The Struggle Against Religion -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

The Struggle Against Religion

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In the absence of a revolutionary alternative, the breakdown of slave society, produced a frightful collapse of culture, the effects of which lasted for centuries. In the period known as the Dark Ages, the scientific and artistic achievements of Antiquity were largely lost. The flame of learning was kept alight in Byzantium, Ireland and, above all, in the part of Spain occupied by the Arabs. The rest of Europe remained sunk in barbarism for a long time.

Gradually, a new form of society emerged from the wreckage of the old, the feudal system, based on the exploitation of a peasantry who were no longer slaves, but were tied to the land, under the domination of temporal and spiritual lords. The pyramidal structure of society reflected this domination, with a rigid system of alleged duties and rights to one’s "natural superiors." The fundamental duty, however, upon which everything else depended, was the duty of the serf to provide free labour service for his lord and master. This is what distinguishes this form of society from chattel slavery that went before it, and capitalism that followed it. The whole thing was sanctified by the Church, which wielded immense power, and was organised along similar hierarchical lines.

The static, unchanging character of the feudal mode of production, and the rigid social hierarchy that rested upon it, found an ideological expression in the fixed dogmas of the Church, which demanded unquestioning obedience, based on the official interpretation of the sacred texts. The earlier doctrines of the Christians, with their strong revolutionary and communist overtones were persecuted as heresy, and stamped out, once Christianity became accepted as the state religion. In place of reason, the Church Fathers preached blind faith, summed up in the celebrated phrase attributed to Tertullian, "Credo, quia absurdum est"—(I believe because it is absurd). Science was looked on as suspicious, a heritage of paganism. One of the last of the Greek mathematicians, Hypatia, was stoned to death by a mob led by a monk.

The heritage of classical Greek philosophy was lost, and was only partially revived in Western Europe in the 12th century. Such a situation was not conducive to the development of thought and science. "The conditions of feudal production reduced the demand for useful science to a minimum," writes J. D. Bernal. "It was not to increase again till trade and navigation created new needs in the later Middle Ages. Intellectual effort was to go in other directions and largely in the service of a radically new feature of civilisation—organised religious faiths." (Bernal, Science in History, p. 181.)

According to Forbes and Dijksterhuis:

"Generally speaking it may be said that during the first centuries of its existence Christianity was not conducive to scientific pursuits. Science was regarded with suspicion because of its pagan origin; moreover, the ideal prevailed that it was not advisable for the spiritual welfare of Christians to penetrate more deeply into the secrets of nature than was made possible by the Holy Scriptures and than was required to understand these." (Forbes and Dijksterhuis, A History of Science and Technology, Vol. 1, pp. 101-2.)

When the remnants of classical culture eventually reached Western Europe, it was in translations from the Arabic. The great energy shown by the Arabs in conquering North Africa and Spain right up to the Pyrenees was matched by their intelligent and flexible attitude to the culture of the conquered peoples, in marked contrast to the ignorant barbarism displayed by the Christians after the reconquest of Al-Andalus. For centuries, the Islamic universities in Spain, especially the one at C—rdoba, were the only real centres of learning in Europe, if we exclude Ireland, which, because of its remoteness, remained outside the mainstream. The Arabs made great advances in a whole number of fields—mathematics, astronomy, geography, medicine, optics and chemistry, as well as important technological advances, shown by the vast irrigation schemes which were wantonly destroyed by the Christians. But it took hundreds of years for this knowledge to percolate through to Western Europe.

Because of the Church’s monopoly of culture, all intellectual life had to be channelled through it. At the universities, where everything was taught in Latin, the curriculum was dominated by grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, astronomy and music. The high point was philosophy and theology, which were closely related. For centuries, philosophy was seen as the "handmaiden of theology." Science was reduced to a bare minimum: "Arithmetic was numeration; geometry the first three books of Euclid; astronomy hardly got past the calendar and how to compute the date of Easter; and the physics were very remote and Platonic." (Ibid., p. 218.) No interest was shown in scientific research and experiment.

