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Science in the early Middle Ages

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Saved by Garrett McCormack
on September 24, 2008 at 11:26:51 pm



The myth that science ceased to exist from the period of the Greeks until the scientific revolution seems to be a widely held thought.  However, This was not the case.  It was during this period that science mainly took to preserving and popularizing those works that were already in existence from the great Greek philosophers.  The Romans, a more practical minded people not so much interested in philosophy for philosophy's sake, still admired the Greek philosophers and found their work worthy of be read, copied, and translated. In fact, the Roman writer, Horace, noted that while Rome captured Greece militarily and politically, the artistic and intellectual conquest belonged to the Greeks. As Rome became more and more secure, its leisured class took a great interest in Greek literature, philosophy, politics, and art. Any Roman wishing to pursue these topics was better off finding them through imitation of the Greek method, and any Roman scholar who wished to proceed at the highest level would do so in Greek. Any program of creative research was paired with other programs directed toward preservation, commentary, education, popularization, and transmission. This idea of research still exists today in schools, universities, and mass media. When it came to Greek science, the Roman public usually valued what had practical and intristic appeal. They were also interested in cataloging knowledge; In fact, the encyclopedia is a product of a Roman citizen named Pliny the Elder, who's work included 37 books where he tried to gather all of human knowledge into one source.  As the Empire was stretched more and more thinly, and facing adversity within and without, the copying of books simply became less important.  The western portion of the Roman empire was much less stable during this time period and much of the preservation of scientific knowledge and scientific advancement was left to the eastern part of the Roman empire, sometimes referred to as the Byzantine empire.  The Christian church was also seen as being against science when really they may have been a mojor reason for the survival of many Greek works and philosophies.  Christianity spread throughout the Mediterranean region slowly over about 600 years.  This gradual diffusion allowed for it to mix with pagan ideas, including natural philosophy from such philosophers as Plato.


Natural Philosophers Under the Roman Republic:



     Cicero was best known as a great politician and orator but worked much in the field of natural philosphy.  He wrote a translation of Plato's Timaeus, but it did not survive to today.  Cicero also wrote a work entitled The Dream of Scipio which describes the heavens in an attempt to outline Greek cosmology.  In this work CIcero describes a "music of the spheres" that is created due to the motioin of the heavenly bodies.  This outlines Cicero's belief that the cosmos is highly proportional and harmonic.



  Posidonius, a Stoic born in Syria, was well known as a popularizer of Greek natural philosophy. He was a teacher of Cicero, and strongly influenced his intellectual life. He was "the closest thing to a universal scholar that we can find in the first century B.C.," according to Lindberg (137). He sought information and wrote about history, geography, moral philosophy, and natural philosophy. He comented on both Plato's Timaeus and Aristotle's Meteorology. Though most of his works have not survive, it is known that he found an estimate for the circumference of the Earth that was different from Eratosthenes'. This estimate of 180,000 stades was eventually used by Columbus to calculate the distance from Spain to the Indies. 



     Varro (116-27 B.C.), having studied in Rome and Athens, produced an enormous body of works (about seventy-five in all) on a variety of topics. The most influencial of these works was the Nine Books of Discipline which became a reference for many future Roman encyclopedists. The Disciplines became most widely known for its organization of nine arts as the liberal arts: the trivium (grammar, thetoric, logic), the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, musical theory), medicine, and architecture.  His Disciplines became a staple in every educated Roman's study, and was later altered slightly by Martianus Capella, who limited them to the first seven (the trivium and the quadrivium).




Primary Sources


 If we compare the early church with a modern research university or the National Science Foundation, the church will prove to have failed abysmally as a supporter of science and natural philosophy.  But such a comparison is obviously unfair.  If, instead, we compare the support given to the study of nature by the early church with support available from any other contemporary social institution, it will become apparent that the church was the major paton of scientific learning.  Its patronage may have been limited and selective, but limited and selective patronage is a far cry from opposition. (Lindberg 150)


Lindberg points out a common flaw in modern thinking: the early Christian Church hindered scientific learning.  But this misconception is based on a skewed, presentist viewpoint of what "supporting science" is.




Key Terms and Definitions


encyclopedia - a compiling of all human knowledge, introduced by Roman Pliny the Elder as his Natural History


Relevant Links

 A great interactive on the Roman Empire.  Check out the timeline and maps.



Pliny the Elder's Natural History online.



Some more on Varro's life and works.


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