Saturday, 18 June 2016


Note the noble brow
The Ancient Greeks produced a number of prodigious intellects over a span of four hundred years. These Great Men were no longer content to accept explanations based on none causal events, such as 'the gods did it'. They searched for naturalistic causation to explain how the 'world worked'. And this naturally led them to question the existence of the very gods themselves which in turn garnered criticism from their less enlightened countrymen. Impiety is the natural companion of the enquiring mind.

The last of these Great Men was a chap called Archimedes.
Archimedes was born in Syracuse, Sicily in 287 BC. He was born into a family of some note and may have been related to the king of Syracuse, Hiero II. The Syracuse of the time was a great centre for learning, art and commerce and Archimedes as a young man drank deep from the Syricusan well of knowledge (stop waxing lyrical, Flaxen, you dozy twat). To complete his education Archimedes travelled to Alexandria in North Africa. The recently founded city of Alexandria was the undisputed hub of scholarship in the West and housed the most extensive library ever known in the ancient world. After completing his studies, Archimedes returned to his home city where he would remain for the rest of his life.

Archimedes was concerned with many areas intellectual endeavour but he is mainly remembered for his engineering feats. For instance, the king was interested in finding a method for emptying bilge water from his fleet of ships and consulted Archimedes for a solution. Archimedes came up with a long spiral tube. When rotated, water would enter the lower end and would be carried up through the tube to be emptied at the top. On another occasion, the king was concerned whether his newly commissioned gold coinage had been adulterated with silver. Archimedes was tasked with the problem of determining whether the new gold crowns were of pure gold. It is said that Archimedes was initially perplexed but found a solution whilst in the bath. His slave had inadvertently over filled his bath and on entering Archimedes displaced the water causing it to overflow. He realised that he had discovered a method of measuring the volume of an object by simple displacement. If he could work out the volume of a gold crown together with its weight he would be able to deduce the coin's density. A pure gold crown would have different density to one which had been debased. The story goes that Archimedes was so excited by his discovery that he ran through the streets of Syracuse shouting, "Eureka" (I have found it).

During the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) between the Romans and Carthaginians, the Syracusans were initially allied to Rome. However, in 214 BC the king unwisely changed sides. The Roman response was to send an army to besiege the city. However, if the Romans expected an easy conquest they hadn't counted on the engineering genius of Archimedes. Archimedes had constructed a number of war engines designed to cunningly thwart Roman plans. A huge beam projected from the wall overlooking the sea. A grappling hook was lowered to catch the prows of Roman ships lifting them to a height before releasing them to crash and sink into the sea. It is also mentioned that Archimedes set up a series of polished shields to concentrate the sun's rays on Roman ships thus setting them on fire. But the Romans, although checked for a while, were remorseless and eventually the city fell. Marcellus, the renowned Roman general, was so impressed by Archimedes that he ordered his soldiers to take him alive. Not an easy prospect considering the Roman treatment of conquered cities. When a Roman soldier approached Archimedes, he was apparently too distracted with a problem to recognise the soldier's presence. The ignored soldier struck him dead; Archimedes was 75 years old.   
Claw of doom 
The death of Archimedes marked the death of continued innovative Greek thought. From now on the Greeks would find themselves pitted against the mighty Romans and within a scant 100 years free Greek nations would no longer exist. The effect on the Greek collective psyche must have been profound. Previously the Greeks had been proud and superior viewing all other races as innately inferior. With the coming of the Romans the Greeks lost their sure footing in the world. How could it be that this barbarous people could subdue a race of genius? The Greek intellect never recovered. Perhaps the elder gods, in their last gasp, decided to punish the Greeks for hubris. As for the Romans: In the main, the Romans were not interested in pure abstract thought. If science and geometry could be harnessed to make better bridges, fortifications and roads, all well and good. In philosophy the Romans added nothing new. Their speculations were always derivative and parasitic on long dead Greek philosophy. And so Western 'thought' and science went into a deep, deep slumber and would not awake for a thousand years.  

The death of rational thought

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