Affinities and Elisions

“Affinities and Elisions: Helen and Hellenocentrism,” Heinrich von Staden

            Heinrich von Staden puts forth an argument in Affinities and Elisions that contrasts with G. E. R. Loyd’s in his chapter Democracy, Philosophy, and Science in Ancient Greece. Von Staden’s core goal is to dispute Hellenocentrism, which he defines as the “privilege” historians of science often give “Greek science over the science of other ancient cultures.” He also believes that “Eurocentric historians” tend to embrace a vision of science that places ancient Greek thinkers at the forefront in the development of the scientific method.[1] This phenomenon, he thinks, manifested itself in Loyd’s interpretation and analysis linking Greek political life to its scientific accomplishments.

He begins by citing instances throughout Greek history of an awareness of the cultural indebtedness Greeks felt toward contemporary civilizations. According to Hecataeus of Abdera, von Staden claims, Egypt was where human culture originated, and Greek culture descended from the superior Egyptian example.[2] He also cites the Greek appreciation for the complicated problems that arise when attempting to define and differentiate their societal bases and accomplishments from those of concomitant civilizations. Thus, he argues, the Greeks themselves failed to attribute grand cultural or philosophical achievements solely to their own originality or ingenuity as a society. They even acknowledged the influence of other, equally important parties.

Von Staden goes on in his second section to discuss the implications Hellenocentrism has on the practice of the history of science and some of the reasons that it has endured through so many generations of historians. He targets the tendency of historians to seek out similarities, or “affinity,” between the way we practice science now and the way it was carried out historically. Because the Greeks had a democratic society — as we have now (more or less) — and because they viewed the world in a way more accessible to modern-day people, they and their brand of science are considered more “important” and “interesting.”[3]

Additionally, von Staden points out that there are two cultural trends in the present that lead the study of ancient science away from the Near East and other centers of scientific thought and toward Greece: the belief that ancient Greece is the “fountainhead of our culture” and the modern power of scientific, Western culture as “our lodestar.”[4] Things published and oft-cited in historical work concerning Greece are selective, and only the Greek works that best exemplify the modern ideas of what science and sophisticated culture should be are represented. We tend also, according to von Staden, to attribute motivations similar to our own to past Greek “scientists” when we search for the origins of our culture in ancient Greece, ignoring their very different reasons for pursing scientific-like thinking (i.e., predicting power, religious justification, social standing, and economic security). We search for the origins of our culture instead of objectively studying theirs, and we miss important discourse and complexity in the process.

Von Staden cites several historians’ work that he feels fall victim to the phenomenon of Hellenocentricism, including Loyd’s hypothesis that Athenian democracy had important, unique characteristics that lead to the development of the Western scientific tradition in Greece. He argues that many early Greek thinkers did not even live under democratic conditions, and that if they did, the idea of a democracy was very different in the limited parts of Greece that ascribed to it. Furthermore, many Greek philosophers (including Aristotle and Plato) were great critics of democracy and would have been unlikely to base their scientific endeavors off of its model. Some intellectuals, notably Socrates, were even persecuted in democratic states for their novel ideas.

The author then goes on to paint a clearer picture of what he envisions as a more equanimous way of engaging with ancient Greek science. The lines of Greek and non-Greek are blurred, and attempting to draw sharp lines between cultures and scientific accomplishments betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that science and culture develop. It was (and is) through “opaque relations” between different civilizations’ ideologies and methodologies that philosophy and science was practiced.[5] Using this method, von Staden constructs a very disparate idea of where Greek philosophical methods originated. Early myths provided the original interpretive material about which Greeks debated; in the fields of art, poetry, and magic, Greeks “were not loath to criticize traditions, rivals, and precursors overtly,” and all this before the development of democracy in Athens.[6]

The author’s source base includes copious articles written by those he sees as perpetuating the Hellenocentric ideology (for critical purposes), ancient Greek writings by a plethora of authors spanning nearly 1,000 years (including Hesiod, Aristotle, Herodotus, Hippocrates, Plutarch, Diodorus, Democedes, Galen, and Plato), and secondary sources to back up his interpretations and assumptions.

The argument that the complex development of Greek philosophical tradition cannot be narrowed down to a single or even a simple cause seems to have considerable merit, and von Staden’s claim that much work done in the area is tainted with a modern bias is well-nigh self-evident. Whether his conclusions are useful or practical, however, is another issue.

The intellectual and political uniqueness of ancient Greece, regardless of modern interpretations of it, cannot be contested. Historians investigating this, when exercising their craft, must necessarily simplify what is complex; they must be able to identify those differences that might have led to the development of such a particular society, and in doing so, they will have to make selections about what part of Greek society may or may not have contributed to its unique philosophical contributions. Claiming that it cannot be simplified, while practically true, would render the task of analyzing the reason for Greek individuality insurmountable.

The bias that Eurocentric historians show when writing about ancient Greece, however, is a useful phenomenon to address. Like scientists conducting an experiment with the purpose of attaining particular results, historians who seek out certain trends in history to neatly correspond with modern-day beliefs are engaging in biased practice — in other words, Whig history. It is important to analyze and judge the past in its own context and not with the purpose of glorifying and perpetuating problematic and somewhat mythical beliefs about the development of modern scientific thinking.


[1] Heinrich von Staden, “Affinities and Elisions: Helen and Hellenocentrism,” Isis 83, no. 4 (1992): 578.

[2] Von Staden, Afffinities and Elisions,” 580.

[3] Von Staden, “Affinities and Elisions,” 583.

[4] Ibid, 584.

[5] Von Staden, “Affinities and Elisions,” 588.

[6] Ibid, 594.

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