Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Science and Religion in the Middle Ages

I am currently reading “The Civilization of the Middle Ages” by Norman Cantor. It is an excellent history of Western Europe covering the years from about 300 to 1500.

Cantor has an interesting explanation for why the Muslim nations, after nearly 500 years of scientific superiority over the west, saw an abrupt end to their scientific development and why the west was somewhat immune to the same danger:

The speculative thinkers of the Islamic world were independent men who made their living as physicians, civil servants, lawyers, or professional teachers. Their peculiar social background meant, on the one hand, that these speculative thinkers could afford to be especially bold, since they were not inhibited by having to worry immediately about the compatibility of reason and revelation or about whether they would lose their jobs for preaching heresy. On the other hand, there was a grave threat to the long-range development of Islamic philosophy in this separation between the religious and intellectual leadership. If the fundamentalists and mystics felt that the traditional religion was actually in danger of subversion by the speculative thinkers and if they could obtain the cooperation of the state, they would simply silence the expression of rational thought. This is, in fact, what began to happen in the latter part of the eleventh century, and after 1200 scientific thought in the Islamic world was dead. This unfortunate development offers an illuminating contrast with the course of speculative thought in the Christian world. Because all the important philosophical work in high-medieval Europe was carried on in educational institutions that were subject to ecclesiastical authorities and because all the important western philosophers were at least in a nominal sense churchmen, the western thinkers were at first more conscious of the painful conflict between reason and revelation, and they moved more slowly than did the Arabic writers, but their work was, on the whole, protected from destruction at the hands of fanatics precisely because it was carried out under church auspices.


Blogger Nicko McDave said...

That book needs to go on my reading list. I am currently finishing Cantor's "Inventing the Middle Ages", which is about the biases of recent historians from different schools of thought who have shaped the popular perception of medieval times. Cantor's personal biases, based on my reading of the book, seem to be rather more conservative than the majority of his peers.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Fascinating. Earlier this year I did some research into the beginnings of western music theory, which I had dug into previous to the internet era, and I happened upon some very masterful and mathematically oriented writings in music theory by some obviously brilliant Islamic thinkers. I wondered at the time I found those jewels what had become of that tradition and why it seemingly vanished. Now I know. Thanks.

12:42 PM  

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