Thursday, November 5, 2009

Prisca Sapientia: Primal Wisdom

"Monsieur Newton croit avoir decouvert assez clairement que les Anciens comme Pythagore, Platon, &c, avoient toutes les demonstrations qu'il donne du veritable Systeme du Monde...." -- Nicolas Fatio de Duiller, mathematician, February 5th 1691/2

"This [heliocentrism] was the philosophy taught of old by Philolaus, Aristarchus of Samos, Plato in his riper years, the whole sect of Pythagoreans, and that wisest king of the Romans, Numa Pompilius." -- Isaac Newton, mathematician, 1694

"...the Egyptians...concealed mysteries that were above the common herd under the veil of religious rites and hieroglyphic symbols." -- Isaac Newton, mathematician, 1694

"...the Corpus Hermeticum -- Greek and Latin translations of supposedly ancient Egyptian concepts -- Newton regarded the stream of such writings as an expression of the prisca sapientia, as it was called in Renaissance times, i.e., the wisdom of the ancients." -- I.M. Oderberg, writer, 1986

"This question of measurement is only one example of Newton's faith in the prisca sapientia of Ancient Egypt. He was also convinced that atomic theory, heliocentricity and gravitation had been known there [See McGuire and Rattansi (1966, p. 110)]." -- Martin Bernal, historian, 1987

"There's a tradition of scholarship that was very popular in the Renaissance called the prisca sapientia, the primal wisdom. It claimed that there was a secret wisdom that was first transmitted by an archetypical figure—say, for example, Moses—and then passed down through a line of successors, usually including Pythagoras, Plato, and so forth, and that this wisdom was really the ultimate tool for understanding the universe. Newton clearly believed that." -- Bill Newman, historian, November 15th 2005

MathPages.Com: Prisca Sapientia.

It's ironic that most of the men who participated in the "scientific revolution", whose contributions seem (to us) so original and innovative, were themselves convinced that they were merely re-discovering the vast body of pristine knowledge (prisca sapientia) that had been possessed by the ancients, but somehow lost and forgotten during the centuries that came to be called the "dark ages" of western civilization. This was not an entirely unreasonable belief, because the great works, both material and intellectual, of the classical civilizations were (and to some extent still are) very imposing. The intellectual culture of Western Europe really did decline during the fall of Rome, and the institutions for preserving and passing along knowledge, as well as the inclination to do so, were severely diminished. Then, after so long an absence, when the ancient texts were re-discovered, the scholars of the Renasiance and later periods were acutely aware of their intellectual inferiority vis-a-vis "the ancients". Also, the fact that many of the ancient texts were now available only in fragmentary form, often in third-hand translations, and many of the references were to works totally unknown and presumably lost, contributed to the impression that the ancients had known far MORE, if we could only find it out.

This attitude toward the past is, in some ways, the exact opposite of our usual view today, which is of a totally ordered sequence of eras progressing from less knowledge in the past to more knowledge in the future. It's hard for us to imagine, today, the intellectual climate among people who believed (knew) they were scientifically and mathematically inferior to their ancestors in the distant past.
Well, it's not hard for me anyway. I recognize the ancients were centuries (if not millenia) more scientifically and technologically advanced than we are today.


Anaconda said...

There is no question that the classical civilizations, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and China and also possibly India had ancient wisdom and scientific understanding that was lost during the "dark ages" in the Western World.

And undoubtedly, as well, during the Renaissance, Western men of science & learning came to realize this.

So, the question becomes not whether ancient learning & science were lost and then found, but, rather, how much was lost, and what was the cutting edge extent of ancient science & learning and technological prowess, and whether there is still ancient science & learning that can be uncovered, which will add to our scientific understanding and technological prowess, Today?

That is a very good question and one that Man should strive to answer as best as possible -- while realizing we may never know the full extent of prior knowledge that was lost to the benefit of humanity.

OilIsMastery said...

Democritus knew everything we know now and more.

He knew about the Milky Way.
He knew about atoms.
He knew about magnetism.
He knew about expansion tectonics.
He knew about worlds in collision.
He knew about comet Venus.
He knew about aliens.

"Democritus however, insists upon the truth of his view and affirms that certain stars [Venus] have been seen when comets dissolve." -- Aristotle, philosopher, Meteorology, 350 B.C.

"He [Democritus] said that the ordered worlds are boundless and differ in size, and that in some there is neither sun nor moon, but that in others, both are greater than with us, and yet with others more in number. And that the intervals between the ordered worlds are unequal, here more and there less, and that some increase, others flourish and others decay, and here they come into being and there they are eclipsed. But that they are destroyed by colliding with one another. And that some ordered worlds are bare of animals and plants and all water." -- Hippolytus, priest, 2nd century

It terrifies me to think about the things Pythagoras knew.

"Abaris was called Aethrobates, the walker in air; for he was carried in the air on an arrow of the Hyperborean Apollo, over rivers, seas and inaccessible places. It is believed that this was the method employed by Pythagoras when on the same day he discoursed with his friends at Metapontum and Tauromenium." -- Porphyry, philosopher, 3rd century

Raptor Lewis said...

Hence, the word "Renaissance" means "re-birth" in Italian. ;)

Fungus FitzJuggler III said...

Why should we share this knowledge with people who believe that they are "at war" with Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam and Nicaragua? And Venezuala? I could go on but do you get the point?
We are of a mind to cleanse the surface of the earth with radiation to improve the pace of mutation in the hope of improving life on earth. "Humans" are a great disappointment. Petty, greedy and vicious. The time of culling is approaching.

OilIsMastery said...


I see what you mean.

It's no longer a mystery why the ancients wrote in hieroglyphics.

They were trying to prevent interplanetary warfare as well.