For the medieval intellectual, thinking is a profession whose tools were fixed by Aristotle, who wrote the Organon in Greek, which Boece (480-524) translated in Latin (Organum). The Organum was a manual of Logic describing a method of correct thinking based on the correct use of words and ideas. The Organum was a manual of clarification of thought obtained by syllogisms. The method of the intellectual technician was scholasticism. First and foremost comes language, which needed in those early days devoid of dictionaries and of rules of grammar to be defined. Words have, to scholastics, an importance that has always been primordial. Scholasticism is based on the handling of words and phrases, which rapidly degenerated in verbalism. The rules of demonstration, the dialectic, follow. The dialectic is a number of procedures that expose the problem, proposes the different possible solutions, solves the problem and convinces the auditor. To this dialectic must be added a content not solely of words but of thoughts. Without efficacious thinking, logic is sterile. Here, the danger is not verbalism but headless talk. The third stage of scholasticism is the method of authority. The authoritarian ancient Hebraic, Greek, Roman and Arabic texts (Avicenne, Maimonides, but mostly Averroes) are the cornerstones of knowledge, the materials of the construction. It is on the basis of already acquired knowledge that the intellectuals add new stages to wisdom. The danger here is sterile repetition.
The danger of scholasticism is the construction of a thought based on an abstract internal conviction without any relation with concrete experiences. The French science succumbed to it but the English science escaped this drift 10. The Franciscan Roger Bacon (1214-1294) initiated an empirical approach that was further explored by the Italian Telesio who advocated an inductive and analytical approach in 1586 (De rerum natura, published in Rome). The Dominican Campanella followed in 1590 but the road conciliating abstraction and practical experimentation was successfully pursued by Francis Bacon who pleaded in 1620 in favor of a purely experimental and inductive approach of scientific problems as opposed to the deductive approach advised by Aristotle. This was exposed in the Novum Organum. This new method is less than 400 years old and, for the time being, exploited fully only in the “Anglo-Saxon” world, sensu largo.
Philosophical considerations are absent from the Holy Scriptures. The Church filled the vacuum by reliance on philosophical systems elaborated earlier.
Plato advocated the idea that Truth, like a shadow seen on a wall, is hidden from human intelligence as if it were behind a curtain. This view pleased the Hierarchy because it was in concordance with the belief in Christ, who came on Earth to reveal a hidden Truth. Platonicians also disarticulate Man into a body and a soul, into a mortal envelope and an immortal spirit, a finite life of sin and an unending life of happiness. Plato advocated celibacy for the Guardians of the City. Plato claimed that the World has an hierarchy. Plato’s philosophy became the accepted philosophy of the Church.
Aristotle, on the contrary, emphasized the reality of the world perceived by the senses. This biologist elaborated on the existence of the four primal essences (air, fire, water and earth) and viewed Life as a great cosmic stream including all living beings into one great harmony leading from the tiniest animal forms to bigger animals, man, spirits and ending up with God. This position is unacceptable because it ignores that Man, and Man alone, was created at the image of God (Gen. 9:6). However, Aristotle tried to understand the world as a whole, as a totality. Christendom also had such an ambition. The views of Aristotle encourage good sense and practical research, to which some monks were favorable.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), an aristocrat of imperial lineage born in Italy, was a huge Dominican monk who disliked non-sense. He was a theologian but also a good scientist. He mastered the Arab, Jewish, Greek and Latin languages. He studied in Naples and Paris, learned from Aristotle, Abelard and Anselm, from Jewish and Arab scholars and, after having considered and exposed in writing all the available options, promoted Aristotle over Plato. The Hierarchy could hardly burn the nephew of Frederick Barbarossa and had to be content to burn his writings but it finally reluctantly admitted the incorporation of the Aristotelian view of the world into its teaching. Plato and Aristotle could coexist.
On 19 March 1255, the Faculty of Arts of the University of Paris (la Sorbonne) put the study of the works of Aristotle on the program. Rapidly, its analysis unveiled the unthinkable: Aristotle claimed that the world is eternal, has always been and was not created. Thomas Aquinas saw no contradiction in the two theses, one defended by faith and the other defended by science because he thought that they operated at different planes. On 7 March 1277, the bishop of Paris did not see it that way. He counter-attacked with excommunication and destitution. Most teachers submitted and practiced auto-censorship, which extinguished at the Sorbonne the debate about the creation. This condemnation of the bishop lasted for centuries and had as result a considerable regression of the progresses of sciences in the French Universities.
