Italian Renaissance Research Paper

Pages: 11 (3325 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 10  ·  Level: College Sophomore  ·  Topic: Mythology - Religion

Science in the Italian Renaissance: The End of the Medieval World

Robert Bellarmine wrote "his displeasure with Copernican theory" (Patrick 1253) to Paolo Antonio Foscarini in 1615. Bellarmine was a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, a doctor of theology and later to be declared a saint. Foscarini was a Carmelite who, with Galileo, had taken some interest in Copernicus' heliocentric model of the universe. In 1616, Foscarini's book defending heliocentrism was placed on the Church's Index of Forbidden Books. By 1633 Galileo would also be forbidden to spread his heliocentric doctrine, which he had put in the vernacular Italian as opposed to the language of the learned, Latin (Patrick 1254). Thus, while the new astronomers were attempting to set up a new model of the universe, the Church attempted to preserve its own perspective: namely, that the earth, man and God made Man were the center of the cosmos. Yet, through technological innovations, the Church's control over the gathering and disseminating of information was slipping. Galileo had studied the heavens using his new telescope, while Bellarmine's studies had been grounded in philosophy, theology and Scripture. Bellarmine represented the old science. Galileo the new. Such conflict between scientific study grounded in theological traditions and scientific study emphasized by technological cues marked the end of the medieval world and the beginning of the modern world.

Having little knowledge of science in the Italian Renaissance, I was surprised to learn how seriously such a claim as Galileo's could affect man's notion of self and place. But let's first define our terms.

Science, according to the medieval church, was rooted in the kind of scholasticism made famous by Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas combined a deep spiritual knowledge of the mysteries of the Roman Catholic religion with the classical knowledge of the ancient pagan philosophers such as Aristotle. The result was the Summa Theologica, the book that for centuries defined Catholic thought. Science, for Aquinas, was the study of all things in the light of God. As Aquinas says:

Just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God….Individual facts are treated of in sacred doctrine, not because it is concerned with them principally, but they are introduced rather both as examples to be followed in our lives (as in moral sciences) and in order to establish the authority of those men through whom the divine revelation, on which this sacred scripture or doctrine is based, has come down to us.

Aquinas illustrates, with what later theologians and philosophers would call far too much complexity (or certainty), the relationship between faith and reason -- a relationship that intensely shaped medieval scholastic thought -- and a relationship that by the twentieth century would find fewer and fewer followers. For example, after WWII, one rector of a seminary in France lamented that there was so little knowledge of the relationship between faith and reason in his own seminarians that he was forced to go back to the teachings of Aquinas to restore this sense to his pupils. Said one of the students, "It was always St. Thomas, St. Thomas, St. Thomas! We had come from the novitiate where they did not refer much to St. Thomas….At Mortain we practically bathed in St. Thomas; as for me, I liked it" (Tissier 149).

But not everyone liked it -- then or in 1600. Discovery was in vogue in Renaissance Italy. The cold powers of deduction were yesterday's news.

Yet despite what Copernicus would say about Ptolemy's geocentric model of the universe being too complex and unable to account for certain celestial movements, scholasticism was the "Science of the Schools." According to John Laux in his Church History, "Scholasticism did not attempt to add anything to Divine Revelation or to teach new doctrines, but only to furnish a rational basis for Christianity by showing the harmony which exists between faith and reason, and also to reduce the doctrines contained in Scripture and Tradition to an orderly and definite system" (374).

That the science of Copernicus and Galileo threatened the harmony of faith and reason and the orderly system of the universe (i.e. Ptolemy's model) can be seen readily enough in the Holy Office's denouncement. But what led Copernicus and Galileo to their conclusions?

One of the things that led them to their conclusions was the scientific method -- a method of inquiry that takes two approaches to knowledge and combines them: the empirical or inductive and the rational or deductive. Empirical evidence is stressed in fields such as biology or anatomy, while rational evidence helps establish principles in mathematics and physics. Although these methods of inquiry were not unknown in medieval times, for they built off the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, "the success of the scientific method in modern times arose from the skillful synchronization of induction and deduction by such giants as Leonardo, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton" (Perry 384).

In fact, many avenues of inquiry served to stimulate scientific study as we understand it today. Renaissance humanists interpreted works by ancient pagans such as Archimedes, Ptolemy and Plato, which questioned the authority of medieval scholastics. Renaissance artists, whose "desire to imitate nature led them to rely on a close observation of nature," inspired in turn great interest in the observance of the natural world. Italian Renaissance merchants were moving goods across seas at an immense rate, and so merchants also inspired scientific inquiry: "Technical problems, such as calculating the tonnage of ships accurately, also served to stimulate scientific activity because they required careful observation and accurate measurements. Then, too, the invention of new instruments and machines, such as the telescope and microscope, often made new scientific discoveries possible" (Spielvogel 326).

Also important to what would later be termed the Scientific Revolution was mathematics. "Nature," claimed Leonardo da Vinci, "is inherently mathematical." Likewise, "Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton were all great mathematicians who believed that the secrets of nature were written in the language of mathematics" (Spielvogel 327).

Finally, but not least important, alchemy and the study of Hermetic magic helped steer the new scientific inquiries away from the study of God (theology as propagated by Aquinas and Bellarmine) and toward "the desire to control and dominate the natural world" (Spielvogel 327). And such a desire is precisely what we can see around us today, from iPhones that connect us to the seemingly unlimited amount of information that these phones can download; from the satellites orbiting Earth to the cables running from shore to shore at the bottom of the sea; from the television screens proffering acne-free skin, birth control for women, age-reducing wrinkle cream to the philosophical ethos of Planned Parenthood and the euthanasia clinics of Switzerland -- our global society attempts to control and direct the course of its own life, while it struggles to define its own spiritual significance. Perhaps the spiritual malaise that modern writers such as Walker Percy, Jean-Paul Sartre and Edward Albee expound is a result of the drift away from the study of God to the study of the iPad? Whatever the case may be, there can be no doubt that the science born out of the Italian Renaissance marked the end of the scholastic science of the medieval world and the beginning of the modern science of our world.

The medieval concept of the universe was more mythically and mystically-based than ours. The idea of the Heavens, heavenly spheres, orbs of pure light, Empyrean, God and the angels watching man's activity on Earth was very religious. Like Homer's Greek epics, wherein the gods actively participated in the affairs of men, the Christian conception of men's lives, movement, the Prime Mover, and the Final End, found relief in the idea that God did become Man.

However, with Galileo's telescope, the Heavens suddenly deteriorated (or expanded) into an incomprehensible, limitless universe. Empyrean faded into a highly mathematical model of orbiting spheres. Ptolemy's hierarchic design disappeared into a seemingly random set-up. The magic that was sought to change metal into gold in alchemy, now took the magic out of mystery, and paved the way from the Triune God to the God of our forefathers, who were Deists -- who worshipped a God that had created the universe and set it in motion, but took no part in its activity. Galileo could not find Heaven through his telescope. Perhaps Heaven was not where and what the Church had preached.

It is no surprise to me that the Scientific Revolution arose at the same time Catholics were rejecting the teaching authority of the Catholic Church; both the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution found roots in the humanism of the Renaissance; alongside one another they led Europe to its cultural Enlightenment, which helped spawn the French Revolution; and following on the heels of this revolution was another, the Industrial Revolution -- and not long after that, here we are. Science as born out of the Italian Renaissance concentrated on explaining what… [END OF PREVIEW]

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