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34.6 The Reawakening of Science

The reader must not suppose that the destructive criticism of the Catholic Church and of Catholic Christianity, and the printing and study of the Bible, were the only or even the most important of the intellectual activities of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. That was merely the popular and most conspicuous aspect of the intellectual revival of the time. Behind this conspicuous and popular awakening to thought and discussion, other less immediately striking but ultimately more important mental developments were in progress. Of the trend of these developments we must now give some brief indications. They had begun long before books, were printed, but it was printing that released them from obscurity.

We have already told something of the first appearance of the free intelligence, the spirit of inquiry and plain statement, in human affairs. One name is central in the record of that first attempt at systematic knowledge, the name of Aristotle. We have noted also the brief phase of scientific work at Alexandria. From that time onward the complicated economic and political and religious conflicts of Europe and Western Asia impeded further intellectual progress. These regions, as we have seen, fell for long ages under the sway of the Oriental type of monarchy and of Oriental religious traditions. Rome tried and abandoned a slave system of industry. The first great capitalistic system developed and fell into chaos through its own inherent rottenness. Europe relapsed into universal insecurity. The Semite rose against the Aryan, and replaced Hellenic civilization throughout Western Asia, and Egypt by an Arabic culture. All Western Asia and half of Europe fell under Mongolian rule. It is only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that we find the Nordic intelligence struggling through again to expression.

We then find in the growing universities of Paris, Oxford, and Bologna an increasing amount of philosophical discussion going on. In form it is chiefly a discussion of logical questions. As the basis of this discussion we find part of the teachings of Aristotle, not the whole mass of writings he left behind him, but big logic only. Later on his work became better known through the Latin translations of the Arabic edition annotated by Averroes. Except for these translations of Aristotle, and they were abominably bad translations, very little of the Greek philosophical literature was read in Western Europe until the fifteenth century. The creative Plato-as distinguished from the scientific Aristotle-was almost unknown. Europe had the Greek criticism without the Greek impulse. Some neo-Platonic writers were known, but neo-Platonism had much the same relation to Plato that Christian Science has to Christ.

It has been the practice of recent writers to decry the philosophical discussion of the mediaeval «schoolmen» as tedious and futile. It was nothing of the sort. It had to retain a severely technical form because the dignitaries of the church, ignorant and intolerant, were on the watch for heresy. It lacked the sweet clearness, therefore, of fearless thought. It often hinted what it dared not say. But it dealt with fundamentally important things, it was a long and necessary struggle to clear up and correct certain inherent defects of the human mind, and many people to-day blunder dangerously through their neglect of the issues the schoolmen discussed.

There is a natural tendency in the human mind to exaggerate the differences and resemblances upon which classification is based, to suppose that things called by different names, are altogether different, and that things called by the same name are practically identical. This tendency to exaggerate classification produces a thousand evils and injustices. In the sphere of race or nationality, for example, A «European» will often treat an «Asiatic» almost as if he were a different animal, while he will be disposed to regard another «European» as necessarily as virtuous and charming as himself. He will, as a matter of course, take sides with Europeans against Asiatics, But, as the reader of this history must realize, there is no such difference as the opposition of these names implies. It is a phantom difference created by two names… .

The main mediaeval controversy was between the «Realists» and the «Nominalists», and it is necessary to warn the reader that the word «Realist» in mediaeval discussion has a meaning almost diametrically opposed to «Realist» as it is used in the jargon of modern criticism. The modern «Realist» is one who insists on materialist details; the mediaeval «Realist» was far nearer what nowadays we should call an Idealist, and his contempt for incidental detail was profound. The Realists outdid the vulgar tendency to exaggerate the significance of class. They held that there was something in a name, in a common noun that is, that was essentially real. For example, they held there was a typical «European», an ideal European, who was far more real than any individual European. Every European was, as it were a failure, a departure, a flawed specimen of this profounder reality.. On the other hand the Nominalist held that the only realities in the case were the individual Europeans, that the name «European» was merely a name and nothing more than a name applied to all these instances.

