The noted blogger Fjordman is filing this report via Gates of Vienna.
For a complete Fjordman blogography, see The Fjordman Files. There is also a multi-index listing here.
This essay was originally published in three parts (in a slightly different form) at Jihad Watch. See part 1, part 2, and part 3.
I have written a couple of essays regarding the Greek impact on the rise of modern science, and why the Scientific Revolution didn’t happen in the Islamic world. I find this to be an interesting topic, especially since there are so many myths regarding this perpetrated by Muslims and their apologists today, so I will explore the subject in some detail.
I mentioned the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in one of my previous essays. It has been claimed by one researcher that an Arab alchemist in the ninth century managed to decode some of the hieroglyphs. Even if this should be true, his research didn’t leave any lasting impact and wasn’t followed up by others, which is in itself significant. The proven track record is that Arab Muslims had controlled Egypt for more than a thousand years, yet never managed to decipher the hieroglyphs nor for the most part displayed much interest in doing so. The trilingual Rosetta Stone was employed by the French philologist Jean-François Champollion to decipher the hieroglyphs in 1822. He chose an intuitive (though ultimately correct) approach by employing the Coptic language, the liturgical language of the Egyptian Christians (which was a direct descendant of that of the ancient Pharaohs, as opposed to the language of the Arab invaders) rather than the more mathematical approach of his English rival Thomas Young.
For the sake of historical accuracy, it should be mentioned that when hieroglyphs were finally put out of use, thus ending one of the oldest continuous cultural traditions on the planet, dating back at least to the Narmer Palette celebrating the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt in the 32nd century B.C., this was also done by Christians. The process was begun in the fourth century AD, before the partition of the Roman Empire, and was completed by the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Justinian who abolished the worship of Isis on the island of Philae in the sixth century. As the Egyptian religion was shut down, so the writing system associated with it was forgotten. The remnants of Plato’s Academy were also closed in the name of Christian (Nicaean) unity.
Justinian is otherwise remembered for constructing the Hagia Sophia, the grandest cathedral in Christendom for almost a thousand years, and for his ultimately unsuccessful attempts at restoring the unity of the Roman Empire by reconquering the Western lands. This stretched the resources of the Empire, and along with a plague pandemic, drained its strength. The long wars between the Byzantines and the Sassanid (Persian) Empire weakened both states and were one of the reasons why the Arabs could make their Islamic conquests in the seventh century.
Logically speaking, the Middle East should be perfectly situated to combine the knowledge of all major centers of civilization in the Old World, from the Mediterranean and the Greco-Roman world via the Persian and other pre-Islamic cultures in the Middle East to India and the civilizations of the Far East. As I will demonstrate, the Muslim thinkers and scientists whose names are worth mentioning did just that.
According to scholar F. R. Rosenthal: “Islamic rational scholarship, which we have mainly in mind when we speak of the greatness of Muslim civilisation, depends in its entirety on classical antiquity…in Islam as in every civilisation, what is really important is not the individual elements but the synthesis that combines them into a living organism of its own…Islamic civilisation as we know it would simply not have existed without the Greek heritage.”
Greek thought was certainly an important inspiration for virtually all Muslim thinkers, but it wasn’t the only one. Alkindus (Al-Kindi), the Arab mathematician who lived in Baghdad in the ninth century and was close to several Abbasid Caliphs, was one of the first to attempt reconciling Islam with Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle, a project that was to last for several centuries and prove ultimately unsuccessful. His other lasting impact was his writings about Indian arithmetic and numerals. Alkindus was one of a handful of people primarily responsible for spreading the knowledge and use of Indian numerals in the Middle East.
India has a long-standing mathematical tradition and the Hindu numerical system is one of its most important contributions to world culture. It was slowly introduced in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, gained momentum after the Italian mathematician Fibonacci in 1202 published his book Liber Abaci and reached wide acceptance during the Renaissance. Europeans learned about Indian numerals via Arabs, which is why they were mistakenly called Arabic numerals in the West. They were superior to Roman numerals in several ways, the revolutionary concept of zero being one of them. There is no doubt that this numerical system reached the West via the Islamic world, but we should remember that since the Middle East is situated between India and Europe, any ideas from India by necessity had to pass through that region to reach Europe. I’m not sure how much credit we should give Islam for this geographical accident.
Al-Razi was a talented Persian physician and chemist who lived in the ninth and early tenth century. He combined Greek, Indian and Persian traditions, and relied on clinical observance of patients in the Hippocratic tradition. He also commented, and criticized, the works of philosophers such as Aristotle. Some of his writings were translated into Latin. As Ibn Warraq writes in his book Why I Am Not a Muslim, “Perhaps the greatest freethinker in the whole of Islam was al-Razi, the Rhazes of Medieval Europe (or Razis of Chaucer), where his prestige and authority remained unchallenged until the seventeenth century. Meyerhof also calls him the ‘greatest physician of the Islamic world and one of the great physicians of all time.’” He was also highly critical of Islamic doctrines, and considered the Koran to be an assorted mixture of “absurd and inconsistent fables.” Moreover, “His heretical writings, significantly, have not survived and were not widely read; nonetheless, they are witness to a remarkably tolerant culture and society — a tolerance lacking in other periods and places.”
Avicenna (Ibn Sina) was a Persian physician who continued the course set by al-Razi of mixing Greek, Indian, East Asian and Middle Eastern medical learning. His book The Canon of Medicine from the early eleventh century was a standard medical text for centuries. A striking number of the Muslims who did leave some imprint upon the history of science were Persians, who could tap into their proud pre-Islamic heritage. Historian Ibn Khaldun admitted that “It is strange that most of the learned among the Muslims who have excelled in the religious or intellectual sciences are non-Arabs with rare exceptions.”It is also interesting to notice that virtually all freethinkers and rationalists within the Islamic world, such as Avicenna or Farabi, were at odds with Islamic orthodoxy and were frequently harassed for this. Whatever discoveries they made were more in spite of Islam than because of Islam, and in the end, Islam won. As Ibn Warraq notes, “orthodox Islam emerged victorious from the encounter with Greek philosophy. Islam rejected the idea that one could attain truth with unaided human reason and settled for the unreflective comforts of the putatively superior truth of divine revelation. Wherever one decides to place the date of this victory of orthodox Islam (perhaps in the ninth century with the conversion of al-Ashari, or in the eleventh century with the works of al-Ghazali), it has been, I believe, an unmitigated disaster for all Muslims, indeed all mankind.”
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Averroes (Ibn Rushd) was born in Córdoba, Spain (Andalusia) in the twelfth century. He held comparatively progressive views on women, was in some ways a freethinker and faced trouble for this, yet he was also a jurist in the Maliki school of sharia law and served as a qadi, Islamic judge, in Seville. He supported the traditional view, held by leading scholars even into the twenty-first century, of the death penalty for persons leaving Islam: “An apostate…is to be executed by agreement in the case of a man, because of the words of the Prophet, ‘Slay those who change their din [religion]’…Asking the apostate to repent was stipulated as a condition…prior to his execution.”
Still, Averroes is chiefly remembered for his attempts at combining Aristotelian philosophy and Islam. According to Ibn Warraq, he had a profound influence on the Latin scientists of the thirteenth century, yet “had no influence at all on the development of Islamic philosophy. After his death, he was practically forgotten in the Islamic world.” Philosophy in general went into permanent decline. One of the reasons for this was the influential al-Ghazali, by many considered the most important Muslim after Muhammad himself, who argued that much of Greek philosophy was logically incoherent and an affront to Islam. Averroes’ attempts at refuting al-Ghazali were ignored and forgotten.
The leading Jewish thinker of this era was the rabbi and physician Moses Maimonides. He was born in 1135 in Córdoba in Islamic-occupied Spain, but had to flee through North Africa when the devout Berber Almohades invaded from Morocco and attacked Christians and Jews in a classical Jihad fashion. Maimonides eagerly read Greek philosophy, some of which was available in Arabic. He also, for the most part, wrote in Arabic. His attempts at reconciling Aristotelian philosophy with the Torah influenced the great Christian thinker Saint Thomas Aquinas, who made similar efforts at reconciling Greek thought with biblical Scripture a few generations later.
One of the most persistent myths so eagerly promoted by Eurabians is that of the “shared Greco-Roman heritage” between Europeans and Arabs, which is now going to lay the foundations for a new Euro-Mediterranean entity, Eurabia. It is true that countries such as Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Algeria were just as much a part of the Roman Empire as were England or France. However, the Arab conquerors later rejected many elements of this Greco-Roman era once they invaded these nations. Some Greek and other classics were indeed translated to Arabic, but Muslims could be highly particular about which texts to exclude. There was thus a great deal of Greek thought that could never have been “transferred” to Europeans by Arabs, as is frequently claimed by Western Multiculturalists, because many Greek works had never been translated into Arabic in the first place. Muslims especially turned down political texts, since these included descriptions of systems in which men ruled themselves according to their own laws. This was considered blasphemous by Muslims, as laws are made by Allah and rule belongs to his representatives.
As British philosopher Roger Scruton has explained, one of the most important legacies of the Roman Empire was the idea of secular laws, which were unconcerned with a person’s religious affiliations as long as he accepted the political authority of the Roman state. This left a major impact on Christian Europe, but was neglected in the Middle East because it clashed fundamentally with the basic principles of sharia, the laws of Allah. Scruton calls this “the greatest of all Roman achievements, which was the universal system of law as a means for the resolution of conflicts.” The Roman law was secular and “could change in response to changing circumstances. That conception of law is perhaps the most important force in the emergence of European forms of sovereignty.”
Iranian intellectual Amir Taheri states that “To understand a civilisation it is important to understand its vocabulary. If it was not on their tongues it is likely that it was not on their minds either. There was no word in any of the Muslim languages for democracy until the 1890s. Even then the Greek word democracy entered Muslim languages with little change: democrasi in Persian, dimokraytiyah in Arabic, demokratio in Turkish. (…) It is no accident that early Muslims translated numerous ancient Greek texts but never those related to political matters. The great Avicenna himself translated Aristotle’s Poetics. But there was no translation of Aristotle’s Politics in Persian until 1963.”
According to scholar John Dunn, the word demokratia entered modern Western discourse in the 1260s in the Latin translation by the Dominican Friar William of Moerbeke of Aristotle’s Politics, “the most systematic analysis of politics as a practical activity which survived from the ancient world.”
William of Moerbeke was a Flemish scholar and prolific translator who probably did more than any other individual for the transmission of Greek thought to the West. His translation of virtually all of the works of Aristotle and many by Archimedes, Hero of Alexandria and others paved the way for the Renaissance. He was fluent in Greek, and was for a time Catholic bishop of Corinth in Greece. He made highly accurate translations directly from the Greek originals, and even improved earlier, flawed translations of some works. His Latin translation of Aristotle’s Politics, one of the important works that were not available in Arabic, was completed around 1260, and helped expand the political vocabulary in the West. His friend Thomas Aquinas used this translation as the basis for his groundbreaking work The Summa Theologica. Aquinas did refer to Maimonides as well as to Averroes and Avicenna and was familiar with their writing, but he was rather critical of Averroes and refuted some of his use of Aristotle.
Like Aquinas, William of Moerbeke was a friar of the Dominican order and had personal contacts at the top levels of the Vatican. Several texts, among them some of Archimedes, would have been lost without the efforts of Moerbeke and a few others, and he clearly did his work on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, one of the reasons why he did this was because the translations that were available in Arabic were incomplete and sometimes of poor quality. The Arabic translations, although they did serve as an early reintroduction for some Western Europeans to Greek thought, didn’t “save” Greek knowledge as it had never been lost. It had been preserved in an unbroken line since Classical times by Greek, Byzantine Christians, who still considered themselves Romans, and it could be recovered there. There was extensive contact between Eastern and Western Christians at this time; sometimes amiable, sometimes less so and occasionally downright hostile, but contact nonetheless. The permanent recovery of Greek and Classical learning was undertaken as a direct transmission from Greek, Orthodox Christians to Western, Latin Christians. There were no Muslim middlemen involved.
As a result, by the late 1200s, Saint Thomas Aquinas and early Renaissance figures such as the poet Dante and the humanist Petrarch had at their disposal a much more complete and accurate body of Greek thought than any of the renowned Muslim philosophers ever did. What’s more, many of the translations that did exist in Arabic had been undertaken by Christians in the first place, not by Muslims.
At the American Thinker, Dr. Jonathan David Carson dispels some of the hype regarding Islam’s role in the history of science. In his view, “The ‘Islamic scholars’ who translated ‘ancient Greece’s natural philosophy’ were a curious group of Muslims, since all or almost all of the translators from Greek to Arabic were Christians or Jews.” Moreover, most Greek texts “did not make the long journey from Greek to Syriac or Hebrew to Arabic to Latin, and Western Europeans preferred [surprise!] translations of Aristotle directly from the Greek, which were not only superior but also more readily available.”
In A History of Philosophy, Frederick Copleston says that “it is a mistake to imagine that the Latin scholastics were entirely dependent upon translations from Arabic or even that translation from the Arabic always preceded translation from the Greek.” Indeed, “translation from the Greek generally preceded translation from the Arabic.” This view is confirmed by Peter Dronke in A History of Twelfth—Century Western Philosophy: “most of the works of Aristotle, however, were translated directly from the Greek, and only exceptionally by way of an Arabic intermediary…translations from the Arabic must be given their full importance, but not more.”
As Carson sees it, “the great rescue of Greek philosophy by translation into Arabic turns out to mean no rescue of Plato and the transmission of Latin translations of Arabic translations of Greek texts of Aristotle, either directly or more often via Syriac or Hebrew, to a Christendom that already had the Greek texts and had already translated most of them into Latin.”
Moreover, the intellectual curiosity was entirely one-sided. J.M. Roberts put it this way: “Why, until very recently, did Islamic scholars show no wish to translate Latin or western European texts into Arabic? (…) It is clear that an explanation of European inquisitiveness and adventurousness must lie deeper than economics, important though they may have been.”
