Popular Science Monthly/Volume 64/November 1903/The Renaissance of Science
|THE RENAISSANCE OF SCIENCE.|
By Dr. EDWARD S. HOLDEN,
U. S. MILITARY ACADEMY, WEST POINT, N. Y.
THE centuries immediately following the disruption of the Roman empire witnessed the formation of the languages of southern Europe—Italian, Spanish, French—and the process of their building-up placed an almost insuperable barrier in the way of the advancement of learning. Latin became a dead language; Greek was entirely unknown; the spoken languages were never written. 'The whole treasury of knowledge was locked up from the eyes of the people.' All legal documents and all correspondence as well as all the rituals of the church were couched in Latin, and until the end of the thirteenth century it was very unusual for a layman to write or even to read. The clergy were the only clerks. It is disputed whether Charlemagne could sign his name, and it is certain that Alfred the Great had but an indifferent knowledge of Latin. From the sixth to the eleventh century the mass of the clergy were only slightly more enlightened. Alfred declares that at the date of his accession (871) he did not know a single priest south of the Thames who understood the ordinary prayers of the church, or who could translate Latin into his mother tongue. The ignorance of the dark ages in Europe is a direct consequence of the confusion of tongues.
Through the translations of Nestorian monks in the orient the works of Greek philosophers, physicians, mathematicians and astronomers became known to the Arabs in the eighth and ninth centuries. The precepts of Ptolemy were followed closely, even slavishly, by the astronomers of Bagdad, Persia, Egypt, Spain and Turkistan, so long as learning lasted in these lands. We owe an immense debt to the Arabs for their faithful transmission of astronomical theories which they had not sufficient mathematical genius to greatly improve; for thousands of observations made to increase the accuracy of the tables of the motions of the sun and planets; for catalogues of the position and brilliancy of the fixed stars; and last and not least, for keeping the lamp of learning burning in their great schools, or universities, in Spain and elsewhere during the centuries from the eighth to the fifteenth. Since the time of the Greek schools of Alexandria the home of the exact sciences has been successively in Bagdad, Cordova, Seville, Tangiers, Bokhara and Samarkand. It was only in the sixteenth century that they were firmly domiciled in christian Europe.
Even in the shortest sketch it is necessary to point out that a great part of the astronomical learning of the Moorish schools was due to Jews; and that it is to orientals and not to Europeans that we owe the earliest recognition of the fundamental truth that all sound progress in astronomy must be based on actual and continued observation of the places of the heavenly bodies; that theory must be based upon practise. It is usual to credit this insight to Tycho Brahe, and it is certain that his greatest claim to our gratitude is based upon a thorough recognition of the fact that until observations have shown us exactly how the planets move we can form no adequate theories to account for their motions. But the astronomers of India and Persia in the ninth and tenth centuries thoroughly understood this fundamental notion, as did Ulugh Beg (1393-1449) at Samarkand, and they invented means to obtain observations of adequate accuracy and in sufficient number.
The need for more observations and for greater precision was also fully realized by Purbach as early as 1450. Regiomontanus returned from Italy in 1471 to set up in Nuremberg an observatory for the especial purpose of correcting the Alphonsine tables, which Purbach and himself had found to be so defective a score of years earlier. Landgrave Wilhelm IV of Cassel and his astronomers were working in the same direction in Tycho 's time. It is Tycho 's merit that he was the first in Europe to create instruments of sufficient power, and to use them with exceeding diligence over a long series of years. There was little knowledge in Denmark of what was doing in the orient. Tycho 's plans were made quite independently of the further east. At the same time Europe touched the orient closely, through Venice, and sent many of her sons to study at Moorish schools; and it is not conceivable that Tycho was entirely ignorant of the details of the work done, a century and a half before his time, in Samarkand.
The debt of Europe to the remoter east has never yet been fully reckoned out. For thirty centuries the culture of the orient has, in one way or another, created, informed or modified our own. The religion, the learning, the art, the architecture of the east have most intimately influenced the west. The chivalry of Europe is, in great measure, a product of the Saracen chivalry which entered Europe in two streams flowing through Constantinople and through Spain. The poetry of the Troubadours and the romances of the feudal period are directly derived from the Arabs. Even the rhythms of the Troubadours are copied from Arab models, and the three-stringed lyre of the Jongleur is from an Arab original. It is from the east that the very idea of rhymed poetry is derived. To speak only of Persia: Alexander the Great destroyed at Persepolis buildings more magnificent than any others ever seen on the round world, not excepting the monuments of Athens; the looms of Persia made imperial Constantinople splendid; chemistry is a Persian word, and the Arabs borrowed their knowledge of the art from Iran; all the drugs of Hippocrates have Persian names; the Persians transmitted the immortal fables and apologues of India to the Arabs, and through them to the west; the works of the Persian sage Avicenna were text-books in the universities of Paris and Montpellier as late as the time of Louis the Fourteenth; our little children are bred up on the tales of the Arabian Nights, a great part of which are of Persian origin; in a thousand unacknowledged ways the west has been taught by the east. When England was a wilderness, inhabited by savages, Persia was polite, cultivated, ingenious, learned and illustrious. Whether we know it or not, we have learned much from them, though the debt is all but ignored except in the writings of scholars.