Nothing is quite so difficult as the compression of philosophical controversies, which are by their nature voluminous and various and tinted by the mental colours of a variety of minds. With the difference of Realist and Nominalist stated baldly, as we have stated it here, the modern reader unaccustomed to philosophical discussion may be disposed to leap at once to the side of the Nominalist. But the matter is not so simple that it can be covered by one instance, and here we have purposely chosen an extreme instance. Names and classifications differ in their value and reality. While it is absurd to suppose that there can be much depth of class difference between men called Thomas and men called William, or that there is an ideal and quintessential Thomas or William, yet on the other hand there may be much profoundor differences between a white man and a Hottentot, and still more between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. While again the distinction between the class of pets and the class of useful animals is dependent upon very slight differences of habit and application, the difference of a cat and dog is so profound that the microscope can trace it in a drop of blood or a single hair. When this aspect of the question is considered, it becomes understandable how Nominalism had ultimately to abandon the idea that, names were as insignificant as labels, and how out of a revised and amended Nominalism, there grew up that systematic attempt to find the true-the most significant and fruitful-classification of things and substances which is called Scientific Research.

And it will be almost as evident that while the-tendency of Realism, which is the natural tendency of every untutored mind, was towards dogma, harsh divisions, harsh judgments, and uncompromising attitudes, the tendency of earlier and later Nominalism was towards qualified statements, towards an examination of individual instances, and towards inquiry and experiment and scepticism.

So while in the market-place and the ways of the common life men were questioning the morals and righteousness of the clergy, the good faith and propriety of their celibacy, and the justice of papal taxation; while in theological circles their minds were set upon the question of transubstantiation, the question of the divinity or not of the bread and wine in the mass, in studies and lecture-rooms a wider-reaching criticism of the methods of ordinary Catholic teaching was in progress. We cannot attempt here to gauge the significance in this process of such names as Peter Abelard (1079-1142), Albertus Magnus (1193-1280), and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). These men sought to reconstruct Catholicism on a sounder system of reasoning. They turned towards Nominalism. Chief among their critics and successors were Duns Scotus (?-1308), an Oxford Franciscan and to judge by his sedulous thought and deliberate subtleties, a Scotchman, and Occam, an Englishman (?-1347). Both these latter, like Averroes, (see Chap. XXXI, sec 8), made a definite distinction. between theological and philosophical truth; they placed theology on a pinnacle, but they placed it where it could no longer obstruct research; Duns Scotus declared that it was impossible to prove by reasoning the existence of God or of the Trinity or the credibility of the Act of Creation; Occam was still more insistent upon this separation which manifestly released scientific inquiry from dogmatic control. A later generation, benefiting by the freedoms towards which these pioneers worked, and knowing not the sources of its freedom, had the ingratitude to use the name of Scotus as a term for stupidity, and so we have our English word «Dunce». Says Professor Pringle Pattison,[1] «Occam, who is still a Scholastic, gives us the Scholastic justification of the spirit which had already taken hold upon Roger Bacon, and which was to enter upon its rights in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries».

Standing apart by himself because of his distinctive genius is this Roger Bacon (about 1210 to about 1293), who was also English. He was a Franciscan of Oxford, and a very typical Englishman indeed, irritable, hasty, honest, and shrewd. He was two centuries ahead of his world. Says H. 0. Taylor of him,[2] :

«The career of Bacon was an intellectual tragedy, conforming to the old principles of tragic art: that the hero’s character shall be large and noble, but not flawless, inasmuch as the fatal consummation must issue from character, and not happen through chance. He died an old man, as in his youth, so in his age, a devotee of tangible knowledge. His pursuit of a knowledge which was not altogether learning had been obstructed by the Order of which he was an unhappy and rebellious member; quite as fatally his achievement was deformed from within by the principles which he accepted from his time. But he was responsible for his acceptance of current opinions; and as his views roused the distrust of his brother Friars, his intractable temper drew their hostility on his head. Persuasiveness and tact were needed by one who would impress such novel views as his upon his fellows, or in the thirteenth century, escape persecution for their divulgence. Bacon attacked dead and living worthies, tactlessly, fatuously, and unfairly. Of his life scarcely anything is known, save from his allusions to himself and others; and these are insufficient for the construction of even a slight consecutive narrative. Born; studied at Oxford; went to Paris, studied, experimented; is at Oxford again, and a Franciscan; studies, teaches, becomes suspect to his Order, is sent back to Paris, kept under surveillance, receives a letter from the Pope, writes, writes, writes-his three bestknown works; is again in trouble, confined for many years, released, and dead, so very dead, body and fame alike, until partly unearthed after five centuries»..

