Sunday, March 21, 2010

Conflict and Complexity in the Historiography of Science and Religion: A Comparison of Andrew Dickson White and David C. Lindberg, Part 2

David C. Lindberg, the Complexity Thesis,
and the Deconstruction of the Conflict Thesis

Lindberg acknowledges two typical techniques used by White to explain early Christians’ lack of interest in empirical science: “First, the early Church denigrated the investigation of nature for its own sake: with the kingdom of heaven just around the corner, there was no time or energy to waste on irrelevancies.”[1] For virtually every major scientific paradigm shift, White discerned a traditional religious figure opposing it: “The establishment of Christianity, beginning a new evolution in theology,” White intoned,
arrested the normal development of the physical sciences for over fifteen hundred years… The general belief derived from the New Testament was that the end of the world was at hand… This belief appears frequently throughout the entire period of the Middle Ages; but during the first thousand years it is clearly dominant. From Lactantius and Eusebius, in the third century, pouring contempt…over studies in astronomy to Peter Damian, the noted chancellor of Pope Gregory VII, in the eleventh century declaring all worldly sciences to be “absurdities” and “fooleries,” it becomes a very important element in the atmosphere of thought.[2]

Lindberg continues: “Second, whatever truth was discovered through patient observation and reasoning was forced to yield to the puerile opinions extracted by dogmatic superstitions from sacred writings. The result was a tyranny of ignorance and superstition that ‘perverted’ and ‘crushed’ true science.”[3] White consistently uses this quarrelsome language throughout his Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom—“conflict,” “war,” “attack,” “besiege,” “battles,” “triumph,” “defeat,” “soldier,” and so on, appear dozens of times throughout the work.[4] In the introduction to his abridgment, Warfare of Science, White even employs a direct analogy to historical and contemporary military leaders of what were, to him, far less serious conflicts in the long arc of history: “A hard contest it has been; a war waged longer, with battles fiercer, with sieges more persistent, with strategies more shrewd than in any of the comparatively transient warfare of Caesar or Napoleon or Moltke.”[5] He continued to employ this rhetoric throughout his work. For example, White reestablished the familiar trope of a flat earth—which had not been seriously used to describe the shape of the earth since before the time of Plato—in his scathing denunciation of medieval geography:
Although the great majority of the early fathers of the Church, and especially Lactantius, sought to crush [the idea of a spherical earth] beneath the utterances attributed to Isaiah, David, and St. Paul, the better opinions of Eudoxus and Aristotle could not be forgotten. Clement of Alexandria and Origen had even supported it. Ambrose and Augustine tolerated it, and, after Cosmas had held sway a hundred years, it received new life from a great churchman of southern Europe, Isidore of Seville, who, however fettered by the dominant theology in many other things, braved it in this.[6]

Although White acknowledged that some early Christians understood the physical geography bequeathed to them by the ancient Greeks, he mistrusted the Christian patristic writers who, in his mind, merely “tolerated” it in spite of their scriptural predilections. In his warfare metaphor, White drew the battle lines and pitted his soldiers against one another:
Columbus is the next warrior. The world has heard of his battles: how the Bishop of Ceuta worsted him in Portugal; how at the Junta of Salamanca the theologians overwhelmed him with quotations from St. Paul, and from St. Augustine. And even after Columbus was triumphant, and after his voyage had greatly strengthened the theory of the earth’s sphericity, the Church, by its highest authority, was again solemnly committed to the theory of the earth’s flatness…But in 1519 Science gains a crushing victory. Magellan makes his famous voyages. He proves the earth to be round, for his great expedition circumnavigates it…but this does not end the war.[7]

As we have seen, the “perversion” and “crushing” of science demonstrated for White, not the pitfalls of religious belief, but the drawbacks of authoritarianism in religious institutions. Lindberg, whose specialty is the history of the physical sciences in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, presents numerous rejoinders in his voluminous writings in direct opposition to White’s dualistic arguments. For example, White decries Augustine’s positions on rationalism and empiricism and styles him as among the worst offenders in Western history:
Following [the] precept[s] of St. Augustine, there were developed, in every field, theological views of science, which have never led to a single truth—which, without exception, have forced mankind away from the truth, and have caused Christendom to stumble for centuries into abysses of error and sorrow. In meteorology, as in every other science which he dealt, Augustine based everything on the letter of the sacred text…[8]

The influence of Augustine on not only Christian theology but also the Western intellectual and philosophical traditions need not be overstated. However, Lindberg describes Augustine’s concept of science, which consisted not as a barrier to spiritual truth but as a handmaiden to better comprehend the mysteries of God and His creations, thusly:
Augustine, who did so much to determine medieval attitudes, admonished his readers to set their hearts on the celestial and eternal, rather than the earthly and the temporal. Nonetheless, he acknowledged that the temporal could serve the eternal by supplying knowledge about nature that would contribute to the proper interpretation of Scripture and the development of Christian doctrine. And in his own works, Augustine displayed a sophisticated knowledge of Greek natural philosophy. Natural philosophy, like philosophy more generally, was to serve handmaiden functions.[9]

Roger Bacon serves as another interesting character in the narrative White presents in his epic war between science and religion. In the thirteenth century, Roger Bacon, an English Franciscan friar and natural philosopher, was imprisoned for a period of ten years. Lindberg maintains a rather skeptical position of his incarceration:
Despite a widespread popular belief that Roger Bacon was imprisoned for his attack on authority and his urgent assertion of a novel scientific methodology, for example, Bacon in fact represented very old methodological traditions, and his imprisonment, if it occurred at all (which I doubt), probably resulted from his sympathies with the radical “poverty” wing of the Franciscan Order (a wholly theological matter), rather than from any scientific novelties that he may have proposed.[10]

A devoted supporter of empirical observational techniques, Bacon made great strides in optics and the refraction of light, kept detailed astronomical observation, and anticipated the uses of gunpowder, among many other things.[11] Bacon is often described as an eccentric—even by the even-tempered Lindberg—and portrayals of his odd personality, intertwined with his advocacy of notions seemingly out of step with medieval sensibilities, contribute to the misunderstanding that he was imprisoned for experimentation. White added to this archetypal character the prescience of a prophet:
It should be borne in mind that his method of investigation was even greater than its results. In an age when theological subtilizing was alone thought to give the title of scholar, he insisted on real reasoning and the aid of natural science by mathematics; in an age when experimenting was sure to cost a man his reputation, and was likely to cost him his life, he insisted on experimenting, and braved all its risks…. On this man came the brunt of the battle. The most conscientious men of his time thought it their duty to fight him, and they fought him steadily and bitterly. His sin was not disbelief in Christianity, not want of fidelity to the Church, not even dissent from the main lines of orthodoxy; on the contrary, he showed in all his writings a desire to strengthen Christianity, to build up the Church and to develop orthodoxy. He was attacked and condemned mainly because he did not believe that philosophy had become complete, and that nothing more was to be learned; he was condemned, as his opponents expressly declared, “on account of suspicious novelties.” [12]

