12. Christendom

12.6 The New Weltanschauung

12.6.1 The desecration of the Cosmos

A mutation of the Christian spirituality is apparent during the Renaissance, when the Augustinian monk Erasmus in 1528, and the Augustinian monk Luther in his preface of the Bible, expressed their distrust of miracles. Luther protests that the source of the Christian Truth is in the evangelism of John, the epistles of Paul and the last epistle of Peter because these texts praise Faith. The deeds of Christ, his miracles, acquire a meaning only because of Faith. Without Faith, the deeds loose significance. While Luther drowned Reason in Baptism and adored the Book, Erasmus held miracles in suspicion precisely because they clashed with Reason. They appeared unbelievable.

The removal of the miracles as explanations of facts allowed the emergence of a new mental space. Copernicus, a catholic canonic, advanced in 1543 the hypothesis that the earth is mobile and the sun immobile, and dedicated his work to the pope. The pope was interested and favorable, as well as several catholic high dignitaries About 25 years later, Tintoretto (1518-1594), working in liberal Venice, translates in painting the theological revolution initiated by Copernicus (fig. 12.27).

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Figure 12.27. Tintoretto. The origin of the Milky Way. Fragment, 1575, National gallery, London. The onlooker is free from the ideas of above and below; the Milky Way is released from all feeling of gravity. The former theological concept of spheres is abandoned.Tintoretto is a master in Mannierism. He handled color as well as Titian and Raphael, drew as well as Michelangelo but improved color and drawing with light and darkness.

Copernicus delayed until the year of his death the publication of his audacious theory, which appeared under the form of a hypothesis written in Latin in a few hundred exemplars. Tyco Brahe repeatedly claimed that Copernicus’ theory went against physics and against the Holy Scripture. Luther, Melanchton and Calvin vigorously condemned the heliocentric hypothesis of Copernicus. Luther and Melanchton laughed and thought the canonical crazy: “If the earth turns around the sun, how can it keep its atmosphere and oceans?” asked Luther. The heliocentric hypothesis had few adherents for the following reason: if true, it was impossible for a stone thrown vertically in the air to fall on the same place because the rapid movement of earth would necessarily leave it far behind, on the side of the occident.

Giordano Bruno, a Dominican priest, waved this objection aside by showing that all what is on earth moves together with the earth. His fertile imagination made him claim that God, whose powers are infinite, could only create an infinite universe. He claimed that the universe is without horizon and without limits. Contrary to assertions that he was eliminated for his progres­sive views, it is the contrary that is true. He was retrograde: he held that mathematics were of no value to understand the world, derided Copernicus for the fondness of the latter for mathematics, and drew his arguments from the most primitive, eso­teric teachings. His understanding of the movements of celestial bodies was of disarming simplicity (fig. 12.28).

Figure 12.28. According to Bruno, earth and moon moved on one epicycle, Venus and Mercury on an opposite epicycle. Both epicycles moved in a circular orbit around the sun. This view is esthetically pleasing but a far cry from reality.

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The Calvinists, the Lutherans and the Catholics excommunicated him at the same time. At that time, the Roman inquisition faced a movement of Reform in Southern Italy, at the doors of the Papal domains. The roman Inquisitor Santori repressed the movement ruthlessly. Yet, he was forbidden by the pope to apply torture to Bruno, who was condemned not on scientific matters but for his views on incarnation and trinity. His tongue was torn away, he was stripped naked and burned in AD 1600 at age 52.

The cruelty of Santori must be evaluated within the context of his time: between A.D. 1600 and 1700, at least 100,000 women were burned at the stake for sorcery in Germany alone whereas Santori burned ‘only’ about 50 people. He was strongly disliked by the hierarchy and his bid to the Papacy floundered. Cardinal Robert Bellarmini, a Jesuit who was also a fine mind and a humanist, succeeded him as head of the Roman Inquisition. Bellarmini regularly complained about the stupidity and narrow mindedness of his colleagues. It was Bellarmini who counseled Galileo not to advertise his findings in astronomy but also not to end his research in this field. Bellarmini died too early (1621) for the judgment on Galileo. The Roman Church indexed Copernicus’ work only in 1616.