Moslems took the alien culture of the Greeks much as the Japanese of our own time have taken the culture of Europe. I remember well handing an astrolabe made in England in the seventeenth century, for one of the ships of the Alaskan fleet of Russia, to an accomplished officer of the Japanese navy. He was perfectly familiar with modern navigation and with the sextant, but this classic instrument was a complete puzzle to his mind. The contemporaries of his father had sailed their little boats by timid coasting from headland to headland of the Inland Sea; but no one of them had ever seen a sextant or a quadrant. Like the Arabs of long ago they made one leap from complete ignorance of such matters to the possession of the most refined apparatus, while English navigators, our ancestors, slowly mastered the use of the backstaff, the cross-staff, the astrolabe, the quadrant, the sextant, during a long succession of centuries.
Such considerations as these partly account for the fact that, in spite of their wonderful acumen, the Arabs added little or nothing to the theory of scientific astronomy. Moreover, their religion allowed them but scant liberty. They were confined within the narrow limits of Koranic permissions and prohibitions. It was forbidden to make an image of any living thing either by painting or sculpture. Poetry was discouraged by the traditions of Mohammed. Architecture was the only outlet for their artistic impulse. They could not dissect the human body. Original investigation was closed on nearly every side. What they were permitted to do, they did well. In astronomy they preserved the classic books and they made many precise observations. It is almost an accident that so little use was made of their work by Europeans. If there had been an active commerce between the east and all the countries of the west the history of Europe in the middle ages would have been changed and brightened.
The scientific history of the middle ages is sharply divided into two periods. In the first, no part of Arabic learning had penetrated the west. All knowledge came from the Greeks through the Romans. In the second, the treasures of the Greeks were made known together with the results of three centuries of acute commentary by the subtle-minded philosophers of the east. . The astronomy of the first period was represented by Manilius, Hyginus and Bede. The works of Ptolemy were unknown. These were indeed dark ages for science. In the second, all the wealth of Alexandria was opened, and it was increased by the observations of Albategnius and Ibn Yunos and the commentaries of Albumasar and his successors.
A satisfactory history of science in the middle ages is still a desideratum. Such a book could not possibly have been written before 1860, for the doctrine of special creations would then have assumed the place of the doctrine of a slow, steady and continuous evolution. Episodes of decadence are as much a part of evolution as examples of advancement. The book might well be written as a series of biographies of great men, if this were done without forgetting that, in the strictest sense, every man, even the greatest, is the product of his time.
With the advent of the christian religion theology had become the supreme science of the west. In theory, at least, the whole of philosophy could be deduced from revelation, and at all events theology was the standard to which all philosophizing was obliged to conform. Just as philosophy could be got, by deductive reasoning, from theology, so the whole of science could be deduced from a few fundamental facts, precisely as the whole of geometry of the ancients was derived from a few axioms. Under pre-suppositions of this sort, there could be no natural science, since our very conception of science implies theory compared with, and controlled by, observation and experiment. The method of medieval science was logical deduction. The method of modern science is a very different thing.
'Thus,' as Whewell formulates it:
Aristotle became the sole authority in science just as the church was the sole authority in religion.
While a general statement like the foregoing is, in the main, true, it requires countless modifications if it is to be taken as an explanation of the course of intellectual progress in the middle ages. Their conditions were almost as complex as those that surround our own century. They were modified by unnumbered circumstances of place, time and personality. No one formula can possibly express the spirit of the middle ages, even in respect of a single branch of science. It is, for example, entirely true that the authority of Aristotle was overwhelming. What was not found in his works was, necessarily, false. This is a general truth, and the career of Galileo is a commentary upon it. On the other hand, it must not be supposed that Aristotle was always and everywhere unquestioned.
It was not until two great doctors of the church—Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas—had adopted, explained and consecrated Aristotle 's doctrines in the thirteenth century that his authority became overpowering and universal. Roger Bacon, the great contemporary of St. Thomas and Albert, was also, as Voltaire has said, "un homme admirable pour son siècle. Quel siecle? me direz-vous. C'était celui du gouvernement féodal et des scholastiques. Figurez vous les Samoïdes et les Ostiasques qui aurient lu Aristote et Avicenne—voilà ce que nous étions."
In the year 1000, the world did not come to an end, as had been prophesied and expected: 'Whereupon men took renewed possession of the Earth and of themselves.' This gave leisure to the spirit; leisure and comfort for the body had already, in some measure, been conquered. Men again began to be curious regarding humanity, life, nature. Science for the first time became possible. It is with the greatest difficulty that the attitude of the middle ages towards scientific matters can be comprehended. The time is full of the sharpest contrasts. Roger Bacon illustrates its highest lights. Its deepest shadows are found in the doings of the inquisitors of Spain. Its everyday aspect is, perhaps, best to be conceived from poems and legends that pleased the people. Bestiaries, or story-books of animals, were extremely popular.
They declared, among other things, that:
These are a few extracts from the story books that delighted Europe for centuries.
The earth was generally believed to be flat, though the Greeks of Alexandria knew better. The 'waters above the firmament' were navigable; and there was a story of an anchor dropped to earth from a ship sailing in this second ocean. There were races of men with one eye, others with one leg, others whose enormous feet served as umbrellas to keep away the rays of the torrid sun. Shakespeare's 'men whose heads do lie between their shoulders' date from these legends. Fauns, fairies, lamiæ, sylphs, vampires and the like were dreaded. Everything was received with acquiescent wonder, and without criticism, whether it were a miracle done by the relic of a saint, or the extravagant tale of a traveler. The age of faith deserves its name in so far as it was characteristically an age devoid of criticism.
