The classical era of ancient Greece was a time of unusual intellectual honesty as all aspects of life and existence were pared back to the simplest foundations in the attempt to find solutions to the great problems of the universe and human existence. To do this required an extraordinary independence of mind in the face of customary religious and other beliefs, social traditions, charismatic individuals, and the many other factors that can divert our minds from independent thought.
The Greek thinkers, with their diligent application of reason, delivered unprecedented results in mathematics, science, law, art, literature, architecture, astronomy, psychology, politics, ethics, science and more. Though they too stood on the shoulders of others: if we want to know what makes Western science and society tick then we must look to these people and this period in history. This simple truth was recognized by the powerful Roman Empire that followed and later generations weaned on a classical education.
Western education today has moved beyond its narrow Greco-Roman heritage to take on a more global perspective. But the profundity and universality of Greek thought has left an indelible footprint on Western society and the cultures that it has influenced.
For botanists the Greek heritage really begins with the legacy of plant science coming down to us from Aristotle and Theophrastus at the Lyceum in Athens. Plants were studied independently of the folk-medicine that held sway before them and continued for over a millennium after.
The Greek philosophers were an analytic branch of a wide movement of introspection that occurred across the world during what has been called the Axial Age (c. 800 to 200 BCE) during which there was not only a blossoming of religions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism but also rebellious philosophy that re-examined the place of the individual within society and the universe. In Greece the educational institutions of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum became the prototypes of our current universities as places of learning and research based on libraries full of manuscripts.
Greek learning was adapted by the more practical and less theoretical Roman society which, through its empire, laid the foundations for European society, then through European society to the European colonies, to form a Western tradition that was dispersed across the world during the Age of Discovery and European colonial expansionwhich culminated in European colonization and subsequent Westernization of much of the world.
Naturalistic (non-supernatural and therefore proto-scientific) explanations of the world were explored by pre-Socratic philosophers (physiologoi) in western Anatolia (today’s Turkey) mostly at Miletus and Ephesus and other communities in coastal southern Italy including the famous Pythagorean school. Their ideas probably harked back in part to the early civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia but it was the musings of the pre-Socratics that served as challenges for the philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle of ancient Athens in the Golden Age of Greece.
For many years study of ancient Greece and Rome formed the core of the Western education system known as the ‘classics’, influencing European leaders for many generations through its literature, science, philosophy, heroic military triumphalism. ethos of the classical world and their overall influence can be felt today in our science, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, logic, engineering, ethics, politics, economics, law, architecture, sculpture, literature, art, education and much more.
Plato believed in a transcendental or subjective world independant of the material world, a world of ideas or Forms (eidos), what later became known as Platonic Idealism. His ideas would be united with those of Christianity by Medieval theologian St Augustine and later by Florentine Marsilio Ficino who translated his works into Latin at the Platonic Academy in Florence. Plato’s careful reasoning produced a roadmap for philosophical debate that has continued to this day including a carefully crafted metaphysics, epistemology, ontology, ethics, political theory, and theory of education. It even included a mystical four-step path to transcendental Enlightenment. His student, Aristotle, used the term ‘Form’ in amore natural way to mean that which defines things, especially living organisms, the life principle that gives them both ‘potentiality’ (today we might call this the genetic make-up) but also ‘actuality’ or changing functionality through nutrition, motion, growth, ageing, sensation and all those processes that enable survival and reproduction including, in conscious organisms, emotion, the will and intellect (nous). This was all directed at what he called the ‘final cause’ of the organism … its goal, purpose, or meaning … the reason for its existence. His thinking would be incorporated into Christianity by the Medieval theologian St Thomas Aquinas. Aristotle is often said to be the first true scientist. For biologists it is not his ethics, logic, and politics that attracts so much as his ‘Invitation to Biology’.
