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the Hellenistic Scientific Revolution?

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the Hellenistic Scientific Revolution?

Postby daivid » Wed Mar 20, 2013 7:30 pm

I recently read Lucio Rosso's The Forgotten Revolution, How Science was Born in 300BC and Why it had to be Reborn

His essential thesis is that the during the Hellenistic Era a modern view of science emerged. He very effective, for instance, demolishes the generalization that all Ancient scientists had no interest in practical applications.

I found his thesis very convincing. A lot of his evidence is however indirect - much of the writing has been lost and he resorts to later writers who did not fully understand the theories they were describing. Hence his thesis rests on his reconstruction of what those writers really said - others may have different reconstructions. Are any other academics who have tested his thesis seriously in light of the evidence?
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Re: the Hellenistic Scientific Revolution?

Postby Scribo » Wed Mar 20, 2013 8:08 pm

I've only really flicked through it myself, reception in academic reviews and so on have been mixed. I myself am somewhat sceptical, it seems to start with an assumption and work towards buttressing it with speculative reconstructions rather than actually critically examining the evidence. Worse, several seriously important studies on Greek science are missing (Fowler, Betz, Von Stez et all, not to mention ALL the work on Harmonics and Linguistics...so...). Actually the bibliography seems deliberately skewed towards older out of date works, and volume beats out quality here.

The book wishes to postulate the old myth of a Greek golden age - distinct in some way (he isn't really clear how, one suspects the old spiel about mythos and logos) from the highly scientific Western Asian cultures (which indeed significantly influenced Greece) and somehow directly touching our own. Its cute and very old school, I suspect its fine enough for the general market where it has won some supporters but I don't know I'm very wary.

Overall its more myth than history, but the fact is there aren't enough general books on the subject. Still, the author is transparent about his aims at least and occasionally seems to admit the paucity of his evidence and tenuousness of his readings and I seriously applaud that.

EDIT: Just realised, quick review aside I didn't add anything of my own points. I work very closely with Greek technical literature on poetry, philology, music and metrics etc and I definitely don't think you can get anything like a modern scientific world-view from them and this is a really anachronistic attitude. Again, this is the Victorian mythic view of the Greek process shining through. I do agree that the ideas that the ancients had no practical sense for Science is silly - just look at their city planning. The Romans are a great example. I know its oddly fashionable to think of Greeks as cultured nice guys and the Romans as barbarians but really for Science, Engineering and so on we must really turn to them. In general though I'm very much in line with the mainstream position on this: modern Science comes from the Arabs (with requisite Greek, Indic, Persian and Mesopotamian influence, ofc!) but otherwise in the ancient world we tend to look towards Mesopotamia and India.
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Re: the Hellenistic Scientific Revolution?

Postby daivid » Wed Mar 20, 2013 9:30 pm

Scribo wrote:
The book wishes to postulate the old myth of a Greek golden age - distinct in some way (he isn't really clear how, one suspects the old spiel about mythos and logos) from the highly scientific Western Asian cultures (which indeed significantly influenced Greece) and somehow directly touching our own. Its cute and very old school, I suspect its fine enough for the general market where it has won some supporters but I don't know I'm very wary.

If it is the old myth of a Greek golden age it is in a very different form. He doesn't have too high an opinion of Classical Greek scientific strivings
Scribo wrote:Overall its more myth than history, but the fact is there aren't enough general books on the subject. Still, the author is transparent about his aims at least and occasionally seems to admit the paucity of his evidence and tenuousness of his readings and I seriously applaud that.

