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For a real assessment of the life of Frederick Barbarossa we must leave the realms of legend and myth, and return to history. At Barbarossa’s coronation in 1152, his empire was weak, his princes divided, and Germany under the thumb of the Holy See. In Italy, the authority of the empire was fast vanishing and the imperial principle had ceased to govern the political organization of society. But by the time Frederick had done, the power of the monarchy was fully restored in Germany, the Welfs were on the run and most princes anxious to show their loyalty to the crown. In Italy, cities and nobles alike had come to accept the authority of Frederick’s agents and officials; the Pope’s sphere of influence and authority had been greatly reduced and his property rights circumscribed, and Sicily was ruled by Frederick’s son Henry VI.

In short, within less than forty years, the empire had recovered “all its splendor”; never before had its “honor” shone so brightly; never before had it been so venerated and feared. No emperor, since Charlemagne and Otto the Great, had been so brilliantly successful, none so admired and revered. For although Otto had consolidated the power of the crown and of his own House in Germany, he had been quite unable to make his presence felt in Italy. Charlemagne’s achievements, too, although on a grander scale, had proved far more transitory than Barbarossa’s – his sons, unlike Frederick’s were unfit to step into their father’s shoes.

The Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa (Records of Western Civilization Series)

But then Barbarossa, unlike his glorious predecessor, did not seek control of the entire West. Thus, on the highest level, Charlemagne may, perhaps, be said to have been the greater of the two, one who by spreading and deepening the Christian faith, by lending new vigor to the concept of the state, and by resurrecting the Roman Empire, had helped to found those very institutions which, although changed by time, still form the basis of Western civilization. For all that, his work was dwarfed by the very size of the stage on which it was set – Charlemagne lacked a clear “geographical perspective” of the great area over which he ruled.

Barbarossa the Realist

Barbarossa, by contrast, had a clear vision of his empire. His realism was the fundamental trait of his genius, though at times, in Lombardy for example, he was slow to face up to the facts. Realism explains his increasing caution towards Southern Italy, the relinquishment of all direct designs on the Kingdom of Sicily, his disinterest in the east, and his early tolerance of, and later sternness to, King Henry the Lion [of England]. The area to which he restricted his activities was one he knew well – it extended in the north to just beyond the Lahn; in the east to Lusatia and Austria; in the west it took in the Moselle Valley, modern Lorraine, Alsace and Franch-Comte, and in the south it ran as far as the southern borders of the Duchy of Spoleto and the March, that is to the confines of Rome. He was able to leave his mark on all these parts, and to bind them closely to the empire. And it is precisely because Charlemagne overstepped these narrow limits that Barbarossa must be considered the most illustrious ruler to have come out of medieval Germany.

The Crusade of Frederick Barbarossa (Crusade Texts in Translation)

But despite all his successes, and the glory that attached to his name, Barbarossa’s reign fell far short of perfection. Thus more than any other German he fostered the feudalization of social and political life, by greatly increasing the power of the princes. Possibly he could see no alternative, perhaps none even existed. But maintaining the authority of the crown by relying on the support of increasingly powerful princes called for enormous personal exertion, indefatigable energy, and above all, for peace, both at home and abroad. Only by renouncing his major ambitions in Italy could Frederick have hoped to prevent abuses at home. As it was, the nobility raised ever new territorial demands, and insisted that Barbarossa apply his own principle of obligatory reinforcement; nor had the breach between the Welfs and the Hohenstaufen [feuding princely families] ever been completely healed. And, in the game of feudal power politics, local interests tended quite naturally to take precedence over the good of the nation.

In Italy, though Barbarossa, after more than twenty years of fighting, eventually came to terms with the urban phenomenon, the Lombard cities continued to oppose his plans of empire. Moreover, he realized that if he pursued his “conservative” policy in Central Italy, the Tuscans, at least, would rise up against him just as the Lombards had done in 1167. And so Frederick was increasingly forced to reduce his sovereign claims, to refrain from running every city and county with the help of his own men or of loyal supporters – from 1183 onwards, he readily granted rights and privileges to anyone who would help him. From Head of State, the emperor had shrunk to the head of a party: the leader of the Ghibellines, who opposed the Guelphs out of personal conviction no less than for private advantage. German might thus introduced a deep and lasting split into Italy.

