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Ancient Greek literature. Philosophical prose



Eudoxus of Cnidus

Greek mathematician and astronomer

born c. 395–390 bc, Cnidus, Asia Minor [now in Turkey]
died c. 342–337 bc, Cnidus

Greek mathematician and astronomer who substantially advanced proportion theory, contributed to the identification of constellations and thus to the development of observational astronomy in the Greek world, and established the first sophisticated, geometrical model of celestial motion. He also wrote on geography and contributed to philosophical discussions in Plato’s Academy. Although none of his writings survive, his contributions are known from many discussions throughout antiquity.

According to the 3rd century ad historian Diogenes Laërtius (the source for most biographical details), Eudoxus studied mathematics with Archytas of Tarentum and medicine with Philistion of Locri. At age 23 he attended lectures in Athens, possibly at Plato’s Academy (opened c. 387 bc). After two months he left for Egypt, where he studied with priests for 16 months. Earning his living as a teacher, Eudoxus then returned to Asia Minor, in particular to Cyzicus on the southern shore of the Sea of Marmara, before returning to Athens where he associated with Plato’s Academy.

Aristotle preserved Eudoxus’s views on metaphysics and ethics. Unlike Plato, Eudoxus held that forms are in perceptible things. He also defined the good as what all things aim for, which he identified with pleasure. He eventually returned to his native Cnidus where he became a legislator and continued his research until his death at age 53. Followers of Eudoxus, including Menaechmus and Callippus, flourished in both Athens and in Cyzicus.

Eudoxus’s contributions to the early theory of proportions (equal ratios) forms the basis for the general account of proportions found in Book V of Euclid’s Elements (c. 300 bc). Where previous proofs of proportion required separate treatments for lines, surfaces, and solids, Eudoxus provided general proofs. It is unknown, however, how much later mathematicians may have contributed to the form found in the Elements. He certainly formulated the bisection principle that given two magnitudes of the same sort one can continuously divide the larger magnitude by at least halves so as to construct a part that is smaller than the smaller magnitude.

Similarly, Eudoxus’s theory of incommensurable magnitudes (magnitudes lacking a common measure) and the method of exhaustion (its modern name) influenced Books X and XII of the Elements, respectively. Archimedes (c. 285–212/211 bc), in On the Sphere and Cylinder and in the Method, singled out for praise two of Eudoxus’s proofs based on the method of exhaustion: that the volumes of pyramids and cones are one-third the volumes of prisms and cylinders, respectively, with the same bases and heights. Various traces suggest that Eudoxus’s proof of the latter began by assuming that the cone and cylinder are commensurable, before reducing the case of the cone and cylinder being incommensurable to the commensurable case. Since the modern notion of a real number is analogous to the ancient notion of ratio, this approach may be compared with 19th-century definitions of the real numbers in terms of rational numbers. Eudoxus also proved that the areas of circles are proportional to the squares of their diameters.

Eudoxus is also probably largely responsible for the theory of irrational magnitudes of the form a b (found in the Elements, Book X), based on his discovery that the ratios of the side and diagonal of a regular pentagon inscribed in a circle to the diameter of the circle do not fall into the classifications of Theaetetus of Athens (c. 417–369 bc). According to Eratosthenes of Cyrene (c. 276–194 bc), Eudoxus also contributed a solution to the problem of doubling the cube—that is, the construction of a cube with twice the volume of a given cube.

In two works, Phaenomena and Mirror, Eudoxus described constellations schematically, the phases of fixed stars (the dates when they are visible), and the weather associated with different phases. Through a poem of Aratus (c. 315–245 bc) and the commentary on the poem by the astronomer Hipparchus (c. 100 bc), these works had an enduring influence in antiquity. Eudoxus also discussed the sizes of the Sun, Moon, and Earth. He may have produced an eight-year cycle calendar (Oktaëteris).

Perhaps Eudoxus’s greatest fame stems from his being the first to attempt, in On Speeds, a geometric model of the motions of the Sun, the Moon, and the five planets known in antiquity. His model consisted of a complex system of 27 interconnected, geo-concentric spheres, one for the fixed stars, four for each planet, and three each for the Sun and Moon. Callippus and later Aristotle modified the model. Aristotle’s endorsement of its basic principles guaranteed an enduring interest through the Renaissance.

Eudoxus also wrote an ethnographical work (“Circuit of the Earth”) of which fragments survive. It is plausible that Eudoxus also divided the spherical Earth into the familiar six sections (northern and southern tropical, temperate, and arctic zones) according to a division of the celestial sphere.

Eudoxus is the most innovative Greek mathematician before Archimedes. His work forms the foundation for the most advanced discussions in Euclid’s Elements and set the stage for Archimedes’ study of volumes and surfaces. The theory of proportions is the first completely articulated theory of magnitudes. Although most astronomers seem to have abandoned his astronomical views by the middle of the 2nd century bc, his principle that every celestial motion is uniform and circular about the centre endured until the time of the 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler. Dissatisfaction with Ptolemy’s modification of this principle (where he made the centre of the uniform motion distinct from the centre of the circle of motion) motivated many medieval and Renaissance astronomers, including Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543).

Henry Ross Mendell



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