An Arabic compilation of the tenth century, Adja ih al-Hind—the marvels of India—is composed of a hundred and twenty-four paragraphs, each relating to some wonder recounted to the author by persons whom he names. The work is entirely serious and the narrators were famous seamen, merchants and travelers who were familiar with the Indian Ocean, the Malay archipelago, the China seas and Ceylon. These stories taken as a whole exhibit the extensive commerce carried on, even at that day, between the nearer and the farther east, and speak eloquently for the skill and courage of those early navigators who traversed almost unknown seas with nothing but the stars to guide them. Many of the marvels of the Arabian Nights are to be found here—the roc, the valley of diamonds guarded by serpents, the shipmen who mistake the back of a sleeping turtle of gigantic size for an island, and the like. The legend of the Island of Women, under the star Canopus, where the sea slopes downward, and where only women dwell, is gravely given without even the phrase 'But Allah alone knows if this be true,' by which a good Muslim shows his doubts. Of the existence of the gigantic bird, the roc, the author says 'This is a fact well known to shipmen, and I have never known any one to doubt it. 'The crocodiles of the Harbor of Serira do not bite men, he says, because they were enchanted by a magician who had the power to make them harmless and harmful at will. The prudent king of the country caused them to be made harmless—and then slew the magician; so that to this day the water is safe. Stories of this sort are interwoven with admirably intelligent accounts of these distant countries. All are equally credited and credible.
What strikes a modern reader with astonishment is by no means the ignorance of the writer, but rather his entire lack of the critical faculty. This lack, for Europeans as well as for Arabs, may be taken as characteristic of the middle ages. Our ancestors appear, at times, nothing but adventurous Eskimo who had read Aristotle.
The reign of Faith appears, at first glance, so absolute during the Middle Ages, that one is tempted to believe that for a thousand years no voice was lifted against established religion. A study of the details of history brings, however, many episodes to light that exhibit something like a continuous change from the rationalism of the ancients to that of the moderns. The chain is easiest to trace, of course, in the history of philosophy. It existed likewise in the history of science. The whole of the thirteenth century, exclusively religious as it appears at first sight, was stirred by an undercurrent of free inquiry which has left little trace in written history solely because the history of that period was written by the Dominican school. Roger Bacon was a product of his age, then, not a lusus naturæ.
The philosophy of the Arab commentators of Aristotle—pantheistic in its essence—was utterly opposed to the philosophy of orthodox scholastics. In the year 1209 the council of Paris condemned the Natural Philosophy of Aristotle and its commentaries. A bull of Gregory IX. in 1231 confirmed the condemnation. Such condemnations demonstrated the prevalence of presumed error. By the middle of the century Albertus Magnus had arranged Aristotelian teachings so that they were again in favor, and he incorporated in his text, from the Arabs, all that was useful to his argument. Heterodox comments were refuted when they were not rejected outright. St. Thomas Aquinas gave an even more solid form to orthodox philosophy and waged persistent war on the specific doctrines of the Arabs. In the year 1277 a series of thirteen propositions, mostly taken from Avicenna and Averroës, was formally condemned at Paris and at Oxford. In the general chapter of the Franciscans held at Assisi in 1295, an especial warning was given against 'exotic' opinions. These instances from the history of a single century indicate that there was no universal stagnation. Condemnations of heterodox philosophizing were required every twenty years or so. The thirteenth century is so far removed from us, that we only see its larger features and the main trend of its current. Could we take a nearer view all would be complexity. The conclusion is as true of moslem as of Christian Europe.
Hakim II., caliph of Cordova in the tenth century, had a library of six hundred thousand manuscripts. The catalogue alone filled fortyfour volumes. He kept agents in residence at Alexandria, Cairo, Bagdad and Damascus to procure for him, at any price, books ancient or modern. Works composed in Persia or in Syria were thus often read in Spain before they were known in the city of the author—witness the Anthology of Abul-faradj of Isfahan, for which Hakim paid a thousand gold dinars. His eagerness to acquire was something more than the instinct of the collector, for there are authentic anecdotes of his extensive acquaintance with the biography and history of his times. Even before the reign of Hakim the Moors of Andalusia were inclined to liberal studies. From the tenth to the thirteenth century was the golden age of learning in Spain. Moors, Jews and Christians cooperated in scholarly works under the patronage of princes. The mosques of Cordova were crowded with students. The Giralda tower of Seville (1196) was built for Geber's observatory. The picture is alluring; but we must not fail to recognize that it presents only a part of the truth. In Spain, as elsewhere in Europe, these were the dark ages.
The wealth of manuscripts in the whole of the moslem world was immense. There were, it is said, above seventy public libraries in Moorish pain alone. The library of the Fatimite caliphs in Cairo contained 100,000 manuscripts, of which G,500 were devoted to medicine and astronomy. When the Crusaders took Tripoli in Syria (1109) 100,000 manuscripts were destroyed. Private libraries were often extensive. Faizi, the poet-laureate of Akbar, the Great Mogul, had a private collection of 4,600 manuscripts.
Europeans of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries had a veritable passion for collecting manuscripts also. Charles the Wise in 1373 had a library of 900 manuscripts in the Louvre. Boccaccio, in the middle of the next century, complains that libraries were then falling into decay. The Vatican library was founded in 1453 and the Medicean collection at Florence a little earlier. The library of the Duke of Urbino (1474) cost 30,000 ducats and contained all known classic books. We ask with wonder where these manuscripts came from. We must remember that the library at Alexandria possessed every treasure. Its manuscripts were removed to Rome, and thence to Constantinople, and in the meanwhile copied, recopied and copied again. They passed from hand to hand as precious possessions, valued almost as sacred things. The Sortes Virgilianæ attributed magical powers to the mere manuscript. Pieces of Homer were sold for charms. European manuscripts were, at first, preserved in churches, and later, in convents and abbeys, where they were copied and recopied and sold at high prices. It is, finally, to the church that we owe their preservation. Wars and strifes were not so fatal to manuscripts in the west as in the east. When Constantinople was taken by the Crusaders (1204), thousands of manuscripts perished. Many others were lost in its three great conflagrations, but in spite of these misfortunes thousands of volumes were preserved and have come down to us. The fragment that has been saved may give some notion of the magnitude of the original collections. Ximenes in the beginning of the sixteenth century burned 80,000 manuscripts in the public squares of Grenada. The magnificent collection of the Escurial comes from Morocco, and at least half of it was destroyed by the fire of 1671.