Philosophy was reduced to an impoverished form of Platonic idealism, later replaced by a completely ossified and one-sided reading of Aristotle. In the early period, St. Augustine (354-430) based himself on Neo-Platonism to attack the pagan opponents of Christianity. Much later, the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) represent a falsification of Aristotelian philosophy to fit the needs of the Church in the conditions of feudal society, playing down the materialist elements and stressing the weak side of Aristotle, the "unmoved first mover" and so on. To this day, a variant of his philosophy (neo-Thomism) remains the basic position of the Roman Catholic Church.

However, even in such apparently infertile soil, the seeds of further development slowly began to germinate. The mediaeval scholastics, or Schoolmen, who endlessly debated questions of theology in order to provide their religious world outlook with some theoretical basis, eventually produced a number of thinkers who were beginning to draw materialist conclusions. Not by accident, the most prominent of them came from Britain, where the roots of empiricism have traditionally run deep.

In the later Middle Ages, the rise of the towns and trade saw the emergence of a new and vigorous element in the social equation. The rising class of wealthy merchants began to flex its muscles, demanding rights. The expansion of commerce, the opening up of new trade routes, the rise of a money economy, the creation of new needs and the means of satisfying them, the development of arts and crafts, the rise of a new national literature, all these things heralded the birth of a revolutionary force in society, the bourgeoisie, whose interests laid in breaking down the artificial feudal barriers which impeded its development, and also, to an ever-increasing extent, in developing and exploiting technical innovations.

The development of open-sea navigation, for example, demanded the production of new and better charts, based on accurate astronomical observations, and also of more advanced navigational instruments. The introduction of paper and printing had a revolutionary effect on the accessibility of ideas which had earlier been limited to a tiny minority of ecclesiastics. The production of literature written in the vernacular for the first time had the same effect, with the emergence of great recognisable national writers, Boccaccio, Dante, Rabelais, Chaucer and finally, Luther. The introduction of gunpowder not only revolutionised warfare, and helped undermine the power of the nobles, but also gave a new impetus to the study of physics and chemistry.

First in Italy, then in Holland, Britain, Bohemia, Germany and France, the new class began to challenge the old order, which, after nearly a thousand years, had exhausted itself and entered a phase of decline. The endless wars and civil wars of the period bore witness to the impasse of feudalism. The Black Death, which decimated the population of Europe in the 14th century, hastened the dissolution of feudal relations on the land. The peasant "jacqueries" in France and the Peasant Rising in England were a warning of the approaching dissolution of the feudal order. To many people, it seemed that the end of the world was approaching. In fact, the sensation of impending doom which gave rise to phenomena like the flagellant sects, groups of religious fanatics, who travelled the country, whipping and otherwise inflicting pain on themselves, in anticipation of the impending Day of Wrath. This was merely a confused reflection in the popular imagination of the impending break-up of the existing social order.

The breakdown of a social system is anticipated by a crisis of the official morality and ideology, which increasingly enters into conflict with the changed social relations. A critical spirit arises among a layer of the intellectuals, always a barometer of the tensions building up within the depths of society. An ideology and morality which no longer reflects reality is one that has outlived itself, and is destined to be overthrown. The moral and ideological basis for the feudal system was the teaching of the Church. Any serious challenge to the existing order meant an assault on the Church, which defended its power and privileges with all the means at its disposal, including excommunication, torture and the stake. But no amount of repression can preserve an idea whose time has past.