Much has been made of Spain’s glorious Islamic past, yet more books are translated in Spain now in a single year than have been translated into Arabic over the past 1,000 years. As I have shown, what existed of advances in sciences in the early centuries of Islamic rule owed its existence almost entirely to the infusion of pre-Islamic thought, and even at the best of times the translations from non-Muslim ideas and books could be quite selective. Later, even the limited debate of Greek philosophy was curtailed. Muslims were assured of their God-given superiority and did not bother to look into ideas from worthless infidel cultures.
Toby E. Huff, author of the book The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West, takes a look at the development of science. A landmark in Western science was Nicholas Copernicus’ The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres from 1543. The same years also saw another milestone in the rise of modern science: Vesalius’ On the Fabric of the Human Body, which created the foundations for modern medicine by representing an empirical agenda, the first-hand examination of the body through human dissection (autopsy).
According to Huff, “Vesalius claimed to have corrected over 200 errors in Galen’s account of human anatomy,” and his “illustrations are far superior to anything to be found in the Arabic/Islamic tradition (where pictorial representation of the human body was particularly suspect) or, for that matter, in the Chinese and (I presume) Indian traditions.” In astronomy, “Kepler went far beyond Ptolemy’s methods, and discovered entirely new principles for the precise description of the motions of bodies in the heavens,” thus proving the elliptical (and hence not perfectly circular) orbit of Mars.
In the eyes of Toby E. Huff, “the twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed a social, intellectual and legal revolution that laid the intellectual and institutional foundations upon which modern science was later constructed. At the heart of this development was the jurisprudential idea of a corporation, a collection of individuals who were recognized as a singular ‘whole body’ and granted legitimate legal autonomy. Such entities were given the right to sue and be sued, to buy and sell property, to make rules and laws regulating their activities, to adjudicate those laws and to operate according to the principle of election by consent as well as the Roman legal aphorism, what affects everyone should be considered and approved by everyone. Among the entities granted status as legitimate corporations were cities and towns, charitable organizations, professional guilds (especially of physicians) and, of course, universities. Nothing comparable to this kind of legal autonomy emerged in China or under Islam. In short, the European medievals created autonomous, self-governing institutions of higher learning and then imported into them a methodologically powerful and metaphysically rich cosmology that directly challenged and contradicted many aspects of the traditional Christian world-view.”
This was also a time period noted for the growth of early modern capitalism, but Huff rejects any simplistic connection between money and science. Christian Europe exhibited an intellectual curiosity, a desire to uncover truth, that could not be reduced simply to a matter of economic interests: “There was indeed a ‘commercial revolution’ sweeping Europe from about the twelfth century, but that hardly explains the great interest in Aristotle in the universities of that period or the decision by medical practitioners to undertake dissections and to incorporate medical education into the university curriculum. Similarly, there was another rise in commercial activities in the sixteenth century, but this hardly explains either the motivation of the clerical Copernicus, or of Galileo, Kepler, or Tycho Brahe in developing a new astronomy against the interests of the Church.”
One of the most groundbreaking innovations in Europe during the High Middle Ages was the creation of an ongoing, university-centered debate. This made all the difference, since, as Huff points out, “it is one thing if an activity is pursued randomly by various actors; it is something else altogether if that activity is carried on collectively as a result of a regularized process.” While Islamic madrasas excluded all of the natural works of Aristotle, as well as logic and natural theology, European scholars benefited from “a surprising degree of freedom of inquiry” which “did not exist in the Arab/Muslim world then and does not exist now.”
Centers of learning have existed in civilizations throughout recorded history, yet most of them did not possess all of the qualities generally associated with a university today. It is possible that the Chinese, the Koreans, the Japanese, the Indians and others had institutions that could be called universities already at this early age; I don’t know Asian history intimately enough to judge that. But the Islamic world definitely did not.
The German-Syrian reformist Bassam Tibi points out that the Muslim thinkers who developed Greek rationalism are today despised in their own civilization. As he writes in his book Islam Between Culture and Politics , “rational sciences were – in medieval Islam – considered to be ‘foreign sciences’ and at times heretical. At present, Islamic fundamentalists do not seem to know that rational sciences in Islam were based on what was termed ulum al-qudama (the sciences of the Ancients), that it, the Greeks.”
Science was viewed as Islamic science, the study of the Koran, the hadith, Arab history etc. The Islamic madrasa was not concerned with a process of reason-based investigation or unrestrained enquiry but with a learning process in the sacral sense. Tibi believes it is thus incorrect to call institutions such as Al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt, the highest institution of learning in Sunni Islam, a university: “Some Islamic historians wrongly translate the term madrasa as university. This is plainly incorrect: If we understand a university as universitas litterarum , or consider, without the bias of Eurocentrism, the cast of the universitas magistrorum of the thirteenth century in Paris, we are bound to recognise that the university as a seat for free and unrestrained enquiry based on reason, is a European innovation in the history of mankind.”
It is noteworthy that the first medieval European universities were sometimes developed out of monasteries or religious schools. However, here the Greek knowledge was adopted in a far more unfettered manner than it was in the Middle East. The earliest European universities, such as the University of Bologna in Italy and Oxford in England, were created in the eleventh century. More were established during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, for instance the University of Paris (Sorbonne), the University of Cambridge, the University of Salamanca in Spain and the University of Coimbra in Portugal.
According to Bassam Tibi, the situation has changed less than one might think: “In Muslim societies, where higher institutions of learning have a deeply rooted procedure of rote-learning, the content of positive sciences adopted from Europe is treated in a similar fashion. Verses of the Koran are learned by heart because they are infallible and not to be enquired into. Immanuel Kant’s Critiques or David Hume’s Enquiry, now available in Arabic translation, are learned by heart in a similar manner and not conceived of in terms of their nature as problem-oriented enquiries.” As a result, “In contrast to the European and the US-model, students educated in a traditional Islamic institution of learning neither have a Bildung (general education) nor an Ausbildung (training).”
This is a problem members of this culture bring with them abroad if they move. In Denmark, Århus city council member Ali Nuur complained that one of the challenges certain immigrant groups face in the education system is that they are unfamiliar with tests rooted in a rational, critical and analytical way of thinking. Guess who?
Another issue is the lack of individual liberty. I still haven’t read Atlas Shrugged, a novel I know many Americans hold in high regard, and I have mixed feelings about Ayn Rand’s philosophies. However, one thing I do agree with her about is that “Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.” A Danish man who lived in Iran before the Revolution in 1979 noticed that if he suggested to his Muslim friends that he would like to enjoy some privacy for while, they thought he was crazy. The very notion of “privacy” was alien to them because it implies that you are an autonomous individual with needs of your own. A Muslim is simply an organic part of the Umma, the Islamic community. This lack of individualism and individual liberty is one of the main reasons why Muslims lost out to other cultures.
On the other hand, I believe the West has in recent decades gone too far in making individualism the sole basis of our culture. When a nation is reduced to nothing more than an atomized collection of individuals, with no ties to the past and no obligations to future generations, mounting a defense of a lasting society becomes difficult, if not impossible.According to scholar Lynda Shaffer, “Francis Bacon (1561-1626), an early advocate of the empirical method, upon which the scientific revolution was based, attributed Western Europe’s early modern take-off to three things in particular: printing, the compass, and gunpowder. Bacon had no idea where these things had come from, but historians now know that all three were invented in China. Since, unlike Europe, China did not take off onto a path leading from the scientific to the Industrial Revolution, some historians are now asking why these inventions were so revolutionary in Western Europe and, apparently, so unrevolutionary in China.”
The Song dynasty, from the tenth to the thirteenth century, was arguably the most dynamic period in Chinese history. Although printing “was invented by Buddhist monks in China, and at first benefited Buddhism, by the middle of the tenth century printers were turning out innumerable copies of the classical Confucian corpus.”
According to Shaffer, “The origin of the civil service examination system in China can be traced back to the Han dynasty, but in the Song dynasty government-administered examinations became the most important route to political power in China. For almost a thousand years (except the early period of Mongol rule), China was governed by men who had come to power simply because they had done exceedingly well in examinations on the Neo-Confucian canon. At any one time thousands of students were studying for the exams, and thousands of inexpensive books were required. Without printing, such a system would not have been possible.”
As she explains, “China developed the world’s largest and most technologically sophisticated merchant marine and navy.” The Chinese “could have made the arduous journey around the tip of Africa and sail into Portuguese ports; however, they had no reason to do so. Although the Western European economy was prospering, it offered nothing that China could not acquire much closer to home at much less cost.”
In contrast, the Portuguese, the Spanish and other Europeans were trying to reach the Spice Islands, what is now Indonesia. “It was this spice market that lured Columbus westward from Spain and drew Vasco da Gama around Africa and across the Indian Ocean.” In Shaffer’s view, technologies such as gunpowder and the compass had a different impact in China than they had in Europe, and it is “unfair to ask why the Chinese did not accidentally bump into the Western Hemisphere while sailing east across the Pacific to find the wool markets of Spain.”
Yes, Asia was the most prosperous region on the planet at this time. Europeans embarked on their Age of Exploration of the seas precisely out of a desire to reach the wealthy Asian lands (and bypass Muslim middlemen), which is why Christopher Columbus and his men mistakenly believed they had arrived in India when they reached the Americas. Asians did not possess a similar desire to reach Europe. But this still doesn’t explain why the Chinese didn’t embark on the final and most crucial stage of the Industrial Revolution in the West: Harnessing the force of steam and the use of fossil fuels to build stronger, more efficient machinery, faster ships and eventually railways, cars and airplanes.
Printing and literacy greatly expanded during Song times; the world’s first printed paper money (bank notes) was introduced and a system of canals and roads was built, all facilitating an unprecedented population growth. Iron smelting and the use of coal multiplied several times over as China reached a stage sometimes called “proto-industrial.” And yet China produced no Thomas Savery, Thomas Newcomen or James Watt to develop successful steam engines, nor a George Stephenson to build railway lines or a Karl Benz to make the first gasoline-powered automobile. Although experiments with flying had been undertaken in many nations around the world, the airplane was made possible only with the invention of modern engines, which is why China didn’t produce the Wright brothers.
For thousands of years, human beings were limited by their ability to harness muscle power, of men and animals. This was later supplemented with windmills, watermills and similar inventions, which could be important, but in a limited fashion. The harnessing of steam power for engines and machinery was a revolution which provided the basis for enormous improvements in output and efficiency. For some reason, China never did take this final step, and although the country remained prosperous for centuries, later dynasties never quite matched the dynamism under Song times. Emphasis was on cultural continuity, and China experienced no great cultural flowing or event similar to the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment in Europe. China was in its own eyes the Middle Kingdom. It did face military threats from barbarians at its frontiers, but it had no immediate neighbors to rival its size and thus had less incentive for improvement. The result was relative (though not necessarily absolute) scientific stagnation. China could afford to grow self-satisfied, and she did. In contrast, Europeans, divided into numerous smaller states in a constant state of rivalry instead of one, large unified state, had stronger incentives for innovation.
The Mongol invasion, which ended the Song dynasty, is sometimes blamed for this loss of impetus. After the conquest of Beijing in 1215 the city burnt for months and the soil was greasy with human fat. According to Genghis Khan, “The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.” He believed in practicing what you preach. DNA studies indicate that he may have as many as 16 million descendants living today.
The Mongols were notorious for their brutality, but they had a particular dislike for Muslims. Hulagu Khan led the Mongol forces as they completely destroyed Baghdad in 1258, thus ending what remained of the Abbasid Caliphate. The Christian community was largely spared, allegedly thanks to the intercession of Hulagu’s Nestorian Christian wife.
The irony is that many Mongols soon adopted Islam as their preferred creed. Maybe the warlike nature of this religion appealed to them. It is possible to make a comparison between Muhammad and Genghis Khan. Temüjin, who gained the title Khan when he founded the Mongol Empire in 1206, did believe he had received a divine mandate to conquer the world, and he created an impressive military force out of nothing by uniting scattered tribes and directing their aggressive energies outwards. He created a Mongolian nation where no nation had existed before, similar to what Muhammad had done with the Arabs. The difference is that the Mongols didn’t establish a religion of their own throughout their empire which outlasted their rule. We should probably be grateful for that, otherwise the Organization of the Mongolian Conference would be the largest voting bloc at the United Nations today, our schools would teach us about the glories of Mongol science and tolerance and our media would constantly warn us against the dangers of Genghisophobia.
In Europe, the Mongol conquests had the most lasting impact in the Ukraine and Russia. The city of Kiev was devastated while a new Russian state slowly grew out of Moscow. Ivan the Great in the 1400s expanded the Russian state and defeated the Tatar yoke, as the now Islamized Turko-Mongols of the Golden Horde were called. The Mongols invaded Eastern Europe and in the course of a few years attacked Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Serbia. They had reached as far as Vienna in 1241 when the Great Khan suddenly died and the commanders had to return to elect a new leader.
The Black Death, the great Eurasian plague pandemic, swept from Central Asia along the Silk Road through the Mongol Empire, reaching the Mediterranean and the Middle East in the 1340s. The disease, which killed at least a third of the population and more than 70% in some regions, probably reached Europe after the Golden Horde used biological warfare during a siege of the Black Sea port of Caffa, catapulting plague-infested corpses into the city. It was then carried to the European continent with fleeing Genoese traders. The Mongols thus didn’t invade Western Europe, but at least they gave us the plague.
Many historians place great macrohistorical importance on the Mongol conquest. It certainly had a disruptive impact, and the trail of devastation it left behind severely depopulated regions from China and Korea via Iran and Iraq to Eastern Europe. It ended the dynamic Song dynasty, yet even before the Mongol conquest, there were few indications that a development towards modern machinery was about to take place in China. Japan, which has always learned a lot from China, escaped unscathed. A series of typhoons, dubbed kamikaze or “divine wind” by the Japanese, saved the country from the Mongol fleets in 1274 and 1281, but they, too, didn’t develop a fully fledged industry until they adopted a Western model during the Meiji Restoration in the late nineteenth century.