John Grainger's The League of Aitolians reconstructs the early history of Aetolia with evidence that is far more patchy. I have yet to see his word dismissed as speculation so I do feel there is a bit of a double standard at work. At the end of the day, if aren't willing to take inferences from the evidence we end up saying we don't know anything about that world.
Scribo wrote:EDIT: Just realised, quick review aside I didn't add anything of my own points. I work very closely with Greek technical literature on poetry, philology, music and metrics etc and I definitely don't think you can get anything like a modern scientific world-view from them and this is a really anachronistic attitude. Again, this is the Victorian mythic view of the Greek process shining through. I do agree that the ideas that the ancients had no practical sense for Science is silly - just look at their city planning. The Romans are a great example. I know its oddly fashionable to think of Greeks as cultured nice guys and the Romans as barbarians but really for Science, Engineering and so on we must really turn to them. In general though I'm very much in line with the mainstream position on this: modern Science comes from the Arabs (with requisite Greek, Indic, Persian and Mesopotamian influence, ofc!) but otherwise in the ancient world we tend to look towards Mesopotamia and India.

The difference is that the Roman engineers were practical men who despised theory. For Rosso the great weakness of the Roman era was the split between theoretical philosophers who were interested in higher things and the the practical men who got there hands dirty. Rosso argues that people Archimedes bridged that divide.
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Re: the Hellenistic Scientific Revolution?

Postby Scribo » Wed Mar 20, 2013 11:34 pm

I don't think its that different, I mean the myth has always been one of either Classical or Hellenistic OR both. I'm saying that when you take a n hollistic viewpoint it doesn't seem to be that impressive.

As for reconstructions, well it depends on the level of speculation, some theorising is more tenable than others. I think in terms of methodology, the more salient criticisms made: the oddly selective bibliography and the whole mode of argumentation e.g theory first then assess facts is more problematic.

I agree that people have been too dismissive of post Classical Greek works, but this is just is still almost mythologisng.

See, I don't really see that with the Romans. I mean I think its quite cliche to see in them hard headed practical people. In order to construct what they were constructing you had to have a really good grasp of theory anyway, as well as the practical know how.
I don't think its that different, I mean the myth has always been one of either Classical or Hellenistic OR both. I'm saying that when you take a n hollistic viewpoint it doesn't seem to be that impressive.

As for reconstructions, well it depends on the level of speculation, some theorising is more tenable than others. I think in terms of methodology, the more salient criticisms made: the oddly selective bibliography and the whole mode of argumentation e.g theory first then assess facts is more problematic.

I agree that people have been too dismissive of post Classical Greek works, but this is just is still almost mythologisng.

See, I don't really see that with the Romans. I mean I think its quite cliche to see in them hard headed practical people. In order to construct what they were constructing you had to have a really good grasp of theory anyway, as well as the practical know how.

The book has its ups and downs, I do think that if it toned it down a bit and made less grand claims it would definitely be a lot better.
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Re: the Hellenistic Scientific Revolution?

Postby daivid » Fri Mar 22, 2013 8:19 pm

Scribo wrote:Worse, several seriously important studies on Greek science are missing (Fowler, Betz, Von Stez et all, not to mention ALL the work on Harmonics and Linguistics...so...). Actually the bibliography seems deliberately skewed towards older out of date works, and volume beats out quality here.
.


I confess I didn't know any of those three authors and I'm having trouble tracking them down. Can I have their names in full, please? I did find a couple of things on JSTOR by a Hans Dieter Betz but his main focus seems religion and only has a slight overlap with Rosso's area of interest ie alchemy.
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Re: the Hellenistic Scientific Revolution?

Postby Scribo » Sat Mar 23, 2013 12:07 am

Betz indeed talks about religion but also of enquiry and philosophy, a good example of how the Greek mind works. Michael Fowler is a physicist and his readings of the Greek stuff is a bit sort of non contextual but close enough and accessible. G.E.R Lloyd is basically the biggest name around in this area, enormously influential, the producer of several studies. His most famous one is something literally like "Early Greek Science from Thales to Aristotle" though he's also done a lot of comparative work on Greek and Chinese, Greek and Mesopotamian etc. Invaluable. You can't go wrong with any of his works, most are cheap and accessible apart from the hefty OUP stuff.

In general its also worth looking into works about the actual Greek mindset(s), to get away from the highly reified and oddly saccharine myth. Sorry if I sound hard on Russo, I don't mean to be btw and I understand tone is hard to convey in short writing, but there really is something about the fanciful...sort of water colour Greeks that some people go for that really annoys me....
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Re: the Hellenistic Scientific Revolution?