Successes and Failures

When all is said and done, therefore, we are left with Barbarossa’s glory and undeniable qualities, with the unflinching resolve with which he tackled his life’s work, but also with his profound failure to grasp certain essentials, and a number of decisions that, however skillful and realistic they may have appeared to be at the time, in the long run helped to blight h8is dreams of empire. On balance, Frederick’s was no mean achievement; a memorial great enough for any man – in the rough and tumble of human history there is no one who is entirely without flaw, no one who is without error. This truism, which helps us to set limits upon the actions of all individuals, is no mere platitude in Barbarossa’s case. For here we find an intelligent, energetic, and respected leader grappling with overpowering political, social and psychological situations – among them the urban phenomenon in Italy and the feudal phenomenon in Germany. His very greatness was that he tried to come to terms with them, perhaps against his will; that he tried not to swim against the stream, while yet making resolutely for the shore he had set out to reach.

Frederick Barbarossa was a great man in his day, but one whose ambitions were strictly circumscribed by the limitations of his age.

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That religion vocations were plentiful in the “age of faith” is a matter of common understanding. The first half of the twelfth century stands out, even in the Middle Ages, as a unique era of devotional enthusiasm, when monasticism turned into a mass movement of unparalleled proportions. As in the case of similar other phenomena, such as the Crusades, no rational explanation can fully account for the countless thousands who were willing to leave the “world” and seek God behind the walls of institutions where everything was geared to giving ample opportunity to practice a life of heroic austerities.

Contemporaries, too, were well aware of what was happening, although, searching for reasons, they were just as baffled as we are. As the often quoted Ordericus Vitalis observed: “Though evil abounds in the world the devotion of the faithful in cloisters grows more abundant and bears fruit a hundredfold in the Lord’s field. Monasteries are founded everywhere in mountain valleys and plains, observing new rites and wearing different habits; the swarms of cowled monks spreads all over the world.” A source of equal amazement to the same author was the fact that it was the most austere order, the Cistercian, which fared best; the White Monk’s appeal seemed to break through all social and intellectual barriers: “Many noble warriors and profound philosophers have flocked to them on account of the novelty of their practices, and have willingly embraced the unaccustomed rigor of their life, gladly singing hymns of joy to Christ as they journey along the right road.” A somewhat older contemporary, Bishop Otto of Bamberg (d 1139), who watched and promoted monastic growth, tried to rationalize it by a strangely familiar, though somewhat premature, argument: “At the beginning of the world, when there were few men, the propagation of men was necessary, and therefore they were not chaste . . . . Now, however, at the end of the world, when men have multiplied beyond measure, is the time of chastity; this was my reason, my intention in multiplying monasteries.”

There is no doubt that in the circumstances [the monastery at] Citeaux was bound to succeed. Its ascetic program was the epitome of everything contemporaries were looking for; it was organized under an inspiriting and capable leadership and its constitution insured the cohesion of the movement in the event that it spread beyond the confines of Burgundy. Grandmont, Savigny, Grand Chartreuse and many similar reforms prospered with fewer potential assets than those of Citeaux. The amazing fact that the Cistercian Order virtually exploded and by the middle of the twelfth century possessed nearly 350 houses in every country of Europe, can be explained, however, only by the dynamic character and activity of the “man of the century,” Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. The often voiced notion that he was the true founder of the Order is a pardonable exaggeration, but the fact that for centuries Cistercians were widely known as “Bernadine’s” was not without justification.

St Bernard

Bernard was born in 1090, of noble Burgundian stock at Fontaines, near Dijon. After his education in the midst of his deeply religious family he was sent to Chatillon for formal studies at the school of the canons of Saint Vorles. Returning home, he lived the life of contemporary youth with his older brothers, but the silent and reserved boy soon decided that his place was at Citeaux, already well known in the neighborhood. As soon as he became certain of his own vocation, he set about convincing all his brothers, his closest relatives and his friends to join him in his holy endeavor. This was the first occasion which proved him to be a born leader with an unwavering will and irresistible personal appeal. In the spring of 1113 he, together with his companions, asked for admission at Citeaux. The austere religious training in the abbey did not change his character; on the contrary, Bernard found in Citeaux the most congenial surrounding for his own spiritual temperament, and in turn, Bernard proved to be the most effective and eloquent interpreter of Citeaux’s message to the world. Abbot Stephen recognized in him a God-sent genius, and in 1115 the young man of twenty-five became the founder and abbot of Clairvaux. The trials and hardships of the founders of Citeaux were relived during the first years of Clairvaux, but Bernard’s faith and determination remained unbroken. The heroic spirit of the Abbot attracted so many recruits that in only three years Clairvaux was able to found her first daughter house at Trois-Fontaines.