Moreover, even if Western Europe escaped the Mongols, we should remember that Europeans had recently experienced centuries of political disintegration and population decline, longer than in any period in Chinese history for several thousand years. Europe also had to face a much more prolonged assault by Islam. Belgian scholar Henri Pirenne in his work Mohammed and Charlemagne asserted that the definitive break between the Classical world and the Middle Ages in the West was not the downfall of the Western Roman Empire following the partition in 395, but the Islamic conquests in the seventh century.In Pirenne’s view, although the Germanic tribes caused imperial authority to collapse in the fifth century, Western Europe was not totally cut off from the Eastern Roman Empire. The Mediterranean, Mare Nostrum or “Our Sea” as the Romans called it, still remained a Christian lake. This changed decisively during the seventh century when North Africa came under Islamic rule, as did the Iberian Peninsula. Although the Arab conquest was halted by the forces of Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in France in 732, arguably the most important battle in Western history, Islamic attacks continued for centuries since Jihad is a permanent obligation and should be carried out on regular intervals. Jihad piracy, slave trade and looting across the Mediterranean accompanied by inland raids, occasionally as far north as the Alps in Switzerland, made normal communication between the Christian West and the Christian East extremely difficult. In fact, Jihad piracy and slavery from North Africa remained a serious threat to Europeans for more than a thousand years, even into the nineteenth century. As historian Ibn Khaldun, a devout Muslim and therefore anti-Christian, proclaimed: “The Christian could no longer float a plank upon the sea.”
This was certainly true in the West, though the Byzantines still held their ground in the Aegean Sea. The Eastern Roman Empire was attacked by Arab Muslims in the 630s and quickly lost Syria, Palestine and Egypt, but managed to survive. Only a few years earlier the official language had been changed from Latin to Greek. It is custom to call the remaining, smaller and Hellenized Roman state the Byzantine Empire.
The Carolingian Empire, named after Charles Martel (Carolus in Latin), was the “scaffold of the Middle Ages.” Although it didn’t survive for long, the structures put in place by Charles Martel and his grandson Charlemagne were to shape Western Europe for centuries. While civilization in Europe had always been centered on the Mediterranean, the center of power in the West was now north of the Alps. The Carolingian capital was established in Aachen in present-day Germany, as Muslims made access to the sea difficult. Charlemagne held his imperial coronation by Pope Leo III in Saint Peter’s Basilica in the year 800, yet already in the year 846 Muslims sacked Rome and stole every piece of gold and silver in Saint Peter’s. Arabs also occupied Sicily for several centuries, and attacked Naples, Capua, Calabria and Sardinia repeatedly.
As Pirenne says, “the coast from the Gulf of Lyons and the Riviera to the mouth of the Tiber, ravaged by war and the pirates, whom the Christians, having no fleet, were powerless to resist, was now merely a solitude and a prey to piracy. The ports and the cities were deserted. The link with the Orient was severed, and there was no communication with the Saracen [Muslim] coasts. There was nothing but death. The Carolingian Empire presented the most striking contrast with the Byzantine. It was purely an inland power, for it had no outlets. The Mediterranean territories, formerly the most active portions of the Empire, which supported the life of the whole, were now the poorest, the most desolate, the most constantly menaced. For the first time in history the axis of Occidental civilization was displaced towards the North, and for many centuries it remained between the Seine and the Rhine. And the Germanic peoples, which had hitherto played only the negative part of destroyers, were now called upon to play a positive part in the reconstruction of European civilization.”
Pirenne’s thesis has been debated for generations, and new archaeological evidence has been uncovered since it was published in the 1930s. I personally think he underestimated the extent to which civilization collapsed in the West after the Germanic raids, but he is right that the Mediterranean was still open for communication, and that this changed dramatically after the Arab conquest. Though contacts between the Byzantines and Western Europe were limited during this time period, we should remember that they were never zero. Findings from Viking graves indicate that there was trade between the Baltic Sea and Constantinople even at this point, but trade was certainly diminished compared to what it had been previously.
The reason why the Christian West for centuries didn’t have easy access to the Classical learning of the Christian East was because Muslims and Jihad had made the Mediterranean unsafe. It has to be the height of absurdity to block access to something and then take credit for transmitting it, yet that is precisely what Arabs do. As stronger states slowly grew up in the West, regular contact with their Eastern cousins was gradually re-established, starting with the Italian city-states. And as soon as direct contact was established, Western Europeans gained access to the original Greco-Roman manuscripts preserved in Constantinople. They didn’t need to rely on limited translations in Arabic, which were anyway made from the same Byzantine manuscripts in the first place, and frequently by Christians. Moreover, Muslims have spent more than one thousand years systematically wiping out Greek culture in the Mediterranean region, a process which continues at Cyprus even into the twenty-first century, which makes it patently ridiculous when they now brag about how much we owe them for their efforts at “preserving the Greek heritage.” The efforts of Arabs are, in my view, as overrated as those by the Byzantine Empire are underrated.
John Argyropoulos, who was born in 1415 in Constantinople and died in 1487 in Italy, was a Byzantine expert on Greek history who played an important role in the revival of Classical learning in the West. He lectured at the universities of Florence and Rome. Among his students was Lorenzo the Magnificent from the influential Medici family, who sponsored Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and others. Sandro Botticelli was working under the patronage of the Medicis when he in the 1480s painted The Birth of Venus. Pagan motifs inspired by the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome were widely popular at this time. Apparently, Leonardo da Vinci, too, attended the lectures of Argyropoulos. The universal genius was passionately interested in Classical learning, perhaps especially in science and mechanical engineering, a field in which he created numerous inventions. He was certainly familiar with the Ten Books on Architecture by the Roman engineer Vitruvius, the only major work on architecture and technology to survive from the Greco-Roman world, which was also a vital inspiration for Renaissance architects Brunelleschi and Alberti. Leonardo’s famous drawing the Vitruvian Man was inspired by Vitruvius’ writings about architecture and its relations to the proportions of the human body.
In the words of Deno Geanakoplos, Professor of Byzantine History, “We know that until the ninth century the patron saint of Venice was not Mark but the Greek Theodore, and that in the eleventh century Byzantine workmen were summoned by the Doge in order to embellish, perhaps entirely to construct, the church of St. Mark. Venetian-Byzantine contacts became more frequent in the twelfth century as a result of the growth of the large Venetian commercial colony in Constantinople.” These contacts continued to grow during the High Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, and “In the half century or so before Constantinople’s fall in 1453, a gradually increasing number of refugees from the East poured into the West. Venice, as lord of important territories in the Greek East, especially the island of Crete, and as the chief port of debarkation in Italy, received the major part of these refugees. This stream quickened rapidly after 1453.”
He stresses that it is a mistake to believe that all Greek texts were transported out after the fall of Constantinople. Most of the refugees fleeing the Turkish Jihad could carry few possessions with them. The process of transferring Classical knowledge to the West took generations, even centuries, but was now greatly aided by the introduction of the printing press. There were experiments with printing going on several places in Europe, including in Holland and in Avignon, France at the time, yet Johannes Gutenberg has been credited with making the first movable type printing press around the year 1450 in Mainz, Germany.
It was a major stroke of historical luck – a religious person would probably say divine providence — that printing was reinvented in Europe at exactly the same time as the last vestige of the ancient Roman Empire fell to Muslims. The texts that had been preserved by the Byzantines for a thousand years after Rome collapsed could now be rescued forever instead of quietly disappearing. This ensured that the Renaissance marked a permanent infusion of Greco-Roman knowledge into Western thought, not just a temporary one.
As historian Elizabeth L. Eisenstein says in her celebrated book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: “The classical editions, dictionaries, grammar and reference guides issued from print shops made it possible to achieve an unprecedented mastery of Alexandrian learning even while laying the basis for a new kind of permanent Greek revival in the West. (…) We now tend to take for granted that the study of Greek would continue to flourish after the main Greek manuscript centers had fallen into alien hands and hence fail to appreciate how remarkable it was to find that Homer and Plato had not been buried anew but had, on the contrary, been disinterred forever more. Surely Ottoman advances would have been catastrophic before the advent of printing. Texts and scholars scattered in nearby regions might have prolonged the study of Greek but only in a temporary way.”
According to Deno Geanakoplos, in the late fifteenth century “only one city in Italy, Venice, could fulfil all the complex requirements of a Greek press. Venice possessed a class sufficiently wealthy to buy, and the leisure to read, the printed classics. Venice was less subject to papal pressures than other Italian cities. Important too in [printer] Aldus’ thinking must have been Venetian possession of the precious collection of Greek manuscripts bequeathed by Bessarion — manuscripts which could serve as paradigms for his books. And hardly less significant for him must have been the presence in Venice of a large, thriving Greek community. (…) By the time of Aldus’ death in 1515, his press had given to the world practically all the major Greek authors of classical antiquity.”
Historian Bernard Lewis writes in his book What Went Wrong?: “In the vast bibliography of works translated in the Middle Ages from Greek into Arabic, we find no poets, no dramatists, not even historians. These were not useful and they were of no interest; they did not figure in the translation programs. This was clearly a cultural rejection: you take what is useful from the infidel; but you don’t need to look at his absurd ideas or to try and understand his inferior literature, or to study his meaningless history.”
Muslims who wanted translations of Greek or other non-Islamic works were primarily concerned with topics of medicine, astronomy, mathematics and philosophy. They usually ignored playwrights and dramatists such as Sophocles and Euripides, historians such as Thucydides and Herodotus and poets such as Homer. This entire corpus of literature could only be saved from the originals preserved in Constantinople. Moreover, in addition to being selective about Greek works, Muslims showed little interest in Latin writers, for instance Cicero. There was thus a large body of Greco-Roman learning and valuable literature that was never available in Arabic in the first place.
It is true that a number of Greek works were translated to Arabic, especially in the ninth century when a group called Mu’tazilites attempted, without lasting success, to reconcile Islamic with logic. They have gained a modern reputation as freethinkers, but as Ibn Warraq writes about them: “However, it is clear now that the Mu’tazilites were first and foremost Muslims, living in the circle of Islamic ideas, and were motivated by religious concerns. There was no sign of absolute liberated thinking, or a desire, as [Hungarian orientalist] Goldziher put it, ‘to throw off chafing shackles, to the detriment of the rigorously orthodox view of life.’ Furthermore, far from being ‘liberal,’ they turned out to be exceedingly intolerant, and were involved in the Mihna, the Muslim Inquisition under the Abbasids. However, the Mu’tazilites are important for having introduced Greek philosophical ideas into the discussion of Islamic dogmas.”
According to writer Patrick Poole, “Western Christianity’s rational tradition developed in the Medieval era precisely as a result of the outright rejection of the irrationalism inherent in Islamic philosophy, not the embracing of it.” As he states, “a rationalist philosophy had begun to develop under the Mu’tazilite school of interpretation, which advocated for a created, as opposed to an uncreated, Quran. But Caliph al-Mutawakkil [reign 847-861] condemned the Mu’tazilite school, which opened the door for the rival Ash’arite interpretation, founded by al-Ash’ari (d. 935), to eventually take preeminence within Sunni Islam.” Rationalism also faced an uphill battle because of the view of Allah as an unpredictable and whimsical deity, since “only Allah truly acts with real effect; all seemingly natural observances of causation are merely manifestations of Allah’s habits, for Allah simultaneously creates both the cause and the effect according to his arbitrary will. This view is best expressed by one of the Islamic philosophers cited by [Tariq] Ramadan, al-Ghazali (1059-1111), in his book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers.”
The Caliph al-Ma’mun (reign 813 — 833), who was influenced by the Mu’tazilite movement, created the House of Wisdom, a library and translation office. The Baghdad-centered Abbasid dynasty, which replaced the Damascus-centered Umayyad dynasty in 750, was closer to Persian culture and was probably inspired by the Sassanid practice of translating works and creating great libraries. Alkindus (Al-Kindi) was appointed to participate in the undertaking. Philosophical and scientific texts were translated into Arabic from Persian and Indian (Sanskrit) sources, but above all from Greek ones. Great efforts were made to collect and buy important Greek works and manuscripts from the Byzantines and have them translated.
In the book How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs, De Lacy O’Leary states that “Aristotelian study proper began with Abu Yusuf Ya’qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (d. after 873), commonly known as ‘the Philosopher of the Arabs.’ It is significant that almost all the great scientists and philosophers of the Arabs were classed as Aristotelians tracing their intellectual descent from al-Kindi and al-Farabi.”
At the heart of these efforts was a Nestorian (Assyrian) Christian named Johannitius (Hunayn ibn Ishaq). He had studied Greek by living in Greek lands, presumably in the Byzantine Empire, and was put in charge of translations at the House of Wisdom. Soon, he, his son and his nephew had made available in Arabic and Syriac Galen’s medical treatises as well as Hippocrates and texts by Aristotle, Plato and others. In some cases, he apparently translated a work into Syriac and his son Ishaq translated this further into Arabic. Most senior medical doctors in the Islamic world, including Avicenna and Rhazes, were later influenced by these translations of Greek medicine.
In 431 Nestorius, a Christian Patriarch, was expelled from Constantinople for heresy. The so-called Assyrian Church of the East thus split from the Byzantine Church. Their followers found a new home in the Syriac-speaking world and were welcomed in the Sassanid Persian Empire, the rival of Byzantium. They brought with them a collection of Greek texts, among them medical works of Galen and Hippocrates. It was these texts, aided by other manuscripts acquired and bought from Constantinople later, which provided the basis for translations of Greek texts into Arabic. The followers of this Eastern church, usually called Nestorians in the West, had communities spread out across much of Iraq, Iran and Central Asia, and were respected for their medical skills.
According to scholar Thomas T. Allsen, “Nestorians in the East were closely associated with the medical profession. A considerable body of Syriac medical literature, some in the original and some in translation, has been recovered in central Asia. This is hardly surprising, because Eastern Christians were an important fixture in West Asian medicine.” Western medicine in Yuan (Mongol ruled) China, often characterized as “Muslim,” was almost always in the hands of Nestorians, a situation that Western travelers found worthy of note.
Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, a Semitic language close to Hebrew which was in widespread use in the region and most likely used by Jesus and his closest apostles for preaching. Aramaic was once the lingua franca of the Middle East. It had a major impact on the development of Arabic, which later replaced it following the Islamic conquests. The Nabataeans, a Semitic people associated with the famous rock city of Petra close to the Dead Sea in present-day Jordan, were greatly influenced by Aramaic, and the Arabic alphabet developed out of their alphabet. The most unorthodox scholars even suggest that the Islamic religion itself may have developed closer to this region, at the northern fringes of Arabia, than around Mecca in central Arabia.
Some researchers believe that Syriac, or Syro-Aramaic, was also the root of the Koran. When it was composed, Arabic was not fully developed as a written language. Syriac, however, was widely used in the region at the time. Ibn Warraq estimates that up to 20% of the Koran is incomprehensible even to educated Arabs because segments of it were originally written in another, related language before Muhammad was born. A German professor of ancient Semitic and Arabic languages writes about the subject under the pseudonym Christoph Luxenberg. If you believe Luxenberg, the chapters or suras of the Koran usually ascribed to the Mecca period, which are also the most tolerant and non-violent ones as opposed to the much harsher and more violent chapters from Medina, are not “Islamic” at all, but Christian:
“In its origin, the Koran is a Syro-Aramaic liturgical book, with hymns and extracts from Scriptures which might have been used in sacred Christian services. (…) Its socio-political sections, which are not especially related to the original Koran, were added later in Medina. At its beginning, the Koran was not conceived as the foundation of a new religion. It presupposes belief in the Scriptures, and thus functioned merely as an inroad into Arabic society.” Monte Cassino is a monastery in southern Italy, founded by Saint Benedict in the sixth century, which was sacked and burned and its monks killed in 883 by Arabs in one of their countless Jihad raids in Western Europe. It was later rebuilt, and from here the monk Constantine the African in the eleventh century translated medical texts from Arabic into Latin, including those of Hippocrates and Galen done by Johannitius in Baghdad. Constantine also translated medical treatises written in Arabic by the Egyptian Jew Isaac Israeli ben Solomon, who was again influenced by Hippocrates, Galen, Aristotle and Plato.
It is easy to track how Arabic translations of Greek texts from Byzantine manuscripts, often done by Christians, made their way from the Islamic East to the Iberian Peninsula in the Islamic West, where some of them were translated by Christians, for instance in the multilingual city of Toledo in Spain, back to Latin. It is thus true that some Greek texts were reintroduced to the West via Arabic, sometimes passing via Syriac or Hebrew along the way, but this was always based, in the end, on originals from the Byzantine Empire.
The work led by Johannitius in Baghdad preserved via the Arabic translation some of Galen’s works lost in the Greek original. The Greek physician Galen worked in the second century A.D., systematized medical knowledge in the Greco-Roman world and supplied this with his own research. He lamented the fact that he couldn’t perform dissection of human corpses, but this wasn’t allowed during Roman times so he based his studies of human anatomy on dissections of animals such as dogs, apes and pigs. This is funny if you are familiar with the low status dogs, apes and pigs have in Islam, and know that most subsequent medicine in the Muslim world was inspired by Galen. Since dissection of human corpses was taboo in the Islamic world, too, Galen’s errors remained unchallenged for centuries, until the Renaissance in Christian Europe. Leonardo da Vinci made numerous accurate anatomical drawings but didn’t share this knowledge much at his time. The final breakthrough came with the anatomist Andreas Vesalius from Brussels, who published his book On the Workings of the Human Body in 1543 based on observation through autopsy. He is considered the father of modern anatomy in the Western world.
The great British expert on Chinese science history Joseph Needham has written about how the “four great inventions of China,” the compass, printing, papermaking and gunpowder, were exported to the rest of the world. Although Needham is good at writing about technology, he doesn’t always provide sufficient evidence of transmission for these inventions. Only one of them, paper, can be said with absolute certainty to have reached the West as a fully developed product. According to Professor T.F. Carter, “Back of the invention of printing lies the use of paper, which is the most certain and the most complete of China’s inventions.”
As Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin write in The Coming of the Book, “It would have been impossible to invent printing had it not been for the impetus given by paper, which had arrived in Europe from China via the Arabs two centuries earlier and came into general use by the late 14th century.” In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Europe was becoming covered with paper mills. The traditional parchment was expensive and not well suited for mass production.
During the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the reformers wanted the Bible to be available in the common language, not in Latin. Martin Luther thus helped shape the modern German language. Scholar Irving Fang says in the book A History of Mass Communication that “Vernacular printing also led French readers to think of themselves as being part of France, and English readers to regard themselves as part of England.”
In some ways, we are witnessing a reversal of this trend towards nationalization now with global communications and the rise of English as an international lingua franca. Febvre and Martin believe, though, that about 77% of the books printed before 1500 were still in Latin, with religious books still predominant. This gradually gave way to secular books and other languages, but “it was not until the late 17th century that Latin was finally overthrown and replaced by the other national languages and by French as the natural language of philosophy, science and diplomacy. Every educated European then had to know French.” They estimate that about 20 million books were printed in Europe before the year 1500, and that “between 150-200 million copies were published in the 16th century. This is a conservative estimate and probably well below the actual figure.”
This is even more impressive if we remember that Europe of that day was far less populous than it is now and that only a minority could read. There was obviously a change then, and a swift one, compared to the slow, expensive and sometimes inaccurate process of copying each individual book by hand.
Printing did have a major impact in East Asia, but it didn’t trigger quite the same immediate revolution as it did in the West. The invention of woodblock printing during the Tang dynasty in China (around the seventh century AD) was intimately linked to Buddhist monasteries and Buddhist art, and stamped figures of the Buddha marked the transition from seal impression to woodcut. Buddhism came to Japan via China and Korea, and monks brought with them, in addition to tea and thus the basis for the elaborate Japanese tea ceremonies, other aspects of Chinese civilization, among them printing in the eight century. Yet until the late sixteenth century the Japanese printed only Buddhist scriptures. Europe also benefited from having a more diverse book trade than China and from having more competition in general.
As Irving Fang states, “Printing had not disturbed the monolithic Chinese empire. The introduction of printing in mid-fifteenth century Europe might also have made little headway if Europe were not ripe for change.” He believes the emergence of European universities from the twelfth century onwards marked the end of the Monastic Age. Monasteries and the Church had carried literate civilization since the fall of Rome, yet according to Febvre and Martin, from the High Middle Ages monasteries were no longer the sole producers of books. A new, urban reading public of merchants and lawyers emerged. Intellectual life was now centered outside the monasteries, and it was in the universities that scholars, teachers and students, working in co-operation with artisans and craftsmen, organized an active book trade.
Ronald J. Deibert states in Parchment, Printing, and Hypermedia: “While the Roman Catholic Church had maintained a monopoly over written communications up to the twelfth century, from that point onward a gradual change in the communications environment began to occur, as evidenced by the growth of secular literacy and the use and reproduction of written documents outside of the formal papal-monastic network. In this respect, the invention of printing actually represents the culmination of slowly accumulating social pressures. In other words, the invention of printing was not a sudden ‘out-of-nowhere’ development, but was an outgrowth of converging social pressures for more efficient communications. In conjunction with the broader social and economic conditions of the time, however, once printing began to spread through Western Europe, it revolutionized the communications environment with significant consequences for society and politics.”
The Protestant Reformation in the first half of the sixteenth century is frequently cited as an event that could not have happened before the advent of printing. As Febvre and Martin state: “One is justifiably inclined to wonder, as Henri Hauser did, what might have happened if some of the earlier heresies (the Hussite, for example) had had the power of the press at their disposal – power that Luther and Calvin used with great skill, first in the attack on Rome and then in the diffusion of their new doctrines.” The Hussites were the followers of Jan Hus, or John Huss, an important pre-Reformation Czech religious reformer, influenced by the views of the English theologian John Wycliffe, who was excommunicated by the Church in 1411 and burned at the stake.
The idea that printing “created” the Reformation is simplistic. Martin Luther also benefited from luck and favorable political circumstances. There had been calls for reforms of the Church for generations, and the rising power of nation states favored those who wanted to curtail the political influence of the Catholic Church. Luther was under the protection of his sovereign Frederick of Saxony long enough to develop and spread his message. The Pope initially underestimated the importance of the quarrel, and Charles V who was Holy Roman Emperor ruled vast realms from Spain to the Netherlands and found himself simultaneously at war with the French, who feared his power, and the Ottoman Turks who advanced into Europe at the time.
Still, it is indeed hard to believe that the Reformation could have happened the way it did without printing. When Luther in October 1517 fastened to the door of his church at Wittenberg a placard inscribed with “Ninety-five Theses upon Indulgences,” his theses were printed as flysheets and quickly distributed around Germany in what is sometimes dubbed the first major mass media campaign.
Hans J. Hillerbrand writes in The Protestant Reformation that the printing press was the handmaiden of the Protestant reformers. Although we tend to overlook the dimensions of the flood of propaganda, “more must be said about the literature of the Reformation than its mere quantity. Most of it appeared in a new format, what we today would call ’paperback size,’ and consisted of a few quarto or octavo pages, and a woodcut to characterize the content – a pamphlet, in other words. Naturally, Luther and the other reformers could also spin out lengthy and tedious prose. In the main, however, their tracts were brief (seldom more than forty pages in length), they could be read quickly, were inexpensive, and were written in the vernacular. This last was, perhaps, their most incisive characteristic. The Protestant reformers made a determined effort to speak to the common people. In so doing they broke with tradition, for theological tracts had never been published in the language of the people; even Erasmus [of Rotterdam, Dutch Renaissance humanist], who waxed so eloquent about his hope that the farmer might sing of the gospel behind his plow, always wrote in Latin. Not so the Protestant divines.” According to Hillerbrand, “In England the publication and use of the English Bible was encouraged by Henry VIII despite his own conservative views in theology. William Tyndale ranks first among the names to be mentioned in connection with the English Bible. On his translation all subsequent ones have been based, including the King James version of 1611.”
87 editions of Luther’s New Testament in High German and 19 in Low German were printed between 1519 and 1535 and significantly contributed to shaping German vocabulary and grammar. John Calvin, probably the most systematic theologian of the Reformation, first published his seminal book Institutes of the Christian Religion in Latin in 1536 and in French in 1541. It, too, became widely popular and influential and went through several editions. For good or bad, the Reformation directly affected much larger areas of Europe simultaneously than the Renaissance had ever done, and printing surely amplified its effects.
Movable type printing had been invented in China by Bi Sheng around 1040, but it never gained widespread popularity. The nature of the Chinese language with its nonalphabetic script presumably didn’t help. To solve this dilemma, in the first half of the 1400s the Korean King Sejong the Great encouraged book production and ordered his scholars to create an alphabet for the common people as opposed to the complicated Chinese script with its thousands of characters. They produced hangul, “Korean letters,” a phonetic system inspired by other alphabetic scripts, among them Sanskrit. Hangul faced stiff opposition from Confucian scholars who still preferred Chinese characters.
Movable type printing with metal types and an alphabetic script was thus in use in Korea before Gutenberg began printing Bibles in Germany, but there are no indications of a connection between what happened in Korea and what happened in Europe. The geographical distance is too big and the time difference too small to make such a connection likely. The Chinese used baked clay for their characters, and only started employing metal types after their use in Europe. Gutenberg was a goldsmith and naturally created his letters out of metal.
According to Irving Fang, “What Gutenberg produced that did not exist in Asia was a printing system. Most obvious among its elements were controlled, exact dimensions of alphabet type cast from metal punches made of hardened steel. These were not unlike the dies, stamps, and punches that were well known to European leather workers, metalsmiths, and pewter makers.”
No link between the Eastern and the Western printing traditions has ever been conclusively proven. Such a link is conceivable, as other technologies moved West during this time period, but the different nature of the systems involved has caused many historians to believe that printing was developed in Europe independently of Asia. In contrast, we know with 100% certainty that Muslims were familiar with East Asian printing. The Mongols left a trail of devastation across much of Eurasia, but their vast empire did open up opportunities for cultural exchange. As scholar Thomas T. Allsen shows, however, being exposed to foreign ideas doesn’t necessarily mean that you will adopt them. Local scholars often clung to the inherited tradition. He uses Russia at the time of Tsar Peter the Great as an example where some elements of that society were fanatically opposed to all innovation while others enthusiastically embraced all things foreign.
Allsen has described how the authorities in Iran under Mongolian rule in 1294 attempted to introduce Chinese-style printed banknotes, but failed, despite severe threats, due to massive popular resistance: “Certainly the Muslim world exhibited an active and sustained opposition to movable type technologies emanating from Europe in the fifteenth century and later. This opposition, based on social, religious, and political considerations, lasted well into the eighteenth century. Only then were presses of European origin introduced into the Ottoman Empire and only in the next century did printing become widespread in the Arab world and Iran. This long-term reluctance, the disinterest in European typography, and the failure to exploit the indigenous printing traditions of Egypt certainly argue for some kind of fundamental structural or ideological antipathy to this particular technology.”
I am definitely not a believer in technological determinism, but some technologies do have a greater impact than others. One of the most important inventions ever made has to be printing. Surely it is no coincidence that the Scientific Revolution decisively took off in Europe after the introduction of printing, just as it is not a coincidence that the one civilization that came closest to a similar breakthrough, China, was the one where printing had first been invented. In contrast, the Islamic Middle East stubbornly resisted this technology. In my view, it is likely that the rejection of printing alone set the Islamic world back centuries vis-à-vis non-Muslims.