Lindberg is highly skeptical of the allegation that Bacon’s difficulties with religious authorities originated from his dabbling with “scientific novelties” and it is telling that he preserves White’s language in his revision. Lindberg ventured to “rescue Bacon from the mythologizers and debunkers,” and he surely had White in mind when he proposed this reclamation of Bacon’s identity as “a brilliant, combative and somewhat eccentric schoolman of the thirteenth century endeavoring to take advantage of the new learning just then coming available while remaining true to traditional notions, patristic in origin, of the importance to be attached to philosophical knowledge,” rather than “a modern, out of step with his age, [or] a harbinger of things to come.”[13] White positioned Bacon as an ally of science in his binary war, but Bacon, a Franciscan friar, confounded these clear-cut divisions by advocating both empiricism and adherence to Church doctrine. Lindberg forcefully redefines him not as the “champion of autonomous, secularized natural science against a repressive church,” but as a more dynamic figure with internal contradictions: “The growing autonomy and secularization of science were among the things he feared. But he also feared the suppression of new learning. He was endeavoring, therefore, to steer a middle course between two equally dangerous extremes. In this he reflects, in microcosm, the dilemma of the thirteenth century.”[14] Indeed, he reflects the dilemma of simplifying any historical figure to the point of misrepresentation.

The trial of Galileo—the penultimate archetype in the story of religion leveling a crushing blow against an undeserving scientific mind—offers, of course, the most dramatic example of White’s Conflict Thesis in action. Galileo Galilei championed the heliocentric theory of Copernicus after his telescopic observations of the heavens in 1609 and 1610 yielded evidence of mountains and valleys on the moon, sunspots, the phases of Venus, and moons orbiting Jupiter. In 1632, he was brought before the Roman Inquisition to defend his position that the earth revolved around the sun. After the Inquisition found his views suspect of heresy, Galileo was forced to retract his offending statements, and he spent the remainder of his life under house arrest.[15] Most modern interpretations of the trial have cast a far more nuanced light on the subject than the black-and-white affair promoted by White. According to Mario Biagioli, Galileo’s difficulties emerged out of the convoluted nature of early seventeenth century patronage dynamics. Galileo’s guilt was regarded by religious authorities as a double indignation—not only did he contest the official position of the Church on Copernicanism, but he also insulted his former benefactor. In his early years as a mathematics professor in Padua, Galileo received significant support from Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, later to become Pope Urban VIII. It is possible that with an ally in the upper echelons of the Church, Galileo believed he might escape retribution for publishing hypotheses subtly challenging established Church positions. It did not help matters that Galileo, in his groundbreaking Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, put the geocentric, Aristotelian-Ptolemaic system, of which Pope Urban VIII availed himself, in the mouth of a character named Simplicio. Although modeled upon a sixth century commentator on Aristotle, the unfortunate connotations of the name did not endear Galileo to his former patron.

White suffused this story with his usual aggressive language, claiming that “the whole war [between science and religion] was at last concentrated” on Galileo, against whom it “was long and bitter.”[16] For White, Galileo’s trial also served as a proxy war for the Church to squelch the rising tide of Copernicus’ theory, and its conclusion brought a “victory for the Church” over his erroneous ideas.[17] It would require the undeniable proofs of later observational science to herald “the retreat of the Church” after this victory:
In spite of all that has been said by the…apologists, there no longer remains the shadow of a doubt that the papal infallibility was committed fully and irrevocably against the double revolution of the earth. As the documents of Galileo’s trial show, Paul V, in 1616, pushed on with all his might the condemnation of Galileo and of the works of Copernicus and of all others teaching the motion of the earth around its axis and around the sun. So, too, the condemnation of Galileo in 1633, and in all the proceedings which led up to it and which followed it, Urban VIII was the central figure. Without his sanction no action could be taken.[18]

However, Lindberg acknowledges the “complex realities” that better construe the proper nature of Galileo’s troubles with the authorities. He notes the obvious facts that are often obscured by didactic narratives of the affair:
Every one of the combatants, whether Church official or disciple of Galileo, called himself a Christian; and all, without exception, acknowledged the authority of the Bible. Many on both sides of the struggle, including Galileo, were theologically informed, capable of articulating carefully reasoned theological positions.[19]

Lindberg is careful not to minimize the importance of the conflict over heliocentrism in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, but he also definitively states that “it is impossible to identify clearly defined battle lines falling along a divide separating heliocentric scientists, prepared to overlook the Bible or interpret it allegorically, from geocentric theologians or clergy, committed to church tradition and Biblical literalism.”[20] Rather, the conflict was located “as much within the church (between opposing theories of biblical interpretation) and within science (between alternative cosmologies) as between science and religion.”[21]


Science and religion are, arguably, the most potent forces in modern life. As human institutions with a history of entanglement, modern historians face a difficult task in attempting to delineate their complex historical and contemporary relationships. Simplifying this relationship as one of unmitigated conflict obscures the rich tapestry of cooperation in which theological precepts often motivated empirical discovery, and natural philosophy often augmented the authority of Scripture. The simple act of defining “science” and “religion” as unified monoliths, ossified into rigid categories that are immune to historical change, ignores the transformations and modifications both have undergone in their long histories. David C. Lindberg reminds us that “strictly speaking, ideas cannot clash and theoretical claims cannot, of themselves, engage in combat.”[22] Obviously, Andrew Dickson White’s Conflict Thesis exerted immense influence over the historiography of science in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and still wields considerable clout among the general populace today. And certainly, White reflects the spirit of his own age of progress, enlightenment, and scientific optimism. However, Lindberg’s reinterpretation of this relationship presents a more fruitful method of inquiry. If the proper territory of the historian is the study of people, then we must always emphasize the human dimensions of both conflict and complexity in science and religion.

[1] Lindberg, “Science and the Early Christian Church,” Isis 74 (1983): 510.
[2] White, Warfare of Science with Theology, 375-376.
[3] Lindberg, “Science and the Early Christian Church,” Isis 74 (1983): 510
[4] White, Warfare of Science with Theology, passim.
[5] Andrew Dickson White, Warfare of Science, 7.
[6] White, Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, vol. 1, 97.
[7] White, Warfare of Science, 20-21. The myth of the medieval acceptance of a flat earth derives almost entirely from Washington Irving’s mostly fictional biography The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, 1828. For a modern-day synthesis of historical scholarship on the endurance of this myth in popular culture and the American educational system, see Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishing, 1991).
[8] White, Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, vol. 1, 325.
[9] David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 150-151.
[10] David C. Lindberg, “Medieval Science and Its Religious Context,” Osiris 10 (1995): 76.
[11] David C. Lindberg, “Science as Handmaiden: Roger Bacon and the Patristic Tradition,” Isis 78 (1987): 520.
[12] White, History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, vol. 1, 387.
[13] Lindberg, “Science as Handmaiden: Roger Bacon and the Patristic Tradition,” Isis 78 (1987): 520.
[14] Ibid., 534.
[15] David C. Lindberg, “Galileo, the Church, and the Cosmos,” in When Science and Christianity Meet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 34-35 and 53-57. Galileo is the subject of an extraordinary amount of scholarship. See especially Giorgio Santillana, The Crime of Galileo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955) for an adequate, if dated, general biography. For a more modern, politically contextualized study, see Mario Biagioli’s Galileo, Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).
[16] White, Warfare of Science with Theology vol. 1, 130.
[17] Ibid., 140.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Lindberg, “Galileo, the Church, and the Cosmos,” 58.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid., 34.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Conflict and Complexity in the Historiography of Science and Religion: A Comparison of Andrew Dickson White and David C. Lindberg, Part 1

