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Ancient Greece and Modern Civilisation

Nature volume 135, page 178 (02 February 1935) | Download Citation



IN his Friday evening discourse delivered at the Royal Institution on January 25, Sir Richard Livingstone discussed the relation of modern civilisation to ancient Greece. Starting in a world where men believed that Zeus made thunder and that the sun and moon were gods, the Greeks originated science. Their actual scientific and philosophic achievement was remarkable (witness Aristarchus's discovery of the heliocentric system, the anticipation of modern thought in Anaximander's notion that men originate from animals of a different species, and Democritus's atomic thory). But even more remarkable is the grasp on the ideal of science shown in such sayings as: “Thought is the supreme excellence of men and wisdom consists in saying what is true and acting according to Nature, listening to her” (Heraclitus), and “It is a sin that Reason should be the subject or servant of anyone; its place is to be ruler of all” (Plato). Further, they grasped the idea of a civilisation based on the development of the useful arts. This appears in the myth of Prometheus as expounded by Aeschylus, in the “Antigone“and in many other passages in Greek literature. In this sense the Greeks were the creators of the characteristic spirit of modern civilisation. They grasped the ideal of science as completely as any of their successors. We have carried scientific discovery and technology to heights of which they never dreamed. But they formed a clearer and perhaps higher conception than we of the life which men should lead against the background of material civilisation. They can correct our civilisation not only by the example of an existence, of which Goethe said that of all men the Greeks had dreamed the dream of life best, but also by reminding us that life is essentially a human problem and that ethics and political science are as fascinating as, and even more important than, physical science.

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