Mark Starr: A Worker Looks At History

Chapter 11: The Renaissance from Medieval Night

11. The Renaissance from Medieval Night.

'THE breadth and depth of this subject forbid its adequate treatment in a single Outline. The fact that this Re—awakening movement has never stopped, and that daily new specialities and subdivisions of the sciences are being made, compels us to make only a brief general survey of it. To trace technical progress in any one of the sciences born in the Renaissance would fill ponderous tomes. Therefore only a few of the most striking contrasts between the ideas of the Middle Ages and of modern times will be given, leaving the reader to follow this re—birth upon a fuller scale for himself. This movement—in which "man discovered himself and the world anew"—is also here viewed, not as an English, but as a European, a world advance.

Contradictory descriptions of the Dark Ages exist. Some historians have told us romantic tales about the time when chivalry flourished and knights were bold, and when the monks tended the flickering flame of culture and learning. Others paint a different picture: "The Middle Ages was a period of bestial ignorance, raping knights, robber troubadours, and fine ladies who never changed their underclothing."

Previous Advances in Learning.—As the name implies the Re—naissance was the re—birth, not the birth, of learning. Greek thought mightily influenced the world. In Greece that necessary leisure—without which learning is impossible—was secured by slave—labour. The Greeks, almost as soon as they are known to history, had left behind them their Homeric mythology. It is an interesting task to notice how the introspection of Socrates and the vague idealism of Plato followed the vain attempts of Thales, Anaxagoras, Heracitus, Empedocles and many others to explain the origin of the universe and its inhabitants. They failed because they lacked the knowledge which specialisation and centuries of observation in the sciences were to bring.

But these philosophers made some clever guesses at the truth. 2,400 years before Kant, Anaximander rightly conjectured the nature of the heavenly bodies. Democritus anticipated the Atomic Theory only established by Dalton in 1803; and Empedocles and Heradlitus perceived that "Nothing is; everything is be coming," long before Hegel adopted it and Darwin furnished such a striking proof of it in biology in 1849.

It was a little later in history, in the city of Alexandria, that science began. The library attached to the famous Alexandrian Museum contained 400,000 volumes; an additional library also had 300,000. 14,000 students met in the city. Strenuous efforts were made, and no expense was spared, to collect, increase and diffuse knowledge. Here Aristarchus forestalled the later findings of Copernicus. Here Euclid formulated his well known propositions. Archimedes, the famous mathematician and inventor, was influenced by his residence in this intellectual metropolis. Hipparchus, with his astronomical tables, and Ptolemy, with his thirteen standard books on astronomy, only displaced nearly 1,500 years later by Newton's work, gathered in Alexandria their observations and knowledge. And these names are only examples drawn at random from a lengthy list of famous thinkers and discoverers in many branches of science who tried to solve the riddles of Nature in the shadow of that famous museum, unluckily burnt during Julius Caesar's siege of the town.

Turning to Rome in its cosmopolitan days, we find the oracles neglected; the gods left to look after themselves; and full liberty of thought allowed to all sects if they did not endanger the State or disturb others with their vigorous proselytising, as did the Christians and the Jews. Finally Christianity triumphed, became the State religion, and the Papacy, which Hobbes described as "the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire sitt1ng crowned upon the grave thereof," was evolved.

But before the latter development had happened, such scenes as the murder of Hypatia, the destruction of books of science, and the closing of the schools, had occurred. "Christianity proscribed philosophy, abolished the schools, and plunged the world into an abyss of darkness from which it only emerged after twelve hundred years." Inquiry was soon thought to be a sin; to doubt was to be damned; and the Bible was made the final authority on all questions.

As we shall deal later with the economic causes behind the Re—awakening, it should be here stated that this intellectual reaction was not caused by the introduction of any particular creed or system of thought, but it was an inevitable concomitant of the invasion of Europe by folk in a lower state of economic development, who later instituted the Feudal system. Fighting predominated over thinking.

