What Did the Romans Know? An Inquiry into Science and Worldmaking (I)

“It is not that the Romans knew only a little and were puzzled about a whole lot, [rather] they thought — just as we do — that they had a pretty good idea of what was going on in the world.”

“The main theme of this book […] is about what it means to understand a world […] If we look to the Roman sources, we find an exceedingly rich and complex tangle — every bit as rich and complex as our own, but very, very different. Sometimes startlingly so: different entities, different laws, different tools and motivations for studying the natural world. So, too, different ways of organizing knowledge, and sometimes different ways of understanding even the most basic levels of sensory experience. This book is an inquiry into how and why the Romans saw things differently than we do, or to put it more pointedly, how and why they saw different things when they looked at the world.”

Here’s one (brief) review of the book – I disagree with the last sentence and I would not have given it 4 stars based on what I’ve read so far, but aside from these objections I cannot find much in there with which I disagree.

I’ve read half of the book at this point. If not for the fact that I hadn’t updated the blog in a while I probably would not have covered this book before I’d read it all – I’m not really sure it ‘deserves’ two blogposts. Incidentally this might be a good reminder of the fact that what you read here on the blog is not what I read in order to write these posts – the post here is based on 130 pages of academic writing and however much of it I decide to include in my coverage here on the blog, reading 130 pages actually takes a while. If you want to update a book blog frequently you need to either read some pretty interesting stuff, or you need to read a lot (preferably presumably both).

The book is sort of okay but nothing too special. In my opinion the author uses a lot of words to say not very much, but some of the points he does make are really rather interesting which is why I’m still reading. The world looked very differently to people who lived in Rome around the time of Cicero, and a lot of the ways in which their perceptions of the world differed from ours may well be surprising to the modern reader, as will surely some of the ways in which specific beliefs about the world were justified – as pointed out in the book, “relatively innocuous-looking assumptions about how phenomena are related, and how those relationships enable possibilities for interaction, can have major effects on how the world itself looks to be put together, and on what kinds of things are possible or impossible, patently obvious or patently ridiculous, in that world.”

The book’s coverage centers around the writings of people such as CiceroLucretius, Galen, Ptolemy, and Seneca, and it’s most certainly not a book about what the average guy on the street knew and thought about stuff during Roman times – such a book would be exceedingly hard to write.

Parts of the book are hard to cover here in detail due to what might be termed the contextual nature of the arguments presented, and I’ve actually decided against covering a few things which I’d sort of planned on covering here on account of not wanting to have to bother with explaining terms in the quotes with other quotes, but I have added what I believe to be a few interesting observations from the book below:

“when Cicero finally comes to laying out the details of the specific laws of the ideal state, we find the mapping out of the duties of people to gods as the first order of business. Not just any gods, but public gods, for the public good. Thus at the outset, Cicero establishes not the existence of the gods, for he thinks that is a given, but the parameters and responsibilities of the state religion […] what emerges repeatedly is an insistence that the maintenance of the official cult is absolutely central not just to the maintenance of the state as it stands, but […] to the maintenance of justice itself, and of all human society. […] Only when we come to know nature — perhaps better, Nature — can we fully understand religio, our duty to the gods, and the core of the best possible state. […] careful observation of higher-order aspects of nature (its beauty, its order) leads inevitably to proper ethical behavior, both between people, and between people and the gods. […] today, it is often taken as definitional that ancient science begins where ancient theology ends,[38] and many treatments of ancient political philosophy tend to downplay the foundational roles of the gods, even though natural-law theory is saturated with theology for most of its history. […] the gods are never very far away in ancient science.”

“the big schools of philosophy that had developed in the Hellenistic period were in large part […] dedicated to ethics as the primary focus of the school’s teaching. Many schools saw their physics and their logic as deeply connected with, and in some cases primarily as instruments in the pursuit of, ethical ends. […] Looking to Seneca’s works on nature, we find ethics front and center.”

“Ancient optics is not about light, it is about vision. The modern idea that visual information is carried in the first instance by the action and movement of light has become so ingrained for us that it is often difficult to set this assumption aside and to allow some room for the very foreign mechanisms of sight in ancient optics […] In antiquity light played some very different roles in seeing, and not every account of seeing seems to have even felt the need to invoke or explain the role of light in any detail. Perhaps the oddness of ancient light is seen most clearly in Aristotle, for whom light was nothing more than the actualization of the inherent (but passive) tendency of air to be transparent.[12] That is: air (or water) is potentially, but not always, see-through. At night, the potential transparency is unactivated, and the air is accordingly nontransparent, so we cannot see through it. Light is just the actualization of the air’s potential transparency, which thus allows visual forms to pass.
This is a very foreign idea, indeed.
Turning from physics to mathematical optics, we find virtually universal agreement on a different model. Unlike the modern model, where the eye takes in light and thence information, for ancient mathematical opticians the eye instead sends out some kind of radiative visual force that contacts objects in the world and somehow then passes information back to the eye. The details of this radiation vary from writer to writer, but the basic model is one of extramission out from the eye, rather than intromission into the eye.[13]”

March 26, 2014 - Posted by | Books, History, Philosophy, Religion

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