A.C. Grayling, the Jesuits and Prejudice.

Jason Rosenhouse at Evolutionblog recently linked to an essay by A.C. Grayling in the Guardian and approvingly quoted the following passage from it;

In the aftermath of the Reformation in the 16th century, Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuit Order as an army of defence against the attack on the One True Church. The Jesuits saw that the reformers had learning and intelligence on their side; they were translating the Bible into vernacular tongues, and encouraging lay people to read it, and when laymen did so they could see that the doctrines and practices of the Roman church were a mountain of rubbish. The Jesuits aimed to be an army of very smart casuists and propagandists, skilful in rhetoric and argument, trained to counter the reformers’ charges, not interested in truth but in Catholicism’s tendentious version of it.

This is supposed to be a prime historical example of religious prejudice blocking truth, i.e. scientific truth. This claim is all well and good but whatever Professor Grayling’s merits as a philosopher may or may not be, as a historian of science in the early modern period he is a null. Now my landsmen have a sort of blind fear and loathing of the Jesuits that goes back at least to John Donne’s Ignatius His Conclave from 1611 and Mr Grayling seems to share this irrational fear causing him to ignore historical facts in order bash the ‘Black Monks’, as they are disparagingly known to the English.

Now anybody who has an up to date knowledge of the evolution of science from the late sixteenth up through the seventeenth and into the eighteenth centuries knows that far from denying, blocking or in anyway hindering this evolution Jesuit and Jesuit educated and trained scientists made substantial and crucial contributions to it. Not exactly the message that Mr Grayling is trying to convey and which Jason so avidly wants to believe.

I’m not going to give a complete history of the Jesuit contributions to science in this period, our until now, by no means complete, knowledge of it already fills several books, but I will give a list of some of the high points. Anybody who has already read my original put down of Mr Grayling’s ignorance, at Evolving Thought, concerning the Jesuit’s and Galileo and/or my post on Christoph Clavius, here at RM, can stop reading now, as I shan’t be adding anything substantially new.

We’ll start with Clavius who I pointed out in my earlier post was responsible for introducing the mathematical sciences into the school and university curricula in the Catholic countries of Europe in the 17th century; a task that Philipp Melanchthon had performed for the mainland protestant countries in the 16th century. Mr Grayling’s England lagged almost a hundred years behind in this educational reform, not least because of their hatred of anything associated with the Jesuits. Jesuit scientist, in particular Mateo Ricci and Johann Adam Schall von Bell, introduced the then ‘modern’ European mathematical sciences, including heliocentricity, into China and the rest of Asia. Lembo and Grienberger, the leading members of Clavius’ institute of mathematics at the Collegio Romano, the Jesuit University, provided the necessary confirmation of Galileo’s telescopic discoveries. Riciolli, Grimaldi, Scheiner, Kircher and Grassi all made substantial contributions to the development of the new astronomy in the 17th century; Grimaldi also made important contributions to the theory of optics. Grégoire de Saint-Vincent made important contributions to the development of infinitesimal calculus and Giovanni Girolamo Saccheri played an important role in the history of non-Euclidian geometry. All of these men were Jesuit scientists.

Pierrre Gassendi modernised Greek atomism, a theory, which played a key role in the move from Aristotelian to modern science; he was also the first astronomer to observe a transit of mercury, a key observation on the road to the scientific proof of heliocentricity. Marin Mersenne was, along with Kircher, one of the key collectors and distributors of scientific information amongst the scholars of Europe in the period before the establishment of scientific journals; in particular he propagated the mechanics of Galileo and helped to get them established amongst his correspondents. He also founded the science of acoustics and made significant contributions to the developing analysis. Descartes was one of the founders of modern geometric optics, a co-inventor of analytical geometry and the discoverer of the law of inertia. (Any commentator who says that he was a founder of modern scientific methodology will get beaten over the head with a wet haddock!) Giovanni Domenico Cassini was the greatest observational astronomer of the 17th century who also founded a family dynasty that revolutionised astronomy, surveying and cartography in France in the 17th and 18th centuries. All of these men were Jesuit educated and trained scientists.

In the 17th century the Jesuit schools and colleges had the best science curriculum, teachers and textbooks, in fact those textbooks were so good they were also used in protestant schools and colleges.

Far from being a hindrance to scientific truth as Mr Grayling would wish us to believe the Jesuits were one of the most powerful forces for its development in the 17th century.


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

11 responses to “A.C. Grayling, the Jesuits and Prejudice.

  1. ckc (not kc)

    Far from being a hindrance to scientific truth as Mr Grayling would wish us to believe the Jesuits were one of the most powerful forces for its development in the 17th century.

    …but surely just “Catholicism’s tendentious version of it”?

    (I’m glad I’m a scientist and not an historian!)

