They say, 'We do not know how this is, but we know that God can do it.' You poor fools! God can make a cow out of a tree, but has he ever done so? Therefore show some reason why a thing is so, or cease to hold that it is so.
The first bodily form (forma) which some call corporeity, I judge to be light. For light (lux) of itself diffuses itself in every direction, so that a sphere of lght , as great as you please is engendered instantaneously (subito) from a point of light
If we were to construct a historical account of the natural philosophy of the Middle Ages based purely on hearsay and modern prejudices (a not uncommon practice), we might well conclude that the intellectuals of the era simply sat around saying ‘God did it’. After all, people of the era were highly religious; the Bible says that God created the word, so that must have been the end of the discussion. Well, such an answer may well have satisfied a great number of medieval peasants. Medieval thinkers did not consider it to be an adequate response and they constantly sought better answers with the intellectual tools available to them.
One important focus for inquiry of the natural philosophy of creation were the opening chapters of Genesis. This describes God’s creation of the world and provides a logical place to ground the study of astronomy, physics, earth sciences, matter theory, botany, zoology and all other branches of natural philosophy. The Medieval method of study was by commentary, and one of the best places to begin a generalised natural philosophical discussion were the six days of creation. Many treatises on this period were written and the genre this was done in is known as Hexameral literature or Hexamera. In some cases, particularly later, it is clear that the authors were more interested in the natural philosophy elements than they were in the biblical exegesis. In these instances the biblical commentary format is playing the role of a coherent framework around which you can build a natural philosophical system.
The Hexameral tradition was born in the early days of Christianity. Two writers were highly important, one of them in the Greek world, the other in the Latin World. One was St Basil, who was born around 329 and died in 370. The other was St Augustine. Basil’s commentaries were given in the form of homilies. These were given largely to audiences of tradesmen and designed to relate the creative handiwork of God to the kind of crafts which were engaged in at the time. In fact, what Basil was trying to do was elevate the role of the craftsmen by comparing it to God working upon his creation and putting it together piece by piece. The homilies contain evidence that he knew the Greek philosophical tradition quite well, although his intentions are purely devotional.
St Augustine was to prove more influential and set the tone for much later Hexameral literature with his ‘Literal Interpretation of Genesis’. What Augustine does here is very interesting. The rules he sets down for biblical interpretation are firstly that they have to be logical. Secondly, they also have to explain the expressions used in the text. Most importantly, interpretations given must be in accordance with the currently received state of scientific (natural philosophical) knowledge. So, given Augustine’s criteria, a not particularly smart interpretation of Genesis in the 21st century would be that the earth is really 6,000 years old when it blatantly isn’t.
Augustine himself rejected the idea of six days of creation in favour of an instantaneous event, where God created everything in a moment. Over time (for time was created with creation) rational seeds (rationes seminales) which had been implanted in the world would develop into different shapes and forms under the influence of local conditions, or to fit with local conditions. What is created in an instant therefore becomes actualised over time.
In the medieval period Hexameral literature was heavily influenced by naturalism. What ‘naturalism’ means in a Medieval context is that arbitrarily miraculous actions of God are not acceptable explanations for natural philosophy. Medievals were very clear on this. Yes God could do anything, but just because he could do something did not mean that using his omnipotence was legitimate as an answer to questions. This notion was explained by referring to primary and secondary causes. In the Medieval view, God is the ultimate primary cause of everything. That fact has very little explanatory power, and Medieval theologians viewed an unnecessary recourse to the primary cause as ‘a cop out’. Secondary causation, the action of natural forces which were created by God, were adequate and proper explanations and this is where the focus of inquiry would be located. Hence God creates nature and then forces within nature would have their subsequent effects. Theologians held that God almost always works through secondary causes and within the framework of the world he created. His direct intervention causes miracles, and these are very rare. An example of this would be an eclipse. These happen when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, so we don’t need a recourse to God. However the eclipse at the crucifixion happened during a full moon, so it could not have happened naturally; hence it was a miraculous disputation in the usual running of nature.
By the end of the Middle Ages, theologians were already trying to explain miracles using natural causation, so the parting of the Red Sea was explained by a wind sent by God, a secondary cause. While man could not possibly comprehend the creation ex nihilo, everything after than moment should be explained using secondary causation, with the exception of those unusual contrary to nature occurrences. This approach represents a confidence in the power of human reason, to comprehend a rational and orderly world. It presumably stems from a Christianised Platonism which emphasised the power of the human intellect and the salvific nature of knowledge. Neo Platonists in the 12th century certainly had a lot to say about man’s ability to know things.
