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Aristotle, 384-322 BCE


Portrait of Aristoteles. Pentelic marble, copy of the Imperial Period (1st or 2nd century) of a lost bronze sculpture made by Lysippos. The Louvre.

“The evidence of the senses further corroborates [the sphericity of the earth]. How else would eclipses of the moon show segments shaped as we see them? As it is, the shapes which the moon itself each month shows are of every kind…but in eclipses the outline is always curved; and, since it is the interposition of the earth that makes the eclipse, the form of this line will be caused by the form of the earth’s surface, which is therefore spherical…Hence one should not be too sure of the incredibility of the view of those who conceive that there is continuity between the parts about the pillars of Hercules [the Straits of Gibraltar] and the parts about India, and that in the way the ocean is one.”

These words appear in Aristotle’s treatise On the Heavens, written more than 1,800 years before Columbus left Cadiz aboard the Santa Maria. First translated into Latin from the Arabic in the twelfth century by Gerard of Cremona, they were quoted approvingly and commented on by numerous scholastic philosophers, including Pierre d’Ailly, a fifteenth-century theologian and scientist. An annotated copy of d’Ailly’s Image of the World was found in Columbus’s library. During medieval times, the common folk may well have believed that the earth was flat, but virtually no educated European credited the flat-earth hypothesis.

How did we come to believe the fable of medieval ignorance? How did Aristotle’s ideas, lost to the West for six centuries after the fall of Rome, vanish again from our historical consciousness? The idea of a medieval “dark age” is a corollary of the origin myth of modern science- the notion that scientific research could not emerge as a respected and productive activity until it had liberated itself from the clutches of a dogmatic, authoritarian faith. The dramatic theme is rationality versus religion, with religion playing the role of the oppressive censor or persecutor, and selected scientists and freethinkers that of the hero or martyr. One recalls Copernicus’s writings placed on the Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books; Giordano Bruno burned and Galileo persecuted by the Inquisition; Anglican bishops ridiculing Darwin’s theory of natural selection; and ministers of every faith denouncing Freud’s “despicable” psychoanalytical theories. These were real disputes, of course, and they are far from obsolete. What is mythical is the idea that faith and reason have always been implacable enemies—an idea that implies that any other relationship between them is impossible.

Rubenstein, Richard E., Aristotle’s Children- How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages. New York- Harvest, 2003.

Posted in: Hellenistic Period

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