Monday, June 27, 2011

Why the “Dark Ages” Rocked - The Myth of the Knight-Barbarian and the Scientist-Martyr (1 of 3)

The Myth of the Knight-Barbarian and the Scientist-Martyr
The image of the knight has always been an attractive one for me. Maybe it was a childish romanticism. Or maybe it was how cool the knight stories were. Or maybe just that they looked cool. But whatever the cause, it’s been an image which I’ve loved on first sight, and have since grown to love even more.

As I grew up, I learned that it was probably a lie. The knight was a rather barbaric figure, chiefly concerned with oppressing peasants and subjugating his wife. But then I read “The White Company” by Arthur Conan Doyle (the Sherlock Holmes guy), and I got a different picture. Sir Nigel, the model knight, was actually a kindly, noble, courageous, yet also violent, hasty, and somewhat eccentric, character. At first, I was overjoyed to discover so wonderful a character, but at the same time I felt lied to. It was like finding out at 19 years old that Santa Claus really did exist, that his nonexistence was the real lie.

Of course, Sir Nigel is a fictional character, but it must be remembered that he is a character. That is, he has characteristics as has any living, breathing man (or for that matter, any dead man who has left off breathing). He is a fiction, but he is a true fiction. Of course, in the White Company, as in every story in life and fiction, there are bad guys as well as good guys. There were characters who failed to live up to the ideal of the age. A bad apple may spoil the barrel, but it isn’t an argument against the character of apples.

The rediscovery of the Knight in Sir Nigel was the seed and parable of my present love for his age. It did indeed start with the Knight, but I began to realized that it was much the same with almost everything I’d been told about the period between the fall of Rome to the Enlightenment. It seemed the Barbarian Knight was a figure who started appearing in the 1700s to scare good Christians into abandoning their faith, along with this story about the previous epoch as being a time of darkness, ignorance, anti-science, anti-human, and it’s rather a miracle that we ever recovered from it. But as I discovered in the character of Sir Nigel, the Middle Ages were rather more agreeable than I had been told to expect. Santa Claus is an innocent lie grown-ups tell children to get them to behave; the Barbarian Knight is a not-so-innocent lie professors tell grown-ups to get them to be materialists.

I’ll start with one concrete example. Consider the following story: Back in the Dark Ages, the Church was anti-science, and because of literalist readings of the Bible, believed the Earth was the all-important center of the universe. So when Galileo suggested otherwise, they didn’t permit his theories because they were against the Bible, and persecuted him.

To first pick a nit, the episode happened in 1633, so by most standards this is outside most definitions of “Dark Ages.” Perhaps it is ironic that this victim of the Dark Ages is not even a part of them; but this essay is about the popular conception of the Dark Ages, not a rigidly defined historical period, and so Galileo must be included.

The most important thing to note about the story is that it’s not an example of how intolerant the Church was, but about how intolerant Galileo was. There was an increasingly heated debate on the subject of heliocentrism, one that included all sorts of political jockeying. And into this, Galileo decided to print a book mocking the leader of the world, the Pope. And as much as I appreciate the First Amendment, it had yet been written. In the Seventeenth Century, you really couldn’t make a fool of the most powerful man in the world without consequence. Others have suggested that it might not have become an issue, but the Pope himself was in a political tight spot and permitted the trial out of fear of Galileo’s enemies. In any case, his punishment was not torture or death, but house arrest on his villa, where he continued to work and produced some of the greatest of his works until he died years later of natural causes. Not a model of Twenty-First Century Free-Speech, but hardly a case of Science Vs Religion.

But there is another problem with the story: the earth wasn’t the center of the universe with the insignificant stars above. It was, to the Medieval, that the stars were the important thing, and the earth was base, as in, literally lower in altitude, than the stars. You see this in Dante: earth is between the levels of heaven above and levels of hell below; it’s ‘central’ indeed, but far from where they wanted to be. The concept of earth’s centrality meaning earth’s importance is a modern idea imposed on Medieval imagery. The heliocentric view, far from making the earth another insignificant planet amongst insignificant planets, elevated us to be a part of the dance of the stars, part of the heavenly realm.

But I discovered something more troubling. The whole narrative was wrongly set. The Church didn’t believe the earth was the center of the universe from the Bible alone, but from the accepted scientific authorities of their day, chiefly Ptolemy and Aristotle. Would we have wanted the Pope to instantly, on one man’s theory, abandon the majority of thinkers and the scientific authority of generations? Further the Church, as a matter of official Orthodoxy, didn’t believe in pure literalism, and especially not when it conflicted with natural observation. Indeed, GK Chesterton explains the views of the man who defined Medieval Orthodoxy, Thomas Aquinas: “If a literal interpretation is really and flatly contradicted by an obvious fact, why then we can only say that the literal interpretation must be a false interpretation.” [1] If you have any doubts about this, note that the Church had no issue with the science of Copernicus before or Newton and Kepler after, all of whom held the similar views on the orbit of the earth.

The problem is still worse for this hypothesis. If it were Christian Europe who persecuted scientists, it raises the question, “Why were there scientists in Europe?” The answer is, of course, that there were scientists in Europe because that’s where Science was born. Sociologist Rodney Stark explains, “Christian theology was necessary for the rise of science." Science only happened in areas whose worldview was shaped by Christianity, that is, Europe. Many civilizations had alchemy; only Europe developed chemistry. Likewise, astrology was practiced everywhere, but only in Europe did it become astronomy.” [2]Of course, knowledge of the natural world has always existed, and flourished in various places throughout history. But in Christian Europe, we began the methodical search for Natural Laws we call science. Stark also argues, "Because God is a rational being and the universe is his personal creation, it necessarily has a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting increased human comprehension. This is the key to many intellectual undertakings, among them, the rise of science.” Christianity is uniquely a faith built on the strange paradox of the Word made Flesh, the coming together of Spirit and Body. And because the Medievals believed in a Rational Lawgiver, they set out to find rational Laws (see Rodney Stark for a fuller defense of this). Far from hating truth, the Medievals had such a love for it, that they even invented a new institution by which it might be sought: the University. This institution committed to the thesis that there is One Word (uni-verse), one Truth, one Logos.

Galileo wasn’t a martyr of science, but a victim of a political system and perhaps his own pride. The Pope wasn’t ignoring science, but accepting the accepted science of his day. Persecution of science, if ever done, was against Orthodox. And the whole supposed motivation by which the Church acted was itself a misunderstanding of the Medieval mind. The Church didn’t suppress science. It invented it. Most lies are true in every detail but false in one critical point. The lie about Galileo is unique in that it is all false in every detail but in true one critical point: Galileo’s name.

I offer these two concrete example, the Knight and the Scientist-martyr, as two pictures of this lie about the Dark Ages. If you look into the Darkness, you see that the Knight is actually not so barbaric, and the Scientist not so martyred.

[1] St Thomas Aquinas, The Dumb Ox
[2] ; Originally from Rodney Stark, "For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts and the End of Slavery"

1 comment:

  1. Great post Dave, "...that his nonexistence was the real lie." Reminds me of so many other topics...