In the 12th Century the School of Chartes was home to both Thierry of Chartres and William of Conches who both showed a keen interest in the natural philosophy of Creation. Thierry wrote a treatise on the works of the Six days. This makes its way through Genesis 1 verse by verse, and each verse provides the structure for one chapter in his commentary. He makes it clear at the outset that he is going to expound the text ‘according to nature’. Thierry begins by positing the primary cause, God (Aristotle’s Philosophy posited four causes, this wasn’t available in the west yet but was known by digests). Thierry then posits the causes of the world in Aristotle's terms. God the father is the efficient cause, the creator. God the son is the formal cause and the final cause is God the Holy Spirit. The material cause is the four elements which are created by God in the beginning. Using the second person of the Trinity, the son (the word) as the formal cause shows the influence of Platonism. What he is doing is rewriting the Timaeus in Christian terms and combining it with Genesis. All these references to divine causation disappear after the first page and the rest of creation unfolds ‘naturally’. So where God separates the waters in Genesis, Tierrry uses natural causes to make this separation occur. The celestial fire heats the waters and causes them to evaporate. The vapours form clouds, thus forming the separation from the ocean to the clouds (this comes from St Basil). The land appears because the water is evaporating, so again, a natural explanation.
William of Conches goes much further in the Dragmaticon Philosophia (a dialogue between a Duke and a Philosopher) which is at first, not recognisable at all as a hexamoral treatise. There are no biblical quotations and no explicit exegesis. However the discussion extends over six days and each one is devoted to the natural philosophical issues which are raised by each part of Genesis. Again, he is heavily influenced by Platonism, explaining one point by saying that:
'It is not my intention to expound here the words of Plato, but to set down here the view of natural scientists concerning substances; but even if I have not expounded Plato’s words, I have said all that he said about elements and more’
At the beginning, God creates a chaos, a mixture of 4 elements mixed chaotically. They have a natural motion and begin to sort themselves out. The world then reaches its current form by natural forces. The separation of the waters is achieved by the fire of the stars and the sun. At this point the Duke stops him and says that the Venerable Bede wrote that the waters are above the actual heavens and frozen into ice and crystal. ‘Are you going to disagree with this Venerable father’? says the Duke. William reply is that yes, he is going to disagree with him actually, while respecting what he has to say about salvation, ‘we should be free to disagree in matters of natural philosophy’. He then explains that the waters cannot be frozen above the heavens since they would collapse back onto the earth. The Duke says in frustration:
‘You attribute everything to the quality of things and nothing to the creator. Surely the creator was able to keep the waters there, freeze then and keep them suspended contrary to nature’.
‘What is more foolish than to assume that something exists simply because the creator can make it. Whoever says God makes anything contrary to nature should either see that it is so with his own eyes or show the reason for it being thus, or let him demonstrate the advantage of it being so’.
This is an argument we will see between science and religion down to our own time. What (if anything) do we attribute to God’s power and what do we attribute to secondary causation?
William now takes it even further. He claims that life itself arose from the natural action of heat on mud and even that man arose from the primordial mud (God does emerge at one point to give him a rational and immortal soul). In fact, William says that since mans body came about by the natural action of elements working on one another within the course of nature, several species of man could have developed and the natural actions are still at work today. A new species of man could arise by natural forces. But William says that though this seems possible we have never seen it happen, so perhaps God wills against this. William then says that natural causation is constantly acting, but it requires Gods will to continue. God therefore underwrites and maintains the laws of nature. This would eventually become a difficult theological point.
What is important to take from these two figures is their insistence on naturalism; that explanations in natural philosophy have to come about in a natural way from natural forces. Furthermore we see these Hexamoral treatises as places where speculative natural philosophy can be advanced.
Two later figures were Robert Grosseteste and Henry of Langenstein. Robert Grosseteste (the last name means ‘big head) was the Bishop of Lincoln. He was born in 1168 and died in 1253. He also promoted Platonic readings of Genesis, but he had a particular interest in one thing; light. In the first passages of Genesis, this is the first creation. Light is also a key aspect of neo-platonic thought where the world is created by a single emanation from a self sustaining, self sufficient God. He radiates his goodness like light, and this creates the world. This idea was Christianised and we even see the emphasis on light in the building of Gothic cathedrals.
For Grosseteste, light is a vehicle of creation and knowledge. He favours an instant of creation and believed that the six days are metaphorical. The way God creates the world is this. He creates a dimensionless point of matter and a dimensionless point of light imposed upon it. These are dimensionless because Augustine had speculated that time was ‘created by God’ (so on Augustine’s reading, people who ask what God was doing before creation are being silly as there was no time). Grosseteste takes this further and says that the dimensions do not exist before God creates them. Essentially all God does is to create these points since light naturally radiates from it’s source in a spherical way carrying the matter with it. This happens until it becomes so diffused it stops radiating and the spherical cosmos is created. He then elaborates how the celestial spheres are created. In the next century, Henry of Langenstein wrote a piece of hexamenal literature which proved to be a veritable compendium of 14th century natural philosophy. He is predominantly Aristotelian in outlook rather than Platonic but he does draw on a wide range of sources.
To sum up, what we see here is that theology provided a framework and a context in which natural philosophy could be done. Experimental knowledge in the case of Grossteste, arguments from common experience in the case of William of Conches, were used to further the study of the natural world. Theological and scientific speculation went hand in hand and, in this way, myths provided a sort of scaffolding for the human imagination. Scripture did not restrict scientific enquiry, but instead provided an impetus and a locus for natural philosophical speculation. Plenty of lessons there for today.
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