Modern skepticism owes a huge debt to ancient Greece. This article is based on a presentation to the 2008 NZ Skeptics Conference
I was born in Athens, Greece, and grew up during the war, one of 12 children of a poor family with a very hard working mother. She was, like most women of her time in Greece, illiterate. This made her susceptible to all the religious teachings and prejudices of the Greek Orthodox Church which all Greeks belonged to. She was able to answer my questions with biblical quotations and prophetic clichés. When explaining to me where I came from she credited a stork – but a few weeks later the bird had changed to a pelican. When I asked her a third time, she got quite angry with me and pointed at her belly and said: “It was cut open by the doctor.” But I had not seen any evidence of cut marks so I became sceptical.
When it rains in Athens during the summer, it lasts only for 10 minutes but it is a cloudburst with thunder and lightning. My mother used to burn incense, light candles and utter incantations. When I asked her why, she answered me that God sends the thunder to punish sinful people. When I asked her why God decided to do this when it rained, she mumbled something I never understood.
The Greeks put icons high up on the walls of their houses and they believe that some of them have miraculous properties. My mother’s favourite was St Nicholas, who resided high up in the corner of the room. He had a habit of dropping to the floor before any tragedy occurred in our family. My mother always connected the sign with a following event, and took this as proof of his infallibility. “You see, St Nicholas fell to the floor three days ago, and now this has happened.” One day I found the icon on the floor and discovered that it only had a frayed cotton thread holding it up, so I replaced it with a piece of wire. After that St Nicholas stayed on the wall. My mother found this quite worrisome, and felt she had been deserted by him, so she took the icon down and discovered my alterations. She reprimanded me severely, and repaired him by replacing the wire with an old bit of cotton again, thus restoring his powers. This made me even more sceptical.
My mother was obsessed with the second coming of the Messiah -she assured me it was going to be in 1948. A year later I reminded her that it hadn’t happened. In response to this she muttered something I didn’t understand. This confirmed my doubts about events occurring through divine intervention and started me on a path of scepticism.
In Sunday school, which I had to attend, children were told that humans were made as an exact replica of God – omniscient, omnipotent and all-loving. Why then did he give us such useless things as nails on toes and nipples on men? By then I had given up asking for answers and I started finding out for myself.
Origins of scepticism
In the Greek language the noun skepsis means deep and critical thought, reflection, contemplation, debating with oneself, activities which occupy those with some intelligence. It is natural for human being to be curious and to learn. It is ignorance and superstition which stifles this innate tendency.
Empirical scepticism originated in ancient Greek philosophy in the 7th century BCE in Ionia. Ionia was a group of city states, and was the first place where events and circumstances made it possible for people to be able to inquire about physical phenomena without being circumscribed by religious dogmas and despotic oppression. For the first time knowledge no longer belonged to a religious or royal elite. Knowledge and thinking became the property of anybody who was prepared to make the effort to learn. The Greek alphabet had recently been further developed and refined, which facilitated the dissemination of the written word and Greek thought.
Egypt and Mesopotamia had achieved a high degree of civilisation but they lacked the components which the Greeks from Ionia were able to provide. These were philosophic scepticism and free inquiry. Bertrand Russell in his book The History of Western Philosophy had this to say: “They invented mathematics and science and philosophy; they first wrote history as opposed to mere annals; they speculated freely about the nature of the world and to the ends of life, without being bound in the fetters of any inherited orthodoxy.”
As a result of this climate of freedom of thought, a flowering of scientific rigour, deductive reasoning and innovation occurred. I will now give some examples of scientific discoveries and speculations that arose as a result of being able to stretch the boundaries of thought to a limitless horizon with no institutional constraints. The Greek gods had to come to Olympus, down to Earth.
The first Skeptic
Thales lived around the mid 620s-547 BCE and was born in the city of Miletus. He was the first person to develop truly critical thought – in my opinion, the first true skeptic. Unlike the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, he tried to explain the world by observing natural phenomena, critically analysing this data and then making deductions from it. Many of his findings are still regarded as correct and he influenced most subsequent philosophical thought.
He set the seasons of the year and divided the year into 365 days. He speculated that life originated from water and was able to predict an eclipse in 585 BCE. It is said that he travelled to many countries, learning as he went and made the first map of the known world stretching from Africa to north of the Caspian Sea and from Spain to India. When in Egypt, the Egyptian priests complained, “You Greeks ask too many questions, just like children.” The most outstanding aspects of Thales’ heritage are the search for knowledge for its own sake; the development of the scientific method; the adoption of practical methods and their development into general principles; his curiosity and conjectural approach to the questions of natural phenomena. In the sixth century BCE Thales asked the question, “What is the basic material of the cosmos?” The answer is yet to be discovered.
The putative father of Greek skepticism is Pyrrhon of Elis (c. 360-c. 272 BCE). Even though he didn’t write anything, he was influential in some subsequent philosophical schools. His contemporary, skeptic philosopher Epicurus thought that the human mind was beset by fears and ignorance that disturbed it and made people suffer needlessly throughout their lives. He believed that the fundamental constituents of the world were indivisible little bits of matter (atoms, flying though empty space).