The Abbaside caliphs were liberal patrons of learning, as was the fashion of their time and race. Harun's quick intelligence was interested in scientific matters and he had very wise advisers. Al-Mamun was even more interested. To patronize science and the arts was a part of the state of a sultan. It had to do with Aristotle's virtue of magnificence, now erased from our list of cardinal excellences. The Almagest was first translated by learned Jews in the reign of Harun al-Easchid (765-809), and an observatory had been maintained by his predecessors at Damascus. His son, Al-Mamun (786-833) erected a magnificent establishment at Bagdad in 829, sixty-seven years after the foundation of the city. The Arab instruments were fashioned from descriptions given by Ptolemy, but they were much larger and far more accurate than those of the Greeks. Moreover, the Arab astronomers observed the heavenly bodies continuously, and this habit led them to a more precise knowledge of the elements of planetary motion. The attitude of an oriental monarch towards learning is well illustrated by a paragraph from the Memoirs of Tamerlane. Tamerlane was nearly a savage, but he had learned from contact with polite nations the fashion of kings, and it is interesting and significant that he cared to be in the fashion. He says:
Arab history shows, however, that culture and the desire for culture never penetrated the mass of the people. They were rigid Moslems; and men of learning were suspected of heresy or worse. An aristocracy of learning has always been more odious to the people than one founded on wealth or birth; and there is no intolerance like that of the ignorant. Their princes could do no act more popular than to order the destruction of heretical books and manuscripts in the public square. All Hakim's manuscripts were so destroyed after his death to conciliate the people. Works on theology, grammar and medicine were alone spared, with a few treatises on elementary astronomy—for it was necessary to be able to calculate the direction in which Mecca lay, the Kibla towards which every Moslem turns his face in prayer.
In Arabia, in Spain and in Europe, the mass of the people was fanatical, brutal and ignorant. Dominion over them was gained and held by exciting their passions. The influence of sages, like Bacon and Averroës, of liberal princes, like Hakim and Frederick II., saved learning from extinction; but it has required the experience of centuries to raise the tolerance of new ideas to its present level; and even now, is not tolerance composed quite as much of indifference as of enlightenment? If the history of the renaissance of art in Italy is closely examined a corresponding ignorance and indifference is exhibited. Where art ministered to religion, to superstition or to local pride, the multitude was concerned for it. For art as art, only a select few were interested.
The writings of the Greeks first became known to the Arabs through translations from the Syrian. In the year 431 the Nestorian heresy was condemned at the council of Ephesus. Nestorian priests were banished and dispersed throughout Syria, Persia and the further east, and everywhere carried somewhat of the learning of the west. Under the caliphs they spread from Cyprus to China and outnumbered the Greek and Latin churches. There was a Nestorian bishop in Merv in A. D. 334; and at Herat and Samarkand in A. D. 500. The Kerait Turkomans accepted Christianity about A. D. 1000, as a tribe. A Nestorian christian was superintendent of the city schools of Bagdad under one of the Abbaside caliphs. Until the death of Tamerlane (1405) Nestorians were to be found everywhere throughout the orient.
It is doubtful whether a single Arab scholar was acquainted with the Greek language, and certain that none of the Moorish doctors were so. The printed volumes of Averroës' Aristotle are a Latin translation of a Hebrew translation of a commentary made on an Arabic translation of a Syriac translation from a Greek text. The meaning of the original was almost lost in its transmigrations through tongues so different in spirit as Greek, Syrian, Arabic, Hebrew and Latin.
Latin editions of the whole or of parts of Averroës' Aristotle were greatly multiplied in Europe after the invention of printing. During the century 1480-1580 nearly a hundred editions were issued. At Venice alone more than fifty were put forth. It is in Avicenna that we must seek the full expression of Arab philosophical thought, while Algazel is its most original expositor. The greatest of the astronomers were Albategnius, Ibn Yonis and Abul-Wefa.
Greek made its way slowly in Europe, also, though it was never quite lost. In the tenth century, Sister Hrosvita, a nun of Hanover, composed Latin poems and dramas, learned Greek and read Aristotle. In the twelfth Abelard recommended the nuns of the Paraclete to study both Latin and Greek; and Héloise was acquainted with Latin, Greek, and Hebrew as well. In the thirteenth, Greek manuscripts were systematically collected by a few scholars—Robert of Lincoln, for example; and Roger Bacon's far-reaching proposal for the establishment of schools of comparative grammar for the study of Chaldean, Hebrew, Arabic and Greek, as well as Latin, represents the highest wave of a very widespread current. Petrarch's letters are a proof of a great rationalistic movement in the fourteenth century to which the study of the classic authors of Greece, in their original tongue, was a prime necessity. Neither Petrarch nor Dante knew Greek sufficiently well to read Homer in the original. The council which sat at Basel from 1431 to 1449 to consider the reconciliation of the Greek and Latin churches attracted many Greek scholars to western Europe, and by the fall of Constantinople in 1453 learned Greeks, who brought with them treasured manuscripts, were dispersed throughout all christian countries.