The bulk of these «three best-known works» is a hotly phrased and sometimes quite abusive, but entirely just attack on the ignorance of the times, combined with a wealth of suggestions for the increase of knowledge. In his passionate insistence upon the need of experiment and of collecting knowledge, the spirit of Aristotle lives again in him. «Experiment, experiment», that is the burthen of Roger Bacon. Yet of Aristotle himself Roger Bacon fell foul. He fell foul of him because men, instead of facing facts boldly, sat in rooms and pored over, the bad Latin translations which were then all that was available of the master. «If I had my way», he wrote in his intemperate fashion, «I should burn all the books of Aristotle, for the study of them can only lead to a loss of time, produce error, and increase ignorance», a sentiment that Aristotle would probably have echoed could he have returned to a world in which his works were not so much read as worshipped-and that, as Roger Bacon showed, in these most abominable translations.

Throughout his books, alittle disguised by the necessity of seeming to square it all with orthodoxy for fear of the prison and worse, Roger Bacon shouted to mankind, «Cease to be ruled by dogmas and authorities; look at the world!» Four chief sources of ignorance he denounced; respect for authority, custom, the sense of the ignorant crowd, and the vain proud unteachableness of our dispositions. Overcome but these, and a world of power would open to men:—

«Machines for navigating are possible without rowers, so that great ships suited to river or ocean, guided by one man, may be borne with greater speed than if they were full of men. Likewise cars may be made so that without a draught animal they may be moved cum impetu inaestimabili, as we deem the scythed chariots to have been from which antiquity fought. And flying machines are possible, so that a man may sit in the middle turning some device by which artificial wings may beat the air in the manner of a flying bird».

Occam, Roger Bacon, these are the early precursors of a great movement in Europe away from «Realism» towards reality. For a time the older influences fought against the naturalism of the new Nominalists. In 1339 Occam’s books were put under a ban and Nominalism solemnly condemned. As late as 1473 an attempt, belated and unsuccessful, was made to bind teachers of Paris by an oath to teach Realism. It was only in the sixteenth century with the printing of books and the increase of intelligence that the movement from absolutism towards experiment became massive, and that one investigator began to cooperate with another.

Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries experimenting with material things was on the increase, items of knowledge were being won by men, but there was no interrelated advance. The work was done in a detached, furtive, and inglorious manner. A tradition of isolated investigation came into Europe from the Arabs, and a considerable amount of private and secretive research was carried on by the alchemists, for whom modern writers are a little too apt with their contempt. These alchemists were in close touch with the glass and metal workers and with the herbalists and medicine-makers of the times; they pried into many secrets of nature, but they were obsessed by «practical» ideas; they sought not knowledge, but power; they wanted to find out how to manufacture gold from cheaper materials, how to make men immortal by the elixir of life, and such-like vulgar dreams. Incidentally in their researches they learnt much about poisons, dyes, metallurgy, and the like; they discovered various refractory substances, and worked their way towards clear glass and so to lenses and optical instruments; but as scientific men tell us continually, and as «practical» men still refuse to learn, it is only when knowledge is sought for her own sake that she gives rich and unexpected gifts in any abundance to her servants. The world of to-day is still much more disposed to spend money on technical research than on pure science. Half the men in our scientific laboratories still dream of patents and secret processes. We live to-day largely in the age of alchemists, for all our sneers at their memory. The «business man» of to-day still thinks of research as a sort of alchemy.

Closely associated with the alchemists were the astrologers, who were also a «practical» race. They studied the stars to tell fortunes. They lacked that broader faith and understanding which induces men simply to study the stars.