Kepler, the son of a sorcerer, was an excellent mathematician. Upon receiving the charge of astrology at the Imperial Court, he obtained access to the voluminous astronomical observations of his predecessor, the Danish Tycho Brahe. This astronomer had accumulated a vast amount of observations on the movements of celestial bodies, which made no sense. In his days, the certitude that the earth was fixed, that the sun turned around the earth, that the movements of the celestial bodies were circular, that the planets and stars turned around the earth, made an understanding of the observations impossible. Kepler saw that the movements of the planets were elliptic and heliocentric. He thus at once simplified the complicated annotations of Brahe by reducing them to a simple mathematical formula that applied to the movements of a large number of the observed objects. The Church left him alone.

Galileo, a Florentine astronomer and mathematician, protected by the Florentine Duke of Tuscany, turned the newly invented telescope toward the sun, moon and planets in 1609. He saw that they were not perfect spherical bodies without blemishes but that they had dark spots, mountains and valleys and that a planet other than the earth, Jupiter, had a satellite. In fact, Jupiter possesses 4 satellites. If a celestial body revolves around Jupiter, then the earth is not anymore the center of the world, as was professed in Universities. Galileo was in trouble.

Galileo understood the primordial value of mathematics and fully applied them to the understanding of the perceived world. He attempted to correlate the movements of these bodies with those of the earth through the queen of all sciences, mathematics. He was thus the first to systematize the notion of mathematical laws followed by disparate celestial bodies. He geometrized Space and thereby desecrated the Cosmos. He unified the space of the macrocosm with that of the microcosm. The World of the Humans and that of the Gods was unified.

Galileo had the misfortune to inscribe in the intellectual habits this restructuration of the mental space. It meant the end of astrology and of a certain type of theology. He changed forever the explanatory system of the Universe. The capital peripetia of the History of Knowledge is this destruction of the Cosmos by Galileo. He advanced the thesis that scientific investigations meet no boundaries. There is no reserved domain covered by ecclesiastic immunity. Reason is at home everywhere. Man is not anymore a part of the Universe but becomes the privileged spectator, the rational analyst of this Universe.

Galileo published his discovery in Italian, i.e. he used for communication a vernacular language as advocated by Protestants, and dedicated his work to the pope.

12.6.2 The Galileo affair

To the Church in the midst of a formidable crisis, with its very existence at stake by the secession of England, Germany, the Nordic Countries and Holland, by the menace of secession by France, by the Turks on the shores of the Adriatic (see fig. 12.29) and in Nice because France had allied with the Turks, considering the power of astral piety that moved the whole of Christendom at that time, this attack on the saying of the Bible that it was recently forced to take seriously under the pressure of a retrograde opinion, was too much.

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Figure 12.29: Extent of Christian schisms in 1600. England was Anglican. Lutheranism in Nordic countries was in competition there with Calvinism, which found a strong appeal in Scotland, Hungary, the Netherlands, Switzerland and some German regions. Islam progressed on the Dalmatian coast, and the Albanians and Kosovars were the preferred soldiers of the Ottoman Empire. France was an ally of the Turks and of Sweden to combat the Roman Catholic Germanic Empire.

For the first time in History, the Inquisition had to pronounce judgment on a purely scientific matter, for which it was incompetent. The seventy years old Galileo was condemned in 1633 for holding the view that the sun is immobile and the center of the universe, in place of the earth. This is expressly contrary to the Holy Scriptures (Jos. 10:13) and, therefore, heretic. Harassed by his jealous peers, persecuted by the Jesuits, the old Florentine, protected by the Florentine Pope whom he had insulted because he dedicated him a work that the Pope could not admit, was asked by the Holy Office of the Inquisition to retract, spend the remaining of his life in the Tuscany countryside and make penance. The worn-out old fighter retracted. Neither the Council nor the Pope confirmed this sentence and numerous Church Princes regretted the ordeal.

