Wednesday, September 16, 2009

God's Philosophers - A Review

You have put a builder [Archimedes] before Aristotle who was no less knowledgable in these arts!...After Archimedes, you have put Euclid as if the light after the lantern!'

Julius Caeser Scalinger

n the 16th century, the humanist writer Julius Caesar Scaliger published what would later be described as ‘the most vitriolic book review in the annals of literature’, a tirade against Jerome Cardan’s ‘On Subtlety’. It was over 900 pages in total - twice the length of the book it was reviewing - and it attacked Cardan vehemently for almost every aspect of the book. When Scaliger received no reply from Cardin he managed to convince himself that his efforts had caused his literary opponent to die of shame and decided to write him a glowing epitaph. According to the obituary, the late Cardan had been ‘a consummate master of the humane letter’, ‘a great man indeed’ gushed Scalinger. One can only imagine his horror when he found out Cardan was still alive and well and doubtless wondering why his opponant had so quickly changed his tune. This is just one of many entertaining anecdotes in the pages of James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers which I chuckled over as I read through it. Hence I will not be giving the author the Scaliger treatment, not least because it’s also one of the best narrative histories I have read in a long time.

God’s Philosophers begins with the famous quote by Issac Newton, that his achievements had only been possible because he was ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ (in keeping with the tone of the book, we learn that it was actually Bernard of Chartres who said this first in the 12th century). In contrast the Humanists of the ‘Renaissance’ era felt they were squatting on the shoulders of intellectual midgets; a menagerie of long winded medieval ‘logic choppers’ and ‘wordmongers’ who wrote in ‘barbaric’ Latin and had failed to properly understand the writings of the ancients. This scorn of their forebears began the longstanding myth that the Medieval period constituted an age of darkness and ignorance, a narrative which was adopted wholeheartedly in Enlightenment France and disseminated in the late 19th Century by the infamous Andrew Dickson White. This impression of the Middle Ages remains alive and well today despite having been almost overwhelmingly discredited in the academic community. For example, leading historian of science Edward Grant laments that ‘the medieval period in Western Europe has been much underestimated and maligned, almost as if fate had chosen it as history’s scapegoat’. Another historian, David Lindberg bemoans the fact that ‘the ignorance and degradation of the Middle Ages has become a kind of article of faith among the general public, achieving the status of invulnerability merely by virtue of endless repetition’. Hannam’s objective has been to reverse this trend by bringing the fruits of modern scholarship in the history of science to a wider audience and demonstrating that the natural philosophy of the Middle Ages contributed directly to the achievements of modern science.

In the popular imagination, the period from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 500 to the arrival of the millennium in the year 1000 is a superb candidate for a Dark Age. Yet Hannam shows – by reference to the changes which took place in his home village of Otham - that significant technological progress took place. Much of the classical heritage of Greece and Rome was cut off from Western Europe, but from the ruin of the Empire there gradually arose a society sustained by improved agricultural techniques and powered by advances in machinery; the horse collar, three field crop rotation and the widespread use of water and tidal mills would ensure that Europe could support more people than ever before.

As intellectual culture was rekindled in the West on the wave of a population explosion and increased stability, a great translation movement emerged which would bring the fruits of Classical learning to Europe through the works of Arab natural philosophers. Before this Medieval intellectuals, such as William of Conches, Adelard of Bath and ‘the mathematical Pope’, Gerbert of Aurilliac, had to make do on scraps from the ill fated Boethius and a few other authors. As the translated texts arrived from Spain and the Mediterranean, they were greedily absorbed into the medieval university; a type of legally autonomous corporation which could foster higher learning and carve out privileges from both secular rulers and the Church. The volatile and pugnacious Peter Abelard had championed logic in his teaching; and, due to a series of calamities and quarrels, he ended up being nocturnally castrated, sentenced to perpetual silence and confined to a monastery. Upon his death, his ideas quickly dominated Christian scholarship. Natural philosophy would also gain an exalted status in the curriculum as the ‘handmaiden’ of theology; a guide to better preaching and a tool to combat the growing problem of heresy.

