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Watching the old horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, one cannot help but notice how often the scientists come to a bad end. Whether it is the obsessed Dr. Frankenstein, who discovers the secret of life, or the avaricious chemist Jack Griffin, who discovers the secret of invisibility, or the well-meaning physician Henry Jekyll, who discovers how to separate the good and evil halves of his psyche, they are generally destroyed—or at least cursed—by the fruits of their researches. In addition, many innocent bystanders die violently at the hands of the scientists' creations. But we are never left in doubt about the cause of the tragedy, for there is always a character who says: "He meddled in things Man was not meant to know."
Article originally appeared in
In these stories, we are warned of the dark side of modern science. If science has produced manifold blessings, it has also unleashed terrible forces that can damage nature, society, and the human soul. The mad doctors and inventors of the horror movies unleash monsters, because modern science is potentially monstrous.
An Old Theme
We might think that this theme—that the blessings of science are offset, and perhaps more than offset, by the dangers of science—is exclusively modern; after all, it was only in recent centuries that science, in the form of modern technology, began to radically transform human life. But in fact, awareness of the potential, for good and evil, of a world transformed by science emerged more than two thousand years ago in ancient Greece. Once again, then, we may shed light on our present situation by turning to old books.
Of the writings of the Greek philosopher and physician Empedocles (ca. 493–433 b.c.), we have only fragments, but one of these fragments, from his lost book On Nature, is striking:
And thou shalt learn all the drugs that are a defense against ills and old age; since for thee alone will I accomplish all this. Thou shalt arrest the violence of the weariless winds that arise to sweep the earth and waste the fields; and again, when thou so desirest, thou shalt bring back their blasts in return. Thou shalt cause for men a seasonable drought after the dark rains, and again thou shalt change the summer drought for streams that feed the trees as they pour down from the sky. Thou shalt bring back from Hades the life of a dead man. (Fragment 111, translated by W. E. Leonard)
In these words to his protégé Pausanias, Empedocles, who has acquired vast knowledge due to his study of nature, claims science-based power over life, death, and the very elements. He also implies that such power is a good thing to possess. However, this modern-sounding view is not the last word of classical Greece on the subject.
We turn to the Greek historian Xenophon (ca. 430–354 b.c.). Xenophon wrote four works about Socrates; the longest, the Memorabilia, contains the following passage:
No one ever saw or heard Socrates say or do anything irreverent or unholy. He did not hold discussions on the nature of the universe as most of the others did, and he did not speculate as to what the "cosmos," as the sophists called it, was like, or by what laws each part of the heavens came into being. Furthermore, he declared that people who even thought about such matters were foolish. He would first ask them whether they had entered upon investigations of these problems because they thought they knew enough about human affairs, or whether they thought that they were doing their duty by dismissing human affairs (ta anthropeia) and speculating on divine concerns (ta daimonia). . . . These were not the only questions that Socrates raised about the theorists. [He said,] "Like the men who learn human knowledge (ta anthropeia) and believe that they will apply their knowledge for their own advantage or for whomever they choose, so men who study divine questions (ta theia) think that when they know the laws by which everything comes into being, they will, when they choose, create winds, water, seasons, and everything else like these that they may need. Or have they no hope for any such thing, but find it enough simply to know how each of these phenomena occurs?" . . . As for himself, he was always discussing human problems and examining questions like, "What is reverence?" "What is irreverence?" "What is good? or evil?" . . . Men who know the answers to questions like these, he thought, are truly noble. (Memorabilia, I.1.10–15)
Xenophon's Socrates contrasts knowledge of nature with knowledge of human matters. The pursuit of the latter is proper for human beings; in fact, it leads to the highest good, the perfection of human nature. The pursuit of the former, however, is ambiguous; for knowledge of nature is knowledge of "divine" (daimonia, theia) things, and divine things surpass human things in their ability to wreak good or evil. Knowledge of divine things will yield power not presently given to human beings, power not merely to rearrange or exploit the given natural environment by modest contrivance, but to produce new natural things out of the fundamental principles of the universe.
There is no guarantee that such knowledge will be used well. It may be used to alter or destroy the beautiful order of the world. It may be used by a few to enslave entire nations. Indeed, the statement, early in the passage, that the inquirers into nature are "sophists," calls to mind those political Sophists, the opponents of Socrates, who were known for their justification of the rule of the strong. What would happen if infinite technological power fell into the hands of such men? For Xenophon's Socrates, mastery over nature—over the eternal divine powers that produce all things—would not be good for man.
Reversal of Attitude
Xenophon's rejection of unlimited scientific progress became the standard Greek attitude. It was tacitly shared by Plato and Aristotle. Through their influence, it became the attitude of educated Europeans up until the time of the late Renaissance.
There were, to be sure, advances in the mechanical arts during the Middle Ages, but they were not integrated with theoretical science, and, most important, medieval philosophers were not animated by the desire for a godlike knowledge of nature. Motivated by Christian faith, they saw man as a sinful being for whom greater power would only mean greater temptation; man should not in his pride strive to become a creator. They agreed with the Greeks that some things about nature were not meant for man to know.
Yet times change. By the early 1600s the project of the conquest of nature through science was underway. The scruples against seeking hidden knowledge seemed to weaken. Over the next few centuries, the list of "things man was not meant to know" became shorter and shorter. The causes of motion, the forces at work in the atmosphere and under the earth, the workings of the human body, the origin of stars and species and of life itself—these things, along with their potent technological applications, all came to be seen as things we had the power and the right to know. A science-based technological society came to be seen as something good. Thus, albeit against protest from -Romantic quarters, the attitude of Empedocles overcame the attitude of Xenophon.
What caused this turnabout? No simple answer is adequate, but among the factors were the writings of Francis Bacon. Those writings will be the focus of a future column. •
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