Postby daivid » Sat Mar 23, 2013 5:52 pm

Scribo wrote:Betz indeed talks about religion but also of enquiry and philosophy, a good example of how the Greek mind works. Michael Fowler is a physicist and his readings of the Greek stuff is a bit sort of non contextual but close enough and accessible. G.E.R Lloyd is basically the biggest name around in this area, enormously influential, the producer of several studies. <snip>.


When you wrote "Worse, several seriously important studies on Greek science are missing (Fowler, Betz, Von Stez et all, not to mention ALL the work on Harmonics and Linguistics...so...)." I assume that you are suggesting because Russo does not cite those authors we should not take him seriously (if not please say).

I have found quite a lot of stuff by Betz but none of it seems close to being relevant to Russo's theme. If Russo had attempted to deal with the views of everyone who had something to say on how the Greek Mind works the result would have extremely unfocused.

I have searched JSTOR and the Catalogue of the London Institute of Classical Studies Library and come up with nothing for Michael Fowler but I agree that on the face of it he does seem to be the sort of author Russo should have cited. But not necessarily. Russo isn't attempting an overview of Hellenistic science but to put the case for a particular point of view. He does have the obligation to honestly cover counter arguments but if Fowler's work has nothing to say either for against Russo's thesis then it would simply undermine the focus of the book to cover his views.

My searches for Von Stez drew a complete blank.

G.E.R Lloyd does indeed seem relevant and I do intend to track him down. Russo does, however, cite one of his works. Maybe there should have been more than one of Lloyd's works that he cited. I confess, not speaking a word of Italian for him to have consulted just one work by an author that writes in a (for Russo) foreign language is not as devastating criticism as perhaps it should be.
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Re: the Hellenistic Scientific Revolution?

Postby Markos » Wed Apr 03, 2013 7:00 am

The Scientific Revolution could not have taken place without a rejection, or a virtual rejection, of the view that events takes place through supernatural intervention. Science, I think, rejects this and posits that events occur through natural laws and random chance.

In Book 3 of the Iliad, the Trojan War is about to end with a negotiated peace. Menalaeus is dragging Paris by his helmet back to the Greek camp, where he will kill him and then go home with Helen and avoid all the bloodshed to come. But Homer tells us that at the last moment, Aphrodite cut the strap of the helmet (it did not just wear out and break) and covered Paris in mist (it did not just happen to be foggy that day) and returned him to the palace. Homer says that the Trojan fighters themselves would have turned Paris over to Menalaeus, but no one can find him. So the war proceeds. History turns not on random chance and natural laws but on the will of the gods.

Homer either believes this, or he is making fun of a view that is already being becoming passe. If the latter, we have to push the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution all the way back to our very earliest European source.
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Re: the Hellenistic Scientific Revolution?

Postby daivid » Wed Apr 03, 2013 9:27 am

Markos wrote:The Scientific Revolution could not have taken place without a rejection, or a virtual rejection, of the view that events takes place through supernatural intervention. Science, I think, rejects this and posits that events occur through natural laws and random chance.

<snip>
So the war proceeds. History turns not on random chance and natural laws but on the will of the gods.

Homer either believes this, or he is making fun of a view that is already being becoming passe. If the latter, we have to push the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution all the way back to our very earliest European source.

In Herodotus the will of the Gods is clearly present. For Thucydides the gods have no place in an explanation of the course of the Peloponnesian war. If you read the accounts the battle of Leuktra, it is Xenophon who is hostile to the Thebans who is most hesitant about accusing the Theban leadership of faking portents that predict a Boeotian victory. Diodorus has no hesitation in saying they faked portents but for him this is a sign of their cunning as generals.

Over time the Greeks became more skeptical about the intervention of the Gods. However, Russo is arguing that in the Hellenistic era things went much further. People like Archimedes and Euclid were developing abstract theories which then could be used to make predictions about the real world. In the Roman era things took a step backwards and skepticism was turned against science as for example Sextus Empiricus' work "Against the Mathematicians" (Russo p231-2)
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