Much has been said about the annihilation of Galileo’s professional life due to censorship and banishment to the countryside. In truth 26, Galileo, after the verdict, moved to the residence of the archbishop of Sienna. There, comfortably installed in the palace, he produced his greatest contribution to science, which he published without any problem. What was the problem he tackled while a guest of the archbishop? It was an attempt at understanding the principle of inertia. He worked on motion, acceleration and forces, translating them into mathematical formulae.

Aristotle held that the continuation of the motion of a hurled body depends on continued action of a force. This force was said by Aristotle to be the air of the atmosphere. Philoponos (6th century) challenged this view and claimed that the hurled body is forced in movement by the agent producing the initial motion: it is this power and not the ambient medium that secures the continuation of the motion. The initially impressed violent motion, according to Philoponos, is temporary, is self-expending, comes to an end and changes into natural motion.

Ibn Sina, in the 11th century, noted that small objects as mustard seed, hay and wooden chips, when hurled, will not penetrate into the air like heavier objects. From this observation, he deducted that the initial violent inclination was a non-self-consuming one. It was a permanent force whose effect is dissipated only as a result of external agents such as air resistance. Self-motion, as conceived by Ibn Sina, is almost the opposite of the Aristotelian concept of violent motion and reminisces of the principle of inertia, i.e. Newton’s first law of motion.

The explanation developed by Ibn Sina was abandoned during the following three centuries and resuscitated by John Buridan in the 14th century, who called the initial acquired force “impetus”. It is highly likely that Buridan knew about Ibn Sina 27. Ibn Sina failed to grasp the connection between the magnitude of a force applied to a body and the speed thereby produced. Buridan clarified the issue by conceiving of the initial impetus quantitatively, noting that impetus increases with the weight of the hurled body. He considered impetus as proportional to the weight times the initial velocity of projection. Galileo rallied the view proposed by Buridan. It was with the help of this mental orientation that he achieved his monumental work on mechanics.

In fulfillment of his penance obligation, Galileo took approximately one quarter of an hour per week on his knees but the duty was performed in total privacy! In public, Galileo steadfastly proclaimed his innocence. Galileo was under house arrest and never left the archbishop’s palace grounds but the archbishop regularly invited scholars to his table. In fact, archbishop Piccolomini treated Galileo as a guest of honor, holding for him exclusive salons. This was reported to the Pope who made the sentence harsher by moving the place of imprisonment to the countryside. Galileo was ordered to return home, where Grand Duke Ferdinando welcomed him back. He lived a few hundred meters from the convent of his daughters, whom he could visit almost anytime. Galileo was indeed punished. But was house arrest such a punition for a worn-out and disease-ridden seventy-five years old man who continued to lose himself in his work and hold an active correspondence with his fellow mathematicians?

The anticlericals mention the Galileo affair as a characteristic suppression of geniality by an obscurantist Church. The Darwin affair, the Freud affair, the Lyssenko affair, the Lavoisier affair demonstrate that clericalism was not at stake. Three of the ten judges of Galileo withheld judgment. The eagerness of the other seven theologians to condemn the new astronomy was a tragic misunderstanding. Galileo invents a new space but this space is empty. It is dehumanization precisely when the Church wants humanization. Human concrete experience is discredited in favor of abstract norms. The emptiness of space is also the emptiness of the heart.

It is commonly believed that the trial made Copernican astronomy a forbidden topic among Catholics for two centuries. This was true for laymen whom the Jesuits discouraged to engage in scientific studies. Nothing could be further from the truth for the Jesuits themselves: since the twelfth century, through the Copernican upheaval and well into the Enlightenment, the Roman Catholic Church was the most generous institution that supported astronomy, Copernican and otherwise. The reason for this lavish attention to astronomy was the pressing need for the Church to promulgate the date of Easter on time to prepare for the event. The dates of Easter were calculated and distributed in tables several years in advance. The key piece of data for making the Easter calculation was the period between successive spring equinoxes. The most precise method to measure that cycle was to lay out a “meridian line”, i.e. a rod embedded in a floor from north to south in a large dark building, put a small hole in the building’s roof and observe how many days the sun’s noon image took to return to the same spot on the line. A meridian is found in the Escurial near Madrid, in the church Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome and also in the San Petronio basilica of Bologna, where the characteristics of the meridian allowed very precise measurements.

