Post-classical history

Chapter 5
Science and philosophy

Come, Mephistopheles, let us dispute again,

And reason of divine astrology.

Speak, are there many spheres above the moon?

Are all celestial bodies but one globe,

As is the substance of this centric earth?

(Faustus, in Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, c.1592)

Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus dramatizes the excitement and danger associated with the rise of science and speculative thought in the Renaissance. Faustus is a learned ‘astrologer’ who has reached the limits of the study of astronomy, anatomy, and philosophy. In seeking magical powers of life over death, Faustus sells his soul to the devil Mephistopheles. Given a chance to repent, he refuses. He is more interested in questioning Mephistopheles on the controversial topic of ‘divine astrology’. Faustus is ultimately damned and falls to hell. But his preference for learning and contempt for religion caught the late Renaissance popular imagination. His fate encapsulates modern anxieties about the ethics of scientific experimentation. This ambivalence (we want to know, but can we know too much?) captures the mood of the transformations in popular and applied science that took place in the 15th and 16th centuries. The individual’s relationship to his/her mind, body, and environment were all transformed as a result of renewed scientific collaboration in the pursuit of practical problem-solving, exchanges of ideas between cultures, and the impact of new technologies.

From macrocosm to microcosm

Once Faustus has sold his soul, he asks Mephistopheles for a book ‘where I might see all characters and planets of the heavens’. The most controversial book that Faustus could have consulted was On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres by the Polish canon and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. First printed in Nuremberg in May 1543, Copernicus’s revolutionary book overturned the medieval belief that the earth lay at the centre of the universe. Copernicus’s vision of the heavens showed that the earth, along with all the other known planets, rotated around the sun. Copernicus subtly revised the work of classical Greek and Arabic astronomy scholars. He argued that ‘they did not achieve their aim, which we hope to reach by accepting the fact that the earth moves’.

Copernicus tried to limit the revolutionary significance of his ideas by accommodating them within a classical scientific tradition. But the Catholic Church was horrified and condemned the book. Copernicus’s argument overturned the biblical belief that the earth – and humanity with it – stood at the centre of the universe. It was a liberating but dangerous idea.

Within a month of the publication of Copernicus’s treatise, another book was printed that would transform another area of science: Andreas Vesalius’s On the Structure of the Human Body. Published in Basle in June 1543, Vesalius’s book marked the beginning of modern observational science and anatomy. Its title-page depicts Vesalius conducting a graphic public anatomy lesson, held in a ‘theatre’, surrounded by students, citizens, and fellow physicians. Vesalius returns our gaze as he peels back the female cadaver’s abdomen. This gesture invites the reader to open the book and follow the anatomist as he reduces the human body to the skeleton that hovers above the dissected body. Vesalius revealed the mystery of the inner body as a complex map of flesh, blood, and bone, a potentially infinite source of study. His exploration of the secrets of the human body opened the way for the later 16th-century study of


16. Nicolaus Copernicus’s heliocentric system from his On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres (1543). For the first time the sun (‘Sol’) lies at the centre of the cosmos

the ear, the female reproductive organs, the venous system, and, in 1628, William Harvey’s theory of the circulation of the blood.

Vesalius’s anatomical studies were based on methodical observation and analysis of empirical reality. For Vesalius this meant stealing the bodies of the condemned and the diseased, as he confessed: ‘I was not afraid to snatch in the middle of the night what I so longed for.’ While Vesalius discovered the microscopic secrets of the human body, Copernicus explored the macrocosmic mysteries of the universe. The implications were profound. Copernicus ultimately transformed scientific apprehensions of time and space by undermining the notion of a divinely ordered world. Instead, the earth was envisaged as one planet amongst the vast time and space of the universe. Vesalius envisaged the individual as an infinitely complex and intricate mechanism of blood, flesh, and bone that Shakespeare’s Hamlet would later regard as a ‘quintessence of dust’ and the philosopher René Descartes would call a ‘moving machine’.

Alongside Copernicus and Vesalius came hundreds of publications that began to define the emerging disciplines of scientific enquiry: mathematics, physics, biology, the natural sciences, and geography. Luca Pacioli’s Everything about Arithmetic, Geometry and Proportion (1494) was the first account of the practical application of arithmetic and geometry, one of 214 mathematical books published in Italy between 1472 and 1500. In 1545 the astrologer Geronimo Cardano published his Great Art, the first contemporary European book of algebra. In 1537 Niccolò Tartaglia issued his New Science, dealing with physics, followed by his study of arithmetic, A General Treatise on Numbers and Measurement (1556). In the natural sciences Leonhard Fuchs’s History of Plants (1542) studied over 500 plants, whilst Conrad Gesner’s History of Animals (1551– 8) contained hundreds of illustrations that redefined zoology. In geography, experiments in new ways of mapping the world culminated in Gerard Mercator’s 1569 world map: his famous projection is still used today.