Contrasts.—In the Dark Ages the world was thought to be flat; the sky fitted it like an inverted basin in which went to and fro the sun and moon and stars, thus providing man, the centre and the crown of creation, with light. Above the sky was heaven, and below the earth was hell. One ingenious explanation of night was that the sun disappeared behind a big mountain.

The stars and the earth's shape and position were the first things to attract the attention of thinkers. The revolution in thought, begun by Copernicus about 1507, proved the truth of the heliocentric theory, and revealed that our earth is only a minute speck of dust among countless larger worlds, "pinnacled dim in the immense inane." "Worlds," writes Draper, "are scattered like dust in vast abysses of space." Man could no longer be considered as the reason why the sun yielded heat and light. The world could not be fiat after sailors had proved the horizon endless.

Astronomy is thus the oldest science. In Egypt the appearance of certain stars and the overflowings of the Nile were noticed to coincide. In our own country even the builders of Stonehenge had watched the movements of the sun and stars to some purpose. Especially in the dearer southern skies, the stars at night would serve as a guide to the early desert and ocean travellers, and thus by reason of their utility, excite interest. The age, formation, and motion of the earth also provided fields of study and controversy. Ideas now found in children's lesson books were denounced fiercely by the Church as being heretical. There were contradictory estimates of the earth's age based upon the scriptural records, but they all agreed that she was not more than 6,000 years old, and that she had been made in a week.

The abandonment of these ideas is recent history. Geology destroys "the lie on the lips of the priest," and gives evidence of the earth's remote origin and formation in a period requiring myriads of centuries. We now know that man himself is about a quarter of a million years old, and is a part of the animal kingdom, whose existence goes back even further.

We have difficulty in realising the dense ignorance of a time when ascetics, to glorify their religion, broke off the highest of human relations, and in deep solitude became dirtier than the beasts; when the churches were filled with terror—stricken, praying crowds at the appearance of the comets; and when, while the Saracens in Spain and Africa had raised science, hygiene, drainage and street—paving to a high level, Europe, wallowing in ignorance, had none of these things. But, in time, personal and public cleanliness and efficient drainage were found to be better preventives against plagues than prayers; sickness and lunacy were not ascribed to the workings of evil spirits and to demoniacal possession (though Luther, living as late as he did, strongly believed in devils); and a thousand and one improvements, such as glass windows and chimneys, were made in the dwellings of the people with beneficial results. Gone are the ferocious punishments for crime, the trials by ordeal, the horrors of the Inquisition—the thoughts of which still provoke a shudder—the burnings and drownings of men and women as wizards and witches, the ruthless means by which inquiry was suppressed, and the absurd worship of relics. The Renaissance was the dawn of commonsense.

New Methods of Reasoning.—Hitherto reasoning had been largely deductive in its method, i.e., reasoning from the theory to that of facts. General principles whose truth no one was allowed to question had been used to explain particular facts—often in a ludicrous manner. Bacon's name and book, Novum Organon are associated with the revival of the inductive method in England. This was just the opposite to the deductive. The facts displace the theory in importance. The tendency of the mind to rashly generalise and to let its wishes influence its thoughts and beliefs is under this method of reasoning restrained. All the facts must be observed carefully before the genera1isation is made, and with new facts may come the revision of the theory or generalisation. This is the method of science. For science corrects the evidence of the senses; probes beneath the superficial; preserves an alert and critical mind; ignores the mysterious and the miraculous; and is always willing to recast her generalisations if they do not agree with the facts. It was the growth of this scientific spirit which, armed with telescope, microscope, spectroscope, barometer, thermometer, chemical balance and other tools, was later to have such wonderful results; and which broke up the torpor, credulity and ignorance of the medieval mind.