On the wings of his early writings the fame of Bernard’s holiness and wisdom soon spread all over France, an, although he never cared for publicity, he soon found himself in the spotlight of an era desperately searching for able and competent leadership. It was a time of political turmoil throughout Western and Central Europe. In Germany, the powerful Emperor Henry V, the last member of the Salian house, died without heir (1125) and the country was torn between the partisans of the two contesting families, the Welfs (Guelphs) and Chibellines. Similar disturbances broke out in England after the reign of King Henry I, while the boy king of France, Louis VII, was still too young and inexperienced to take over his father’s role. Meanwhile in Italy, the powerful cities and the most influential families, utilizing the impotency of their northern neighbors, started anew their bloody rivalries. When, in Rome, the papacy again fell victim to the fighting parties, a perilous schism in the Church resulted. After the death of Pope Honorius II in 1130, two opposing parties elected on the same day two popes, Innocent II and Anacletus II. The befuddled Christian world was at that moment utterly incapable of dealing with the problem; the only power able to restore order in Rome would have been the Emperor Roger II of Sicily, who was, however, using the occasion to extend the territory of his new kingdom.

A convention of French clergy and nobility at Etampes committed the decision of this crucial question to Saint Bernard, who declared in favor of Innocent II. Much more difficult to solve were the political ramifications of the dual election; namely, the task of convincing the contending powers to acknowledge Innocent unanimously and driving the usurper out of his Roman stronghold. It took eight years of tedious traveling’s, conferences, personal meetings, and hundreds of letters to achieve the goal. During these years Saint Bernard stood literally in the center of European politics, yet he never acted merely as a diplomat. He never yielded nor used threat of force, nor did he compromise. The secret of his success was his moral superiority, his unselfish good will, and the magic of his personality. On the other hand, the fact that the whole European world obeyed the poor and humble Abbot of Clairvaux indicates an era when moral ideals still prevailed over brutal violence.

The zenith of Saint Bernard’s earthly career was reached the moment when his pupil, a former monk of Clairvaux, was elected pope as Eugenius III (1145–1153). On this Pope’s order, the Saint launched the Second Crusade in 1147. By his preaching, he moved hundreds of thousands of people even when they could not understand his language. His powerful words and irresistible personality worked wonders in another field of his activity, among the Manichean heretics of Germany and France. The South of France was at the edge of an open belief that “faith is a matter of persuasion, not of compulsion,” refused to advocate violent measures against them. Though his mission had only temporary effects, his sermons and miracles left a deep impression. Not so much of his eloquence as by his penetrating mind and deep erudition, he fought victoriously against doctrinal aberrations, most notably those of Abeland, and later, Gilbert de la Prree [twelfth century intellectuals].

Saint Bernard’s public activity was not limited to these issues of political and ecclesiastical importance. For about thirty years, he and his letters, written in a masterful Latin, were present every time peace, justice, or the interest of the Church demanded his intervention. The Cistercian Order grew and expanded with his own expanding fame and popularity. His biographers remarked that the power of his eloquence was such that “mothers hid their sons and wives their husbands” in order to keep them safe from the Saint’s recruiting efforts, which brought a constantly overflowing population to his beloved Clairvaux. This abbey alone established sixty-five daughter houses during the lifetime of Bernard. Several other abbeys were almost as successful as Clairvaux, and France was soon dotted with some two hundred Cistercian establishments. Not all of these abbeys, however, were entirely new foundations. The seemingly irresistible trend drove many already existing monasteries into the Cistercian camp. Thus, for example, in 1147, of fifty-one new houses recorded, twenty-nine belonged to the reform congregation of Savigny, while some others had been members of smaller organizations under the monasteries of Obazine and Cadouin. By this time the White Monks were well on their way in stepping across the borders of France and establishing themselves permanently in other countries of Christian Europe. Former monastic reforms, including Cluny, had largely been restricted to the countries of their origin, either because their programs were lacking universal appeal, or they were unable to control effectively a great number of distant, affiliated houses. Citeaux, for the first time, broke through these barriers successfully, becoming the first truly international religious order in Church history.


