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Science in the Dark Ages

Jean Lindsay queries the medieval path of scientific enquiry.

Some seeds of modern science dropped into the ground when the flower of Graeco-Roman learning withered. A few survived even the ignorance and superstition of the worst period of the Dark Ages; but for centuries conditions did not favour their growth. Just when the pagan philosophers seemed to be losing vitality and originality the Christian thinkers, who were coming to supersede them as the formers of opinion, declared that they were interested not in nature or in secular speculation but in spiritual themes, which they proceeded to discuss not in terms of rational science but in terms of revealed religion. In the fourth century, St. Basil declared that his sole object was the edification of the Church. He feared that the study of the heavens might distract men from meditating on God who reigned supreme above the heavens; and this point of view was echoed a century later by St. Augustine, who declared that whether the sky moved or stood still was of no importance in comparison with the problem of finding and following the path of personal salvation and ensuring the good of the whole Church. If a thinker as eminent as St. Augustine could hold such an opinion, it is not surprising that at a later date, when memories of Greek science had become dimmer and standards of scholarship lower, less powerful intellects should have abandoned any attempt to form independent opinions about the phenomena of the natural world, and should have contented themselves with deducing morals from “facts” which they accepted on trust from earlier writers. But, before the pitiful decay of scholarship during the seventh and eighth centuries, a few outstanding thinkers, inspired by the clash between the teaching of revealed religion and that of the pagan philosophers, put forward some scientific ideas that had a very considerable importance.

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