This is a paper I wrote for my historiography class last semester. It's a topic I've written on several times before, including this blog. It's rather long, so as with most papers I post, I'm cutting it into two segments. It's a little more quotation-heavy than some of my other papers, but I think that's because both of these historians' writings simply beg to be paired with one another. Plus, since this historiography, there's not much that I can say on the topic that probably hasn't been said better by my two figures. Primarily, I track the development of the historiography of science and religion, looking at the two major bookends in the debate among historians. The basic historical consensus on the issue is that there is no consensus, but most historians do acknowledge that merely viewing the relationship as conflict is far too simplistic. Note, this doesn't mean there isn't conflict. There have obviously been numerous conflicts in the past and I discuss some of them. The point is that we can't just characterize it as science vs. religion because plenty of scientists in the past (and some now, though admittedly fewer) were religious, and plenty of religious authorities were more than acquiescent to the latest scientific discoveries. There are many other reasons that we need a more nuanced understanding of their relationship. Indeed, today's conflict is far more binary than at almost any point in the past. Enjoy!


Scholarship regarding the historical relationship between science and religion has undergone a number of paradigm shifts since the terms of the debate were first enunciated in the late nineteenth century. Positivist historians, political progressives, and optimistic scientists interpreted their intersection with a vocabulary of combative rhetoric that depicted them locked in perpetual struggle with one another. Today, science and religion remain two of the major ideational structures in modern-day public discourse on the nature of epistemological authority. It is easy to imagine them as unqualified enemies diametrically opposed to one another based on the contemporary fundamentalist intervention with science in public education and the reactionary denunciation of all forms of religion by its most ardent atheistic detractors. The confrontational relationship that so characterizes the current popular perception of their dialogue has led many thinkers on both sides of the current divide to foist their opinions onto the history of these two edifices of Western thought. The problem in this interpretation stems from the fact that no such monolithic entities called “science” or “religion” exist as unified structures, and the critics of both desire to categorize them as if they were, which drastically oversimplifies their associations in unfair terms. Science and religion describe various disciplines and belief systems that defy this form of typecasting.[1] Most contemporary historians allege that conflict does not adequately convey the true nature of their nuanced historical junctures, and they typically paint a much more complex picture of their oftentimes connected pasts.

The modern terms of this debate can be traced back to the late nineteenth century. In 1874, the English-born American scientist and historian John William Draper published his History of the Conflict between Religion and Science. Draper composed this magnum opus, in part, as a response to what he perceived to be the unjustified consolidation of authority in the Catholic Church, which, in 1870, proclaimed the doctrine of papal infallibility and solidified its traditional positions on theology.[2] Among intellectuals and academics, Draper’s work was an immediate critical and commercial success, and this reception emboldened scientific detractors of religious dogmatism. The cultural climate of positivistic confidence buoyed the interpretation of their relationship as one of conflict and allowed this new historiographical thesis to flourish. While intellectuals enthusiastically ascribed to the tenets of higher biblical criticism, many conservative religious figures argued for a more literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible.[3] This burgeoning antagonism was exacerbated in 1895 when Andrew Dickson White published the even more influential History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Whereas Draper had argued that revealed religion contributed nothing of rational or empirical value to science, White attempted to preserve modern liberal Christianity and denounce theological dogmatism by demonstrating that the institutional Church had historically hampered scientific progress.[4] “He [Draper] regarded the struggle as one between Science and Religion,” White wrote, “[and] I believed then, and am convinced now, that it was a struggle between Science and Dogmatic Theology.”[5] According to biographer Glenn Altschuler, White endeavored not to prove science and religion historically incompatible, but rather to reconcile them with one another, hoping that

when the myths that had been associated with Christianity were cleared away, the essence of Christianity would emerge. He believed that everyone had spiritual needs that only religion could satisfy. He also recognized that religion and ethics were inextricably linked; thus an orderly society depended upon a healthy Christianity.[6]

For White, this “healthy Christianity” was the interpretative hermeneutics of higher criticism. The theories promulgated by White and Draper, and articulated for the first time in the late nineteenth century, later received the appellation of Conflict Thesis. As its name implies, this hypothesis envisioned a relationship in which religious institutions forbade any scientific teaching contrary to Biblical dogma, and science played the role of downtrodden bearer of light amidst the darkness. The progress of science over religion constituted one of the many important chapters in the Whiggish interpretation of history.[7] However, most modern interpretations of the Conflict Thesis contend that the discord envisioned by thinkers such as Draper and White was a contemporary extension of several currents of thought specific to this era: new Biblical exegeses based on the latest archaeological, historical, and philological evidence; Darwin’s theory of evolution; and the beginnings of fundamentalist Christian belief.[8]

David C. Lindberg, professor emeritus in the history of science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has been at the forefront of the reinterpretation of the intersection of science and religion, and he has composed many revisionist histories of science in order to amend the Conflict Thesis. The modern-day rejection of this theory accompanied the similar rejection of positivistic history in the early and mid-twentieth century, but the Conflict Thesis proved more resilient than the positivism it outlasted. Though it has been unfashionable in academia since at least the 1970s, it has remained an accepted notion among popular historians, the nonreligious public, and many scientists themselves. For example, in The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, Charles Freeman describes the systematic destruction of Greek rationalism by the triumphant Church of the fourth and fifth centuries:
Christianity, under the influential banner of Paul’s denunciation of Greek philosophy, began to create the barrier between science—and rational thought in general—and religion that appears to be unique to Christianity. Far from the rise of science challenging the Christian concept of God (as is often assumed by protagonists in the debate), it was Christianity that actively challenged a well- established and sophisticated tradition of scientific thinking.[9]
Similarly, outspoken atheist science writers such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet regularly trumpet the danger fundamentalist religious belief poses to science not only in the present, but also in the past.[10] Lindberg and other modern academics have sought to eliminate the “retrospective fallacy,” in which the accomplishments of science in the past are judged by their later corroboration.[11] Using this methodology, modern historians have replaced “conflict” with “complexity.”[12] By comparing the Conflict Thesis of Andrew Dickson White with the Complexity Thesis of David C. Lindberg, the former emerges as an oversimplified account of the relationship between these two often overlapping positions.

