Review: God's Philosophers

Written on 2019-01-28

For the past two years, I've been on the lookout for a good book on medieval scholarship. For one, I find the Middle Ages a strange and intriguing period; for another, I always enjoy reading about the history of science. “Standing on the shoulders of giants” is what we do as scientists – but who were these giants? And who were their giants? How did they think, argue, communicate? Well, I finally found what I was looking for. The book in question is James Hannam's “God's Philosophers – How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science”. Here is a summary of the volume, with a few of my own thoughts attached.

A brief historical overview

The book covers the period between the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and the death of Galileo Galilei in 1642. In short, it covers the whole of the Middle Ages, with a bit of a buffer on either side.

The scale of the initial loss of the Empire is hard to comprehend. In 410 AD, the mighty city of Rome was ransacked by barbarians (the Goths); the first time in seven centuries that it had been captured. A mere 45 years later, the Vandals repeated the act; in 476, the Western Roman Empire lost its last Emperor.

The resulting period of chaos had far-reaching consequences for Western Europe: political, social, and cultural. One of the most devastating for early medieval scholarship was the loss of Greek. With virtually nobody left who could read the ancient language of learning, much knowledge was lost. Notable exceptions were the works of St. Augustine of Hippo, who wrote in Latin, and of Boethius, who helped to preserve some Greek knowledge, including several books on logic by Aristotle.

The next 500 years were years of overall stagnation as Europe found its feet again. That is not to say there were no scholars: Charlemagne, crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800, actively promoted schools and learning in his empire. But little advance was made on the little that was still known.

This changed at the turn of the millenium. With Anselm of Canterbury, the study of logic really took off, based on Aristotle. Under the motto of “faith in search of reason” he combined theology with stringent rational analysis, starting the tradition that later gave rise to scholasticism. (Which could come to full flower in the 13th century with Thomas Aquinas, who was such an influential thinker that the Catholic Church later named him the “Angelic Doctor”.)

The tide finally turned a few years later, in the early 12th century, with a wave of newly translated books being made available in Latin. These came from Greek and Arabic, and greatly boosted the development of Western thinking. At the same time, the first universities were established, providing a safe haven and fruitful ground for those doing the thinking.

The 13th century saw the invention of spectacles and the mechanical clock. In Oxford, ground-breaking work was begun by a series of three men known as the “Merton Calculators”: Thomas Bradwardine, Richard Swineshead, and William Heytesbury. Developing the field of mathematics further, they were the first to apply it to natural philosophy, breaking down the traditional division between the two. In Paris, John Buridan and Nicole Oresme continued their work, laying the foundation for modern mechanics as described by Kepler and Newton. Hannam is keen to stress that these men were still far from being “modern scientists”, and their ideas still had grave flaws. Nonetheless, they did anticipate important concepts that were to play a decisive part later on.

Progress continued through the 15th century. The printing press came into widespread use, gunpowder was established in warfare, and Columbus (re-)discovered the Americas. But the great philosophical upheavals had to wait for the 16th century. Here, Martin Luther initiated the Reformation, while the humanist thinkers of the universities began to turn their attention back to the Greek and Roman classics. Unfortunately, both movements ignored or derided much of the previous centuries' achievements. Most unjustly, one might add.

Fortunately, and largely due to the printing press, the medieval books were not lost. They remained influential with the protagonists of the budding Scientific Revolution. (Although Galileo and others were sometimes reluctant to attribute their sources.) In 1543, Copernicus published his De Revolutionibus Orbis, introducing the heliocentric model into academic debates. Fleshed out by Kepler and Galileo, his model slowly gained traction, although the scientific case for it was by no means as clear cut as modern readers tend to believe.

The book closes with a thorough discussion of the life of Galileo and the controversy that surrounded his support for heliocentrism. At this point, Europe was already well past the Middle Ages and into what is commonly known as the “Renaissance”.

The Renaissance?

The world “Renaissance” is French for “Rebirth” and came into widespread use in the 19th century as a label for the period immediately following the Middle Ages. As mentioned above, it was marked by the rise of humanism, the return to the classical languages of antiquity.

With great scorn, the humanists discarded the advances of their predecessors, branding the time before them as the “Dark Ages” (a derisive term that sticks to this day). Instead, they wanted to return to what they perceived to be the pure ancient knowledge – the language of Cicero and the philosophy of Aristotle. On the bright side of things, this led to a lot of Ancient Greek texts being rediscovered. On the down side, many medieval manuscripts were recycled for waste paper. Universities stopped teaching the extensive system of logic that had been carefully built up by medieval scholars, while extreme Aristotelianism took root. In a bitter irony of history, the uncritical acceptance of everything Aristotle said is an attitude ascribed to the Middle Ages, which in reality were much more sceptical of “The Philosopher” than their successors. (See this article for further examples.)

Indeed, the whole term “Renaissance” is heavily ideologically loaded. As C.S. Lewis (who was Professor for Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge) wrote in his book “English Literature in the 16th Century”:

The word has sometimes been used merely to mean the 'revival of learning,' the recovery of Greek, and the 'classicizing' of Latin. If it still bore that clear and useful sense, I should of course have employed it. Unfortunately, it has, for many years, been widening its meaning, till now 'the Renaissance' can hardly be defined except as 'an imaginary entity responsible for everything the speaker likes in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries'.

Although the period undisputedly gave rise to great works of art, its effect on Western learning was almost catastrophic. Hannam writes:

In traditional histories, the rise of humanism is usually portrayed as 'a good thing', but the truth is that the humanists almost managed to destroy 300 years of progress in natural philosophy. (p.219)

It would not be the first time that popular accounts of science (or history) are far wide of the mark.

