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faculties suggest. The physical philosophy of these schools is especially deserving of our study, as exhibiting the character and fortunes of the most memorable attempt at universal knowledge which has ever been made. It is highly instructive to trace the principles of this undertaking; for the course pursued was certainly one of the most natural and tempting which can be imagined; the essay was made by a nation unequalled in fine mental endowments, at the period of its greatest activity and vigour; and yet it must be allowed, (for, at least so far as physical science is concerned, none will contest this,) to have been entirely unsuccessful. We cannot consider otherwise than as an utter failure, an endeavour to discover the causes of things, of which the most complete results are the Aristotelian physical treatises; and which, after reaching the point which these treatises mark, left the human mind to remain stationary, at any rate on all such subjects, for nearly two thousand years.
The early philosophers of Greece entered upon the work of physical speculation in a manner which showed the vigour and confidence of the questioning spirit, as yet untamed by labours and reverses. It was for later ages to learn that man must acquire, slowly and patiently, letter by letter, the alphabet in which nature writes her answers to such inquiries: the first students wished to divine, at a single glance, the whole import of her book. They endeavoured to discover the origin and principle of the universe; according to Thales, water was the origin of all things, according to Anaximenes, air; and Heraclitus considered fire as the essential principle of the universe. It has been conjectured, with great plausibility, that this tendency to give to their philosophy the form of a cosmogony, was owing to the influence of the poetical cosmogonies and theogonies which had been produced and admired at a still earlier age. Indeed, such wide and ambitious doctrines as those which have been mentioned, were better suited to the dim magnificence of poetry, than to the purpose of a philosophy which was to bear the sharp scrutiny of reason. When we speak of the principles of things, the term, even now,
very ambiguous and indefinite in its import, but how much more was that the case in the first attempts to use such abstractions! The term which is commonly used in this sense (apx), signified at first the beginning; and in its early philosophical applications implied some obscure mixed reference to the mechanical, chemical, organic, and historical causes of the visible state of things, besides the theological views which at this period were only just beginning to be separated from the physical. Hence we are not to be surprised if the sources from which the opinions of this period appear to be derived are rather vague suggestions and casual analogies, than any reasons which will bear examination. Aristotle conjectures, with considerable probability, that the doctrine of Thales, according to which water was the universal element, resulted from the manifest importance of moisture in the support of animal and vegetable lifeBut such precarious analyses of these obscure and loose dogmas of early antiquity are of small consequence to our object.
In more limited and more definite examples of inquiry concerning the causes of natural appearances, and in the attempts made to satisfy men's curiosity in such cases, we appear to discern a more genuine prelude to the true spirit of physical inquiry. One of the most remarkable instances of this kind is to be found in the speculations which Herodotus records, relative to the cause of the floods of the Nile. “Concerning the nature of this river," says the father of history', “I was not able to learn anything, either from the priests or from any one besides, though I questioned them very pressingly. For the Nile is flooded for a hundred days, beginning with the summer solstice; and after this time it diminishes, and is, during the whole winter, very small. And on this head I was not able to obtain anything satisfactory from any one of the Egyptians, when I asked what is the power by which the Nile is in its nature the reverse of other rivers." We may see, I think, in the historian's account,
I that the Grecian mind felt a craving to discover the reasons of things which other nations did not feel. The Egyptians, it appears, had no theory, and felt Metaph. i. 3.
4 Herod. ii. 19.
no want of a theory. Not so the Greeks; they had their reasons to render, though they were not such as satisfied Herodotus. “Some of the Greeks,” he says, “who wish to be considered great philosophers, (Ελλήνων τινες επισήμοι βουλόμενοι γενέσθαι σοφίης) have propounded three ways of accounting for these floods. Two of them,” he adds, “I do not think worthy of record, except just so far as to mention them.” But as these are some of the earliest Greek essays in physical philosophy, it will be worth while, even at this day, to preserve the brief notice he has given of them, and his own reasonings upon the same subject.
“One of these opinions holds that the Etesian winds (which blew from the north] are the cause of these floods, by preventing the Nile from flowing into the sea.” Against this the historian reasons very simply and sensibly. “Very often when the
“ Etesian winds do not blow, the Nile is flooded nevertheless. And moreover, if the Etesian winds were the cause, all other rivers, which have their course opposite to these winds, ought to undergo the same changes as the Nile; which the rivers of Syria and Libya so circumstanced do not.”
“ The next opinion is still more unscientific, (averionovegtépn) and is, in truth, marvellous for its folly. This holds that the ocean flows all round the earth, and that the Nile comes out of the ocean, and by that means produces its effects.” “Now," says the historian, “the man who talks about this
ocean-river, goes into the region of fable, where it is not easy to demonstrate that he is wrong. I know of no such river. But I suppose that Homer or some of the earlier poets invented this fiction and introduced it into their poetry.”
He then proceeds to a third account, which to a modern reasoner would appear not at all unphilosophical in itself, but which he, nevertheless, rejects in a manner no less decided than the others. “The third opinion, though much the most plausible, is still more wrong than the others; for it asserts an impossibility, namely, that the Nile proceeds from the melting of the snow. Now the Nile flows out
' of Libya, and through Ethiopia, which are very hot countries, and thus comes into Egypt, which is a colder region. How then can it proceed from snow?” He then offers several other reasons “to show,” as he says, “ to any one capable of reasoning
, on such subjects” (ανδρί γε λογίζεσθαι τοιούτων πέρι oio Te éovti), that the assertion cannot be true. The winds which blow from the southern regions are hot; the inhabitants are black; the swallows and kites (iktivoi) stay in the country the whole year; the cranes fly the colds of Scythia, and seek their warm winter-quarters there; which would not be if it snowed ever so little.” He adds another reason, founded apparently upon some limited empirical maxim of weather-wisdom taken from the climate of Greece. “Libya,” he says, “ has neither rain nor ice, and therefore no snow; for, in five days after a