Yet the philosophy of the ancients was not straightforwardly compatible with the teachings of Christianity. Hannam is strong at outlining these issues and the subsequent efforts of Albert the Great and the more famous Thomas Aquinas to assimilate the new learning into a suitable framework. This came with the publication of the Summa Theologiae which was ‘such a successful amalgamation of Aristotle’s philosophy with Christian doctrine that some Catholics have since failed to distinguish between the two’. Yet it was the conservative backlash represented by the condemnations of 1277 which would delineate the boundaries between natural philosophy and theology and explore non Aristotelian physical and cosmological alternatives.

By this time, an international intelligentsia of scholars had emerged using the common language of Latin. They were able to enjoy considerable freedom under the cultural unity and political fragmentation of the period. This section of God’s Philosophers was perhaps the most enlightening, not least because so many of these figures remain undeservedly unknown or misunderstood. A chapter is devoted to demonstrating the syllabus of the medieval university through the life of Richard of Wallingford, a figure who perfected the mechanical clock and ‘left a mechanical legacy without equal’. Peter the Pilgrim became the first to realise that magnets have polarity (a critical insight for medieval navigation). Following in the footsteps of Robert Grosseteste, Friar Roger Bacon promulgated a strong rhetoric of experiment and provided a powerful synthesis of optical theory. However, as Hannam shows, he has been mis-portrayed as a modern thinker. The principle motivation for his promotion of the sciences appears to have been his belief that the apocalypse was imminent and that the Jews and Arabs would have to be quickly converted to the true faith before the anti-Christ and his minions showed up (one can compare this to the present day belief of Richard Dawkins that the natural sciences must be used to convert everyone to atheism before the Christian fundamentalists and the Islamists bring on the apocalypse).

In the Fourteenth Century, a series of remarkable individuals emerged who would propel Medieval natural philosophy beyond the achievements of the ancients, combining mathematics and physics in ways that had not been achieved before. The setting for these scholars were the quadrangles of Merton College. Thomas Bradwardine, later Archbishop of Canterbury, tried to establish a formula to properly describe Aristotle’s laws of motion with the first use of a logarithm. Ultimately Aristotle’s laws of motion were completely wrong, but Bradwardine had made an important step forward. Both he and the talented mathematician Richard Swineshead adopted thought experiments and tried to think through the mathematics. William Heytesbury is credited with the first use of the mean speed theorem (though neither he nor his contemporaries had any idea of its immense significance).

Yet it would be Paris, not Oxford which would see ‘the apogee of Medieval Science’ as the ideas of the Merton calculators crossed the channel. It was the rector of the University of Paris, John Buridan, who rejected Aristotelian ideas concerning violent motion. In its place he formulated the concept of impetus and used it to describe how the planets keep moving in their orbits. He also came close to the modern principle of inertia. Perhaps inspired by Bradwardine, Buridan also compared the universe to a giant clock or ‘world machine’ which the creator had wound up, a forerunner of the later mechanical philosophy. One of the issues considered by Buridan was the possible rotation of the earth. This was an idea taken further by his pupil, the brilliant Nicole Oresme who refuted most of the objections to a moving earth, but in the end went with the common sense approach contained in Aristotle and the Bible. His other major achievement was to prove the mean speed theorem in graphical form. This work would spread throughout Europe before the Black Death swept in and decimated the intellectual culture of Europe.

The fifteenth century saw Europe begin to regain it’s poise and the arrival of Nicholas of Cusa, a Cardinal who saw clearly the need for effective measurement in natural philosophy and whose cosmological speculations seem remarkably pertinent. It also saw the emergence of the humanist movement and their efforts to reintroduce ancient Greek into Europe; although as Hannam shows, they were also ‘incorrigible reactionaries’ seeking to ‘recapture an imaginary past’ who destroyed vast numbers of manuscripts and discarded many of the advances made in the Medieval period. Luckily the onset of printing ensured that the natural philosophy would reach the next generation of scholars, even as it was being systematically eliminated from the universities.

