Week of March 29, 2020
Change, Continuity, and the Gothic Paradigm
Most readers will be familiar with the intellectual, technological, and cultural stagnation intervening between the sack of Rome in 410 AD and the discovery of the Americas a millennium later. Aqueducts and amphitheaters sank into grasslands of Italy; Plato and Pythagoras rotted in episcopal libraries; and even kings forgot how to spell. By the time of the Renaissance, and more fervently during the Enlightenment, scholars were declaiming against the profound ignorance of the medieval mind. Francis Bacon, writing in his 1623 Novum Organum, remarked:
For out of twenty-five centuries, with which the memory and learning of man are conversant, scarcely six can be set apart and selected as fertile in science and favorable to its progress. For there are deserts and wastes in times as in countries, and we can only reckon up three revolutions and epochs of philosophy: 1) The Greek. 2) The Roman. 3) Our own, that is the philosophy of the western nations of Europe: and scarcely two centuries can with justice be assigned to each. The intermediate ages of the world were unfortunate both in the quantity and richness of the sciences produced (Bacon 1902, LXXVIII).
Bacon’s antipathy toward medieval learning was borrowed and augmented by his Enlightenment descendants, who eagerly sought distinction from a fractious, theologically-drugged past. Montesquieu damned the Middle Ages as the replacement of a “barbarous people” by a “superstitious people,” followed by “a kind of anarchy.” Paeans about the erosion of classical knowledge were common among the seventeenth-century philosophes and became essential motifs in the historical works of the eighteenth. Many loudly followed Voltaire’s lead in declaring that “we have seen, during a period of about ten centuries, an almost continuous succession of crimes and disasters.”
Having borrowed much of modern intellectual history from the Enlightenment, we still find the notion of a stagnant medieval period pervasive, appealing, and persistent. It’s also, at least in the natural sciences, at least partially accurate—the astronomical tradition overturned by Copernicus, for example, dated back to the second-century works of Claudius Ptolemy. In philosophy, no thinker rose to challenge the heirs of Socrates. Yet the long centuries of subservience to Aquinas and Aristotle are difficult to reconcile with the fact that, as the Middle Ages drew to a close, Western European navigators were rounding the Cape of Good Hope and landing on the shores of the Americas. For all the praise lavished on the bounteous empires of the East, the petty kingdoms of the West—scoffed at by haughty Chinese emperors—forged the first concrete links between the continents. European explorers, as pious as their crusading predecessors, astounded both New World and Old with the fruits of an uncanny technological ingenuity, from sturdy ships and complex cartographical tables to mechanical clocks and increasingly effective firearms. Historian Lynn White argued provocatively in 1940 that
The so-called 'higher' realms of culture might decay, government might fall into anarchy, and trade be reduced to a trickle, but through it all, in the face of turmoil and hard times, the peasant and artisan carried on, and even improved their lot. In technology, at least, the Dark Ages mark a steady and uninterrupted advance over the Roman Empire (White 1940, 151).
Indeed, the list of preindustrial inventions might be lengthier than that of classical antiquity; practical, productivity-enhancing innovations abounded, from the heavy plow—which transferred economic power to the rockier soils of the Northwest—to spectacles. Indeed, Western engineers had the perspicacity to employ the water mill and repair the defective horse-collar, both steps available to and overlooked by the learned Romans. After adducing a series of further medieval-era feats, White concludes that “[t]here is, in fact, no proof that any important skills of the Graeco-Roman world were lost during the Dark Ages even in the unenlightened West.” Even if one accepts Kenneth Pomeranz’s controversial claim that Europe and China were economically level, at least in places, by 1800, the key question remains untouched: why did Europe not fall behind? Historians of science, technologists, and economic historians are still grappling with the problem, which is central to the subsequent Great Divergence.
The philosophy of science is at best ambiguous on the relationship between abstract knowledge and technological progress, but the evidence seems relatively clear—at least from recent times—that both are fostered by similar environments and institutions. So what explains the simultaneity of medieval invention and ignorance? One intriguing possibility is a lack of state capacity. Without reliable tax bases, bureaucracies, or loyal elites, European kings were frequently unable to undertake large-scale state projects of any significance. Charlemagne, the most powerful lord in the West before 1000, was exceptional for his ability merely to recycle Roman architecture for his own palaces. Unsurprisingly, his weaker peers had neither the funds nor the stability (if they ever had the inclination) to establish the university systems and lofty public works that indicate enlightenment. The contraptions stumbled upon by peasants and artisans during their labors met no scientific, and remained useful largely within the bounds of engineering utility. As Terence Kealey has argued, state-funded research is not necessarily required for (and is sometimes detrimental to) advances in the intellectual domain. Perhaps it was the means to expensively boast of progress that disappeared, rather than progress itself. Geopolitical grandeur—present in the Arab Caliphates, Mughal India, and Imperial China—should not be conflated with the antecedents of modern industry.
Alternatively, the titanic ethnic transition that followed the sack of Rome was responsible for a kind of intellectual-cultural paradigm shift, sweeping away a weakly-rooted Latin predecessor and replacing it with Gothic populations and mores. The demographic makeup of Wesern Europe was altered irrevocably by the great barbarian migrations of the fifth and sixth centuries. Ideologies, customs, and habits—already distinct from those of the Mediterranean coast—cannot fail to have followed suit. Hellenic culture, as Moses I. Finley wrote, was hardly receptive to productive innovation; if anything, the science/technology mismatch ran in the opposite direction. Papal Rome was late to emerge as the anchor of the Church, let alone the purported ideological capital of Europe. Perhaps the early Middle Ages, rather than just the attenuation of Roman civilization, were also the birthplace of a dynamic Germanic alternative—one based on small, competitive, and relatively egalitarian polities; embued with a malleable and polyfocal cultural heritage; and devoid of a hegemonic center. Mark Elvin and David Landes have proposed that the presence of the opposite values inhibited innovation in imperial China, while Walter Scheidel has recently revived the old argument that the system of interstate competition that ensued from Rome’s demise was a necessary condition for Western industrialization. Without indulging in macrohistorical speculation, it seems plausible to argue that the arrival of the Gothic tribes in Western and Central Europe implanted a culture or political system at least comparably receptive to practical novelties, if not more so.
The above does not precisely follow from Kuhn’s definition of the “paradigm,” but the two share a pair of important similarities. First, Germanic culture redefined the set of intellectual challenges facing European thinkers; shamanism, for example, may have refocused inquiry on the mysteries of nature from philosophical and theological abstraction. And second, Kuhn likened (guardedly) a paradigm shift to a change of Gestalt image, involving a revolution in worldview as well as of theory. Cultures offer some of the strongest examples of such disparities, and the metaphysical contrast between Latin Christianity and steppe shamanism (leaving aside the effects of different linguistic systems, institutions, and histories) was sufficiently stark to have had a noticeable effect.
A Rapid End Strikes the Dinosaur Extinction Debate, by Joshua Sokol and Pincelli Hull
An interview with Yale paleontologist Pincella Hull, whose findings suggest that climate changes resulting from increased volcanic activity were probably not the cause of the K-T extinction event, but rather the “guiding forces” behind subsequent speciation.
How Does the Coronavirus Behave Inside a Patient?, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
The best—perhaps only good—article I’ve seen so far on the present viral outbreak, stressing (with Hari Seldon-like wisdom) the need to analyze the dose-response relationship in order to respond more efficiently and divert care to the over-exposed.
More paleontology, in this case on the bearings of recent discoveries of rare fossilized algae specimens for the origins of multicellularity and plant life.