We all have in our minds short histories of how knowledge grew and a popular one is that there was a period of scientific and philosophical growth that began more than a couple of millennia ago with the ancient Greek, Arabic, and Chinese civilizations that slowed down sometime during the early second millennium where there were no real advances and indeed a regression with a loss of knowledge. That was then followed by the period we now call the Age of Enlightenment with its associated scientific revolution that began in the 17th century around the time of Galileo. Scholars of the much-maligned middle period that has come to be down as the Middle Ages (or more pejoratively the Dark Ages) take umbrage with characterizations that compare that period unfavorably with what existed before and what came after.
For example, Edward Grant, a professor of history at the University of Indiana in his book Science and Religion 400 BC-1550 AD: From Aristotle to Copernicus challenges the idea that almost nothing happened during the Middle Ages. After going through some critiques of the Middle Ages as a period when creativity was stifled, Grant begins his defense.
Despite all the anti-medieval passages cited to this point, the Middle Ages was one of the most innovative periods in human history. Significant advances were made in commerce and numerous fields. Among the innovations in technology were eyeglasses, the magnetic compass, the mechanical clock, firearms and the cannon ship rudders, cranks to convert continuous rotary motion to reciprocating motion, and the printing press. Higher education saw creation of the university. For the first time in banking, there were bills of exchange, checks, and marine insurance. These advances in commerce were supplemented by the development of codes of maritime law and the formation of joint stock companies. In medicine, human cadavers were dissected for the first time for teaching purposes in medical schools. Government changed with the rise of the nation state and the creation of the Magna Carta as well as the English parliament, the first representative government. The Middle Ages furthermore laid the basis for the modern corporation, and in law, the foundation for the Western legal system. Polyphonic music is a product of the Middle Ages, and it was during this period that the Arabic number system was first adopted by the West. Medieval explorers expanded the horizons of Europe as never before. The Vikings reached the shores of Newfoundland around 1000. Before 1500, European explorers Bartholomew Diaz and Vasco da Gama reached India by rounding the Cape of Good Hope, followed a few years later by Christopher Columbus, who reached the New World and began the long period of European imperialism and colonization. Finally, and most relevant for this volume, the Middle Ages, for the first time in the history of civilization, became a society in which innumerable questions about nature were raised and then resolved almost exclusively by the use of reason. That extraordinary achievement laid the foundation for the advancement of science, which depends upon reasoned analysis.
Taken collectively, these are extraordinary achievements. Many other contributions could be cited, but enough have been mentioned to show that the Middle Ages were a fertile and inventive period during which the foundations of Western civilization were laid and the way prepared for uninterrupted advancements over the next 500 years. (p. 12-13)
One of the goals Grant is seeking to achieve in his book is to defend Christianity from the charge that during the Middle Ages, critical thinking and reason were suppressed because the dominant scholastic thinking of religious institutions suppressed as heresies any ideas that were contrary to Aristotle.
Professor of philosophy Henry Martin Lloyd takes aim at the period that succeeded the Middle Ages and argues that the Age of Enlightenment (a period that he defines as beginning with the scientific revolution in the mid-17th century, and culminating in the French Revolution at the end of the 18th) was not necessarily one in which cool reason reigned supreme and overcame the forces of dogma and obscurantism and passions that existed in the Middle Ages period that it succeeded, and warns against over-romanticizing the Enlightenment.
On either side of the Atlantic, groups of public intellectuals have issued a call to arms. The besieged citadel in need of defending, they say, is the one that safeguards science, facts and evidence-based policy. These white knights of progress – such as the psychologist Steven Pinker and the neuroscientist Sam Harris – condemn the apparent resurgence of passion, emotion and superstition in politics. The bedrock of modernity, they tell us, is the human capacity to curb disruptive forces with cool-headed reason. What we need is a reboot of the Enlightenment, now.
[To] say that the Enlightenment was a movement of rationalism against passion, of science against superstition, of progressive politics against conservative tribalism is to be deeply mistaken. These claims don’t reflect the rich texture of the Enlightenment itself, which placed a remarkably high value on the role of sensibility, feeling and desire.
That the Enlightenment celebrated sensibility and feeling didn’t entail a rejection of science, however. Quite the opposite: the most sensitive individual – the person with the greatest sensibility – was considered to be the most acute observer of nature.
Generalising about intellectual movements is always a dangerous business. The Enlightenment did have distinct national characteristics, and even within a single nation it was not monolithic. Some thinkers did invoke a strict dichotomy of reason and the passions, and privilege the a priori over sensation – Kant, most famously. But in this respect Kant was isolated from many, if not most, of his era’s major themes. Particularly in France, rationality was not opposed to sensibility but was predicated on and continuous with it. Romanticism was largely a continuation of Enlightenment themes, not a break or rupture from them.
If we are to heal the divides of the contemporary historical moment, we should give away the fiction that reason alone has ever held the day. The present warrants criticism, but it will do no good if it’s based on a myth about some glorious, dispassionate past that never was.
History is complex and like all complex subjects prone to simplified versions of it for general consumption. A similar phenomenon occurs with scientific discoveries where we put a name and a date to a discovery but that masks the fact that the actual process took a long time and involved many people and the label that was given to it only arose in retrospect.
It is useful to have truncated versions of complex event with labels thrown in as easily identifiable markers but we should be wary of taking them as the complete story.