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Wisdom of the Ancients and the Classical Tradition

Ancient Wisdom
Classical Learning
Wisdom and Learning Move East
A Pan-Faith Tradition of Learning

Ancient Wisdom

Science developed in ancient cultures over time. People observed the world around them, studied the night skies, and developed an accurate calendar. They studied the human body and discovered medicines to cure illnesses. Practices such as counting and measuring developed into the science of mathematics.

The wisdom of ancient cultures passed along in different ways among varying cultures. For example, Chinese, Indian, Babylonian, and Egyptian cultures are among the few societies that made important discoveries and wrote them down.

Classical Learning

In the Mediterranean region, many cultures contributed to what historians call “classical” learning. Greek thinkers wrote about mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy -- or the study of wisdom. And, a Greek academy called the School of Athens became a famous center of learning.

In Egypt, Ptolemy wrote an important work about geography and the solar system. The Romans absorbed Greek sciences. They excelled in literature, politics, history, and engineering. Books from Greek and Roman sources -- along with the heritage of ancient wisdom from farther east -- formed the foundation for later cultures.

Greek, Roman, Chinese, African, and Indian traditions of learning grew during the Classical Period, from around 1000 B.C.E. to around 500 C.E. During this time, understanding of the natural world of plants, animals, and earth grew. Theoretical knowledge such as mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy also expanded.

Alexander the Great built an empire that helped to spread Greek ideas and develop contacts among civilizations. Scientific knowledge led to advances in engineering and architecture, producing remarkable monuments and buildings. Religious and philosophical ideas, and literature -- such as poetry, drama, and prose -- explored problems and expressed ideas of beauty.

As the classical civilizations declined, the institutions that preserved their knowledge did, too. However, the Royal Library of Alexandria in Egypt, and another in the ancient Greek city of Pergamum survived for many centuries.

Wisdom and Learning Move East

The fall of the Roman Empire signaled a time of decline and loss in culture that lasted for centuries. As Christianity spread in Roman territory, the Empire split into eastern and western parts.

The Latin, or western, part suffered invasions and unrest. People built castles defended by knights to protect themselves. Monks in monasteries or other church centers maintained what little learning and books were left from Roman times.

In the East, the Byzantines remained strong. They continued trade with other eastern lands. They also continued to preserve Greek learning. However, the growing power of the Church over learning and ideas caused many scholars to flee to the east toward Persia.

The Royal Academy of Jundi-Shapur especially welcomed the Christian scholars who fled there. It was at the academy that learning from India, Babylonia, the Hebrews, Greece, and even distant China came together: With the help of Persian kings, people who gathered and taught at Jundi-Shapur translated, copied, and discussed many books.

During the 600s, the Byzantines also fell into wars with Persia. Eventually, both empires lost much or all of their territory to a third new ruling group: the Muslims.

A Pan-Faith Tradition of Learning

The rise of Islam in the 6th century resulted in the formation of a new empire and world civilization. The Muslims rapidly expanded their territory from humble beginnings in Arabia. And, by the 700s, the Muslims governed lands stretching from Spain to the borders of China.

There is an old story that Muslims destroyed the famous library of Alexandria out of ignorance of its value. However, Islamic teachings place a high value on learning. Historians agree that early Muslims were very open to accepting the religions and cultural heritage of lands newly under their rule.

Since then, the tale has been proven false. In fact, the library had been destroyed centuries earlier. What's more, the Abbasid Muslim rulers ordered translations to be made of the works at Jundi-Shapur and other places. They left the Academy of Jundi-Shapur intact and later added to its treasures.

This translation and preservation effort is an important example of religious and cultural cooperation: Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars worked together to help translate these books into Arabic.

During this time, Muslims also were introduced to Indian mathematics, including Hindi numerals called Arabic numerals today. Literature, music, and decorative arts were part of this exciting period of cultural exchange as well. India brought fantastic fables, fairy tales, and stories to Jundi-Shapur, which even had knowledge from as far away as China.

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