Andrew Dickson White and the Conflict Thesis

Andrew Dickson White was born in Homer, New York, on November 7, 1832, to Episcopalian, abolitionist parents.[13] Despite their wealth, Horace White and Clara Dickson imparted to their son the importance of meritocracy in America and the noblesse oblige that accompanied their affluence and social status.[14] These values later influenced White’s emphasis on the importance of education not only for the betterment of the individual but also as the key to rectifying the ills of society. Throughout his childhood, White maintained the lofty goal of attending Yale University, but at his father’s insistence, he enrolled in the smaller Episcopalian Geneva College (now, Hobart and William Smith College) in 1849. He never fully acclimated himself to the school, and after only a year, he informed his family of his intention to withdraw from the university. He claimed that he had “wasted enough time, and, anxious to try for something better, urged upon [his] father [his] desire to go to one of the larger New England universities.”[15] Rather than risk a falling out with his son, Horace White acquiesced, and Andrew Dickson White left for Yale in 1850.

While at Yale, White gravitated toward the study of history. He traveled to Europe in 1853 and studied in both Russia and Germany. In Germany, he attended the lectures of the eminent historian Leopold von Ranke, which he found dull and uninspiring, though the empiricism with which Ranke conducted both his research and lectures left an impression on White that would later be manifested in his attitudes toward the history of science.[16] His time in Germany also solidified his position on the need for a well-educated clergy, amenable to the progress of science, and purged of their more parochial and conventional modes of thought. Referring to the declining numbers of church attendance in Germany—and implying that the United States might follow suit if the clergy enforced their literal interpretation of Scripture on their flocks—White wrote that
…no one who has lived among them [Germans] can doubt the existence of…a [religious] spirit; but it is due mainly to the fact that, while the simple results of scientific investigation have filtered down among the people at large, the dominant party in the Lutheran Church has steadily refused to recognise this fact, and has persisted in imposing on Scripture the fetters of literal and dogmatic interpretation which Germany has largely outgrown. A similar danger threatens every other country in which the clergy pursue a similar policy. No thinking man, whatever may be his religious views, can fail to regret this. A thoughtful, reverent, enlightened clergy is a great blessing to any country…[17]
Disturbed by what he perceived as the repressive nature of the Lutheran church in Germany and distinctly aware of the importance of education in rectifying these problems, White resolved to pursue a compromise between believing Christians and the observable facts of science.

In 1856, after studying at the Sorbonne and the University of Berlin, White returned to Yale and received a Master’s degree in history. Hoping to obtain a teaching position at Yale, White remained in New Haven, Connecticut, following his matriculation. This optimism was to be short lived, and his alma mater denied him a position, in part, because the administration was guarded about its acceptance of nondenominational professors. Although raised as an Episcopalian, White never confirmed his adherence to the faith officially, and the Calvinist Congregationalist institution professed misgivings about his full acceptance into their academic community.[18] Disappointed by this turn of events, White wrote that
[w]hile in this state of mind, I met my class assembled at the Yale commencement of 1856 to take the master’s degree in course, after the manner of those days. This was the turning point for me. I had for some time been more and more uneasy and unhappy because my way did not seem clear; but at this commencement in 1856, while lounging among my classmates in the college yard, I heard one say that President Wayland of Brown University was addressing the graduates in the Hall of the Alumni… He spoke very impressively as follows: “The best field of graduates is now in the West…our Western States are to hold the balance of power in the Union and to determine whether the country shall become a blessing or a curse in human history."[19]
Shortly thereafter, White accepted a position at the nondenominational state university of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The nonsectarian colleges of the western United States convinced White of the need for similar schools in New England and encouraged him to transplant these values to his native New York.[20]

In the early 1860s, White became a Republican state senator in New York, where he made the acquaintance of fellow senator Ezra Cornell, a Quaker who had made his fortune with Western Union Telegraph Company. Cornell, a budding philanthropist, approached White in 1863 with a sum of $500,000 and asked for suggestions on ways to use this money to benefit the state of New York.[21] White replied that the best thing Cornell could do for the state was to “establish or strengthen some institution for higher instruction,” adding that “education in history and literature should be the bloom of the whole growth.”[22] Due to his previous difficulties with denominational institutions, White also recommended that the university be established as nonsectarian—the first private land grant institution of higher education to hold this distinction.[23] Cornell, who had been expelled by the Quakers for marrying a non-Quaker, agreed, and in 1865 Cornell University was founded in Ithaca, New York, and Andrew Dickson White served as its first president.[24]

White administered Cornell as president for nearly two decades, from 1866 to 1885, and then spent much of the remainder of his life as a diplomat in Russia and Germany. While president of Cornell, White also served as a professor in the history department, and it was in this capacity that he began the twenty-year-long project that would culminate in the publication in 1895 of his two-volume chef d’oeuvre, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. White was a conservative socially and politically, but he grew increasingly wary throughout adulthood of the literalistic, rigidly dogmatic, fundamentalist manifestations of the Third Great Awakening that undermined the intellectual Christianity of the educated elite.[25] As a Christian rationalist, White imagined it was his duty to affirm the progress of science and to incorporate this reasoned approach into the study of religion. Before this could happen, White sought to demolish theological dogmatism and unscientific myths that obstructed a deeper, more spiritually fulfilling understanding of Christianity.[26] Altschuler contends that White’s objective was
to affirm a rational, non-mythical religion and at the same time preserve those religious truths (primarily ethical maxims such as love of God and neighbor) which he regarded as absolutes. Yet he also accepted unquestioningly the results of recent scientific investigation which threatened to destroy religion as a moral bulwark.[27]
White was concerned with the unwarranted intrusion of religion into the sphere of science, and he asserted that authoritarian constraints on the freedom of ideas harmed both institutions because it halted the progress of science and typecast religion as an unenlightened institution. According to White,
In all modern history, interference with science in the supposed interest of religion, no matter how conscientious such interference may have been, has resulted in the direst evils both to religion and to science—and invariably. And, on the other hand, all untrammeled scientific investigation, no matter how dangerous to religion some of its stages may have seemed, for the time, to be, has invariably resulted in the highest good of religion and of science.[28]
Despite his stated goal of “aid[ing]—even if it be but a little—in the gradual and healthful dissolving away of this mass of unreason, that the stream of ‘religion pure and undefiled’ may flow on broad and clear, a blessing to humanity,” the adulation of White’s work came mainly from nonbelievers and the most vociferous criticism came from those Christians whom he most fervently hoped to persuade.[29] “I wish the clergy to read it,” he wrote to a colleague in 1888, seven years before its publication, “and if they like to attack it, and no university on my shoulders.”[30] The clergy, in general, reacted harshly by arguing that if any portion of the Bible was erroneous then it must all be called into question. Still, White maintained that, although science had “evidently conquered religious dogmatism based on Biblical texts and ancient modes of thought,” he still believed that the two would “go hand in hand” as theology relinquished its monopoly on knowledge.[31]