17. The title-page to Andreas Vesalius’s On the Structure of the Human Body (1543), where the drama of anatomical dissection is carried out as if in a theatre

Renaissance scientific innovation was invariably tied to practical requirements, and nowhere more than in the field of warfare. Niccolò Tartaglia’s publications on mechanics, dynamics, and motion represented the first modern studies of ballistics. His Various Queries and Inventions (1546) was dedicated to the militarily ambitious Henry VIII, and dealt with ballistics as well as the creation and use of artillery. Tartaglia’s work responded to and further developed new inventions in weaponry and warfare, from the innovation of using gunpowder as a propellant in the early 14th century to the emergence of cavalry as a decisive factor in 16th-century conflict. The impact of such military-scientific developments led to further advancements in the fields of anatomy and surgery. In 1545 Ambroise Paré, a great admirer of Vesalius, published his study of surgery based on his involvement in the Franco-Habsburg wars of the 1540s. Paré disproved the popular belief that gunshot wounds were poisonous and rejected the dressing of wounds in boiling oil, a practical innovation that subsequently earned him the epithet of the father of modern surgery.

Geometry and mathematics also provided new ways of understanding the increasingly elaborate and often invisible movement of commodities and paper money across the globe, but they also enabled new developments in ship design, surveying, and map-making, which anticipated ever more rapid commercial transactions of a speed and volume hitherto unimaginable. Regiomontanus’s book On Triangles became crucial to 16th-century map-makers and navigators. Its sophisticated treatment of spherical trigonometry allowed cartographers to construct terrestrial globes and map projections that took into account the curvature of the earth’s surface. The first printed edition was published in 1533 in Nuremberg, the home of the early terrestrial globe industry that emerged in the aftermath of the first circumnavigation of the globe in 1522.

Scientific innovation in mathematics, astronomy, and geometry enabled increasingly ambitious long-distance travel and commerce both eastwards and westwards, which in itself created new opportunities as well as new problems. Encountering new people, plants, animals, and minerals throughout Africa, south-east Asia, and the Americas enlarged and redefined the domains of European physiology, botany, zoology, and mineralogy. These developments often had a specifically commercial dimension. Georgius Agricola’s De Re Metallica, first published in 1556, dealt with ‘Digging of ore’, ‘Smelting’, ‘Separation of silver from gold, and of lead from gold and silver’, and the ‘Manufacture of salt, soda, alum, vitriol, sulphur, bitumen, and glass’. The combination of chemistry, mineralogy, and Agricola’s observations and experiences of the mining communities of southern Germany revolutionized mining techniques, and played a crucial role in the massive increase in the production and export of New World silver in the latter half of the 16th century.

Merchants and financiers soon realized that investing in science could be a profitable business. In 1519 the German humanist Ulrich von Hutton wrote a treatise on guaiacum, a new wonder drug from the Americas that was believed to cure syphilis. Dedicating his book to the archbishop of Mainz, Hutton wrote, ‘I hope that Your Eminence has escaped the pox but should you catch it (Heaven forbid but you can never tell) I would be glad to treat and heal you’. It was believed (mistakenly) that syphilis originated in the New World and returned to Europe with Columbus in 1493, and that the geographical origin of the disease had to provide the cure. The German merchant house of Fugger, which held an import monopoly on the drug, began a campaign to endorse guaiacum, opening a chain of hospitals exclusively supplying the drug. As the price climbed and its uselessness became apparent, the Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus published a series of attacks on guaiacum, denouncing it as a commercial scam, and recommending the more painful use of mercury.

Paracelsus rejected the classical belief in humoral theory, which believed in maintaining a balance between the body’s four constituent fluids: blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile. Instead, he took a more alchemical approach to medicine, arguing that the basic components of Nature could be matched to specific diseases, which led him to use elements like iron, sulphur, and mercury in his treatment of diseases like syphilis. In drawing on the new practical world of trial and error, as well as chemistry, Paracelsus clashed with institutional and financial authorities. The Fuggers responded to his work on syphilis and mercury by using their financial muscle to suppress his publications and ridicule his scientific credibility. These conflicts anticipated the rise of the modern pharmaceutical industry, and the world of patent medicine.