The Middle Ages are usually depicted as a time of extreme religious devotion and piety. But that description certainly does not apply to the period under consideration. The Church, a wealthy and powerful institution which weighed heavily on the back of society, was widely discredited. "Of all the contradictions which religious life of the period presents," writes Huizinga, "perhaps the most insoluble is that of an avowed contempt of the clergy, a contempt seen as an undercurrent throughout the Middle Ages, side by side with the very great respect shown for the sanctity of the sacerdotal office...Hence it was that nobles, burghers and villeins had for a long time past been feeding their hatred with spiteful jests at the expense of the incontinent monk and the guzzling priest. Hatred is the right world to use in this context, for hatred it was, latent, but general and persistent. The people never wearied of hearing the vices of the clergy arraigned. A preacher who inveighed against the ecclesiastical state was sure of being applauded. As soon as a homilist broaches this subject, says Bernardino of Siena, his hearers forget all the rest; there is no more effective means of reviving attention when the congregation is dropping off to sleep, or suffering from heat or cold. Everybody instantly becomes attentive and cheerful." (J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, p. 172-3.)

The undercurrents of dissent were felt even within the Church itself, reflecting the pressures of society. Heretical movements like the Albirgenses were put down in blood. But new oppositional trends appeared, sometimes disguised in the garb of mysticism. A 19th century Italian historian relates:

"The same spirit of reformation which animated the Albigenses had spread throughout Europe: many Christians, disgusted with the corruption and vices of the clergy, or whose minds revolted against the violence on their reason exercised by the church, devoted themselves to a contemplative life, renounced all ambition and the pleasures of the world, and sought a new road to salvation in the alliance of faith with reason. They called themselves cathari or the purified; paterini, or the resigned." (Sismondi, A History of the Italian Republics, p. 66.)

The Dominican and Franciscan orders were founded in the early 12th century to combat heresies, anti-clericalism and new philosophical ideas. Sismondi says of Pope Innocent the Third: "He founded the two mendicant orders of Franciscans and Dominicans; new champions of the church, who were charged to repress all activity of mind, to combat growing intelligence, and to extirpate heresy. He confided to the Dominicans the fearful powers of the inquisition, which he instituted: he charged them to discover and pursue to destruction the new reformers, who, under the name of paterini, multiplied rapidly in Italy." (Ibid., p. 60.)

Violent repression of opposition of any kind was a constant feature of the conduct of the ecclesiastical authorities from the highest level, as the history of the papacy shows. Pope Urban the Sixth, when he could not get the support of his cardinals, resolved the problem by the simple expedient of accusing them of conspiracy against him. He had many cardinals put to the torture in his presence, while he calmly recited his rosary. Others he ordered to be put in sacks and drowned in the sea. The reforming monk Girolamo Savonarola, an Italian precursor of Luther, was tortured until he confessed all the crimes attributed to him, and burnt alive with two other monks. Examples can be multiplied at will.

The development of science was held back for hundreds of years by the stifling of thought by the spiritual police of the Church. The not inconsiderable intellectual energies of the Schoolmen were dissipated in endless and complicated debates on such subjects as the sex of angels. Nobody was permitted to go beyond the limits laid down by Church dogma, and those who attempted to do so laid themselves open to harsh reprisals.

It therefore called for great courage when the English scholastic Roger Bacon (c. 1214-92), went so far as to challenge the Schoolmen’s dogmatism and veneration of authority. Going against the spirit of the times, and anticipating the scientific method, he advocated the experimental study of nature. Given the fact that science had still not separated itself from alchemy and astrology, it is not surprising that elements of these were present in Bacon’s writings. Nor is it surprising that he was rewarded for his boldness by being dismissed from teaching at Oxford and confined to a monastery for his heretical views. In the circumstances, he was lucky.

The philosophical trend known as nominalism, which emerged at this time, stated that universal concepts are only names of individual objects. This reflected a move in the direction of materialism, as Engels explains:

"Materialism is the natural-born son of Great Britain. Already the British Schoolman Duns Scotus, asked, ‘whether it was impossible for matter to think?’

"In order to effect this miracle, he took refuge in God’s omnipotence, i.e., he made theology preach materialism. Moreover, he was a nominalist. Nominalism, the first form of materialism, is chiefly found among the English Schoolmen." (Engels, Anti-D¸hring, p. 427.)