In the 1650′s, twenty-five years after the condemnation, the meridian of the Bologna cathedral lying in the heart of the papal states, served to strengthen Kepler’s model of the sun’s elliptical movement, over the Ptolemy’ model. The leading Jesuit astronomer Giambattista Beccaria confirmed in a comprehensive treatise Kepler’s position and the Copernican theory. The Jesuits disproved the very geocentric dogma they were supposed to uphold and propagated the astronomical revolution they were forbidden to teach 28.

12.6.3 Alchemy

In the sixth century BC, the Greek philosopher Thales advanced that water is the principle of all things. A century later, Empedocles proposed that the complexities of creation required four elements instead of one. For Aristotle (384-322 BC), there existed 5 fundamental elements. The first four were water, fire, air and earth. These were combinations of two characteristics, as dryness and warmth for fire, dryness and humidity for air, cold and humidity for water. The fifth element was ether that was complete in itself, eternal and perfect. Alchemy blossomed in this context of mythical legends, magic sorcery and philosophical doctrine mixed with empirical knowledge. Alchemy is philosophy. In Great Britain and the US, scientists do not hold a degree in Sciences but have a Ph.D. (Doctor in Philosophy). Aristotle is considered a philosopher yet he was a biologist. The alchemist tried to explain the nature of matter and the mechanisms of its interaction with fire, water and air, while on the other hand he tried to secure, through this knowledge, collateral material benefits as immortal life and the transmutation of lead into gold. This may now appear foolish but we may not judge a posteriori. Turtles, snakes and parrots lived apparently indefinitely and were in those days proof that immortal life was possible, just as cupellation of lead showed that lead could transform into silver.

Alchemy started for good in the years 250 BC, in Alexandria, during the reign of Ptolemy II, a Greek successor of Alexander on the pharaonic throne. He succeeded in making the city the capital of the learned and scientific world. It was in Alexandria that the great effort of transmutation of lead into silver, first accomplished by the Egyptian priests, initiated. After 1000 years of preeminence, the city lost its attraction in favor of Constantinople, mainly due to the internal feud between Christian sects within its own walls. These are responsible for its decadence, not the Arabs. Muslim arms took the city in 611 AD, whereby its decline as a cosmopolitan city became irremediable.

The Muslim alchemy continued in this tradition and mercury, sulfur and salt, the three Arabic principles, were added to the four elements (plus ether) of Aristotle. Together with lead, silver, tin, carbon, gold, copper and iron, these three principles were applied in the search of Muslim alchemy for the elixir of Life.

After the crusades, Christian Europe took up the alchemist’s trend. The Dominican Albertus Magnus, who lived around 1200 AD, described arsenic. The Franciscan Roger Bacon (died 1292) began to systematically apply experimentation as a means to attain knowledge. Another monk (B. Valentinus) discovered antimony. Around 1300, sulfuric acid, nitric acid and vinegar were discovered and the attempt to transmute metal was pursued by the Swiss physician Paracelsus (1493-1541). Although discovering zinc, he preferred to search for the elixir of Immortal Life, basing his search on the four Greek elements. Hydrochloric acid and ammonium sulfate were made in 1597. This was long after Pope John XXII, sensing the distortion of these scientific endeavors towards an inadmissible search for wealth, banned alchemy in 1317.

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Figure 12.30. The alchemist. Superb copperwork of Brueghel dating 1558. The assistant of the master puts a piece of money in a cauldron while the woman at center stage indicates that it simply empties the purse. The alchemist neglects his family, which is outside taken to the hospice (signaled with a cross on top of the building). The writing on the book of the alchemist bears, AL GHE MIST, which means “all missed” in Flemish.

