The Modern Western World ... So It Began with the 16th Century Renaissance?

Roundup: Talking About History

Richard E. Rubenstein, professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University, in Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages (rpt. from Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 9, 2004):

The struggle between faith and reason did not begin, as is so often supposed, with Copernicus's challenge to earth-centered cosmology or Galileo's trial by the Inquisition but with the controversy over Aristotle's ideas during the 12th and 13th centuries. For decades, specialists in medieval history have understood that the awakening of the West began during this"medieval renaissance." Many believe that the conflict among Christians over whether to accept or reject Aristotelian science marks a turning point -- perhaps the turning point -- in Western intellectual history. But this understanding has not become part of our generally accepted cultural"story." On the contrary, we continue to tell the story of modernism as if it began with the 16th-century Renaissance, and with scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Isaac Newton.

Why? One reason involves the myth of cultural authenticity: the notion, common to many cultures, that a particular civilization developed on its own from original sources rather than being borrowed from or imposed by outsiders."Our" culture is authentically native, the partisans of every nation insist, while"theirs" is merely derivative or imitative. For those anxious to establish the superiority of Western culture to all other traditions, the story of Europe's first intellectual revolution is something of an embarrassment. Not only was the chief transmitter of these advanced ideas a non-European civilization, it was the civilization that Christians long considered their nemesis: the Muslim empire that occupied the Holy Land, dominated the Mediterranean sea lanes, and challenged Europe militarily for almost a thousand years.

Worse yet, as the Crusaders discovered, this"infidel" culture was clearly more advanced in significant respects than that of the Latin West. Not only had the Arabs and Jews acquired Aristotle's philosophy and natural science, they had also absorbed Euclid's mathematics, Ptolemy's astronomy and optics, Archimedes' engineering principles, the medical science of Hippocrates and Galen, and other classical treasures. In addition to translating these works, they had interpreted, applied, and improved upon them, as well as adding new sciences of their own, such as chemistry, algebra, and history. Little wonder the Arabs considered the Crusaders barbarian raiders, or that Europeans looked upon the Islamic world with that peculiar combination of fear and admiration, hatred and envy, that poorer, less" civilized" peoples often feel for those more prosperous and refined than themselves.

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