Raymond of Toledo, grand chancellor of Castile, established a college of translators shortly before the middle of the twelfth century, and the works of Avicenna and other Arab philosophers were translated into Latin. In all works of this kind learned Jews bore an important part. The translations were barbarous in the extreme. Each Arabic word was translated into Latin by one clerk, and the construction arranged by another. 'The Latin word covered the word in Arabic as a piece in chess covers the square.' The grammatical construction was Arabic rather than Roman. The style was barbaric. "Inuarkin terra alkanarihy, stediei et baraki et castrum munitum destendedyn descenderunt adenkirati ubi descendit super eos aqua Euphratis veniens de Euetin" is a phrase from Hermann, the German, and it bears out Roger Bacon's dictum that students would lose their time, trouble and money over translations of the sort. "Should Cicero or Livy return," says Petrarch, "and stumblingly read his own writings once more, he would promptly declare them the work of another, perhaps of a barbarian."
We have seen that the eagerness of collectors of manuscripts sometimes made Moorish scholars familiar with literary works even before they were published in their native country. Copies were rapidly made and distributed: a popular work would soon be known over the whole of Europe. "The French poems of the trouvéres were, in less than a century, familiar in translations into German, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Flemish, Dutch, Bohemian, Italian and Spanish. A work composed at Morocco or Cairo was known at Paris or Cologne in less time than is now-a-days required for an important book published in Germany to cross the Rhine" (Renan). To this intellectual movement the commerce of the Jews powerfully contributed. If there were any demand for a particular manuscript they promptly supplied it. Books of science were, naturally, not multiplied with the same rapidity as works on medicine and philosophy, but whatever demands existed were supplied. A knowledge of Latin was widely spread among the Jews. In the thirteenth century Solomon of Barcelona reproves his co-religionaries of Provence for neglecting the study of Hebrew in their eagerness to acquire the Roman tongue.
Civic toleration has seldom been carried further than among the Arabs in Spain. Cordova was preeminently the city of learning; Seville of gaiety and music. Jews, Mohammedans and Christians were on the same official footing and spoke the same language. Hebrew and Spanish were often written in Arabic characters. John of Seville, a christian bishop, translated the Bible into Arabic. In spite of the opposition of the clergy mixed marriages were not very infrequent. This fact indicates that toleration had already begun to penetrate the mass of the people; yet this must not be taken as a general conclusion, for at the slightest sign religious feuds broke forth. It is probably more true to conclude that tolerance was the mark of liberal princes. Jews and Christians had a place among the Moors so long as their interests did not clash. There was no real learning among the masses in Spain or in Europe in the days of ignorance. The courts of princes, on the other hand, were alive with intellectual curiosity.
Nothing was easier, however, than for a learned man to get a hearing in Moslem countries before other men of his class. The case was much the same at European universities. Any mosque would serve the Moslem doctor for an audience-hall, and as nearly all mosques had endowed schools attached to them, hearers were provided from the outset. If the teacher was eloquent, pupils flocked to hear him by hundreds. The subjects taught were jurisprudence, logic, philosophy, medicine, mathematics, astronomy. All except the first were derived directly from the Greeks, or from Arab commentators. Of Greek literature, poetry, drama, the Arabs were absolutely ignorant. They did not even know the distinction between Greek tragedy and comedy.
We may perhaps judge of the authority of Aristotle among them by quoting from Averroës's edition of his works:
A portion of this praise may be laid to the Arab habit of high sounding eulogy which made their ruling princes, 'the Shadow of God'; but the wisest of the pagans, and the christian doctors of all times, have praised him in almost equivalent terms.
Aristotle, Nature's private secretary, dipping his pen in intellect.—Eusebiua (264-349 A. D.).
Whenever the divine wisdom of Aristotle has opened its mouth, the wisdom of others, so it seems to me, is to be disregarded.—Dante (1265-1321).Aristotle was a man beside whom no age has an equal to place.—Hegel (1770-1831).
By a singular chance "the greatest of inductive philosophers became the hero of a recklessly deductive age" (Robinson). By a still more singular chance he became the corner-stone of Roman Catholic theology.
The doctrines expounded by Arab writers were exoteric—intended for the mass of men. They taught their esoteric doctrines by word of mouth, or, occasionally, in works not confided to the multitude. Algazel, in his 'Logic,' declares that opinions which he does not share are there exposed, and that in his book on the contradictions of the philosophers his true views are to be found. The problems that he dismisses as insolvable in his published works are resolved in this book of esoteric doctrine. Abd-el-Melik Ibn-Wahib of Seville would not even converse on delicate subjects, 'so that, in his writings, one does not find, as in those of other philosophers, secret matters only to be expounded after they are dead.' Avicenna explains the views of others and conceals his own, and avows that beside his published works he has written a treatise in which he has expounded philosophy 'according to Nature and Reason alone.' This was his Oriental Philosophy, now lost, if indeed it was ever current. On this declaration of Avicenna, Roger Bacon comments: "The naked truth cannot be told. Avicenna well knew that the envy and pride of his rivals, and the folly of the multitude forced him to speak like all the world in his published works, and he knew that he could only think the pure doctrine of Science for the few," The 'pure' doctrine of Avicenna was a pure pantheism—God was identified with the revolving spheres. Bacon expressly rejected this identification without ever knowing what Avicenna's last word was.
Students flocked to schools wherever the desired instruction was provided, as indeed, they always had done. In the sixth century 'Lismore's learned isle,' off the bleak Scottish coast of Oban, was visited by scholars from every part of Europe. In the twelfth, the Moorish universities held some students from countries as distant as England as well as many from Italy and France. To seek for the situations of the foci of learning in different centuries would be a curious inquiry. The excursion would extend from Turkistan to Tunis and Toledo.
