Renaissance Scientific Movement Overviews - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Allen G. Debus (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Tradition and Reform," in Man and Nature in the Renaissance, Cambridge University Press, 1978, pp. 1–15.

[In the excerpt below, Debus provides an overview of the scientific revolution of the Renaissance, emphasizing the new interest in classical texts, the broader use of vernacular languages, and the expanded roles of observation, mathematics, technology, and mysticism.]

Few events in world history have been more momentous than the Scientific Revolution. The period between the mid-fifteenth and the end of the eighteenth centuries witnessed the growing cultural and political influence of Western Europe over all other parts of the globe. The new science and technology of the West was a crucial factor in this development, a fact recognized by most scholars at the time. Thus, Francis Bacon (1561–1626) observed in the Novum organum (1620) that

"it is well to observe the force and virtue and consequences of discoveries; and these are to be seen nowhere more conspicuously than in those three which were unknown to the ancients …; namely, printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. For these three have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world; the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes; insomuch that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries." [The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Eillis, and Douglas Dennon Heath (Longmans, 1870)]

For Bacon these discoveries were Western in origin and relatively recent in date. He was neither the first nor the last to make such a statement, but there were few whose works were read more avidly by those who hoped to erect a new science in the seventeenth century.

But if the importance of the Scientific Revolution is readily admitted by all, the more we study its origins, the more unsure we become of its causes. In this volume we shall be concerned primarily with the two centuries from 1450 to 1650, the first date coinciding roughly with the beginning of the new humanistic interest in the classical scientific and medical texts and the second with the years just prior to the general acceptance of the mechanistic science of Descartes (1596–1650), Galileo (1564–1642), Borelli (1608–1679), Boyle (1627–1691), and Newton (1642–1727).

These two centuries present an almost bewildering maze of interests, and only rarely will an individual be found whose scientific methodology would prove to be fully acceptable to a modern scientist. Some of the scholars, whose work contributed to our modern scientific age, found magic, alchemy, and astrology no less stimulating than the new interest in mathematical abstraction, observation, and experiment. Today we find it easy—and necessary—to separate "science" from occult interests, but many then could not. And we cannot relegate this interest in a mystical world view to a few lesser figures forgotten today except by antiquarians. The writings of Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) reveal a genuine interest in transmutation and a search for universal harmonies no less than the work of Paracelsus (1493–1541), Robert Fludd (1574–1637), or John Dee (1527–1608). For the most part it has been traditional among historians of science to view their subject by hindsight, that is, to ignore those aspects of an earlier natural philosophy that no longer have a place in our scientific world. However, if we do this we cannot hope to reach any contextual understanding of the period. It will thus be our aim to treat this period in its own terms rather than ours. As we proceed we shall find that controversies over natural magic and the truth of the macrocosm-microcosm analogy were then as important as the better-remembered debates over the acceptance of the heliocentric system or the circulation of the blood.

Renaissance Science and Education

The very words "Renaissance" and "humanism" have been employed with so many connotations that there is little hope of satisfying any two scholars with a single definition. There is no need to try to do so here. To be sure, the Renaissance did involve a kind of "rebirth" of knowledge—no less than it did a rebirth of art and literature. And it was surely the period of the development of a new science. But having granted this, it is necessary to be careful to avoid simplification. The new love of nature expressed by Petrarch (d. c. 1374) and other fourteenth-century humanists had more than one effect. We readily accept that it was instrumental in the rise of a new observational study of natural phenomena, but we also find that Petrarch and later humanists deeply distrusted the traditional scholastic emphasis on philosophy and the sciences. The rhetoric and history they preferred was a conscious reply to the more technical "Aristotelian" studies that had long been the mainstay of the medieval university. The humanists sought the moral improvement of man rather than the logic and scholastic disputations characteristic of traditional higher learning.

These shifting values were to result in a new interest in educational problems. Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century reform programs were to be directed toward elementary education rather than the universities. The humanist educator Vittorino da Feltre (1378–1446) established a new school where students were urged to excel at sports and to learn military exercises. In classrooms they studied rhetoric, music, geography, and history—and, taking their examples from the ancients, they were taught to value both moral principles and political action above the basic principles of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) or the study of traditional philosophical and scientific subjects.

Many of the most renowned humanist scholars were to be affected by this movement in educational reform. The result may be clearly seen in the work of Erasmus (1466–1536). He thought it enough for a student to learn of nature through his normal course of study in the reading of the ancient literary authors. Mathematics was not to him of much importance for an educated man. And Juan Luis Vives (1492–1540), surely the best known of all Renaissance educators, agreed fully when he argued against the study of mathematics that it tended to "withdraw the mind from practical concerns of life" and rendered it "less fit to fuse concrete and mundane realities."

