Sunday, February 13, 2011

100 Books: 10 - James Hannam's GOD'S PHILOSOPHERS

God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by John Hannam - Icon Books

I'm still kind of making up my mind about whether or not I *liked* God's Philosophers. Its subject matter is very much up my alley and it's by no means a poorly written or unreadable book, but...


On the one hand, I am not a fan of revisionist history, and this book at times feels like exactly that: a sometimes haranguing and opinionated effort to prove that "The Dark Ages" is a perjorative and misleading term for the historical period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, that the Renaissance couldn't have happened had not medieval thinkers prepared the way for it, that scholasticism shouldn't ever have been mocked.

On the other, well, I am keenly aware that I have reached a certain stage in life in which a lot of the stuff I was taught as fact in primary and high school is out of date, inaccurate, maybe just plain wrong. I speak not just of cherished juvenile memories of brontosaurs and a system of nine planets but also subtler matters like the characters of presidents and other leaders (many of whom we never even studied; shocking but true, we never talked about John F. Kennedy OR Martin Luther King in my elementary, middle or high school curricula). I like, whenever I can, to redress these defects, fill in these lacuna in my education, and so I deliberately seek out material like this that deliberately and systematically challenges something I've long taken as a given: in this case, that the almighty Catholic Church kept science down in various ways.

Of course, as Hannam is quick to stress, what we think of as science didn't really exist in the period his book covers; modern science with its rigorous schema of hypothesis, experimentation, analysis and peer review is a product of the last century or two at best (even the word "scientist" was only really coined in the 18th century). But, he asks, is it really reasonable to believe that those who would have been were just ground down by the ecclesiastical and secular powers that were? Was knowledge deliberately suppressed and kept from us and questions banned from being asked?

Well, Hannam says, yes and no.

A lot of names familiar to people who read a lot of Umberto Eco and his ilk surface all over the place here: Bernard of Clairvaux, Ansemlo d'Aosta (aka Anselm of Canterbury -- wink wink to those who love Foucault's Pendulum), Peter Abelard (of Abelard and Heloise fame, you fans of Being John Malkovich), the Merton Calculators, and of course Galileo and Paracelsus and Avicenna and Thomas Aquinas. Each gets a brief moment in the spotlight alongside some names unfamiliar to any but the dwellers in deep academe like Nicole Oresme, who discussed the notion that the earth rotates on an axis a hundred years before Copernicus did -- it's these little tidbits and new names that are the most attractive feature of God's Philosophers.

What is less attractive is, for lack of a better word, the tone of the book. While ordinarily I'm something of a fan of a certain kind of prickly cultural criticism (Paul Fusell is an old favorite), I find I don't like it nearly as well when it seems chiefly employed in the service of haranguing me about how grateful I should be to the Catholic Church; the implication appears over and over that had it not been for the Church and its hierarchy and its (grudging!) acceptance that Aristotle was right about a few things and maybe Plato was, too, the Renaissance could not have happened, but anyway, all of those ideas that our Renaissance heroes had, well, good little church boys thought of them first. Except for the fact that the Earth revolves around the sun -- Hannam lets Galileo keep that one. Mostly.

Hannam is especially down on the humanists, whom he describes as "incorrigible reactionaries" "bent on recapturing an imaginary past" in their focus on recovering nearly-lost Greek and Arabic knowledge. Not since the latest radio preacher rant against those nasty secular humanists have I seen that term used with such venom, and the book seems rather thin on evidence to support this characterization. Because they weren't interested in leafing through page after manuscript page of torturous arguments and reasonings trying to reconcile Aristotle's writings on mathematics and physics with Christian doctrine and scripture in quest of the odd scrap of something that may, possibly, sort of, kind of lead to a conclusion about how actual nature actually works, they were bad guys? Really?

That aside, there is still lots of fascinating stuff. Hannam and some of his colleagues are the first in a long, long time to actually be willing to comb through all of that scholasticism in quest of the germs of ideas our culture has embraced and let flower, and the truth about us as a species that it reveals, that mankind has always been curious and intelligent and interested in the real world no matter what the era, is an inspiring one. We didn't all drink the Christian Kool Aid in A.D. 700 and stop thinking for ourselves, even if most of us were illiterate peasants. The Kool Aid maybe wasn't a smart drug, but it wasn't a brain killer, either, and it the society it shaped did have a certain framework for investigating the natural world that kept our quest for knowledge moving forward, if slowly. I get it.

But man, sometimes this guy's attitude about it a lot to stomach.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kate- I posted a comment on this book on your post on Guerrilla Geek. I had seen this book when it first came out ( I had crossed swords with the author on other issues)and like you reacted strongly against the 'humanists are incorrigible reactionaries' line .Whoever believes this? I also , because this is a special interest of mine, felt strongly about the way he showed his ignorance of the Greeks as founders of the scientific tradition.I thought the book could be safely ignored. I only got concerned when the book was shortlisted for the Royal Society's Book of the Year Award. This was so absurd that I wrote a review, to come out after the prize was announced, to explore its weaknesses. You can find this under 'Charles Freeman God's Philosophers' -it went up on the new Humanist blog. It overlaps with some of your concerns so I hope that it is of interest. Good reading! Charles Freeman


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