In 2008, a statue of 19th-century physicist James Clerk Maxwell was unveiled in Edinburgh, Scotland, the city of his birth. Images of the statue are easy to find. However, the Lucretian tourist will much appreciate a certain item on the pedestal, less easy to locate online: a plaque of Maxwell’s equations.
It’s the 2nd century AD. You’re near the end of your years, have a solution to the puzzle of life, and wish to share it with generations to come—and you’re wealthy. What do you do? For Diogenes of Oinoanda (location), the answer was to construct a plaza and inscribe ca. 25,000 words of beliefs upon 80 meters of surrounding stone walls. Today, the site is a ruin, with many of the wall fragments documented.
Diogenes adhered to the philosophy of Epicurus, a Greek who lived over four centuries earlier. An understanding of nature formed the foundation of the Epicurean belief system. Consequently, the first section of the inscription at Oinoanda is a science text of sorts, and a treatise on ethics follows. Some portions clearly echo De rerum natura, written by Lucretius, a Roman, two centuries prior.
The inscription opens with a prefatory statement of Diogenes’ motivation: He has suffered distress over those he has seen waste their lives subscribing to false notions. He likens these false ideas to a disease that, like an infection among sheep, spreads from one person to another and affects an ever-increasing number. He considers it his moral responsibility to rectify this situation to the best of his ability, and therefore he has produced this inscription.
The preface next sets forth the Epicurean meme that fear of death and fear of the gods have a hold on man, and that study of nature, not fleeting pleasures of entertainments and luxuries, is the road to real joy. Study of nature—physics—will undercut these core fears that afflict mankind.
Before he can turn to physics, Diogenes first must address its critics. Some say physics is unnecessary and unprofitable. Others, shying from such bluntness, say that nothing is fully knowable because all is in flux. Diogenes counters that even if nature is in flux, it is not so rapid as to foil study. If this is black and that is white, and later neither is black or white, was there not sufficient constancy to form notions of black and white? In effect, Diogenes agues for the value and achievability of an approximate understanding.
Moving on to physics itself, the text reads in part like a heavily abridged version of De rerum natura. Starting with atomism and certain aspects of optics, the inscription turns to explaining dreams—a kind of vision, in the view of the day. From there, it ranges far afield of what we would term physical science, into the natural origins of clothing and speech, before veering to celestial and meteorological phenomena. Tying these topics together is a consistent thread of proffering natural explanations, thus foreclosing any need for supernatural ones. This is critical to the Epicurean objective of removing fear of supernatural action and punishment. Like other Epicurean sources, the inscription warns agains settling dogmatically on one theory when there are multiple candidates, though one can argue their relative degrees of plausibility. Notions of methods to select among competing natural theories were well over fourteen centuries in Diogenes’ future. Epicurean science looks familiar to modern science in its naturalism, yet it was distinct in kind.
We’ll not here venture into the substantial section of the inscription on ethics, save for one point that has a particularly modern ring. The text takes issue with the notion of “foreigners,” because, “the whole compass of this world gives all people a single country, the entire earth, and a single home, the world” (translation of M.F. Smith). Diogenes meant for all the world—both that of his day and that of the far future—to receive the Epicurean message of the primary importance of an understanding of nature.
One wonders what a 21st-century Diogenes of Oinoanda might do.
- A fantastic website on the inscription at Oinoanda, complete with extensive photographs, is available at enoanda.cat in Catalan and English.
- Diogenes of Oinoanda should not be confused with Diogenes of Sinope, who is famous as a founder of Cynicism and lived five centuries earlier.
- Oinoanda, from the Greek Οινόανδα, also is written as Oenoanda.
- For an English translation of the inscription at Oinoanda, see The Epicurean Inscription at Epicurus.info.
The Long Now Foundation’s Seminars About Long-term Thinking (SALT) have been running for a decade. Over 50% of the speakers can be found on Twitter. Below is a word-frequency cloud based entirely on the self-descriptions of these speakers as found in their Twitter profiles.
Click the image to enlarge. Cloud composed using Tagxedo.
Below, the garden of 19 New King Street in Bath, England, the site at which Sir William Herschel is credited with discovering what he named Georgium Sidus, or the Georgian, eventually known as Uranus. The view shown is looking south from the rear of the home, which now houses the Herschel Museum of Astronomy.
- List the individuals (deceased only) covered in Anthony Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy, Stephen Law’s Philosophy, and Nigel Warburton’s A Little History of Philosophy.
- Remove duplicates. The net is 184 individuals.
- Assign each individual to a century based on the chronological midpoint of his or her life.
- Plot the count of individuals assigned to each century.
- The sources focus nearly exclusively on Western philosophy.
- The definition of “philosophy” has evolved; e.g., with physics spinning off, so that ancient Greek physicists appear, but none from the modern era.
The result (click to enlarge):
Below are word-frequency clouds generated from the self-descriptions, as expressed in their Twitter profiles, of 96 philosophers, 54 physicists, and 63 astronomers (& astrophysicists, etc.) on Twitter who have 1,000 or more Twitter followers. Some observations:
- “University” is a common term for philosophers and astronomers, but not for physicists. Physicists, instead, have “Universe.”
- “Author” is prominent for all three groups.
- Physicists emphasize “blogger” and philosophers mention “tweets” in their profiles.
- Physicists and astronomers use “communicator” frequently, but the term does not occur among the philosophers.
- “Professor” is more common among philosophers than the other two groups.
- “Science” makes a good showing in all three groups, as does “researcher” or “research.”
Click an image below to supersize it. Clouds composed using Tagxedo.