But can we then say that the universities remained the centers of scientific training? For the most part they did, but there was an ever-increasing number of scholars both in medicine and the sciences who rejected the overwhelming conservatism of many—and perhaps most—of the institutions of higher learning. Peter Ramus (1515–1572) recalled his own academic training with despair:

"After having devoted three years and six months to scholastic philosophy, according to the rules of our university: after having read, discussed, and meditated on the various treatises of the Organon (for of all the books of Aristotle those especially which treated of dialectic were read and re-read during the course of three years); even after, I say, having put in all that time, reckoning up the years completely occupied by the study of the scholastic arts, I sought to learn to what end I could, as a consequence, apply the knowledge I had acquired with so much toil and fatigue. I soon perceived that all this dialectic had not rendered me more learned in history and the knowledge of antiquity, nor more skillful in eloquence, nor a better poet, not wiser in anything. Ah, what a stupefaction, what a grief! How did I deplore the misfortune of my destiny, the barrenness of a mind that after so much labor could not gather or even perceive the fruits of that wisdom which was alleged to be found so abundantly in the dialectic of Aristotle!" [Peter Ramus and the Educational Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, Frank Pierrepont Graves, 1912]

Ramus was not alone in his frustration—and his complaints were not without grounds. Paris, for example, was acknowledged as a stronghold of Galenic medicine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries whereas in England both the Elizabethan statutes for Cambridge (1570) and also the Laudian code for Oxford (1636) maintained the official authority of the ancients. Nor were the early professional societies necessarily better. The London College of Physicians looked on innovation with distrust. Thus, when in 1559 Dr. John Geynes dared to suggest that Galen (129/130–199/200 A.D.) might not be infallible, the reaction was immediate and severe. The good doctor was forced to sign a recantation before being received again into the company of his colleagues.

The conservatism seen in many major universities in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may be partially balanced by a critical tradition that had been applied to the ancient scientific texts at Oxford and Paris in the fourteenth century. This work, associated with scholasticism, was to prove particularly beneficial to the study of the physics of motion. As a scholarly tradition it was still in evidence at Padua and other northern Italian universities in the sixteenth century. For many, however, scientific criticism was a curious kind of humanistic game in which the scholar was to be commended for having eliminated the vulgar annotations and emendations of medieval origin that marred the texts of antiquity. His goal was textual purity rather than scientific truth.

In short, the educational climate in the early Renaissance was of questionable value for the development of the sciences. University training in this period may be characterized for the most part as conservative. As for the reform of primary education accomplished in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, this was openly antiscientific.

Humanism and Classical Literature

Dedication to the ancients is a familiar characteristic of Renaissance humanism. The search for new classical texts was intense in the fifteenth century, and each new discovery was hailed as a major achievement. No account is better known than that of Jacopo Angelo (fl. c. 1406). His ship sank as he was returning from a voyage to Constantinople made in search of manuscripts, but he managed to save his greatest discovery, a copy of the Geography of Ptolemy hitherto unknown in the West. Not long after this, in 1417, Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459) discovered what was later to be recognized as the only copy of Lucretius's (c. 99–55 B.C.) De rerum natura to have survived from antiquity. This was to become a major stimulus for the revived interest in atomism two centuries later. And, just nine years after the recovery of Lucretius, Guarino da Verona (1370–1460) found a manuscript of the encyclopedic treatise on medicine by the second-century author, Celsus. This work, De medicina, was to exert a great influence, an influence due perhaps less to its medical content than to its language and style. This was the only major medical work to have survived from the best period of Latin prose and it was to be mined by medical humanists who sought proper Latin terminology and phrasing.

The search for new texts—and new translations—resulted in a new awareness of the importance of Greek. To be sure, Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294) had already underscored this need in the thirteenth century, but the situation had not materially improved a century later. At that time Petrarch had lamented his own inadequate knowledge of this language. In fact he was not alone. Few Western scholars were able to use Greek until the teacher Manuel Chrysolorus (d. 1415) arrived in Italy with the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Paleologus in 1396. But helpful though Chrysolorus was, much greater enthusiasm was stirred by another Byzantine, Gemistos Plethon, on his arrival at the Council of Florence in 1439. The Greek revival was to affect all scholarly fields in the course of the fifteenth century. In medicine the humanist Thomas Linacre (c. 1460–1524) prepared Latin translations of Proclus (410–485) and of individual works of Galen. Significant though this was, his plans—only partially fulfilled—were actually far more grandiose. He projected a Latin translation of the complete works of Galen—and, with a group of scholars, a Latin translation of the complete works of Aristotle as well. Hardly less industrious was Johannes Guinter of Andernach (1505–1574), whose translations from Galen place him in the front rank of medical humanists. As professor of medicine at Paris, Guinter became one of the most prominent teachers of the young Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564).

This quest for truth in the search for accurate manuscripts was not confined solely to the study of the ancient physicians. Georg von Peuerbach (1423–1461) recognized the need for an accurate manuscript of Ptolemy's Almagest while writing his textbook, the Theoricae novae planetarum. But Peuerbach died while he was in the process of planning a journey to Italy to accomplish this end. His pupil, Johann Müller...

(The entire section is 6315 words.)