Historical and Contemporary Criticism

The terms of the argument, of course, have changed a great deal since White enunciated them in the 1890s. By the early twentieth century, the Conflict Thesis—or “Warfare Model” or “Military Metaphor” or any number of other designations—became inextricably connected to the names of Draper and White.[32] This thesis retained a general currency in the historiography of science as late as the 1960s, though it confronted numerous challenges not only from religious apologists but from academic historians as well. The influential Reverend Walton Battershall of the North American Review criticized White for his lack of distinction between the protagonists on the side of science and their enemies on the side of theology. He cited numerous examples of White’s use of particular religious figures as an opponent of scientific progress in one section of his Warfare of Science with Theology and as a proponent of certain scientific advancements in another. For example, Augustine, depicted as an adversary of the sphericity of the earth in the early section on geography, was later championed as a forerunner of evolutionary theory.[33] Likewise, Battershall noted that White neglected to acknowledge the fact that most practitioners of science before the late eighteenth century were usually deeply religious Christians and often members of the clergy or scholars of theology themselves.[34] Battershall also suggested that White, in defining the principal adversary as “dogmatic theology,” implied tacitly that Protestantism—which had no official, hierarchically-determined doctrine—remained above the fray. Nevertheless, Battershall praised White’s work for its erudition while alleging that its ultimate goal of reconciliation had not been achieved.[35]

Secular critic David Starr Jordan, though he lavished praise on the overall aim of the book, extended Batershall’s critique to other institutional structures. Intolerance, he claimed, pervaded all organizations, and representing the Church as the most distinctly repressive establishment in history ignored past examples of non-religious persecutions of science.[36]Jordan argued that “the same spirit that burned Servetus and Giordano Bruno, led the ‘liberal’ atheist mob of Paris to send to the scaffold the great chemist Lavoisier with the sneer that the public had no need of savants.”[37] Jordan faulted White for failing to understand that anti-intellectualism pervaded all eras of human history regardless of the religiosity of its participants. Similarly, Lindberg has remarked that the binary nature of the Conflict Thesis presumes that if Christian theologians were intolerant, then pagan philosophers must necessarily have been a force of open-mindedness, pushing for a "free marketplace of ideas."[38] This viewpoint, of course, obscures the dynamic natures of both these varied and pliable systems. The most influential, comprehensive reevaluation of the thesis came in 1938 with sociologist Robert K. Merton’s “Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth Century England,” which contended that the Puritan work ethic and emphasis on practical solutions to everyday problems fostered scientific thinking and the application of technology during the Scientific Revolution.[39] However, further studies revealed that few practicing Puritans held positions in the Royal Society, and Merton was criticized for discounting the considerable theoretical, rather than practical, contributions made by scientists in seventeenth century England. Still, the demonstration of positive contributions to science by religious figures began to undermine the basis for White’s Conflict Thesis.

Most people are familiar with the most infamous instances of the supposed religious persecution of scientific thinkers: Copernicus did not publish his heliocentric theory until he was on his deathbed for fear of the backlash; Galileo was sentenced to house arrest for asserting that the earth moves; Scopes was banned from teaching evolution in Tennessee in 1925, and so on. Modern historiography of science and religion outlines these admittedly dramatic vignettes from the historical record as the exception rather than the rule. So, if the Conflict Thesis does not adequately describe the nature of the dialogue between science and religion, what does? Historians’ answers to this question have been numerous: that the “conflict” between science and religion was a “hypostatization of a number of smaller conflicts, a battle within the minds of individual scientists, a conflict of competing systems of science, or as a struggle [for dominance] among competing professionals.”[40] Owen Chadwick, a historian of the early Church, avers that there is a difference between religion being at war with science and being at war with scientists, and he claims that far more conflicts have occurred within the religious sphere due to disparate interpretations of the Bible than between scientists and religious figures clashing over virtues of empirical reasoning or observational methods.[41] Similarly, James Moore has argued against using terms like “conflict” or “warfare” to describe the meetings of science and religion because it implies that all scientists assembled on one side of a partisan divide while all clergy amassed on the other. In reality, the debates were largely reconciled “within [the] heads” of individuals as they underwent “crises of faith.”[42] Finally, Frank Turner has reasoned that the warfare model, in Victorian England, appertained more to intellectual prestige and cultural currency than doctrinal differences. From the middle of the nineteenth century onward, the authority of scientists quickly began to replace that of clerics in the realm of public education, and religious professionals reacted to their loss of prestige.[43] In short, modern scholars, including Lindberg, resist granting it definitive terminology precisely because no label adequately describes their mottled relationships.

One term employed precisely because it expresses this indistinct state of affairs is the Complexity Thesis, which, as its name implies, posits a relationship of neither outright hostility nor harmonious cooperation.[44] Lindberg argues that the reason for the endurance of such an unforgiving view of the relationship between science and religion, especially in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, is that White’s vocabulary of “warfare” and “repression” remained the primary mode of discourse in the history of science for much of the twentieth century and still colors the popular discussion today. This thesis, as Lindberg writes in the introduction to God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Science and Religion, “portrays a complex and diverse interaction that defies reduction to simple ‘conflict’ or ‘harmony’” and it is telling that he used the more neutral term “encounter” to illustrate the interaction between the two.[45] Many of Lindberg’s writings have been interpreted by critics as a direct revision of White’s thesis and a synthesis of all modern scholarship on the increasingly contentious topic.