As David Crowley and Paul Heyer write in Communication in History: Technology, Culture, and Society, “Traditionally, the view has been that printing, along with numerous other developments, marked the transition between the end of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the modern era. However, the more we study this remarkable invention, the more we realize that it was not just one factor among many. Although we hesitate to argue for historical ‘prime-movers,’ certainly the printing press comes close to what is meant by this term. It was a technology that influenced other technologies — a prototype for mass production — and one that impacted directly on the world of ideas by making knowledge widely available, thereby creating a space in which new forms of expression could flourish. The repercussions of the printing press in early modern Europe did not come about in an inherently deterministic manner. Rather, they resulted from the existence of conditions whereby print could enhance a context receptive to its potential.” Elizabeth L. Eisenstein states in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change that “systems of charting the planets, mapping the earth, synchronizing chronologies, codifying laws and compiling bibliographies were all revolutionized before the end of the sixteenth century. In each instance, one notes, Hellenistic achievements were first reduplicated and then, in a remarkably short time, surpassed. In each instance, the new schemes once published remained available for correction, development, and refinement.” Students could rely on the wide diffusion of works by earlier masters and could thus bypass their teachers and educate themselves. The young Isaac Newton was self-taught in mathematics and took full advantage of available libraries to learn from other mathematicians, modern and ancient.
Lars Hedegaard, president of the Danish Free Press Society, believes that economic progress hinges on free speech. In the 1760s, a scientific expedition financed by the king of Denmark set out from Copenhagen destined for Egypt, today’s Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Turkey. The objective was to study all aspects of these lands, their culture, history and peoples. Only one participant survived, the German Carsten Niebuhr, whose notes have left us with important information from this period.
Notice that this expedition was partly arranged due to Western intellectual curiosity. Ibn Warraq has severely criticized Edward Said and his book Orientalism for ignoring what has been a hallmark of Western civilization: the seeking after knowledge for its own sake: “The Greek word, historia, from which we get our ‘history,’ means ‘research’ or ‘inquiry,’ and Herodotus believed his work was the outcome of research: what he had seen, heard, and read but supplemented and verified by inquiry.”
This part of the Greek heritage was, again, carefully ignored by Muslims. Carsten Niebuhr’s writings leave a powerful impression of a region that was primitive, underdeveloped and steeped in Islamic fatalism. This was prior to European colonialism in the area and before the United States had even been created. Western influences thus had nothing had to do with it; the backwardness was caused by local cultural factors.
About Mesopotamia (Iraq), Niebuhr had this to say: “In Cairo there is at least still a store where the Muhammedans can buy old books. In Baghdad one will not find that sort of thing. If one collects books here, and is neither prepared to copy them oneself nor to let others copy them, one must wait till somebody dies and his books and clothes are carried to the bazar, where they are offered for sale by a crier. A European who wants to buy Arabian, Turkish or Persian manuscripts will find no better opportunity than in Constantinople for here at least there is a sort of bookstore where Christians – at least Oriental Christians – can buy books.”
More than three hundred years after Gutenberg, and at least five hundred years after Muslims had been confronted with East Asian printing, books still remained rare in the Middle East and could be bought mainly when somebody died.
In the notes from his travels, Carsten Niebuhr wrote about the state of the desert around the Syrian town of Aleppo: “Under the Muhammedan and especially Turkish administration the most beautiful areas have been turned into wastelands. This despotic government does not protect the inhabitants bordering the desert provinces against the Arabs, Kurds or Turkomen, who live under tents and wander about with their cattle and who like to reap what they have not sown… Unconcerned whether the peasant is robbed of his grain or his cattle, they let the taxes be collected with all possible severity; little by little the peasants leave their ancestral dwellings where they can no longer secure their livelihood; the fields are no longer plowed but abandoned to wandering bands of people and thus the limits of the desert are expanding more and more.”
The Middle East thus suffered from authoritarian governments wich didn’t provide basic security for its populace and thus discouraged necessary investments and the accumulation of wealth because average citizens lacked protection of their property rights. The sad part is, a similar development is now taking place in several Western nations, where the authorities have grown increasingly unconcerned with the well-being of their citizens and leave them prey for criminal gangs while continuing to extort high tax rates. It will have severe long-term consequences also in the West if basic protection of the life and property of ordinary citizens isn’t restored.
The spread of printing in East Asia was intimately connected to the Buddhist religion, just as it was used in Europe to print Bibles. Yet while Buddhists, Christians and Jews eagerly embraced this new technology, Muslims stubbornly rejected it. The contrast is striking if we compare this to how eagerly Muslims embraced another Chinese invention: gunpowder.
Gunpowder wasn’t the first chemical substance used in warfare. According to legend, “Greek fire,” a feared weapon in its time, was invented in the seventh century by Callinicus, a refugee from the Arab conquest of Syria. It was successfully used to defeat sieges by Arab Muslims of Constantinople in 674 and in 718, and helped the Byzantine Empire to survive for as long as it did. Its qualities appear to be somewhat similar to modern napalm. James R. Partington suggests in his book A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder that it consisted of a mixture of “sulphur, pitch, dissolved nitre, and petroleum.” The term “Greek fire” is a misnomer as the Byzantines called themselves Romans. The greatest revolution in the history of warfare, however, came with the introduction of gunpowder.
According to Dr James B. Calvert, professor of engineering, “The fundamental inventions of gunpowder and cannon had been made by 1300, but the sources are rare, difficult to interpret, hard to date, and often contradictory. The best guess is that gunpowder followed quickly after saltpetre was discovered (that is, a process for its purification was developed) by Chinese alchemists around AD 900 and introduced to Europe via trade routes and travellers around AD 1225, and that cannon were invented in southern Europe just before AD 1300.”
One of the problems in determining this accurately is that Chinese writers can be just as ethnocentric as Western ones, sometimes more. As Calvert says: “Chinese sources sometimes represent later, or foreign, inventions as earlier native ones for the greater glory of China, and much caution is advised in accepting these claims. European sources, on the contrary, generally attribute innovations to the mysterious East, or to refugees, rather than to native invention. This has had a strong effect on the translation of Chinese materials by western scholars, who assume what they wish to believe. Incidentally, the first Roman embassy to China reached there by ship in AD 166, and the silk trade flourished for centuries, so the transmission of western influences to China can hardly be doubted. Transmission in the reverse direction is, of course, well accepted. A Roman legion captured by the Parthians [Persian dynasty and rivals to Rome] was sold to a Chinese emperor, and many of the men remained even after they were ransomed, so valued had they become as engineers.”
There is some debate whether gunpowder was invented independently in several regions, but most historians have settled for the explanation that it was first manufactured in China. Gunpowder (black powder) consists of charcoal, sulphur and potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, and was impossible to create until you could manufacture saltpeter with a high degree of purity. This was a specialty of Chinese alchemists quite early. How early is difficult to establish with certainty. The discovery reached the Middle East and Europe, probably via the Silk Road trade, and became known as “Chinese snow.” Black powder remained the principle explosive until the nineteenth century, when the invention of unstable nitroglycerine made it possible for Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel to patent the more stable version of dynamite in 1867, and accumulate the great wealth which was later used to fund the various Nobel Prizes.
In the thirteenth century, the English Franciscan friar Roger Bacon as well as the German Dominican friar Albertus Magnus, both theologians and scientists with an interest in alchemy, mention a recipe for gunpowder. The Mongol conquests spread the knowledge of the Chinese fire lance, a gunpowder-filled tube made of bamboo which could fire various projectiles, across Eurasia. The development of this weapon stagnated in China. True firearms were developed further West when gunpowder was combined with metal instead of bamboo. According to James B. Calvert, “The place and time of the invention of the cannon is unknown, but its evolution from the fire lance among the Turks, Arabs and Europeans can hardly be doubted. (…) The earliest use of cannon is not definitely known, but occurred sometime between 1300 and 1350. The use of cannon spread rapidly between 1350 and 1400.” Cannon were used during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, and Turkish Muslims successfully employed prolonged bombardment by massive Hungarian-made cannon during the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 to breach the walls of the city.
Joel Mokyr, professor at the Department of Economics at Northwestern University and author of The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy, writes about innovation and economic history. He cites the verdict of a ninth century Arab author that “the curious thing is that the Greeks are interested in theory but do not bother about practice, whereas the Chinese are very interested in practice and do not bother much about the theory.” Science and technology are frequently seen as synonymous. They are certainly related, but they are not identical. China was better at technology than she was at providing a coherent, scientific world view. It is possible that this is rooted in cultural factors. According to Mokyr, in the West, the physical world was viewed as orderly, whereas “the Chinese employ words like thien fa (laws of heaven), yet, as Needham insisted, these are laws without a lawgiver. In that sense, of course, the Chinese may have been closer to a twentieth century way of thinking about nature than to the thinking of Kepler and Newton.”
The world view of senior Western scientists at this age, among them Galileo, Kepler and Newton, could be described as “God meets geometry,” the idea that the universe could be described mathematically and rationally. Newton was a brilliant mathematician in addition to being a deeply religious man, as has been credited, along with the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, for laying the basis for modern calculus in the late seventeenth century.
Muslims shared the concept of a universe created by a single God, but their particular version of God wasn’t helpful in this regard. The Koran is deeply inconsistent. The notion that Allah is incomprehensible and provides no correlation between cause and effect had a serious impact on the development of empirical sciences in the Islamic world. In contrast, for Jews and Christians, God has created the universe according to a certain logic, which can be described and predicted. Kepler firmly believed the solar system was created according to God’s plan, which he attempted to unlock. Sir Isaac Newton was passionately interested in religion and wrote extensively about it. Even Albert Einstein, who was certainly not an orthodox, religious Jew, still retained some residue of the idea that the universe was created according to a logic which is, to a certain extent, comprehensible and accessible to human reason: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, Who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”
The compass is an invention generally attributed to China, although there are those who claim it may have been invented independently in other regions. There can be no doubt that the Chinese discovered magnetism very early, but they did not devote equal attention to electricity and never understood the connection between the two. This was done by the Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted. Experiments with electricity had been popular at least since Benjamin Franklin in the eighteenth century. In 1819 Ørsted brought a compass needle near an electric battery invented by Italian physicist Alessandro Volta in 1800 and proved that electricity and magnetism were related phenomena. The discovery of electromagnetism spawned an entirely new field of research, eventually leading to the electrical telegraph, radio, telephone, television and the Internet. The important part here isn’t the individual discovery, but how quickly information was shared, experiments repeated, inventions improved and scientific theories developed to explain the results.
Mokyr believes that the Industrial Revolution represented a sea change unprecedented in human history because it created a prolonged period of sustained economic growth based on constantly growing useful knowledge. He talks about how the Scientific Revolution created an “Industrial Enlightenment” in which natural philosophers and experimentalists teamed up with industrialists and engineers, and jointly created the kind of environment that was uniquely favorable to rapid innovation. In his view, the crucial element was a small group of a few thousand peopled who formed a creative community based on the exchange of knowledge. He stresses the importance of these small creative communities combined with high literacy rates and universal schooling, and notes that although some regions were more important than others, Europe from Edinburgh to St. Petersburg participated in the development:
“While Britain pulled ahead of the rest of Europe for a while between 1760 and 1820, its technology relied heavily on epistemic bases developed elsewhere in Europe, especially in France, but also in Germany, Scandinavia and Italy. Comparing Europe with China is therefore to some extent misleading: the various European societies complemented one another, and their internal competition gave it a dynamism that China lacked. Thus, for instance, when in Britain chemical and engineering education began to fall behind, its potential competitors on the continent made up the slack. It also tends to divert attention to much to Britain’s special conditions such as its coal and its colonies, while industrialization in the nineteenth century happened in places without coal (Switzerland, New England) and without early colonies (Belgium, Germany).”
In the year 1094, the Chinese engineer Su Song built a tall astronomical clocktower with a highly complex water clock. It was probably the first to use an escapement, but was still powered by water and hydraulics and thus not fully mechanical, yet it was the most sophisticated horological mechanism ever produced at its time.But, as Mokyr says, “unlike Europe, no class of clock- and watchmakers emerged in China, the epistemic base of the waterclocks under the Song disappeared. Here, then, is a case in which a society was able to produce the knowledge, but the opportunity was lost. After 800 AD, cases in which knowledge in Europe is ‘lost’ become rare. More typical is for an invention or insight to emerge somewhere and then spread throughout much of the continent.” In his view, “The difference between China and Europe was that in Europe there always was sufficient diversity. When in one European area the conditions for adoption were not met, it simply moved elsewhere. China, especially in the Ming and Qing periods, seems to have lost that ability.”
During a period of self-imposed Japanese isolation from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century Nagasaki was maintained as a window to the outside world. Western sciences were called Dutch Learning, since trade was largely in the hands of the Dutch. Much of it was translated to Japanese and published in numerous books, which helps explain why Japan eventually became the first non-Western nation to industrialize. European firearms, clocks and eyeglasses were in great demand, presumably because similar items were not known in East Asia at the time.
At the end of the eleventh century, China had produced perhaps the world’s most advanced clock to date. At the end of the sixteenth century, Jesuit priests such as the Italian Matteo Ricci could bring European clocks as valued gifts to China. What happened to China’s lead in the intervening centuries? Well, Song’s astronomical clock, brilliant though it was, fell into disrepair and wasn’t followed up by anybody. Europe in particular was divided not only into a number of (relatively) stable states, but within each state there were several centers of financial and intellectual capital, kings and churches as well as universities and a rising class of urban merchants, bankers and entrepreneurs. This meant that if somebody came up with a great idea, chances were good that at least one of these centers of wealth would sponsor it even though others failed to do so. In China, more power was centralized at the imperial court and more undertakings were sponsored by the state. If they didn’t follow up an invention, it risked being forgotten.
According to the book The Cambridge Illustrated History of China by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, during Song times the prominence of a scholar-official elite selected mainly for their literary abilities through an examination process was unique to Chinese civilization. China was thus comparatively advanced in the field of meritocracy, the rule by merit, which is one of the reasons why the country displayed such dynamism during this period. However, the country suffered a few other drawbacks, among them excessive centralism. As Ebrey writes, “The rapid development of commerce and appearance of commercial cities did not play the same political or intellectual role in China as it did in Europe slightly later. Chinese cities did not become places identified with personal freedom.” Hence, “both cities and rural areas were under the political control of representatives of the central government.”
