Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

Readings for the Cyber Age

October 15, 2013

Neil Spiller, ed., Cyber_Reader: Critical Writings for the Digital Era (London: Phaidon 2002)

Cyber Reader

Information technology is one of the most powerful scientific development of the past century. It, and the related fields of cybernetics and robotics, have profound implications for the nature of the brain, consciousness, sex, gender, humanity, life and even reality itself through the ways scientists, engineers and games designers have managed to simulate, model or recreate these aspects of our existence in the virtual worlds of cyberspace. This book is a collection of texts by scientists, engineers, philosophers and Science Fiction novelists exploring the theoretical and scientific underpinnings of information technology and cybernetics, and exploring the technologies’ philosophical implications and their impact on our lives in the future. The texts include extracts from

Babbage Engine

A Model of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine of 1871

Charles Babbage, ‘Of the Analytical Engine, 1864’, discussing his manufacture of his famous ‘Difference Engine’;

E.M. Forster’s pioneering SF story, The Machine Stops, of 1909, in which a future society that has become absolutely reliant for every aspect of its citizen’s existence on a vast machine has to come to terms with its end when that machine finally breaks down.

Vannevar Bush’s ‘As We May Think’, from 1945. Bush was the originator of the concept of hypertext in his idea of the memex machine. This was to be library reading desk that would call up microfilms and project their contents onto a screen. The user could, however, create trails between texts using various levers on the device. In this article, published in the Atlantic Monthly, Bush predicted the kind of devices he felt were just around the corner.

Turning's Man Cover

J. David Bolter’s ‘Essays of Operation’ from 1989, which provides a short description of Alan Turing’s Turing Machine and Johnny Von Neumann’s Design for Computers.

Norbert Wiener’s Organisation of the Message of 1950. Wiener was the father of cybernetics through his book, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine of 1948. In the extract from the Organisation of the Message included in this collection Wiener’s expresses his opinion that there is no difference between the transmission of information and the transmission of material, and looks forward to what we would now call teleportation.

JCR Licklider’s ‘Man-Computer Symbiosis’ of 1960, which analyses humans’ relationship to computers as analogous to the symbiotic relationship between bees and flowering plants.

Douglas Engelbart’s ‘Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework’ of 1962, which laid the basis for modern interactive hypermedia. It was Engelbart’s research, which created the foundations for the computer mouse, teleconferencing, e-mail and distributed client-server networks and the internet.

Marshall McLuhan’s ‘The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis’ of 1964. McLuhan was the Canadian media guru, who coined the phrases ‘the medium is the message’ and ‘the global village’. In his exploration of the myth of Narcissus, McLuhan considered that the artificial, mechanical extension of the human self through technology created a sense of numbness. He believed that the media had created a state where everybody was somehow nearby. This allowed people in a sense to leave their physical bodies. For some this could be liberating, as it left the physical realm, and gender and disability behind. On the negative side, it meant that people no longer had the terrible fear of war.

Gordon Pask’s ‘The Architectural Relevance of Cybernetics’ of 1969. Pask was an architect and the inventor of ‘Conversation Theory’. This explores ideas of the ‘observer’ and ‘users’ and their influence on the complex outcomes of cybernetic systems. The extract contained in the book is his account of Cedric Price’s and Joan Littlewood’s attempts to create the Fun Palace, constructed from huge steel columns and beams, which could be radical reconfigured.

Cedric Price’s ‘Generator Project’ of 1976. This was an attempt by Price to create an ‘intelligent’ building that ‘knew itself’ and ‘dreamt’ cybernetically. The various components of the building were fitted with a logic circuit linked to a central computer, in order to assist in the building’s reconfiguration. Price’s team were afraid that the human users would not fully utilise the building’s potential for radically altering its own structure. They therefore programmed the system so that it would register its own boredom, and make suggestions for possible alterations.

Paul Virilio, ‘The Aesthetics of Disappearance’ of 1980. Virilio is a French architect and one of the leading Postmodern critical theorists. In his Aesthetics of Disappearance, Virilio used the figure of the aircraft engineer and obsessive recluse, Howard Hughes, to express his own views on the disappearance of technology as it becomes faster, smaller and increasingly invisible. He stated that due to technology, the world was speeding up, and time was being ‘jump-cut’. He also believed that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity had destroyed static relationships, and that things now existed only in relationship to something else.

