Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Questions That Interest Me

I will admit that my interests tend to wander from specific matters related to being a Christian in our contemporary world. At least, to others, that may seem to be the case. Since all the ways we divide up our world in to little compartments are largely fake, however, I tend to see continuities where others raise their eyebrows and wonder, "What in the world are you talking about?"

Fellow blogger Dan Trabue has one of those posts designed to drag the homo-haters out of their holes. It is working, too. The same tired arguments. The same sentences, typed for the thousandth time by the same people playing their appointed roles. It isn't even necessary to read specific comments to know beforehand how different people are going to respond. Which is not to say that Dan's question is unimportant, although I believe it is so for reasons other than one's he may entertain. Rather, the internet and blogging is a medium not designed for careful, thoughtful analysis of important matters. Rather, it allows people who do not know one another to play verbal games. For all I know, the folks taking up various positions at Dan's do not believe a word they are typing; they may just be enjoying the game.

Let them play.

I am currently reading Medieval Cosmology, selections from Pierre Duhem's massive, multi-volume history of western scientific thought from the patristics to the Renaissance. The subjects are arranged topically - infinity, place, time, the void, the plurality of world - and cover the period, roughly speaking, from St. Thomas and the condemnations of 1277 through the early Renaissance. Writing during the First World War (and never fully completed because Duhem was not a well man and died before he could finish it), Duhem's thesis was simple enough. Rather than view the various scientific discoveries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as revolutions in thought, we need to see them as events on in intellectual continuum. Physics didn't begin with Newton, but Aristotle. Astronomy did not begin with Copernicus, but Aristotle. It was the rediscovery of Aristotle, and the adaptation of his thought to the neo-Platonism of the middle years of the Christian era that created the intellectual milieu that led, in steps variously large and small, to the discoveries of what we call "the scientific revolution".

In order to make his case, however, Duhem had to place in evidence huge amounts of material that was unknown outside the narrow precincts of Scholastic studies and those folks interested in the 14th century arguments known as the conflict between the ancients (those who followed in Aquinas' footsteps and stuck close to Aristotle) and the moderns (the nominalists and their students, from Ockham through Peter of Spain and Albert of Saxony). Many of the people reviewed by Duhem were virtually unknown except to a few specialists - Robert Grosseteste and Jean Buridan, Albert of Saxony and a 14th century Merton College Fellow named Swineshead - and their views on these matters largely unexplored until Duhem put the pieces together.

Do I agree with Duhem's thesis? I cannot say one way or another. What I do think is important, however, is understanding what people used to believe and think and teach. First of all, learning stuff like this is its own reward. More knowledge, no matter how seemingly trivial or irrelevant to many people, is always preferable to less. Second, considering the intensity of the debates, the fact that so much of late Scholasticism flowed from a series of condemnations of various pieces of Thomistic thought in 1277, it gives contemporary readers a perspective on our own controversies. Finally, how can we understand who we are if we have no idea of our roots?

These are the questions that interest me. This is why I'm wading through the dense sophistry and dialectic of late Scholasticism, rather than engaging in a shouting match over gay marriage (which is not to say I haven't posted a couple comments; rather, I have tried to change the subject). I have limited time and resources as it is, and I think it would be far better used exploring matters of interest to me, than playing a part in an internet set-piece whose structure and content I am already familiar with.

Virtual Tin Cup

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