Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Land of the Flabbergasted

with 3 comments

Okay, I’ll admit it.  John managed to surprise me.  What he said was:

>>>Linking Galileo and Aristotle together as part of Western Civilization is rather stretching the idea of civilization.

And I’ll admit to not knowing where to start.   But this is a good illustration of why the Humanities are not just “nice to know,” but definitely “need to know.”

No, it’s not stretching the idea of civilization to link Galileo and Aristotle in the same one.   They  ARE in the same one.   Western Civilization starts with the Greeks and comes down to us, and any history of Western Civ that you pick up in a bookstore or a library will present just that sequence over time.   So will any comprehensive college course in “Western Civ.”

What’s more, Galileo is an interesting person to choose in this context, because Galileo’s entire education was based on  Aristotle.   Starting in the high middle ages–around, say, 1200 or so–students in all  Western universities read the works of Aristotle more reverently than they read their Bibles.  Aristotle was the basis of the scientific education Galileo received in university, and the basis of what Galileo’s era believed to be science at all.

In fact, if you go back and read the things Galileo himself wrote, you’ll find that when he wasn’t calling the Pope rude names, he was arguing against using Aristotle’s works as if they constituted a second Bible, and he was specifically arguing that so using them was contrary to the philosophy Aristotle himself had espoused.

Galileo claimed that he himself was a better Aristotelian than his critics, because Aristotle had given the world a way to think, not a set of final and unchallengable answers.

Galileo himself certainly thought that he and Aristotle belonged to the same civilization. 

As to the instruments, in order to invent them you have to approach problems with that very same set of habits of mind that Aristotle in particular proposed and the Greeks in general invented.  Other civilizations, based on other habits of mind, didn’t invent them. Hell, quite a few civilizations out there–the Egyptian, for instance, at least one of the ones in South or Central  America–didn’t even manage to invent the wheel.  They had to be given it, either by the Greeks themselves (Egypt) or the intellectual children of the Greeks (the  Spanish).

Then there’s Newton, who managed to get quite far in the advancement of physics after having had an education that was, again, largely Aristotle.  In fact, “Greek learning” was the basis of almost all university education in the West down to the nineteenth century, and the British maintained it in their public schools well into the twentieth. 

If you’d been a British schoolboy instead of an American one at the turn of the twentieth century, headed for a scientific degree (physics, even) at Cambridge, you’d have spent the years between your eighth birthday and your eighteenth learning to read classical Greek and  Latin and then reading Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Virgil, Cicero, and all the rest of them in the original, and you’d have been introduced to mathematics through Euclid and Protagoras.

Of course, you would have read other things as well, including Francis Bacon, and Newton–because those are part of the Humanities, too. 

I’ll say it again.  If the learning of this civilization were to fade away, I’d rather have the scientific learning fade than the learning in the Humanities. Our science is based on those things–philosophy especially–of which the Humanites are comprised, and if we teach our children those Humanities, they will, inevitably, get back to cyclotrons eventually.  

It wouldn’t take as long this time as it did the last, because the books they would read would include Newton and Francis Bacon as well as Aristotle, they would have the benefit of the entire history of ideas and not just what started that history.

A loss of the knowledge of what is in the Humanities, on the other hand, would almost certainly lead to a loss of the knowledge in the natural sciences as well, but in the long drawn out death of those there’d be a loss of something else you’d like to do without even less.

Do you have any idea what the common run of human brutality has been like over the ages, in every single civilization on earth?  The human default mode is not tolerance, respect or justice, it’s a bloodthirsty tribalism the driving sadism of which is breathtaking.

Genocide, like slavery, has been practiced by every civilization on the planet, but Western Civilization invented something essential–we invented the idea that we should be ashamed of it. 

And, in a way, genocide is the least of it.   Genocides are singular, spectacular, deliberate events.  The casual brutality of everyday life in most of the world for most of its history is mindnumbing–the torture for sport of the mentally handicapped by ordinary people just passing in the street; the torture of small animals by those same people, “for fun” (Steven  Pinker gave the example of a common entertainment in medieval England:  you strung a cat up on a string over a fire and laughed as it made funny noises while it was burning to death); the practice (still in full gear in parts of  India) of maiming and multilating more children to make them more likely to receive alms when begging.  

