Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Suckled in a creed outworn

Sitting on the beach over the winter with my pal Dwight, we kept track of the Moon, Sun and tides. He's insatiably curious. I showed him -- with diagrams in the sand -- how the Alexandrians of the 3rd centiry B.C.E. determined the sizes and distances of the Sun and Moon. It's a fabulous story, which I told in Walking Zero: Discovering of Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian.

It is almost a cliche to say that Western civilization was created by the Greeks. Our government, law, art, music, architecture, literature, drama, historiography, science, and mathematics are largely Greek inventions. We could be dropped into a Greek city state of the 4th century B.C.E. and feel pretty much at home. Only the institution of slavery and the absence of modern technology would seem alien.

Beginning about 600 B.C.E., the Greeks embarked upon an astonishing period of creativity characterized, in the words of classical scholar E. R. Dodds, by a "progressive replacement of the mythological by rational thinking." From the founding of the Lyceum about 335 B.C.E. to the end of the 3rd century B.C.E., Greek science was transformed from "an untidy jumble of isolated observations mixed with a priori guesses into a system of methodical disciplines." All of this culminated in Alexandria with the astonishing story I was telling Dwight.

According to Dodds: "Despite its lack of political freedom, the society of the third century B.C. was in many ways the nearest approach to an 'open' society that the world had yet seen, and nearer than any that would be seen again until modern times."

But the seeds of irrationality were also there, embedded in popular culture, or perhaps embedded in human nature. By the end of the 3rd century B.C.E., a fear of the new freedom had set in. Supernaturalism returned. Astrology and magical healing replaced astronomy and medicine. Cults flourished, rationalists were scapegoated, and scientific culture began to decline. The old dualisms -- mind and matter, God and nature, soul and appetites -- which the rationalists had striven to overcome, reasserted themselves. Dodds called it "the return of the irrational."

He wrote (in The Greeks and the Irrational): "As the intellectuals withdrew further into a world of their own, the popular mind was left increasingly defenseless...and left without guidance, a growing number relapsed with a sigh of relief into the pleasures and comforts of the primitive...better the rigid determinism of the astrological Fate than the terrifying burden of daily responsibility."

It is perhaps not too wild a notion to see some of this happening in our own time. Science is distusted. Supernaturalism is rampant. Psuedosciences and the paranormal appear to be more popular than at any time in my lifetime. Might this be what Dodds called in the Greek context "the fear of freedom -- the unconscious flight from the heavy burden of individual choice which an open society lays upon its members."

Why did the Greeks recoil from the path of rational science? Why do we recoil from our own Enlightenment? Dodds blamed "those irrational elements in human nature which govern without our knowledge so much of our behavior and so much of what we think is our thinking."