  2. Pingback: On Grayling on the Jesuits « Evolving Thoughts

  3. Ian H Spedding, FCD

    I’m sure you’re right about the Jesuits but somehow it ruins the drama to think of them as quite decent chaps really. Calling them Black Monks made them sound like the Sith Lords and their Evil Apprentices of Roman Catholicism. Now their villainy is reduced to the level of bursting through doors exclaiming “NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition!”

  4. Johan Richter

    This is like pointing to the undoubted breakthroughs done at Soviet universities and claim this disproofs someone who thought their main purpose was to help defend marxism-leninism regardless of truth.

  5. Thony,

    I’m curious about the passage in which ACG mentions the specific threat of the Luther Bible in mobilizing the Jesuits. This also reads like a bit of self-serving mythology (“they hate our freedoms!”) It’s plausible to me that the Catholic authorities wouldn’t be nuts about a vernacular bible, mostly because it could decentralize papal power and authority (although Vatican II would seem to falsify this apprehension). But how much of this speculation is historical?

  6. Taking Kircher as a focus, for instance, we find him working on musical theory with Vincenzo Galileo and Erycius Puteanus, the latter linking him to Jan van Helmont. Equally, this work was subsequently of importance to Hooke and Boyle, thence to Newton. Suddenly, we find virtually every founding father of the modern sciences reliant on a Jesuit!
    This is not some kind of excuse for problems generated by other branches of the Roman Catholic Church, but a review of a disproportionate Enlightenment reaction to it. The real question wasn’t so much whether to research or not, but the boundaries to that research. Fortunately, the Vatican lost.

  7. Let me add a rough timescale:
    1108 Academic schism in Paris between Abelard and Guillaume de Champeaux, splits academia from Catholicism. Champeaux leads directly through Ruusbroec to the Devotio Moderna: the Brethren of the Common Life who will teach the future Martin Luther stem from the followers of Abelard.
    1222 Cardinal Konrad von Urach implements Dominic Guzman’s Inquisition, a branch of his Dominicans, as a tool to pursue Eastern Orthodox sects (known collectively as Cathars) in the South of France during the Albigensian Crusade. It then falls into some quiescence.
    Late 14th Century Wycliffe translates Vulgate Bible into English
    1430s Pope Eugenius IV establishes a doctrine of Papal Supremacy over the 5 Kings of the Vatican consilium (France, Spain, Portugal, England, Holy Roman Empire = Germany). Although he will not live to see this established, none the less it is the start of the period of Heirarchicism in the Church. He introduces the real start of the Renaissance with his support for the arts, in particular Fra Bartolomeo and Fra Angelico: his chief spin doctor is Guillaume Dufay, the composer. Simultaneously, Joan of Arc reestablishes France as a European Power using firearms for the first significant time.
    1450 Gutenberg invents moveable-type printing, followed by Manutius in 1490s Venice – this is important because Venice is not subject to Papal writ. Manutius’ patron was Giovanni Pico dela Mirandola, who also sponsored Savonarola, quite apart from being one of the earliest thinkers of the Enlightenment.
    1490s Savonarola’s Bonfires of the Vanities in Florence establishes that ecclesiastical conservatism has become uninfluential.
    1517 Luther breaks from Rome, publishes German vernacular bible 1522-1534. 1533 Henry VIII breaks from Rome.
    1534 Society of Jesus is formed at Paris and is recognised in 1540 by the Pope in the Bull Regimini militantis ecclesiae which invokes Eugenius’ doctrines a hundred years earlier. Simultaneously, the Inquisition becomes more active against protestantism.
    1565-75 Iconoclasm breaks out in Low Countries and is followed by a counter-reformation, leading to the Thirty Years War 1618-1648, the English Civil War and the Reformation which saw the crystallisation of the sciences and the birth of the Industrial Revolution in England.

    I have a personal bee in my bonnet that the Inquisition was created with a very specific task which has never been openly stated, protecting an ancient artefact which led them to concentrate on science as well as unorthodoxy: it will pay you to review in some detail their exact management of Galileo and van Helmont as they were never categorically opposed to everything these two were up to, only certain aspects.

  8. J. J. Ramsey


    I have a personal bee in my bonnet that the Inquisition was created with a very specific task which has never been openly stated, protecting an ancient artefact

    A conspiracy about an ancient artifact? That sounds like a pulp fiction plot.