Science from the east

Renaissance science also received added impetus from the increased transmission of knowledge between east and west. Many of the classical Greek scientific texts survived in Arabic, Persian, and Hebrew translations and were revised in places like Toledo in Spain and the Academy of Science established in Baghdad in the 9th century. Islamic centres of learning were crucial in driving forward scientific advances based on both Greek learning and Arabic innovations, particularly in the fields of medicine and astronomy. As early as the 1140s Hugo of Santalla, a Latin translator of Arabic texts, wrote, ‘it befits us to imitate the Arabs especially, for they are as it were our teachers and the pioneers’.

Arabic studies of medicine directly affected the dissemination of knowledge in the west. The 10th-century Arabic scholar Avicenna studied the Greek medical treatises of Galen and Aristotle in composing his encyclopedic book the Canon of Medicine. He defined medicine as ‘the science by which we learn the various states of the human body, when in health and when not in health, whereby health is conserved and whereby it is restored after being lost’. The Canon was translated into Latin in Toledo in the 12th century by Gerard of Cremona. The translation generated over 30 printed editions in Italy between 1500 and 1550, as Avicenna’s book became a set medical text in universities throughout Europe. In 1527 the Venetian physician Andrea Alpago published a new edition of theCanon based on his experience as physician to the Venetian consulate in Damascus. Alpago also studied the writings of the Syrian physician Ibn al-Nafis (1213–88), whose research on the pulmonary movement of the blood influenced 16th-century European investigations of circulation. Vesalius condemned academic physicians who spent their time ‘unworthily decrying Avicenna and the rest of the Arabic writers’. He was so convinced of the importance of Arabic medicine that he began to learn the language himself, and wrote commentaries praising the therapeutics and materia medica of al-Razi (‘Rhazes’). In 1531 Otto Brunfels, the so-called ‘father of botany’, edited a printed edition of the 9th-century materia medica of Ibn Sarabiyun (Serapion the younger), which had a decisive influence on his own understanding of botany.

In astronomy and geography, Arabic scholars were particularly instrumental in translating the crucial works of the Greek cosmographer Ptolemy. His Almagest and Geography were translated from Greek into Arabic, criticized, and then revised in Toledo, Baghdad, and Samarkand. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror proved to be an enthusiastic patron of Ptolemy. He commissioned the Greek scholar Georgius Amirutzes to revise Ptolemy’s text in Arabic. The world map, completed in 1465, is an amalgamation of Ptolemy’s calculations with more up-to-date Arabic, Greek, and Latin geographical information. With south oriented at its top, scales of latitude, and a complex conical projection, this was a cutting-edge world map.

Scientific transactions between east and west also contributed to Copernicus’s account of the heliocentric nature of the solar system. One of the most important centres of Arabic astronomy and mathematics was established at the Maragha observatory in Persia in the mid-13th century. Its leading figure was Image


18. Mehmed the Conqueror commissioned Georgius Amirutzes’s Ptolemaic map in 1465. It shows how the study of Ptolemy developed in the east as well as the west

(1201–74) whose Memoir on Astronomy Image modified Ptolemy’s contradictory work on the motion of the spheres. Tusi’s most important revision of Ptolemy led to the creation of the ‘Tusi couple’. This theorem states that linear motion can be derived from uniform circular motion, which Tusi demonstrated using one sphere rolling inside another of twice the radius. Historians of astronomy have now realized that Copernicus reproduced the Tusi couple in his Revolutions, and that the theorem was crucial in defining his heliocentric vision of the solar system. Nobody looked for Arabic influence upon Renaissance science because the assumption was that there was nothing to find.

The art of science

The printing press brought together art and science as never before, and one of the individuals who capitalized on this situation was Albrecht Dürer. He quickly mastered the new technique of copperplate engraving, and travelled to Italy ‘to learn the secrets of the art of perspective’. He believed that ‘the new art must be based upon science – in particular, upon mathematics, as the most exact, logical, and graphically constructive of the sciences’. In 1525 he published a treatise on geometry and perspective entitled A Course in the Art of Measurement with Compass and Ruler, to ‘benefit not only the painters but also goldsmiths, sculptors, stonemasons, carpenters and all those who have to rely on measurement’.

