In physicist Carlo Rovelli’s Anaximander: And The Birth of Science, he writes:
The ancient world teemed with masters and their great disciples: Confucius and Mencius, Moses and Joshua and the prophets, Jesus and Paul of Tarsus, the Buddha and Kaundinya… Mencius enriched and studied in depth Confucius’s thought but took care never to cast doubt upon his master’s affirmations. Paul established the theoretical basis for Christianity, far beyond what is in the Gospels, but never criticized nor openly questioned the sayings of Jesus. The prophets deepened the description of Yahweh and of the relationship between him and his people, but they most certainly did not start from an analysis of Moses’s errors.
So when it came to ideas in the ancient world, you had two extremes: reverence between disciple and master on one hand, and you had rejection of other people who hold different views on the other hand.
What you didn’t have — and, again, this is Rovelli’s argument — is a third way, halfway between reverence and rejection, in which you could take in everything your master had to offer and then pick at it, tweak it, and improve upon it.
This, Rovelli says, is “perhaps the most important keystone of Anaximander’s contribution to the history of culture”: the “profoundly new” relationship between Anaximander and his own master, Thales.
Anaximander reveres Thales and leans on his master’s intellectual accomplishments, but “he does not hesitate to say that Thales is mistaken about this or that matter, or that it is possible to do better.”
Anaximander… immersed himself in Thale’s problems, and he embraced Thales’ finest insights, way of the thinking, and intellectual conquests. But at the same time he undertook a frontal critique of the master’s assertions. Thales says the world is made of water. Not true, says Anaximander. Thales says the Earth is floating on water. Not so, says Anaximander. Thales says earthquakes are attributable to the oscillation of the Earth’s disk in the ocean upon which it floats. Not so, says Anaximander: they are due to the Earth’s splitting open.
“In my view,” Rovelli writes, “modern science in its entirety is the result of the discovery of this third way.”
Like with art, nothing in science comes from nowhere and nobody starts by chucking everything that’s come before out the window. You study your masters, make their knowledge your own, and then you “identify the errors in the master’s thinking, correct them, and in doing so improve our understanding of the world.”
I don’t know enough to begin to investigate whether or not Rovelli is correct that Anaximander is the actual beginning of this kind of thinking, but I like his emphasis on this creative tension, this middle path between reverence and rejection, especially in these all or nothing, pick a side, are you in or are you out times.
Filed under: Carlo Rovelli