It is possible to argue that this was also one of the drawbacks of the Byzantine Empire. Although it was Christian and continued the Greco-Roman heritage it didn’t create the same Scientific Revolution as did the West, which demonstrates that although this potent combination was of crucial importance, it needed a specific framework in order to flourish. The Byzantines had too much power concentrated at the central government, and enjoyed less separation between religious and political authority than the West.
According to Joel Mokyr (pdf), glass, although known in China, was not in wide use as tea was drunk in porcelain cups and the Chinese examined themselves in polished bronze mirrors. Islamic countries had a significant glass industry, yet they never came up with spectacles: “Tokugawa Japan had a flourishing industry making glass trinkets and ornaments, but no optical instruments emerged there either until the Meiji restoration [from 1867]. Not having access to the Hellenistic geometry that served not only Ptolemy and Alhazen, but also sixteenth century Italians such as Francesco Maurolico (1494-1575) who studied the characteristics of lenses, made the development of optics in the Orient difficult.” The earliest known lenses were made of rock crystal, quartz, and other minerals, and have been used in Eastern and Western lands since ancient times. There is evidence that lenses were known in the Greco-Roman world. They have been used as burning glasses and magnifying glasses for centuries, and so-called reading stones were in common use during the Middle Ages, for instance the Visby lenses, lens-shaped rock crystals of high quality from in a Viking grave in Gotland, Sweden. The oldest one we know of is the Nimrud lens, found in modern Iraq. Estimated to be almost three thousand years old, it indicates that the ancient Assyrians did have some basic understanding of optics. Iraq, seat of the Sumerian, Akkadian and Assyrian kingdoms, is home to one of the world’s oldest astronomical traditions. Babylonian astronomy greatly influenced many subsequent cultures, Middle Eastern, Greek and Indian, and the sexagesimal (based on the number sixty) numeral system of the Sumerians is still with us today, in the form of sixty minutes to the hour and 360 degrees in a circle.
The Iraqi-born scientist Ibn al-Haitham, known in the West as Alhacen or Alhazen, had a powerful influence on several Western scientists. Alhazen was a pioneer in the scientific method by basing hypothesis upon systematic observation. He is most commonly remembered for his great contributions in the field of optics, where he pondered the nature of light, speculated on the colors of the sunset and described the qualities of magnifying lenses. His eleventh century Book of Optics was translated into Latin during the late twelfth century, and left a significant impact on Roger Bacon and others in the thirteenth century.
Bacon was educated at Oxford and lectured on Aristotle at the University of Paris, the intellectual center among the small, but growing number of European universities. His teacher, the English bishop and scholar Robert Grosseteste, was a proponent of validating theory through experimentation. Roger Bacon wrote about many subjects, including optics, and was among the first persons to argue that lenses could be used for the correction of eyesight. He asserted that “philosophy is the special province of the unbelievers,” and urged scholars to learn Arabic.
The Chinese experimented with lenses and mirrors, too, and produced a type of sunglasses, or eyeglasses with colored lenses. However, these appear to have been mainly for decorative purposes and possessed no corrective properties. The science of optics stagnated in China after initial advances. The first fully developed spectacles were made in Europe, in Northern Italy from the late thirteenth century onwards. The American scientist and inventor Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals in the eighteenth century, during the early years of the United States.
In 1572 Freidrich Risner printed some of Alhazen’s work on optics, as well as a work by the thirteenth century Polish friar Witelo which was similar to it, and thus made Alhazen widely known to new generations of scholars. Notable among them was the German astronomer Johannes Kepler. Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who died in 1601, was perhaps the most meticulous astronomer of the pre-telescopic era. During the final year of his life, Brahe passed on his observations of Mars to Kepler. These precise notes were important for Kepler’s work on planetary motion, but another breakthrough that could verify his thesis was soon to come.
As corrective lenses for near-sightedness became more sophisticated, the demand for high quality glass lenses grew. In the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, Baruch Spinoza could make a decent living as a skilled lens grinder while working on his philosophical theories. This was during the Dutch Golden Age when the country was a refuge for many groups suffering from religious persecution, for instance Huguenots (Protestants) from France. Spinoza descended from Jews who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal following the Reconquista. The production of spectacles opened up new arenas for optics. A Dutch eyeglass maker, Hans Lippershey, is said to have created the first practical telescope and made it publicly available in 1608.
Within a few months of the news, Italian scientist Galileo Galilei had made his own telescope, and became the first person to turn the new invention towards the sky, discovering the four major moons of Jupiter in 1610. Kepler developed the Galilean telescope further by 1611 and described the theoretical basis for telescopic optics, in part inspired by Alhazen’s work. The telescope had traveled from the Netherlands via Italy to Kepler in Prague within three years of its invention and had been improved along the way, a remarkable pace of innovation and diffusion of knowledge. Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica from 1687 and his laws of motion and gravity were derived from, among other things, Galileo’s telescopic observations and Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion.
Dutch eyeglass maker Zacharias Janssen and his father Hans are usually credited with inventing the first microscope in the late 1500s. The microscope was improved in the seventeenth century by their countryman Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who was the first to spot bacteria and thus opened up an entirely new field of microbiology. This in turn led to great advances in the natural sciences. The German physician Robert Koch and the French chemist Louis Pasteur founded the science of bacteriology in the nineteenth century. The understanding that disease is caused by bacteria and microscopic germs produced the greatest strides in medicine in history.
According to the free online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, reading stone lenses were invented by polymath Armen Firman (Abbas Ibn Firnas) in Córdoba in Islamic-occupied Spain in the ninth century, and later spread throughout Europe. Wikipedia embodies both the good and some of the problematic aspects of the Internet. I have found useful information there more than once, but it can also be notoriously unreliable on certain subjects due to its numerous editors and lack of professional oversight. Let’s assume for a moment that this information is correct. If so, how come lenses weren’t developed further by Muslims? The telescope and the microscope were by-products of advances in the production of glass lenses. They made possible, for the first time ever, the study of what is not visible to the naked human eye and radically altered our understanding of the universe, both in the realms of the very small and the very big. All of this could have happened in the Islamic world. So why didn’t it, despite the fact that lenses were know there at least as early as in Europe, and despite the fact that the region produced a gifted optical scientist, Alhazen?
Alhazen personally should be credited with being one of the greatest scientists of his age in any discipline, Eastern or Western, yet his inquisitive attitude and scientific mindset wasn’t always appreciated by his contemporaries. Here is how his writings were received by fellow Muslims, as quoted in Ibn Warraq’s book Why I Am Not a Muslim : “A disciple of Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher, relates that he was in Baghdad on business, when the library of a certain philosopher (who died in 1214) was burned there. The preacher, who conducted the execution of the sentence, threw into the flames, with his own hands, an astronomical work of Ibn al-Haitham [Alhazen], after he had pointed to a delineation therein given of the sphere of the earth, as an unhappy symbol of impious Atheism.”
Alhazen made numerous books, many of which are lost today. His groundbreaking Book of Optics survives to us in Latin translation. Muslims thus had access to ideas, but they failed to appreciate them and exploit their potential. This pattern was repeated on several occasions. The first windmills were probably made in Persia prior to the Islamic conquest in the seventh century. Windmills were introduced in Europe during the High Middle Ages, at least from the twelfth century onwards, and spread rapidly across Western Europe during a prolonged period of great improvements. Persian-style windmills spread from Central Asia to China following the Mongol conquest in the thirteenth century, yet in 1206 the leading Arab engineer of the day observed to his readers that the notion of driving mills by the wind was nonsense.
Sundials have been used in Egypt and other civilizations since prehistoric times. Water clocks, too, date from ancient times and had reached a certain level of complexity in the Greco-Roman world. The ancient Greeks created devices resembling clock-work, for instance the Antikythera mechanism (second century B.C.) which has been called a mechanical computer. Early clocks (though not fully developed) were made in Asia, especially China, and could have been known in the Middle East. Around the year 800, Caliph Harun al-Rashid from Baghdad presented Charlemagne with the gift of a complex water clock which struck the hours. In 850 the three Persians Banu Musa, as part of the translation efforts undertaken at the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, published The Book of Ingenious Devices describing many mechanical inventions developed by earlier cultures. They were interested in the work of Greek engineer Hero of Alexandria who made the first known steam-powered device. Again, there is plenty of evidence that Muslims had at their disposal both the theoretical knowledge and the practical examples necessary to create mechanical clocks.
Despite having access to much of the same knowledge as did Christian Europeans, Muslims didn’t develop fully mechanical clocks. This happened in Europe in the thirteenth century. The invention spread rapidly throughout Italy, France and England. One was installed in the Old St Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1286. The fourteenth century English author Geoffrey Chaucer mentioned a clock, apparently meaning one with a bell which struck the hour. Salisbury cathedral is thought to have the oldest functioning clock in existence, dating back to the year 1386. Clocks were initially large and were used to decorate public buildings. By the year 1500, the coiled spring had been invented, paving the way for smaller clocks. The first portable timepiece was created in Nuremberg, Germany by locksmith Peter Henlein in 1505 in the shape of a sphere worn as a jewel. Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, by employing Galileo’s law of the pendulum, in 1656 made the first pendulum clock, which was much more accurate than previous models. He also invented the balance wheel and spring assembly underlying many modern watches. French mathematician Blaise Pascal is said to have made a wristwatch by attaching his portable clock to his wrist with a string.
I’m not suggesting that no scientific achievements were made in the Islamic world. Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine was translated into Latin in the twelfth century, and as late as the sixteenth century, Vesalius wrote a thesis commenting on Rhazes. It is impossible to write the medical history of the West during this age without mentioning Middle Eastern physicians such as Avicenna and Rhazes. What I am suggesting is that the number of achievements steadily declined, and I’m not sure how much Islam should be credited with those achievements that were actually made.
Muslims failed to develop clocks and eyeglasses and were actively hostile to printing, yet immediately embraced gunpowder and firearms (though the development of the latter soon stagnated, too). I think this highly selective view of technology tells us something about their mentality: They didn’t see the value in printing, but they liked gunpowder because it could be used to terrorize and intimidate non-Muslims. Infidel technology is primarily interesting if it can be used to blow up other infidels. Sadly, I’m not so sure Islamic mentality has changed significantly in the 800 years since then. During the past few decades, globalization, Muslim immigration to the West and the massive influx of petrodollars to Muslim nations with huge reserves of petroleum have enabled Muslims to acquire or buy technology they are unable to develop themselves. The result, along with a huge demographic increase in Muslims which is again caused by infidel advances in medicine, has been a tidal wave of Jihad sweeping across the world. The lesson for non-Muslims should be: If you provide Muslims with technology and know-how, this will not be used to create peaceful and prosperous societies; it will be used to kill or subjugate you.
As writer Bassam Tibi notes, Muslims today tend to view science as something that is separated from society, and believe they can adopt or appropriate modern science and technology but not the wider framework that goes with them.
I agree with Tibi. Muslims have no understanding of science as the basis of technological progress, and free speech and rational criticism of everything, including religious doctrines, as the basis of science. They talk about science as if it were a commodity, a television or a personal computer, something which Muslims “had” earlier, then “lost” or handed over to Westerners who “took” it from them. Hence, Muslims shouldn’t feel grateful for anything infidel science provides them with, since science was really “theirs” in the first place and they’re just taking back something which rightfully belongs to them. But science isn’t a commodity; it is a method, a way of looking critically and rationally at the world.
In my view, this failure to see the connection between cause, science and a free society, and effect, technological progress, stems from a fundamental flaw in the Islamic way of looking at the universe: They see no connection between cause and effect because their entire religious world view is based on the notion that everything is subject to the whims of Allah, and that there is no predictable logic behind anything. As Hugh Fitzgerald frequently says, this resigned Inshallah-fatalism (“If Allah wills it, it will happen”) greatly inhibits progress of any kind. The ultimate irony and tragedy is that Muslims move to infidel societies in order to enjoy the commodities and consumer goods produced there, yet immediately set out to destroy the conditions which created these advances in the first place, political freedom and manmade laws.
At least two conditions are necessary for the creation of a successful nation: The ability to produce talented individuals with great ideas, and the cultural and structural ability of society to recognize the full potential of these ideas and utilize them. The Islamic world, for a while, performed reasonably well at the former task, but failed miserably and consistently at the latter. Even if it could occasionally give birth to gifted individuals they tended to be unorthodox Muslims or, in the case of Rhazes, outright hostile to Islam. The frequency of thinkers of Avicenna’s and certainly Alhazen’s stature also steadily declined. This strongly indicates that “Islamic science” had little to do with Islam, but was the amalgam of pre-Islamic knowledge, Greek, Indian, Persian, Jewish, Assyrian Christian and other. As Muslims gradually became numerically dominant and Islamic orthodoxy more firmly established, this pre-Islamic heritage was slowly extinguished, hence science declined and never recovered. This failure was intimately linked to the Islam’s hostility towards innovation and freethinking. In contrast, the Christian and Jewish religions proved more receptive towards new ideas. At the very least they were not as aggressively hostile to logic as was Islam, and in certain situations even facilitated it.
Europe did produce many talented individuals, yet what ultimately set it apart from the Islamic world, and even from non-Muslim Asians at this age, was the remarkable pace of diffusion of new ideas, home-grown or imported, and the speed with which further improvements were made once an idea had been introduced. This was due to a combination of factors: A successful marriage between Christian doctrines and the Greco-Roman heritage during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the ability to continuously generate new knowledge and put it into practical application through the accumulation of capital and a dynamic merchant class, an institutionalized framework for scholarly debate through universities with a significant degree of free enquiry, the adoption of printing, which made communication easier and facilitated the accumulation of ever-more accurate knowledge, and last, but not least, a higher degree of individualism and political liberty, which encouraged freethinking, a non-traditionalist outlook and by extension innovation.