The nominalist trend was developed by another Englishman (though, to be exact, Duns Scotus, as his name implies, was born either in Scotland or in Northern Ireland) William of Occam (died 1349), the most important of the Schoolmen. Occam maintained that the existence of God and other religious dogmas could not be proved by reason, and were founded solely upon faith. This was a dangerous doctrine, since it would mean separating philosophy from religion, enabling it to develop separately, freed from the dead hand of the Church. Occam was excommunicated in 1328, but escaped from the Pope’s territory in Avignon, and fled to the protection of Louis, King of France, who was also excommunicated. Louis then appealed to a general Council, and the Pope found himself accused of heresy. It is said that when Occam met the Emperor he said to him: "Do you defend me with the sword, and I will defend you with the pen." At bottom, this was not an abstract debate about philosophy, but the reflection of a life and death struggle between the Church and Emperor, and between France, England and Germany.

While containing the germ of a correct materialist idea, the philosophy of nominalism was mistaken in assuming that general concepts ("universals") are only names. In fact, they reflect real qualities of objectively existing things, which, apart from their particular features, also embody within themselves elements of the general, which identify them as belonging to a specific genus or species. This denial of the general and insistence on particulars is a peculiar feature of the empirical cast of mind which has characterised the Anglo-Saxon philosophical tradition ever since. As a reaction against the sterile idealist doctrines of the mediaeval Church, it represented an important advance, a step in the direction of scientific experiment:

"It will not be surprising that thinkers entertaining nominalistic or related conceptions exerted a favourable influence on the study of science. Nominalism predisposed to attention for the experience of concrete things to be gained through the senses, whereas the opposite doctrine known as platonic realism (a confusing name, because it held that reality lay in ideas, so that it might also have been called idealism) always implied the temptation to aprioristic speculation." (Forbes and Dijksterhuis, op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 117.)

Nominalism is the germ of materialism, but a one-sided and superficial materialism which later led to a philosophical dead-end with Berkeley, Hume and the modern semantic philosophers. At the time, however, it represented a huge advance. Occam was the last of the great scholastics, but his approach encouraged a new generation of thinkers, like Nicholas of Oresme, his pupil, who investigated planetary theory. He anticipated Copernicus by considering the geocentric theory, which places the earth at the centre of the universe, and comparing it with the heliocentric theory, which states that the sun is at the centre, and concluding that either theory would serve to explain all the known facts, and that, therefore, it was impossible to choose between them. This apparently cautious conclusion was, in fact, quite a bold step, since it put a question mark over the orthodox position of the Church, and thereby challenged its whole world outlook.

The cosmology of the mediaeval Church formed an important part of its general world outlook. It was not a secondary issue. The picture of the universe was supposed to be a mirror-image of the world, with the same kind of static, unchanging character, the same rigid hierarchy. It was not derived from observation, but taken over from the cosmology of Aristotle and the Alexandrines, and accepted dogmatically. Bernal comments:

"The hierarchy of society was reproduced in the hierarchy of the universe itself; just as there was the pope, bishops, and archbishops, the emperor, kings, and nobles, so there was a celestial hierarchy of the nine choirs of angels: seraphim, cherubim, thrones; dominations, virtues, and powers; principalities, archangels, and angels (all fruits of the imagination of the pseudo Dionysius). Each of these had a definite function to perform in the running of the universe, and they were attached in due rank to the planetary spheres to keep them in appropriate motion. The lowest order of mere angels that belonged to the sphere of the moon had naturally most to do with the order of human beings just below them. In general there was a cosmic order, as social order, an order inside the human body, all representing states to which Nature tended to return when it was disturbed. There was a place for everything and everything knew its place." (Op. cit., p. 227.)

This view of the universe could not be challenged without calling into question the entire world-outlook of the Church, and the type of society it defended. The conflict around the ideas of Copernicus and Galileo were not abstract intellectual debates, but a life and death battle between opposing views of the world, which ultimately reflected a desperate struggle between two mutually exclusive social orders. The future of world history hinged upon the outcome.

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