This essay was inspired by a comment from blogger and TBJ reader Conservative Swede, who once stated that the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions were the products of Greek logic and Roman engineering skills, and had little to do with Christianity. I think he goes too far in his criticism of Christianity, which isn't to say that none of what he says about it is true. Yes, a globalist outlook in part derived from Christian universalism contributes to the difficulties Western nations have in upholding their borders. In Britain, hundreds of thousands of failed asylum seekers may be allowed to settle permanently under a "back-door amnesty." This is supported by many Christian leaders. The West isn't a "Christian" culture alone. The first recognizably Western people were Greek pagans, and many Christian nations are not even remotely Western. On the other hand, Christianity has exerted a powerful influence on our civilization for two thousand years. It is difficult to envision our culture without it.
Renaissance humanists viewed everything in between the downfall of Rome in the 5th century AD and the revival of the Classical heritage in the 15th (or 14th) century as an unenlightened age which they labeled the Middle Ages. In the 19th century, Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt and German historian George Voigt devoted considerable time to the epoch which was dubbed the "Renaissance," or "rebirth."
The term "medieval" has, somewhat unfairly, come to carry decisively negative connotations. There was indeed unrest and social upheavals for a prolonged period of time following the collapse of Roman authority, which triggered substantial population movements across the continent. However, even during these turbulent and troubled times there were exceptions. The Carolingians managed to halt the Islamic invasion in France in the 8th century and for some time rebuilt a stronger state. Christianity spread among the barbarians, and especially from the 11th century onwards, Europe witnessed the rise of stronger states and more political stability. This was the period during which the first European universities were founded, and crucial improvements were made in the fields of agriculture and commerce, paving the way for a rapid rise in Europe's population. In some important ways, especially regarding the accumulation of wealth and scientific knowledge and the willingness to invest in the practical application of technology for long-term gains, the Middle Ages not only caught up with, but greatly surpassed the achievements of the Classical Age. The Renaissance was an important event in Western history, but on balance, the modern West probably owes more to the Middle Ages than to the Renaissance.
Blog reader Pagan Westerner says that when he thinks of Western Civilization, he thinks of "Plato, Aristotle, Archimedes, Euclid, Socrates, Euripides, Sophocles, Horace, Cicero, Ovid, Homer. In short, I think of the Greeks and Romans, who were most decidedly PAGAN. The roots of Western Civilization came from Pagans, not Christians. Science, art, philosophy, geometry, algebra, name what you will. What crowning achievements of Western civilization occurred between 300 AD and 1400 AD? I can think of very few. These times are commonly called the Dark Ages, and for good reason." Moreover, during the Renaissance, when civilization began once more to flower, Europeans again turned to the Greeks and the Romans for inspiration. In his view, the Catholic Church was nothing but "a corrupt and barbarous institution."
As blogger Lawrence Auster replies, the Roman Catholic Church was the only surviving institution of the Roman world: "Over hundreds of years, the Germanic and Celtic barbaric nations of Europe were slowly Christianized, in the process becoming settled nations under a rule of law. The merging together of Christianity (which carried much of the classical culture with it) with the cultures of the Germanic barbarians represented the beginning of a new civilization, which we now call the West. Western civilization is not a single thing, but an amalgamation of (1) the culture of the destroyed classical world, (2) the Christian religion, and (3) the cultures of the Northern barbarians. [...] The High Middle Ages (1000 to 1300) were the product of the Early Middle Ages (the Dark Ages), and in turn served as the foundation of modern Western civilization."
This period also brought the Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The term "Gothic" is a misnomer as the style had nothing to do with Goths, a post-Roman Germanic tribe. It was coined following the Renaissance and revival of the Classical style by Brunelleschi. Everything before this was considered barbarian. Those who have seen great Gothic cathedrals such as the Notre Dame in Paris will, however, fail to see any sign of barbarism in them. The Romanesque style is usually called Norman style in English, as it was championed in England by the Normans, the conquerors of mixed French and Viking (Norsemen) origins. The Norman-style Winchester cathedral has been the seat of coronations, including for Crusader King Richard the Lionheart, and for burials ranging from the son of William the Conqueror to novelist Jane Austen.
