Monday, October 18, 2010

What Has Been the Impact of the Ancient Greeks on Modern People

 It might seem so basic to modern people as to be hardly worth noting, but all of science, philosophy, economics, and politics hinges on one thing written by Aristotle in his book Metaphysics – and this is in spite of Aristotle being wrong in so many of his statements about the physical world and even being held up as an enemy of reason during the Renaissance.  In essence, he said, a thing is none other than itself. Or, as moderns like to say it, A = A.  The corollary to this is that A≠ non-A.  Without this idea there would be no computers, for how could we be certain that 0 is always 0?  Imagine the chaos in the computer industry if 0 ≠1 was not absolutely and always true!  Or what if malaria was hypothermia?  How could physicians treat either of those conditions? Or what if a bridge was both strong enough and not strong enough? It is this fundamental law of knowledge that not only tells us mercury must be present in unrefined cinnabar if refined cinnabar yields mercury, but it tells us that good ≠ evil, that truth ≠ falsehood, and that freedom ≠ slavery, and that regardless of what some Hindus, modern pagans, and free thinkers wish, all is not one.

A man who lived quite a bit earlier than Aristotle, who also to this day influences the whole world was Pythagoras of Samos (c. 570-c. 495 BC).  His influence on Euclid (c. 300 B.C.) was profound, as he invented the abstract mathematical thinking upon which geometry depends, and, in the discovery of what is now called the Pythagorean theorem, laid the foundation for modern mathematics.  The skyscrapers and space voyages of the 20th and 21st centuries would, simply, not happen without the ability to think of numbers apart from matter, such as coins, or land, or jars of wine.  But Pythagoras' contributions to the world are not only mathematical, though they all grow out of mathematics. 

When Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (A.D. 1646 – 1716) wrote, “When God calculates and thinks things through, the world is made” he was expressing a Pythagorean idea. When a mathematician won the Templeton Prize in 2008 for offering inductive evidence for the existence of God based on math, he really won the prize for advancing once facet of Pythagorean thought: That the Divine mind is expressed in numbers, which is really nothing besides the idea that if God if is real God must be rational, and if the world is rational it is because God is rational. 

But, probably, the idea Pythagoras had that has given people the most pleasure is that of music being rational and mathematical, that the most beautiful musical notes and harmonies are those defined by simple ratios, such as 1:2 and 3:4.  Without that idea Bach's St. Matthews Passion would not be, could not be.  For Bach worked out the mathematics of the music before an orchestra ever played it. The same is true of Pacabel's Canon in D, and Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah which walks the listener through the mathematical structure of a common chord progression as he sings "it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, and the major lift".  Even the comedic Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain demonstrates the mathematical basis of beautiful music in its round of Bart Howard's Fly Me To The Moon, Pacabel's Canon in D, Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive, and the Eagle's Hotel California.  In short, there is no modern man without the ancient Greeks.  

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