For our purposes, it was Plato’s successor Theophrastus, the originator of plant science, who is of special interest. Theophrastus was part of a Greek culture that was part of the world-wide introspection of the Axial Age. Theophrastus’s curiosity led him to study plants for their intrinsic interest not just for the use that could be made of them. He worked on their classification, structure, function, reproduction, relationship to the land, and geographic distribution in addition to their various uses. The botany of Theophrastus and zoology of Aristotle represent the climax of natural history in antiquity. At the Lyceum (which, with Plato’s Academy, served as the model for today’s universities) Theophrastus inherited Aristotle’s garden and plant collection. The garden was associated with an educational institute with a library where there was research and lectures; it was situated within a designed sacred landscape (of a kind that probably dated back into prehistory) dedicated to the God Lykos. Some of the cultivated plants had been collected in foreign lands, like those returned from military campaigns by Alexander the Great (the first ‘Westerner’ to observe tropical vegetation) who had been tutored by Aristotle. As a living collection it was used by Theophrastus for botanical instruction and, although similar gardens had been developed elsewhere in the ancient world, its combination of characteristics mean that it can legitimately claim to be the forerunner of the botanic gardens familiar to us today. Though plant and animal trophies had been collected from distant lands in former times, those sent to Greece likely stimulated the later establishment and goals of zoos and botanic gardens
Theophrastus observed the changes that can occur to plants when under human care and selection, his writings Causa Plantarum and Historia Plantarum (presumed to be his lecture notes) suggested almost every aspect of modern botany including observations on plant sexuality and what we might today call genetypic and phenotypic variation, the way cultivated plants had sometimes acquired characteristics that differed from those of wild plants.
Libraries in Greece were among the earliest stores of knowledge being also places of learning and research. From the gymnasia of ancient Greece , the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle, have evolved the modern university.
Alexander was; encouraged the distribution of plants and animals by sending back specimens from his military campaigns.
Greek thinking influenced social behavior of later Europeans and the attitudes to plants of the early Australian settlers. Persian gardens seen by Alexander and his generals inspired the creation of luxurious Hellenistic gardens that were later emulated and developed by wealthy Romans who passed on their gardening traditions to Europe through their vast empire, and eventually to Britain during the Roman occupation from 45-410 CE.
Botanists of both the early Herbals and Enlightenment were well aware of Theophrastus and his work. At first this was descriptive medicinal botany but during the Enlightenment it would include aspects of his acquisitive economic botany by which he had hoped to serve the people of ancient Athens. Through people like Linnaeus (who honoured Theophrastus with the title ‘Father of Botany’) the botanic gardens of Leiden and Amsterdam, Joseph Banks at Kew, and Andre Thouin at the Jardin des Plantes the social value of plants for economic botany would playing an important role in European empire-building.
While Theophrastus was mostly an academic botanist Philosopher Epicurus was eccentric outsider who designed a beautiful ‘home garden’ on the outskirts of ancient Athens as a ‘pleasant and peaceful place’ referred to by the later Roman pastoral poets as a locus amoenus. Greek society was directed towards wealth, acclaim, fame, and power. Much more than today masculine heroism played a large part in all this – the pursuit of a peaceful life was contrary to all these values. Instead Epicurus valued close friendship, the freedom that comes with financial independence and self-sufficiency, and the rejuvenation we gain from meditation and reflection. The Garden was a retreat from the clamour of clashing human egos and a sanctuary from the rat-race. His own age was ravaged by warfare and undoubtedly the Epicureans were followers of the utopian and romanticised theory of the past as outlined in Hesiod’s Works and Days (c. 750 BCE) in which ‘The first humans were a golden race who lived in harmony with one-another in perfect peace and leisure in an eternal spring, and were beloved of the gods‘. When all have gained wisdom cities themselves will be unnecessary and laws will become redundant as all people will naturally cultivate justice. His age, he believed, sought unnecessary luxuries in distant lands, drowning in abundance as gold was chased and money invented. Cities, so much admired by Aristotle, were perceived by Epicurus as imperfect places where people sought wealth and power until, exhausted by strife and motivated by fear, they had ‘agreed to be bound by restrictive laws and coercive justice‘ and, as Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (99-55 BCE) later said, ‘hence fear of punishments taint the prizes of life‘. For all his skeptical Romanticism Epicurus has struck a chord to the present day.It is ancient Greek culture that digested and synthesized, in a brilliant way, the wisdom of the ancient world that had emerged from Egypt to its south, and Mesopotamia and its offspring to the East. The origination and depth of insight into so much of contemporary western culture, the many branches of its art and science, find their source here. The first canon of free thought, minimally fettered by religious and ideological assumptions, is expressed most fluently through the work of the pre-Socratic philosophers.