Neither the Nordic lands nor most of Germany or many of the Celtic or Slavic nations of Northern and Eastern Europe were ever a part of the Roman Empire, yet we still talk about our shared "Greco-Roman heritage." All European languages are littered with Greek and Latin words. Scandinavians used to worship Thor, Odin and a number of other Norse gods who in many ways resembled mortals, only with more power, not unlike the Greek and Roman gods of old. The end of the Viking Age, usually dated to the mid-11th century, largely coincided with Scandinavians becoming Christianized, which is when we gradually become integrated into the wider matrix of European civilization. The Classical heritage came to us on the back of Christianity.
Bruce S. Thornton, American classicist and author, points out that philosophy, history, logic, physics, criticism, rhetoric, dialectic, dialogue, tragedy, comedy, epic, lyric, analysis and democracy are all Greek words and expressions of critical consciousness.
While medical writings from the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia were still subordinated to superstition, "Greek medical writers for the most part ignored supernatural explanations and focused instead on their own observations and the consistent patterns of nature." For instance, a Hippocratic work indicates that epilepsy has a natural cause rather than divine origins, which was commonly assumed at the time. The Greek physician Hippocrates from the 5th century B.C. is generally referred to as the Father of Medicine, and the Hippocratic Oath regarding the ethical practice of medicine is still taken by many physicians today.
In the eyes of Thornton, "Critical consciousness is the precious legacy the West received from the Greeks, a way of looking at the world that generates the cultural, intellectual, and political ideas--free speech, rationalism, consensual government, individualism, human rights--we all cherish today. Even during the dominance of Christian intellectual and cultural unity, this impulse to challenge and question and criticize persisted, as can be seen in the numerous theological debates and heresies throughout the Christian period, culminating in that great movement of Christian self-criticism, the Reformation. Both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were to some degree expressions of the liberation of this critical self-consciousness from the traditional restraints of Christian dogma and fossilized custom."
Yes, the Greeks valued rational thought, a precious legacy which they have passed on to us. This is also why we still identify with them. They were Westerners in some defining respects, but they still retained ideas alien to us today, and modern Westerners have later added layers of ideas and concepts which the ancient Greeks on their part no doubt would have found equally alien. Could Greek logic and ingenuity alone have triggered the Scientific Revolution? I'm not entirely convinced.
The Antikythera mechanism is a device discovered by a Greek diver in the year 1900. It has been dated to the second century B.C., and in the words of an international research project dedicated to it, "Nothing as complex is known for the next thousand years," possibly longer. It was created for studying astronomical phenomena "and operates as a complex mechanical 'computer,'" although its "program" could not be changed. Judging from the surviving texts from the Library of Alexandria, the first prototypes were built by Archimedes. It is known that the Greeks later built several similar mechanical devices.
The mechanism has been taken as proof that the ancient Greeks were more technically advanced than we usually give them credit for. As Professor Mike Edmunds of Cardiff University says: "It makes you wonder what they would have achieved if they'd have carried on, and the Romans hadn't taken over and put a stop to things. Would they have had a man on the Moon by AD 300? It sounds ridiculous, but if they were able to construct something as technically brilliant as this, it's not complete fantasy." The Romans "were great at the stuff like building sewers and getting things done, but it was the Greeks who were the thinkers, and came up with real innovative technology."
Journalist John Seabrook asks a timely question: "But, if the Greeks did have greater technological sophistication than we think they did, why didn't they apply it to making more useful things — time- and work-saving machines, for example — instead of elaborate singing automatons? Or is what we consider important about technology — which is, above all, that it is useful — different from what the Greeks considered worthwhile: amusement, enlightenment, delight for its own sake?"
According to Seabrook, it has been speculated whether the inventor of the Antikythera mechanism was Hipparchus, the greatest of all ancient Greek astronomers, who lived on the island of Rhodes from about 140 to 120 B.C. He is thought to have founded a school that was maintained by Posidonius. The Roman writer Cicero, who studied there, mentions a device "recently constructed by our friend Posidonius."