Not until the fifteenth century did the ideas which Roger Bacon first expressed begin to produce their first-fruits in now knowledge and a widening outlook. Then suddenly, as the sixteenth century dawned, and as the world recovered from the storm of social trouble that had followed the pestilences of the fourteenth century, Western Europe broke out into a galaxy of names that outshine the utmost scientific reputations of the best age of Greece. Nearly every nation contributed, the reader will note, for science knows no nationality.

One of the earliest and most splendid in this constellation is the Florentine, Leonardo, da Vinci (1452-1519), a man with an almost miraculous vision for reality. He was a naturalist, an anatomist, an engineer, as well as a very great artist. He was the first modern to realize the true nature of fossils,[3] he made note-books of observations that still amaze us, he was convinced of the practicability of mechanical flight. Another great name is that of Copernicus, a Pole (1473-1543), who made the first clear analysis of the movements of the heavenly bodies and showed that the earth moves round the sun. Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), a Dane working at the university of Prague, rejected this latter belief, but his observations of celestial movements were of the utmost value to his successors, and especially to the German, Kepler (1571-1630). Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was the founder of the science of dynamics. Before his time it was believed that a weight a hundred times greater than another would fall a hundred times as fast. Galileo denied this. Instead of arguing about it like a scholar and a gentleman, he put it to the coarse test of experiment by dropping two unequal weights from an upper gallery of the leaning tower of Pisa-to the horror of all erudite men. He made what was almost the first telescope, and he developed the astronomical views of Copernicus; but the church, still struggling gallantly against the light, decided that to believe that the earth was smaller and inferior to the sun made man and Christianity of no account, and diminished the importance of the Pope; so Galileo, under threats of dire punishment, when he was an old man of sixty-nine, was made to recant this view and put the earth back in its place as the immovable centre of the universe. He knelt before ten cardinals in scarlet, an assembly august enough to overawe truth itself, while he amended the creation he had disarranged. The story has it that as he rose from his knees, after repeating his recantation, he muttered, «Eppur si Muove»-»it moves nevertheless».

Newton (1642-1727) was born in the year of Galileo’s death. By his discovery of the law of gravitation he completed the clear vision of the starry universe that we have to-day. But Newton carries us into the eighteenth century. He carries us too far for the present chapter. Among the earlier names, that of Dr. Gilbert (1540-1603), of Colchester, is pre-eminent. Roger Bacon had preached experiment, Gilbert was one of the first to practise it. There can be little doubt that his work, which was - chiefly upon magnetism, helped to form the ideas of Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam (1561-1626), Lord Chancellor to James I of England. This Francis Bacon has been called the «Father of Experimental Philosophy», but of his share in the development of scientific work far too much has been made.[4] He was, says Sir R. A. Gregory, «not the founder but the apostle» of the scientific method. His greatest service to science was a fantastic book, The New Atlantis. «In his New Atlantis, Francis Bacon planned in somewhat fanciful language a palace of invention, a great temple of science, where the pursuit of knowledge in all its branches was to be organized on principles of the highest efficiency».

From this Utopian dream arose the Royal Society of London, which received a Royal Charter from Charles II of England in 1662. The essential use and virtue of this society was and is publication. Its formation marks a definite step from isolated inquiry towards cooperative work, from the secret and solitary investigations of the alchemist to the frank report and open discussion which is the life of the modern scientific process. For the true scientific method is this: to trust no statements without verification, to test all things as rigorously as possible, to keep no secrets, to attempt no monopolies, to give out one’s best modestly and plainly, serving no other end but knowledge.

The long-slumbering science of anatomy was revived by Harvey (1578-1657), who demonstrated the circulation of the blood… . Presently the Dutchman, Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) brought the first crude microscope to bear upon the hidden minutiae of life.

These are but some of the brightest stars amidst that increasing Multitude of men who have from the fifteenth century to our own time, with more and more collective energy and vigour, lit up our vision of the universe, and increased our power over the conditions of our lives.

[1]Encyclopaedia Britannica, article “Scholasticism.”
[2]The Medieval Mind, by Henry Osborne Taylor.
[3]Cp. Chap II, par. 1, towards the end.
[4]See Gregory’s Discovery, chap. vi.

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