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Middle Ages: Closer to Science

Crusades to the Middle East (beginning in 1095) exposed Europeans to Islamic culture, including the work of the medieval philosopher Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (980-1037). And this introduced to a few Europeans to the great ancient philosopher Aristotle, whom Avicenna had translated and given much attention. (The Crusaders also brought back to Europe sugar, to be used in place of honey.) The Roman Catholic Church found Aristotle's writing a contamination. From centuries before, the Church had been influenced by Plato rather than Aristotle, including Plato's doctrine about essences, abstractions as real (outside our heads) and permanent, Plato's rejection of change (or evolution) and his rejection of the senses (eyesight) as a source of knowledge (his cave analogy).

In Western Europe, the few who became influenced by Aristotle contributed to a new school of thought to be known as scholasticism. It was an effort to reconcile Christian theology with reason – reason rather than assumption, impulse or mere faith. The first of the medieval scholastics has been described as Anselm (1033-1109), an English Benedictine monk who became the Archbishop of Canterbury. In trying to apply reason to belief, he declared what he thought was a good argument for belief in God. It was an argument that had been employed by Avicenna: the idea that there was something that can be described as a Most Perfect Being and that this reality was God – that describing it made it so. It was perfectly logical if one does not differentiate between imagination and existence independent of our imagination.

Another scholastic was Peter Abelard, a university lecturer in Paris. Students hungry for new insights and sensation left other lecturers and came from afar to hear him. Abelard took reason to a new level. He said that something should be understood before it was believed. He declared that faith alone did not answer the question whether one should be a Christian, a Muslim or a Hindu. He claimed that doubting led to inquiry and inquiry led to wisdom, that comparing arguments and choosing the best among rival alternatives could lead to truth. And he believed that spotting contradictions was fundamental to logic.

Rather than Plato's abstractions, Abelard celebrated the specifics that expressed itself in an interest in individual humans. The Church saw interest in biography and autobiography as concern with vanities and conceits. But in Christendom biographies and autobiographies were making a comeback, and Abelard wrote an autobiography titled The History of My Calamities, which helped rekindle interest in personality.

Abelard had fallen in love with one of his students, Heloise, the niece of a prominent Parisian clergyman, Fulbert, on the staff at the cathedral of Notre Dame. Abelard married Heloise. Marriage for the member of a religious order was a disgrace, and Abelard tried to keep it secret. Fulbert with a gang of men attacked Abelard and castrated him, and because of the castration Abelard was barred from the priesthood. Abelard retreated to a monastery in Breton, becoming its abbot, but he left after discovering that its monks were "thugs." He joined the monastery of St. Denis but was restless there. The Church was not happy with Abelard's writings, including a book he wrote on the Trinity, and in 1141 the Church condemned him as a heretic. Abelard died the following year (at the age of sixty-three) while on his way to Rome to appeal the Church's ruling.

The next well-known scholastic was Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), an Italian (born in Sicily), a Dominican priest, professor of theology and writer. Aquinas argued that every effect has a cause, the universe is an effect, therefore the universe was caused – by God, of course. has a cause, and that cause is God. For Aquinas, God was not an effect and therefore had no beginning.

Aquinas translated Aristotle's happiness as the purpose of life into support for a life of moderation, virtue and fulfillment to be realized by knowing God and infused into believers by the grace of God mediated by Church sacraments. Aquinas adhered to the widely accepted belief that common people did not have the capacity to reason as well as members of the clergy, as well as aristocrats or himself (people more blessed by God) and that common people did best for themselves by clinging to the authority of their superiors. This fit the prevailing attitude toward class at the time, as did Aquinas's commentary on just wars. Aquinas found a rationale for getting around scripture that expressed the pacifism of early Christianity. He described three things necessary for a war to be just: it had to be commanded by a sovereign; those who were being attacked had to "deserve it on account of some fault;" and those doing the attacking had to have "rightful intention." (The Church's wars, called crusades, could be classified as just under these restrictions.)

The body of Aquinas's philosophy has been described as fundamentally Platonic despite Aristotle's influence. (Aristotle had been a student of Platos.) In 1277, three years after the death of Aquinas, the Archbishop of Paris declared his work as heresy, and this was repeated in England by the Archbishop of Canterbury. But within the Church some were attracted by his writing. In 1323, Pope John XXII (at Avignon), the son of a shoemaker, would canonize Aquinas.