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It outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements, within the system of medieval Christendom. Since it changed the character of men’s habitual mental operations even in the conduct of the nonmaterial sciences, while transforming the whole diagram of the physical universe and the very texture of human life itself, it looms so large as the real origin both of the modern world and of the modern mentality that our customary periodization of European history has become an anachronism and an encumbrance.

So wrote British historian Herbert Butterfield in 1949, when he popularized the notion that a “scientific revolution” had occurred in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In his view, this revolution was the single most important set of events to shape the modern world.

In the half century since Butterfield’s call to attend to the importance of the scientific revolution, specialized historians of science have dramatically reinterpreted its character in several aspects.

· We have come to realize that it was much more closely linked to features of medieval Christendom and to both the Renaissance and the Reformation than Butterfield imagined.

· We now see it less as the result of a few intellectuals “picking up the other end of the stick,” as Butterfield phrased it, than as the outcome of social processes and practices (such as printing) that crossed class boundaries and led to many competing ways of understanding the world.

· Finally, we find that it was as much shaped by dramatic changes in the material and nonmaterial environments of early modern Europeans – such as the rise of commercial capitalism and the humanistic emphases of the Renaissance – as it was a shaper of subsequent attitudes and events.

Yet once crucial insight of Butterfield’s seems as true today as it did 50 years ago: The set of events referred to as the scientific revolution not only refashioned how early modern Europeans understood and related to the natural world but subsequently had an enormous effect on the creation of our modern material and mental worlds.

The Christian Humanist Legacy

One of the most pervasive features of modernity is a threefold set of assumptions: 1) the natural world is rationally structured; 2) human beings can gain knowledge of that structure by applying their reason to information gathered through their senses; and 3) humans can and should use that knowledge to improve the circumstances of their lives. These use that knowledge to improve the circumstances of their lives. These use that knowledge to improve the circumstances of their lives. These assumptions came to dominate Western culture in connection with the theoretical and practical achievements of the scientific revolution, but key elements were appropriated from the Christian tradition.

According to the belief system of many religions, humans are understood to be incorporated within the natural order. But in Christian teachings, humanity stands outside that order and to some extent above it, by virtue of human likeness to the Divine and a special injunction from the Divine to subdue the earth and to “rule over . . . every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26-30).

Within medieval Christendom, intellectuals attach great importance to human rationality and its capacity to provide insights into the workings of the physical world, so as to illuminate the nature of the Divine. It was not until the Renaissance, however, that humanists shifted focus from the static life of contemplation to the dynamic life of action associated with ruling the earth. First in Northern Italy and then throughout Europe, scholars began to mirror the shift in social and economic leadership away from the military and landed aristocracy, whose ways of life were extremely stable, to a class of urban notables exemplified by the Medici’s and Albertis, whose growing fortunes derived from the dynamic domains of trade and commerce. The scholars re-emphasized the biblical injunction to subdue and rule, and they focused on knowledge that promised an element of human control over the natural world. . . .

Revolutionary Texts

It is common to date the beginning of the scientific revolution to 1543, when two pivotal texts appeared. The first of these was Nicolaus Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), which shook up astronomy by proposing a Sun-centered universe to replace the long-held Earth-centered model advocated by Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus), the respected astronomer of second-century Alexandria. The second was Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), which challenged several established views of human anatomy that derived from Galen, a second-century Greek physician. For instance, Vesalius’ observations led him to suggest that, contrary to Galen’s view, blood could not pass from one side of the heart to the other through the septum – the wall between the left and right sides.

These two texts radically changed the ways by which astronomy and anatomy were done. But Copernicus and Vesalius may have scarcely considered themselves revolutionaries. In fact, each was acting as a good humanist scholar, responding to severe problems in his discipline by seeking help in the pure and uncorrupted texts of antiquity.

