Erasistratus on the nature of scientific inquiry
I am thankful for many things in my life and one of those is that, still in high school, I discovered not only one but two intellectual passions. One, as you know, is biology and the other is Latin and classical history. I struggled a bit in college because I felt like I was split in two, spending half of my time in classes for each, and never able to wholly invest myself in the study of either. I simply couldn’t choose and the two fields felt mutually exclusive — after all, what could be more different than analyzing ancient texts that many argue are dead in our time and working to understand concepts at the fringe of modern discovery?
But that all changed when I read Lucretius for the first time. In De Rerum Natura he explained and beautifully illustrated with words the Epicurean doctrine, bringing me to tears at times. And at the heart of that philosophy is the atom — and when I read that word (he uses “primordium,” the origin or beginning, or “seminarerum,” literally the seeds of things) my world changed. I had found an overlap — the study of classical science! While I wasn’t able to take any other classes on the topic, the idea didn’t stray far.
While Aristotle gets a lot of attention, his work is typically slated as philosophy rather than science. Not only does he have many works on natural history, but there are many other classical scientists that we only have a few scraps of, or are referenced by later authors with no source material to look back on. But many of the works of these early scientists and philosophers are gems in which we can see the reflection of the early days of modern scientific inquiry — both in the things they got right and, more frequently, the things they got wrong.
Now I’m finding that, if I decide to go back to school, this is what I want to study. I have these books — so why not start exploring the idea further on my blog? So, yes, I will. Welcome to Classical Science on Culturing Science.
I’m going to start off with a lovely quote from Erasistratus of Ceos (or Erasistratos of Keos) who wrote around 280 BCE about the nature of scientific inquiry — and it sounds more than a bit familiar. None of his writings are extant, but he was quoted by the medical researcher and philosopher Galen, who lived in the 100s CE.
Those who are completely unused to inquiry are, in their first attempts, blinded and dazed in their understanding and straightway leave off the inquiry from mental fatigue, and are no less incapable than those who enter races without being used to them. But the man who is used to inquiry tries every opening and he conducts his search and turns in every direction and so far from giving up the inquiry in the space of a day, does not cease his search throughout his life. Directing his attention to one idea after another that is germane to what is being investigated, he presses on until he arrives at his goal.
I don’t think that requires any commentary.
For this project, I will be ever indebted to the work of Georgia Irby-Massie and Paul Keyser who put together a sourcebook of Greek science. The above translation is quoted in their book from G.E.R. Lloyd’s Greek Science after Aristotle. At some point I do plan on throwing my own translations into the mix (only Latin, obviously) — get pumped!