I. SCIENCE IN THE DARK AGE

An obvious distinction between the classical and mediaeval epochs may be found in the fact that the former produced, whereas the latter failed to produce, a few great thinkers in each generation who were imbued with that scepticism which is the foundation of the investigating spirit; who thought for themselves and supplied more or less rational explanations of observed phenomena. Could we eliminate the work of some score or so of classical observers and thinkers, the classical epoch would seem as much a dark age as does the epoch that succeeded it.

But immediately we are met with the question: Why do no great original investigators appear during all these later centuries? We have already offered a part explanation in the fact that the borders of civilization, where racial mingling naturally took place, were peopled with semi-barbarians. But we must not forget that in the centres of civilization all along there were many men of powerful intellect. Indeed, it would violate the principle of historical continuity to suppose that there was any sudden change in the level of mentality of the Roman world at the close of the classical period. We must assume, then, that the direction in which the great minds turned was for some reason changed. Newton is said to have alleged that he made his discoveries by "intending" his mind in a certain direction continuously. It is probable that the same explanation may be given of almost every great scientific discovery. Anaxagoras could not have thought out the theory of the moon's phases; Aristarchus could not have found out the true mechanism of the solar system; Eratosthenes could not have developed his plan for measuring the earth, had not each of these investigators "intended" his mind persistently towards the problems in question.

Nor can we doubt that men lived in every generation of the dark age who were capable of creative thought in the field of science, bad they chosen similarly to "intend" their minds in the right direction. The difficulty was that they did not so choose. Their minds had a quite different bent. They were under the spell of different ideals; all their mental efforts were directed into different channels. What these different channels were cannot be in doubt—they were the channels of oriental ecclesiasticism. One all-significant fact speaks volumes here. It is the fact that, as Professor Robinson[1] points out, from the time of Boethius (died 524 or 525 A.D.) to that of Dante (1265-1321 A.D.) there was not a single writer of renown in western Europe who was not a professional churchman. All the learning of the time, then, centred in the priesthood. We know that the same condition of things pertained in Egypt, when science became static there. But, contrariwise, we have seen that in Greece and early Rome the scientific workers were largely physicians or professional teachers; there was scarcely a professional theologian among them.

Similarly, as we shall see in the Arabic world, where alone there was progress in the mediaeval epoch, the learned men were, for the most part, physicians. Now the meaning of this must be self-evident. The physician naturally "intends" his mind towards the practicalities. His professional studies tend to make him an investigator of the operations of nature. He is usually a sceptic, with a spontaneous interest in practical science. But the theologian "intends" his mind away from practicalities and towards mysticism. He is a professional believer in the supernatural; he discounts the value of merely "natural" phenomena. His whole attitude of mind is unscientific; the fundamental tenets of his faith are based on alleged occurrences which inductive science cannot admit—namely, miracles. And so the minds "intended" towards the supernatural achieved only the hazy mysticism of mediaeval thought. Instead of investigating natural laws, they paid heed (as, for example, Thomas Aquinas does in his Summa Theologia) to the "acts of angels," the "speaking of angels," the "subordination of angels," the "deeds of guardian angels," and the like. They disputed such important questions as, How many angels can stand upon the point of a needle? They argued pro and con as to whether Christ were coeval with God, or whether he had been merely created "in the beginning," perhaps ages before the creation of the world. How could it be expected that science should flourish when the greatest minds of the age could concern themselves with problems such as these?

Despite our preconceptions or prejudices, there can be but one answer to that question. Oriental superstition cast its blight upon the fair field of science, whatever compensation it may or may not have brought in other fields. But we must be on our guard lest we overestimate or incorrectly estimate this influence. Posterity, in glancing backward, is always prone to stamp any given age of the past with one idea, and to desire to characterize it with a single phrase; whereas in reality all ages are diversified, and any generalization regarding an epoch is sure to do that epoch something less or something more than justice. We may be sure, then, that the ideal of ecclesiasticism is not solely responsible for the scientific stasis of the dark age. Indeed, there was another influence of a totally different character that is too patent to be overlooked—the influence, namely, of the economic condition of western Europe during this period. As I have elsewhere pointed out,[2] Italy, the centre of western civilization, was at this time impoverished, and hence could not provide the monetary stimulus so essential to artistic and scientific no less than to material progress. There were no patrons of science and literature such as the Ptolemies of that elder Alexandrian day. There were no great libraries; no colleges to supply opportunities and afford stimuli to the rising generation. Worst of all, it became increasingly difficult to secure books.