Friday, October 12, 2007

A heavenly nursling

As epigraphs for his book The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, Charles Freeman quotes the 5th century B.C. playwright Euripides...
Blessed is he who learns how to engage in inquiry, with no impulse to harm his countrymen or to pursue wrongful actions, but perceives the order of immortal and ageless nature, how it is structured.
...and, from the late-4th/early-5th century A.D., Augustine of Hippo...
There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity...It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.
And there you have it, a conflict which still resounds, to which this site has often turned its collective attention.

Freeman's excellent book traces the rise of the Greek tradition of reasoned empiricism, which led to such stunning intellectual achievements in antiquity as the syllogistic logic of Aristotle, the geometry of Euclid, the geography of Eratosthenes, the astronomy of Aristarchus and Claudius Ptolemy, the medicine of Galen, the physics of Archimedes, and the natural philosophy of Lucretius. The Greek empiricists were confident in the ability of the human mind to gather some measure of truth about the world, but fully cognizant that truth (other than mathematical) is a tentative and evolving thing. This tradition endured within the Roman empire right up to the time of Constantine, although threatened by the Pauline attack on Greek philosophy, the adoption of Platonism by Christian theologians, and the enforcement of orthodoxy by emperors desperate to keep good order. To these erosive forces listed by Freeman, I would add the usual human vices, to which both Christians and pagans were subject, and to which the Sermon on the Mount and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are useful antidotes.

"By the 5th century, not only has rational thought been suppressed," writes Freeman, "but there has been a substitution for it of 'mystery, magic and authority.'" Pope Gregory the Great warned those with a rational turn of mind that by looking for cause and effect in the natural world they ignored the true cause of all things, the will of God. With the post-Constantine consolidation of dogmatic Christianity, the Greek door that led away from supernaturalism was firmly closed. The Athenian philosopher Proclus made the last recorded astronomical observation in the ancient world in A. D. 475; it would be a millennium before Copernicus resumed the tradition.

I tried to express this tension between Greek rational empiricism and Christian faith-based supernaturalism in my novel Valentine, which is set in the Roman world just prior to Constantine's epochal tipping of the scale firmly to the side of "mystery, magic and authority." Each of us, of course, will find a place somewhere on the scale. As Freeman's book amply demonstrates, naturalism and supernaturalism do not rest comfortably together. However, the Greek rational empiricists were not immune to wonder. Claudius Ptolemy was the greatest of the ancient scientific astronomers, but he remained in awe of the natural world:
I know that I am mortal, ephemeral; yet when I track the
Clustering spiral orbits of the stars
My feet touch earth no longer: a heavenly nursling,
Ambrosia-filled, I company with God.