Michael Fowler, UVa Physics

Beginnings of Science and Philosophy in Athens

Let us first recap briefly the emergence of philosophy and science in Athens after around 450 B.C. It all began with Socrates, who was born in 470 B.C. Socrates was a true philosopher, a lover of wisdom, who tried to elicit the truth by what has become known as the Socratic method, in which by a series of probing questions he forced successive further clarification of thought. Of course, such clarity often reveals that the other person’s ideas don’t in fact make much sense, so that although Socrates made a lot of things much clearer, he wasn’t a favorite of many establishment politicians. For example, he could argue very convincingly that traditional morality had no logical basis. He mostly lectured to the sons of well-to-do aristocrats, one of whom was Plato, born in 428 B.C. Plato was a young man when Athens was humiliated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, and Plato probably attributed the loss to Athens’ being a democracy, as opposed to the kind of fascist war-based state Sparta was. Plato founded an Academy. The name came (at least in legend) from one Academus, a landowner on whose estate Plato and other philosophers met regularly. The important point is that this was the first university. All the people involved were probably aristocrats, and they discussed everything: politics, economics, morality, philosophy, mathematics and science. One of their main concerns was to find what constituted an ideal city-state. Democracy didn’t seem to have worked very well in their recent past. Plato’s ideas are set out in the Republic.