Greek mathematics

Greek mathematics refers to mathematics texts and advances written in Greek, developed from the 7th century BC to the 4th century AD around the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. Greek mathematicians lived in cities spread over the entire Eastern Mediterranean from Italy to North Africa but were united by culture and language. Greek mathematics of the period following Alexander the Great is sometimes called Hellenistic mathematics. The word "mathematics" itself derives from the ancient Greek μάθημα (mathema), meaning "subject of instruction". The study of mathematics for its own sake and the use of generalized mathematical theories and proofs is the key difference between Greek mathematics and those of preceding civilizations.

The origin of Greek mathematics is not well documented. The earliest advanced civilizations in Greece and in Europe were the Minoan and later Mycenaean civilizations, both of which flourished during the 2nd millennium BC. While these civilizations possessed writing and were capable of advanced engineering, including four-story palaces with drainage and beehive tombs, they left behind no mathematical documents.

Though no direct evidence is available, it is generally thought that the neighboring Babylonian and Egyptian civilizations had an influence on the younger Greek tradition. Between 800 BC and 600 BC, Greek mathematics generally lagged behind Greek literature, and there is very little known about Greek mathematics from this period—nearly all of which was passed down through later authors, beginning in the mid-4th century BC.

Historians traditionally place the beginning of Greek mathematics proper to the age of Thales of Miletus (ca. 624–548 BC). Little is known about the life and work of Thales, so little indeed that his date of birth and death are estimated from the eclipse of 585 BC, which probably occurred while he was in his prime. Despite this, it is generally agreed that Thales is the first of the seven wise men of Greece. The two earliest mathematical theorems, Thales' theorem and Intercept theorem are attributed to Thales. The former, which states that an angle inscribed in a semicircle is a right angle, may have been learned by Thales while in Babylon but tradition attributes to Thales a demonstration of the theorem. It is for this reason that Thales is often hailed as the father of the deductive organization of mathematics and as the first true mathematician. Thales is also thought to be the earliest known man in history to whom specific mathematical discoveries have been attributed. Although it is not known whether or not Thales was the one who introduced into mathematics the logical structure that is so ubiquitous today, it is known that within two hundred years of Thales the Greeks had introduced logical structure and the idea of proof into mathematics.

Another important figure in the development of Greek mathematics is Pythagoras of Samos (ca. 580–500 BC). Like Thales, Pythagoras also traveled to Egypt and Babylon, then under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar, but settled in Croton, Magna Graecia. Pythagoras established an order called the Pythagoreans, which held knowledge and property in common and hence all of the discoveries by individual Pythagoreans were attributed to the order. And since in antiquity it was customary to give all credit to the master, Pythagoras himself was given credit for the discoveries made by his order. Aristotle for one refused to attribute anything specifically to Pythagoras as an individual and only discussed the work of the Pythagoreans as a group. One of the most important characteristics of the Pythagorean order was that it maintained that the pursuit of philosophical and mathematical studies was a moral basis for the conduct of life. Indeed, the words philosophy (love of wisdom) and mathematics (that which is learned) are said to have been coined by Pythagoras. From this love of knowledge came many achievements. It has been customarily said that the Pythagoreans discovered most of the material in the first two books of Euclid's Elements.

Distinguishing the work of Thales and Pythagoras from that of later and earlier mathematicians is difficult since none of their original works survive, except for possibly the surviving "Thales-fragments", which are of disputed reliability. However many historians, such as Hans-Joachim Waschkies and Carl Boyer, have argued that much of the mathematical knowledge ascribed to Thales was developed later, particularly the aspects that rely on the concept of angles, while the use of general statements may have appeared earlier, such as those found on Greek legal texts inscribed on slabs. The reason it is not clear exactly what either Thales or Pythagoras actually did is that almost no contemporary documentation has survived. The only evidence comes from traditions recorded in works such as Proclus’ commentary on Euclid written centuries later. Some of these later works, such as Aristotle’s commentary on the Pythagoreans, are themselves only known from a few surviving fragments.

This page was last edited on 16 March 2018, at 06:11.
Reference: under CC BY-SA license.

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