Saturday, February 5, 2011

early christianity and natural philosophy

Although the course of the moon... is known to many, there are only a few who know well the rising or setting or other movements of the stars without error. Knowledge of this kind in itself, although it is not allied with any superstition, is of very little use in the treatment of the divine scriptures and even impedes it through fruitless study; and since it is associated with the most pernicious error of vain [astrological] prediction it is more appropriate and virtuous to condemn it.
Augustine of Hippo, On Christian doctrine.

One of the themes of David Lindberg's essay, 'Early Christian attitudes toward nature', is the love-hate relationship of early Christian intellectuals towards the Greco-Roman culture around them. Tertullian, and to a lesser extent Augustine, are clear examples. The quote above captures this nicely. There's this view, which might almost be called a pretence [just to be presentist about it] that knowledge is useless unless it illuminates 'scripture', as if scripture is the given, like a giant maypole that everything else must be tied to and dance around. What always fascinates me about this is the dogmatism of the early Christians. Many of these folks - not just Tertullian and Augustine, but such leading lights as Origen, Ambrose, Athanasius, Arius and many others - though they argued interminably amongst themselves, were united in this kind of maypole view, and yet the texts and tales they based their unshakeable faith upon were quite newly minted. The same thing happened, of course, with the the advent of the Islamic religion some centuries later. If we were able to grasp more thoroughly the psychological forces behind these sweeping forms of group-think, I think we would be able to make major advances in guarding ourselves against them.
It seems that concepts about nature were pushed to the back burner during this early period of Christian fervour from the second to the fourth century. The very influential figure of Paul of Tarsus set the tone with remarks like this addressed to the Colossians:
Be on your guard; do not let your minds be captured by hollow and delusive speculations, based on traditions of man-made teaching centred on the elements of the natural world and not on Christ.
However, not all the early Christian intellectuals followed this advice, and Plato, the neo-Platonists, Pythagoras and other pagan speculators were mined for material that would provide support to Christian metaphysics. At the same time, the new religious orientation provided an opportunity to scoff at the 'blindness' of pagan thinkers. Commentators like Tertullian and Basil of Caesarea were very keen to provide evidence of their mastery of the most abstruse pagan thought while insisting on its uselessness and upon the need for simple faith.
Augustine was generally a little more sympathetic to what was called 'natural philosophy', but still he had serious reservations, as the quote indicates. In his Confessions he describes curiosity as a disease – one that he himself was curiously prone to. It should be added that this attitude wasn't born of Christianity. Suspicions about pursuing knowledge purely for the sake of it were rife in highly stratified pagan society. Plato's Republic discouraged abstract thought in society as a whole – it should only be pursued by an intellectual elite. Such an attitude to knowledge would've been commonplace in his time, and for a long time afterwards - in fact right up to the enlightenment period really, and beyond. And the idea of natural philosophy as the handmaiden of religious faith, as an aid to the comprehension of the deity's glorious creation, an idea more or less encouraged by Augustine, is still found more than 1300 years later in the thought of Isaac Newton, and further on in the approach to science of Georges Cuvier and Robert Owen in the nineteenth century.
The point is that although all of these thinkers gave priority to their faith, they still made contributions to an understanding of the world which, whether or not they might be considered baby steps, led us away from enthralment to religion. That's no doubt a 'presentist', internalist perspective. Augustine, in spite of being a 'dyed in the wool faith-head', took pride in his own knowledge of 'profane' matters, and was embarrassed at the ignorance of his fellow believers:
Even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian.... talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.
Augustine himself wrote a work called The Literal Meaning of Genesis, in which he analysed the first three chapters of Genesis, covering the biblical creation story through the lens of his very considerable knowledge of natural philosophy as it was understood and practised in the Graeco-Roman world of that time. It was accepted, for example, that the earth was spherical. Eratosthenes had quite accurately calculated its circumference more than 500 years before Augustine's time. There's little evidence that Christians of the patristic period rejected such knowledge. Certainly, in medicine and other practical sciences we find a mixture of empirical knowledge, superstition and ideas of supernatural possession, just as we find in pagan thought and practice. However, with Christianity's transformation into a state religion, concepts of orthodoxy and heresy became paramount, and the freedom of intellectuals to think freshly about the natural world became severely curtailed. And that seems to have been the situation for a long long time.

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