The American cultural magazine, The Atlantic recently published an article by Daniel Foster entitled, In Defense of ‘The West’. This was a political article questioning the speech that Donald Trump had made in Warsaw and what the author sees, as what The Trump White means when they talk of ‘The West’. Amongst many other things the article contains the following paragraph encapsulating the authors view of what he sees as The West’s intellectual birthright in the history of science:
Likewise, Egypt hosted the first great repository of Western knowledge—the library at Alexandria—and for a millennium or so following that library’s destruction, it was Muslim metaphysicians who kept lit the flame of Greek ideas. The West’s intellectual birthright, then, was reborn in Latin and French and German and English because it was vouchsafed in Arabic, in the dark interregnum between Charlemagne and the Renaissance.
These sixty-six words made my hair stand on end, or would have done if I had any, for several different reasons that I shall attempt to explicate in what follows.
We will start off with the expression The West’s intellectual birthright. What is meant here is of course Greek science, which doesn’t actually exist and never did. However, how is Greek science The West’s intellectual birthright? The article’s author is trying to argue against a view of the West as being white and bordering the North Atlantic and he could start right here. Even the Greek’s were quite happy to admit that their scientific endeavours were based on those of their predecessors in Egyptian and Babylon, whereby Babylon is shorthand for the various cultures that occupied the so-called fertile crescent in antiquity. So why is Greek science not the intellectual birthright of North Africa or the Middle East, the areas that laid its foundations? Greek science is nobody’s intellectual birthright; the various schools of intellectual thought who developed scientific and proto-scientific ideas within Greek culture in the period between roughly 600 BCE and 600 CE sowed seeds in various cultures throughout the world some of which blossomed and some of which withered and the cumulative developments out of those seeds belong to the whole of humanity.
The author tries to argue against a white North Atlantic West by pointing out that it is geographically and culturally intertwined with much outside of this narrow concept viewed historically and so the opening sentence of the paragraph is supposed to imply a non European source for that intellectual birthright. This ignores the fact that although Alexandria lies in Egypt it was a Greek city and the library was a Greek institution and not an Egyptian one. The next problem is that the library in Alexandria was not the first, and by no means the only, great repository of Western knowledge and was not in any meaningful sense destroyed but declined over several centuries probably disappearing from the world stage around 300 CE. For full details of this story I direct you to Tim O’Neill’s recent excellent essay on the subject.
We now stumble over the next problem; Muhammad first fled from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE, this being the formal date of the establishment of Islam. The establishment of Islam as an intellectual culture begins first in the 8th century CE, so more than 400 years after the final collapse of the library of Alexandria. The Muslims, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians who established the intellectual culture within the Islamic Empire collected their science and philosophy not only from various Greek sources but also from Persian, Indian and Chinese ones, so they are not just keeping the flame of Greek ideas lit but a melange of ideas from numerous sources. Even more important, they didn’t just keep a flame lit but analysed, criticised, commented upon and improved and expanded the knowledge that they had collected from those other cultures. They were not simply guardians of the flame but added fuel of their own to make it burn brighter.
This knowledge came back into Europe through the boundaries between the Islamic Empire and Christian Europe in Spain and Sicily in the 12th and 13th centuries through the efforts of the so-called translators. These were Christian scholars who worked together with Arabs and Jews to translate the Greek, Latin and Arabic works from Arabic into Latin. This means that the Islamic Empire had only had ‘exclusive’ access to this conglomeration of knowledge for five hundred years and not a millennium as claimed above. Note that this knowledge returned to Europe only in Latin and not also in French German and English as claimed. The introduction of the use of the vernacular for scientific texts only really began in the seventeenth century long after this knowledge had become established in Europe.
We now turn to the final and by far and away the worst piece of shoddy history in this strange paragraph, its final clause: in the dark interregnum between Charlemagne and the Renaissance. When I read this the first time I did more than a double take. I seriously couldn’t believe what I had just read. Let us be clear. We are not talking here about the Early Middle Ages, long known as The Dark Ages, a term that historians now shun but about the period that represents the emergence from the Early Middle Ages into what is generally known as the High Middle Ages and this is according to our author a ‘dark interregnum’. Sorry but this is just simple wrong.
There was a definable intellectual decline within the Roman Empire that begins gradually in the middle of the 2nd century CE and can be regarded as complete by around 400 CE with the collapse of the Western Empire. Over the next approximately 400 years there is little of no intellectual activity in Europe and it is first with Karl der Große (that’s Charlemagne) and the so-called Carolinian Renaissance that this situation begins to change. Far from being the start of a dark interregnum Charlemagne marks the end of one and the gradual climb out of the intellectual darkness into the sunshine of knowledge. Starting with Charlemagne’s own intellectual reformer, Alcuin of York, there is a long chain of medieval scholars including the translators mentioned above, the Oxford Calculatores, the Paris Physicists and many others who laid the foundations for the Renaissance and the so-called Scientific Revolution.
The rich world of medieval science and technology has been well documented beginning with the work of Pierre Duhem in the 19th and early 20th centuries over the substantial contributions of Alistair Crombie, Marshall Clagett, Edward Grant, John Murdoch, Toby Huff and David Lindberg amongst others. With the work of James Hannam and John Freely there are even two good popular books on the subject available for those who don’t want to plough through heavy academic texts, so there is really no excuse for the piece of arrant bullshit presented by Daniel Foster.
The scant paragraph that I have eviscerated above is unfortunately typical for the type of history of science, although to even call it history is a misnomer, that gets presented all too often by journalists, a collection of random myths, legends, clichés and ignorance that they have picked up somewhere down the line. Checking their facts or even consulting an expert on the subject seems to be too much trouble for these people, what does it matter, it’s just history of science seems to be their creed and that really pisses me off.