Classical discoveries: Some humans begin to suspect the existence of laws of nature

Signs of a distinctive, new and eccentric pattern of human behaviour began to occur in what became the most famous of all the Greek city states – Athens. Long before the Persians razed the city to the ground in 480BCE this city had become a laboratory for experiments in novel human behaviour. In
c594BCE, a poet called Solon won a victory for the city by capturing the nearby island of Salamis. He used the considerable power and prestige gained from this triumph to seize political control.

His reforms involved redistributing political power so that it wasn't just the most powerful families who participated in politics and the judicial system. He created a setup that can now be seen as the first attempt to create a democratic government. Nobles remained the city's magistrates, but Solon introduced juries into most social disputes, and so, for the first time, involved ordinary citizens in the deliberations of justice.

Part of the reason these people could afford to spend so much time in political and judicial deliberation was thanks to the highly nutritious olives that grew in groves that tumbled down to the Mediterranean shores. Because they were so easy to grow, preserve, transport and trade, these fruits afforded Greek people riches in the form of spare time with which to experiment with new ways of life and observing how the natural world works.

At just about the same time, the beginnings of what was soon to become a revolution in scientific and religious thought was emerging just across the narrow stretch of sea separating Europe from Asia – the Bosphorus.

Miletus, on the west coast of Turkey, was home to a man called Thales (born c640BCE), who became famous for correctly predicting that a solar eclipse would take place in the afternoon of 28 May 585BCE. Thales demonstrated that the movements of the planets could be predicted using a set of astronomical tables originally compiled by holy men in Babylon and Egypt. The invasions of Darius had brought such knowledge, stored on clay tablets, into western Turkey. When these fell into the hands of someone like Thales, with a keen eye for numbers and mathematics, patterns began to emerge that could then be extrapolated to predict events such as a solar eclipse. Anyone who could make an accurate prediction of something as dramatic as a solar eclipse was bound to make quite a stir in a world where such events were traditionally believed to be caused by the arbitrary whims of all-powerful gods. Thales' reputation spread fast and far.

The discovery of a set of rules that governed the movement of the planets in the heavens also caused some people to wonder what else in nature worked on similarly predictable lines. Thales' lifelong quest for a set of universal laws to explain nature was taken up by other philosophers, many of whom lived in Athens. Socrates (470BCE–399BCE) was a famous Athenian philosopher who also believed in a set of natural universal laws. Like Buddha ( see Part 7), Socrates thought that a man's soul could be improved over time but not through mastering stillness of the mind – rather, by the opposite. For Socrates the path to enlightenment involved the application of problem-solving reason, high-powered discussion and heated debate.

By about 460BCE, debate, argument, rhetoric and oratory had become the chief virtues of civic life in Athenian society. For Socrates, these skills were at the core of his philosophical method. Nothing that he actually wrote has survived, but we know a great deal about him and his ideas thanks to his pupil Plato who also became one of the most influential philosophers of all time.

Plato's most famous philosophical work, The Republic, features a debate about the best way to rule a human society. Plato also believed that what underpinned the universe was a reality that didn't originate from the traditional ragbag of Greek gods like Zeus, Apollo and Aphrodite who inflicted their fancies on an unsuspecting world. Instead, Plato believed that the truth could be revealed through philosophical reasoning and contemplation. Therefore, in his description of an ideal society, it was philosopher-kings who ruled society sharing the wisdom of their insights with their subjects.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss