In defence of God's Philosophers
Historian James Hannam responds to Charles Freeman's critique of his book on the medieval foundations of modern science, which was nominated for the Royal Society's prize for science books
This is a response by the author to Charles Freeman's critique of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, which was published on the New Humanist site on 22 October. We published a further response by Freeman on 9 November.
I first came across Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind in the Cheapside branch of Waterstones (now defunct) in 2002. I immediately bought it on the strength of Freeman’s previous book Egypt, Greece and Rome. This remains the best laymen’s introduction to the ancient world available and anyone who feels that they missed out on classical studies at school will enjoy it immensely. The Closing of the Western Mind is much less satisfactory historiographically, but it is still an object lesson in how to write popular non-fiction. If, as Freeman kindly says, God’s Philosophers is a good read, he must share some of the credit.
God’s Philosophers shows how medieval developments were important for the rise of modern science. It tries to explain how Western Europe went from being a scientific backwater in 1000AD to leading the world by 1600. The secondary purpose of the book is to deal with the old myth, no longer accepted by historians, that the Church held back science at every turn.
Ancient Greek Science
This should go some way towards explaining why God’s Philosophers does not dwell on the achievements of ancient Greek or medieval Arabic science. There are plenty of popular books on both, five in the last couple of years on the latter (including a good one, Science and Islam: a History by Ehsad Masood, from my own publisher). But I hardly ignore the achievements of either of these civilisations. I just didn’t write a book about them.
That said, any praise of ancient Greek or Arabic science needs to be carefully qualified. By the way, I’ll stick to using the term ‘science’ when I really mean natural philosophy. For stylistic reasons, I did occasionally refer to medieval science rather than natural philosophy in God’s Philosophers, especially in chapter headings. But I made it plain in the text that readers should not conflate modern science and whatever it as that medieval people were up to. I’m sorry if Freeman found this confusing.
Returning to ancient Greek science: while we can laud its achievements, we cannot escape the fact that modern science arose in Western Europe in the early modern era, not in Athens or Alexandria. A dispassionate look at Greek science finds no signs of it making the conceptual leap necessary to achieve a “scientific revolution”. The most inventive period was over by 200BC and much less progress was made after this date until the start of the Christian era in 500AD (Freeman correctly identifies the Christian John Philoponus in this context). What is remarkable is that we find Hero of Alexandria (writing in about 50AD) parroting Aristotle’s assertion from 300BC that heavy objects fall faster than light ones. Hero also took his explanation of the vacuum from Strato of Lampsacus who lived three hundred years previously. Ptolemy (fl. 150AD) was a fine mathematician, but made few original advances in astronomy. The title of his book Almagest means “The Great” in Arabic, but it was called simply Mathematical Synthesis in Greek. That is exactly what it was.
Galen, a famous physician of the second century AD, wrote an enormous amount but it is hard to see how he advanced the clinical effectiveness of medicine one iota. The essential theory he adopted, on the balance of the humours, was six hundred years old and had not become any less wrong in the meantime. He was also unable to dissect humans and so made a serious of mistakes in anatomy that it would take 1,300 years to correct.
As much as ancient Greeks enjoyed intellectual freedom (although Socrates would probably disagree on this point), they failed to launch modern science. Nor did they look remotely like they were going to. All this should alert us to the fact that empiricism and rationalism, however laudable, are not in themselves sufficient conditions for science to progress. Whatever those conditions are (and I suggest that Christian metaphysics might have provided some of them), they were absent in ancient Athens and Alexandria but present in Christian Western Europe.
Early Medieval Europe
In his critique of God’s Philosophers, Freeman notes that the economy of Western Europe collapsed following the fall of the Western Roman Empire. This is unquestionably true and I join Freeman in recommending Bryan Ward-Perkins analysis. Nonetheless, after this collapse took place, Europeans picked themselves up and began to build the civilisation that we are still part of today. It was a slow and arduous process, made harder by continuing waves of invasions from the north and east. That does not entitle us to write off the period as the “Dark Ages”.
Chapter one of God’s Philosophers provides a potted history of the early Middle Ages (roughly 500AD to 1000AD) It also shows how an agricultural revolution took place in Europe at this time as the heavy plough, crop rotation and horsepower were adopted. I'm not sure what Freeman finds objectionable about this, since it is not controversial. He may be under the mistaken impression that I claimed that the fall of the Western Empire did not involve a collapse of central government or living standards. He may simply object to my refusal to use the term “Dark Ages” to write off the early Middle Ages.
Freeman also comments on the way that as Christendom became more united, the Church directed the martial ardour of Charlemagne outwards. He then makes a wholly unwarranted assumption that I think this can justify Christian wars of aggression. Of course it does not. But given he has just been praising the Greeks for all manner of freedoms and rationality, it is strange how he picks on Charlemagne. Presumably he exempts Alexander the Great from being guilty of aggressive wars and is not bothered about the 2,000 residents of Tyre that the Greek king had crucified on the beach. And surely, in the field of aggressive wars, Charlemagne was no match for the Romans who built their Empire on blood. As Tacitus noted, the Caesars wiped out their enemies and called it peace.