Aquinas’ “Somma” was the most harmonious and hardy synthesis of medieval Christian philosophy. Once provided by Thomas Aquinas with an unofficial but widely accepted and even preponderant philosophy, the Church never relinquished it when facing either other civilizations or the changes occurring in the West itself. With Aquinas, the possibility to study natural phenomena and biology was finally acquired but it was of no great help because arithmetic and algebra were not integrated into the culture of the common Man of the Middle Ages, who favored Plato. After Saint Thomas, philosophy, theology and experimental sciences took divergent paths and an attempt at building a “Somma” was not made anymore until Karl Marx.
12.3.2 Mathematical concepts
The Pythagoreans had stated that things were numbers but the pursuit of this line of thought was discouraged. Mathematics in those days (no probabilities, no infinitesimals, no asymptotes, no zero, no limits, no negative numbers, no signs for plus (+), minus (-) and equal (=), Roman letters for numbers, etc.) were not suitable to study earthly problems.
Firstly, because mathematics is a perfect science. According to Plato, God is a geometrician. The world is geometrically structured. The Circle, the Sphere, the Polyedres are messengers of Order and Harmony. The sun and moon are perfect circles. Only a perfect God could have created these perfect objects. The Old Testament also emphasizes the beauty of Mathematics. The Book of Wisdom (11:20) states that God ordained everything according to measure, number and weight. This made it clear that God, and God alone, was to be approached by mathematics. Saint Augustine (354-430) followed the teaching of the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy and observed that the Circle, the Sphere and other geometrical figures are Perfect, Ideal and Abstract. He advanced the spiritualist theory that only the immaterial and perfect soul may, at the image of God, conceive and perceive these figures. It would be blasphemy, since the Kingdom of God did not yet occur on Earth, to apply a perfect science to an imperfect world.
Secondly, Latin Christianity communicated in Latin and the signs designating numbers were letters: M for Mille (i.e. thousand), C for Centum (i.e. hundred), D for 500, L for 50 etc. These signs were by no means adequate to accomplish the simple operations of addition or subtraction, let alone algebraic operations. To this was added the absence of the concept of nothingness and of the number expressing nothingness, i.e. null. Compare the ease of operation of 11 + 51= 62 with XI + LI= LXII. Or else 10 x 20 = 200 with X x XX = CC. One reason for the dominance of Muslim mathematics over Christian mathematics lies in Arabic notations, which are now in use.
In addition, everyday observation indicated that the application of mathematics to the understanding of the sensible world was a doomed attempt: leaves, trees, rivers, wind, flames, animals, grains, in fact everything was dissimilar, complicated and complex and could not be grasped by numbers.
A final reason why the Hierarchy and aristocrats rejected arithmetic was because arithmetic is democratic: numbers acquire meaning through their addition and subtraction. The medieval Church and the Princes instinctively distrusted the abundant use and easy manipulation of numbers that could lead to a requestioning of the hierarchy established in a society. They preferred geometry, which establishes a hierarchy of values. A line, plane, triangle, cube are constructions that demonstrate the existence and the need of a hierarchy. They favored the development of sciences and technologies based on the use of geometry, such as painting and architecture.
Mathematics developed for the main in the egalitarian-minded Muslim Realm, where it registered constant progress from AD 800 to AD 1200. Ptolemy had invented the astrolabe during the 2nd century. This astronomical instrument of measure (e.g. the measuring of the altitude of the sun) and calculus, not of observation, was further developed by Muslims. The Arabic treatise on the use of the astrolabe by al-Khwarizmi was translated (Sententiae astrolabii) in Barcelona (Northern Spain) by Lupinus in the late 10th century. Gerbert of Aurillac, Pope Sylvester II, introduced the astrolabe to Latin Christianity together with many other Muslim scientific achievements, as the Arabic numbers. It was in vain: a change in mentalities was needed for them to become acceptable and he was accused of heresy.