Consider also the narrations of the voyages of travelers that began to be current. Benjamin of Tudela (1173) visited regions so distant as Samarkand and India. Jean Carpin, the Franciscan, was sent (1246) by Pope Innocent IV. on a mission to the Tartars, and Kubruquis (1253) to the same people by St. Louis. Marco Polo returned from China and India in 1295. Sir John Mandeville's travels in the orient (in the middle of the fourteenth century) were recorded by him in three languages and were copied everywhere in Europe. Consider, also, that well traveled trade routes existed throughout the nearer east and that the products of all the orient were familiar to the cities of Italy and southern France. The minds of men were opened by the recitals of the experiences of returning travelers. Abbey schools and great universities were everywhere to be found. The learning of the time was within the reach of multitudes.
What the mathematical courses in the English universities were, even in the sixteenth century, is illustrated by a curious passage from the Oxford lectures of Sir Henry Savile (1549-1622): "By the grace of God, gentlemen hearers, I have performed my promise; I have redeemed my pledge. I have explained, according to my ability the definitions, postulates, axioms and the first eight propositions of the Elements of Euclid"—eight propositions! Dante in the Convito gives the classic scheme of studies in European universities slightly modified to agree with the nine heavens moved by angels or intelligences, the supreme sphere resting in God himself.
|Philosophy||Physics and Metaphysics||Starry Heaven||Cherubim|
|Moral Science Theology||Crystalline Heaven||Seraphim|
About the end of the fifteenth century a revolt against the Aristotle of the Arab commentators took form in Italy. On April 4, 1497, the first lecture from the original Greek text was given at the University of Padua. The 'vain glosses' of the Arabs were decried by the most distinguished among the teachers of the sixteenth century. Hippocrates and Galen were infallible only in Greek. In 1552 the preface to an edition of Averroes declared: "Our ancestors could find nothing ingenious in philosophy or medicine unless it came from the Moors. Our own age, on the other hand, trampling Arab science under foot, admires and accepts only what comes directly from the treasury of Greece; it adores the Greeks only; it will have only Greeks for masters; he who knows not Greek, knows nothing." The Arab Aristotle became 'a poisoner; an obscurantist; the executioner of the human race, who has destroyed the world with his pen as did Alexander with his sword.' The new school conquered in the end, but not without a long struggle.
In Petrarch 's time the doctrines of Aristotle had taken on an aridity from the Arab commentators that cried for a living spirit to replace it.
"Petrarch deserves the name of 'the first modern man' in that he first introduced to the Latins the fine feeling of antique culture, the source of all our civilization. * * * It was he who first rediscovered the secret of that noble, generous and liberal comprehension of life which disappeared when the barbarians triumphed over the ancient world."
When Arab philosophy was finally overthrown in the early part of the seventeenth century (we may fix the date at the death of Cremonini in 1631) the liberty of opinion that then prevailed in the northeast of Italy vanished completely. The day of conflict was over. The reign of orthodoxy began anew. The final defeat of the Arabs was, on the one hand, a sign of the victory of experimental science; and on the other, it cleared the way for a rigid orthodoxy.
During the period when the struggle between the Arab and the Greek Aristotle was in full progress it was inevitable that liberty of opinion should prevail. At its end two consequences necessarily followed, as has just been said: The essential validity of the methods of experimental science had been vindicated, and scholars understood that a new era had begun. This was the era illuminated by Galileo's early researches. On the other hand, the Greek Aristotle had conquered. The liberty which comes of conflict was no longer permitted. Orthodoxy founded itself on the new interpretations and reigned firmly and severely. To the people at large the end of the conflict marked the overthrow of speculative heresy, not the winning of a new world to science. The pantheistic idealism of Averroës and the Arabs lingered on in a few minds. Cardan, Pomponazzi and Jordano Bruno were tinged by it. But in the church orthodoxy ruled.
During the early centuries of the christian era no one was concerned to vindicate the claim of the church of Rome to primacy. The bishop of Rome was the successor of St. Peter; his church was the mother of all the churches; it was situated at the capital of the empire. These were its sufficient titles. About the year 500 'apostolic canons' were collected which afterwards grew into the canon-law. Precepts from the Bible, extracts from the writings of the fathers, decrees of church councils, letters (decretals) of the Roman bishops, formed the body of a distinctive law of the church. But in the schools of Italy the memory of the civil law of the empire had never wholly died out. Early in the twelfth century Irnerius was lecturing in Bologna on the Corpus Juris of Justinian, and from such studies the university arose, just as the University of Paris grew from the teaching of Abelard. A pupil of Irnerius lectured at Oxford. The universities of Paris and Oxford were, however, chiefly concerned with theology and with general culture—with the quaidrivium or group of higher scientific studies.
The teachings of Bologna (in law) and of Salerno (in medicine) were more special. They necessarily implied an acquaintance with classic writers and with the history of the empire. It was inevitable that the question of the legal status of the church should be discussed. When and how was it recognized by the empire? What were its legal sanctions? Upon what grounds were the canon and the civil law to be reconciled? These were soul-stirring questions which the church subsequently answered in its own way. With the answers we have no concern. The civil law dealt with every one of the personal and social relations of mankind; it had to do with the whole life of civil society; its principles were not immediately related to the principles underlying the body of the canon law.
The origins of what we call the revival of learning must be sought in the discussions that inevitably arose from the comparison of principles so different, and the consequent necessity of an appeal to the original writings of authors of classic times. The renaissance had its formal beginnings in the Italian schools of the early years of the twelfth century.