A heliocentric universe
Aristarchus was the first to state that the sun was at the centre of the universe. He was a mathematician and an astronomer, not merely an astrologer as in the past, and was capable of thinking at a cosmic level without fear of persecution by the gods, unlike Galileo who nearly paid with his life for saying the same thing nearly 2000 years later. Aristarchus attempted to estimate the relative sizes of the Earth, Moon and Sun, and the distances between them. He used the right methodology but did not have a telescope.
He improved the sundial, which had already been invented by Anaximander, eventually leading to the sextant. Some people have suggested that Copernicus stood on the shoulders of Aristarchus when making his astronomical calculations.
The size of the Earth
Eratosthenes was one of the greatest thinkers. He was the chief librarian in the famed library of Alexandria. He was also a mathematician, poet, athlete, geographer and astronomer.
He was the first person to calculate the circumference of the Earth and the tilt of the Earth’s axis, both with remarkable accuracy. He may also have accurately calculated the distance from the Earth to the Sun. He devised a system of latitude and longitude and is regarded as the most innovative geographer of his time. It had already been deduced that the Earth was spherical, but he was able to estimate its circumference with an error of less than two percent.
Yet, a thousand years later a Byzantine adventurer, Kosmas Indicopleustes, travelled as far as India, and when he came back to Constantinople he drew a map of the world – a square – and at the centre of it he placed Jerusalem. Worse even than this, books written by Eratosthenes and other geographers were regarded as heretical and blasphemous and were ordered to be destroyed by the Christian authorities.
Archimedes is regarded as one of the foremost scientific minds of Greek antiquity. He owes this reputation to his critical observation of natural phenomena. His theorems on moving bodies are well known to those who have studied mathematics or physics, and of course he had the world’s first Eureka moment. Archimedes was the inventor of the helix, commonly known as the Archimedes screw, which has been used for drawing water from rivers and lakes since ancient times and is still in use today.
Heron, also a chief librarian in Alexandria about the first century BCE, devised a steam turbine and a double action water pump, which was in use even at the end of the nineteenth century by the Chicago fire service.
Foregoing his usual scientific principles, Heron devised a contraption to open the massive temple doors on the command of the priest without any apparent human effort, thus overawing the faithful and giving proof of his supernatural power. One wonders what the reward was for Heron’s secrecy in this little matter.
We now need to look at the setting for the daily lives of ordinary Greeks of that time.
Religious dogma, meaning laws enacted by the clergy for their own benefit and which had to be strictly observed, played no part in religious observances. On the contrary, religion was kept in its place, as an adjunct to social occasions such as festivals. The clergy in a city state, as in Athens, had no power and the salary of the priest was set to be no more than the value of the lowest paid labourer – this acted as proof against corruption as they received a portion of the sacrificial meat – a scarce commodity for ordinary people – as a perk.
So how then, did the Ancient Greeks honour their gods?
The temple of Apollo was 125m long, not much smaller than St Pauls of London. And yet, the Greek people seldom entered the temple to worship. It was merely to house the statue and provided the venue for priests and priestesses to carry out rituals associated with it.
The Greek people could not accept the notion that they should be enclosed, even for a short period, inside a religious building. That was the business of the Hebrew synagogue.
Instead, the religious festivals changed the emphasis from submission to a deity in a building to honouring the deity through revering nature. Sculpture and painting portrayed deities with human form – omitting the combination of animal and human used by others. People competed in athletic games, such as the Olympics, in honour of the body and the psyche. Competitions of lyrical poetry, singing, music and dancing expressed human heights of excellence in honour of the gods.
Theatres were invented to honour Dionysus and provided the forum for questioning human nature and values and morals, both human and divine – even the Greek gods could not escape criticism. Crowds of up to 30,000 filled the theatre, which provided the stimulation for a public, shared, critical inquiry into morals and concepts.
In approximately 380 AD Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. For the first time the Greek people had to bow before the priests. The idea of sin and everlasting punishment in hell was introduced. Any philosophical inquiry was regarded as heresy and was punishable. Subsequent emperors enacted laws which resulted in the destruction of anything that stood for freedom of thought and expression. Theodosius, for instance, decreed that books should be burnt, the Olympic Games should cease to exist, the Academy of Athens and the theatre should close, and he ordered the destruction and obliteration of anything which stood before in the Hellenic world.
The zealots broke statues wherever they could and at the very minimum the nose was broken off. The rationale for this was the statues would not be able to breathe again.
Theodosius also sanctioned the burning of the library of Alexandria by bishop Theophilus. During the reign of Theodosius II in 415 AD a heinous crime was perpetrated in that city. Hypatia was a scholar and teacher of philosophy, astronomy and mechanics, who was also considered the first notable woman mathematician. A mob, directed by Bishop Cyril, later to become Saint Cyril, took Hypatia inside a Christian church and flayed her alive using seashells. This was to inflict maximum pain – an example of the new religion of love. Her crime was to criticise the Christian faith.
Thus ended a period of burgeoning of human inquiry and achievement initiated by the Ionian inquiring mind. All that had been built up and developed during those productive years was destroyed, defaced or taken over by the Christian church. This initial flowering of the Ionian mind was crushed, trampled and engulfed by the Church, causing the gradual decline into barbarism and the Dark Ages.