The Hellenistic period, between the third and the second century BC, is usually thought of (or, at least this is the picture we get from school) as the time of fragmentation and cultural decline, eclipsed by the art, literature and philosophy of classical Greece. Stoic and Epicurean philosophy from that period bears less historical significance than works of Plato and Aristotle, and scientific discoveries are taken to consist of the “lone genius” of Eucild and Archimedes. Hellenistic culture and science commonly gets shoved in the confines of “Greek-Roman world”, whose prescientific character was overcome only with the advent of 17th century scientific revolution. Lucio Russo’s “The Forgotten Revolution” is a bold attempt at dispelling this myth.
The author carries out a painstaking reconstruction of the Hellenistic scientific heritage, resulting in shifting the birth of scientific methodology by 2000 years, back to the 3rd century BC, in particular to Alexandria – a thriving scientific and cultural center of that period. Explosive growth of science and technology produces manifold achievements: in mathematics (work of Euclid and Archimedes, Apollonius’ theory of conic sections), optics (advanced theory of lenses and mirror, lying at the origin of the “Archimedes burning mirrors” legend), shipwrighting, geography (the famous measurement of Earth’s meridian by Eratostenes), astronomy (heliocentrism, atempts at gravity theory), ballistics (construction of war machines), technology (production of machines and precise metal tools) and medicine (foundations of empirical medicine by Herophilos). In many of these fields, a comparable level was not achieved up to the scientific revolution, which drew heavily from newly recovered Hellenistic writings. Archimedes or Euclid were not lone geniuses, but members of a broad scientific community embracing a coherent methodology.
Particularly noteworthy is methodological self-awareness of Hellenistic thinkers. In contrast to slow, incremental and purely empirical growth of knowledge, characteristic of older civilizations like Egypt or Mesopotamia, Hellenistic thinkers intentionally employ a theoretical method based on distinction between conventional theoretical models, dealing with theorems about abstract entities, and observable phenomena, connected to the model by certain correspondence rules. For Alexandrian scientists, the possibility of describing the same physical phenomena by conflicting theories (e.g. geocentrism and heliocentrism) was clear from the start. This awareness was later lost and even Kepler conceived of the celestial spheres, introduced by Greek scientists as a purely theoretical construction whose conventional character was well acknowledged, as a material object whose thickness he tried to estimate using theological arguments. Euclidean mathematics or Herophilean medicine demonstrate a deep understanding of conventional nature of scientific definitions and terminology, an understanding that Platonic thought, bound by essentialist concept of language, could not reach for next two thousand years. Curiously, the more intensively empirical-deductive method was developed, the less acclaimed Aristotelian philosophy of nature became – a trend which was quickly reversed and dominated scientific thought up to 18th century.
The ebb of this wonderful growth of science and technology comes at the end of 2nd century BC, due to Roman conquests and political persecutions of Alexandrian scientists (of unclear origin). Scientific centers undergo a rapid decline and Greek scientists are taken as slaves. In the period of Roman Empire, Hellenistic works are rediscovered, but understanding of their methodology had long been lost – writers of that period, like Heron or Ptolemy, are mostly content with commentaries and compilations of old theories, often with only partial comprehension. The Roman culture absorbs Hellenistic practical achievements, but not their method and worldview. Many works are forgotten and other become distorted and corrupted by editors and commenters – scientific thought, lacking institutional support, withers. An acute example of how low the level of Roman theoretical thinking was is the explanation of honeycomb’s hexagonal shape – while in Hellenistic writings we encounter the concept of shape optimization, one of Roman thinkers explicates that honeycombs are hexagonal… because every edge corresponds to one of bee’s limbs.
Part of Hellenistic writings is recovered in the Middle Ages, via Arabian and Byzantine sources. Knowledge in optics and astronomy is assimilated from Hellenistic theories, often misinterpreted and corrupted – a culture contaminated by religious and Aristotelian thinking will not be able to reproduce a real scientific methodology for next few hundred years. Even figures of such accomplishment as Galileo, Kepler and Newton base their discoveries upon reading and understanding ancient writers (in particular, working on astronomy and theory of gravity), eclectically mixing it, in Kepler and Newton, with theology, metaphysics and Hermetic tradition. The interpretation that ancient Greeks “presaged” many modern discoveries, e.g. the heliocentric theory, should be reversed – it was the moderns who assimilated a 2000 years old scientific tradition. For example, Leonardo da Vinci’s “wonderful machines” were indeed a product of different epoch – inspired by reading Alexandrian engineers and scientists. The myth of modern science as a fully autonomic endeavor, created by geniuses like Galileo or Newton, is fabricated only as late as 18th century, when Enlightenment thinkers deliberately reject exegesis of old texts. The heliocentric theory now becomes “Copernican”, Voltaire assaults Hellenistic thinkers for their amorality, and Newton’s texts demonstrating his theological-metaphysical worldview are concealed from public view.
An obvious question is why such an intensive scientific and technological development, with direct economical significance, did not become a driving force for some kind of industrial revolution, which arrived only in the 18th century. Other than political reasons (Roman conquest), a vital deficiency seems to lie in lack of “critical mass” in Hellenistic world, resulting in scant demand for applied science. For example, positional digit system was known to Archimedes, but logarithmic tables, replacing geometric computations with arithmetic, were introduced only in 16th century – most likely, the amount of effort required to compile such tables could pay off only with substantial economical demand for precise calculations, absent in Hellenistic Greece. Likewise, the ancients were capable of manufacturing precise optical elements, but sources do not indicate any broader use, despite obvious applications in artisanship (spectacles can extend professional activity of an artisan by several years) – once again, an obstacle might have been the lack of critical mass that would have industrial growth profitable; also, capitalist institutions such as credit system or capital markets were alien to the Greeks.
Witnessing the history and influence of “the forgotten revolution” on modern science is undoubtedly fascinating – alas, many of author’s claims remain speculative. Many writings from the period are lost forever, other had been corrupted beyond recognition, so reconstructing Hellenistic discoveries is possible only partially – often, the author resorts to “available sources do not forbid the following interpretation…”. Sometimes, he seems to be getting carried away by his enthusiasm, claiming that Greeks seem to have developed a prototype of evolutionary theory or applauding their methodological self-awareness (e.g. claim that 19th century mathematical logic copies, to large extent, Stoic theories seems a bit risky). The analysis also lacks in more detailed explanation for the role of economical and social conditions that made the eruption of scientific development possible, although here scarcity of primary sources is an insurmountable obstacle. Regardless of that, the book is certainly worth recommending and changes the view on “orthodox” history of ideas and scientific discoveries.