The history of the first half of the thirteenth century is a proof that the leaven of a revival was then working at Oxford, at Paris, in Robert of Lincoln, in Roger Bacon, at other places, and in many other companies of men. Long years before the savants of the renaissance. Bacon urged the study of the dead languages, of philosophy, of mathematics, of classic literature. Centuries before Luther he pointed out the errors of the Vulgate, and of the fathers of the church. The way was prepared for Petrarch, though in fact he only appeared a full century later. What is the reason of this sudden check to a vigorous and healthy movement? No single cause was more efficient than the rehabilitation of Aristotle as the apostle of orthodoxy towards the year 1250. The advent of 'the first modern man' was delayed for a hundred years, and the later renaissance for three centuries. The wars of the fourteenth century drowned European learning in blood. The history of the promising beginnings of a real revival of learning in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is not yet written, and the share that the scientific thought of Bacon and his contemporaries had in such a revival has been strangely undervalued. Science, as one of the motive forces of the whole movement, has been neglected. It is the rarest thing to find in the indexes of professed histories of the renaissance the name of any scientific man—even that of Copernicus almost never appears.
The earliest stir of the renaissance was in Italy. Petrarch was the first great man of the new world, as Dante was the last of the old. Germany, the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, felt the impulse quickly on account of its close connection with Italy, and each one of its semi-independent courts was a focus favorable to the new spirit.
The discoveries of Columbus in 1493 were a mighty aid in freeing men's thoughts from the shackles of prescription and custom. The voyages of Vasco da Gama to India (1497-99) and of Magellan around the world (1519-21) came to confirm the larger view and to excite curiosity and hope. New things are within our reach; search and find—these were the lessons of the time. They were lessons for all mankind. Even the peasant heard of the new wonders and felt himself more a man. The philosopher, in his study, was incited to new efforts. A new spirit was born throughout civilized Europe.
To estimate an epoch, something must be known of its arts and inventions. During the middle ages gunpowder, clocks, telescopes, parchment, paper, the mariner's compass were invented or adopted; mathematics received great developments—especially algebra and trigonometry; perspective was studied and perfected; experimental chemistry, not yet a science, was cultivated; surgery was brought to an equal standing with medicine; music, as we know it, began with the notation of Guido d'Arezzo; counterpoint was developed into a doctrine; optics and acoustics were greatly improved and the foundations of mechanics were laid; manufactures of all kinds made great progress, notably those of glass and steel; the art of printing opened literature to all the world—the poor and the rich alike.
If we pass to the field of art there are notable matters to be chronicled. All the basilicas of Italy, all the mosques of the Arabs, all the Byzantine churches, all the Gothic cathedrals are of this period. Santa Sophia dates from A. D. 532, St. Mark's from 1052, Notre Dame from 1163, the Cathedral of York from 1171, St. Peter's from 1450. Of the great painters, Cimabue was born in 1240, Giotto in 1276, Van Byck in 1366, Botticelli in 1447, Leonardo in 1452, Dürer in 1470, Michel Angelo in 1474, Titian in 1477, Raphael in 1483, Correggio in 1494, Holbein in 1495, Tintoretto in 1512, Veronese in 1532. The dates, set down almost at random, cover a thousand years, but the epoch of great progress was from the twelfth to the sixteenth century. When we thus sum up what was accomplished in five hundred years, the period is seen to be full to overflowing. Its interests did not lie in the direction of science—its ideal was not comfort. At the beginning of the dark ages the problem of Europe was to tame the hordes of barbarians who had possessed themselves of the lands—to contrive workable compromises between the customs, laws, ideals, institutions of northern and southern races. Given the point of starting the progress is not slow. The advancement of Europe from the sixth to the sixteenth century is an amazing phenomenon and no one can study it closely without a sense of wonder that so much was achieved.
We who breathe a different air must never forget that the doctors of the church cared little for science, as such, and everything for religion. In the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas there is but one chapter that deals with scientific matters. Moreover, we must always carefully distinguish between the opinion of the philosophers and that of the multitude. The mass of men then, as now, thought little of philosophical matters and took their opinions ready-made. Real tolerance in philosophy is a product of real experience. Princes like Al Mamun and Alfonso X. patronized learning in a large and liberal way. The crowd of doctors, poets, artists, physicians, astronomers, at such courts lived in a harmony which was enforced upon them by their very situation. Outside the courts there was envy and malice among the excluded theologians, a sullen opposition among the people. What men do not understand they suspect as heretical. There is scarcely a moslem or a christian doctor of the middle ages who did not bear the reputation of magician among the common people. Medicine, astrology, alchemy were, almost necessarily, regarded as magical arts. To a populace that sincerely believed in ubiquitous devils all science was suspect. Considerations of this sort should make us very tolerant of the blunders of our brothers of past time. It is so easy for any one of us to make a list of the follies, errors and crimes of his own century, and so hard to find excuses for them, that it should give us pause in distributing indiscriminating blame to the men of the middle ages as is often done in books of the warfare-of-science-and-theology sort. Among us, as of old, the ignorant are the most harsh. To us, as to the middle ages, the phrase Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner applies in its fullest force and scope.