During an Internet search I came across a fascinating text entitled Why did the Ancients not Develop Machinery? It appears to have been written by Hal Haskell, professor of the Classics Program of Southwestern University in the USA.
According to him, a Greek engineer named Ctesibius, who lived in Alexandria in Ptolemaic Egypt in the 3rd century B.C., created a hydraulic organ whose power was furnished by a column of water supported on a cushion of air. Hero, another engineer from the first century A.D., described the first recorded steam engine, a rudimentary windmill and other inventions that were apparently viewed as curiosities and never went into machines for replacing men's labor. Hero of Alexandria thus lived in a major city in the Roman Empire, then in a prosperous phase, yet the potentially revolutionary ideas he described failed to gain much practical attention.
The Romans knew the water mill. Their predecessors, the Etruscans, probably knew it centuries earlier. In the first century B.C., the architect and engineer Vitruvius, who had served in the army under Julius Caesar, authored the book The Ten Books of Architecture, dedicated to the emperor Augustus. He described various known inventions, among them a water mill, which he mentioned with casual indifference. The Romans could create great feats of engineering which we continue to marvel at today, and roads still in use in modern times. Massive aqueducts supplied water to major cities across the Empire. Yet as Haskell says, "A water mill can grind effortlessly in under three minutes what would take a man or beast an hour of hard work. Once discovered, it should have swept over the Mediterranean world as quickly as it was to sweep over Europe a millennium later. It did nothing of the sort."
Why not? One explanation provided by Marxist historians is that the widespread slavery in the Greco-Roman world prevented any incentive to develop technology. Haskell believes that "one can emphatically deny that slave labor was always plentiful and cheap; there were long periods when it was nothing of the sort." As he says:
"It was no one from the ancient world but a western European of the Middle Ages, Hugh of St. Victor, who said, Propter neressitatem inventa est mechanica, necessity is the mother of technology. By his time technology had become integrated into men's thinking habits. They had learned to turn to it automatically as the way of solving certain problems; they had, in short, invented invention. The phrase would never have come to the lips of a Greek or Roman. They totally lacked a tradition of carrying on sustained effort to produce a technological solution to a felt need. Invention, as they saw it, was the result of happy accident. Among their heroes are no James Watts, no Thomas Edisons, no men who devoted a lifetime to studying, experimenting, perfecting a device Their classic story is of Archimedes' discovery of the principle of specific gravity while in his bath pondering how to test the honesty of a goldsmith."
The Classical world also suffered from a severe prejudice against work of the hands. Cicero declared that "all craftsmen are engaged in a lowly art, for no workshop can have anything about it appropriate to a free man." Historian Plutarch remarked that Archimedes, though he had won acclaim for his military inventions, "never wanted to leave behind a book on the subject but viewed the work of the engineer and every single art connected with everyday need as ignoble and fit only for an artisan. He devoted his ambition only to those studies in which beauty and subtlety are present uncontaminated by necessity." Haskell thinks this is because "the best brains of antiquity did not occupy themselves with technology except as a pastime or for war."
Anther problem was that the Greco-Roman world lacked a modern understanding of capitalism. Wealth should preferably come from the land. Commerce was barely socially acceptable, whereas industry was looked down upon, which is why the latter in the Roman world "never progressed beyond the large workshop stage." Cato in the second century B.C. was a Roman landowner as good as any. However, as Haskell states, "if you had asked his advice on what crops sold the best or netted the most profit, about quickness of turnover, capital investment, and other standard bits of today's economic wisdom, he could not have known what you were talking about."
The windmill for grinding grain probably made its debut in Persia, perhaps in the seventh A.D. It spread over medieval Europe almost explosively a few centuries later, and by the fourteenth century, "water- and windpower had replaced muscle not only for fulling cloth and grinding grain but for sawing wood, lifting water, crushing anything from ore to olives." In contrast, by 1206 the leading Arab engineer of the day observed to his readers that the notion of driving mills by the wind was nonsense.