Logic in the Middle Ages
Freeman then considers the place of logic in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, he misunderstands how the subject was studied. He claims that the axioms were theological. This could not have been the case because theology was not taught in the arts faculties where students learnt logic. The textbooks used were pagan works such as Porphyry’s Isogoge and Aristotle’s Categories. Christians did eventually write some logic textbooks, but they were based firmly on pagan antecedents.
When logic came to be applied to theology, Christian axioms were introduced, as you would expect. But logic itself was an independent subject based on pure reason. Most students who covered logic would never have trained to be theologians and so would never have had a chance to apply dialectic to the divine. And yes, as Freeman notes, much medieval logic seems esoteric and makes little sense to the uninitiated. The same could be said for the output of modern mathematics or philosophy departments.
Finally, Freeman claims that the way Christian theology regarded mankind and the world as fallen was an impediment to science. And yet, as Oxford professor Peter Harrison has shown in The Fall of Man and the Rise of Science, this does not need to be a disadvantage at all. Francis Bacon (whom Freeman praises, wrongly in my view, as a founder of modern science) was a firm believer in the fall and looked to science to repair the damage.
Harrison’s work demonstrates the peril of assuming that people in the past thought like us. Of course, we see the fall of man as a doctrine that is, at best, figurative. The idea that Eve literally ate the apple seems a mere legend. Likewise, we find it hard to comprehend medieval attitudes to miracles and relics. There is always the temptation to dismiss such beliefs as superstitious nonsense. But the historian cannot do this. His job is to understand and get under the skin of people in the past. He needs to know what made them tick. The alternative approach is to look for people who we think are like us, such as Francis Bacon or Galileo, and label them as "progressive". History can then be told as a story of how a few heroic individuals strove to achieve the condition of modernity. Unfortunately, this is neither true nor honest. The historian must accept that, very often, what seems illogical to us can be common sense to someone long dead.
For example, as Robert Bartlett explains, medieval people had no problem with the idea that an eclipse was both a natural phenomenon and a sign from God. Miracles could be accepted without this blunting anyone’s reliance on the laws of nature. I dealt with this question in God’s Philosophers, noting how William of Conches and Jean Buridan had both successfully negotiated the relationship between an active God and the workings of nature. We find this hard to grasp but the sources are quite explicit. That we find something illogical does not mean that it was not actually conducive to science.
Oxford, Paris and Italy
Freeman makes much of the communes in Northern Italy and notes that many were anti-papal in their loyalties (or Ghibelline as they came to be called). However, being against the princely pretentions of medieval popes did not make these communes any less Christian than the pro-papal Guelphs. This is a point that even the briefest of tours of the major Ghibelline centres of Sienna, Pisa and Arezzo will make crystal clear. They are every bit as replete with churches as the neighbouring Guelph cities. It is not so simple to separate the sacred and the secular in the context of medieval Italy.
But Freeman does make a couple of valid points. Firstly, although the important fourteenth-century advances in natural philosophy took place in Oxford and Paris (which is why I gave these universities so much attention), the pool had largely dried up by 1400. I suggested that the Black Death had something to do with this but other historians disagree. Luckily, the discoveries of the Merton Calculators travelled to Italy through the medium of scholars like Paul of Venice, who spent the first half of his career in Oxford before returning home to Padua.
Averroism also found its way to the Italian universities who, by 1600, were spending a lot more money on natural philosophy lecturers than Oxford or Paris ever had. Some of the Italians of this era remain familiar to specialists. But it is remarkable that, in spite of the fat salaries, these Averroists produced little or nothing that could be described as progress towards modern science. Instead, it was mathematicians, such as Giordano Cardano and Niccolo Tartaglia (both of whom I cover in my book), as well as the great Galileo a generation later, who are deservedly remembered. We find that natural philosophy stagnated in the hands of the rational Averroists while Cardano, with his interest in astrology and magic, made great strides that still benefit us today. Advances by Italians in surgery and anatomy, correctly noted by Freeman, are also given full coverage in God’s Philosophers.
So God’s Philosophers does show the centre of gravity in natural philosophy and science swinging decisively towards Italy in about 1400, as Freeman contends. It is consequently hard to explain why he disagrees so vehemently with what I have written.
Most of God’s Philosophers is not particularly controversial, at least among historians of science. But my comments about humanism have been picked up, not just by Freeman but also by others who have been more positive about the book as a whole. So, while much of God’s Philosophers simply echoes a consensus in the academy (although admittedly one that has passed by non-specialists), calling humanists “incorrigible reactionaries” was provocative.
