VII. ROMAN & EARLY MEDIEVAL SCIENCE
Greeks and Romans
Rome takes over Greece sometime around 100 B.C.
Greek culture, however, takes over Rome. Learned Romans have to learn Greek philosophy and literature in order to be educated. (Ex.: all the Roman gods are just Greek gods renamed.)
Romans, however, knew only a popularized version of the Greek intellectual achievements,
skipping the more technical aspects. Why? Compare the average American's understanding of
modern science (and Greek science then was less practical than modern science).
Popularizers and Encyclopedists
3 important Roman scholars:
1) Varro: Wrote an encyclopedia, Nine Books of Disciplines. Describes the nine liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, musical theory, medicine, architecture. [What, no metaphysics, no ethics?] Medieval schools adopted a shortened list (subtracting medicine & architecture) of the basic liberal arts. [This is a bit like our general education requirements, only more precise & detailed.]
2) Cicero: Famous Roman orator & writer. Tried to discover the truth by collecting and sifting through past expert opinion. [Contrast w/ scientific method.] [Famous saying of Cicero's: "There is no opinion so absurd that some philosopher has not held it."]
3) Pliny the Elder: Wrote dozens of books about scientific subjects, including about 50 volumes of history. Most important, & only surviving work: the Natural History.
It is a 37-volume encyclopedia of a variety of disciplines of natural science.
Pliny says it contains 20,000 facts, which he got from 2000 books, by 100 authors.
Contains some fantastic stories. See the picture of monstrous races on p. 141, for example.
Also contains useful records of the astronomical knowledge of the time.
Among other things, numerous species of plants and animals are described.
Pliny becomes the foremost scientific authority of antiquity, and his Natural History is preserved throughout the middle ages. He died during the eruption of Vesuvius (79 AD), when he decided to take a closer look and perhaps help the survivors (died from the fumes).
The "commentary tradition": a late ancient - medieval tradition in which education focuses on understanding certain specific, authoritative texts. Scholarship is commentary on these texts. [This happened especially with Aristotle & St. Thomas as authorities in the middle ages, after Aquinas.]
Notice how this goes against the ideal of science (in your physics class, you don't have to comment on Newton's Principia). But notice also that there are some areas where today we have a similar tradition (e.g. English & sometimes philosophy).
Martianus Capella: Roman compiler, after 400 AD. Became one of the principal authorities in medieval schools for the teaching of the 7 liberal arts.
[Liberal arts are those subjects fit for the general excellence of the intellect & soul; distinguished from practical arts. In medieval schools, the 'trivium' -- grammar, logic, rhetoric -- were taught first, leading to a B.A. You could then go on to learn the 'quadrivium' -- arithmetic, geometry (includes geography), astronomy, and music -- leading to an M.A.]
Martianus places Mercury & Venus on orbits around the sun (but not the other planets). [Why?
Probably because of the way that Mercury & Venus are observed never to stray far from the sun,
as the other planets do.]
After the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180, the Roman Empire is increasingly subject to civil unrest & economic decline.
[The cause of this "decline & fall of the Roman Empire" is a topic for debate among historians. It is often attributed to the increasingly unwieldy bureaucracy, as the Roman government tried to control more and more aspects of life in a too-large empire. The last Roman emperor is deposed by the Goths in the late 5th century.]
Learning declines, partly due to a split between the (Roman) Western and (Greek) Eastern halves
of the empire. Some scholars attempted to counter-act this, translating important Greek works into
Latin for a more popular audience: including Boethius, an important translator (died in 524).
The Role of Christianity
Christianity started, of course, after Christ was born, in 4 BC., and spread gradually throughout Europe. Important events/people:
Tertullian (ca. 200): Famous fideist & influential on the early church. Believed faith was superior to reason. Famous saying: "I believe it because it is absurd" (Credo quia absurdum est). Thought that a Christian does not need to learn about classical philosophy, and that arguing with heretics or infidels was wrong. Just believe.
