The Age of Reason

For two thousand years rationalism had beckoned from the heights, and Western Civilization had ignored the call. Sure, the thinkers might worship rationalism, and logical thinking had slowly penetrated into the pores of Western thinking, but as a whole, Western Civilization just after the Reformation regarded rationalism as the preserve of scholars, not something to embrace. Religious excess broke the dam.

The wars of religion had started as early as the 1520’s, and continued for 130 years. Everywhere they were marked by atrocity. The Catholic Church burned heretics; the Spanish Catholic armies murdered woman and children in the Netherlands; the French massacred the Huguenots; and the English maintained a steady flow of religious executions.

But it was the Thirty Years’ War that shocked Christendom into sense. The formula for peace that had been worked out at the Diet of Worms, allowing each petty prince in Germany to establish the state religion for that principality, had created a confessional checkerboard across Germany. And when war broke out, armies marched across Germany, burning and killing all those who did not share their religion. The result was the catastrophic devastation of Germany. Not only were millions of civilians horribly murdered; the entire infrastructure was torn down. Farms were burnt, villages destroyed, towns and cities reduced to shells. Germany was set back almost two centuries; it would not regain its earlier stature until the nineteenth century.

Anti-rationalism had one last spasm in the seventeenth century: the witch-hunts. Most Americans recall the Salem witch trials with horror, but they were only the local version of a phenomenon that blanketed Europe. Every country burned and hanged witches. During medieval times, however, the itch to burn people could more easily be satisfied by burning heretics, and so witch-burning was rare until the seventeenth century. Sometime in the early 1600s the practice of burning witches became much more popular, and continued off and on for a hundred years.

What is particularly striking about the phenomenon is the abruptness of its ending. The Salem witch trials were followed just a few years later with public demonstrations of remorse by all concerned. The witch-hunting was always the work of religious zealots; eventually their thirst for blood sickened decent people enough to encourage them to put a stop to the killing.

The Seventeenth century marked not only the last great spasms of religious bigotry; it also heralded the rise of modern science. As I explained earlier, the late medieval scholars had laid the groundwork for modern science, but were not able to capitalize on that groundwork. Copernicus was a crucial transitional figure, publishing his work on the solar system in the 1540s.

But it was Galileo who launched modern science. He made two huge contributions that started the ball rolling. First, he laid down the foundations of physics with his careful studies on kinematics. Second, he shattered the Church’s hold on what was then called natural history and is now called science (the latter term wasn’t coined until the 1800s.)

“Civilian” history is hard on the Church, accusing it of trying to stop the advance of science, often citing the case of Galileo. What actually happened is much more complex. No, the Church wasn’t wearing a black hat and Galileo wasn’t wearing a white hat. Indeed, the Church celebrated Galileo in his early years, even though he was, technically speaking, violating Church doctrine. From 1609 until 1630, Galileo and the Church got along just fine. The Pope had long discussions with Galileo in 1615 where they hammered out a modus vivendi. Galileo was welcome to continue his researches and to continue publishing his discoveries. All the Church asked was that Galileo follow a set of rules for tactfully wording his discoveries in such a way that he did not directly contradict the Church’s official policies. It was a carefully contrived diplomatic solution that permitted both sides to retain their conflicting beliefs without formally contradicting each other.

Galileo observed the restrictions for nearly two decades, but then in the early 1630s, something happened. Perhaps Galileo decided that he was so famous that he didn’t need to honor his agreement with the Pope. Perhaps he decided that he was so old that being executed wouldn’t make much difference. Perhaps the natural orneriness that seems to creep into old men played a role — I am inclined toward this explanation. For whatever reason, Galileo published A Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, in which he held up the Pope’s own words to ridicule. This wasn’t just chutzpah — this was an open declaration of war. 

The Pope was infuriated by Galileo’s betrayal; the conservatives in the Church yowled for Galileo’s head. The liberals in the Church knew (and so did the Pope) that Galileo was right and that this was a battle they could not win. Nevertheless, the Pope permitted the conservatives to bring Galileo to trial.

The trial itself was nothing at all like it is usually presented in the history books. There was no discussion of the merits of Galileo’s beliefs. There was only one issue: had Galileo violated the written instructions that had been sent to him summarizing his agreement with the Pope in 1615? This was an open and shut case — he had most certainly violated those instructions. The trial was really just a long bureaucratic procedure in which the judges got Galileo’s testimony verifying every single step in the long process. Did he go to Rome in 1615? Did he meet with the Pope? On what days did he meet with the Pope? How long did he meet with the Pope? What did he say? What did the Pope say? This went on for months while they nailed down every last detail. 

There is no question: Galileo was guilty as sin; he had broken his word and deliberately violated written instructions from the Pope himself. However, while the Pope was willing — nay, eager — to have Galileo tried, he was no barbarian, and he refused to permit the conservatives to have their way with him. The Pope forbade the use of torture, and he forbade any harsh punishment. The court sentenced Galileo to house arrest for the rest of his life, and forbade him to publish anything about science. 

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Galileo continue to write about science, and never had any problems smuggling his manuscripts to northern Europe where they were published. This could not have happened without the assent of the Pope. The Church’s honor was preserved, and Galileo was permitted to continue his important work.

The Thirty Years’ War and the witch hunts had shattered European confidence in religion; it was an Englishman, Isaac Newton, who established science as the alternative. His work put physics on a rock-solid foundation and suggested that everything in the universe was, at least theoretically, subject to calculation. 

Newton’s work launched the Age of Reason, a happy period in which Europeans believed that all the world’s problems could be solved with Reason — that is, sequential thinking. The emotional impact Newton had on his age is hard for us to comprehend. Europeans felt that they had emerged from the shadow of religious superstition and entered the light of day with rationalism. The poet Edmund Pope pretty well said it all in a couplet: "Nature and Nature’s secrets lay hid in night; God said, ’Let Newton be!’ and all was light!"

Newton was a devout Christian; he felt that his researches served to glorify God. But confidence in religion as the central guide to life was waning and people needed to believe that there existed some alternative to utter anarchy of belief. Newton’s work demonstrated that the universe obeyed absolute laws. The implication was that, with further research, the clockwork of the universe would soon be laid bare and men could solve any problem with reason.

Newton’s success inspired the Western world. The giddy realization that every motion, every action in the universe could be calculated (at least theoretically) seized the imagination and transformed the Western view of the universe. A host of thinkers and scholars followed up Newton’s work with ever more detailed applications, each one further proclaiming the omnipotence of science. As Newton had said, borrowing from Bernard of Chartres, he saw further only because he stood on the shoulders of giants. Those giants — Galileo and Descartes in particular — lent their shoulders to Newton, and many others refined, developed, and expanded his work, but it was Newton who opened the door to the Age of Reason.

The Age of Reason lasted a bit more than a century; it was smothered in the bloody convulsions that swept Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. During that time, however, Reason established its grip on the imagination of Western civilization. Although the real world was a messy, ugly place, people firmly believed that the light of pure reason would eventually lead mankind into a glorious new world of peace, justice, and prosperity.

The effects of Age of Reason were not confined to science; they profoundly affected philosophy and political thinking. The Constitution of the United States of America is the poster child of the Age of Reason; modern-day conservatives try to twist it to match their anti-rational superstitions, but every word in the Constitution is infused with the spirit of the Age of Reason. 

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