Studies in the History and Methods of the Sciences

By Arthur David Ritchie | Go to book overview

CHAPTER V
ORDER IN THE PHYSICAL WORLD

Platonic forms in nature · Precise or imprecise order? · Speculative imagination

§1. The original inspiration of Greek astronomy, as can be seen from Plato's dialogues, was the spectacle of the great cyclical regularities of the natural world -- Night and Day -- Winter and Summer -- the Lunar cycle -- the regular recurrence of eclipses. Here was ORDER writ large on the face of the universe, a guarantee that it was a Cosmos, not a Chaos. But the apparent order, however conspicuous, is incomplete. When the sun has run its course through the constellations and turns again at the solstice the repetition is not exact, because other bodies are not in the same positions they were in a year ago. The solar year is not a complete number of lunar months or even of days. Is there perhaps a Great Year after which, at a grand general solstice, all the heavenly bodies have returned to the same place exactly and are then prepared to repeat their courses exactly; after 1000 or 10,000 or a still longer period of years? This idea ran through most Greek thinking and lasted in one form or another almost till recent times. It was finally killed by the entirely new kind of mechanical synthesis of the 17th century, which made the prima facie regularities of terrestrial observation secondary and their completeness or incompleteness incidental. As a working astronomical theory the Great Year was abandoned long before, when the Alexandrians became aware of the Precession of the Equinoxes; a small persistent shift of the sun's position in the signs of the zodiac at the end of each year. This meant that if there was to be a Great Year it would have to give time for the sun to work its way round through all the signs of the zodiac. It could be seen that this would take an immense time far beyond the possibility of computation in those days.

The Great Year question, though dismissed from astronomy, does raise in a simple and striking form a grave problem underlying all investigation of the natural world by observation. At the end of the Solar Year, let me repeat, say at the Winter

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