Thursday, October 7, 2010

On a Great Medieval Scientist

On this, the feast of the Holy Rosary, let us consider something about a Dominican, from a book about another Dominican. It contains a very interesting line:
Albert the Swabian, rightly called the Great, was the founder of modern science. He did more than any other man to prepare that process, which has turned the alchemist into the chemist, and the astrologer into the astronomer. It is odd that, having been in his time, in this sense almost the first astronomer, he now lingers in legend almost as the last astrologer. Serious historians are abandoning the absurd notion that the medieval Church persecuted all scientists as wizards. It is very nearly the opposite of the truth. The world sometimes persecuted them as wizards, and sometimes ran after them as wizards; the sort of pursuing that is the reverse of persecuting. The Church alone regarded them really and solely as scientists. Many an enquiring cleric was charged with mere magic in making his lenses and mirrors; he was charged by his rude and rustic neighbours; and would probably have been charged in exactly the same way if they had been Pagan neighbours or Puritan neighbours or Seventh-Day Adventist neighbours. But even then he stood a better chance when judged by the Papacy, than if he had been merely lynched by the laity. The Catholic Pontiff did not denounce Albertus Magnus as a magician. It was the half-heathen tribes of the north who admired him as a magician. It is the half-heathen tribes of the industrial towns today, the readers of cheap dream-books, and quack pamphlets, and newspaper prophets, who still admire him as an astrologer. It is admitted that the range of his recorded knowledge, of strictly material and mechanical facts, was amazing in a man of his time. It is true that, in most other cases, there was a certain limitation to the data of medieval science; but this certainly had nothing to do with medieval religion. For the data of Aristotle, and the great Greek civilisation, were in many ways more limited still. But it is not really so much a question of access to the facts, as of attitude to the facts. Most of the Schoolmen, if informed by the only informants they had that a unicorn has one horn or a salamander lives in the fire, still used it more as an illustration of logic than an incident of life. What they really said was, "If a unicorn has one horn, two unicorns have as many horns as one cow." And that is not one inch the less a fact because the unicorn is a fable.
[GKC St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:455]
You may be wondering which line I wanted to single out. I mean this one:
Serious historians are abandoning the absurd notion that the medieval Church persecuted all scientists as wizards.
I wonder who GKC meant. Could this suggest that Chesterton did know something about Pierre Duhem? Or does he mean some other historians of science of the first third of the twentieth century? It would take some research to answer, and we may add this to our growing list of research topics.

P.S. I wil no longer be writing my weekly column for the American Chesterton Society, whose blogg is stopping. Whether I will have any additional free time remains to be seen, but I have an excellent project in mind, if that is God's will. All I will say for now is involves SLJ's first book (not counting his doctoral dissertations)... We have about six years until its 50th anniversary, and there's work to be done. Stay tuned.

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