Many of the earliest mills arose in monasteries. However, there were two forms of Christianity: That of the Greek East and that of the Latin West, "yet technology got no further in the east than it did in ancient Greece and Rome." The Eastern held that sin is ignorance and that salvation comes by illumination, the Western that sin is vice and that rebirth comes by disciplining the will to do good works. According to Haskell, "The effect of this theological difference was to restore respectability not only to the artisan but to manual labor, to remove the disrepute under which it had suffered during all of ancient times. And in this, monasticism played a significant role. From the beginning, the monks had been mindful of the Hebrew tradition that work was in accordance with God's commandment."
Ironically, it was precisely because political authority had disintegrated more in the West that an entirely new cultural synthesis could develop there, since "civilization had fallen so devastatingly low that the monks had to assume responsibility for all aspects of culture, profane as well as sacred, the life of the body as well as that of the mind. Out of this grew an interest in practical affairs in general and, in particular, in the physical aspects of worship, a line of interest that led to the embellishment of the church and of the service through technology." Whereas Eastern churches forbade music, "the cathedral at Winchester as early as the tenth century boasting a huge organ of 400 pipes fed by 28 bellows that required 70 men to pump them."
This led to the invention of polyphonic music, and thus indirectly to the rise of composers such as Bach and Beethoven. Here is a clear-cut example of how cultural and religious ideas, not just between different religions but even doctrinal differences between various denominations of the same religion, can have a big and lasting impact on the development of a civilization. Historical materialists underestimate the force and importance of human ideas.
Lynn White, professor of medieval history, states that: "By the end of the 15th century the technological superiority of Europe was such that its small, mutually hostile nations could spill out over all the rest of the world, conquering, looting, and colonizing. The symbol of this technological superiority is the fact that Portugal, one of the weakest states of the Occident, was able to become, and to remain for a century, mistress of the East Indies." This was a radical new development during the Middle Ages, because "before the 11th century, science scarcely existed in the Latin West, even in Roman times."
He believes that "The victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture. It has become fashionable today to say that, for better or worse, we live in the 'post-Christian age.' Certainly the forms of our thinking and language have largely ceased to be Christian, but to my eye the substance often remains amazingly akin to that of the past. Our daily habits of action, for example, are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco - Roman antiquity or to the Orient. It is rooted in, and is indefensible apart from, Judeo - Christian theology." The fact that Marxists share this view of history moving inexorable towards a specific end, a nonrepetitive and linear concept of time, demonstrates that Marxism "is a Judeo - Christian heresy."
White also blames Christian attitudes for environmental destruction, because it envisioned man not as a creature living in harmony with the natural world, but as its master: "By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects." He believes Westerners should rather look to Saint Francis of Assisi's belief in humility- not merely for the individual but for man as a species. I think White goes too far in blaming Christianity here. Even some of the early Mayan civilizations in Central America may have collapsed due to environmental destruction. The problem is neither new nor exclusively Western in its origins.
According to author Rodney Stark, "Christian faith in reason was influenced by Greek philosophy. But the more important fact is that Greek philosophy had little impact on Greek religions. Those remained typical mystery cults." He also states that "It was during the so-called Dark Ages that European technology and science overtook and surpassed the rest of the world. Some of that involved original inventions and discoveries; some of it came from Asia. But what was so remarkable was the way that the full capacities of new technologies were recognized and widely adopted."
This was made possible through the growth of capitalism, which happened first in the city-states of northern Italy with some degree of political freedom. For this reason, he believes that the German sociologist Max Weber in his influential study The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was "obviously wrong." The celebrated Belgian scholar Henri Pirenne noted that "all of the essential features of capitalism — individual enterprise, advances in credit, commercial profits, speculation, etc. — are to be found from the 12th century on, in the city republics of Italy — Venice, Genoa, or Florence."
I take some issue with Stark here. Maybe I am biased since I come from a traditionally Protestant country myself, but I do think it is accurate to say that Protestant nations proved especially dynamic in adopting science and capitalism. In that sense, Weber was correct that there is a connection between Protestantism and capitalism. Protestantism also encouraged ordinary people to read the Bible in the vernacular, which encouraged the growth of literacy. Still, there is no doubt that the foundations of science and capitalism were created in Catholic Europe in the Middle Ages.
