The birth (and death?) of reason

Where would we be without the Greeks? The ancient Greeks, that is, the only people in the ancient world who had the idea of using reason to solve problems and reach decisions. Egypt, Babylonia, China—high civilizations, but things were not done for reasons there; they were done because they had always been done, or because the priest said so, or because the king so ordered. The Rhind papyrus, that ancient Egyptian textbook of mathematics, is nothing but a series of orders: to solve this problem, do this, and this, and then this. The author may have known why the rules worked and not written down the reasons because it was not the style of the time, but it is also possible that the rules were discovered by accident, the finder stumbling on something which always gave the right answer for unknown reasons. Ancient Babylonian mathematical clay tablets are much the same.

But not the Greeks! They reasoned. They had debates. They got at truth by using logic. Not for nothing has this been called the “Greek Miracle.” If the Greeks had not invented reason, would anyone else have? Not the Babylonians, and certainly not the Egyptians. The Romans might have, but then again they might not, and then where would the world be? Probably in much the same state as 2,500 years ago.

— Underwood Dudley. A Budget of Trisections

Living in the modern world, I often feel we need the ancient Greeks again…

Published in: on 13/02/2012 at 19:19  Leave a Comment  

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