The Greek Diophantus of Alexandria had, in the second century AD, developed a voluminous arithmetic treatise wherein he handled numbers. The Muslims had it translated. Al-Khwarizmi had for his part developed algebra in 847. He did not solve particular specific problems but proposed a generalization. He conceived the notion of equation as designing an infinite class of problems: algebraic problems are simplified and reduced to the solving of equations with one single unknown. The conjunction of algebra and arithmetic led, in the 11th century, to the further development of algebra inasmuch that all the operations of mathematics (addition, subtraction, division and multiplication) which had been restricted until then to numbers only, were applied to algebraic expressions. Having tackled the problem of square roots, the Muslims systematically studied the cubic equations, whereby they established a conjunction between algebra, arithmetic and geometry.
12.3.3 Cosmological concepts
The Indians held that matter had always been. The Greeks also considered that matter always was. This assumption was expressed in its most articulate form by Lucrecius, around 65 BC. There is no creation. All matter resolves ultimately into indivisible atoms, which are eternal. The Genesis is of the same opinion: the first day, God separates heaven and earth and light from dark, the second day He separates the waters in the firmament (from where they will later fall in a deluge) from the waters on earth, etc. but he does not create ex nihilo: before His intervention, there was chaos, in Hebrew tohu and bohu, meaning desert and emptiness, not nothingness. Creation from nothingness is a concept that appears in the Torah much later (2M 7: 28).
For primitive civilizations, the world is as a snake swallowing its tail: it is undergoing perpetual renewal. The Genesis presents another picture: God separates waters from dry land and the world consists of dry land floating on water. The water is underneath the continent and also above the firmament. A puncture in the firmament is the cause of the deluge. The deluge was not just a flooding but was the threat of a new chaos. Noah conjured the threat and, from then on, History is the advent of the kingdom of God on this earth, to the benefit of the Jews.
The medieval civilizations based their concept of the Universe on the Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions of spheres. Aristotle had observed that the shadow of the earth on the moon was always round. He also had noticed that a ship coming on land had its mast visible before the hull. The polar star was not in the same position when observed from Greece and from Egypt. He concluded from all these observations that the earth was a sphere. Ptolemy, working in Alexandria during the second century, espoused this view and advanced that the world is constructed on successive spheres, each sphere being moved by the next exterior sphere. The innermost sphere carries the moon. Next comes Mercury, followed by the sphere carrying Venus. Next is the sun, beyond which were Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, the seventh Heaven. Above Saturn is the sphere of the fixed stars, beyond which is the sphere of the angels. The tenth and also uppermost sphere, that keeps all other subjacent spheres in movement, is God, who is the mover who does not himself move (fig 12.6).
Figure 12.6. Codex Aldenburgensis, 15th century. Bruges GS, ms 127/5. The earth is subdivided in Asia, Europe and Africa, and surrounded by the celestial spheres. The moon (luna, second circle) is white, the sun (sol, fifth circle) is red and the outermost circle, Saturn, is blue. The sun was considered to be a planet.
The Medieval cosmos, incorporated by Aquinas in the Christian Weltanschauung, is of finite size. Kepler agreed, pointing out that the night sky would be bright as day in an everlasting infinite universe. Galileo’s observations provided the first convincing evidence that the Ptolemaic picture endorsed by Aquinas was wrong. Newton argued that if the cosmos were finite, then everything would fall in the center and he proposed the void, stretching on indefinitely. Pascal’s statement in his Pensées : “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces alarms me” is a statement that one never encounters in Medieval writings.
Ptolemy stated that astronomy is the key to science, to wisdom and to religion because astronomy alone reaches the immobile and abstract energy by the contemplation of the constant sameness of celestial bodies. A perfect ordainment, symmetry and simplicity reign in Heaven. The celestial bodies obey geometry and behave in an ordained, immutable and predictable way. The Earth microcosm in which lives Man is imperfect and the Heavenly macrocosm, in which live God and the Saints, is perfect. This is a self-evident truth that everybody may verify and that no one disputes.
This teaching, i.e. the roundness of the earth, clashed with the sayings of the bible and, 500 years ago, the biblical concept of the earth as a flat dry surface floating above and surrounded by tenebrous seas was still popular. Learned people, i.e. the professors, friars and church dignitaries who counseled the king of Spain in Salamanca about Columbus’ desire to reach Japan by going West, did not ridicule the idea of the roundness of the earth nor did they quote the scriptures to infer its flatness. They very well knew that the earth was a sphere but they pointed out that its circumference was much bigger than Columbus thought, and that Japan was more than 2500 miles beyond the Azores. They themselves would never make the voyage.
