A brief history of modernity

The history of modernity reads approximately like this. Around the time of Buddha, 500 years before Christ, the world was an ignorant place. It had little science. Reason was subordinate to power. And then in the 5th century BC, from nowhere, Greece produced a miracle.

A series of geniuses, unprecedented in their field of study, came to the world. Herodotus, the first historian, wrote a book on the wonders of Egypt, Persia and India around 480 BC. He was followed by the war historian Thucydides. Then came Xenophon, a scholar and a mercenary who fought in Persia. He wrote the first book on economics.

In the same period Hippocrates wrote a treatise of medicine. Athens, a city of only 50,000 men produced the great philosophers Socrates and Plato. Philosophy means love of truth and wisdom, and these men were free-thinkers of the highest order. Euclid discovered geometry, while to the west Pythagoras had his theorem and the theory of music. Athens fathered modern theatre with their three tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides—and the comic Aristophanes.

 A brief history of modernity

Athens' Academy with the statues of ancient philosopher Socrates and Plato in the foreground in Athens. John Kolesidis/Reuters

In this period Athens also invented democracy, the first time that man chose who would govern him. More importantly, he would also decide who would interpret the laws. The jury was invented. Aristotle, who studied under Plato, developed the system of logic and classification, producing modern science and biology. Cosmology, astronomy and even atomic theory are recorded as being researched and taught in the Greece of this era.

The Greeks pondered about creation. They asked themselves that if everything had a cause, how could the universe, and indeed god, have come to being without something propelling them? In the 4th century BC, Aristotle's pupil Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. After this the best Greek minds moved to Alexandria to further refine the sciences. The decline of Athens and Greece accelerated after the rise of Rome. 

Though the Romans revered the Greeks, and many Roman historians wrote in Greek, they were themselves more interested in conquest than knowledge. The decline of Rome began before the rise of Christianity in the 4th century AD, and Rome was finished off by the time Islam came to the world in the 7th century. The church did not allow free-thinking about the nature of the universe as the Greeks had. It insisted on biblical truths about virgin births, magic apples, god's progeny and 1,000-year-old men. Those who theorised differently were burnt for being heretics. Science declined across Europe as all the best young minds turned to the clergy, where the money was since the church was the most powerful institution.

A parallel development was the decline of Greek language, after the Bible was translated into Latin. Greek science was locked into Greek manuscripts, most of which were lost. This was the period Europe called the Dark Ages, centuries of decline in learning. Then something remarkable happened.

In the 11th century, a group of churchmen called the Scholastics began to study science. They did so to defend the church's orthodoxies against charges that they were inconsistent and unscientific. Their studies brought them to Aristotle, who had theorised on the origins of the universe, among other things. A brilliant clergyman called Thomas Aquinas resolved the problem of the universe and its cause to the satisfaction of science-minded Christians. God, he said, was the creator before whom there was no creation. He was eternal and, Aquinas said, formless. In saying this he was borrowing from Aristotle. Much later, around the 15th century, the church became fascinated with Plato. He was hailed as the greatest philosopher of all time, a position he has held in the modern era. This romantic rediscovery of ancient Greece was not limited to philosophy and medicine and science. It took physical form in Italy’s town of Florence. Here a powerful business family called the Medici began patronising art that reproduced the architectural and sculptural styles of ancient Greece. And so we got Michel Angelo and Leonardo da Vinci. In 1550, the art historian Giorgio Vasari gave this renewal of Greek culture in art a name: The Renaissance.

From here we have the Enlightenment that produced the modern philosophers in Scotland, Francis Bacon and later the scientists of the Royal Society in England, and the people who reformed religion in Germany and elsewhere in northern Europe. End of story. Cut to the modern world, space travel and internet. To most people, this is the sequence in which modernity unfolded in human history. And more or less that is how it did.

As easterners, as Hindus and Muslims, should we accept this sequence as pure? Are we mere recipients of modern culture or participants? Did we have any contribution to make? We will explore this next week.

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Updated Date: Mar 19, 2012 08:54:37 IST