Upon saying this, I must confess that I cannot say with a straight face that these are hallmarks of Europe today. We have always been told that there is a basic conflict between religion and reason, which would presumably mean that the less religious we become, the more rational we should become. Western Europe is currently less religious than we have ever been, yet I see no indication that we have become more reasonable because of this. We may not have a formal index of forbidden books, as did the Catholic Church for centuries, but we do have an informal index of forbidden topics which can be equally effective in suppressing free enquiry and stifling debate. This is now done in the name of tolerance and Multicultural diversity, not God, but the result is much the same. The end of religion, thus, didn’t herald an age of reason; it led to a new age of secular superstition and new forms of witch-hunts. Bad things can be said about medieval Europeans, but at least they didn’t import Muslims in large numbers and congratulate themselves for their tolerance. Secular Europeans do.
Andrew G. Bostom keeps referring to Julien Benda and his 1928 book The Treason of the Intellectuals, about how the abandonment of objective truths abetted totalitarian ideologies, which led to World War II. Bostom identifies a similar failure of Western intellectuals to acknowledge the history of Jihad today. From what I gather, Benda was a bit too anti-religious and anti-nationalist for my taste, but otherwise I agree: The problems faced by the West now in confronting Jihad have been facilitated by a failure of our education system, our media and indeed our entire society to uphold the ideal of critical thinking. If the rise of the West was linked to political liberty, rational thinking, free speech and universities championing free enquiry, the decline of the West can be linked to the decline of the same factors.
Author V.S. Naipaul thinks Islam is parasitical by nature and preys upon the pre-Islamic culture in the conquered lands. I will add that it is also the kind of parasite which kills its host. I have no doubt that if Muslims should succeed in conquering Europe, this will in the future be hailed as a Golden Age of Islam. But it wouldn’t be a Golden Age of Islam, it would be the twilight of Europe, just as the previous Golden Age was the twilight of the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Zoroastrian and Buddhist cultures from North Africa to Central Asia, and the much vaunted accomplishments of “Islamic medieval science” were echoes of the heritage of Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Syrians and Greeks.
Yes, I know Mughal emperors could create magnificent architecture such as the Taj Mahal in India, but this was still a slave-state based upon the exploitation and persecution of non-Muslims. And yes, there can be rulers such as Akbar the Great, with his religious tolerance and imperial garden with thousands of cheetahs, but he was tolerant precisely because he was a Muslim in name only. Any such ruler will be succeeded by more pious Muslims, as was the case with Aurangzeb who reinstated the Jizya tax for infidels and destroyed Hindu temples. Anything good that happens in countries under Islamic rule generally happens in spite of Islam, not because of Islam, and the good parts will soon be reversed in the name of sharia. There will always be at least a dozen Aurangzebs to every Akbar.
We are currently witnessing major global shifts in power. In a macrohistorical perspective, China was the leading civilization a millennium ago but was surpassed by Europe. I firmly believe free speech and political liberty have long-term effects, and I’m not convinced China can keep up her economic progress unless she undertakes reforms. I’m also not convinced Europe’s Islamization is inevitable, yet, but if present trends continue, maybe we will see a reversal of roles in the twenty-first century: China will prosper and Europe will disintegrate. In the meantime, however, when Muslims get their hands on Western technology and Europe’s accumulated wealth, the world from Britain to Thailand could be plunged into a new age of Jihad.
Could the Ancient Greeks Have Created the Scientific Revolution?
This essay was inspired by a comment from blogger Conservative Swede, who once stated that the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions were the products of Greek logic and Roman engineering skills, and had little to do with Christianity. I think he goes too far in his criticism of Christianity, which isn’t to say that none of what he says about it is true. Yes, a globalist outlook in part derived from Christian universalism contributes to the difficulties Western nations have in upholding their borders. In Britain, hundreds of thousands of failed asylum seekers may be allowed to settle permanently under a “back-door amnesty.” This is supported by many Christian leaders. The West isn’t a “Christian” culture alone. The first recognizably Western people were Greek pagans, and many Christian nations are not even remotely Western. On the other hand, Christianity has exerted a powerful influence on our civilization for two thousand years. It is difficult to envision our culture without it.
Renaissance humanists viewed everything in between the downfall of Rome in the fifth century AD and the revival of the Classical heritage from the fourteenth century as an unenlightened age which they labeled the Middle Ages. In the nineteenth century, Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt and German historian George Voigt devoted considerable time to the epoch which was dubbed the “Renaissance,” or “rebirth.”
The term “medieval” has, somewhat unfairly, come to carry decisively negative connotations. There was indeed unrest and social upheavals for a prolonged period of time following the collapse of Roman authority, which triggered substantial population movements across the continent. However, even during these turbulent and troubled times there were exceptions. The Carolingians managed to halt the Islamic invasion in France in the eighth century and for some time rebuilt a stronger state. Christianity spread among the barbarians, and especially from the eleventh century onwards, Europe witnessed the rise of stronger states and more political stability. This was the period during which the first European universities were founded, and crucial improvements were made in the fields of agriculture and commerce, paving the way for a rapid rise in Europe’s population. In some important ways, especially regarding the accumulation of wealth and scientific knowledge and the willingness to invest in the practical application of technology for long-term gains, the Middle Ages not only caught up with, but greatly surpassed the achievements of the Classical Age. The Renaissance was an important event in Western history, but on balance, the modern West probably owes more to the Middle Ages than to the Renaissance.
Blog reader Pagan Westerner says that when he thinks of Western Civilization, he thinks of “Plato, Aristotle, Archimedes, Euclid, Socrates, Euripides, Sophocles, Horace, Cicero, Ovid, Homer. In short, I think of the Greeks and Romans, who were most decidedly PAGAN. The roots of Western Civilization came from Pagans, not Christians. Science, art, philosophy, geometry, algebra, name what you will. What crowning achievements of Western civilization occurred between 300 AD and 1400 AD? I can think of very few. These times are commonly called the Dark Ages, and for good reason.” Moreover, during the Renaissance, when civilization began once more to flower, Europeans again turned to the Greeks and the Romans for inspiration. In his view, the Catholic Church was nothing but “a corrupt and barbarous institution.”
As blogger Lawrence Auster replies, the Roman Catholic Church was the only surviving institution of the Roman world: “Over hundreds of years, the Germanic and Celtic barbaric nations of Europe were slowly Christianized, in the process becoming settled nations under a rule of law. The merging together of Christianity (which carried much of the classical culture with it) with the cultures of the Germanic barbarians represented the beginning of a new civilization, which we now call the West. Western civilization is not a single thing, but an amalgamation of (1) the culture of the destroyed classical world, (2) the Christian religion, and (3) the cultures of the Northern barbarians. […] The High Middle Ages (1000 to 1300) were the product of the Early Middle Ages (the Dark Ages), and in turn served as the foundation of modern Western civilization.”
This period also brought the Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The term “Gothic” is a misnomer as the style had nothing to do with Goths, a post-Roman Germanic tribe. It was coined following the Renaissance and revival of the Classical style by Brunelleschi. Everything before this was considered barbarian. Those who have seen great Gothic cathedrals such as the Notre Dame in Paris will, however, fail to see any sign of barbarism in them. The Romanesque style is usually called Norman style in English, as it was championed in England by the Normans, the conquerors of mixed French and Viking (Norsemen) origins. The Norman-style Winchester cathedral has been the seat of coronations, including for Crusader King Richard the Lionheart, and for burials ranging from the son of William the Conqueror to novelist Jane Austen.
Neither the Nordic lands nor most of Germany or many of the Celtic or Slavic nations of Northern and Eastern Europe were ever a part of the Roman Empire, yet we still talk about our shared “Greco-Roman heritage.” All European languages are littered with Greek and Latin words. Scandinavians used to worship Thor, Odin and a number of other Norse gods who in many ways resembled mortals, only with more power, not unlike the Greek and Roman gods of old. The end of the Viking Age, usually dated to the mid-11th century, largely coincided with Scandinavians becoming Christianized, which is when we gradually become integrated into the wider matrix of European civilization. The Classical heritage came to us on the back of Christianity.
Bruce S. Thornton, American classicist and author, points out that philosophy, history, logic, physics, criticism, rhetoric, dialectic, dialogue, tragedy, comedy, epic, lyric, analysis and democracy are all Greek words and expressions of critical consciousness.
While medical writings from the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia were still subordinated to superstition, “Greek medical writers for the most part ignored supernatural explanations and focused instead on their own observations and the consistent patterns of nature.” For instance, a Hippocratic work indicates that epilepsy has a natural cause rather than divine origins, which was commonly assumed at the time. The Greek physician Hippocrates from the fifth century B.C. is generally referred to as the Father of Medicine, and the Hippocratic Oath regarding the ethical practice of medicine is still taken by many physicians today.
In the eyes of Thornton, “Critical consciousness is the precious legacy the West received from the Greeks, a way of looking at the world that generates the cultural, intellectual, and political ideas—free speech, rationalism, consensual government, individualism, human rights—we all cherish today. Even during the dominance of Christian intellectual and cultural unity, this impulse to challenge and question and criticize persisted, as can be seen in the numerous theological debates and heresies throughout the Christian period, culminating in that great movement of Christian self-criticism, the Reformation. Both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were to some degree expressions of the liberation of this critical self-consciousness from the traditional restraints of Christian dogma and fossilized custom.”
Yes, the Greeks valued rational thought, a precious legacy which they have passed on to us. This is also why we still identify with them. They were Westerners in some defining respects, but they still retained ideas alien to us today, and modern Westerners have later added layers of ideas and concepts which the ancient Greeks on their part no doubt would have found equally alien. Could Greek logic and ingenuity alone have triggered the Scientific Revolution? I’m not entirely convinced.
The Antikythera mechanism is a device discovered by a Greek diver in the year 1900. It has been dated to the second century B.C., and in the words of an international research project dedicated to it, “Nothing as complex is known for the next thousand years,” possibly longer. It was created for studying astronomical phenomena “and operates as a complex mechanical ‘computer,’” although its “program” could not be changed. Judging from the surviving texts from the Library of Alexandria, some early prototypes were built by Archimedes. It is known that the Greeks later built several similar mechanical devices.
The mechanism has been taken as proof that the ancient Greeks were more technically advanced than we usually give them credit for. As Professor Mike Edmunds of Cardiff University says: “It makes you wonder what they would have achieved if they’d have carried on, and the Romans hadn’t taken over and put a stop to things. Would they have had a man on the Moon by AD 300? It sounds ridiculous, but if they were able to construct something as technically brilliant as this, it’s not complete fantasy.” The Romans “were great at the stuff like building sewers and getting things done, but it was the Greeks who were the thinkers, and came up with real innovative technology.”
Journalist John Seabrook asks a timely question: “But, if the Greeks did have greater technological sophistication than we think they did, why didn’t they apply it to making more useful things — time- and work-saving machines, for example — instead of elaborate singing automatons? Or is what we consider important about technology — which is, above all, that it is useful — different from what the Greeks considered worthwhile: amusement, enlightenment, delight for its own sake?”
According to Seabrook, it has been speculated whether the inventor of the Antikythera mechanism was Hipparchus, the greatest of all ancient Greek astronomers, who lived on the island of Rhodes from about 140 to 120 B.C. He is thought to have founded a school that was maintained by Posidonius. The Roman writer Cicero, who studied there, mentions a device “recently constructed by our friend Posidonius.”
During an Internet search I came across a fascinating text entitled Why did the Ancients not Develop Machinery? Although not clearly marked, it appears to have been written by Hal Haskell, professor of the Classics Program of Southwestern University in the USA.
According to him, a Greek engineer named Ctesibius, who lived in Alexandria in Ptolemaic Egypt in the third century B.C., created a hydraulic organ whose power was furnished by a column of water supported on a cushion of air. Hero, another engineer from the first century A.D., described the first recorded steam engine, a rudimentary windmill and other inventions that were apparently viewed as curiosities and never went into machines for replacing men’s labor. Hero of Alexandria thus lived in a major city in the Roman Empire, then in a prosperous phase, yet the potentially revolutionary ideas he described failed to gain much practical attention.
The Romans knew the water mill. Their predecessors, the Etruscans, probably knew it centuries earlier. In the first century B.C., the architect and engineer Vitruvius, who had served in the army in the Gaul under Julius Caesar, authored the book The Ten Books of Architecture, dedicated to the emperor Augustus. He described various known inventions, among them a water mill, which he mentioned with casual indifference. The Romans could create great feats of engineering which we continue to marvel at today, and roads still in use in modern times. Massive aqueducts supplied water to major cities across the Empire. Yet as Haskell says, “A water mill can grind effortlessly in under three minutes what would take a man or beast an hour of hard work. Once discovered, it should have swept over the Mediterranean world as quickly as it was to sweep over Europe a millennium later. It did nothing of the sort.”
Why not? One explanation provided by Marxist historians is that the widespread slavery in the Greco-Roman world prevented any incentive to develop technology. Haskell believes that “one can emphatically deny that slave labor was always plentiful and cheap; there were long periods when it was nothing of the sort.” As he says:
“It was no one from the ancient world but a western European of the Middle Ages, Hugh of St. Victor, who said, Propter neressitatem inventa est mechanica, necessity is the mother of technology. By his time technology had become integrated into men’s thinking habits. They had learned to turn to it automatically as the way of solving certain problems; they had, in short, invented invention. The phrase would never have come to the lips of a Greek or Roman. They totally lacked a tradition of carrying on sustained effort to produce a technological solution to a felt need. Invention, as they saw it, was the result of happy accident. Among their heroes are no James Watts, no Thomas Edisons, no men who devoted a lifetime to studying, experimenting, perfecting a device Their classic story is of Archimedes’ discovery of the principle of specific gravity while in his bath pondering how to test the honesty of a goldsmith.”
The Classical world also suffered from a severe prejudice against work of the hands. Cicero declared that “all craftsmen are engaged in a lowly art, for no workshop can have anything about it appropriate to a free man.” Historian Plutarch remarked that Archimedes, though he had won acclaim for his military inventions, “never wanted to leave behind a book on the subject but viewed the work of the engineer and every single art connected with everyday need as ignoble and fit only for an artisan. He devoted his ambition only to those studies in which beauty and subtlety are present uncontaminated by necessity.” Haskell thinks this is because “the best brains of antiquity did not occupy themselves with technology except as a pastime or for war.”
