Natural Philosophy Jacklyn condon- WOH2012

By about 1000 B.C.E. Greece had inherited knowledge about astronomy from Egypt and Babylon. At this time religion and science were one in the same, as the Gods were responsible for all natural phenomena.

Around 700 B.C.E. the Greeks became the first intellectuals to separate from religion and look at the world from a naturalist point of view.

This point in time is considered the birth of science as we know it, and many aspects of our lives today can be dated back to ancient Greece philosophers challenging the truths that they had previously known.

What is natural philosophy?

Natural philosophy was first introduced by the Greeks in about 700 B.C.E. They took astronomical ideas passed down from ancient Egypt and Babylon, but decided those ideas would be better explained if they were separate from religion (Swineburn University of Technology, 2010). Once naturalism became more widely accepted by intellectuals, Greek scientists and philosophers began creating a multitude of ideas all based on the fact that natural phenomena can be better explained without the involvement of Gods. From this, science was born in forms such as geometry, mathematics, astronomy, and physics. Almost everything that we know about the natural world today is due to the radical thinking of some of the brightest and bravest minds in history.

Thales (624-547 B.C.E.)

Pictured above is Thales, "the father of Greek philosophy". He was an engineer by occupation but is known for his philosophy, as well as science and mathematics. He was the first well known naturalist and went on to teach many other important intellectuals, who no doubt passed on his ideas to their pupils as well. Thales was the first to propose the idea that all natural processes are governed by a set of natural laws, which may seem broad and unimpressive at first, but this idea formed the entire basis on which our scientific world stands. To this day we are still striving to unlock and interpret these laws that we come into contact with on a daily basis.

The kinds of questions that natural philosophy led to were generally ones that ancient Greeks had encountered before, except now they had to tweak those ideas in order to replace the actions of the Gods with more reasonable and scientific explanations.
"The momentous leap from 'mythos' to 'logos'." (Burkert, 1999)

Scientists and philosophers alike were now free to ponder the universe in a completely unrestricted way. The origin of the universe was often a topic of study, though even today we still do not know for sure how everything came to be. Some thought that matter has to have always existed, based off the idea that matter cannot come from nothing. Others believe that the creation of matter marked the creation of the universe. Pythagoras, a pupil of Thales, took an avid liking to the study of geometry. He claimed that all relations in the natural world could be reduced to numbers, and often studied music in this way as well as science. Pythagoras was extremely influential then and even now his ideas and theories, such as the Pythagorean theorem, are taught in classrooms worldwide. He claimed that "geometry is the architecture of the universe", and so far nothing has been found to disprove this multiple thousand year old idea proposed by someone who had no tools other than his mind and paper to write on (Fernández-Armesto, 5.2.3).

Greek society went through a drastic change during this shift between mythical and logical thinking. The Academy of Athens was founded in 380 B.C.E. and allowed teachers and pupils from all around to come together and share ideas, influencing each other and creating a vast network of knowledge. Many iconic sages such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle studied at the academy and made incredible progress in all fields of science and mathematics.

The spread of Hellenism

Ancient Greece trading routes during the birth of natural philosophy (500 B.C.E).

Once Hellenism, this naturalist way of looking at the world, took hold in Greece it was only a matter of time before surrounding areas caught on. Trade was extremely prevalent in the ancient world and allowed the great societies of the time to become what they did. It also nurtured the spread of ideas and culture. Hellenism became advanced very quick and the societies along the edge of the Mediterranean that Greece often traded with (Afroeurasia) saw the potential of this new way of thinking and it did not take very long for ideas to spread throughout a multitude of cultures.

To this day, the effects of natural philosophy are extremely prevalent. If you've ever taken a math or science class, then you have reaped the benefits of a people that lived thousands of years ago, who were somehow able to advance well beyond their time. Since the time of ancient Greece, we have tested and perfected ideas proposed and used them as a basis to get to where we are today. However, western societies especially still struggle to find a balance between science and religion. This can be seen in the debate between creationism and evolution, and in some ways religion will probably always oppose science. Brilliance such as that of ancient Greece has not been found in such magnitude since then, and its influence on the world as a whole makes the ancient Greeks some of the most respected and well known people in history.

Works cited:

Burkert, Walter. Michigan Quarterly Review. (1999). Retrieved February 16, 2017. <;c=mqr;c=mqrarchive;idno=act2080.0038.205;rgn=main;view=text;xc=1;g=mqrg>

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. The world: a history. 3rd ed. Vol. 1, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2007.

Swineburn University of Technology. (2010). Retrieved February 16, 2017. <>


Created with images by ernenn - "IMG_0007" • PublicDomainPictures - "antique art artwork" • Kristoffer Trolle - "Lady sitting in front of Parthenon on Acropolis, Athens, Greece"

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