Notes on the Ancient Greek worldview



These notes are based on two books by historian and philosopher R.G. Collingwood. For convenience of expression, I have often omitted saying “according to Collingwood.”


From Collingwood’s The Idea of Nature

1. The Ancient Greek idea of nature Collingwood says that the Ancient Greeks thought of the natural world as follows:

·         The natural world is a world of bodies in motion.

·         There is motion because the natural world as a whole is a living organism.

·         There is not just motion but also orderly motion.

·         This orderly motion is because the natural world as a whole is a rational organism, is doing things for reason.

·         Every creature within it participates in the life of this whole organism and also realizes the reasons of this organism.

·         The orderly motion within nature is what makes a science of nature possible.


When explaining these thoughts, Collingwood does not specify whether the natural world covers the whole of reality, or whether there are aspects of reality which for the Ancient Greeks are not aspects of the natural world. But he does say that for Ancient Greeks generally, the mind is part of the natural world. There may be some who think differently but these exceptions go against the prevailing current of Ancient Greek thought. (In The Idea of History, Collingwood implies that the Ancient Greeks did not take mathematical objects, such as numbers and geometric figures, as part of nature.)


2. Contrast with the Renaissance idea Collingwood says that in the period of history known as the Renaissance, an alternative idea of nature emerged. Here is a summary of this alternative:

·         The natural world as a whole is not a living organism.

·         The natural world exhibits orderly motion, but this is not because the natural world as a whole is moving according to its own reasons.

·         The orderly motion is the product of intelligence, but in the way that the motions of an unintelligent machine are the product of intelligence: they are the products of an intelligent designer.

·         A quote capturing the Renaissance idea: the natural world is “an arrangement of bodily parts designed and put together and set going by an intelligent mind outside itself, for a definite purpose.” (p. 5)

·         This intelligent mind is God.


One of the major problems for this worldview is how to relate minds to this conception of nature. If nature is an unintelligent machine, it seems we must say that intelligent minds are outside it, but then they seem to affect bodies through decisions: how can this be possible?


3. The role of analogy Both of the ideas of nature above are the product of analogies. The Ancient Greek person formed a conception of himself (or herself) and thought of the whole of nature as a living being exhibiting similar characteristics. Collingwood writes:

…he comes to think of himself as a body whose parts are in constant rhythmic motion, these motions being delicately adjusted to each other so as to preserve the vitality of the whole and at the same time he finds himself to be a mind directing the activity of this body in accordance with his own desires. The world of nature as a whole is then explained as macrocosm to this microcosm. (p. 8)


The Renaissance view of nature is based on the experience of designing and constructing machines. The Ancient Greeks were not machine users except to a very small extent and their catapults and water-clocks were not prominent enough in their lives to affect how they thought about nature as a whole. In the Renaissance, machines were a much bigger part of everyday life, making an analogy with machines more likely. Collingwood lists the printing press, the windmill, the pump, the pulley, the lever and the wheelbarrow as examples.


4. The Ancient Greek view of change The Ancient Greeks believed that nature was in a continuous state of change, but they regarded these changes as part of a cycle. A change from state (a) to state (b) is part of a larger process in which state (a) will eventually return. If an Ancient Greek came across a change that on the face of it does not appear to be part of a cycle, such as the change from youth to older age, they would either regard it as part of a larger cycle which was not fully known or easily apparent; or else as a mutilated fragment of a cycle – if the process had proceeded normally, there would be a return to an earlier state.


The Renaissance view of change does not appear to have this commitment.


From Collingwood’s The Idea of History

1. The Ancient Greek conception of knowledge The Ancient Greeks thought that in order to properly know something it had to be something unchanging. Nothing external to it and nothing internal to it would cause it to change. They thought of the objects of mathematical knowledge as meeting these conditions.


This conception of knowledge led to puzzles about whether history and nature could be known, since human history and the natural world are full of change. The Greeks distinguished between knowledge proper and something which is translated by opinion. The Greeks do not seem to think of this ‘opinion’ as something illusory but as a kind of semi-knowledge.


(More elaboration is needed here. Furthermore, there is a question of consistency with what Collingwood says in The Idea of Nature, because in that book the natural world is presented as an object of science for the Ancient Greeks. Collingwood is aware of the puzzle, but I do not think he says enough to resolve it or regarding how the Greeks dealt with it.)


2. Ancient Greek consciousness of historical change Although the Ancient Greeks pursued the ideal of unchanging eternal objects of knowledge, they were also aware of human history. They had what Collingwood calls historical consciousness. But when they thought about change in human affairs, they did not think about the gradual development of a tradition, rather sudden changes from one human extreme to another:


·         The Ancient Greeks thought that “an excess in any one direction led to a violent change into its own opposite” (p. 23): from smallness to greatness, from pride to abasement, from happiness to misery, from wealth to poverty, etc.

·         They observed such changes, but they did not claim to know why the changes occurred.

·         Herodotus said that the Gods rejoice in upsetting and disturbing things.

·         This view of sudden change from one excess to another was expressed in Greek tragedies.


(There is also a question of consistency here, because how does this picture of change fit with the cyclical view of nature attributed to the Ancient Greeks in The Idea of Nature? The Ancient Greek conception of nature included human beings and their minds as part of nature, so is this catastrophic change part of a larger cycle in which the original state returns? These are questions Collingwood does not address.)



Collingwood, R.G. 1945. The idea of nature. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Collingwood, R.G. 1946. The idea of history. Oxford: Oxford University Press.