The entire preoccupation of the physicist is with things that contain within themselves a principle of movement and rest. And to seek for this is to seek for the second kind of principle, that from which comes the beginning of the change. (Aristotle)
Study the three images below carefully.
What do these images tell us about the civilizations that built them? The Egyptian statues of Karnak are dull, lifeless, featureless, and rigid. They adequately represent the stifling social hierarchy of ancient Egypt. The Indian statues are sensual, even playful, and appear to gently guide the observers eye with undulating curves and exaggerated anatomy. The Greek statue stands out as being most anatomically precise (albeit with some glaring exaggerations) with an astounding amount of detail. One can clearly make out its Mediterranean facial features and even the knuckles and veins of its hands.
But obvious differences aside, there is something else about the genius of the Greek statue that completely eclipses the endeavors of the Egyptians and Indians. The stance, to begin with, is a completely natural one. The legs looks like they bear the weight of the torso with the right leg bearing more weight than the left. One arm is bent at the elbow while the other is relaxed. The head and chest face different directions while the back is arched. The juxtaposition of tensed and relaxed muscles combined with the natural stance enables this statue to convey something the others do not: motion.
The Egyptian and Indian statues look frozen in space and time. The Greek statue, however, looks like it might spring to life at any second. It was meant to resemble the body of an athlete capable of an explosive burst of motion. Scholars believe that the design of the Riace statues (there are two I believe) were influenced by the guidelines of the Greek sculptor Polykleitos who published a treatise on sculpture somewhere around the 4th century BCE. But why were the Greeks obsessed with motion to the point of capturing it (or attempting to) in their art? What was it about motion that so captivated the Greeks?
Long before Socrates would harass Athenian citizens with his “street philosophy”, the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers were indistinguishable from Mathematicians/Physicists. They observed the universe around them (astronomy) and began looking for an underlying system that was instrumental in structuring the world around them. The Pre-Socratics were obsessed with cosmology. The Greeks didn’t realize it back then, but they had over the course of time bequeathed the human species with the scientific approach: using observation and reason to decipher the laws of nature which were universal. Perhaps the laws of nature inspired later Western philosophers to likewise model ethical laws as universally binding as well. It is ironic that nature worshipers like the Indian Hindus and Chinese Taoists failed to take this step.
We may now return to our earlier question regarding the Greek obsession with motion. Nature was in motion. The celestial bodies were in motion. The Greeks believed that motion was a characteristic of life itself. Thales, for example, believed that magnets had a ‘soul’ since they were able to move Iron. When viewed from another angle, it appears that Greek culture (and Western culture) was in motion. The Greeks absorbed the knowledge of other cultures and then built upon it. This is ultimately what led Western civilization to progress from this:
The Egyptians meanwhile depicted the human body like this:
for nearly three thousand years.
Perhaps the Orientalists were at least partially justified in their claim that oriental cultures were static in comparison to Western civilization. Consider the following friezes below, the first one from ancient Persia and the one beneath it Roman (Trajan’s column).
The Persian frieze is a masterpiece in terms of technique and execution. But if you google image the phrase “Persian frieze” you will encounter numerous pieces of Persian art that, while impressive, cling to the same static style. The individuals in these pieces are largely expressionless and almost always depicted in profile. The section of Trajan’s column depicted above is far more ambitious and innovative than it’s Persian counterpart because it attempted to do something that no other oriental artist experimented with: offering the viewer a different angle. By depicting the Roman soldiers huddled beneath their shields, the sculptor attempted to create a bird’s eye view for a more dramatic effect. Is it then any surprise that the West invented cinema?
Yet again we see an example of Western culture surpassing the orient with creativity and innovation. The impulse to innovate and experiment is clearly rooted in the old Greek obsession with motion. I’m not saying that oriental cultures lacked creativity or innovative zeal, far from it. All I’m trying to convey is that the paradigm shifts that have led us to the modern world were products of the Western intellect. But why did the West experience paradigm shifts at such frequent intervals throughout history whereas civilizations like India and Egypt clung to the the same belief systems and practices for millennia? I don’t know the answer to this question but if I had to guess, I’d say the answer lay in one word:
Greek society wasn’t encumbered by orthodoxy of any kind and had a thriving culture of free debate. As a matter of fact, much of what we now know about various Greek philosophers come from sources (fragments) preserved by their contemporary critics who had intended to refute their views. The views of the Eleatic philosophers (Parmenides and Xeno) were strikingly similar to those of the Hindus. The Eleatics, like the Hindus, believed that the world (reality) was an illusion and that motion and change could not possibly exist. They argued against the primacy of the senses. The Eleatic school was short lived because other contemporary philosophers (notably Democritus) refuted their ideas and effectively exposed their ideas for the ludicrous twaddle that they were. To their credit, the Eleatics employed well reasoned arguments to make their case and thus left their mark on Western philosophy owing to the quality of their thinking rather than content.
Why were these views not challenged in India? Possibly because Brahmin orthodoxy was sacrosanct and beyond even the remotest criticism. Even if criticism were allowed, the masses had no means to engage in it as literacy was monopolized by the Brahmin caste. Debates occurred mainly between various Brahmin scholars (5% of the population) with the occasional Buddhist scholar weighing in from time to time. The rest of the populace were excluded. In time this resulted in Brahmin stupidity becoming Hindu philosophy and remaining unchallenged until the British arrived. Some readers may argue that Christian orthodoxy stifled creativity and intellectualism in Europe, but that was not historically the case and I’ve decisively refuted that claim here. The reason Christianity is more suited to civilization building is because unlike Judaism and Islam, it focuses on ethical perfection instead of ritual perfection. While Islam’s ethics are also universal it’s core ritual framework, like Judaism’s, is non negotiable.
The European peoples, like the Indians, Egyptians, and Persians, were motivated by a desire to build perfection. Unlike the others however, the Europeans believed that perfection had no final end point but was a journey that must be undertaken for its own sake. This is why the Europeans continued to innovate while the other civilizations stopped progressing once they had attained a certain level of perfection. It seems fashionable to rejoice the decline of the West in some circles nowadays. If the Chinese were to become tomorrow’s hegemonic power, would they be able to construct a new paradigm to replace the current one created by the West? If the answer to that question is negative, the West may never lose it’s relevance in world affairs and hence will never truly decline.