According to the book Civilizations of the World by Richard L. Greaves, "The dramatic achievements of the High Middle Ages - urban growth, the organization of guilds and universities, the construction of majestic cathedrals and guildhalls, and the revival of monarchical authority - were possible only because of the large-scale economic expansion that grew out of an agricultural revival that began in the tenth century. The development of the three-field system and crop rotation; the use of horses, properly harnessed and shoe-clad, and of fertilizer; the recovery of new land by deforestation and drainage; and the increased use of heavy wheeled plows, metal tools, and windmills permitted Europeans to produce more food with less human labor."
The Hanseatic League, trading guilds which connected the Low Countries and Germany with Scandinavia, England and the Baltic region, joined the Mediterranean ports into a vast trading network. The Fourth Crusade, otherwise a great crime which paved the way for the fall of Constantinople to Muslims, benefited the Italians by undermining the Byzantines as rivals. The Hundred Years' War between England and France strengthened armies and weaponry as well as national sentiments, with the emergence of national symbols such as Joan of Arc. The Black Death, the plague that swept through the Mongol Empire in Asia, reached Europe in the 1340s, killing at least a third of the population, a lot more in some regions. The disease probably reached Europe after the Mongols used biological warfare during a siege of the Black Sea port of Caffa, catapulting plague-infested corpses into the city. However, even the plague did not stop the technological progress in Europe.
As stated in Gardner's book Art Through the Ages, Tenth edition, "Especially significant for art were the increasing professionalization of the artist and the passing of patronage from the Church to the great princes and princely families, in alliance with or independent of wealthy cities. We have seen this happening in the city-states of Italy. What made it happen was the acquisition and accumulation of capital. Despite the calamities of the age, an economic system was evolving - the early stage of European capitalism."
The Florentines "also developed a culture that was stimulated and supported by a vast accumulation of wealth, a situation much like that in Periclean Athens, except that in Athens it was the city-state, not private individuals, that commissioned the major buildings, paintings, and statues of the Classical age. In Florence a few illustrious Florentine families controlled the wealth and became the leading patrons of the Italian Renaissance." The Medici family were bankers to all of Europe, and "one of the most prominent patrons of the Roman Renaissance, Pope Leo X, benefactor of Raphael and Michelangelo, was himself a Medici, the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Never in history was a family so intimately associated with a great cultural revolution. We may safely say that the Medici subsidized and endowed the Renaissance."
Galileo Galilei, when he discovered the moons of Jupiter, named them "Medicean stars" after his benefactors. This was later changed to "Galilean satellites." Although invented in the Netherlands in 1608, Galileo made his own version of the telescope within months, and Kepler soon improved it even more. The science of optics had made great strides since the first spectacles were created in the thirteenth century. At the same time, a new type of mechanical clocks was developed and spread rapidly. The idea may have come from Asia, but Europeans quickly developed it further. Galilei's idea that "the language of God is mathematics" reveals a Christian notion of a rational Creator whose laws could be predicted logically. His emphasis on practical experiments was also radically different from the mentality of the ancient Greeks.
Writer Ohmyrus states that "As time went on, all or most of the 'easy' inventions were made. New inventions require more research and thus more investment of time and resources. The discovery of new scientific principles often do not have any immediate practical use. (...) This explains why all, except Christian civilization, stagnated after showing much progress in its early years. Roman civilization lasted 1,000 years and did not make the scientific revolution. Neither did the Egyptian nor Chinese nor Indian civilizations which have been around for even longer time than did the Romans."
Many cultures, for instance the Chinese, could produce many intelligent individuals and extensive trade, but only in Christian Europe did historical circumstances produce all the ingredients necessary to ignite the Scientific Revolution.
In his book Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, author Charles Murray ranks individual accomplishments from 800 B.C. to 1950 AD. In Western Music, those with the highest ranks are, unsurprisingly, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach. In mathematics, Swiss mathematician Euler tops ahead of Newton, Euclid of Alexandria, Frenchmen Fermat and Pascal and several Germans: Leibniz, Gauss and Cantor.
