history to look on Nature from anything like a scientific point of view, as distinguished from the point of view of anthropomorphism. Though still strongly tinged with anthropomorphism, this scientific contemplation of Nature had its origin in the teaching of the Ionian physical philosophers; and then, in the course of 250 years, it had attained such a height in Epicurus that in his doctrines we already find foreshadowed the law of the conservation of energy, on which the proud edifice of mathematical physics to-day rests. And though Epicurus could neither strictly formulate this law, nor illustrate it by an example, he nevertheless makes in favor of it an argument that is almost exactly the same as one made 2,000 years later by Leibnitz. Thus, then, with respect to the ultimate questions of philosophy, those ancient thinkers were, in fact, as well advanced, or rather as little advanced, as ourselves—a fact of no small importance for our theory of understanding.

When we contemplate the advances made in mathematics, astronomy, and acoustics, even by Thales and Pythagoras, it looks as though the instinct of causality had already reached maturity among the Mediterranean nations, and as though it was destined to lead men infallibly on to the latest results of scientific inquiry, as reached in our own times, and so on to domination of Nature resulting therefrom. Every one knows how different from all this the event really was.

Under the term Natural Science, we here mean not only the sum of our knowledge of Nature, organic and inorganic, its phenomena, its effects, and its laws, but also the conscious insight into the one method which aids in enlarging that sum of knowledge, and also the conscious application of this knowledge to the useful arts, to navigation, medicine, etc.—in short, the mastery and exploitation of Nature by man with a view to increasing his own power, comfort, and enjoyment.

Natural science in this sense was all unknown, we may say, to the Greeks and Romans. Those apparently so promising beginnings lacked persistent force. It is true that, during the 1,000 years which intervened between Thales and Pythagoras and the fall of the Roman Empire of the West, individual minds attained extraordinary heights. Aristotle and Archimedes must unquestionably be reckoned among the greatest teachers that have ever appeared. So, too, for some time a steady advance of science appeared to be insured by the labors of the