The Age of Plato and Aristotle

The Sophists and the Socratic school dominated the trend of the scientific thought from about the middle of the fifth century to the early fourth century B.C. Our knowledge of this period comes, in general, from the writings of Plato. The Sophists not only thought that the teaching of pure science was degrading but they even attacked it vehemently at times. This condition changed with the advent of Plato who, far from supporting the self-styled ‘masters of wisdom’ philosophers, professed a great love for mathematics. He was interested in scientific principles and methods – in particular in the elemental structure of the universe. If he had his way, ‘there ought to be a law’ which would make the study of mathematics compulsory to all would-be statesmen. Inscribed across the top of his academy was the statement: ‘Nobody should enter who is not a mathematician’.

No man had ever influenced the development of scientific thought for such a long time as had Aristotle, and it is highly unlikely that his record will ever be exceeded. His opinions had withstood the test of time for nearly two millenniums. Admittedly it had some ups and downs during this period but it is still a remarkable achievement. Aristotle was an encyclopaedist, and with the probable exception of Democritus, he was the first encyclopaedist of the human race. Much of our scanty knowledge of the Greek philosophy is handed down to us from his writings. He was a disciple of Plato but he far surpassed his master in every branch of knowledge. This was true to such an extent, that some claim Plato became well known largely because he was the teacher of Aristotle. Plato’s contribution to knowledge was in the form of imaginary conversations between persons. It is often impossible to distinguish historical facts from pure fiction, therein. Aristotle’s approach was entirely different. He almost invariably assembled the opinions of learned men of bygone days and then added his own contributions to them.

In this chapter Plato’s and Aristotle’s contributions to the development of the science of hydrology will be briefly examined.

By Asit K. Biswas, Chapter 3 of the book: History of Hydrology, 1970, North-Holland Publishing Company, Amsterdam.

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