I do not think that the Humanities can make us better people, in the sense of changing who and what we are into something nobler or finer or better.  I do think that they are part of creating a cultural climate in which some things come to be seen as so automatically “wrong” that the very lack of  public support for them makes them less likely to happen.

We’re less likely to commit genocide if we know we ought to be ashamed of it.  We’re less likely to kick the kick with Down’s Syndrome if we know we ought to be ashamed of that.  That does not mean that those things will stop entirely.  It does mean that they will happen less often, and the world tha makes us ashamed of those things is a very different one–in real, everyday lived experience–from one that does not.

Civilization is something we do–we have to choose it deliberately, and instill it into our children, over and over again, one at a time, without end.  Fall down on the job even a little, and it all goes to hell.

Science is a wonderful thing, and it’s given me things I’d rather not do without.  But science is the child of this particular civilization, not the other way around, and without that civilization science would cease to exist. 

If I’ve got to lose the collected knowledge of one or the other–science or the Humanities–I’ll keep the Humanities, because the Humanities will eventually lead to a rebrith of science, but the sciences will not lead to a birth of the  Humanities.

And without he Humanities, the science will die as well.  It will just take a while.

Written by janeh

June 20th, 2009 at 6:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Land of the Flabbergasted'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Land of the Flabbergasted'.

  1. I was going to put this at the end of the last post, but since there’s a new one, I’ll put it here.

    So, how do we get people to tell stories of those who follow their own ideas, whether wrong or right, as you mentioned before? Some of that sort of thing used to be commonplace. Children’s literature was full of stories of explorers and scientists and reformers. There used to be quite a little sub-genre of ‘The First Woman X’, although I found that the US and UK tended to have different firsts, and I was an adult before I realized that there were also great reformers who fought for a new view of Fallen Women or Children, as well as Slaves.

    And, to a lesser extent, we got the stories of the failures, the Buffons and the Lamarcks and the eugenicists – or is that eugenists – the ones who attempted to eradicate poverty by sterilizing the poor. I don’t know that they were presented as a way to encourage the pursuit of enquiry, though.

    But all this stuff seems a bit passe. I am no longer familiar with current children’s literature, but I have the impression that heroes are no longer popular, and you can’t mention Marie Curie’s astonishing battle to become a physicist without also mentioning that of course, she had mental problems. In some cases, like slavery, the action of challenging the status quo is almost hidden behind the new status quo, which hardly admits that the old one ever existed, and which implies that of course no right-thinking person actually supported slavery.

    I think the process of passing on a culture of questioning to children cannot be the same now, since our culture does not agree about heros. We seem to think that heros should be somehow totally perfect; we can’t allow ‘incomplete’ descriptions of former heros that focus on their achievements and not their faults, and we end by giving the impression that all these people, well, they weren’t so great, really, they all had faults, and as for the changes they were associated with – why they (or at least the ones that are currently fashionable) were obviously right, so they would have been accepted anyway. And we don’t teach the children that there *were* people who made extraordinary efforts to change the world, and who sometimes succeeded. So where will children get the idea that it’s good to think about things a new way and try to change the world? It’s the old great man vs common man theory of history, I suspect.

    And then you get the problem of Wrong Changes, and who decides which ones they are. I do rather like the Catholic idea of primacy of conscience, but I also find that some of the changes honest people are campaigning for are mistaken. I suppose it has to be left up to a democractic society to decide which to accept and which reject, but it is crucially important to realize that not all change is good change, and not all people who disagree with a new idea should be ignored – or worse. Personally, I’d draw the line at the point at which violence is carried out – and I’d include in that planning the violence (as in specific plans: ‘you buy the explosives) but not ‘hate speech’, which to my mind goes too far in restricting freedom of speech.

    But there is a point at which my desire to set my country on the right track by questioning the ways things are done conflicts with other things, such as the desire of others not to have their leaders assassinated or their societies overthrown, and the right and duty to question has to give way.

