Saturday, June 28, 2008

Overtaking the Greeks in Science

In a comment on my recent post about Greek science, I was asked why it took fifteen hundred years for the Christian West to catch up with the ancient Greeks. It's a good question.

Firstly, a quibble. We had definitively overtaken the Greeks in natural philosophy by about 1350. That's a thousand years, not fifteen hundred, after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and could reasonably have become dominant enough in philosophy to make a difference.

I have to answer the substantive question of why it took so long in two parts. The reasons why Western Europe took a thousand years to catch up are explained in the first chaper of my book God's Philosophers which you can read online. It was essentially because the Roman Empire was overrun by waves barbarian invaders and all knowledge of the ancient Greek language was lost. It took a long time to rebuild.

More puzzling is what went wrong in the Eastern Byzantine Empire where Roman rule went on until 1453 and the final fall of Constantinople. The history of Byzantine science is not a well-developed subject and I for one simply don't know enough to answer this question for the moment. What we do know is that John Philoponus, a Byzantine Christian from Alexandria, was the most important natural philosopher of late antiquity. But after him, there is very little more science. I certainly hope to investigate this question more closely and when I have some better answers I'll report back.

Discuss this post at Science, History and Religion - James Hannam's Forum

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

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