Greek mathematics, as that term is used in this article, is the mathematics written in Greek, developed from the 6th century BC to the 5th century AD around the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean. The word "mathematics" itself derives from the ancient Greek Î¼Î¬Î¸Î·Î¼Î± (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 origins of Greek mathematics are not easily documentable. While no direct evidence is available, it is generally thought that the neighboring Babylonians and Egyptians 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 periodâ€”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 day of birth and death are estimated from the eclipse of 585 BCE, 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 Theorem of Thales, 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.
Statue of Euclid in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
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 survives, except for possibly the surviving "Thales-fragments", which are of disputed reliability. However, many historians have argued that much of the mathematical knowledge ascribed to Thales was in fact 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 that 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 Proclusâ€™ commentary on Euclid written centuries later. Some of these later works, such as Aristotleâ€™s commentary on the Pythagoreans, are themselves only known from a few surviving fragments.
Thales is supposed to have used geometry to solve problems such as calculating the height of pyramids based on the length of shadows, and the distance of ships from the shore. He is also credited by tradition with having made the first proof of a geometric theorem - the "Theorem of Thales" described above. Pythagoras is widely credited with recognizing the mathematical basis of musical harmony, and according to Proclus' commentary on Euclid he discovered the theory of proportionals and constructed regular solids. Some modern historians have questioned whether he really constructed all five regular solids, suggesting instead that it is more reasonable to assume that he constructed just three of them. Some ancient sources attribute the discovery of the Pythagorean theorem to Pythagoras, whereas others claim it was a proof for the theorem that he discovered. Modern historians believe that the principle itself was known to the Babylonians and likely imported from them. The Pythagoreans regarded numerology and geometry as fundamental to understanding the nature of the universe and therefore central to their philosophical and religious ideas. They are credited with numerous mathematical advances, such as the discovery of irrational numbers. Historians credit them with a major role in the development of Greek mathematics (particularly number theory and geometry) into a coherent logical system based on clear definitions and proven theorems that was considered to be a subject worthy of study in its own right, without regard to the practical applications that had been the primary concern of the Egyptians and Babylonians.