Alexandrine school. But nothing so plainly exhibits the hesitating step of natural science among the ancients as the simple fact that 400 years after Aristotle's day—an interval equal to that between Roger Bacon and Newton—so uncritical a collector as Pliny could exist. The case is as if Herodotus and Tacitus had exchanged places.
The history of the human mind offers few more noteworthy phenomena than this. Here are nations whose poetry and sculpture still afford us the highest delight; who, in metaphysics, history, and the science of law, produced works which, both in form and in substance, constitute the models for all ages; who to this day are our instructors in oratory, the art of war, government, and jurisprudence; but who, in their knowledge of Nature, never advanced beyond the puerile stage of credulity, and in which they rested content with the broaching of futile hypotheses. Their minds, ever ready, Icarus-like, to essay flights into the region of supersensual speculation, lacked the painstaking assiduity required to ascend the difficult path of induction—the only safe path—from particular and sharply-circumscribed facts, up to general propositions, thus rising gradually and methodically from the apparently accidental to the conception of law. True, the germ of the inductive process appears in Socrates and Aristotle; still the method which in general and theoretically was recognized as correct no one knew how to apply to particular cases; and beyond this feeble beginning nothing was done by the ancients. Even when by chance they observed aright, their very first attempt at an explanation would involve them in a tangle of such absurd and ridiculous fancies that one much prefers the theory of old Pan with his train of golden-haired nymphs ruling forest and field; of Poseidon with his trident agitating and again calming the sea; of Zeus hurling his thunderbolts. The picture drawn by Prometheus Bound of his services to humanity is a true representation of ancient science, when with astronomy, arithmetic, the alphabet, breeding of animals, navigation, mining, and medicine, he directly couples as equally important gifts the interpretation of dreams, of the flight of birds, and of the signs found in the entrails of immolated animals.
In his very instructive rectorate address on "The Backwardness of the Ancients in Natural Science," Herr von Littrow deduces, from Plutarch's dialogue on "The Man in the Moon," a striking evidence of the inability of the ancients to reason scientifically. He might have quoted to the same effect Plato's "Timæus," a work abounding in intolerable absurdities; or the whole of a treatise that has come down to us bearing the name of Plutarch as its author, and entitled "Opinions of the Philosophers," of which Biot affirms that it contains the germs
- Προμηθεύς δεσμώτης, v., 442, et seq.
- See Popular Science Monthly, vol. ix., p. 438.
- Περζ τᾣν ὰρεσκοντων τὄις φιλοσὀφοις. Concerning the doubtful authorship of this work, see Monatsberichte der Berliner Akademie, 1874, p. 485.