As Copernicus reflected on the growing disparities between observed solar and planetary positions and those calculated using Ptolemaic theory, he searched the ancient literature and discovered that some writers, including Cicero (the Roman orator, statesman, and philosopher), had assumed the Earth moved around the Sun rather than vice versa. Even more important from a technical standpoint, he found that the early Greek astronomer Hipparchus had measured the constant year in terms of successive passages of the Sun past a given star – what we would call the sidereal year. On the other hand, Ptolemy had measured the constant year as the interval between one vernal equinox (the first day of spring, when day and night are equally long) and the next – a period we call the solar year. Copernicus’ great work was, in effect, a reworking of Ptolemaic astronomy using Hipparchus’ assumption regarding the constant year; one major consequence of that reworking was the necessary of viewing Earth as revolving around the Sun.

The case of Vesalius’ revolution in anatomy was only slightly different. Galen’s work, De Anatomicus Administrationibus (On Anatomical Procedures), had emphasized the importance of direct observation of the structure of the human body rather than acceptance of any textual authority. But this text was unknown to the West until it was recovered and translated from the Greek by Vesalius’ teacher, Gunther von Andernach, in 1539. Vesalius then began to study it and to uncover Galen’s errors, many of which had occurred because Galen used apes for dissection when human cadavers were difficult to get. In his great work of 1543, Vesalius followed Galen’s text chapter by chapter, correcting errors while reemphasizing Galen’s original admonition to learn anatomy by direct observations of the body.

Galen on Anatomical Procedures: The Later Books (Cambridge Library Collection – Cambridge)
Galen On Anatomical Procedures: Translation of the Surviving Books with Introduction and Notes

The Institutional Milieu

Until relatively recently, students of the scientific revolution argued that one of its central features was the movement of science out of the religiously dominated universities, which were thought to have been intellectual backwaters, and into the new context of secular, government-sponsored organizations such as the Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge (chartered in 1662) and the Parisian Academie des Sciences (established by [French politician Jean-Batiste] Colbert in 1666). Around the same time, the dissemination of scientific knowledge was transformed through establishment of the first scientific journals: the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (in 1665) and the Journal des Savants of the Parisian Academie (in 1666).

Although learned societies did emerge as centers of scientific activity and (especially on the Continent) received government support in return for their technical advice to the state, older institutions remained extremely important centers of intellectual vitality. Advances in anatomy and physiology, for example, continued to be made primarily at universities. It should be noted, though, that William Harvey’s experimental demonstration (in the early seventeenth century) that the heart serves as a pump that circulates blood through the body was presented in lectures to the Royal College of Physicians, an honorary society in London.

In both applied mathematics and experimental natural philosophy (the term used for much of experimental science), the network of Jesuit colleges played a particularly important role through the seventeenth century, contrary to the general and largely false impressions that the Catholic Church was implacably hostile to science. The Jesuit order was wealthy enough to purchase scientific instruments that were beyond the reach of most scientists and many universities. Moreover, beginning in the 1560s, it developed the first institutional support for positions in which distinguished scholars were relieved of their teaching duties and allowed to devote their efforts to research and publishing for periods of up to six years.

Another major focus of scientific activity throughout the sixteenth century and much of the seventeenth was the individual aristocratic court, which often supported intellectuals partly for their services and partly for fame and glory. Near the beginning of the seventeenth century, for example, the court of Emperor Rudolph at Prague employed Tyco Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Joost Burgi. Tycho’s precise measurements of planetary positions forced a reconsideration of the Copernican assumption that planets move in circular orbits. Using Tycho’s observations, Kepler formulated a new theory, according to which each planet moves in an elliptical orbit with the Sun at one focus. Burgi, a mathematician and maker of spectacular astronomical clocks, invented logarithms to ease Kepler’s calculations. And Burgi’s clocks stimulated Kepler to think of the universe in the likeness of a clock rather than a living being – a central concept for the creation of Kepler’s revolutionary theory.

Johannes Kepler: Discovering the Laws of Celestial Motion (Great Scientists)

One important group of scientist was supported by the Cavendish family in England, where philosopher Thomas Hobbes was the center of a group that included Lady Margaret Cavendish, one of the first women to publish on scientific subjects. Another group was supported by the Medici family in Florence, where Evangelista Torricelli, Giovanni Borelli, Francesco Redi, and several others did experimental work on heat and atmospheric pressure, using their new inventions such as the thermometer and barometer.

