Monday, September 1, 2014

God's Philosophers

Most awesome cover.
God's Philosophers, by James Hannam

I found this book through a really long, really great review: The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews God's Philosophers.  I really encourage you to go read that article--you can even skip mine if you do--because it's far better and more entertaining than I am.

God's Philosophers sets out to destroy the common myth that Christianity clamped a lid of oppression and censorship on Europe, ushering in the Dark Ages during which no one thought or invented anything until the Renaissance came along and rescued us by inventing science.   (Guess who invented this idea first?) 

Hannam therefore leads us through a series of short biographies of medieval thinkers: people who delved into mathematics, engineering, natural philosophy (what we would now call science, only it wasn't then), and even a bit of medicine--because they believed strongly that God was a rational being who created a rational universe that could and should be understood through study and--yes!--experimentation.  I can almost promise that you've never heard of most of them, yet they were doing some pretty impressive stuff, and for the most part they were doing it with the approval of the Church.

Medieval scholars made great progress in logic and mathematics most especially the marriage of mathematics and physics, but we don't hear much about them.  This is partly because Renaissance scholars really did render much of previous work obsolete, and partly because Renaissance people purposely got rid of a lot of medieval scholarship.  Most of us were taught in school that the Renaissance was partly due to the discovery of ancient Greek texts, which sparked an interest in learning.  This is true enough, but it also sparked a contempt for anything more recent than Aristotle.  Medieval scholars knew something about Aristotle and built on that foundation, finding out that Aristotle was not always right; Renaissance scholars trashed all that work, cleaning out their libraries and getting rid of most of it.  Happily, the printing press had already been invented and medieval scholarly works had been widely printed, so they couldn't be lost completely.

It seems to me that the Renaissance scholars did something we see often in history; they trashed their immediate forebears and convinced future generations of their own superiority, simply by saying loudly and often that those old guys were stupid and stodgy and ignorant, with no redeeming values at all.  The Tudors did it to the previous rulers of England, the Edwardians did it to the Victorians (who did it to the Georgians), and the Baby Boomers did it to their parents's generation (so to speak.  Not blaming you, Mom.)

Now, medicine was the trickiest area to progress in, because so much of the human body's functions take place on a level unseeable by the human eye.  Medieval Christians were the first people to do dissection on human bodies, because nearly all other societies put very strong taboos on messing with dead bodies.  Galen had to do his anatomy studies on animals and extrapolate from there, and it was known that he got a lot wrong.  Hannam thinks that studies of the human body probably started with autopsies to determine cause of death.  But even so, what they could discover about the body didn't lead much of anywhere because they couldn't find out enough to really fix anything much.  It's great to know that blood circulates, but attempted transfusions were impossible until we figured out blood types.

There is a whole lot about astronomy, of course.  We get detailed summations of the studies of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo among others, and exactly what the scholars of the time thought about them.  Copernicus was a controversy, but apparently much of the objection was not so much theological as practical.  Many scholars thought heliocentric ideas theologically fine, but scientifically absurd.  The math didn't really work, and it took Kepler and his ellipses to solve the objection.  Kepler was an extremely religiously strict man, and studied the Bible carefully on this point.  He came to the conclusion that circular orbits were a Greek ideal; the Bible only required a reasonable universe and was OK with ellipses.

Hannam concludes, "...the most significant contribution of the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages was to make modern science even conceivable.  They made science safe in a Christian context, showed how it could be useful and constructed a worldview where it made sense."

I really enjoyed this book of history and science, and I certainly learned a lot.  If you're fond of the Middle Ages, as I am, and kind of resent it when people talk about those times as an era completely dominated by oppression and superstition, this would be a great choice.


maphead said...

I'm solo reading this!
(I'm salsa bookmarking that website you referenced in your review. I looks QUITE promising!!)

maphead said...

I'm solo reading this!
(I'm salsa bookmarking that website you referenced in your review. I looks QUITE promising!!)

exploringclassics said...

As someone who studies the sciences, this book sounds fantastic!

Lory said...

This sounds fascinating. Not long ago I read "Age of Wonder" by Richard Holmes, which was about science during the Romantic age. It was fascinating to learn how closely the arts and science were related during that time, whereas now we want to put them in separate boxes. You might be interested in it as a follow-up.

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

This sounds wonderful. I love it when books remind you that some of the simplified tropes about history that you remember from school just aren't true.

Jean said...

Lory, thanks for stopping by! I actually read Age of Wonder a few years ago and you're right, it does make a good follow-up to this book. I enjoyed it a lot (especially the bit about Mrs. Davy's unfashionably tiny hat, which caught my eye!).

Jenny, that's just it! I love that too. :)

ipsofactodotme said...

I ususlly associate all that is Medieval with art and monks copying manuscripts. I love the Middle Ages and this looks like a great read to learn more about the history of science in that period. Thanks for this review!