  9. That’s the problem – bloody Dan Brown.
    Track 1: Take Craig Wright’s Maze and the Warrior, extract from that what he has to say about the van Eyck Mystic Lamb, add to it the van Eyck Fountain of Grace, which refers according to Josua Bruyn’s 1957 Utrecht doctoral thesis to the site I’m focussed on, and you get the Geometric aspect of the Quadrivium thesis used by Eugenius to establish the seat of the Eucharist in Brussels. The question an art historian will come up with is that the Fountain is historuica

  10. That’s the problem – bloody Dan Brown.

    I reckon what I’ve stumbled across was set up by Pope Eugenius as a statement of theological intent founded on the mediaeval academic norm of the quadrivium capped by pure theology. Sorry about apparently drifting from the thread, but this’ll head towards your technology interest.

    On 5.1.1435, Pope Eugenius IV established the lay seat of the Eucharist in Brussels on a site generally known as the Salazar Chapel. It’s still the seat of the Eucharist to this day, although it’s been moved a short distance. The bulla in question is in the Belgian State Archive, Ecclesiastical Fonds, Anderlecht.

    The four quadrivium tracks are:
    Track 1 Geometry: Take Craig Wright’s Maze and the Warrior, extract from that what he has to say about the van Eyck Mystic Lamb, add to it the van Eyck Fountain of Grace, which refers directly according to Josua Bruyn’s 1957 Utrecht doctoral thesis to the site I’m focused on, and you get the Geometric aspect of the Quadrivium thesis used by Eugenius to establish the seat of the Eucharist in Brussels. The question an art historian will come up with is that the Fountain is historically attributed to 1454, but recheck with the Prado, they reviewed the attributions in 2000-2002 and this was they key piece of their reattribution display – they now date it 1432-5.
    Tracks 2/3 Music and mathematics: From the same source, take his comments on Dufay’s L’Homme Armé, his main thesis. The Cantus Firmus mass dates to 1455, and is based on an earlier secular theme believed to refer to a pub/bar in Cambrai. Dufay was in Cambrai in 1435, and again continuously between 1439-1450, with a further stay in 1452, and then in 1459-60. The text of the theme is, however, coherent with the earlier date in Eugenius’ agenda, given the declaration of his Papacy in Dufay’s 1432 Coronation Anthem Ecclesie Militae. The thesis as explained by Craig Wright is a 100% match for the Geometric Track, and he explains how it covers the Arithmetical and Musical aspects.
    Track 4: 1435 astrology/astronomy, under development, this is what I’m hoping to learn about here.

    The theological capstone these sources describe is Jan van Ruusbroec’s On the Spiritual Tabernacle, which is aimed at the next-door site, the Terarken Hospice. That is Flemish for the Crypt of Moses’ Ark, and there’s a corroborative statement in the public record (a document relating to the installation of the first public water supply) from 1305 stating it was there. Ruusbroec’s mother was from the clan who founded and ran the Hospice, and we know that it was the only open female house in Brussels at the time she was in an one female house caring for her son, an oblate at the nearby Cathedral.

    If you now step back and look at the theology, the references are all to Revelation 11:19, and the key there is the Ark.

    So there we have the bee in my bonnet. It’s got powerful corroboration, however, and this is what makes life interesting. Phillip II’s spiritual home when in Brussels was Ruusbroec’s Priory of Groenendael, just as his spiritual home in Spain was the Escorial. He actually retasked the building of the Escorial to be the Third Temple, after the Solomon and Herodian ones, and was only stopped by the Inquisition. See the letters in Appendix 2 in the Spanish edition of René Taylor’s study of the foundation of the Escorial, done as a festschrift for Rudolf Wittkover’s 65th Birthday festschrift, for hard proof that he was actually engaged in alchemical working – and that led to the famous Rudolf II failures on the one hand, and to van Helmont on the other. The thing Rudolf lacked? The Ark. There’s also some harder evidence: two barrels of gold extracted in the nineteenth century from a tunnel connecting the two chapels and the Palace complex.

    So I set a trap for the Vatican: are they interested enough in the lay seat of the Eucharist to become involved directly, or was I barking up a wrong tree? They have become involved directly: QED they have a value on this history above and beyond the mundane.

    There’s a lot more, including how it got there, but enough for the moment.

    So, from a hard technological viewpoint, I’m suggesting we start taking the question of alchemy a little bit more seriously than we have, as a matter of purely historical concern. There are many traps for the unwise who pursue the subject technically.

    Working bibliography:
    Prof Craig Wright, The Maze and The Warrior, ISBN 978-0674013636. Prof Wright is Yale’s Professor of the History of Music.
    Prof Josua Bruyn: Het Levensbron, Doctoral Thesis, Utrecht Uni 1957. Josua Bruyn founded the Rembrandt Foundation in Amstersam and was Professor of the History of Art there for many years.
    Prof Thom Mertens, Introduction to vanden geesteliken tabernakel, Lannoo 2003. Prof Mertens was VC of Antwerp University.
    Professor René Taylor, Arquitectura y Magia, Siruela 2006, ISBN 978-8478442423

  11. Pingback: Jesuit Day | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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