Science in classical Greece – The ancient scientist Plato, Aristotle and Theophrastus science work and life history.

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Plato was born in Athens in a noble family. Even as a young boy he had absorbed all the culture of his time and was thoroughly acquainted with classical Greek literature, which he frequently and aptly quoted.

The Peloponnesian war and Socrates were the two major influences on Plato was about twenty when he met Socrates, whose technique was to ask a series of searching questions, which stimulated the mental process of inquiry. Thus Socrates, who always sought precise definitions, bequeathed a method.


After the execution of Socrates, Plato left Athens for a prolonged period of travel in Greece, Egypt, Italy and Sicily. At the age of forty he returned to Athens and established his famous academy. He was associated with it for forty years. His aim was to make philosophers and statesman.

The theory of ideas was the most celebrated contribution of Plato to philosophy. It dominated his thought on every subject. For him the material world around us is subject to corruption and death, and unworthy of inquiry. So Plato’s idealistic philosophy made the earth-bound scientific knowledge impossible.

It is remarkable that, unlike those of other ancient writers, the works of Plato have survived virtually intact. The Timaeus is regarded as Plato’s work dealing with his views on science. Plato’s science is for the most part fantastic, bearing little resemblance to modern science. He emphatically rejects the practice of experimentation as impious. Only pure mathematics is to be tolerated. He condemned the use of instruments except the ruler and the compass.

Plato’s chief purpose in studying cosmos was to show the law and order, and harmony and rhythm prevailing in it. “By learning to keep in tune with this cosmic harmony, men day discover a pattern for their own souls and emotions”. But it had a deleterious effect as Sarton points out: “the astrologic nonsense that has done so much harm to the western world and is still poisoning weak minded people today was derived from the Timaeus, and Plato’s astrology was itself an offshoot of the Babylonian one”.

          In fact Plato’s exotic hypotheses were accepted as scientific truth during the Middle Ages, which found in the Timaeus the trinity, the cross of the Christ, and the Holy Ghost, Kepler too accepted without question the platonic idea of universal harmony in the cosmic order.


Aristotle was a pupil of Plato and the tutor of Alexander the great. He was the first universal man in the breadth of his interests. More than 400 books are ascribed to him, and they encompass every imaginable aspect or learning: logic, ethics, economics, politics, metaphysics, literature, mechanics, physics, astronomy, botany, zoology and psychology. As a philosopher he had conviction that unity and order prevail in the universe. In spite of the loss or many of his works due to the ravages of time, the surviving works reveal his prodigious erudition and a versatile mind. Of his many works, here we are concerned with those that relate to the material sciences and zoology.


          Like Hippocrates in medicine, Aristotle was the first great one in biology and remained the greatest in that field for two thousand years. His writings show the breadth of his biologic interests. Charles Darwin said, “Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere, school boys to old Aristotle”.

          Because of religious taboos he could not dissect and study the human physiology. This restriction accounts for a number of errors in these theories on physiology. Some of his propositions, which today we known as absurd, are: the heart us the scat of intelligence and the brain’s function is to cool the heart; man has only eight ribs on each side; woman has fewer teeth than man; the egg is not at first a living thing; the female offspring are imperfect or incomplete men; there is no essential difference between arteries and veins; and so on.

          Aristotle’s classification of animal species contributed to the development of the biological sciences. In this new field his contributions remained the most significant up to the time of Linnaeus, some 2000 years later. He mentions about 540 different animals, some of which are based on the traveler’s takes of legendary lore; but most part based on personal observation and nearly fifty species from a knowledge gained by dissection. He obtained information from herdsmen, fishermen and hunters too. Based on all these he wrote a number of treatises on biology, such as the history of animals, Progression of animals, generation of animals etc.

Theophrastus (the father of botany)

          This Greek philosopher laid the foundation stone of the scientific study of plant life. He was a student of Plato, and a fellow-student with Aristotle. Being about fifteen years junior of Aristotle, he became the latter’s student after the death of Plato. Aristotle gave him the nickname Theophrastus (divine of speech), nominated him the head of his famous lyceum, and designated him guardian of his children. He also bequeathed him his library and garden. All these are evidence of Aristotle’s high esteem for Theophrastus.


Theophrastus was as prolific and versatile a writer as Aristotle. He wrote nearly 227 treatises on varied subjects like religion, politics, ethics, mathematics, rhetoric, logic, music, poetry, love, astronomy and so on. The most important of his works are two large botanical treatises called, on the history of plants and on the causes of plants. Both these are the most significant contributions to botanical science during ancient and medieval times. They became the ultimate authority of all botanical science during ancient and medieval times. They became the ultimate authority of all botanical matters for the next two thousand years.

          Theophrastus did not journey much in foreign lands. He relied much on information brought to him by his students and other travelers. For example, his sponsor Alexander the great took scientifically trained observers with him to Persia and India, and these men provided Theophrastus with descriptions of plants like cotton, banyan, coconut, pepper, cinnamon etc. in the course of his collecting information, he gathered a lot of curious folklore and superstitions associated with plants. Though he did not believe them, he recorded them as they were too interesting to omit. Generally the folk believed that if taboos were broken, the herbs collected lost their efficacy.

Aristotle taught Theophrastus the role of classification in science. So, Theophrastus classified nearly five hundred plants based on their characteristic features. He gave them special botanical names, besides their common names. His discovery of the process of pollination was soon completely neglected by his successors that Parkinson, a 17th century English herbalist, ridiculed it as a fable.

          Theophrastus discusses in detail the damages to plants and farm crops by insects, worms and other parasites. He has noted the particular pest that damages a particular plant and the measures to control them. He was also sure of the geographical distribution of plants according to soil and climate.

          The amount of information he was able to compile is really astounding, especially in view of his lack of scientific instruments. In his time botany was a field unheard of. Little was added to his findings in the middle ages. So he was the first and the greatest botanist until the renaissance. “The botany of Theophrastus and the zoology of Aristotle represent the climax of natural history in antiquity”.

Science in classical Greece – The ancient scientist Plato, Aristotle and Theophrastus science work and life history. Science in classical Greece – The ancient scientist Plato, Aristotle and Theophrastus science work and life history. Reviewed by knowledge people creators on June 07, 2019 Rating: 5
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