    I never did have much time for that 60s radicalism – all that bring on the revolution stuff.

    As for today’s blog – I do think Galileo and Aristotle are part of the same civilization, and that without civilization (and sometimes with it) life tends to be nasty, brutish and short. But I don’t know really how to carry out societal change – except that even though revolutions result in societal change, I’m adamantly opposed to them anyway, since I can think of very few examples of countries in which revolutions actually improved matters, especially if by ‘improved’ you mean something other than ‘after some centuries of revolutions and counter-revolutions, stability was finally acheived and the country prospered for a while’.

    The US is perhaps the best-known example of a successful revolution (well, except for the United Empire Loyalists and the British; it was pretty bad for them), but there are a LOT of counter-examples.

    I don’t know why I have change and revolutions on my brain today. I did read some article recently about one of the US radicals, now out of prison and saying she’s terribly sorry, but she did think by killing (or trying to kill) whoever it was she targeted, she really thought at the time it would spart the Revolution.


    20 Jun 09 at 7:38 am

  2. As someone who teaches the Humanities, I would like to add my ideas to the definition of culture and its relationship to civilization. First – as Jane has so aptly made clear – of course Galileo and Aristotle are linked. Is there a western public school that doesn’t teach the Ancient Greeks as the root of Western Civilization? I sometimes accuse my community college students of selective learning or willful ignorance. My twelve year old granddaughter will be more than happy to teach anyone the basic foundations of civilization. She knows the great river valley civilizations, how the civilizations from Mesopotamia influenced the Greeks who in turn influence the Romans who in turn influenced Europe etc. This is the least anyone should know about Western Civilization. Does it matter? Yes. Just as people carry on or transform their personal family customs, so civilizations carry on or transform past civilizations. We are who we are because of who came before us. To ignore or deny what came before is to presume that we emerged into our current state of being ex nihilo and potentially will never change since I could argue that change cannot emerge from a static state. A sad idea given that it means we would never be able to improve ourselves or the world in which we live.

    Regarding culture, I begin every semester with a lengthy discussion attempting to define culture. I address all of the things that have been discussed in this blog, so I won’t repeat them. However, at the end of the discussion, I leave my students with this statement. A culture is generally formed by a group of peoples who have shared values. Those values may emerge from ethnic, geographical, economic, gender, religious, racial ties, or any combination thereof. Art – paintings, sculpture, music, dance, theatre, literature, etc. – is how a group of people express their culture. When we study art, say a Giotto Madonna, we learn not only about the artist but also about his culture – what he and those who support him value. Cultures, like civilizations, are not static. Humans change, so their ways of living also change.

    I love the Humanities. I love knowing how ideas change and how those changes are reflected in the arts. I love looking at Greek statues and comparing them to Michelangelo’s great works. He began with the Greek notion perfect beauty and added the Renaissance notion of human frailty and uncertainty. It is both a distinct connection and a huge leap in the perception of the world.


    20 Jun 09 at 12:50 pm

  3. Lets start with a minor point. The wheel was known in the mid-east long before the Greeks. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheel#History

    Jane and I have different intellectual training, she sees similarities and I see differences. Think about evolution and biology. All birds have a common anchestor. As far as I know, all birds lay eggs and have feathers. That makes penguins, hummingbirds and eagles related. But it doesn’t tell us why penguins don’t fly and why hummingbirds eat nectar.

    The differences are at least as important as the similarities.

    The barometer and thermometer were very simple insturments. Glass has been known since the bronze age http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glass#History

    The early microscopes and telescopes were very simple. They could have been built during the Roman empire.

    Yes, Galileo and Newton were familiar with Aristotle. But they broke with him and developed new ideas. Why didn’t the break occur earlier?

    OK, part of the delay was that after the fall of the Roman Empire, people were too busy surviving. But there was a period of about 1000 years between Aristotle and the fall of Rome. Why did science freeze?


    20 Jun 09 at 4:34 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 183 access attempts in the last 7 days.