The Dark Ages Myth

I’ve been reading The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy by James Evans. It’s a lovely book, highly recommended, but a few sentences caught my eye, and I thought it might be worth discussing them. First there is this:

After the second century A.D., Greek astronomy, and Greek science in general, went into decline. Why this happened is a great problem, bound up with the general collapse of classical culture. Some of the reasons were the rise of Christianity, which focused on the next world and had less interest in the sciences of this world; the military pressure of the tribes moving in from the Eurasian steppe; and the rigidity and weaknesses of an economic system based largely on slave labor.

I know that Evans is just following a well-worn scholarly path here, so I don’t want to be too critical of him personally, but this seems like a good place to criticize this historical theory.

First, I must have read a hundred times that Christianity was involved in the suppression of Classical learning in some way, but not once have I seen any evidence to back this up, other than one reference to Acts 19:19, which reads in part:

Also, many of those who had practiced magic brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all.

The critic in this case suggested that books of magic were actually Greek science. That strikes me as a preposterous suggestion with no evidence behind it. The Greeks did, in fact, have various occult traditions that would not be anything like science.

Now, I’m not saying that there is no evidence of Christians actively suppressing Greek science before the Middle Ages (where by “science”, I mean things like logic, mechanics, and astronomy, not metaphysics), and couldn’t say that without a pretty serious literature search, but if such evidence exists, I suspect that it is so obscure, that most of the authors that repeat this claim must do so without knowing what the evidence is any more than I do.

Then there is the claim that the practice of slavery somehow led to the demise of science. This is preposterous on its face. Slavery was a staple of the Classical World all though its scientific glory days. The entire idea that slavery is a poor economic policy is a silly claim invented, I believe, to discount the effect of Christianity in eliminating slavery. Every successful and wealthy civilization before Christian Europe made extensive use of slavery.

Of the three suggestions in the passage, the only one that has any rational backing is the one about warfare and invasion. Of course warfare and invasion can destroy scholarship, not only by taking resources away from scholars, but also by destroying documents. The destruction of documents has two effects: it makes scholarship harder by removing scholarly resources, and it makes actual scholarship disappear from history.

Which brings me to my second point: how do we know that the premise itself is correct? How do we know that Greek science went into decline? Well, by the lack of important scientific documents after the second century. But how do we know what led to the lack of such documents? Was it that the documents were never written, that they were destroyed, or that they were simply never copied and so decayed away?

This discussion is in the context of Ptolemy’s Almagest, the most important document in the history of astronomy before Copernicus. The Almagest was the final word in astronomy throughout the Western World for centuries. When we find no more significant astronomy after the Almagest, does that mean that no one was doing astronomy, or simply that no one was preserving the astronomy that was being done?

This is an important point. Copying ancient documents was a very labor-intensive project requiring very valuable laborers who could otherwise be put to work doing other very important tasks. Could it be that copies of the Almagest were so valuable that there was simply no economic incentive to copy any other works of astronomy that were created afterward?

Ptolemy’s work would not be the first instance of a great work being so dominant that it seemed to suppress creativity in that area for centuries–possibly due to the economics of making copies. There are a few bright works from the classical world that seem to overwhelm all later books. Not much interesting original work in logic survives from the time between Aristotle’s Organon and the nineteenth century. Aristotle’s physics and metaphysics were nearly as unrivaled, in certain times and places, until the Aquinas for the metaphysics and Galileo for the physics. There was practically nothing of interest in the foundations of geometry (as opposed to the practice of geometry) between Euclid’s Elements and the modern era. There were only a scattered few advances in mechanics between Archimedes and Galileo, and they could have been easily lost to time.

Here is another troublesome claim from The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy:

… in the wreckage of the Western Roman Empire, learning was protected in the monastic schools, but science and mathematics had fallen to an abysmally low level. Greek astronomical works were unknown and astronomy was studied only from a few elementary Latin works …

My problem with this sentence is that phrase “had fallen”. This implies that science and mathematics had been at a higher level, and were now at a lower level, but I don’t know of any science or mathematics from Central or Western Europe in the Classical Age. There was Galen in Rome and Archimedes in Syracuse, a small island off the coast of Sicily, a few lesser-known philosophers from lesser-known Italian or Sicilian towns–often Greek colonies, but the vast majority of Classical mathematics and science was done in the East: in Greece, in Greek colonies on the coast of Asia Minor, and in the Greek city of Alexandria, Egypt. Science was, in fact, a Greek preoccupation, not of any great interest to most Romans or to the other nations of the Roman Empire, so it didn’t “fall” to a low level in the rest of Europe, it was always at a low level in Europe.