The Mechanical Philosophy

In terms of the cultural impact of the scientific revolution, one major feature was the growing pervasiveness of the so-called corpuscular or mechanical philosophy. In fact, this philosophy was formulated in several different versions, all of which shared the assumption that physical phenomena must be explained in terms of the impact of one body or particle upon another. In [German philosopher and mathematician] Gottfried Leibniz’s words, “A body is never moved naturally except by another body which touches it and pushes it; after that, it continues until it is prevented by another body which touches it. Any other kind of operation on bodies is either miraculous or imaginary.”

The mechanical philosophy in its various versions derived from two major sources. One was the atomic philosophy that ancient philosophers Epicurus and Lucretius had developed extensively. The other was the familiarity of scholars with engineered objects that increasingly dominate Europe’s urban landscape.

Rene Descartes and Robert Boyle stand out as the leading proponents of the mechanical philosophy’s “rationalist” and “empirical” versions, respectfully. Descartes’ interest grew out of a special concern with the rational structure of the world and with a mathematician’s fascination with the certainty of mathematical proof. Indeed, he had absorbed the ancient skeptic’s distrust of sensory experience and sought to develop scientific knowledge through the faculty of reason, as uncontaminated by empirical elements as possible. In a series of works – including the Discourse on Method (1637), Principles of Philosophy (1644), The Passions of the Soul (1649) and On Man (published posthumously in 1664) – Descartes sought to derive practically all phenomena from basic assumptions about the properties of matter. In so doing, he concluded that everything in nature is mechanical. While Descartes continued to believe in an immaterial human soul, other rationalist mechanical philosophers, including Thomas Hobbes, advocated a complete mechanical materialism in which even human thought was mechanically explained.

ew experiments physico-mechanicall, touching the spring of the air, and its effects (made in a new pneumatical engine): written by way of letter to … eldest son to the Earl of Corke (1660)

Unlike Descartes, who was confident that the world was rationally explicable and that his mind was capable of explaining it, Boyle was convinced that God’s choices in creating the universe were ultimately unconstrained and therefore inexplicable. In Boyle’s view, experiential and experimental interrogation of nature was an important means to understand how God chose to structure the universe; however, one could not anticipate in advance how He chose to make things work. Initially, Boyle’s empiricist emphasis led him into alchemical studies, but his experiments with air convinced him to take a corpuscular (or mechanical) view of matter. In 1660, his New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air, and Its Effects appeared, describing the results of many experiments carried out with his newly invented air pump. Two years later, he announced his famous experimental result, known as Boyle’s law: At a given temperature, the volume of gas is inversely proportional to its pressure.

Competing Approaches to Knowledge

Coexistence of the rationalist and empiricist versions of mechanical philosophy illustrates that the scientific revolution involved competing approaches to scientific knowledge. In addition, a number of alternative philosophies vied for attention and influence. One of these eventually had a greater impact on modern scientific practice than the mechanical philosophy did.

First, there was a revived and revitalized Aristotelian tradition that emphasized observational and contemplative means of understanding nature. This tradition was especially important among Catholic scholars and particularly fruitful in medicine and natural history, but it was bitterly attacked by those who favored more aggressive experimental and applied approaches . . . .

Second, there was the Hermetic/Neoplatonic tradition that emphasized the “occult” or hidden connections among phenomena and posited a life force in all of nature. This tradition, through it manifestations in alchemy and “natural magic,” was important in the early growth of empirical approaches in the search for natural knowledge. By the end of the seventeenth century, it was on the wane, but such major figures as Isaac Newton continued to take it seriously.

Finally, there was an approach to natural knowledge that sought descriptive mathematical laws of nature an abandoned the traditional search for causal accounts of phenomena. This position is most often associated with Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton, for it played a major role in their most spectacular successes . . . .