Dürer’s book explained the application of the new science of perspective and optics. It also contained illustrations of ‘drawing machines’ that could be used to impose the grid of perspective upon the subject. One of his illustrations shows the draughtsman using a sight to locate his subject on a piece of paper. The grid-like structure of the artist’s plate corresponds to the glass panel that separates draughtsman from model. The draughtsman simply copies every point on the glass onto the corresponding grid reference on his plate. Dürer’s illustration shares many similarities with the female cadaver whose womb is ripped open for the edification of a roomful


19. Dürer’s draughtsman gazing at a naked woman through a ‘drawing machine’, from his Course in the Art of Measurement, printed in 1525

of men in Vesalius’s Studies. For both Dürer and Vesalius, women have no part to play in this artistic and scientific revolution, other than as objects for dissection or mute, sexually available models.

An early influence on Dürer’s career was the figure who has come to personify the relations between art and science in the Renaissance: Leonardo da Vinci. Luca Pacioli claimed that Leonardo was the ‘most worthy of painters, perspectivists, architects and musicians, one endowed with every perfection’, who utilized his immersion in science to market his skills as a sculptor, surveyor, military engineer, and anatomical draughtsman. Leonardo’s ability to combine artistic skills with practical scientific ability made his services highly prized by several powerful patrons.

In 1482 Duke Ludovico Sforza of Milan employed Leonardo as a military engineer on the basis of a curriculum vitae that emphasized his practical abilities:

I have plans for very light, strong, and easily portable bridges . . . I have methods for destroying every fortress . . . I will make canon, mortar, and light ordnance . . . I will assemble catapults, mangonels, trebuckets, and other instruments . . . I believe I can give complete satisfaction in the field of architecture, and the construction of both public and private buildings . . . Also I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze, and clay.

Ludovico discarded Leonardo’s fanciful military science, commissioning him instead to cast an immense equestrian monument that, as Leonardo claimed, ‘will be to the immortal glory and eternal honour . . . of the illustrious house of Sforza’. Leonardo’s sketches of the proportions and casting of the horse show that he used all his skill in hydraulics, anatomy, and design to design a statue for the civic glorification of the Sforza.

Like most of his technically ambitious projects, Leonardo’s horse was never built. He moved on and by 1504 he was in negotiations with the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II to build a 350-metre bridge over the Bosphorus. ‘I will erect it high as an arch’, Leonardo wrote to Bayezid, ‘so that a ship under full sail could sail underneath it’. Exasperated at Leonardo’s unrealistic designs, Bayezid dropped him and opened negotiations with Michelangelo. One of Leonardo’s great miscalculations was not committing his ideas to print. As a result, unlike Dürer, Leonardo left no concrete innovations to posterity. He remained a brilliant but enigmatic figure until being rescued from obscurity by Walter Pater in the 19th century.

Natural philosophy

There was no divide between science, philosophy, and magic in the 15th century. All three came under the general heading of ‘natural philosophy’. Central to the development of natural philosophy was the recovery of classical authors, most importantly the work of Aristotle and Plato. At the beginning of the 15th century Aristotle remained the basis for all scholastic speculation on philosophy and science. Kept alive in the Arabic translations and commentaries of Averroës and Avicenna, Aristotle provided a systematic perspective on mankind’s relationship with the natural world. Surviving texts like his Physics, Metaphysics, and Meteorology provided scholars with the logical tools to understand the forces that created the natural world. Mankind existed within this world as a mortal ‘political animal’ destined to forge social communities thanks to his ability to reason above and beyond any other animal. From the early


20. Leonardo’s studies for a casting pit for the Sforza horse completed in 1498. The statue was never finished

15th century, humanist scholars began to translate Aristotle into Latin and discover new texts such as the Poetics and the pseudo-Aristotelian Mechanics. Engineers in building and construction utilized the Mechanics with its description of motion and mechanical devices. In the world of political and domestic management Leonardo Bruni translated the Politics, Nicomachean Ethics, and Oeconomicus, the latter a study of estates and household organization, which he argued were central to the civic organization of 15th-century Italian society.

As humanist scholars began to publish new translations and commentaries on Aristotle, they also recovered a whole range of neglected classical authors and philosophical perspectives, most significantly exponents of Stoicism, Scepticism, Epicureanism, and Platonism. The most decisive development was the recovery and translation of the works of Aristotle’s teacher, Plato. The mystical, idealist Platonism of Marsilio Ficino, Nicholas of Cusa, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola argued that, contrary to Aristotle’s belief, the soul was immortal, and aspired to a cosmic unity and love of ultimate truth. Imprisoned in its earthly body, the soul, according to Ficino in his Platonic Theology (1474), ‘tries to liken itself to God’. Ficino argued that Plato

deemed it just and pious that the human mind, which receives everything from God, should give everything back to him. Thus, if we devote ourselves to moral philosophy, he exhorts us to purify our soul so that it may eventually become unclouded, permitting it to see the divine light and worship of God.