St. Augustine (ca. 400): Most influential of the church fathers. Viewed philosophy -- including natural philosophy of course -- as the handmaiden of religion.
[ Emperor Constantine (after 300) converts to Christianity, becomes emperor, institutes toleration of Christians & state support for the church. This is a major step in establishing its future control of Europe.]
[ Pace Lindberg, the Church has been a serious obstacle to scientific progress. Lindberg says
it preserved some of classical knowledge -- because they thought it could be turned to Christian
use. But they also stifled anything that they didn't think could be put to use supporting
Christianity. Lindberg says science has often served as handmaiden to some ideology or
practical end. But this is not true of, say Plato and Aristotle. Moreover, there's a big difference
when you have an institution with coercive power, enforcing this relationship. Consider the
famous example of Galileo.]
Roman and Early Medieval Education
Roman education, in the late Roman empire:
First stage: usually home schooling (by parent or tutor). Reading, writing, and basic math.
Second stage: (only for some boys) schooling in Latin grammar & literature, followed by rhetoric. Note that the reading of literature teaches Roman/Greek (pagan) culture.
Third stage: (for people with money & ambition) Study with a philosopher. But natural philosophy still receives but little attention.
During the decline of the empire, education also declines.
Some Christians consider pagan culture a threat to Christianity (as offering an alternative worldview).
Others, however, value their own classical education, but try to turn it to Christian purposes.
Ca. 4th century AD, monasteries start to replace Roman schools.
Monasteries are for the education of future monks (not ordinary people)
Reading & writing is necessary, for monks must study the Bible & commentaries on it.
Hence, monasteries preserve some literacy (among the monks), and some important books, including some classical works (but only ones the church finds useful for Christianity).
Keep in mind that the ruling function is the worship of God -- learning is encouraged exactly to the extent that it serves this function.
During the following several hundred years, natural philosophy stagnates -- almost nothing new happens.
[Lindberg makes apologies for Christianity, saying the monasteries preserved and transmitted
classical learning. But the takeover of Western culture by Christianity was what made such
'preservation' necessary and made people uninterested in progress.]
Two Early Medieval Natural Philosophers
Saint Isidore of Seville: (about 600)
Wrote the Eymologies, an encyclopedia, based on pagan and Christian sources. One of the standard texts of the middle ages.
Preserves ancient view of cosmology: Isidore takes a geocentric view of the cosmos. The earth is spherical. Matter is composed of the 4 elements.
Helped convert the Visigoths to Christianity.
Saint Bede the Venerable: (about 700)
Wrote a series of textbooks for monks.
Best known for his history of England.
Why are these figures important?
Not because they discovered any important new ideas. Rather, they preserved learning during
the Middle Ages, and they influenced how future Europeans would think about nature.
Learning and Science in Byzantium
Byzantium: What became of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire.
Capitol: Constantinople. Formerly 'Byzantium'; renamed after Constantine the Great made it the new capitol of the Roman Empire in 330. Became the largest & richest city in Christendom during the middle ages. (Now Istanbul, Turkey.)
Byzantium was much more stable than the western part of the Roman Empire. Classical knowledge declined less rapidly here, although there was little innovation.
There are a few examples of intelligent commentaries on Aristotle & Plato.
Plato is much more widely followed than Aristotle in the early middle ages. [Probably because
Plato's philosophy is closer to Christianity.]
The Eastward Diffusion of Greek Science
Greek culture spread eastward (into Middle East & Asia):
First, with Alexander's conquests in the 300's b.c.
Alexander founded a number of cities during his military campaigns, most of them named "Alexandria" after himself. Of particular importance was the Alexandria in Egypt, home of the famous library.
Contribution of religion: Three competing religions:
Zoroastrianism : [An ancient Persian & Indian religion, based on the teachings of Zoroaster (a.k.a. Zarathustra). Good god: Ahura Mazda, associated with 'Truth'. Evil god: Angra Mainyu, who is evil by choice, having allied himself with 'Lie'. Human beings also must choose between good & evil. After death, good people will go to heaven, and bad people to hell. Hell is only temporary, though, until the final battle when evil will be defeated, and the evil souls purified. Fire is sacred in this religion. Most important virtue: truthfulness. Some Zoroastrians remain in Iran and India today (also called "Parsis").]