A contemporary of Aquinas was Roger Bacon (1219/20–1292), an English philosopher and Franciscan friar who was influenced by Aristotle's focused on the senses as the source of knowledge. Roger Bacon studied nature empirically and has been described as one of the earliest European advocates of the modern scientific method.

In the early 1300s there was William of Ockham (1287-1347), another Englishman who focused on the importance of specifics over Plato's abstractions. There was no fatherhood, he said, without fathers. He stated that what could be expressed in fewer words was expressed "in vain with more" – which came to be known as Ockham's razor. (Stephen Hawking attributes the discovery of quantum mechanics to Ockham’s Razor.) Ockham doubted that one could build with deductive logic from a first cause to real knowledge of anything. He rejected abstractions hanging on to nothing concrete. He humanity's ability to prove that God exists or that the mysteries of faith were compatible with reason – leaving humanity with faith and tradition as reasons to believe.

Ockham was a Franciscan, and the Church condemned the Franciscans as heretics for holding onto the doctrine of poverty associated with the apostles. In 1318, four Franciscans were burned at the stake for maintaining absolute poverty. In 1322, Pope John XXII declared as heresy the opinion among Franciscans that Christ and his apostles held no property.To protect himself, Ockham fled to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Louis IV, at Munich. Ockham tried to reconcile with the Church. He died in April 1347, a year before the Plague arrived in England.

While the Black Death was killing off people in Europe, to the year 1453 continued to think of spiritual rather than physical causations. Among the majority – many peasants who owned their own small plots of land – were some who didn't conform to the religiosity of the majority, but the Plague inspired a religious intensification. Many believed that the end of the world was at hand. There were groups that engaged in frenzied bacchanals and orgies. People called the Flagellants – men and women – traveled the country, flogging each other. They preached that anyone doing this for thirty-three days would be cleansed of all his sins – one day for every year that Christ lived. The Church was still on guard against innovative religious proclamations, and in 1349 Pope Clement VI (the fourth Avignon pope) condemned the movement. The Church continued to proclaim the magic of witchcraft as false.

In Germany, Jews were accused of having caused the plague by poisoning the water. Pogroms followed. Jews were arrested. Their fortunes were seized by the lords under whose jurisdictions they lived, and Jews were put to death by burning. Pope Clement VI objected. He threatened excommunication for those Christians who harmed Jews.

The Black Death faded, and, among those who survived were those who belonged to the intellectual movement that William of Ockham had founded. While pursuing philosophical questions, these intellectuals still lacked interest in experimentation and quantification. They kept to the common belief that everything in nature operates in accord with the Divine Spirit. But their emphasis on empiricism and specifics over the abstract was setting the stage for the scientific revolution.

The belief in trials by ordeal, prevalent in the early Middle Ages, had by now faded. Ordeal as a sign of God's judgment had given way to material evidence as a means of judging innocence or guilt. Contributing to this had been a Camaldolese monk in central Italy, Gratian, said to have been a scholastic and a believer in "natural law" trying to bring order to Church law.

With the conquest of Constantinople by Islamic Turks in 1453, a wave of Christian scholars fled to Italy, and they brought with them manuscripts concerning ancient Greece. In Western Europe, attention to the natural sciences, philosophy, and mathematics increased. A work published in 1468 was titled "Manifesto of the Renaissance." It was written by a 23-year-old Italian, Pico della Mirandola. He is described as having studied everything there was to study. He wrote that exercising one's brain added to one's dignity and that if one fails to exercise his intelligence he vegetates.

In Florence, Italy, was Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). He was an inventor, engineer, anatomist, botanist, geologist, musician, painter and sculptor. He appreciated the freedom to formulate ideas and freedom in general: he would buy caged birds and release them.

There were others like da Vinci who were curious, interested in science and expressing themselves artistically. Outside of Italy at the University of Paris, a Roman Catholic institution, was Erasmus (1466-1536). He was from Rotterdam, a major commercial center and become a celebrated Biblical scholar. In 1509 he wrote In Praise of Human Folly and become known as the "Prince of Humanists." He took a step up from Aquinas, claiming that a common person might be able to understand Christianity as well as a priest. He advocated tolerating diversity in ideas.

Meanwhile the visual measurement so important to science had been advancing travel by sea. Measuring the angle to celestial bodies had been helping sea captains determine their locations north and south. In the 1300s and 1400s sailing ships had been making longer journeys. As far back as the 1300s some people believed that the world war round – apparent in watching ships rise on the distant horizon. It was 1492 that Columbus sailed west in hope of reaching India.

Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.