Anther problem was that the Greco-Roman world lacked a modern understanding of capitalism. Wealth should preferably come from the land. Commerce was barely socially acceptable, whereas industry was looked down upon, which is why the latter in the Roman world “never progressed beyond the large workshop stage.” Cato in the second century B.C. was a Roman landowner as good as any. However, as Haskell states, “if you had asked his advice on what crops sold the best or netted the most profit, about quickness of turnover, capital investment, and other standard bits of today’s economic wisdom, he could not have known what you were talking about.”
The windmill for grinding grain probably made its debut in Persia, perhaps in the seventh century A.D. It spread over medieval Europe almost explosively a few centuries later, and by the fourteenth century, “water- and windpower had replaced muscle not only for fulling cloth and grinding grain but for sawing wood, lifting water, crushing anything from ore to olives.” In contrast, by 1206 the leading Arab engineer of the day observed to his readers that the notion of driving mills by the wind was nonsense.
Many of the earliest mills arose in monasteries. However, there were two forms of Christianity: That of the Greek East and that of the Latin West, “yet technology got no further in the east than it did in ancient Greece and Rome.” The Eastern held that sin is ignorance and that salvation comes by illumination, the Western that sin is vice and that rebirth comes by disciplining the will to do good works. According to Haskell, “The effect of this theological difference was to restore respectability not only to the artisan but to manual labor, to remove the disrepute under which it had suffered during all of ancient times. And in this, monasticism played a significant role. From the beginning, the monks had been mindful of the Hebrew tradition that work was in accordance with God’s commandment.”
Ironically, it was precisely because political authority had disintegrated more in the West that an entirely new cultural synthesis could develop there, since “civilization had fallen so devastatingly low that the monks had to assume responsibility for all aspects of culture, profane as well as sacred, the life of the body as well as that of the mind. Out of this grew an interest in practical affairs in general and, in particular, in the physical aspects of worship, a line of interest that led to the embellishment of the church and of the service through technology.” Whereas Eastern churches forbade music, “the cathedral at Winchester as early as the tenth century boasting a huge organ of 400 pipes fed by 28 bellows that required 70 men to pump them.”
This led to the invention of polyphonic music, and thus indirectly to the rise of composers such as Bach and Beethoven. Here is a clear-cut example of how cultural and religious ideas, not just between different religions but even doctrinal differences between various denominations of the same religion, can have a big and lasting impact on the development of a civilization. Historical materialists underestimate the force and importance of human ideas.
Lynn White, professor of medieval history, states that: “By the end of the 15th century the technological superiority of Europe was such that its small, mutually hostile nations could spill out over all the rest of the world, conquering, looting, and colonizing. The symbol of this technological superiority is the fact that Portugal, one of the weakest states of the Occident, was able to become, and to remain for a century, mistress of the East Indies.” This was a radical new development during the Middle Ages, because “before the 11th century, science scarcely existed in the Latin West, even in Roman times.”
He believes that “The victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture. It has become fashionable today to say that, for better or worse, we live in the ‘post-Christian age.’ Certainly the forms of our thinking and language have largely ceased to be Christian, but to my eye the substance often remains amazingly akin to that of the past. Our daily habits of action, for example, are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco — Roman antiquity or to the Orient. It is rooted in, and is indefensible apart from, Judeo — Christian theology.” The fact that Marxists share this view of history moving inexorable towards a specific end, a nonrepetitive and linear concept of time, demonstrates that Marxism “is a Judeo — Christian heresy.”
White also blames Christian attitudes for environmental destruction, because it envisioned man not as a creature living in harmony with the natural world, but as its master: “By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” He believes Westerners should rather look to Saint Francis of Assisi’s belief in humility- not merely for the individual but for man as a species. I think White goes too far in blaming Christianity here. Even some of the early Mayan civilizations in Central America may have collapsed due to environmental destruction. The problem is neither new nor exclusively Western in its origins.
According to author Rodney Stark, “Christian faith in reason was influenced by Greek philosophy. But the more important fact is that Greek philosophy had little impact on Greek religions. Those remained typical mystery cults.” He also states that “It was during the so-called Dark Ages that European technology and science overtook and surpassed the rest of the world. Some of that involved original inventions and discoveries; some of it came from Asia. But what was so remarkable was the way that the full capacities of new technologies were recognized and widely adopted.”
This was made possible through the growth of capitalism, which happened first in the city-states of northern Italy with some degree of political freedom. For this reason, he believes that the German sociologist Max Weber in his influential study The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was “obviously wrong.” The celebrated Belgian scholar Henri Pirenne noted that “all of the essential features of capitalism — individual enterprise, advances in credit, commercial profits, speculation, etc. — are to be found from the 12th century on, in the city republics of Italy — Venice, Genoa, or Florence.”
I take some issue with Stark here. Maybe I am biased since I come from a traditionally Protestant country myself, but I do think it is accurate to say that Protestant nations proved especially dynamic in adopting science and capitalism. In that sense, Weber was correct that there is a connection between Protestantism and capitalism. Protestantism also encouraged ordinary people to read the Bible in the vernacular, which encouraged the growth of literacy. Still, there is no doubt that the foundations of science and capitalism were created in Catholic Europe in the Middle Ages.
Journalist Algis Valiunas rejects some of these claims in the magazine First Things: “To declare reason the invention of Catholic theologians is absurd. To speak slightingly of classical Greek ‘learning’ and ‘lore’ without making clear that the signal Greek achievement is philosophy, the effort to understand the world by reason alone, is a travesty. Stark makes Aristotle and Plato sound like bumpkins whom no truly reasonable man would think of taking seriously. Accordingly, Stark maintains cunning silence about the immeasurable debt that his beloved Thomas Aquinas owes to Aristotle, whom St. Thomas and numerous other Scholastics named simply ‘the Philosopher,’ in need of no further identification. And Stark inanely traces direct lines of descent from the seventeenth-century innovators of the New Science to Thomas Aquinas and the scholastics, evidently unaware that Francis Bacon, the foremost such innovator, contemptuously controverts the teaching of these theologians—and their intellectual father, Aristotle—in The New Organon.”
I agree that crediting Christianity alone with creating the foundations for reason is incorrect. The encounter with Greek philosophy was of vital importance, as I have demonstrated earlier. But Christianity within a specific historical context did contribute to it, yes.
According to the book Civilizations of the World by Richard L. Greaves, “The dramatic achievements of the High Middle Ages — urban growth, the organization of guilds and universities, the construction of majestic cathedrals and guildhalls, and the revival of monarchical authority — were possible only because of the large-scale economic expansion that grew out of an agricultural revival that began in the tenth century. The development of the three-field system and crop rotation; the use of horses, properly harnessed and shoe-clad, and of fertilizer; the recovery of new land by deforestation and drainage; and the increased use of heavy wheeled plows, metal tools, and windmills permitted Europeans to produce more food with less human labor.”
The Hanseatic League, trading guilds which connected the Low Countries and Germany with Scandinavia, England and the Baltic region, joined the Mediterranean ports into a vast trading network. The Fourth Crusade, otherwise a great crime which paved the way for the fall of Constantinople to Muslims, benefited the Italians by undermining the Byzantines as rivals. The Hundred Years’ War between England and France strengthened armies and weaponry as well as national sentiments, with the emergence of national symbols such as Joan of Arc. Even the plague did not stop the technological progress in Europe.
As stated in Gardner’s book Art Through the Ages , Tenth edition, “Especially significant for art were the increasing professionalization of the artist and the passing of patronage from the Church to the great princes and princely families, in alliance with or independent of wealthy cities. We have seen this happening in the city-states of Italy. What made it happen was the acquisition and accumulation of capital. Despite the calamities of the age [note: such as the Black Death, the devastating Eurasian plague pandemic], an economic system was evolving — the early stage of European capitalism.”
The Florentines “also developed a culture that was stimulated and supported by a vast accumulation of wealth, a situation much like that in Periclean Athens, except that in Athens it was the city-state, not private individuals, that commissioned the major buildings, paintings, and statues of the Classical age. In Florence a few illustrious Florentine families controlled the wealth and became the leading patrons of the Italian Renaissance.” The Medici family were bankers to all of Europe, and “one of the most prominent patrons of the Roman Renaissance, Pope Leo X, benefactor of Raphael and Michelangelo, was himself a Medici, the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Never in history was a family so intimately associated with a great cultural revolution. We may safely say that the Medici subsidized and endowed the Renaissance.”
Galileo Galilei, when he discovered the moons of Jupiter, named them “Medicean stars” after his benefactors. This was later changed to “Galilean satellites.” Although invented in the Netherlands in 1608, Galileo made his own version of the telescope within months. Galilei’s idea that “the language of God is mathematics” reveals a Christian notion of a rational Creator whose laws could be predicted logically. His emphasis on practical experiments was also different from the mentality of many of the ancient Greeks.
Writer Ohmyrus states that “As time went on, all or most of the ‘easy’ inventions were made. New inventions require more research and thus more investment of time and resources. The discovery of new scientific principles often do not have any immediate practical use. (…) This explains why all, except Christian civilization, stagnated after showing much progress in its early years. Roman civilization lasted 1,000 years and did not make the scientific revolution. Neither did the Egyptian nor Chinese nor Indian civilizations which have been around for even longer time than did the Romans.”
Many cultures, for instance the Chinese, could produce many intelligent individuals and extensive trade, but only in Christian Europe did historical circumstances produce all the ingredients necessary to ignite the Scientific Revolution.
In his book Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences , author Charles Murray ranks individual accomplishments from 800 B.C. to 1950 AD. In Western Music, those with the highest ranks are, unsurprisingly, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach. In mathematics, Swiss mathematician Euler tops ahead of Newton, Euclid of Alexandria, Frenchmen Fermat and Pascal and several Germans: Leibniz, Gauss and Cantor.
In physics, Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein tie for first place, ahead of Rutherford, Faraday, J. J. Thomson, Cavendish, Niels Bohr from Denmark and the Polish-French physicist Marie Curie. In technology, Scottish engineer James Watt, whose improvements to the steam engine were fundamental to the Industrial Revolution, is tied with American inventor Thomas Edison ahead of Leonardo da Vinci, Dutchman Christiaan Huygens, Archimedes and Vitruvius as well as Marconi, who, building on the work of Maxwell, Tesla, Hertz, Indian physicist Bose and others, were one of the pioneers in creating radio. In combined sciences: Newton, Galileo, Kepler, René Descartes, Laplace, Pasteur and chemist Antoine Lavoisier.
In Western philosophy we find Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas as well as a number of Enlightenment philosophers: Kant, Hegel, John Locke, David Hume, Spinoza and Thomas Hobbes, whose 1651 book Leviathan had a major impact on later political thinking. In Western literature, Shakespeare, Goethe, Italian poet Dante Alighieri, most remembered today for The Divine Comedy, the Roman poet Virgil and finally Homer, whose Iliad and the Odyssey from the 8th or 7th century B.C. (although some believe they are not the work of a single author) are considered to mark the starting point of Greek Classical Antiquity.
It is possible to take issue with some details of these rankings. In Western Art, Pablo Picasso in ranked second to Michelangelo. I like Picasso, but I’m not convinced he should be listed before Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, Giotto, Velázquez, Donatello and Jan van Eyck, not to mention Raphael, Leonardo and Titian. I take even stronger issue with Rousseau in Western literature, maybe because I personally dislike him, but I honestly don’t think he deserves being mentioned next to Homer and Shakespeare and ahead of Byron, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Friedrich Schiller.
The list is heavily dominated by those widely denounced today as Dead White Males, for they are almost all men, and most of them are from Europe. Does the book suffer from a Eurocentric bias? For good or bad, Europeans during the past thousand years have largely created the modern world. According to Murray, this is because “highly familistic, consensual cultures have been the norm throughout history and the world. Modern Europe has been the oddball.”
Murray is considered controversial by some because he supports the thesis that intelligence, measured in IQ, is not equally distributed among all the world’s populations. Ashkenazi Jews are supposedly the ethnic group with the highest average intelligence, and they have left their mark vastly disproportionate to their numbers. It would be interesting to ponder how much the decimation of much of European Jewry has hurt Europe, not just morally and culturally but also economically. Still, East Asians are supposed to have at least as high intelligence as people of European stock. When the Scientific Revolution took place in Europe and not in China, this must have cultural causes. Western culture has by and large enjoyed the benefits of greater political freedom and more individualism as opposed to consensus and traditionalism. Christianity played an important part, too.
Murray writes: “It was a theology that empowered the individual acting as an individual as no other philosophy or religion had ever done before. The potentially revolutionary message was realized more completely in one part of Christendom, the Catholic West, than in the Orthodox East. The crucial difference was that Roman Catholicism developed a philosophical and artistic humanism typified, and to a great degree engendered, by Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274). Aquinas made the case, eventually adopted by the Church, that human intelligence is a gift from God, and that to apply human intelligence to understanding the world is not an affront to God but is pleasing to him.”
He believes that the 20th century witnessed a decline in artistic accomplishment, as artists and intellectuals rejected religion. It’s also a challenge for democratic societies to keep up standards of excellence while there is an obsession with making everyone equal. Moreover, Murray is pessimistic regarding the current state of Europe. While visiting, he noticed that Europeans take no pride in their scientific and artistic legacy, and attempts to point this out to them will always be met with pessimism and a sense that European civilization is cursed.
Maybe belief in a higher purpose is necessary for the creation of true greatness. Achievements that outlast the lifespan of a single human being are generated out of respect for something greater than the individual. Many Europeans no longer experience themselves as part of a wider community with a past worth preserving and a future worth fighting for, which is arguably why they see no point in reproducing themselves. Europe in the past believed in itself, in its culture, its nations and above all its religion, and produced Michelangelo, Descartes and Newton. Europe now believes in virtually nothing, and produces virtually nothing. Maybe we can regain our talent and strength, but in order to do so we first need to regain our faith, not juts religious faith, but faith in ourselves, our culture and our future. Can we do that?