[1] See especially Ian G. Barbour’s Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (New York: Harper Collins, 1997) and Stephen Jay Gould’s Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine, 1999).
[2] Gary B. Ferngren, Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 4.
[3] See Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2000), 135-146. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the Niagara Bible conference, regarded by many modern scholars as the origins of the modern American fundamentalist movement, met for the first time in 1883 and continued to meet annually until 1897. The decrees of the mostly dispensationalist congress enunciated for the first time the tenets of a more literalist interpretation of the Bible. It was convened, at least in part, as a reaction to Darwinism and the more liberal higher criticism.
[4] Glenn C. Altschuler, Andrew D. White—Educator, Historian, Diplomat (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), 202.
[5] Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare between Science and Theology in Christendom, vol. 1, (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1895), ix.
[6] Altschuler, Andrew D. White, 153.
[7] For a classic study on the influence of positivism on the study of history, especially insofar as it has bearings on the historiography of science, see Herbert Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation of History (New York: Norton Library, 1965).
[8] David C. Lindberg, When Science and Christianity Meet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 2.
[9] Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (New York: Random House, Inc., 2002), 6.
[10] See especially Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York; Mariner Books, 2008) and Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (London: Viking Press, 2006).
[11] David B. Wilson, “The Historiography of Science and Religion,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 23.
[12] Ibid., 24.
[13] Altschuler, Andrew D. White, 20-21.
[14] Ibid., 23.
[15] Andrew Dickson White, The Autobiography of Andrew Dickson White: Vol.1 (New York: The Century Company, 1904), 23.
[16] Altschuler, Andrew D. White, 33.
[17] Andrew Dickson White, Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, vol. 1, 239.
[18] Ibid., 34.
[19] Andrew Dickson White, Autobiography, vol. 1, 256-57.
[20] Altschuler, Andrew D. White, 51.
[21]Ibid., 58.
[22] White, Autobiography: vol. 1, 298.
[23] Colin A. Russell, “The Warfare of Science and Religion,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 4.
[24] Altschuler, Andrew D. White, 58 and 81.
[25] Ibid., 13-15.
[26] Ibid., 204.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Andrew Dickson White, The Warfare of Science (London: Henry S. King and Co., 1876), 8. This shorter work, based on a series of lectures given by White, formed the foundation of his later, longer work A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. For the purposes of this paper, I will cite the shorter version as Warfare of Science and the longer one with its full title of Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. The shorter work is organized by scientific discipline and each chapter contains vignettes and anecdotes of historical figures in the history of science who encountered difficulties with various religious authorities. Curiously, White does not discuss biology, nor is there any mention of Darwin or evolution, despite its influence on late nineteenth century Biblical interpretations and its inclusion in the later work.
[29] Andrew Dickson White, Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, vol. 1, vi.
[30] Letter to George Lincoln Burr, 26 October, 1888, quoted in Altschuler, Andrew Dickson White, 202.
[31] White, Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, vol. 1, xii.
[32] Russell, “The Conflict of Science and Religion,” in Science and Religion, 3.
[33] Walton Battershall, review of History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, North American Review 165 (1897): 90-91, and Altschuler, Andrew D. White, 210. Battershall names St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Augustine, St. Isidore of Seville, Peter Lombard, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Ralph Cudworth as pre-Darwinian figures whose statements, he construed, lent support for the theory of evolution.
[34] Battershall, review of History of the Warfare of Science with Theology, 92.
[35] Altschuler, Andrew D. White, 210.
[36] Ibid.
[37] David Starr Jordan, review of History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, Dial 21 (1896):146-148, quoted in Altschuler, Andrew D. White, 211.
[38] David C. Lindberg, “Science and the Early Christian Church,” Isis 74 (1983): 512.
[39] David C. Lindberg and Ronald Numbers, God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Science and Religion (Oakland: University of California Press, 1986), 4 and 5 and Robert K. Merton, “Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth Century England,” Osiris 4 (1938):360-632.
[40] Lindberg and Numbers, God and Nature, 7.
[41] Ibid. See also Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1967)
[42] Ibid., 7-8.
[43] Ibid.
[44] David B. Wilson, “The Historiography of Science and Religion,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 23-26.
[45] Lindberg and Numbers, God and Nature, 10.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Religious Syncretism and Social Reform in the Cosmologies of Giordano Bruno and Domenico Scandella, Pt. 3

Finally, it is important to understand the cosmologies of both Bruno and Menocchio to understand the Church’s difficulties with them. Menocchio’s constant use of analogy to explain his own beliefs demonstrated an internal desire to clarify his own oftentimes disorganized thoughts by bringing the theoretical in line with the practical. His vocabulary corresponded to those things to which he related on an everyday basis. This cosmology did not come directly from the books he had read but from a sometimes uncomfortable combination of his imperfect knowledge of these texts, practical experiences, Friulian folk beliefs, and popular interpretations of the Catholic faith.[1] This uneasy alliance of assorted beliefs denoted an attempt on his part to reconcile Catholic theology with folk practices and beliefs. In the most famous example, Menocchio explains the origins of the cosmos by combining the traditional Ptolemaic-Aristotelian description of “chaos…that is earth, air, water, and fire…all mixed together” with down-to-earth terminology: “out of that bulk a mass formed—just as cheese is made out of milk—and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels. The most holy majesty decreed that these should be God and the angels, and among the number of angels there was also God, he too being created out of that mass at the same time.”[2] Similarly, he described the Trinity in material terms:

Questioned: “What do you think God is?” he replied: “Light, happiness, consolation, that signifies the Trinity. The Trinity resembles a candle: The wax is the Father, the wick is the Son, and the light is the Holy Spirit. I believe that there is the Trinity in the Sacrament of the Eucharist because there is happiness, consolation, and light, and what makes me believe this is that when I go to this sacrament of communion repenting for my sins and have done my penance, I feel happiness, consolation, and light.”[3]
While Menocchio was almost certainly unaware of the new materialistic outlook of the burgeoning empirical sciences of Kepler, Galileo, and others, he imbued physical descriptions with metaphysical significance, which suggests that these new ways of thinking were not confined to the elite classes.

The reasons for Menocchio’s heavily analogous language are twofold. On the one hand, his Inquisitors asked him specific questions regarding his own personal theology, and his lack of theologically elite vocabulary required him to explain his beliefs through these practical examples. On a deeper level, however, Menocchio seems to have consciously endeavored to reconcile a lifetime of religious thought that heretofore had been an incoherent mass of diverse philosophical statements. Considering his tendency to fuse the material and spiritual, it is bizarre that he had difficulty resolving the nature of God the creator. Menocchio was not only a miller but also a “carpenter, sawyer, mason and other things”[4] requiring manual labor, and he expresses pride in Christ’s profession as a carpenter, but seems unable to conceive of the creator of the universe as a mere craftsman:

Questioned: “Could God have done everything himself without the existence of angels?” he replied: “Yes, just as someone who is building a house uses workers and helpers, but we say that he built it. Similarly, in making the world, God used the angels but we say that God made it. And just as that master carpenter in building a house could also do it by himself, but it would take longer, so God in making the world could have done it by himself, but over a longer period of time.[5]

In a sense, Menocchio’s cosmology was materialistic without being informed by the incipient rational discourses of the day.

Members of the upper and lower classes communicated with one another in a variety of ways. Carlo Ginzburg notes the dialectical relationship between the popular or peasant classes and the elite classes, and asserts that it was a reciprocal one not necessarily characterized by dominant and repressed categories. True, elites retained the power to discredit erroneously interpreted theology, especially when it infringed upon the doctrinal territory of Church officials. However, for peasants, this relationship was marked both by the natural convergence of elite and common ideas through increased access to vernacular literature and by a conscious amalgamation of popular folk beliefs with elite intellectual thought. Rather than a distortion based on lack of knowledge or inability to comprehend knowledge, many peasants actively pursued an understanding of theological concepts from which they had been excluded. The authorities seemed to have had trouble comprehending the nature of Menocchio’s beliefs precisely because they constituted a confusing admixture of elite theoretical concepts and bizarre descriptions based on practical popular experience.[6]

Popular religion is not an easily definable term, for it is often employed to describe the resultant culture born out of the Protestant Reformation as well as the various non-Christian folk traditions of European peasantry.[7] Not all popular religious movements of the sixteenth century were specifically Protestant or Catholic. What of the nominally Catholic peasants, like Menocchio, who came to new understandings of religion apart from those beliefs imposed by the Catholic Church following the Council of Trent? Certainly, Menocchio’s own preconceived notions of religion, his inadequate doctrinal knowledge, and his limited theological vocabulary deeply colored his textual exegesis.[8] Martin D.W. Jones has termed it “highly artificial” to describe popular and elite cultures as distinct from one another, but the mere existence of a Catholic reform movement reveals that Church elites assumed lower class religious beliefs were in need of modification.[9] At the very least, popular religion and the Catholicism of the Church elites intermingled in way that required reconciliation. Peasants grew more educated and literate and the elites attempted to direct this education where possible.

