The Renaissance -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

The Renaissance

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"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien. (John Keats)

"Eppur si muove."
"But it does move." (Galileo Galilei)

Modern science takes its starting point from the Renaissance, that marvellous period of spiritual and intellectual rebirth, which put and end to the thousand year reign of ignorance and superstition. Humanity once again looked to nature with eyes unblinkered by dogma. They rediscovered the wonders of classical Greek philosophy, directly translated from reliable versions which reached Italy after Constantinople was taken by the Turks. The materialist world outlook of the old Ionians and the atomists pointed science onto the right path.

This was a revolutionary period in every sense of the word. Luther not only started the Reformation in religion, but also reformed the German language. At the same time, the Peasants’ War in Germany, with its communistic overtones, pointed the way to future class struggles. "The dictatorship of the Church over men’s minds was shattered," wrote Engels, "it was directly cast off by the majority of the Germanic peoples, who adopted Protestantism, while among the Latins a cheerful spirit of free thought, taken over from the Arabs and nourished by the newly-discovered Greek philosophy, took root more and more and prepared the way for the materialism of the eighteenth century." (Engels, The Dialectics of Nature, p. 30.)

The discovery of America and the sea route to the East Indies opened up new horizons for trade and exploration. But even vaster horizons came into view in the field of the intellect. The old narrow one-sidedness became impossible. It was necessary to break down all the old barriers in order to get at the truth. As in all revolutionary epochs, at this time there was a burning desire to know.

The development of science is closely linked to the growth of technology, which, in turn, is connected to the development of the productive forces. Take astronomy. The cosmological speculations of the ancient Greeks were limited by the lack of telescopes which could aid their observations. In the year 137 A.D., observers had tabled the existence of 1,025 planetary bodies. By 1580, the number was exactly the same, and was arrived at using the same instrument—the naked eye.

Today’s astronomers, using powerful radio telescopes, can observe a vast array of stars and galaxies. This fact has transformed astronomy. Unfortunately, the advances of technology have proceeded far more rapidly than the development of the ideas in the minds of men and women. In many respects, the world outlook of some scientists in the last decade of the 20th century has more in common with that of the mediaeval Church than the heroes of the Renaissance whose struggles against philosophical obscurantism made modern science possible.

Anaximander and Anaxagoras held that the universe was infinite—it had no beginning and no end. Matter could not be created or destroyed. This idea found acceptance with many other philosophers of Antiquity, and was summed up by the famous aphorism—Ex nihilo nihil fit—out of nothing comes nothing. It is therefore futile to look for a beginning or a creation of the universe, because it has always existed.

For the Church, such a view was anathema, because it left the Creator out of the picture. In an infinite material world, there is no room for God, the Devil, the angels, heaven or hell. Therefore they seized avidly upon the weakest and most puerile of Plato’s writings, the Timaeus, which is really a creation-myth. On the other hand, they had the Ptolomeic system of the cosmos, which, in addition, corresponded to the cosmological scheme of Aristotle, whose authority was absolute at the time. This was the picture of a closed universe. The earth stood at the centre, enclosed by seven crystal spheres, on which the sun, the moon and the planets traced perfect circular orbits round the earth. This concept seems strange to modern minds. But it actually was sufficient to explain many observable phenomena. In fact, from the standpoint of simple "common sense," it would seem that the sun goes round the earth and not vice-versa.

Despite this, the geocentric view was challenged even in Ptolomey’s day. The alternative heliocentric theory was defended by Aristarchus of Samos (c. 310-230 B.C.), who put forward the complete hypothesis of Copernicus, that all planets, including the earth go round the sun in circles, and that the earth revolves on its axis every twenty four hours. This brilliant theory was discarded in favour of the Ptolomaic view, because it fitted in with the Church’s outlook. The earth stood at the centre of the universe, and the Church stood at the centre of the world.

Copernicus, the great Polish astronomer (1473-1543), had travelled to Italy in his youth, and was infected with the new spirit of inquiry and free thinking abroad. He soon came to accept that the sun was at the centre of the universe, but kept his ideas to himself for fear of the reaction of the Church. Only on his death bed did he decide to publish his book, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies), which he dedicated to the Pope, in the hope of escaping censure. Temporarily, he succeeded. The book was not condemned until Galileo’s time, when the Inquisition and the Jesuits, the shock-troops of the Counter Reformation were in full swing.

Tycho Brache, the Danish astronomer (1546-1601), took an intermediate position, arguing that, while the sun and moon go round the earth, the planets go round the sun. Far more important was the role of the German, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who made use of Brache’s calculations to correct some inaccuracies in Copernicus’ model, and put forward his three laws: that planets move, not in circles, but in ellipses; that the line joining a planet to the sun sweeps out equal areas in equal times, and that the square of the period of revolution of a planet is proportional to the cube of its average distance from the sun.

These propositions struck a heavy blow against the orthodox positions of the Church. The planets had to move in circles because the circle was the perfect form. That had been the accepted view of all idealists since Pythagoras. Kepler’s first law now meant that they moved in an ellipse—a far from perfect form! His second law was still more monstrous from the "official" point of view. Instead of a nice smooth movement, the speed of the planets in orbit varied, being faster when nearer the sun, and slower when furthest away from it. How could this be compatible with the notion of the divine harmony of the universe?

The point is that, whereas Kepler’s theories were based upon Brache’s scrupulous observations, the position of the Church was based on an idealist theory which was simply assumed to be true. To the modern observer, the position of the opponents of Copernicus and Kepler seem absurd. Yet echoes of this idealist method are still to be heard today, when serious physicists and mathematicians defend their equations, not on their correspondence with the known facts of observation, but on their alleged aesthetic value. This is a question we shall return to.

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