Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Author caught out trying to write history

One of the frustrating things about not being able to get published is to see all the garbage that does make it. So, it is nice to see a publisher getting their comeuppance for printing a biography that turns out to use a novel published in France in the 1990s as a genuine historical source. Veronica Buckley has written a biography called Madame de Maintenon: the Secret Wife of King Louis XIV. As the Guardian reveals she used a book by a French academic written in 1998 called Le Journal secret de Louis XIV as an authentic diary of the Sun King. Bloomsbury have had to postpone publication and pulp the offending sections of the work. One reviewer refused to even write about the book, he thought it so awful.

It would be nice if the publishing industry took this lesson to heart but I rather doubt that they will.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.


Joel said...

James, I thought you might be interested in this article rebutting Stark's "The Victory of Reason", called "The tragedy of theology":

What do you think?

unkle e said...

Joel - thanks for this link. James - I'd be interested in your comment too.

I have read some work by Stark, but not this book, and I read the link. I wouldn't call myself a Stark fan - I am too ignorant of the subject to form a judgment - but I must say I wasn't as impressed with Bernstein either.

I felt his absolute self assurance of the 100% correctness of his views betrayed a work based on a polemic rather than evidence, which rarely gives such certainty.

And he seemed to feel that criticising the outworking of the dominance of the Catholic church disproved the more general point that a belief in an orderly world (as might be created by an orderly God) is more likely to lead to science than a belief in a chaotic world (as might arise from a belief that the world arose by chance). Of course it isn't that simple, but I still thought he missed what I assume is the point and tilted at windmills and easy targets.

Further, he followed the common view among modern rationalists of assuming without ever establishing that faith and reason are opposites, or non-intersecting sets. But no-one can possibly live like that. Even the most sceptical rationalist has to exercise something which I would call faith in much of their life, and even the most head-in-the-sand believer spends a lot of time thinking and using some form of logic. The reality is that most thoughtful christian thinkers (say CS Lewis, or Alvin Plantinga or John Polkinghorne) show that faith and reason can go together just as effectively as scepticism and reason.

So I felt he betrayed his own bias in his writings. But I'd be interested in a more expert view.

James said...

A while back someone sent me that review. Note it comes from the Ayn Rand appreciation society's house rag so doesn't need to be taken too seriously. Here's what I said:

Thank you for sending me the review. I quite enjoyed it although it didn't contain much that was unexpected. As I've said, I won't defend Stark whose presentation was one-sided and riddled with errors. The review is rather more subtle in the way that it misleads.

Firstly, I should note that I found the frequent references to Ayn Rand rather disconcerting (in the same breath as Newton and Darwin no less!). It was rather like reading an academic paper on anti-terrorism and finding Tom Clancy cited as an authority. Each to their own, I guess.

On the question of economic growth, it is very true that this was not high by modern standards. But note how the reviewer slips in that actually GDP per head in England increased by a factor of six between 1086 and 1600.

Given the population also increased by a factor of three that means the economy was almost twenty times bigger. In fact, the population of Europe increased enormously in the five hundred years up to 1086 and this is the best measure of growth in an agrarian society.

The reviewer sings the praises of Aristotle. Well, that's fine (although note his examples come from the animals books which were not popular in the Middle Ages and are completely teleological). But we need to know why from 350BC to 350AD, the Greeks failed to develop real science. I'd suggest (although the point is probably too subtle for Stark), that there was something about the Christian mindset that meant science became possible in a way it was not in the ancient world. There was a creative tension between Christianity and Aristotle's philosophy that was ultimately very fruitful.

The reviewer skips over this and so cannot explain why, if Aristotle was so important, it was Christian Europe and not ancient Greece that modern science arose. As I explained to Charles Freeman, the idea of the Greeks being particularly rational is an illusion caused by the books that Christians chose to preserve. Neither the reviewer nor Stark gets this point.

Christianity was not radically dualist. It defended the goodness and integrity of the natural world, seeing in it character of God. That's why Christians thought that nature was law-abiding, consistent and worthy of investigation. As important, they realised, contra Aristotle, that you could not figure out natural laws from first principles.

I'm also not going to defend the Church's treatment of heretics. But, perhaps the reviewer should. Heretics were invariably more ascetic, more mystical and more irrational than the mainstream church. The Cathars and the Donatists were both cases in point, as were the spiritual Franciscans and the various other medieval cults. Also, the church kept the lid on magic and ensured that alchemy and astrology never became completely respectable. As for Peter Abelard, yes he had a hard time of it, but once he was dead his ideas conquered the Church, not those of his opponents.

Finally, I think the reviewer is guilty of some pretty radical mis-definition. He defines reason as identical to the modern scientific method. The trouble is method was a product of Christian Europe, not ancient Greece. I don't see how he can attack medieval Christians for not subscribing to a doctrine that they hadn't invented yet.

Ultimately, all attempts to portray the Church as holding back science founder on one simple brute fact. Modern science arose between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries in a society that was overwhelmingly Christian in its social and intellectual outlook. The pioneers of science appear to have been more, not less, devout than their compatriots. And modern science did not and has not arisen anywhere else, ever.

Michael said...

I had the misfortune to read that review, and it became painfully clear that Bernstein had not read the medieval sources himself, or not well, but was rather relying on other, modern, secondary sources. All of those sources seemed to agree with his presuppositions, which looks oddly like the dogmatic thinking he accuses religion of.

I got particularly fed up with this:

"“St. Augustine reasoned that astrology is false because to believe that one’s fate is predestined in the stars stands in opposition to God’s gift of free will.” Based on such “reasoning” (i.e., on such non-observational, rationalistic deductions from a faith-based premise), Stark claims that science came to the fore in medieval Europe."

Not having read Stark, I don't know whether this is selective quoting, but Stark and Bernstein should both know from the Confessions that Augustine has a completely reason/observance-based refutation of astrology. He gives the example of a slave and a nobleman born on the same day under the same stars who obviously have vastly different destinies. That's about as logical as it gets, but Bernstein either didn't read the Confessions (despite quoting it), didn't pay attention when he did, or consciously ignored it.

I found the constant references to Rand really jarring as well.

Humphrey said...

I was re-reading David S Landes’s history, ‘The Wealth and Poverty of Nations’ last night and his depiction of the so called dark ages and the later middle ages was positively glowing from an economic perspective. The period essentially laid the groundwork for later success, but more than that, it was a time of breathtaking technical innovation and progress when seen in its proper context. Having listened to a few lectures by David S Lindburg on the beginnings of Western science I have to say I found the article to be highly misleading. In the light of recent medieval scholarship and the new consensus there is simply no excuse for this kind of mythologising. I fear it’s a case of the present day ‘conflict’ between science and religion being allowed to distort and manipulate the past.

Joel said...

Many people still have the perception that Christianity caused the dark ages and that Galileo (the oversimplified revisionist version of his story of course), the Inquisition and the Crusades can sum up a thousand years of history. Even though a basic college Medieval class will dispel this.

ADAM said...

There does seem to be a curious desire amongst amateur historians, and some professional ones as well, to write provocative histories that are not grounded in empirical evidence. I guess that the most absurd claims sell best. This may also be due to our society's profound ignorance of any history besides that which is given to us from television or the internet.

I hope you find a publisher for your book.