In physics, Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein tie for first place, ahead of Rutherford, Faraday, J. J. Thomson, Cavendish, Niels Bohr from Denmark and the Polish-French physicist Marie Curie. In technology, Scottish engineer James Watt, whose improvements to the steam engine were fundamental to the Industrial Revolution, is tied with American inventor Thomas Edison ahead of Leonardo da Vinci, Dutchman Christiaan Huygens, Archimedes and Vitruvius as well as Marconi, who, building on the work of Maxwell, Tesla, Hertz, Indian physicist Bose and others, were one of the pioneers in creating radio. In combined sciences: Newton, Galileo, Kepler, René Descartes, Laplace, Pasteur and chemist Antoine Lavoisier.
In Western philosophy we find Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas as well as a number of Enlightenment philosophers: Kant, Hegel, John Locke, David Hume, Spinoza and Thomas Hobbes, whose 1651 book Leviathan had a major impact on later political thinking. In Western literature, Shakespeare, Goethe, Italian poet Dante Alighieri, most remembered today for The Divine Comedy, the Roman poet Virgil and finally Homer, whose Iliad and the Odyssey from the 8th or 7th century B.C. (although some believe they are not the work of a single author) are considered to mark the starting point of Greek Classical Antiquity.
It is possible to take issue with some details of these rankings. In Western Art, Pablo Picasso in ranked second to Michelangelo. I like Picasso, but I'm not convinced he should be listed before Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, Giotto, Velázquez, Donatello and Jan van Eyck, not to mention Raphael, Leonardo and Titian. I take even stronger issue with Rousseau in Western literature, maybe because I personally dislike him, but I honestly don't think he deserves being mentioned next to Homer and Shakespeare and ahead of Byron, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Friedrich Schiller.
The list is heavily dominated by those widely denounced today as Dead White Males, for they are almost all men, and most of them are from Europe. Does the book suffer from a Eurocentric bias? For good or bad, Europeans during the past thousand years have largely created the modern world. According to Murray, this is because "highly familistic, consensual cultures have been the norm throughout history and the world. Modern Europe has been the oddball."
Murray is considered controversial by some because he supports the thesis that intelligence, measured in IQ, is not equally distributed among all the world's populations. Ashkenazi Jews are supposedly the ethnic group with the highest average intelligence, and they have left their mark vastly disproportionate to their numbers. It would be interesting to ponder how much the decimation of much of European Jewry has hurt Europe, not just morally and culturally but also economically. Still, East Asians are supposed to have at least as high intelligence as people of European stock. When the Scientific Revolution took place in Europe and not in China, this must have cultural causes. Western culture has by and large enjoyed the benefits of greater political freedom and more individualism as opposed to consensus and traditionalism. Christianity played an important part, too.
Murray writes: "It was a theology that empowered the individual acting as an individual as no other philosophy or religion had ever done before. The potentially revolutionary message was realized more completely in one part of Christendom, the Catholic West, than in the Orthodox East. The crucial difference was that Roman Catholicism developed a philosophical and artistic humanism typified, and to a great degree engendered, by Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274). Aquinas made the case, eventually adopted by the Church, that human intelligence is a gift from God, and that to apply human intelligence to understanding the world is not an affront to God but is pleasing to him."
He believes that the 20th century witnessed a decline in artistic accomplishment, as artists and intellectuals rejected religion. It's also a challenge for democratic societies to keep up standards of excellence while there is an obsession with making everyone equal. Moreover, Murray is pessimistic regarding the current state of Europe. While visiting, he noticed that Europeans take no pride in their scientific and artistic legacy, and attempts to point this out to them will always be met with pessimism and a sense that European civilization is cursed.
Maybe belief in a higher purpose is necessary for the creation of true greatness. Achievements that outlast the lifespan of a single human being are generated out of respect for something greater than the individual. Many Europeans no longer experience themselves as part of a wider community with a past worth preserving and a future worth fighting for, which is arguably why they see no point in reproducing themselves. Europe in the past believed in itself, in its culture, its nations and above all its religion, and produced Michelangelo, Descartes and Newton. Europe now believes in virtually nothing, and produces virtually nothing. Maybe we can regain our talent and strength, but in order to do so we first need to regain our faith, not juts religious faith, but faith in ourselves, our culture and our future. Can we do that?