Scholars have interpreted Bruno’s cosmology in a number of ways.[10] From the 1880s until the 1930s, Bruno was regarded as an Italian hero and harbinger of the Scientific Revolution, and his trial and execution distinguished him as a martyr for science and free thought. This idea of martyrdom emerged out of Bruno’s acceptance of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory decades before Galileo’s observations, despite the fact that Bruno, unlike Galileo, arrived at this conclusions independent of the empirical scientific method.[11] Bruno was far more interested in Hermetic magic and Neoplatonic philosophy, both of which posited the possibility of an infinite universe full of many worlds. According to Frances Yates, Bruno’s condemnation was more closely tied to his involvement in these occult activities;[12] however, these areas of study were common in pre-Revolutionary Renaissance science and it seems unlikely that this alone contributed to his denunciation.

As scientific thinking evolved to be more materialistic and came to depend more and more upon empirical evidence, Bruno’s quasi-religious dabbling in these topics simply “rel[ied] on the wrong sort of discourse.”[13] The astronomer and historian Owen Gingerich, who has examined more first and second edition copies of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus than any other scholar, claims that there is little evidence that Bruno even read the book because his copy contains no annotations and his references to Copernicus elsewhere contain numerous errors.[14] “I care little about Copernicus,” wrote Bruno, “and little care I whether you or I understand him.”[15] Beyond geometry, Bruno was decidedly non-mathematical, because his religiously motivated belief in a sun-centered universe required no familiarity with the rational and quantitative world of physics and mathematics. Rather, his heliocentrism was spiritual, magical, and qualitative. It may seem counterintuitive from a modern perspective, but for Bruno, mathematics reduced the accuracy of these cosmological theories because finitely quantifying an infinite Copernican universe or Platonic world of forms proved impossible to Hermetic modes of thinking.[16] In short, Bruno was not a Copernican for “scientific” reasons but for “external” reasons that portended a wider and more comprehensive religion in closer harmony with the natural world.[17] Bruno’s cosmology was syncretic: he seems to have been in search of a truly universal religion, and it was this universality that especially appealed to him during the religious strife of late sixteenth century Europe. According to Giuseppe Candela, Bruno’s “return to Hermetic magic” was “the cure for the wars, persecutions, and social miseries of contemporary Europe, and certainly an improvement of the bloody feuds of Western Christendom.”[18]

Were Giordano Bruno and Menocchio consciously in search of a new religion combining the theology of Catholicism with more esoteric notions of the universe? Probably not. However, the aggregation of decidedly non-Christian elements in their own personal descriptions of the cosmos suggests that a synthesis of their diverse ideas was necessary to reconcile their cosmological beliefs with their Christianity. For the authorities, no readily available categories accurately defined their offenses other than simple heresy—they were variously accused of Lutheranism, Catharism, pantheism, and other identifiable Catholic infractions that all failed to comprehensively describe their beliefs. Giordano Bruno subscribed to a set of quasi-scientific precepts that had been part of the intellectual dialogue for centuries but only a generation later would cease to be acceptable under the new auspices of empirical science. The paradox for Menocchio is that he directly benefited from the rise of literacy and lay education following the decrees of the Council of Trent but his free use of this education is precisely what offended the Church authorities. In spite of their social and intellectual differences, both Bruno and Menocchio succumbed to the sweeping reforms and purgations of the late sixteenth century Church.

So, there's the paper. I thought it turned out all right, though I have some criticisms of it myself and received some very constructive criticism from my panel at the conference. My own biggest complaint with myself is that I didn't really get into the actual texts that Bruno wrote, especially his "Italian dialogues," four books written across fewer than two years (1584-1585) while he was in England. These really enunciated his worldview rather forcefully, and while I read them cursorily for my research, I didn't really integrate them or cite them into the text. In part, this was because my space was limited, and this was one of the things that that simply got left out. But looking back, I think his Copernican, Neoplatonic, and Hermetic tendencies really can't be understood without looking very directly at what he wrote, and these assertions are couched in very difficult, poetic, symbolic texts. It doesn't help matters much that these were written in Italian, not a language I understand, and though I have the English translations, it's just not the same. I've had a difficult enough time trying to muddle my way through Latin and French without throwing that into the mix. In short, I guess I feel like I focused a bit too much on historiographical context rather than primary source analysis for Bruno, This wasn't as big of a problem with Menocchio, about whom almost everything is know through his trial records, which, though difficult to follow at times, are relatively easy to read. Surprisingly, this is not something I was criticized for at the conference. Rather, my commentator said that his greatest problem with the paper was the fact that I conceded to Menocchio a certain level of typicality that he felt did not represent him. That is, I was comparing Bruno and Menocchio as socially very different but in the eyes of the Church and Inquisition, heretics all the same. He felt that my treatment of Bruno was sound and that viewing him through the lens of a post-Council of Trent offender made a lot of sense. For Menocchio, he thought it made a lot more sense to look at him as essentially an oddity who was castigated for his bizarre behavior and his unwillingness to relent to the authorities. In a sense, I very much agree, but I think, in some ways, the personalities of both Bruno and Menocchio were congruent enough to merit some serious analysis.

[1] Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms, 56-57.

[2] Andrea del Col, Dominico Scandella Known as Menocchio, 25.

[3] Ibid., 49.

[4] Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms, 1.

[5] Andrea de Col, Domenico Scandella Known as Menocchio, 57.

[6] Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller, xii and xix.

[7] Martin D. W. Jones, The Counter Reformation, 2 and 118-124.

[8] Ibid. 33.

[9]Ibid., 118-119. Jones is rightly wary of this distinction because it has often been cast in terms of lower class “superstition” versus upper class “religion” and he proffers evidence that elites followed similar “superstitious” practices as commoners. However, he minimizes the important distinction of “devotional” religion and “functional” religion. The latter aptly describes the nature of many peasant beliefs, while the former seems to have transcended class structures. See also William Monter, Ritual, Myth, and Magic in Early Modern Europe (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1983).

[10]Hilary Gatti, “The State of Giordano Bruno Studies at the End of the Four-Hundredth Centenary of the Philosopher’s Death,” Renaissance Quarterly 54 (2001): 252-261. Bruno studies have undergone enormous historiographical shifts since the 1880s when students in Rome commissioned and erected a statue of him on the spot of his execution in the Campo de’ Fiori. This statue’s creation occurred less than two decades after Italian unification and coincided with the rise in late nineteenth century Italian nationalism. Gatti tracks the shifting attitudes toward Bruno from his earlier place as a hero of science to his later place as a Renaissance Hermeticist to his still later place as a traveling scholar and political participant in the affairs of his many adoptive nations of residence. Gatti attempts to bring Bruno full circle and resituate him within the history of science by contending that since Hermetic and Neoplatonic thought were both a part of the scientific outlook of the late sixteenth century—and would remain so until after Galileo and Newton—Bruno was a perfectly representative scientific thinker of his age.

[11] For an early critique of Bruno’s Copernicanism, see K.F. Herzfeld, “The Process of Giordano Bruno,” Science 75 (1932): 241-242.

