Wednesday, September 29, 2010

25th September 2010

It is not so much Hawking’s squawkings about God and science that are the problem—though one wished he did not appear to think that either phenomenon told one anything significant about the other—but rather the failure of our education system to engage with the ancient Greeks. Their finest thinkers sorted the matter out 2,500 years ago, long before Christianity ever appeared on the scene.

The first Greek philosophers like Thales (c. 580 BC) were really physicists, trying to describe, organise and explain the universe and all its contents. They gave accounts of natural phenomena like stars, planets, weather, plants, animals and man, and asked questions about whether and how the universe began, what it was made of, why it changed and so on. Thales apparently took the view that water was the first principle, from which everything sprang and to which it returned. For Anaximander, an abstract ‘infinite’ was the origin of all things, and the cosmos a conflicting cycle of ‘coming-to-be’ and ‘perishing’ according to laws of nature. Heraclitus saw the world in terms of constant change, but not conflicting change. Opposition was built into the natural order of things. Anaxagoras was the first to argue that whatever the basic substance was, it was below the level of perception and never changed, merely grouping itself in different ways to form the world as we see it (the beginnings of an ‘atomic’ theory of matter).

What is so striking about all this is the absence of the divine. Greeks acknowledged that gods existed, of course, but were the first to argue that the world did not run on some irrational, divine whim but was logically ordered, systematic and therefore fully explicable in *human* terms. To invoke the supernatural in order to explain the physics was as much a cop-out for them as it would be today if a doctor were to claim that a disease was incurable because it was divinely ordained.

A few weeks ago the Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ website ran a poll on whether inner-city primary schools should be given an introduction to ancient Greek, as Dr Lorna Robinson’s ‘Iris Project’ is now doing. The vote was 80-20% in favour. Academies? Free schools? Just give everyone a taste of ancient Greek.

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