This Platonic approach had two distinct advantages over Aristotelianism. First, it could be accommodated much more easily into 15th-century Christian belief in the immortality of the soul and the individual’s worship of God. Secondly, it defined philosophical speculation as an individual’s most precious possession. Ficino’s version of Platonism cleverly elevated his own profession as philosopher. Its rejection of politics in favour of mystical contemplation also suited the political philosophy of Ficino’s patron, the Florentine ruler Cosimo de’ Medici, who appointed Ficino as head of his philosophical academy in 1463.

Subsequent philosophers rapidly expanded and refined Ficino’s Neoplatonism. In the introduction to his Conclusiones (1486), Giovanni Pico della Mirandola attempted to create what he called ‘the concord of Plato and Aristotle’, in an attempt to unify classical philosophy with Christianity. Pico drew on mystical Jewish and Arabic texts (he started learning Arabic in acknowledgement of the significance of Arab philosophy) to establish natural philosophy as the best method of metaphysical enquiry. ‘Natural philosophy’ he claimed, ‘will allay the strife and differences of opinion which vex, distract, and wound the spirit’. Unfortunately, Pico’s Conclusiones were investigated by a papal commission that condemned some of his theses as heretical. Later scholars of the Renaissance were more interested in Pico’s introductory remarks to the Conclusiones, which they identified as providing a new vision of individual selfhood. Drawing on Plato, Pico argued in his introduction that man is ‘the maker and moulder of thyself’, with the liberty ‘to have what he wishes, to be whatever he wills’. For 19th-century writers like Walter Pater, Pico’s introduction became the classic statement on individuality and the birth of Renaissance man, and in 1882 it was given its English title, Oration on the Dignity of Man, a phrase that Pico himself never used.

Both Plato and Aristotle continued to exert an enormous influence upon the art, literature, philosophy, and science of the 16th century. Neoplatonism inspired the artistic and literary work of figures as diverse as Michelangelo, Erasmus, and Spenser, while Aristotelianism remained a sufficiently diverse body of work to allow scientists and philosophers to revise it in line with their expanding world. However, as the century drew to a close, the intellectual primacy of both philosophers was slowly but surely eroded. The discovery of America led Montaigne to realize in 1580 that the work of Aristotle and Plato ‘cannot apply to these new lands’. Galileo’s refutation of Aristotle’s theories of motion, acceleration, and the nature of the universe in the early 17th century led him to conclude ‘I greatly doubt that Aristotle ever tested by experiment’.

Sir Francis Bacon, who also shared Galileo’s rejection of Aristotle, began to argue for empirical observation in scientific analysis. By 1620 Bacon was calling for a ‘Great Instauration’ of learning, where ‘philosophy and the sciences may no longer float in air, but rest on the solid foundation of experience of every kind, and the same well examined and weighed’. Bacon’s Novum Organum, or The New Organon, offered a direct rebuttal of Aristotle’s Organon, or Instrument for Rational Thinking, from where Bacon took his title. Aristotle had argued for the use of syllogisms in logical reasoning, where two incontrovertible premises (for instance, all humans are mortal, and all Greeks are human) logically infer a particular conclusion (all Greeks are mortal). In this scheme, theory and rhetoric are regarded as more reliable than practice or experience. Bacon turned this scheme on its head. He argued that Aristotle’s basic, accepted premisses required interrogation, and what he called

a new logic, teaching to invent and judge by induction (as finding syllogism incompetent for sciences of nature) and thereby to make philosophy and the sciences both more true and more active.

Bacon proposed a completely new vision of scientific knowledge based on the careful compilation of natural data based on observation, experimentation, and induction; in other words, deriving general theoretical principles from particular facts. It was a massive undertaking of the reformation of the classification of the natural sciences that remained incomplete at the time of his death, but it broke with the classical assumptions revered by Renaissance scholars, and anticipated the experimental science carried out by the Royal Society in the later decades of the 17th century. In 1626 Bacon completed his New Atlantis, a utopian world that drew on Plato, but whose most valued citizens were no longer philosophers but experimental scientists. It was a shift that would influence modern science and its break with philosophy.

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