Christianity : [You all know about that.]
Manicheism : [Ancient religion based on the teachings of Mani, who thought he was the last in a series of prophets that included Zoroaster, the Buddha, and Jesus. Good & evil used to exist in separate realms. Human beings are the result of an invasion of the good realm by evil and a subsequent struggle between the two. The body is the evil part of humans and the soul the good part. The ultimate aim for people, in this religion, is to free the soul from the body, which will result from a knowledge of the realm of good (imparted by the divine prophets), and a renunciation of carnal (body-associated) desires. The people of highest spiritual attainment (the elect) can expect to ascend to the realm of Light and rejoin God after death. Others will be reborn. Eventually, everyone will be redeemed, the Earth will be destroyed, and good & evil will again be separate.]
These 3 religions all relied on sacred texts. For that reason, they had to cultivate at least some measure of learning.
Conflict in Christianity:
Nestorians: emphasized Christ's humanity. Nestorians helped spread Greek learning, translating some Greek texts into Syriac (an ancient Semitic language). [Held that Christ was one person with two natures. Said that Mary should not be called the "mother of God" (theotokos), but only the mother of Christ (christotokos). The church interpreted Nestorius as saying that there were two persons, Christ the man and the divine Christ.]
Monophysites: Held that Christ was God, not a man.
Both of these were condemned by the Church. [Current official doctrine: Jesus is a single
being, who was simultaneously entirely human and entirely divine.]
The Birth, Expansion, and Hellenization of Islam
Islam founded by Muhammad in the 600's in Mecca. Muhammad claims to be a prophet, whose revelations are set down in the Koran.
[ Muslim doctrines:
Allah is omniscient, omnipotent, creator of the world. The Koran is the word of God & infallible. Mohammed is the last and greatest prophet in a series including Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and others. (Jesus was a prophet, not god.) The ultimate purpose of humanity is to worship God & create a social order free from 'corruptions.' The prophets are sent to guide humanity in the correct moral behavior. On the Day of Judgement, everyone will be judged according to their deeds, and rewarded with heaven or punished with hell. 5 central duties (the 5 pillars of Islam):
1. Profession of faith
2. They have to say 5 daily prayers.
3. Almsgiving (zakat) -- Muslims contribute some of their money for charitable purposes, including helping the poor, helping to spread Islam, and supporting jihad (holy wars). Originally collected as a tax by Muslim states.
4. They must fast during daytime throughout the month of Ramadan.
5. Every Muslim must make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his lifetime.
The goal of Muslims is "God's rule on Earth." Muhammad believed in the necessity of holy war and compulsory conversion to achieve this.]
Muhammad takes over Arabia. After his death, Muslim forces take over most of the Middle East, including Persia & Egypt, later taking over North Africa and Spain.
They use educated Persians to staff their bureaucracy. This is one way Hellenistic culture got a
chance to influence Islamic culture.
Translation of Greek Science into Arabic
2 languages widely used in the middle east:
Syriac (ancient Semitic language, closely related to Hebrew). The major language in use in the Middle east up to the 7th century.
Arabic: comes into use increasingly after the Arab conquests of the 7th century.
Important translator: Hunayn ibn Ishaq: a Christian Arab. Together with his son & nephew, Hunayn translated a large number of Greek works into Arabic & Syriac, including works of:
Galen, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle. Hunayn's son translated Euclid's Elements & Ptolemy's Almagest.
By 1000 A.D. most of the Greek works existed in Arabic versions.
The Islamic Response to Greek Science
In Islamic culture, knowledge is not valued for its own sake, but for the sake of some other end -- e.g., if it can promote religious purposes, help run the state, or achieve other practical ends.
Ex.: Medicine is practically useful. The first Greek texts translated were medical texts.
