The Roman Empire was terminally ill by the end of the second century A.D. It had used its skills in administration, engineering, and military strategy to dominate a region spanning three continents. But its heart was weakened by the rise of an absolutist monarchy led, all too frequently, by weak, ineffectual emperors. Slowly, the Roman armies abandoned the most distant outposts and could not prevent the Vandals, Goths, and Huns from penetrating the innermost parts of the Empire. The Goths sacked major Greek cities in 268, gave the same treatment to Rome in 410, and in 476 deposed the last Western Roman Emperor. Deprived of Roman law and economy, much of the region plunged into disorder and poverty.
Lost from the scene was a significant portion of classical Greek science, including Ptolemy’s astronomy, Euclid’s mathematics, Galen’s anatomy, and Aristotle’s naturalistic writings. But it hardly could be said that nothing was going on in these “Dark Ages,” as some are inclined to characterize the next few hundred years. In particular, the establishment of monasteries in the sixth century provided a means for religious training. Literacy improved because instruction depended on readings from the Bible, commentaries, and works of the church Fathers.
Monasteries also provided access to the relatively scant classical works available in Latin. Through the writings of Augustine (354-430), scholars were especially familiar with Plato’s Timaeus. This work lent itself to Christian interpretation because it argued that the Universe had a first cause—an eternal self-mover—that created motion and order. Further, because Plato’s god was good, he created a world that was good for us, the creature. Unlike the Christian God, this self-mover was not a personal god; he did not love man, he was not omnipotent, and he was not the object of worship. However, Plato’s arguments for a Creator-God, combined with biblically based expectations of seeing God’s handiwork in creation (e.g., Psalm 19:1, Romans 1:20), encouraged medieval theologians to affirm the fundamental intelligibility of God’s creation. Although Augustine frowned upon the systematic study of nature, the concept of nature’s basic orderliness provided an important key to the development of modern science (Jones, 1969, p. 133).
During this same period, Arabic-Islamic science had reached tremendous heights. It led the world in mathematics, physics, optics, astronomy, and medicine. The stability and wealth brought by the spread of Islamic power in the seventh and eighth centuries fostered patronage of higher learning. In 762, al-Mansur established Baghdad as his new capital, and “cultivated a religious climate that was relatively intellectual, secularized, and tolerant” (Lindberg, 1992, p. 168). Over the next few generations, Arab scholars enhanced their own knowledge with medicine from Persia, mathematics from India and China, and the classical Greek heritage preserved in Byzantium. Much emphasis was given to knowledge that had special utility for Islamic culture. For example, the Chinese abacus, and the Hindu system of numbers and place-valued decimal notation, were used to advance trigonometry and Ptolemy’s astronomy. These, in turn, could be used to determine the direction to Mecca and the times of prayer for any town in the Muslim world.
Crucial to the development of Arabic science was a massive translation program begun by Hunayn ibn Ishaq (808-73), a member of the Nestorian Christian sect. Arabs filled their numerous libraries with tens- or hundreds-of-thousands of books, whereas the Sorbonne in Paris could boast of a paltry two thousand as late as the fourteenth century (Huff, 1993, p. 74). Despite this clear superiority, why did modern science arise in Western Europe, and not in the Islamic world?
Some Muslim leaders, like some of their counterparts in early medieval Europe, had a low regard for the study of nature. Academic pursuits were tolerated, but learning was divided into traditional studies based on the Qur’an, and “foreign” studies based on knowledge obtained from the Greeks. Although there were Arabic rationalists, there were also those who saw in this rationalism a threat to the authority of the holy writings. A conservative reaction in the late tenth century, together with a decline in peace and prosperity, impeded further scientific advance in the Muslim world (Lindberg, 1992, pp. 180-181). According to the emerging Islamic orthodoxy, man was not a fully rational creature, and no room was allowed for a purely rational investigation of God’s creation (Huff, 1993, pp. 100,115).
It was in this very early period of decline that the baton of science began to pass gradually into the hands of the Europeans, especially those who came into contact with the wealth of Islamic knowledge in Spain. Perhaps the next most significant event was the fall of Muslim-held Toledo in 1085. Many important Arabic and classical works from its vast library were translated into Latin. Within a century, these had begun to filter into centers of learning all over Europe. They arrived at a time when scholars such as Anselm (1033-1109) already were reviving the role of reason in faith. Their arrival coincided also with the development of the university as a legal entity with political and intellectual autonomy (Huff, 1993, p. 335). No similar institution appeared in the Arabic world until the twentieth century due, in part, to the orthodox Muslim concept of nature and reason. Religious constraints also played a role in late medieval Europe, but an academic world committed to the biblical views of man’s rationality and freedom of choice provided a fertile ground for the rise of modern science.
Huff, Toby E. (1993), The Rise of Early Modern Science (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press).
Jones, W.T. (1969), The Medieval Mind (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, second edition).
Lindberg, David C. (1992), The Beginnings of Western Science (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).