Why was I willing to deviate from the herd on this single point? Freeman identifies the answer: I spent three years and more investigating humanism for my PhD thesis. But here I must admit to some slight embarrassment. I did my research within the dominant paradigm that humanism was a ‘progressive’ force. Consequently, it made sense to interpret it as helpful to the advance of science. Unfortunately, as I sifted the evidence it became clear that this was incorrect. But I realised too late. By the time I submitted my thesis in late 2006, I was committed to the dominant paradigm but suffering doubts about its reliability. At this stage, it was simply too late to rewrite the thesis and, in any case, my thoughts were still in a state of flux. In the two and a half years until the final manuscript of God’s Philosophers went to the publishers in March 2009, I had managed to look again at the evidence and follow up the loose ends. In all honesty, I could only say what the evidence had forced me to accept, against my initial inclinations. I would have liked to exempt Erasmus from the criticism, as I had grown fond of him (as many students of humanism do). But even he suffered from a blind spot about medieval scholarship that could not be swept under the carpet.
I provided plenty of evidence in God’s Philosophers to back up my assertions. I covered the contents of the sixteenth century textbooks such as the scholastic Thomas Bricot and humanist Johannes Velcurio (although I could have used any number of examples including Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples or Cuthbert Tunstall). I noted the printing histories of scholastic texts in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. I abhorred the widespread destruction of medieval manuscripts including the entire library of Oxford University.
Humanists were not all bad and we are grateful for the classical texts that they recovered. A writer like Nicholas of Cusa could benefit from elements of the humanist programme without being consumed by it. He was certainly not a humanist himself, being far too engaged with medieval theology and mysticism. But the stultifying Latin style humanists imposed on European literature means that almost none of their works are read today (Thomas More’s Utopia is a worthy exception). Instead, literature found freedom in the vernacular, as had been pioneered by medieval poets such as Chaucer and Dante. How ironic that Petrarch, usually identified as the first of the humanists, would find his Italian verse still widely read today while his Latin epic Africa is, thankfully, all but ignored. This is the reverse of Petrarch’s own assessment.
Finally, we should not make the mistake of conflating humanism, which was a purely literary endeavour, with the art and painting of the Renaissance. There is much glorious medieval art, but not even I would claim that it surpasses a Botticelli or a Leonardo. Still less, as Freeman notes, does Renaissance humanism have anything to do with lack of religious belief.
My life would have been easier if I had just followed the cosy consensus that humanism was an unadulterated ‘good thing.’ But a scholar who knows that the evidence supports a different conclusion must say so, even if that means that they will contradict his previous public statements.
Sadly I do not have the space to cover all the points raised by Freeman and silence on a specific issue should not be interpreted as agreement. Briefly, John Heilbron’s new biography of Galileo does acknowledge his debt to medieval ideas on pages 130 and 137. And Aristotle’s prohibition against using mathematics to prove physical theorems is explained at page 304 of Amos Funkenstein’s Theology and the Scientific Imagination. Mathematics could certainly be used in astronomy since astronomy was a branch of mathematics. But its function was to calculate the movements of the heavens, not explain them. That was left to physics.
Freeman makes some possibly infelicitous remarks about the Royal Society's short listing of God’s Philosophers and claims that my book is apologetics. While I make no secret of my religious affiliations, if I woke up tomorrow as an atheist, I would stand by every word of it. I also note that BHA distinguished supporter Robin Ince was on the Royal Society’s judging panel. Certainly, if my intention had been to defend Catholicism, I would not have made controversial remarks about Renaissance humanists when I could have emphasised their loyalty to the Church (Erasmus eventually repudiated Luther and St Thomas More was martyred for his faith). Nor would I have included quite so many burnings at the stake.
Some of the other comments Freeman makes are truly surprising. He notes that Jim al-Khalili’s Pathfinders makes a good case that Copernicus used Arabic astronomy in his great work De revolutionibus. Yet, Freeman inexplicitly fails to mention that God’s Philosophers makes exactly the same case on page 276 and indeed, he strongly implies that I didn’t even know this. He states that Archimedes was an additional Greek text that entered Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. There is no reason that Freeman should know about Marshall Clagett’s five capacious volumes on Archimedes in the Middle Ages. But if he had read page 243 of God’s Philosophers he’d know the famous Latin translation of Archimedes first published in 1543 was a product of the thirteenth and not the sixteenth century.
I am criticised by Freeman for spending time on Richard of Wallingford’s clock in St Albans and not mentioning Giovanni de Dondi’s Astrarium in Pavia. Wallingford’s clock was two generations earlier than de Dondi’s effort and that, in itself, makes it more impressive to my mind. Professor John North thought it was worth three volumes of scholarship so I can hardly be blamed for setting aside a few pages. Furthermore, I do mention on page 211 the clock built by de Dondi’s father in Padua which featured the innovation of chiming twenty four equal hours.
Freeman claims twice that I missed out Filippo Brunelleschi, but he is on page 211 of God’s Philosophers together with his notable achievements in perspective and designing the dome on the Duomo in Florence.
While I am sorry that Freeman did not enjoy my book, I take comfort that I have not suffered the fate of Girolamo Cardano. The humanist Julius Caesar Scaliger attacked Cardano’s On Subtlety with an 800 page tirade that was twice the length of the book it was attacking. Anthony Grafton called it “the most vitriolic book review in the annals of literature.” Perhaps I have escaped quite lightly.