Rather Silly, But No Sillier image

Rather Silly, But No Sillier

The story of modernity, says David Bentley Hart at the beginning of part II of his outstanding book Atheist Delusions, goes something like this.

In the medieval period, when Christendom and Europe were practically synonymous, people were poor, small, dark, superstitious, dirty, uncouth, hypocritical, fanatical and bloodthirsty. Everybody was a Christian, and ruled by the wicked Catholic church, and this was A Bad Thing: after all, in Christendom, classical documents had been burned for daring to question the authority of the church, the arts stagnated, reason hadn’t been invented yet, science was non-existent, religious wars were commonplace, people suspected of being witches were summarily executed, and the stultifying combination of dogma and popular superstition governed the worldviews of an entire continent (witness the way Galileo was imprisoned for saying something science had proven and the church didn’t like). Then, however, thanks to the combination of the abolition of God and the ongoing forces of human evolution, human beings were eventually able to begin the upward march towards being rich, tall, enlightened, rational, clean, respectable, consistent, free and peace-loving. Science flourished, innovation and skill returned to the arts, ideas began to circulate again without fear of ecclesiastical clampdowns, political liberties were discussed and then achieved, constitutions were established, and the secular nation state eventually displaced the power of the church, thus leading to peaceful societies. This, it hardly needs saying, was A Good Thing.
A parody, perhaps, but a disturbingly recognisable one, if the films, TV shows, popular literature (need we drag The DaVinci Code through the mud again?) and even quasi-academic works that characterise the 21st century are anything to go by. David Bentley Hart, to put it mildly, has some reservations about all this:

This is, as I say, a simple and enchanting tale, easily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness; its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail … the Middle Ages as a whole, especially from the time of the Carolingian Renaissance of the late seventh and early eighth centuries, were marked by considerable dynamism, in the arts, scholarship, engineering, agronomy, architecture, law, philosophy, and natural science, despite economic and material adversity of a sort now hard even to imagine.

And so begins Hart’s assault on the vacuous and wildly inaccurate view of medieval Christendom and the birth of modernism that prevails today at a popular level and, more inexcusably, in what he calls ‘intellectual journalism’ (which I think means ‘shoddy and populist pseudo-scholarship’). This section of the book is essentially a series of meticulous corrections, addressing distortion after distortion: from the alleged burning of the Alexandrian library by Christian zealots in 390, to Jacques Le Goff’s perspective on the medieval treatment of lepers; from the rumours abounding about the destruction of the Serapeum, to the widespread belief that Christians disparaged and often destroyed the works of classical antiquity. In fact, Hart points out, it was the monasteries in the Christian West that preserved the writings of Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, Pliny, Seneca, Juvenal and co, and the Eastern Church whose libraries and academies guarded those of the ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle, the arrival of which in the West (resulting from the decline and collapse of the Byzantine Empire in the East) is credited with being largely responsible for triggering the Italian Renaissance.
The most intractable myths that circulate about the evils of Christendom, of course, pertain to the apparent war between science and faith, a war which (if many of the New Atheists are to be believed) continues today. Hart’s deconstruction and analysis of this apparent conflict is outstanding, and worth the price of the book on its own. He begins by describing the account of things presented by Charles Freeman in his 2003 book The Closing of the Western Mind:

Once upon a time, Freeman’s tale unfolds, there was a late Roman Hellenistic culture that cherished the power of reason and pursued science and high philosophy. Then came Christianity, which valued only blind obedience to irrational dogma, and which maliciously extinguished the light of pagan wisdom. Then, thanks to Islam, thirteenth-century Christendom suddenly rediscovered reason and began to chafe against the bondage of witless fideism. And then, as if by magic, Copernicus discovered heliocentrism, and reason began its inexorable charge toward victory through the massed and hostile legions of faith.

This account, Hart has no difficulty in showing, is ridiculous. Take for example the ‘Copernican revolution’, which has become a catchphrase for a paradigm-shifting scientific discovery. The geocentric constraint upon medieval astronomy came less from the church’s suppression of classical Greek scholarship than from classical Greek scholarship itself: specifically, Aristotelian cosmology, in which the earth was seen as stationary, the planets surrounded it, and an outermost sphere (the ‘prime mover’) gave impetus to everything that moved. In order to fit the observable data into Aristotle’s model, which was very challenging in places, the pagan astronomer Ptolemy had developed an intricate mathematical model comprising eccentrics, equants, deferents and epicycles, which is both bafflingly complex to modern minds, as well as helpfully illustrative of the extent to which Aristotelian cosmology constrained medieval astronomy. And without undermining the significance of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, when he eventually presented it – having matriculated at several Christian universities, and inherited two hundred years’ worth of Christian scholastic work on astronomy and motion, without which his theory would have had no theoretical basis – it (a) offered nothing testable, (b) was speculative, in the sense that it provided no empirical or theoretical proof, (c) had little predictive power, (d) maintained that planetary revolutions must be circular or they would not be perfect, and (e) still required nearly fifty epicycles, including nine for the earth. Put more bluntly, when Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, his theory, contrary to popular belief today, was neither original nor accurate; it changed the world anyway, but did so in spite of Hellenistic wisdom not because of it, and because of Christian scholasticism not in spite of it. Or, as Hart puts it,

Lest we forget, the birth of modern physics and cosmology was achieved by Galileo, Kepler and Newton breaking free not from the close confining prison of faith (all three were believing Christians, of one sort or another) but from the enormous burden of the millennial authority of Aristotelian science. The scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was not a revival of Hellenistic science but its final defeat.

Moreover, Hart points out, the clearest critique of mainstream Greek natural philosophy between Aristotle and the early modern period came not from a pagan, but from a Christian, the sixth-century Alexandrian John Philoponus. He suggested a number of ideas that, had they been accepted, might have precipitated heliocentrism many centuries earlier: the stars move, are made of matter and are not divine; the space above the atmosphere is a vacuum; light moves; and a kinetic impetus theory of motion is preferable to the dynamic theory (that is, objects continue moving until they are stopped, rather than needing to be acted upon to continue in motion). Actually, if one was being facetious,

… one might well argue that in the sixth century in Alexandria a scientific revolution in physics and cosmology had begun to stir, taking the form of a sceptical Christian reappraisal of Aristotelian science and of the ‘divine cosmos’ of pagan thought … but then the seventh century Muslim conquest of Egypt brought an end to the Alexandrian academic tradition and plunged science into six centuries of an Islamo-Hellenistic ‘dark ages’ … All this would of course be a gross oversimplification of history, and unjust denigration of Greek and Muslim natural philosophy, and in the final analysis rather silly – but no sillier than historically illiterate blather about the Christian ‘closing of the Western mind’.

I love it. Rather silly, but no sillier.
The reason the modernist myth lives on, in all probability, is the notorious conflict between Galileo and Pope Urban VIII, seen by many as the epitome of the clash between science and faith. But when told well, as Hart does, this is such a good (and amusing) story that it deserves a post of its own. See you next Wednesday.

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