The Conflict Hypothesis

Another common narrative of the Middle Ages is that of a traditionalist, close-minded church suppressing any real progress in philosophy and science. This is known as the “Conflict Hypothesis” and is something Hannam vigorously attacks.

Throughout his book, he emphasises that most advances in this period were brought about by church men. Not only that, but the Church as a whole and several orders in particular (such as the Dominicans and Franciscans) actively supported science and the further education of their members at the new universities.

The flagship case of the conflict hypothesis is, of course, the trial of Galileo. Hannam devotes three entire chapters to this, showing that the great scholar's sentencing by the Inquisition had more to do with politics and science than actual anti-scientific religious sentiments. (Amongst other things, Galileo had had the temerity to insult the pope.)

For a more detailed discussion of the conflict hypothesis, the reader is directed to the History for Atheists blog. Here is a summary of the topic in Hannam's own words:

During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church supported a great deal of science, but it also decided that philosophical speculations should not impinge on theology. Ironically, by keeping philosophers focused on nature instead of metaphysics, the limitations set by the church may even have profited science in the long term. Furthermore and contrary to popular belief, the Church never supported the idea that the earth is flat, never banned human dissection, never banned zero and certainly never burned anybody at the stake for scientific ideas. (pp.2-3)

Faith and Reason

As a Christian, one of the things I found most interesting about this book was to trace the debate between faith and reason. I was surprised to find many arguments I know from the contemporary debate already expressed so many centuries ago.

One thing Christians are often accused of is that the concept of God is merely an explanation for the Unknown – a “God of the Gaps”. The more we know about how nature functions, the argument goes, the less we need to invoke a supernatural being to explain it.

Here it is illuminating to turn to William of Conches (1085-c.1154), who harks back to Aristotle to show that for any event, there are different types of explanations. For example, if I set a kettle on the stove to boil, the reason the water boils is that the stove produces heat that passes into the kettle by convection. However, an equally valid explanation is that the kettle is brought to boil because I wanted a cup of tea. William of Conches calls the naturalistic explanation (heat convection) the secondary cause of the event “boiling water”; the teleological explanation (my cup of tea) is the primary cause. In analogy to this example, he argues that in nature, every effect has both a primary reason (the will of God) and a secondary reason (the laws of nature). A greater understanding of one can never diminish the other, as they belong to completely different categories.

This argument, by the way, can easily be extended to show that the laws of nature do not make miracles impossible. Just because a kettle would normally come to boil when heated on a stove doesn't mean I can't intervene in the process and switch off the stove. Laws of nature describe what we expect to happen, given the circumstances, they do not preclude a primary cause changing the circumstances. (See CS Lewis, “Miracles”, for a more detailed discussion.)

Another argument against the “God of the Gaps” accusation is given by the aforementioned Thomas Aquinas. Again referring back to Aristotle, he brings the concept of the “prime mover” into play. The basis of the argument is that in this world, every effect has a cause. (This is an a priori assumption.) But every cause is in itself an effect and must therefore have its own cause. Taking this thought further, we see that there must be an infinite causal chain at work in the universe – a conclusion that is incongruent with a universe we perceive to be finite. Thus, there must in fact be a first cause, a prime mover, that does not itself have a cause. But as everything in this world is assumed to have a cause, the prime mover must be outside the world. In short, Aquinas says, he is God. Therefore, when natural philosophy (or science) explores natural causes, it still requires the concept of God to explain why there are any causes to explore at all.

Interestingly, their belief in God was precisely the reason why many natural philosophers bothered to look for general principles in nature. Hannam writes:

William of Conches also believed that God is loving and consistent rather than capricious and arbitrary. This meant that he could expect natural laws to remain the same forever. Now, he not only had a justification for investigating nature which did not infringe on the sovereignty of God; he also had a reason for believing nature is regular enough in its workings to be worth exploring in detail. (p.65)

To summarise, the belief in God not only didn't hinder medieval scholars in their research, they rigourously and rationally defended it, and even used it as their inspiration for doing further research.

Personal impression

With “God's Philosophers”, Hannam has written a highly commendable popular science book that has garnered quite a few positive reviews (for example by Nature, Edward Grant, or Tim O'Neill). The author's academic credentials are unquestioned: he received his PhD in the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge, and his writing bears witness to a huge range of reading of the original sources.

The book is also well written, with vivid descriptions that make the Middle Ages feel tangible and personal – you realise that you are not just reading about a bunch of long-dead authors, but about real people with their own lives and characters. Occasional snippets of (somewhat dry) humour help to further lighten the load of a serious history book. (For example, he observes on p. 109 that: “One of the major factors behind the success of magical healers was that they rarely did any damage.”)

My biggest negative is that it is rather hard to keep track of who is who. The book is very much a series of several dozen mini-biographies, all rolled into one. Although each biography is in itself a pleasure to read, they do tend to blur in hindsight as one moves through the book. A timeline at the end helps, but it was only when I was writing the summary for this review that I managed to get a proper overview of what actually went on when. This is perhaps inevitable when writing a book of this scope, but does mean that a single quick reading of the book is of limited use.

Nonetheless, I did find “God's Philosophers” a very good book on the whole. It makes the Middle Ages come to life in a way that few history books manage. At the same time, it plots the development of thoughts through the ages, creating a continuous narrative arc that is easy to follow. (Even if the details do blur along the way.) Especially, Hannam manages to portray the medieval worldview in such a way that the reader understands why people in the Middle Ages thought the way they did, and came to the conclusions they did. In doing so, he convincingly rehabilitates a period that has for too long been labelled the “Dark Ages”.

Tagged as books, science, history, christianity

Unless otherwise credited all material Creative Commons License by Daniel Vedder.
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