The second great shock to Western civilization: the Renaissance

In a recent blog I attempted to tackle the question, why did the West experience far more radical shocks than other great civilizations? I suggested that the answer is to do with the fact that the West had no region of super-dense population on which to build a strong state. Hence, although the Roman empire was one of the most complex states in the ancient world, it lacked the solid foundations which, say, Han dynasty China had. Therefore, when instability and invasion swept the state structure away, in Europe it also swept away the entire Graeco-Roman civilization, whilst in China the catastrophe was not nearly so profound.

In the hypothesis which I’m unfolding through these series of blog posts, the next great shock to Western civilization was a direct result of the first, although it came a thousand years later. This shock was the cultural movement which we term the Renaissance.

If you look at the histories of the other great civilizations in world history, such as Chinese and Indian civilizations, their ancient periods reach a climax in large empires (Han dynasty China, Mauryan India), but the fall of these empires was not marked by a dramatic break in the development of those civilizations. In the West, however, the fall of the Roman empire was accompanied by a marked deterioration in civilization, which led to the loss of a huge amount of Graeco-Roman learning. Much of this was lost for ever, whilst some of it was locked away in monastery libraries, faithfully preserved by the monks but having no great impact on the wider population (which in any case had become functionally illiterate).

The vacuum in high culture was filled by the Christian Church. Although much Church culture had Graeco-Roman roots, it also had roots in Judaism, which brought very different traditions to the table. Most importantly, at the heart of Christian thought lay a message which was viewed as being of divine origin, and therefore one that involved the heart as well as the mind. Unlike the different strands of Graeco-Roman thought, the Christian Church regarded its teaching as authoritative – it was important to all men and women that they obey it. 

Through the Church’s influence, the idea that “Truth” is not, at core, contestable, but is binding on all men, gained ground in Europe. And the medieval Church, seeing itself as the fount of truth, added layer upon layer on top of the simple teaching of the Bible, with “truths” which (according to the Church) needed to be believed. The irony is that many of these truths seeped into Christian Europe from the Arab world, and had their origin in ancient Greek thought. The ideas of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, in particular, thus became core teachings of the Church and were clothed with a sanctity and authority on a par with those of the teachings of the Bible.

When, in late medieval times, European scholars came to dig up the writings of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers from monastery libraries, they did so with a reverence which was their normal attitude to ancient teachings. However, they were in for a shock: they discovered that the teachings of Aristotle and other revered Greek thinkers were not uniformly accepted by Greek philosophers, but were in fact subjects for debate. 

This experience had a deep impact on European scholarship; it was in fact the second great shock to Western civilization. It undermined faith in received teachings; the whole edifice of authoritative truth was now suspect. Reason and evidence began to gain their preeminent place in Western thought as the main means to acquire knowledge. It was this mindshift wherein the real significance of the Italian Renaissance lay, rather than in the glorious art which it produced. The fruits of this mindshift were soon apparent, notably in the emergence of new, evidence-based views of the universe embodied in the Copernican system.

Of course, this profound change did not occur without opposition from the Church. The dispute between the Roman Catholic Church and Galileo (who was himself a devout Christian whist being a champion of the Copernican system) was the most famous incident in the contest between the two opposing approaches to knowledge. In this dispute the Church elite was defending a certain strand of Greek thought about the universe (based on the writings of the Greek geographer, Ptolemy) rather than Biblical teachings. Nevertheless these had come to assume equal authority with Holy Writ in the Church’s dogma.

The dispute over Galileo’s views would have been inconceivable in a Chinese setting. Chinese thinkers had never abandoned an essentially rationalistic outlook on the universe, as their European counterparts had done. This meant that they were immune from the sort of shock which the rediscovery of ancient learning delivered in the West. The significance of the Galilean controversy was not so much that it challenged a particular dogma, as it challenged the whole idea of dogma.

By the same token, however, because no great battle had to take place between dogma and reason in Chinese thought, reason and evidence were never raised to the same status as in the West, and the authority of received wisdom never so profoundly undermined. Confucianism retained its authority (albeit greatly changed from its ancient form) more or less unquestioned by the scholarly elite of imperial China – despite the fact that they engaged in the most detailed analysis of early Confucian texts. It was only when the entire imperial system collapsed in the 19th and early 20th centuries – when Chinese civilization received as profound a shock as any in the West – that Confucianism lost its hold.So, this second great shock to Western civilization was the outcome of the first. There were other shocks to come – but of these, more later.


By Peter Britton