Cosmic blast from the past

Cosmology in Antiquity
August 23, 1996

The explosion of interest in cosmology, prompted by recent deep space discoveries and ideas, is not a new phenomenon. In this book, M. R. Wright takes us on a fascinating journey through the history of cosmological thought in classical antiquity. It is startling to see how rich this knowledge was, and how many modern concerns were first conceptualised and tackled by early Greek philosophers.

Although reference is made to the older traditions of Mesopotamia and Egypt, Wright argues that it was the Greeks who first asked key conceptual questions and formulated innovative theoretical models, where analogy and metaphor were used systematically to understand the unknown. The unique contribution of the Greek approach was the belief that the nature of the universe was accessible to human reason - a level of discourse absent among other near eastern civilisations. For example, whereas the Greeks regarded the relationship of the divine to the secular world as an arena for philosophical debate, for Babylonians and Egyptians astronomical observation was apparently a virtual end in itself. The essence of this argument is, however, determinedly eurocentric, as concepts of "reason" and "rationality" are culturally determined.

Once we have penetrated the barriers of language and thought that separate us by 2,000 years from classical antiquity, we realise how many issues in modern cosmology also vexed the early Greeks. Not only did Aristotle's "perfect cosmological principle" foreshadow our "steady state" concept, but, similarly, the Greeks were concerned to explore the ramifications and implications of an anthropocentric universe.

It was Pythagoras who first used the term kosmos as relating to the structure and order of everything, though the term had long implied "good order", and was associated with adornment, hence our word cosmetic. More specifically, cosmology was the rational logic of theories and explanations accounting for this ordered universe. Among the successors to Socrates, the Cynics advocated the term cosmopolitan to refer to individuals as citizens not of a polis but of the whole world.

This holistic idea, which posited an interconnectedness between the terrestial and celestial spheres, was significant. For the Stoics, pneuma, or "divine breath", linked the earth and the sky in a dynamic continuum, and opened the way to what we would call astrological superstition. If earth and sky were linked, then the movements of the heavenly bodies could control the life and lifespan of earth's inhabitants. In suggesting that human life was nothing more than pneuma and shadow, Sophocles advocated a view that resonates with many indigenous nonwestern cosmologies and, in later Christian belief, was associated with the third person of the trinity, the holy spirit.

In the ancient world, just as today, there was considerable disagreement between those who held different views on the nature of the universe. One of the most interesting themes to emerge from Wright's elegant treatment of this vast subject is the debate over whether the universe is intelligent and purposeful or whether cosmic events are random. Unlike atomists such as Democritus, who believed in a plurality of worlds, Plato argued for one true cosmos and against a purposeless existence. He believed the purpose of life was to have everything in harmony - a rational and well-ordered existence in which the political ideals of the Greek city-state were transferred to the whole universe.

This is a fascinatingly thorough book that is full of insights and unsuspected connections. Some views, however, seem to express our enduring humanity. After two millennia we can still identify with the Roman poet Lucretius, who believed the world could not have been created for us by gods, because it is so very imperfect.

Nicholas J. Saunders is a research fellow in archaeology, University of Southampton.

Cosmology in Antiquity

Author - M. R. Wright
ISBN - 0 415 08372 9 and 12183 3
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £12.99
Pages - 201

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