The Causes of the Awakening. — What then, was the cause behind this awakening, which gradually substituted reason for revelation, and caused men to carefully observe and interrogate Nature in all her phases; and which revived the study of the ancient manuscripts which had so long been neglected. Many reasons have been given as to why the Church's power declined until she was no longer able to preserve her unity of belief by burning the folk who dissented therefrom; why innumerable improvements of civilisation were introduced into Europe; and why anatomy, with its dissection of the human body, ignoring the theologian's fears of difficulties arising on the resurrection morning, was adopted with other sciences which have sought to banish disease and pain rather than to treat them as necessary evils.[Lecky, in Chap. IV. of his History of European Morals, writes :—"Not till the education of Europe passed from the monasteries to the universities, not till Mohammedan science and classical free thought and industrial independence broke the sceptre of the Church did the intellectual revival of Europe begin."]

The fall of Constantinople (1453) drove the remnants of the ancient culture west, chiefly to the Italian towns, which, it should be noted, were significantly not only the centres of trade, but also of learning. The economic cause behind the Crusades, and their effects upon Europe in bringing her into touch with the more highly developed Saracens, have already been traced. Not only were "the plugged—up trade routes" the cause of the Crusades, but they made it imperative that another way to the East should be discovered, and were thus the cause of those voyages which had such immense results in widening the trading area, in creating an adventurous spirit of inquiry, and in destroying old ideas concerning the world.

To sum up briefly, we would say that these new ideas betoken the rise of a new class. The conflict between the darkness of Medievalism and the light of the Renaissance was the ideological counterpart of the growing conflict between the decaying Feudal system (with its chief support, the Church) and the rising commercial class. Both gunpowder and printing—the latter a munition works of mental high explosives—helped on the passing of Feudalism.

In order that old traditions and authorities should be shattered and individualism developed, science, ever the handmaid of the rising class, was employed. The Industrial Revolution (to be treated of later) was no chance happening. Who can imagine it happening without the development of physics and chemistry? Think of the intimate connection between mining and geology—and these are only stray examples. Yet all these sciences have their roots in the spirit born in the Renaissance.

The powers of reaction, whose chief representative in the period under notice was the Church, fluttered like a moth at the light of the Reawakening; but all in vain. From Hypatia to Ferrer the Church has punished the sin of inquiry whenever she has been powerful enough to do so. The vituperation with which the Evolution Theory was hailed has hardly yet died away; yet, we have in our own times intellectual slovenliness, cloudy mysticism, and attempts to square science with religion, encouraged by the reactionary forces of the capitalist class——once a ruthless opponent of medieval mysticism, but now wishing to preserve things as they are.

"The tide of battle which turned at the Renaissance has never suffered a set—back." Modern industry is the embodiment of rationalism. Confident in truth, science has no need to persecute and crucify its enemies; break its opponents upon the wheel of torture; or burn them at the stake. Endeavour to recall what tremendous benefits in her short 300 years of life she has brought to mankind, and who will say what she will not do in the next 300 years?

The capitalist class found it necessary in their rise to power to develop the natural sciences and consciously control the natural forces. And just as in the natural sciences astrology preceded astronomy; alchemy— with its vain search for the elixir of endless life and for the philosopher's stone with the Midas touch— preceded chemistry; and Genesis preceded The Origin of Species in biology; so, in the social sciences, Ideal Socialism came before Scientific Socialism. In the development of the latter a conscious control of the social forces will be won; the benefits resulting from past improvements will no longer be unequally shared; and the re—awakening of the scientific spirit, the theme of this Outline, will be continued and applied in regions hitherto untouched. The working—class, when it so desires, can reap the heritage of the past.

Books.—Reading a little more general than our usual text books is needed to appreciate the cause and significance of the Renaissance. The works of Lecky, Draper, White and others contain much information upon the subject. Professor Bury's History of Freedom of Thought (H.U.L. 1s. 6d.) is a handy little book for those who lack the time and money for larger works. Charles Reade's The Cloister and the Hearth (Everyman Series) besides being an interesting novel, gives a good idea of the credulity and ignorance which prevailed before the printing press existed. Two books summing up the position in a general popular fashion from a Socialist viewpoint are Arthur M. Lewis' Struggle between Science and Superstition, and Science and Revolution (Kerr & Co., Chicago). Engels' Historical Materialism.