The Flemish physician van Helmont (1577-1644), although not believing anymore in the 4 Greek elements of Aristotle and the 3 Arabic principles, still maintained in 1640 that water and air are the basic elements of matter. He proved that Aristotle was right over Plato in his claim that the world is a great living being whose parts are interrelated. Since the Genesis says that water is the primordial element, it will change into other elements and van Helmont proved this biblical truth to be correct. He planted the seed of an elm in a box with a preweighted amount of earth and watered the growing plant during 5 years. After this time, the weight of the earth had not sizably changed, from which he concluded that water, the primordial element, had transformed itself into earth, i.e. the tree. Three hundred and fifty years ago, this experiment and the conclusions drawn made sense. However, he began to analyze matter in a systematic, quantitative way. The first problem to be solved was the nature of fire and air. Van Helmont suspected that there existed more than one gas. In 1661 appeared “The skeptical Chymist” by Boyle, wherein all references to authority are rejected. Boyle still held that air is the primordial element while other gases such as methane and carbon dioxide are contaminants thereof.

By 1700, the capacity of various substances to burn was still believed to be due to the inclusion into them of a gas, phlogiston, which escapes under the influence of fire. This conclusion was arrived at because burned substances lose weight. If no solid matter is left after burning (carbon or sulfur), then the substance contains large amounts of phlogiston. If it does not burn at all, it contains no phlogiston. The fact that some substances increase in weight by burning, such as metals, was explained by attributing a negative weight to some phlogistons. Air was considered to play no role in the burning process. Cavendish (1731-1810) isolated hydrogen gas, which he thought was phlogiston. He was puzzled, in 1784, by the fact that the gas exploded on contact with air, producing water. This phenomenon did not corroborate the theory of phlogiston.

12.6.4 Lavoisier

The industrial revolution, which started with the steam engine of Watts (1726-1819), fostered still greater interest than before in the combustion process and Lavoisier finally explained it. He started his career in chemistry by demonstrating that water does not transmute into earth, under any circumstance. He further proceeded to establish a chemical nomenclature so coherent, meaningful and useful that it is still in use today. He thereafter toyed with the metric system to work further on and explain the processes of oxidation, respiration and metabolism.

Lavoisier’s approach to science was purely and exclusively quantitative. At all times he used a balance. His conclusions proceeded only from experimentation, leaving out all speculations. With him, modern science based on experimentation began. With experimen­tation, he demonstrated that, in chemical reactions, nothing is gained and nothing is lost: this proof of the permanence of matter was the final blow to the myth of the creation.

Lavoisier had been director of gunpowder (régisseur des poudres) and had perfected the manufacturing technique that gave to France the finest supply of refined gunpowder in the world. It is with this powder that the beleaguered revolutionaries succeeded in repelling the foreign troops that threatened to overthrow the new government. His publication (1777) was reedited in 1793, during the Terror (fig. 12.31).

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Figure 12.31. Title page of Lavoisier’s pamphlet about gunpowder (saltpeter-salpêtre), edited in 1793. The page expresses signs of revolutionary ardor, drums and banners, and mentions at the bottom the new calendar: “Year II of the Republic, one and indivisible”. (An II de la République, une et indivisible). However, the name of the author is omitted because Lavoisier was in jail. Zealots and philistines had grabbed power and applied a reign of Terror, steered by Robespierre.

Lavoisier was guillotined (beheaded) on the 8th of May 1794 on the ground that he was a “contre-révolutionaire” and that the French Republic did not need scholars. Lavoisier was a tax collector for Louis XVI. He kept part of the taxes for himself, which was normal practice, whereby he financed his experiments. He was guillotined for that. The guillotiner Robespierre was himself guillotined three months later. The eulogy of Lavoisier’s friend, the mathematician Lagrange, sounded: “It took them only an instant to cut off his head , but France may not produce another like it in a century”.

12.6.5 Linnaeus

Well within the 18th century, the animal and plant kingdoms were enigmas. Chaos reigned supreme in a world where scholars referred to animals and plants by lengthy Latin descriptions that differed widely, while gardeners used local common names. E.g. in Scotland, bluebells were known as harebells south of the border. In the US, there were at least four bluebells, which were nothing like the English and Scottish bluebells. Meaningful communication about animals and plants was tricky, to say the least. Linnaeus was the first to apply the combination of genus and species consistently in the naming of all plants and animals known to European scholars at the time. His work “Species plantarum” (1753) is internationally recognized as the starting point of botanical nomenclature and his “Systema naturae” (1758) is accepted as the official starting point for zoological nomenclature.

