Commentary & sustainability analysis
Theophrastus’s influence comes to us in several ways. Firstly he is an advocate for the world of Greek analytic thought that laid the foundations of Western science, setting out a manifesto for future plant science and, together with Aristotle, effectively launching the science of biology. Theophrastus lived at a time when western civilization is generally regarded as having reached an intellectual peak. English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead summarised this view in his note (reduced here) that ‘ … the European philosophical tradition … consists of a series of footnotes to Plato’. And, as we have seen, Plato was by no means the only ancient Greek to have a great influence on the present day.
Throughout history human interest in plants had been centred on utilitarian self-interest – the way they could be used as food, medicine, and materials. With Greek thought we encounter for the first time a curiosity about the plants themselves, how they resemble one-another in structure, how they grow and reproduce, and their ecology – the way that they interact with their surroundings. It appears that the motivation for much of this, and indeed the other major achievements of this period, stemmed from pure intellectual curiosity, an ideal as historically precious as it is rare. This admirable non-anthropocentric agenda, the desire for knowledge for knowledge’s sake rather than for personal benefit or some practical utility, became an academic ideal. Through institutions like the Academy, Lyceum, the Museion, and the libraries at the Lyceum, Pergamon and Alexandria came the inspiration for the revival of classical learning that was part of the European Renaissance. From this period of history came the ideals of reason, logic, and science that prompted the creation of universities, inspiring both humanism and the Enlightenment.
But there is just a small hop from the desire to ‘understand the world’ to the desire to ‘change the world’. There were inevitably practical or applied consequences for the scientific agenda of pure research, not least of which was economic botany.
Theophrastus lived in a time when the independent Greek city-states were facing a possible imperial unification under a Macedonian monarchy. This would be a costly matter and every avenue for acquiring revenue needed investigation. As the son of a fuller Theophrastus was aware of the potential role for botany in such a major economic transition; it would involve:
‘ . . . increasing the productivity of agriculture, the study of native and colonial plant resources, the acclimatisation of plants in new habitats, an intense interest in the production of timber and tar for shipbuilding, especially for the navy, linen for sails, charcoal for metallurgy and metal-working’
Theophrastus’s comment here comes to us as though written by a scientist on an Enlightenment voyage of scientific exploration. We hear similar words from Cook on his third voyage when on the look-out for the flax and pines needed by the British navy and it was the spirit of economic botany espoused by Banks as he created an imperial botanical hub at Kew Gardens in London.
The parallels run deeper. Joseph Banks was an Enlightenment English gentleman in the Greek tradition. As a young man he had attended the best academies available, those following the Greek model and with a classical curriculum. He owned a large country estate with an income that enabled him to indulge his interest in natural history. His world of interests and peers consisted almost exclusively of men. His own wife is portrayed in the literature as being non-intrusive while maintaining domestic stability. On all his travels he took domestic servants including musical entertainers. Travelling with him on the Endeavour were four personal servants, two of them negroes, along with two greyhounds. His dress was often flamboyant distinguishing him from the crew. Though he had deliberately refused the classical education expected of a gentlemen with his background, his heroic voyage on the Endeavour bore a remarkable resemblance to the epic adventures of Greek mythology, the search for the Golden Fleece of Jason and the Argonauts, and Homer’s epic the Odyssey complete with the sirens and lotus-eaters of Tahiti. As a man of considerable means he could afford the very latest in scientific equipment and an extensive library. Banks led life like a Greek hero.
Although the settlement of Australia was a practical matter of redistributing people from Britain to a new continent, to Joseph Banks as a key Enlightenment figure it was, or at least very rapidly became, an economic matter to do with a burgeoning British Empire and the way that plants could contribute to a new economic order. The parallels with Theophrastus are uncanny.
In Philip Miller, Joseph Banks, the Chelsea Physic garden, and Kew Botanic Gardens we see a parallel with Theophrastus, Alexander and the garden at the Lyceum: history repeating itself under similar circumstances and, surely, no coincidence. In spite of earlier historical examples, the menagerie and educational plant collection at the Lyceum that were so strongly supported by the scientifically-aware military collector Alexander are justifiably regarded as major precursors of the physic gardens and later botanic gardens and zoos of the Renaissance.
We see here the beginnings of a tradition of international redistribution of plants and animals that has subsequently gained momentum. Banks was to make Australia one of Britain’s many sources of plants while, in turn, the Australian landscape would be transformed by the temperate crops and agriculture that defined the British countryside.
But it is for his plant science that Theophrastus is best known. In his two works on plants:
‘Almost every aspect of modern botany is at least indicated – morphology, anatomy, systematics, physiology, ecology, pharmacognosy, agricultural and applied botany, plant pathology … presented in a way that would not be matched for another eighteen centuries
Plants would remain objects of medicine until the Italian Renaissance when, following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, many Greek intellectuals fled to Italy which was at this time the centre of European culture, commerce and industry, reviving the ancient classical texts that fuelled this new phase of learning.
Italian Luca Ghini (c. 1490-1556), professor of botany at Bologna from 1534 was called to the University of Pisa Botanic Garden where between 1545 and 1550 he renewed contact with descriptive botany, even though botanic gardens at this time still resembled the earlier ‘herbularis’ or physic gardens of the medieval European monasteries. One of his students, who later worked in Padua, was a priest called Michele Merini (fl. 1545) and it was he who established what is considered the first ‘herbarium’ of pressed and dried plants, 201 of these still preserved today in Florence, although the art of plant-pressing probably dates back to Ghini or maybe before. The historical record indicates Luca Ghini as probably giving the first scientific course in plant taxonomy (as distinct from instruction on medicinal herbs) since the time of the ancient Greek schools that were based on the lectures in botanical science given by Theophrastus.
Theophrastus maintained an independent mind. He expressed dissatisfaction with Aristotle’s universal application of teleological (that is, goal-directed) explanations (see article Meaning & purpose) and is also known to have composed a large compendium of the doctrines of previous philosophers, which itself is lost, but which probably formed the basis for much of the later analysis of pre-Socratic philosophy.
Tellingly, in recognising his debt to predecessors Darwin wrote ‘Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in very different ways; but they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle’.
Like Aristotle, Theophrastus accepted the stability of the classes of society and projected this into biology ‘ … where evolution was replaced by the conception of a scale of nature, a hierarchy of natural classes or kingdoms.’ This assumption of a ‘natural order”, stated so powerfully by both Plato and Aristotle has, to this day, exerted a powerful hold on human understanding of the structure of both human society and nature (see Grand narratives – The Great Chain of Being). Historian Morton draws attention to the scientific approach emanating from Ionia and just one inadequacy in the Greek approach, the lack of experimentation, which he puts down to the social stigma that in Greek society was associated with manual work.
It was the great Carl Linnaeus who gave Theophrastus the sobriquet ‘Father of Botany’ for it was from him that Linnaeus undoubtedly obtained ideas, not only about plant taxonomy, but on subjects like plant collection on foreign soil, acclimatisation, and economic botany – ideas that he would, in turn, pass on to his ‘apostles’ (see Linnaeus) and which would also be taken up by people like the highly influential Joseph Banks.