I have been teasing out the relevance of ancient cultures for modern dilemmas. This has constantly involved evaluations, moral judgements indeed. The issues include some that go to the heart of the question of how we should live, as individuals, in our own immediate groups, in relation to the wider general community. All description, all history, is evaluative. Yet let me return now, briefly, in conclusion, to some reflections on the pitfalls and the prizes in the investigation of ancient societies and to the question of how history of science can help to throw light on ongoing philosophical problems.
The distance that separates antiquity from ourselves can be seen as at once an obstacle and an opportunity. We should never underestimate how difficult it is to recover ancient aims, goals, preoccupations, and expectations. But while both in those respects, and in terms of what they considered they knew already, their starting points were so different from ours, there is still a sense in which their ambition to understand, and their endeavours to carry their contemporaries with them, are analogous to those we engage in ourselves. The hermeneutic tasks increase the further back in time we go—that is where the particular obstacles lie—but they are not such as to block every effort at interpretation. The opportunities are a matter of the insights we can gain into the different forms those ambitions took and the different styles of understanding that were cultivated. In the process we can become more aware of the limitations of our own preconceptions, the narrowness of our own values, and the potential inadequacy of our institutions to deal with the exponentially increasing problems of the modern world. To be sure, we do not have to study ancient cultures to achieve that self-awareness: but I would claim that it is one way to do so.
Many have come away from the historical encounter with ancient societies with a strong sense of how each was the prisoner of its own value systems and political prejudices, and of how what was claimed as
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Publication information: Book title: Ancient Worlds, Modern Reflections: Philosophical Perspectives on Greek and Chinese Science and Culture. Contributors: Geoffrey Lloyd - Author. Publisher: Clarendon. Place of publication: Oxford, England. Publication year: 2004. Page number: 188.
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