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History of Science Ancient Greek

History of Science Online

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LibraryThing: Science in Ancient Mesopotamia Week 4: Ancient Greek science; Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle

Topic 1: Pythagoras and Plato

# Due Date Pts Activity Time
2 Wednesday
11:59 p.m.

Topic 1 + Quiz
Background: Without a sense of context, history is anachronistic.
Primary sources: Without documentary evidence, history is speculation
The first of two topic assignments per week involving both background and primary sources.

90 min.

In this assignment you will meet Pythagoras and Plato. The assignment also combines primary sources (ones written at the time) with secondary sources (modern writings about the primary sources). First you will read a secondary source about each of them to obtain some general background knowledge, and then you will dive in and read some primary sources, that is, some of their very own words as they have come down to us. As you read the primary sources, think about how they reinforce the general descriptions provided by the secondary sources. The study questions below will help you assess your knowledge; print them out and complete them as you read.

Plato is absolutely central to the history of western philosophy. Not many people today, however, realize that Plato was also an important scientist in his day. Even more than that, his influence upon science proved far greater than his own direct contributions, lasting for thousands of years up to the present day. Plato is also the most readable of ancient scientists, for he wrote in dramatic, entertaining dialogues. As one reads Plato's dialogues one may be drawn into the conversation almost as if one were there. Imagine that you are a contemporary of Plato, and today you will talk with him about Pythagoras and Socrates, music, the good, the beautiful and the true, about knowledge versus opinion, and about the universe and the Earth. Enjoy!

  1. Pythagoras
    1. Secondary source:
    2. Primary sources:
  2. Plato
    1. Secondary source:
      • For background knowledge, read Lindberg, Beginnings of Western Science,
        • 1992 edition, pp. 35-45.
        • 2007 edition, pp. 34-44.
    2. Primary sources:


TOPIC QUIZ: The statements are either True or False. When you take the quiz at Janux, you will see 12 of these statements, chosen at random, worth 2 points each.

  1. T or F? Pythagoras founded a religious community in southern Italy that advocated reincarnation, or the "transmigration of the soul."
    Note: Osborne appears to be unaware of the Plimpton 322 cuneiform tablet, and of previous Babylonian understanding of the Pythagorean relationship between the sides and hypoteneuse of a right triangle.
  2. T or F? Pythagoreans defined the “fourth” as a musical interval produced when one string is three-fourths the length of the other.
  3. T or F? The Pythagoreans conceived of numbers spatially so that, for example, the number 4 is "square" because four pebbles can be arranged in a square, and the number 10 is "triangular."
  4. T or F? The Pythagoreans regarded the number 10 as divine.
  5. T or F? Pythagoreans believed that the heavens are made of numbers; that is, that numbers are the first principles of all things.
  6. T or F? Later Pythagoreans believed that the Earth moves through the heavens, revolving around the center of the universe.
  7. T or F ? According to Lindberg, Socrates represented a shift from the ethical concerns of the Presocratics toward a greater emphasis on natural science.
  8. T or F? Plato founded the Academy in Athens.
  9. T or F? Aristotle founded the Lyceum in Athens.
  10. T or F? According to Plato’s parable of the Cave, physical things are shadows or copies of the real nonphysical forms.
  11. T or F? According to Plato, the Demiurgos brings order to the physical world by imposing forms upon chaotic matter.
  12. T or F? Plato’s cosmology may be described as a geometrical atomism, which incorporated elements of Pythagorean thinking.
  13. T or F? According to Plato, the Earth is flat.
  14. T or F? Plato distinguished between the ecliptic (the path of the Sun) and the celestial equator.
  15. T or F? Plato challenged astronomers to explain all apparent motions of heavenly bodies as resulting from combinations of various uniform circular motions.
  16. T or F? Pythagoreans believed that the planets, Moon and Sun move with utter silence through the heavens.
  17. T or F? Pythagoreans believed that the heavens are made of numbers; that is, that numbers are the first principles of all things.
  18. T or F ? According to Plato’s allegory of the cave, the only thing we can observe are shadows, not realities.
  19. T or F? According to Plato, it is painful to look at the light of reality.
  20. T or F? According to Plato, the soul can ascend to knowledge of reality instantaneously.
  21. T or F? According to Plato, the wise man can expect to be laughed at by those who emphasize common sense.
  22. T or F? According to Plato, general forms are real, and particular things are copies or shadows.
  23. T or F? According to Plato, sense experience is a chain that ties us down, preventing us from attaining knowledge of the truth.
  24. T or F? According to Plato, one should study astronomy because it can awaken the soul to apprehend the Forms through the exercise of reason.
  25. T or F? According to Plato, the universal ideal “Dog“ is more real than any particular dog.
  26. T or F? According to Plato, the Demiurge is all-powerful and created the world from nothing.
  27. T or F? Plato argued that the five regular solids are the fundamental particles from which the universe and its elements are composed; therefore, the universe is built up from mathematical principles rather than merely physical entities.
  28. T or F? According to Plato, mathematics is essential to comprehend the universe.
  29. T or F? Plato suggested that the Demiurge, the universe, the world soul, the planets and the stars were divine.
  30. T or F? According to Plato, the creator made the universe from nothing.
  31. T or F? According to Plato, the universe is a living being.
  32. T or F? According to Plato, there may be more than one world or universe.
  33. T or F? According to Plato, the elements that make up the universe are harmoniously related according to geometrical proportions.
  34. T or F? According to Plato, the shape of the Earth is roughly spherical (perhaps like a soccer ball).
  35. T or F? Platonic theories of the Earth are characterized by microcosm-macrocosm analogies between the Earth and the universe or the human body.
  36. T or F? Platonic theories of changes on the Earth's surface are characterized by gradual changes, like slowly shifting shorelines, rather than sudden catastrophic events.
  37. T or F? According to Plato, the Earth's interior consists of subterranean passageways for the circulation of water.
  38. T or F? According to Plato, entrances to the interior of the Earth are located at the Earth's poles.


"Aristotle prevailed through persuasion, not coercion." David Lindberg, Beginnings of Western Science, p. 68.

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HSCI 3013. History of Science to 17th centuryCreative Commons license
Kerry Magruder, Instructor, 2004
Brent Purkaple, TA

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Many thanks to the pedagogical model developed in Mythology and Folklore and other online courses by Laura Gibbs, which have been an inspiration for this course.

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This course is currently undergoing major reconstruction to bring it into alignment with the new version of the course at Janux