However, Greek thought is integrated: in order to understand Greek medical theories, one has to understand something of Greek metaphysics/physics (e.g., the 4 elements). This may explain why so many Greek texts were translated.
Historians are divided over how well Islamic culture received Greek science. However, we can say
at least this much: the reception was neither overwhelmingly positive, nor a complete rejection. It
is also clear that at most, Greek science was seen as a useful handmaiden to other pursuits.
The Islamic Scientific Achievement
[ Duhem vs. Lindberg: Duhem says that there is no Islamic science; Lindberg says that the Muslims made many contributions "of the utmost importance and originality," but does not list them.
What seems fair to say is that Islamic science was founded on Greek science, and that the Islamic
contribution consisted in extensions of and efforts to perfect the theories of the Greeks, rather than
entirely new ideas. This assessment is borne out even by the examples Lindberg cites of their
allegedly important contributions.]
The Decline of Islamic Science
Islamic science declines after the 13th century. Why? 2 speculations:
Increasing opposition from traditional elements in Islam, who saw Greek-inspired science as a threat to religion, or merely as useless.
War with Christians in Europe (esp. Spain) & Mongols to the east. Science generally flourishes
only in times of peace & prosperity.
The Middle Ages
The middle ages divide into 3 parts:
Early : ~500-1000 a.d.
Transition period ('middle middle ages'?) : ~1000-1200.
Late or 'high' middle ages : ~1200-1450. 1450 is about the beginning of the renaissance.
In general, medieval times see very little science --
Learning happens mainly in the monasteries
The focus is mainly on theology. Greek logic & metaphysics make an appearance due to their relevance to theological problems. 2 examples of medieval problems:
The nature of the trinity.
Problem of divine foreknowledge. [God's omniscience seems to be incompatible with the existence of free will.]
The Carolingian Empire:
Charles the Great (a.k.a. Charlemagne, from Latin "Carolus Magnus") rules it, ca. 800.
The Empire includes most of France, and parts of central Europe, including Rome by the time of Charles' death (he expanded the empire).
More about Charlemagne:
[ Son of the amusingly named 'Pepin the Short'.]
Proclaimed 'emperor of the Romans' by the Pope in 800 -- in an attempt to recall the past glory of the Roman Empire. (This inaugurated the practice of the church proclaiming 'Roman emperors', which later led to the 'Holy Roman Empire' which endured for almost 1000 years.)
Charlemagne's educational reforms:
Builds a palace & establishes a palace school
Brought Alcuin from York to be head of the palace school.
This results in an increase in education among the clergy. Alcuin's school focuses on the 'trivium' and 'quadrivium.' (See notes on ch. VII, p. 24, above.)
Orders monastery & cathedral school established throughout the realm.
Important scholar later on (~1000): Gerbert:
Eventually became Pope Sylvester II.
Studied mathematics extensively and taught it to others. (He had teaching posts for a while.)
He probably used his power in the church to advance the cause of mathematical education as
The Schools of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries
After 1000, a revival of learning begins.
Causes: Several factors may have had something to do with it, including increased political stability, increased prosperity, greater population, and especially, urbanization.
Note that schools generally appear in large cities. (Except for monastic schools.)
Hence, more non-monastic schools appeared in the mid-middle ages.
This meant a broader focus, as compared with the monastic schools which were almost entirely
focused on theology.
Classical learning undergoes a revival. Medievals appreciate the likes of Virgil, Cicero, Plato, Aristotle. Aristotle is studied for his logic. Plato's cosmology is studied.
Classical learning is a supplement to (rather than replacing) Christian learning centered on the Bible.
Theology becomes more rationalistic. Case in point: Saint Anselm. Existence of God can be demonstrated through reason.
[ Anselm's proof of the existence of God: The Ontological Argument.
