Origins of Western Science in Eastern Mediterranean Cultures

The origins of Western science are difficult to trace. For now, it is sufficient to mention a few sources that seem to be generally recognized. Perhaps foremost among these was the Greek penchant for abstraction and generalization. The Greeks, however, were greatly influenced by their commercial and military contacts with the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations. The early Indian (Hindu) civilizations also speculated on the nature of the physical universe, but the extent of their interactions and influence on the early Greeks is not clear. These cultures had accumulated large bodies of extremely accurate astronomical data, and had developed mathematical techniques to employ these data in commerce, surveying, civil engineering, navigation, and the determination of civil and religious calendars. With a knowledge of the calendar, it is possible to determine when to plant crops, the favorable seasons for commerce and war, and when various festivals and rites should be held. But the calendar itself is determined by the configuration of the heavenly bodies. For example, in the northern hemisphere, the Sun is high and northerly in the summer, low and southerly in the winter. Ancient cultures (and some not so ancient) found great portents for the future in various "signs" or omens seen in the heavens. Sailors on the sea, when out of sight of land, are able to navigate by measurements of the location of various heavenly objects.

The ancient civilizations did not make the sharp distinctions between secular and religious affairs that are common in modern society, so they naturally found connection between all aspects of human endeavor and knowledge, mythology and religion, and astronomy, astrology, and cosmology. For Western civilization, the development of ethical monotheism by the ancient Israelites, coupled with the Greek search for a rational basis for human behavior, probably helped motivate philosophers to attempt to unify all branches of knowledge.

The Greek philosophers—Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—stressed that civilizations and nations needed to be governed wisely and according to the highest moral principles. This required an understanding and knowledge of the Good. A necessary prerequisite for understanding of the Good was an understanding of science—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and solid geometry. It was not enough to be skilled in these subjects, however, but rather it was also necessary to understand the essential nature of them, as related to the Good. This understanding could only be achieved after long and arduous study. Plato, for example, felt that one could not comprehend the essential nature of such subjects without a thorough mastery of their details and their uses.

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