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MAGIC through two MILLENIA

From the Dark Ages to Mediaeval Europe.


With the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the barbarian invasion of the West, the development of philosophy slowed to a crawl. The resurgence of intellectual concerns had to await the formation of the more established social order which began to be established around the later centuries of the first millenium. Although there was little advance in what we would call natural philosophy in Europe during the early Middle Ages (roughly between the ninth and thirteenth centuries) there were many technological inventions - water wheels and windmills, advanced ploughs and the spinning wheel to name but a few. By the end of the fourteenth century gunpowder, increasingly sophisticated firearms and the printing press had been developed or had been imported from the Chinese or the Muslim world. The crafts which these developments supported were correspondingly strong, but, the craftspeople lacked the skills of reading and writing and could thus contribute little to the development of a systematic science.

The Christian church, following the teachings of St Augustine, tended to view the physical world as a mere preparation for the life hereafter; correspondingly, empirical study of the world was pointless, if not sacriligeous. Although some of the classical works were available to the mediaeval monasteries, it was only with increasing contact with the Islamic and Byzantine cultures, following Charlemagne’s conquests in the late eighth century, that they began to have an influence on educated thought. Indeed it was not until the twelfth century that the majority of classical works were generally available. All intellectual developments had still to be measured against the theological stand of the Catholic church, which reached all-encompassing dominance in the West during this time.

The tension between the classical affirmation of the natural world and the Christian tradition of inner contemplation and meditation began to be resolved in the late Middle Ages, notably by Albertus Magnus and his pupil Thomas Aquinas, paving the way for the beginning of an experimental and scientific investigation of the world.

Several universities were founded in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, winning their right to independence from the church, and began to contribute importantly to the development of philosophy. However the university scholars were isolated from the world of commerce and crafts, and so their ideas often missed the healthy infusion of practicality needed for scientific development.

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Aurelius Augustine (354-430).

After a libidinous youth, Augustine underwent a dramatic reformation; one of his early prayers was said to be “give me chastity and continence, only not yet”. He was the author of one of the most famous of autobiographies of all time, the Confessions. After pursuing a variety of spiritual philosophies, he embraced Christianity and the Catholic church, coming to believe that, in the tradition of Paul, since God was perfect the imperfections in this world were due to humanity’s sins. The only hope for man’s redemption was in the after life, and, as a result, any studies of the natural world simply took time away from the more important task of meditation and preparation for life after death. The body was base, the spirit supreme. This attitude, which dominated Christian thought during the Dark Ages and well into the Middle Ages, proved an obstacle to the development of scientific studies of nature since it tended to equate experimental enquiry with heresy.

Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294).

Bacon was a Franciscan monk who spent much of his life at Oxford University. With a passion for mathematics and science, he believed strongly in the importance of experimentation in the exploration of the natural world. Informed by current belief in alchemy and astrology, his many experiments and theoretical speculations led to contemporary suspicions of heresy and black magic. -He knew about lenses, suggesting that they could be used to construct telescopes, he gave a theory of rainbow formation, and, based on his experiments proposed self-propelled boats and carriages, submarines and flying machines! His work was one of the earliest steps towards what has since become the scientific method.

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Thomas Aquinas (ca 1225 - 1274).

Aquinas was responsible for bringing Aristotle’s empirical ideas back into the mainstream of Western thought. For Aquinas, the natural world was a beautiful part of God’s creation, and study of this natural world could only lead to a greater knowledge and reverence for God. Aquinas had what would today be called a holistic view of humanity, since he believed that human beings encompassed in themselves the two realms of spirit (soul) and nature. This was in clear distinction from the later Cartesian division between mind and matter. Sensory experience was valuable in its own right. The use of our empirical reason, as exemplified by Greek thought, could now be used to serve the Christian world view. Aquinas’ ideas did not upset the prevailing Aristotelian view of the universe, in which the base earth was situated at the centre of the universe; the eternal and perfect motion of the heavenly bodies was, however, now provided by angels.

William of Ockham (c. 1290-1349).

A philosopher and priest who taught at Oxford and Paris, he believed, in contradiction to Aristotle, that logic could be divorced from metaphysics thus opening the way for scientific enquiry outside of religious dogma. With a similar passion as that of Aquinas for rationality, he taught that concrete particularity was the most important; only the particular exists, and universals are merely constucts abstracted by the mind. He believed that there was a limit to man’s knowledge of God. His remarkably modern view, which was pivotal for the development of modern Western view of nature, had an important influence on universities throughout the fourteenth century. He claimed that “It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer”, which is now known as Ockham’s razor; inasfar as it suggests that if several hypotheses fit the facts, the simplest should be chosen, it has been a valuable guiding light for scientific enquiry.

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Jean Buridan (1295?-1366?)

Buridan was one of the most influential teachers of his time, whose ideas were still being taught at universities as late as the 17th century. He was a scholar of wide interests, publishing textbooks on almost every subject taught at the University of Paris where he was rector. Much of his work in the area of natural philosophy consisted of interpretations and commentaries on the works of Aristotle, which he attempted to assimilate to contemporary ideas. His work was prohibited from 1474 to 1481. It is probable that he died of the plague. He is well-known in philosophical circles for his discussion of Buridan's ass which, placed equidistant from two bales of hay, died from an inability to decide which one to eat first.

Buridan was a strong proponent of the Impetus Theory of motion, which had been recently revived by William of Occam. In much the same way as a body that has been heated possesses a quantity of heat, the impetus theory suggested that a moving body possessed a quantity of motion (the impetus), imparted to it by the original force, and proportional to the mass of the body and its initial imparted speed. Thus a body would continues to move though a fluid until its impetus was exhausted by the resistance of the fluid. The Impetus Theory allowed motion in a vacuum (which Aristotle's did not). It also predicted that a body, moving in a circle under the influence of a centripetal force (e.g. think of whirling a mass tied to a string around your head) would continue to move in a circle for a short time after the force was removed. According to this theory, projectile motion would consist of three parts: (i) the body would move horizontally, the impetus suppressing any effect of gravity: (ii) a brief period of compromise between the impulse and gravity: (iii) the projectile falls vertically in "natural" motion. God was supposed to have given the planets a starting (circular) impetus, which, in the absence of air resistance, kept them going for ever. Buridan's is a good example of the many different versions of the Impetus theory that held sway during the Middle Ages.

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