Wisdom of the Ancients and the Classical Tradition
Wisdom and Learning
A Pan-Faith Tradition of Learning
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
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
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
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
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
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