A few weeks ago when I had lunch with Bradley Monton, his colleague and friend Robert Pasnau came along as well. Pasnau introduced himself to me as a philosopher specializing in medieval philosophy. I tried to think of something intelligent to say to that, and I have to admit nothing came out. It wasn’t that I don’t know anything about the Middle Ages; it was that I had no idea where to start with someone who was so vastly more qualified than me. I joked about it a few minutes later, and he replied in all good humor, “I’m used to it; I get a lot of blank faces when I tell people what I do.” We ended up having a good talk in spite of my embarrassingly slow start.
I thought about that after I read James Hannam’s book, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science. I worry that a book with both “philosophers” and “medieval” in its title will elicit blank faces among potential readers, like my initial response to Robert Pasnau. It would be a shame if it did; for Hannam, a Ph.D. historian of science with degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge, knows how to write readable history — and the tale he tells is truly fascinating.
It is the latest entry in a controversy with a history of its own. Hannam speaks of the myth that “there was no science worth mentioning in the Middle Ages,” and “the Church held back what meagre advances were made.” These beliefs took flower as late as the 19th century with Thomas Henry Huxley, John William Draper, and Andrew Dickson White, who tried to paint religion as the enemy of science. Their story has been told often; Hannam himself has blogged on it.
A.D. White’s part is particularly unfortunate, in that he produced a highly influential, heavily footnoted, apparently scholarly tome on the historic warfare between science and religion. Hannam assesses his work this way:
Anyone who checks his references will wonder how he could have maintained his opinions if he had read as much as he claimed to have done.
Others have treated White less gently than that.
Hannam situates these myths in historical context:
The denigration of the Middle Ages began as long ago as the sixteenth century, when humanists, the intellectual trendsetters of the time, started to champion classical Greek and Roman literature. They cast aside medieval scholarship on the grounds that it was convoluted and written in ‘barbaric’ Latin. So people stopped reading and studying it…. The waters were muddied further by … Protestant writers not to give an ounce of credit to Catholics. It suited them to maintain that nothing of value had been taught at universities before the Reformation.
This is no simplistic apologetic for Christianity as the root of scientific thinking. Hannam summarizes the church’s relationship with natural philosophy as one of “creative tension.” Nevertheless it’s impossible not to notice who led the way in medieval natural philosophy:
- A mathematician Pope at the turn of the last millennium.
- A monk in 1092 who used an astrolabe to construct the lunar calendar.
- St. Anselm and Peter Abelard, clerics who elevated the role of reason and logic in philosophy and theology.
- Cathedral school scholars who taught that “God is loving and consistent rather than capricious and arbitrary” paving the way for the study of a consistently operating world of nature.
- The universities, products of the Church.
- The influential bishop of Paris who condemned certain (not all, especially in view of the work of St. Thomas Aquinas) Aristotelian-based dogmas. It was an act that remains controversial, yet one which clearly opened the door for experimental study, rather than restricting natural philosophy to Aristotle’s pure reasoning.
- A Polish clergyman, Copernicus, who challenged Aristotelian and Ptolemaic views of the heavens.
I could go on, but you get the point; and I am on the verge of conveying a false impression about the book. It’s a narrative, not a list of arguments. It’s a story showing that the tension between religion and natural philosophy was indeed a creative one: it led to new technologies (improved plows, the stirrup, clocks, the compass, eyeglasses, mills, and more), new theories (impetus/momentum, theories of acceleration), new observational tools (observatories, telescopes), and new institutions of learning (cathedral schools and universities).
And as the author states in his conclusion, it also produced the metaphysical cornerstone for modern science:
We take it for granted and we do not worry about why people began studying nature in the first place….
To understand why science was attractive even before it could demonstrate its remarkable success in explaining the universe, it is necessary to look at things from a medieval point of view. The starting point for all natural philosophy in the Middle Ages was that nature had been created by God. This made it a legitimate area of study because through nature, man could learn about its creator. Medieval scholars thought that nature followed the rules that God had ordained for it. Because God was consistent and not capricious, these natural laws were constant and worth scrutinising. However, these scholars rejected Aristotle’s contention that the laws of nature were bound by necessity. God was not constrained by what Aristotle thought. The only way to find out which laws God had decided on was by the use of experience and observation. The motivations and justification of medieval natural philosophers were carried over almost unchanged by the pioneers of modern science.
I am still not an expert in medieval philosophy, but I think there is little risk in being confident in what Hannam has to say. (This is no scholarly fraud, á la A.D. White.) It’s a straightforward account of the development of important ideas and inventions, in the context of a continent dominated by Christian thinking. One segment of the story does get convoluted: Galileo gets a full three chapters. Nevertheless the conclusion is clear: the roots of modern science go down deep into Christian culture, theology, and practice.
God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam. London: Icon Books, 2009. 342 pages plus index and additional back material. Not yet distributed in the United States but available through Amazon, US$26.65 and up.