I cleverly avoided studying “Western Civ” in both high school and college. A pity, because, although I had studied it in grade school — and thought a grade-school course was enough — it wasn’t. It would have behooved me to have a go at either Exeter or Harvard, where I would have gotten a world-class exposure.
Instead I’m coming back to it late(r) in life, now in my sixties, and having to play catch-up. The downside of doing so is that I may not have enough time. The upside is that I’m a better steward of my time and more in touch with my purposes.
My purpose is 1) to get a hold on how “the modern era” (the era of science, humanism, liberal democracy) arose out of the seemingly unpromising Middle Ages and 2) to figure out and savor exactly what was stunning about what they thought back in antiquity.
(I’m aware that “the Middle Ages” is a catch-all term for 1000 years of history — from, say, the Fall of Rome to 1500 — of wildly varying character. That topic is also grist for the mill: you see why I’m worried about time?)
So, I’ve read “The Swerve”, by Stephen Greenblatt, and I’m in the midst of “Rubicon”, by Tom Holland and “The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox”, by Stephen Jay Gould (posthumous).
Gould makes the case that the transition from “the Middle Ages” to “the Scientific Revolution” was not a simple struggle between science and dogma but rather a two-step process (at least!), consisting of:
- Humanism in revolt against Dogma: in this phase the humanists looked to “Antiquity” (Greece and Rome) for new wisdom that had been forgotten/suppressed by the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christendom. Both Greenblatt and Gould make the case that there was both forgetting and suppressing.
- Science in revolt against Humanism: Humanism, the reverence from the Ancient, became a dogma in its own right, and science-oriented thinkers in Europe (and, in time, America) touted the virtue of direct observation over reverence for the past.
Greenblatt provides lots of supporting detail which seems to support this point of view. He is, however, after a different quarry: he wants to emphasize:
- What a near thing it was that we ever recovered Lucretius’ Epicurean masterpiece “On the Nature of Things”
- How vile the Christianity of the 1500’s was
- What had to happen in order for the science-based order to come into being.
These to me represent a more complicated point of view than I’ve been accustomed to, but for historians I’m sure it’s a glib oversimplification. At any rate, that’s what some reviewers said per the Wikipedia article on Greenblatt’s book. I’ll take it as my working theory for the time being.
So: 1) there is Truth beyond The Church and 2) Seek Truth from skeptical theories about Nature.
I want to read Lucretius now, of course, but first I want to find out more about Rome (and then probably about Greece).