1. God = A being than which none greater can be conceived. (Definition of 'God')
2. God can be conceived to exist. (Premise)
3. An existing god would be greater than a non-existent god. (Premise)
4. Assume God does not exist.
5. A god that existed would be greater than God. (From 3, 4)
6. Therefore, something greater than God can be conceived. (From 2, 5)
7. That is: a being than which none greater can be conceived, is a being than which a greater can be conceived. (From 1, 6) Which is absurd.
8. Therefore, God exists. (From 4-7, by reductio ad absurdum.)]
Slightly later thinker: Peter Abelard. Collects a set of conflicting opinions of church fathers on theological topics. Uses them to stimulate philosophical reasoning about theology. Note that Abelard's use of reason, like Anselm's, is purely in support of Christianity. Nevertheless, some saw it as a danger, because reason may not always turn out to be congenial to the faith.
This raises the question of the relation between natural knowledge (through reason) and revelation.
Can the revealed truths of the Bible also be known through reason?
Natural Philosophy in the Twelfth-Century Schools
Plato especially popular in 12th century, esp.: The Timaeus, Plato's work on cosmology.
Thinkers such as Thierry of Chartres attempt to reconcile Plato's account of cosmology w/ the Biblical account in Genesis, esp.: P's account of the creation of the cosmos (his 'cosmogony').
The 12th century sees a movement towards naturalism: i.e. attempts to explain things by natural causes, rather than divine intervention.
This is not a rejection of the existence of miracles -- just a doctrine that miracles should only be used to explain things when all natural explanations fail.
Some view this as a theological danger. Once this principle is accepted, you might find yourself denying miracles altogether.
William of Conches, one of the naturalists, argues: God would, and did, create a perfect & orderly nature -- he contrived to bring about the ends that he wished, for the most part, through the operation of nature. This illustrates, rather than detracting from, his great wisdom & power.
God is the creator of nature & natural laws themselves. Hence, natural explanations actually are explanations by reference to God (just a particular way God did things).
[ Note the remark (p. 201) that "all things that are in the world were made by God, except evil." This alludes to the famous problem of evil in theology.]
This naturalism was accompanied by increased interest in 'natural man.' Includes greater confidence in the power of reason. [After all, God gave us reason to understand the world, didn't he?]
Astrology also on the rise. Note that astrology was conceived as another case of the operation of
The Translation Movement
A number of Greek works are translated (into Latin) in the 12th century.
In Spain, recently recaptured from the Muslims by the Christians, works are translated from Arabic, including the likes of Ptolemy's Almagest, & Euclid's Elements. [So they were translated from Greek to Arabic by the Arabs, then from Arabic to Latin.]
In Italy, translations from Greek into Latin are done.
Works are selected for their utility. So astronomy & medicine are first. But mathematics is needed
to understand astronomy, and Greek medicine rests on Greek physics & metaphysics.
The Rise of Universities
Some cities become known as centers for learning, esp. Paris, Bologna, & Oxford. Teachers & students gather there.
Teachers start to form guilds or unions (Latin: "universitas"). These are the first 'universities'. Note that the university was initially just a union of teachers -- not a set of buildings or land.
Universities in Oxford, Bologna, Paris established circa 1200.
Universities gained influence with government & church, to get their protection & privileges.
Gradually, they evolve more formal structure -- e.g., definite curriculums & degrees.
Subjects in the university:
Liberal arts : This gets you the B.A. or M.A. The trivium & quadrivium remain but with less importance. Required philosophy learning: a) Moral philosophy, b) Natural philosophy, c) Metaphysics.
Graduate schools in specific subjects: Medicine, Law, Theology.
At the end of the 12th century, Aristotle starts to be taught in the universities. In the 13th century, he fairly takes them over.
Teaching is from central (mainly Greek) texts.
Unlike the ancient Greek schools, the medieval universities teach pretty much the same subjects, from the same texts. This standardization of learning resembles modern universities.
Medieval teachers have considerable freedom of thought, according to Lindberg. Any doctrine can
and will be subjected to minute logical examination. [Of course, this is within the universally
accepted framework of Christianity -- you wouldn't be free to proclaim atheism!]