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Empiricism, Religious Authority and Conflict

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), a Catholic cleric in Poland, for relaxation painted, translated poetry from ancient Greek into Latin and dabbled in celestial observations with the naked eye. Copernicus theorized that the earth, rather than standing still, rotated daily and traveled around the sun yearly — resurrecting theory from pre-Christian Hellenistic intellectuals. Responding to Copernicus, Martin Luther considered himself better informed on the matter. He called Copernicus as an "upstart astrologer" trying to be clever. He is reported to have quipped that sacred scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth (Joshua 10:12-13). Copernicus' work in astronomy was better received by the Catholic Church, but there were objections. Copernicus was obedient and shelved his theory.

There was independent thinking by more than men of genius like Copernicus. Historian Carlos Eire of Yale University writes of the "freethinking skepticism" of common folk, of which nearly every clergyman complained." Not all of those whom we might label as common were thoughtlessly, or blindly, following those who postured as authorities. Eire writes of the nonconformists, the "reprobates" and "libertines" who annoyed John Calvin. Calvin disliked their claim that he was wrong to pass judgment. Calvin also called them amoral wolves, ignoramuses, vermin, scum, and such.

Veronica Wedgewood (1910-97) described Europeans in the late 1500s as more devout than their predecessors — a reaction from the materialism of the Renaissance "which had now reached its widest limits." She described the cult of Saints and focus on miracles reaching proportions unheard of for centuries, among the education as well as the masses. "Those whom the wide arms of the Churches could not receive took refuge in the occult." Rosicrucian mysticism grew, as did fear of witchcraft among the educated. And black magic was practiced from the desolate north of Scotland to the Mediterranean islands. "A pseudo-scientific interest in astrology was the fashion." (The Thirty Years' War, p. 20-21)

Michel de Montaigne

Britannica writes of the decline of the intellectual optimism that was shattered by the political, civil and religious wars in France in the second half of the 1500s, accompanied as they were with "great excesses of fanaticism and cruelty." According to Britannica, Montaigne's essays incorporated "a profound skepticism concerning the human being’s dangerously inflated claims to knowledge and certainty." He distrusted generalizations and abstractions, and he presented himself to others with the question: "What do I know."

Montaigne distrusted claims of spiritual knowledge not attached to what Britannica describes as "a concretely lived reality." He declined to speculate on a transcendence that falls beyond humanity's range of knowledge. The French historian Lucien Febvre (1878-1956) wrote about "conceptual difficulties" in the 1500s regarding the question of God's existence. "Every activity of the day ... was saturated with religious beliefs and institutions" and asking someone whether he believed in God was to suggest the possibility that he did not and must have been as insulting as asking if he were a sodomite or murderer. The word "atheist" in the 1500s was commonly used to denote a libertine rather than not believing in God. Peter Watson in his book Ideas (published in 2006) agrees with Febvre. Watson writes that "One reason Montaigne never really [publicly] doubted that there was a God was because to do so in his lifetime was next to impossible." But Montaigne was attacked for being a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (Jefferson's favorite philosopher), Epicurus described by some as a proto-atheist .

Montaigne appears to have been a loyal Roman Catholic all his life. He supported France's King Henry IV, the good king from 1589 who produced conciliation and an end to the religious civil war in France. Regarding the issue of witchcraft, Montaigne was progressive. According to the historian Carlos Eire, Montaigne argued "that medical prescriptions were the real solution for the witchcraft problem, not executions."

Montaigne's modesty and his tempered differences of opinion kept him from being burned at the stake, unlike the Italian Giordano Bruno, who would not hold back in expressing himself and would be burned at the stake in the year 1600. (Bruno was accused of being a pantheist, then equivalent to atheism, and other opinions contrary to Church teachings. Another Pantheist, Lucilio Vanini, was condemned as an atheist and burned at the stake in 1619 in Toulouse, in southern France.)

Francis Bacon

A generation after Montaigne, in England, there was Francis Bacon (1561-1630), a proponent of science, another man of genius. He entered Trinity College Cambridge in 1573 at the age of 12. Queen Elizabeth was impressed by his precocious intellect and became accustomed to calling him "The young lord keeper." Having heard a lot of bombast he came to detest wild interpretations of events. He was interested in going beyond opinion to questions about facts. He would be called the father of empiricism.