God’s Philosophers concludes with a broader sweep through the 16th century to show how Copernicus, Galileo and others used the achievements of the Middle Ages in their work. The term Renaissance after all, was coined partly to contrast the ‘rebirth’ of culture with medieval ‘stagnation’; although as Hannam points out, the Renaissance was ‘as much an age of faith as the Middle Ages and, if anything, more superstitious and violent’. Magical thinking became widespread and astrology and alchemy loomed large in the thought of figures like Jerome Cardan, John Dee and Paracelsus, or to give his full name, Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim. In the case of Cardan, this led to an ill-advised attempt to draw up a horoscope of Christ. Their efforts led to advances in algeba, astronomy and new ideas of medicine which challenged the Galenic tradition. Human dissection emerged in the Medieval period (Hannam shows the Church never banned it, in stark contrast to the taboos in effect in much of classical antiquity). Vesalius attempted to perfect the work of Galen with his ‘On the Fabric of the Human Body’ but laid the groundwork for his overthrow. It would be William Harvey who would demonstrate the circulation of the blood and seriously weaken the Galenic edifice. The reader of God’s philosophers may well, as I did, breathe a sigh of relief that things in medicine have moved on. Medical instruction manuals of the period advice doctors to always say that the patient is sick, since if he recovers ‘you will be praised more for your skill’ and if he dies ‘his friends will testify that you had given him up’ (although with NHS cut backs on the way, perhaps this might be revived).

Elsewhere the towering figures of Ptolemy and Aristotle were being severely questioned. Both Peurbach and Regiomontanus had realised that Ptolomy’s astronomical system, with its complex geometry and clumsy equant had serious problems, yet it gave undeniably precise predictions. It would be the Polish clergyman Nicholas Copernicus who would defy expert opinion and propose a heliocentric universe. His motivation for placing the sun at the centre of the universe may have sprung from occult theories about the sun, but his arguments for the rotation of the earth come straight from John Buridan and find their echoes in Nicholas of Cusa. Unsurprisingly, Copernicus was a product of the intellectual culture of the time, although he has so often been portrayed as a lone genius defying all that had gone before.

Another figure often depicted as marking a break from the past is Galileo Galilei, yet as Hannam points out ‘Discourses on the New Sciences’ represents ‘the culmination of four centuries of work by medieval mathematicians and natural philosophers’. In his discussion of free fall, Galileo seems to be familiar with the work of the Merton Calculators and reproduces the conclusions of Oresme and William of Heytesbury. His discussion of Projectile Motion builds on the conclusions of Buridan, Tartaglia and Cardan. His observations on falling objects repeat those made a thousand years earlier by the Byzantine scholar John Philoponus and more recently by Simon Stevin. Galileo’s triumph was to produce an erudite synthesis of what had gone before and provide powerful experimental demonstrations. Similarly his contemporary Johannes Kepler was able to build upon the European Medieval tradition and solve two of the greatest problems of the Middle Ages, the movement of the planets and the explanation of vision.

Modern science emerged as the triumph of three civilizations; Greek, Arab and Latin Christian, yet the last of these is so often left out of the narrative. God’s Philosophers restores the credit the medieval period deserves and has forced me to revise my belief that there was something which could justly be called a ‘scientific revolution’ in the Early Modern period. Hannam’s book persuasively argues for continuities and shows how the achievements of Keplar, Copernicus, Galileo and others were deeply rooted in the intellectual culture which had preceded them. The Middle Ages displayed none of the ‘general decay and degeneracy’ and ‘complete decadence of philosophy and the sciences' which Condorcet and Voltaire unjustly derided it for, rather it prepared the ground for the intellectual successes which would follow.

Yet despite the stirring narrative outlined in God’s Philosophers some will doubtless maintain there was a dark age in Western Europe from 500AD to around 1250 when not very much happened in the intellectual culture of the West. The best course of action in response to this would be to cast the blighters adrift in the ruins of a collapsed civilisation with bloodthirsty barbarian raiders all around them and only a copy of Bill Brysons 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' with which to rebuild society. Then perhaps we will hear no more loose talk about ‘poor benighted Medievals’.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Anonymous said...

