Today, an old debate in a new arena. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
We've talked about the
wonderful Greek word tecnh. It means technique or skill
in making either art or artifacts. In early Homeric
Greece a sculptor or a mason was viewed with
respect. For later Greeks, during the Golden Age of
Athens, that shifted.
Plato said that tecnh
was an innate human virtue. At the same time he
said quite clearly that members of the ruling class
shouldn't mess with technique because they had
enough to do without it. Tecnh was the work of the
underclass -- slaves and foreigners. Philosophy was
another matter -- a higher order of work.
The superb mechanician Archimedes talked the same
way a century later. Plutarch tells how Archimedes
so impressed his king with levers and pulleys that
the king asked him to develop weapons. Archimedes
said no. He said, the work of an engineer and
every art that ministers to the needs of life [is]
ignoble and vulgar.
The Greek orator Antiphon cast light on that
unsettling remark when he said: Mastered by
nature, we o'ercome by art. Antiphon saw
artisans in the business of tricking nature. A
lever or a pulley was a gadget that mocked the
natural order of things.
So Archimedes went beyond the Athenian Greeks when
he applied mathematics to machinery. He knew he was
crossing the line by mixing philosophy with base
art. He wanted to cast his lot with natural
philosophers, not with tricksters.
The Greeks made their mark on western thinking
right down to this very day because they gave
philosophy and theoretical thinking such a place of
honor. The Romans after them gave little to
philosophy, math, or science. Nor did they put much
stock in invention. The Romans were superb
organizers and builders, but their imprint on
western thinking was far less than the Greeks'.
So I think you see the problem here. It's the same
problem we face in our schools today. Archimedes
practiced his mechanics, and his keen understanding
of what machines could do, in a world that
protected theoretical knowledge. That protection
broke down in the Roman world. The Romans were able
to coast for a few centuries on what the Greek
world had provided. Then their establishment fell
apart. At the same time, the Greeks had
limited themselves by failing to honor the process
of overcoming nature by art.
Great scientists of later ages, Galileo, Newton,
Einstein, all walked tightropes on these matters.
Each, like Archimedes, stirred a shrewd knowledge
of tecnh in with hard
abstract thought. But each of them also donned the
camouflage of prevailing attitudes.
These are matters to think about as we try to
repair modern education. When we quote Antiphon,
we'd better see that, if o'ercoming nature by art
means tricking nature, it's only in the sense of
knowing how to go with nature's flow. It ultimately
has to mean showing our students how to honor
theoretical understanding, and letting their hands
touch tools, at the same time.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds