Section 6

Modern Civilization

Chapter 1

The Reformation and its consequences

If citizenship was what characterized the ancient period in Western civilization, and brotherhood the medieval period, individuality seems to be what characterizes the modern period. From the Protestant Reformation onward, we see greater and greater fragmentation and independence, not only of people from each other, but of areas of life from other areas of life.

The first thing that happened was that Christianity split apart in the Protestant Reformation. Luther's attempt at reform of the church failed, which produced something worse than a schism as happened with the withdrawal of the Eastern churches from union with Rome (since those churches could claim to trace their lineage back to Jesus' original emissaries as much as Rome could). But Luther was not a bishop; and so the only evidential basis for his dissent was Scripture, with the result that Scripture and not the community became the authority.

But of course that brought up the question of what Scripture is trying to say, since obviously Luther and the Catholics both admitted the words of Scripture, but gave different interpretations of them. The only thing Luther could offer to this was that personal interpretation of Scripture was somehow definitive--on the idea that the Holy Spirit was guiding you to interpret it in such a way that your interpretation would bring salvation for you.

Needless to say, this soon spawned numbers of different Protestant churches, each with its own interpretation of what Scripture was saying. But what is significant was that it was seminal for the view that a fact was no longer a fact, but a "fact for" a given person. If you thought that "This is my body" meant a real presence of Jesus in the bread, then this was a fact for you; if someone else thought it didn't, then this was not a fact for him. And that, of course, made the individual the Supreme Court for the truth itself. The fragmentation had begun.

Trade was also creating great wealth for certain individuals, not because of the place in the community they were born into, but because of their efforts. They saw, as I said, no reason for not being treated like the nobles, and had the economic power to realize their ambitions. They became patrons of the arts even more than the nobles had been. Once banking and the multiplication of money was introduced, this wealth increased enormously; as it did when the New World was discovered, bringing huge quantities of gold into Europe. Leisure and learning spread.

But now one did not have to belong to the clergy to be educated, since those with money could afford it; and if personal interpretation of Scripture was to be the road to salvation, obviously everyone needed to be able to read Scripture for himself. Hence, education spread into the laity; and the advent of the printing press meant that books also could be had by more than just the very wealthy. And the new "personal interpretation" spirit led people to look at the ancient writings other than the Bible and interpret them for themselves; and so the Renaissance happened. And this was not only true in writings, but in the arts; Michelangelo went secretly into morgues to dissect corpses for himself to see anatomy at first hand, and Leonardo developed the laws of perspective. Art began to divorce itself from the pure service of religion.

Further, people began to examine for themselves the accepted science of the day, and not simply parrot Aristotle's observations. Copernicus proposed his ingenious sun-centered explanation for the apparent motions of the planets, and Galileo, realizing that it meant, if true, that Aristotle's theory of why bodies fall was false, devised his experiments with rolling balls of different weights down an inclined plane, and observing that heavy things did not fall faster than light things--which destroyed the premise on which Aristotle developed the earth-centered view. He also built a telescope, in which he observed the moons of Jupiter apparently circling that planet. He then proposed that Copernicus' sun-centered universe was the scientifically true view of the universe, and tried to placate Catholic scholars who brought up Joshua against this that Theologically, the earth was at the center of the universe, but philosophically (i.e. scientifically), the sun was at the center.

But the Catholic Church was adamant against any "two truth" theory, the more so now because Protestantism was essentially proposing a "multiple truth" theory; and Cardinal Bellarmine cautioned Galileo against taking that tack when proposing his view. Galileo was called up before the Inquisition, and finally recanted. He was not himself, by the way, totally wedded to observation. When Kepler showed that, based on his observations, the orbits of the planets were elliptical and not circular, Galileo dismissed his findings as ridiculous, because of course God would not permit planets to move in such an imperfect figure.

Galileo also was the father of the Cartesian turn in philosophy, by proposing that the five senses were simply subjective reactions to things, and only measurement got at things as they really were. In that sense, we are more or less at the end of the Galilean age in thought.

But the controversy between Galileo and the Catholic Church showed that if science was to advance, it had to do so independently of the meddlings of the Theologians; and so not only art but science was now to develop independently of religion.