Professor Sam Berry, Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London has been writing a paper on ' standing on the shoulders of giants- he takes it back to Greek mythology. His view is that Newton meant Descartes as the giant, though others may posit Archimedes whom Newton called 'superhuman'. No doubt anyone interested in this can contact Sam Berry direct or see if his paper is published on line. If anyone knows of any specific medieval thinkers Newton mentioned by name, then it would be interesting to know which they are but there is certainly no consensus that he meant medieval thinkers.

James said...

I agree that Newton certainly did not mean medieval thinkers were the giants. He just ought to have done.

Best wishes


Eckadimmock said...

Doesn't Richard of Wallingford look like Richard Dawkins?

'Don't show this to 15/ 16th century scholars'. said...

Not having seen this book I would be interested in knowing what evidence the author provides to show that the humanists were ‘incorrigible reactionaries’ seeking to ‘recapture an imaginary past’ . As , for instance, 'The Cambridge Companion to Classical Humanism' shows , humanism was a wide-ranging movement that had important effects on most areas of culture. It certainly used classical models but these were often used creatively, especially in the improvement of the urban environment and in the writing of history. The humanists brought to the fore several subject disciplines such as geography and natural history that had become forgotten. One cannot comment without seeing the details of the evidence provided in the book reviewed here but this comment sounds facile and ignorant. The I Tatti volumes on Renaissance culture ( translations of the original humanist texts) are now being published and scholars such as Anthony Grafton are enthusing about how much they are adding to our admiration for the humanist scholars.

KESS said...

To the above commenter,

James Hannam, the author of the book being reviewed, is one of the main posters at this blog. He is a historian of science with a Ph.D. (Cambridge) in the field of medieval and early modern scientific history.

Being a 15th/16th century scholar, I'm somewhat confident that James is knowledgeable in the field. You may want to look up the reviews of the book across British papers and various websites. I think you'll find that even those of a more humanist bent have enjoyed it. You might want to pick up a copy yourself and see what "evidence" he has to offer.

Reply to KESS said...

if Dr. Hannam is an expert as you describe, he will surely know enough about humanism to know that his views go against current scholarship and that he will need to defend them if he is to be taken seriously. I am sure he would not have said what he is quoted as saying without some elaboration in his text. I shall see if I can find other reviews to reassure me but,as I live many miles from a bookshop and don't intend to buy this book, I hoped from elucidation from the reviewer or possible even Dr. Hannam himself. He may well have an excellent case to make and it would be sad if there were no iconoclasts.

James said...

That humanists were “incorrigible reactionaries” has become the most quoted phrase in the book. And yes, some people, including Noel Malcolm, don’t like it. The case for this phrase is made in some detail in the book which also includes a good deal of annotation. Although the scholarly consensus has always been that the humanists were good guys, Charles Nauert and others have more recently argued that they are overrated. As the humanists were bookish scholars and modern academics are bookish scholars they tend to recognise each other and get on well. This makes objectivity rather difficult.

But there is little doubt that humanism deliberately led to the wholesale abandonment of medieval scholarship. This was a bad thing because there was a great deal more of interest in the philosophy of the Middle Ages than it was given credit for.

There is plenty of evidence for this given in my book. Although anon lives a long way from a bookshop, he can still use Amazon if he is interested in what I have to say. I hope he will forgive me if I do not repeat what is already in the public domain.

However, Anon can read my Phd thesis for free where he will find how humanists expelled medieval scholarship from Oxford and Cambridge. It's here:

Best wishes


'Don't show this...' said...

Reply to James Hannam. It was partly the breadth of Nauert 's book that led me to note your comment - but Anthony Grafton and Ingrid Rowland and many other scholars would also find it extraordinary. There will always be some discussion on how successful the humanists were in influencing the culture of their age but while one can certainly say that some initiatives were ineffectual, it is hard to see the ways in which they were reactionary, certainly in the generalised way the quotation suggests. However, I am happy to reserve judgment on your own approach until I have seen your book if it comes my way.
Your Ph. D is noted- thank you for the link.

Chris Masters said...

What fun to get started into God's Philosophers only yesterday and read for the first time of the Sutton Hoo treasure, and then come across this article;

Hoard shines light on Dark Ages

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