In the years 1500, the roundness of the earth was no reason to doubt the existence of God. Galileo published his observations in Italian in 1610. Already in 1611 in England John Donne ( A.L. Clements, ed. NY : WW Norton & Co., 1992) wrote in “An Anatomy of the World”:
And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit,
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets, and the firmament
They seek so many new; then see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all relation:
Prince, subject, Father, Son, are things forgot.
Such was the impact of the new cosmology. It radically changed the culture of its time and split scientific knowledge from human meaning , which was at the time determined by religion (I expose this in detail in 12.6). The unifying ideas of Newton were deterministic local mechanics and gravitation. For Newton, God’s role was the creator of this clockwork universe at the beginning. Today, we know that the cosmic horizon is at a distance of 1028 centimeters, we know that the universe started 14 billion years ago , and nondeterministic quantum mechanics and evolution are the key ideas that govern our contemporary concepts. It is not clear whether there is still a role for God.
Until about 1650 A.D, that is 350 years ago, demonology was a constitutive element of the traditional awareness of the world. Demonology is part of Christian theology. The belief in the existence of the Demon, the Devil, the Serpent, Baal, Lucifer, Bezelbuth, Satan and Mephistopheles is necessitated by the belief in God. Jesus confronted Satan; if one adhered to Christ, one had to adhere to Satan. Not only the Holy Scriptures but also the Peripateticians, the Stoicians, the Koran admit the existence of these spirits. The writings of Ovid, Virgil, Homer are replete with references to the spirits.
The spirits animate reality and explain otherwise inexplicable phenomena, as monsters, comets, tempests, boreal lights, rainbows, floodings, eclipses, craziness, hysteria and werewolves. About one person in 200,000 possesses in a recessive way the genes responsible for the disease of porphyry. This metabolic disease occasions the destruction of the extremities (fingers, nose, gums, and ears), a hideous appearance, the abundant growth of hair over the whole body and a great sensitivity to the sun, light and flames. In inbred societies as was that of the Middle Ages, the expression of the porphyry gene may have been frequent and gave rise to the werewolf and vampire myths.
Jesus multiplied bread and fishes, transformed water into wine, walked on water, resuscitated Lazarus, resuscitated himself and ascended to Heavens. The authority of these facts justifies all the subsequent interventions that attest the Power of God and of the Devil. There is no question that the most learned, serious, benevolent, disinterested persons in the Middle Ages attested to the existence of the Spirits.
Comets were messengers of the gods. The date of the birth of Christ is not known with accuracy. If one assumes that the Christmas star was the comet of Haley, Christ was born in the year -32 and the Christian era began on the year Christ was crucified. Based on other historical events, the year -7 has been long held for correct but today it is assumed that Christ was born in the year 1 of this era. In the year Christ was born, the exceptional conjugation of Jupiter and Saturn led the three Kings to postulate the felicitous happening of the birth of a King. The three Kings followed a star and found Jesus. Jesus and Mary ascended into Heaven, which is the House of God. From Heaven, God and his Servants, the Saints, the Angels, the Cherubim’s, the Seraphim’s, command the stars and command Life on Earth. Lucifer was chased from Heaven into Hell and Hell is located in the depths of the earth. The revelation is explicit about this and everybody may verify that caverns, caves and deep forests are the home of malevolent Spirits.
In the Christian perspective, God always keeps, at all times, the right to amend His creation and He does it all the time. The Divine Providence is a common, almost tangible reality: the surreal perpetually dominates the real. The miracle explains everything. Church bells kill the fetuses in the womb of women, cows and horses, transform wine in vinegar and clear up the skies. The existence of the miracle and of sorcery discourages the search for objective explanations because to refuse the existence of the miracle equates to a negation of the power of God, and this impiety, when the social and religious fabric of Christendom began to succumb at the end of the 16th century, lead to the scaffold. The last European sorcerer was burned in 1782, about 230 years ago.
The teaching of these amalgamated theological, philosophical and scientific theories went on in the Universities, under the name Scholasticism. The University addressed itself to the theologians who ruled Christendom. One should however be aware that homogeneity of teaching and complete control by the Hierarchy over the teaching was not the case in Christendom: it is as a student at the University of Naples (founded by the Emperor Frederick II without the consent of the Pope) that Aquinas received the subversive teaching that acquainted him with Aristotle and led him to his “Somma”. Outside the Universities, Christendom slowly evolved.