Like virtually everyone else in European society at the time, Bacon maintained his faith, but, according to the historian AC Grayling, Bacon held to the emphatic view that it is "always a mistake to 'commix together' science and religion," and this, according to Grayling, played a major part in liberating enquiry from the demand for doctrinal conformity." Bacon warned of people making faulty connections through assumption or wishful thinking. But he believed in more than just collecting data. In what he called "Idols of the tribe" he warned that ordinary sense experiences miss a lot, making investigation necessary.

Carlos Eire writes of Bacon:

His goal was to penetrate to the more secret parts and remote parts of nature" with "a more certain , better-grounded way and more certain and altogether better intellectual procedure." His method — so racially different then and so habitual nowadays — called for experimentation, for the assembly of data and its interpretation, and for the unlocking of all that was hidden in the universe.

Bacon, in other words, was on the side of using the senses in gaining knowledge as well as reason. And he was ahead of some others by championing science as a cooperative enterprise rather than maintaining discoveries as secrets for personal gain. He was to be described as the guiding spirit in the creation of England's Royal Society.

Johannes Kepler

A young Luthern German named Johann Kepler, ten years younger than Bacon, became known for his laws of planetary motion. He disagreed with the Lutheran's Formula of Concord as was excommunicated by the Luthern Church.

Kepler picked up where Copernicus left off. Grayling writes of the two having "begun the truly great modern revolution in human self-understanding by definitively removing the earth from the center of the universe, and arranging the planets correctly — first in their proper order around the sun, then in the elliptical pattern of their orbits." And Kepler proposed that laws about materiality that applied to things on earth applied also to the heavens.

The historian Carlos Eire writes that Kepler

had to move around quite often to escape persecution, especially after the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War, in 1618. He had a great aunt who was burned as a witch, and he had to defend his mother against charges of witchcraft.


The telescope was invented, in Holland in 1608 or '09. A 35 year-old Catholic scientist from Florence named Galilei Galileo constructed one for himself. And his ability to see where others could not would get him into trouble with the Church.

Galileo was at odds also with Europe's Aristotelian professors talking of things sinking or floating according to their will or essential natures and of things falling because they wanted to return home, as if these inanimate contained spirit and will. Aristotle's views, previously considered radical in Europe, had become the conservative point of view. Galileo grasped the idea of force as mechanical. He drew that bodies in motion continued to move except as slowed by some force. His views annoyed theologians, but his ideas interested those wanting to measure the flight of cannon balls.

In Rome in 1611, Galileo tried to produce scriptural confirmation of the view that the earth went around the sun. Pope Paul V classified the earth's movements as a spiritual matter, and Galileo promised to squelch his opinion on the matter. In 1624 he received permission from the new Pope, Urban VIII, to write a description of the rival theories on the matter condition that he do so without favoring the Copernican system and that he write a conclusion that expressed the view of the Church.

Galileo finished his work which was published in 1632 and applauded by some but disliked by Jesuits. Friends of Galileo criticized him for being in love with his own genius and for showing little respect for others by pursuing ideas not commonly accepted nor approved by their Church. The Church prohibited further sales of the book and ordered Galileo to appear before the Inquisition in Rome. In 1633, Galileo appeared before ten judges, at the same spot where Bruno had heard his sentence of death. The agreement Galileo had received from Urban VIII nine years before was described as having been received under false pretenses, that the permission had been an extortion. Galileo accusers were to be described as refusing to look through his telescope because what they were invited to look at could not exist because scripture said so.

Galileo recanted his beliefs that the earth moved around the sun. His sentence of imprisonment was changed to banishment. He was ordered to recite once a week for three years the seven Penitential Psalms, and he remained confined to his estate just outside Florence, where he lived until his death in 1642.

Meanwhile, Europe was tearing itself apart in a war — the Thirty Years' War — which had its origins in an attempt to turn back the clock in favor of Catholic Church dominance.

CONTINUE READING: The Thirty Years' War

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