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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

D'Arcy W. Thompson 
Aristotle's Natural Science

From, D'Arcy W. Thompson, Natural Science,
in R.W. Livingstone (ed.), The Legacy of Greece, Oxford University Press, 1921.


There is a little essay of Goethe's called, simply, Die Natur. It comes among those tracts on Natural Science in which the poet and philosopher turned his restless mind to problems of light and colour, of leaf and flower, of bony skull and kindred vertebra; and it sounds like a prose-poem, a noble paean, eulogizing the love and glorifying the study of Nature. Some twenty-five hundred years before, Anaximander had written a book with the same title, Concerning Nature, περι φυσεως {peri physeĆ“s}: but its subject was not the same. It was a variant of the old traditional cosmogonies. It told of how in the beginning the earth was without form and void. It sought to trace all things back to the Infinite, το απειρον {to apeiron}--to That which knows no bounds of space or time but is before all worlds, and to whose bosom again all things, all worlds, return. For Goethe Nature meant the beauty, the all but sensuous beauty of the world; for the older philosopher it was the mystery of the Creative Spirit.

Than Nature, in Goethe's sense, no theme is more familiar to us, for whom many a poet tells the story and many a lesser poet echoes the conceit; but if there be anywhere in Greek such overt praise and worship of Nature's beauty, I cannot call it to mind. Yet in Latin the divini gloria ruris is praised and Natura daedala rerum worshipped, as we are wont to praise and worship them, for their own sweet sakes. It is one of the ways, one of the simpler ways, in which the Roman world seems nearer to us than the Greek: and not only seems, but is so. For compared with the great early civilizations, Rome is modern and of the West; while, draw her close as we may to our hearts, Greece brings along with her a breath of the East and a whisper of remote antiquity. A Tuscan gentleman of to-day, like a Roman gentleman of yesterday, is at heart a husbandman, like Cato; he is ruris amator, like Horace; he gets him to his little farm or vineyard (O rus, quando te aspiciam!), like Atticus or the younger Pliny. As Bacon praised his garden, so does Pliny praise his farm, with its cornfields and meadowland, vineyard and woodland, orchard and pasture, bee-hives and flowers. That God made the country and man made the town was (long before Cowper) a saying of Varro's; but in Greek I can think of no such apophthegm.

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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

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