[12] Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, 450.

[13] Ernan McMullin, “Bruno and Copernicus,” Isis 78 (1987): 65.

[14] Owen Gingerich, The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus (New York: Penguin Books, Ltd., 2004), 64 and 255 and Ernan McMullin, “Bruno and Copernicus,” 56. For example, Bruno supposed that the Earth and the Moon share an orbit about the sun and that the planets still revolved around the sun in epicycles.

[15] Giordano Bruno, The Ash Wednesday Supper, trans. and ed. Edward A. Gosselin and Lawrence S. Lerner (Hamden, Connecticut: Shoestring Press, 1977), 192. In a manner much like Plato’s dialogue, the Symposium, Bruno uses the Copernican theory as an analogy for his own Hermetic/Neoplatonic beliefs. He expounds the theory that the universe is infinite, has no center, and is populated by multiple worlds.

[16] Paul Henri Michel, The Cosmology of Giordano Bruno, trans. R.E.W. Maddison (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1973), 40.

[17] Ernan McMullin, “Bruno and Copernicus,” Isis 78 (1987): 66.

[18] Giuseppe Candela, “Overview of the Cosmology, Religion, and Philosophical Universe of Giordano Bruno,” Italica 75 (1998): 361.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Religious Syncretism and Social Reform in the Cosmologies of Giordano Bruno and Domenico Scandella, Pt. 2

Bruno followed a different path to the stake. He was born in Nola, a provincial southern Italian town not much larger than Menocchio’s village, in 1548. In the mid-sixteenth century southern Italy lay in the midst of the Mediterranean and served as a crossroads in the maritime trade network that spanned from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Middle East. While Nola itself was small and largely homogeneous, it was situated a mere thirty miles from the more metropolitan Naples, the fourth most populous city in Europe when Bruno relocated there at the age of seventeen.[1] Consequently, this international exposure revealed to him a world of diverse cultures, languages, and ideas.[2] The various and sometimes incongruous views advocated by Bruno and the particularities of his worldview indicate the influence of both the worldly Naples and the modest Nola. Indeed, Bruno referred to himself as “the Nolan philosopher” throughout his entire scholarly career.[3] In Naples, Bruno entered the Dominican monastery of San Domenico Maggiore, distinguished himself as an outstanding scholar of metaphysics and theology, and proved quite adept in the mnemonic arts. This latter ability established him as an asset to various noblemen across Europe who recognized the practical value of recalling vast amounts of detailed information. Following an accusation that he had promoted anti-Trinitarian ideas and possessed forbidden books, Bruno unceremoniously withdrew from the Dominican Order in 1576 and became a peripatetic scholar who did not reside in one location longer than a few years until his imprisonment in 1592.[4] After nearly two decades of itinerant teaching throughout the scholarly centers of Europe, he returned to Italy in 1591 and was supported by the patronage of Giovanni Mocenigo, a minor Venetian nobleman, who endeavored to learn the secrets of the art of memory from Bruno. Unable to master these arts, Mocenigo suspected Bruno of fraud and denounced him to the Venetian Inquisition for various heresies.[5] Eventually, Bruno was handed over to the less tolerant Roman Inquisition, and after a nearly eight year long trial, Bruno was eventually executed as a heretic in Rome in 1600.

In order to understand Bruno’s ultimate fate, one must understand his transient lifestyle. After he left the Dominican order in 1576, his wanderings took him to several northern Italian towns including Turin, Venice, and Padua (1576-1579). He taught for a short time in Calvinist-controlled Geneva in 1579, traveled to Lyons and Toulouse in 1580-81 where he obtained a degree in theology, and ultimately attached himself to the court of King Henri III in Paris. His most prolific years as a writer came in England (1583-1585) where he made the acquaintance of such luminaries as Sir Philip Sydney and Thomas Digges.[6] Between 1585 and 1592, Bruno lectured on Aristotle and imparted his techniques of memorization in Wittenberg and Prague, after which he returned to Venice where he first encountered difficulties with the Inquisition.[7] In nearly every case, troubles with secular or religious authorities preceded his departures from these locations. Significantly, Geneva, London, and Wittenberg were all major Protestant centers.

How ultra-sensitive to the threat of Lutheranism were Catholic authorities with regard to Bruno and Menocchio? Though there were only incidental parallels, Inquisition authorities suspected both Bruno and Menocchio of following Luther’s teachings based on the testimony of others and their own seemingly non-Catholic behavior. Assigning the label of Lutheran was a convenient way to demonize one’s enemies among Catholics in the sixteenth century regardless of their actual beliefs, and we find both an accusation and a denial in Menocchio’s trial records. When interrogated about Menocchio’s faith, a peasant acquainted with him for more than thirty years replied that “he has a poor reputation, namely that he holds evil opinions following the sect of Luther and frequently I have heard him speak and dispute about matters of faith.”[8] Menocchio later defended himself by asserting that “a Lutheran is one who goes about teaching bad things, and eats meat on Friday and Saturday,” which illustrates that he likely did not even understand what Lutheranism entailed.[9]

When questioned regarding his belief in the power of saints and their relics and images, Menocchio elaborated on tenets similar to Protestant thought: “We should not adore their images but only the one God, who created the heavens and the earth. Don’t you see that Abraham cast down all the idols and all the images and adored only the one God?”[10] Bruno, like Menocchio, was unconvinced of the efficacy of images. During his time as a Dominican monk in Naples, he removed all images of the Madonna, Saint Catherine of Sienna, and other iconic figures from his monk’s cell in San Domenico Maggiore and displayed only a single crucifix on his wall.[11] Significantly, the bishops at the Council of Trent considered the education of the laity concerning the value of the sacraments and saints a priority.

[1] Ingrid Rowland, Giordano Bruno: Philosopher Heretic, 19-24.

[2] Ibid., 22.

[3]Ibid., 14-18. Rowland, deferring to Bruno’s own self-reference as a “Nolan philosopher,” describes his peculiar and difficult to define philosophy as “the Nolan philosophy.” In this way, she gives his beliefs a broader foundation than simply Hermetic, Neoplatonic, or otherwise, and aggrandizes Bruno with his own nominal system.

[4] Ibid., 70-76.

[5] Ibid., 226-229 and 244-245. According to Rowland, the Venetian Inquisition normally did not extradite prisoners to Rome, and Rome generally tolerated this because the wealth and power of Venice protected Rome from its external enemies. However, with the encroachment of Protestantism into northern Italy and Venice’s need for Rome as an ally against the increasingly bellicose Holy Roman Empire, Venice began to more readily defer to Roman religious authority throughout the late sixteenth century.

[6] Digges was also an early proponent of Copernicus.

[7] Ingrid Rowland, Giordano Bruno: Philosopher Heretic, 77-86, 101-103, 113-116, 130-131, 186-187, and 199-222.

[8] Andre del Col, Domenico Scandella Known as Menocchio, 8.

[9] Quoted in Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms, 18.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ingrid Rowland, Giordano Bruno: Philosopher Heretic, 30 and 99-100.