During the whole of the middle ages there was never a time when a philosopher was not free to put forth his scientific conclusions hypothetically—as theories to account for observed phenomena. He could not, however, directly attack religion, or even roughly handle received opinion on religious matters. At many epochs the first breath of heresy was fatal. Our own age is not very tolerant of attacks upon cherished beliefs. It is in a great degree its indifference to a certain class of inquiries that gives us our present liberty. Had Copernicus lived, his doctrine would not have given rise to scandal in the church, because it was put forth as a distinctly scientific opinion quite detached from theological suggestions. It was not until 1616 that his book was placed upon the index, and then only as a consequence of the personal enmities that Galileo's bitter satires had excited. If Roger Bacon had been willing to follow the methods of Copernicus the long miseries of his life would have been spared and the world might have been saved from three centuries of wandering in devious and ill-directed paths. If Galileo had done the same he would have lived in peace; we should have owed our present freedom to another martyr.
It is the custom of our minds to escape difficulties by accepting symbols to stand for ideas, types to stand for men, and we stand in danger of losing realities in the types and symbols. The sculpture of the Greeks is summarized to us by a couple of names; but there were many great sculptors in Greece beside Phidias and Praxiteles. The astronomy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries can show a large list of noted names; but it is epitomized in Copernicus, Tycho, Kepler and Galileo. It is commonly taken for granted that Copernicus burst forth from darkness and made a new epoch. He stands, indeed, for a new epoch; but he was no less the product of his time than Darwin, another Bahnbrecher. There was great activity among astronomers in the decade just preceding the publication of his great book in 1543. Copernicus was the child of universities; the schools of Italy which he frequented for years were alive with inquiry. The epoch for a revision of accepted theory had arrived. It was the encouragement of his friends and scholars that brought about the promulgation of his theories, all of which were fully comprehended by them, before even a line had been printed. Had Copernicus never been born there is no doubt that the heliocentric theory would have been announced before the sixteenth century reached its end. Tycho's observations contained it implicitly. It could not possibly have escaped the eager search of Kepler.
Tycho, again, stands as the type of the men who saw that a multitude of accurate places of the heavenly bodies must be accumulated before any adequate theory of their motions could be formulated. The Moors of Spain, the Arabs of Bagdad, the Turkis of Samarkand grasped the same fundamental idea, and other astronomers in Italy and in Germany were in the same path before Tycho.
Who shall say how much Kepler owed to his master, Moestlin, to whom he is never weary of attributing the suggestions which finally culminated in his splendid discoveries?
Galileo's great achievements in astronomy were largely due to the telescope, which he was the first to use, although it was invented by others. His greatest gift to science is his theory of mechanics, but even here Leonardo da Vinci had already gone far on the true way, and his contemporary, Stevinus, developed the whole subject independently and with equal insight. Galileo was surrounded by men of his own class if not of his own stature.
We, in our turn, may accept these four great men—Copernicus, Tycho, Kepler, Galileo—as types; but we must never forget that they did not stand alone. Each one of them shone with brilliant and intrinsic light, but each one was, also, in some degree, the mirror of his age, concentrating and diffusing the reflections of lesser lights by whom he was surrounded. What he received from them as mist, he returned in rain, as has been finely said of the inspiration of an orator by his audience.
Of this group of four, two are veritable epoch-makers—the first and the last. After the book of Copernicus was understood, the world was no longer the same. Its center had been changed. The sun and not the earth ruled our system. The planets and the stars became the sun 's ministers, not ours. Man, nodus et vinculum mundi, was discrowned and disenthroned. It was the doctrine of Copernicus that changed the face of the world.
To realize the momentous change time was necessary. It was Galileo who spoke the emphatic word. The predictions of Copernicus were confirmed by the telescope. The new doctrines were explained and enforced so that no escape was possible. It was Galileo and not Copernicus who convinced the reluctant spirits of his day. The work of one was continued in the other. Not until the time of Newton was the message fully credited. It was not welcomed until our own day.
To the men of the middle ages the world was a little space shut tight within a wheelwork of revolving spheres. It was compendious, complete, ingenious, like a toy in a crystal box. Beyond the outer shell nothing existed. The heavens were incorruptible. No change could occur in the whole system, save on the earth alone. The universe was created for the sole use of man. It was small and finite. To us, the awful infinitudes of space are only to be faintly imagined after a series of conceptions, each one so overwhelming that it fades after the briefest instant of realization. Human attention can not grasp the whole series in one view. Each one of the myriad stars is a sun like our own, subjected, as it is, to prodigious physical alterations and catastrophies. Each one is, perhaps, surrounded by a train of planets, like those we know, that must forever remain invisible to our vision. The condition of every celestial body is perpetually changing in a long progress of evolution. Each separate star is situated as far from every other as our own sun from the very nearest of them all. Every star is in motion. The sun, so mighty and all-powerful to us, is but a feeble light among thousands of millions of others scattered so sparsely throughout the never-ending expanse that centuries are needed even for their light to traverse the intervening spaces. In the feeble light of that sunbeam, vital to us, the earth, our mother, shines like the merest mote. Its past is limited, its future insecure. With its finite history the fate of mankind is bound up.
We must not forget that the modern view of the universe is very different from that of Copernicus. Before his day the earth was motionless in the center of the world. After it the earth was in perpetual motion about the sun. Copernicus conceived the sun as fixed. But under Newton's law of universal gravitation there can be no fixed bodies. All are in motion. Our sun with its train of planets is speeding through space towards a goal as yet unknown. Newton's law of gravitation banished rest from the universe. To Copernicus as to Ptolemy rest was the natural state to which all bodies tended. They moved only when perpetually urged. The science of mechanics founded by Galileo and Newton changed all this. The real reformation of science dates from the acceptance of the new conception.
- Renan: Averroës et l'averroisme, Chapter I. Like all general statements this one requires completion in order to be exact in all its details; the Persians, for instance, were never austere or dogmatic, so far as I know.