This approach can be found in Galileo’s Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations concerning Two New Sciences (1638), in which he showed that when a body at rest near Earth’s surface is made to fall freely, the distance fallen is proportional to the square of the time of fall. Here he openly acknowledged his inability to explain the cause. Similarly, in a paper published in 1672, Newton demonstrated that white light is composed of light of all colors of the spectrum, each color being bent to a different extent when it strikes a prism’s surface; but he admitted that he did not know why. And his masterpiece, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) (1687), Newton articulated the law of universal gravitation – that every particle of matter in the universe attracted every other particle with a force that was proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the distance separating the particles. Here again, Newton admitted being unable to discover why this was so, and he refused to speculate about the cause.

Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (Modern Library Science)

Newton expended great efforts in trying to devise a mechanical explanation for gravity. In the “Queries” to various editions of his Opticks (first published in 1704), he sought to give causal accounts for numerous optical, chemical, and physical phenomena. But Newton was careful to distinguish between what he considered as having been demonstrated – such as the law of gravity and the composition of white light – and what he considered as merely conjectural until it could, perhaps, be demonstrated.

A Cultural Transformation

One major consequence of the scientific revolution was the transformation of almost all premodern, commonsense notions about the character of the natural world. For example:

  • Before the scientific revolution, people believed that Earth was at the center or bottom of the universe, at the maximum distance from God, Who resided in the empyrean above the stars. Afterward, they understood they lived on one planet among others circling the Sun, which was one star among an uncountable number.
  • Before the scientific revolution, all living things were thought to have souls that allowed them to be self-moving. Afterward, the bodies of living things were considered by many scientists as complicated mechanical devices that moved only in response to external stimuli.
  • Before the scientific revolution, people naturally thought that the speed of an object was proportional to the force acting on it. Afterward, they understood that it was the acceleration of an object that was proportional to the force.

A second consequence of the scientific revolution was a dramatic transformation in the material conditions of the lives of nearly every person in the Western world. When Butterfield wrote about it in 1949, scholars generally held the opinion that scientific knowledge did not lead to significant changes in medical care, agriculture, and industrial productivity until well into the nineteenth century. But this view has been radically revised . . . . It now seems clear that scientific attitudes, practices, and knowledge greatly stimulated agricultural and commercial growth as early as the seventeenth century. They certainly fueled the Industrial revolution of the late eighteenth century, and that revolution provided the foundation for the unprecedented wealth of modern Western Europe and North America.

Finally, the scientific revolution was immensely important in transforming Western views of the character of society and the human individual. Methods of observation, analysis, and quantification developed in connection with natural knowledge were almost immediately an consciously transferred to the domains of society and individual human behavior. Thus in 1644, Hobbes produced a major transformation in political philosophy, claiming that he was doing for “civil philosophy” nothing but what Galileo had done for natural philosophy and Harvey had done for the science of man’s body. Drawing heavily on rational mechanical philosophy, Hobbes initiated a tradition of liberal, individualistic, secular, and sociopolitical theory that has dominated Anglo-American ideology ever since.

A few decades later, John Locke began to apply the conceptual apparatus developed in connection with experimental mechanical philosophy to issues in what we now call psychology and moral philosophy as well. William Petty and his British and French followers drew form mechanical and mathematical concepts in creating “political arithmetic” – the foundation of modern economics – and grounded it in the assumption that each of us acts in such a way as to maximize our rationally calculated self-interest. And [seventeenth-century English political theorist] James Harrington responded to Hobbes’ political theory by initiating social analyses that began to identify political authority with economic power.

Natural Law, Religion, and Rights: An Exploration of the Relationship Between Natural Law and Natural Rights, With Special Emphasis on the Teachings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke

While these ideas, for better or worse, continue to underpin much of the Western view of self and society, our twentieth century . . . brought extraordinary revisions to established scientific concepts about nature, challenging the foundations of mechanical philosophies. From the work of such scientists as Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Louis de Broglie, and Erwin Schrodinger emerged radical views: that energy does not flow like a continuous wave but takes the form of discrete units (quanta), that waves can behave like particles, and that particles can have the properties of waves. From Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, came the realization that matter and energy are interconvertible, and his General Theory of Relativity explained the phenomenon of gravity as a manifestation of the curvature of space. These concepts run contrary to the notions consolidated at the time of the scientific revolution, but acceptance of the new theories is grounded in the argument that they provide the best known explanations for experimental observations. Thus, the formula of establishing theory based on careful experimentation, which was so central to the scientific revolution, continues to guide scientific research in the modern world.

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