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A History of Science — Volume 1 by Williams

Five centuries after the time of Herophilus


We

saw that "the father of medicine," Hippocrates, banished demonology and conceived disease as due to natural causes. At a slightly later day the sophists challenged all knowledge, and Pyrrhonism became a synonym for scepticism in recognition of the leadership of a master doubter. The entire school of Alexandrians must have been relatively free from superstition, else they could not have reasoned with such effective logicality from their observations of nature. It is almost inconceivable that men like Euclid and Archimedes, and Aristarchus and Eratosthenes, and Hipparchus and Hero, could have been the victims of such illusions regarding occult forces of nature as were constantly postulated by Oriental science. Herophilus and Erasistratus and Galen would hardly have pursued their anatomical studies with equanimity had they believed that ghostly apparitions watched over living and dead alike, and exercised at will a malign influence.

Doubtless the Egyptian of the period considered the work, of the Ptolemaic anatomists an unspeakable profanation, and, indeed, it was nothing less than revolutionary--so revolutionary that it could not be sustained in subsequent generations. We have seen that the great Galen, at Rome, five centuries after the time of Herophilus, was prohibited from dissecting the human subject. The fact speaks volumes for the attitude of the Roman mind towards science. Vast audiences made up of every stratum of society thronged the amphitheatre,

and watched exultingly while man slew his fellow-man in single or in multiple combat. Shouts of frenzied joy burst from a hundred thousand throats when the death-stroke was given to a new victim. The bodies of the slain, by scores, even by hundreds, were dragged ruthlessly from the arena and hurled into a ditch as contemptuously as if pity were yet unborn and human life the merest bauble. Yet the same eyes that witnessed these scenes with ecstatic approval would have been averted in pious horror had an anatomist dared to approach one of the mutilated bodies with the scalpel of science. It was sport to see the blade of the gladiator enter the quivering, living flesh of his fellow-gladiator; it was joy to see the warm blood spurt forth from the writhing victim while he still lived; but it were sacrilegious to approach that body with the knife of the anatomist, once it had ceased to pulsate with life. Life itself was held utterly in contempt, but about the realm of death hovered the threatening ghosts of superstition. And such, be it understood, was the attitude of the Roman populace in the early and the most brilliant epoch of the empire, before the Western world came under the influence of that Oriental philosophy which was presently to encompass it.

In this regard the Alexandrian world was, as just intimated, far more advanced than the Roman, yet even there we must suppose that the leaders of thought were widely at variance with the popular conceptions. A few illustrations, drawn from Greek literature at various ages, will suggest the popular attitude. In the first instance, consider the poems of Homer and of Hesiod. For these writers, and doubtless for the vast majority of their readers, not merely of their own but of many subsequent generations, the world is peopled with a multitude of invisible apparitions, which, under title of gods, are held to dominate the affairs of man. It is sometimes difficult to discriminate as to where the Greek imagination drew the line between fact and allegory; nor need we attempt to analyse the early poetic narratives to this end. It will better serve our present purpose to cite three or four instances which illustrate the tangibility of beliefs based upon pseudo-scientific inductions.


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