Linnaeus was a physician and a polymath who classified everything from butterflies to buffaloes. In his lifetime, Linnaeus worked tirelessly to catalogue every plant known at the time and sought to organize them into a hierarchy. He is the father of taxonomy. He classified plants according to their sexual parts. The number and shape of pistils, stamens, petals, styles and other formed the basis of his system. His pursuit of consistency and exhaustiveness in describing living things was unprecedented at the time. His contribution was a revolution because he recognized formally many of the plants groups we still recognize today. His system of sexual classification, based on floral parts, got him into trouble with the Lutheran Church of Scandinavia, which did not like the fact that plants had sex at all. In puritan Germany and Russia, the value of his system was strongly opposed while catholic Scotland readily accepted it. Linnaeus knew that his sexual system separated things that were obviously closely related and lumped together others that were nothing like each other, but it was a useful short-term solution, -albeit artificial-, rapidly superseded, within 50 years after his death, by the much more natural system developed by the Frenchman de Jussieu.

Evolution was unheard of in Linnaeus’ time: species were thought to be created by God. Now, after Darwin, we view relatedness as a sign of common ancestry but even now, Linnaeus’ methodical approach and his quest to develop a comprehensive model for understanding the natural world remain amazing feats.

12.6.6 Mental resistance to change

It is naively thought that the development of science is a rational process and that we attempt to live in a rational world. It is commonly assumed that, whenever a theory should be replaced by a more rational one, or a better one, everybody would readily accept it. Yet, again and again, has it been shown that intelligent men are not necessarily ready to do so. Lavoisier, Christ, Abelard, the Buddha, Einstein, Socrates, Darwin, Galileo, Frederick II, Dalton, Copernicus, etc. present an image of the world that radically differs from the one their contemporaries are used to. The obligation to proceed to a reconstruction of beliefs, certitudes and mental frames is generally vigorously resisted. The problem of acceptance or rejection reaches the deepest core of our mental identity and an imposed change in mentality is fought neither by reason nor arguments but by rhetoric, propaganda, publicity and assertive creeds. Religious factors are responsible for this resistance (Christ, Copernicus and Galileo, Linnaeus and Darwin) only when and because the religious beliefs embody a coherence of thought. Too many cases have occurred where religious feelings were absent (e.g. Lavoisier) to draw responsibility solely on retrograde clerics. It is the amount of dedication to one point of view and the time of one’s life consecrated to it which matter. There is a tendency in man to coherency of thought, to harmony in his cognitive system. The human mind does not readily admit internal contradictions and rejects even more violently the possibility that his thinking enters in conflict with his deeds.

A cognitive system is primarily destined not to be rational but to suppress cognitive dissonances. The desire of consonance of thought is greatest when the commitment to a particular theory was great, be it by words, deeds, career, education, public speeches and stands, etc. A new Weltanschauung, the depiction of a world that is totally out of phase with the construction of the world that was created in previous times may be either negated, fought or accepted. These various conducts are not based on rational factors and mankind is still devoid of the criteria necessary to eliminate the psychological factors that foster rejection.

Acceptance is sometimes unjustifiable. The introduction of the theories of Marx and Engel in public affairs was an enormous and dramatic blunder. Machiavelli’s views were accepted only because they sustained the policies of tyrants. T. More, in Utopia, warns against the consequences of this policy and we have had the opportunity to verify its damages after five hundred years of practice. Another error has been the infant psychiatry of Freud. Freud’s postulates (the murder of the father, the rape of the child, the maternal phallus, Narcissus) are the strange fruits of a baroque mind whose success was due to their delirium. These nebulous fantasies were expected by a society that had lost faith in its future. His groundbreaking theories of the unconscious mind and its influence on behavior are of course valid. Cuvier predicting deluges is another example of undue acceptation.


26. Dava Sobel: Galileo’s Daughter. Penguin books, 2000

27. Ibn Sina and Buridan on the Motion of the Projectile. A. Sayili: ANYAS 500, 1987: 477-482

28. J.L. Heilbron: The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as solar Observatories. 1999, Harvard University Press

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