Wednesday, February 1, 2012

In Praise of Timelines

Speaking of orienting oneself in time, I’ve become quite fond of well-constructed timelines, certainly reading them—but above all in the value of “rolling your own.” Making a timeline makes you keenly aware of how things are related and in the linear fashion. And the very activity tends to force a look at the context in which a particular subject evolves.

I’ll give a brief example here of a Greek timeline of a mere 146 years. It embraces the best known core of Greek philosophical work—but seen in its own context.

Socrates is born
Thucydides is born.
Aristophanes (the playwright) is born.
Peloponnesian War breaks out, in effect Athens (and allies) against Sparta (and allies). It will lasts for 27 years. In the Greek context it is a kind of World War in two phases.
Plato is born.
Socrates dies.
Corinthian War (Sparta against coalition of Thebes, Athens, Corinth, and Argos) breaks out, the second half of the Peloponnesian.
Corinthian War ends when Persia enters on Sparta’s side and saves its hide.
Aristophanes dies.
Peloponnesian War ends, largely because the Sparta’s ally, Persia, provides decisive aid. Persia is the Big Power in that time and region.
Thucydides dies.
Plato founds the Academy at his prime, aged 40.
Aristotle is born.
Philip becomes king of Macedon, and the expansion of that realm begins.
Alexander (later the Great) is born; he is the son of Philip.
Outbreak of the Social War, a conflict between Athens and parts of its alliance—Chios, Rhodes, Kos, and Byzantion—provoked by Athens’ demanding ways.
Social War ends. Athens is forced to give the rebels their independence, in part due to Persian pressures.
Aristotle becomes Alexander’s tutor and does the job for three years.
Plato dies at 82.
Athens loses its independence as Macedon extends its sway and comes to control all of Greece.
Philip of Macedon is assassinated. Alexander becomes king at 20, but he is already a genuine veteran of the wars of Macedonian expansion.
Aristotle dies at 62.
Alexander invades Persia (turn-around is fair play) by crossing the Hellespont (read Dardanelles) and the conquest of Persia is on.
Alexander dies in Babylon (make that Iraq, where else?) and the Hellenistic age begins.

As I’ve noted in an earlier post, this sort of thing is oddly informative. Reading Thucydides is like reading a modern author. The view point, the realism, the whole approach is modern. So are the conflicts that give this period its defining framework. The first date is that of Socrates’ birth, representing a kind of maturation of another age and time. Aristotle dies toward the end, himself a perfectly modern sort of thinker. And the last figure to pass is the man who produced the environment of an earlier modernity—the Hellenistic age.

Since of late I’ve been concerned with mathematics, I would here note where Pythagoras fits into this timeline. He came before Socrates, born 570 BC and died 495. That should please mathematicians—who like to think themselves foundational.

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