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaux: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1980. Deleuze was professor of philosophy at Paris University at Vincennes, and Guattari was a psychoanalyst and political activist, who practiced at the experiment psychiatric clinic, La Borde. In A Thousand Plateaux, Deleuze and Guattari analysed the ‘spacescape’ created by computer technology. They saw reality in terms of the rhizome and Riemannian manifold, metaphors for the complex interrelationships between things that changed over time. These ideas strongly influenced the annual ‘Virtual Futures’ conferences held at Warwick University in the 1990 by scholars exploring the philosophical implications of cybernetic research.

Neuromancer Cover

It also includes a chapter from William Gibson’s pioneering 1984, SF novel, Neuromancer. Gibson is one of the founders of Cyberpunk. His outlaw heroes have been altered so that they can access the vast, virtual information world of Cyberspace. Spiller included the extract because it had been so massively influential, that it was now difficult to know whether it had predicted modern Virtual reality, or merely described what was already happening.

Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, of 1985. Haraway is a socialist feminist, who sees cyberculture as a way of removing the old dualisms of male/female, white/black, animal/machine and heterosexual/homosexual. She believes the modern feminists, in championing the underdog, have actually reinforced these dualism and the existing system of exploitation. She believed that the cyborg was ‘committed to partiality, irony, intimacy and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence’, and with no conception of the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden with its gender divides and division of labour.

Drexler Cover

K. Eric Drexler’s ‘Engines of Abundance’, from his 1990 book, Engines of Creation. This laid the foundations of nanotechnology, and looked forward to the development of atomic and molecular machines that could build anything out of anything, so that rocket engines could be built in vats.

Carbon Nanotubes

Computer Visualisation of Carbon Nanotubes, developed under the direction of Deepak Srivastava at NASA’s advance Supercomputing Division

Greg Bear’s 1990 novel, Queen of Angels. A cyberpunk novel set in 2047, this follows Public Defender Mary Choy as she goes to a Caribbean island to bring back to Los Angeles an insane mass-murderer. On the island, she secretly uses nanotechnology to build a gun on her hotel dressing table.

Difference Engine Cover

William Gibson’s and Bruce Stirling’s ‘Steampunk’ SF novel, The Difference Engine, of 1991. this explores what the world would have been like, if Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine had been built, and Victorian Britain and France become steam-driven computer societies.

Wearable Computer 1

A Wearable Computer System developed by MIT

Howard Rheingold’s ‘The Origins of Drama and the Future of Fun’ in his Virtual Reality of 1991. Rheingold was the editor of the Whole Earth Review, the successor to the 1960’s counterculture Whole Earth Catalog. His book, Virtual Reality, was one of the first popular books on the new, Virtual worlds now possible through computers, head-mounted displays and data gloves. Rheingold optimistically believed that this technology would allow us to recreate any experience we wished, a view that was attacked by Benjamin Woolley a year later in Woolley’s own Virtual Worlds.

Manuel De Landa’s ‘Policing the Spectrum’, from his War in the Age of Intelligent Machines of 1991. This was a history of weaponry from the machines of the Renaissance to the computerised technology used in the first Gulf War. He analysed their development in the terms of nonlinear emergent dynamics, and the apparent spontaneous emergence of order out of chaos. This results in curiously life-like behaviour in inorganic matter. De Landa has therefore developed the notion of the machine phylum, in which matter and energy in states in vastly disorganised states result in the self-assembly of machines. He sees the process by which machines are built by humans as similar to industrious insects pollinating and independent species of machine flower that does not possess its own reproductive organs.

Marcos Novak’s ‘Liquid Architectures in Cyberspace’, from the 1991 book Cyberspace: First Steps, edited by Michael Benedikt. Cyberspace: First Steps was a collection of essays by a variety of scholars and writers, including cultural commentators, artists, anthropologists, systems engineers, architects and software designers. Novak at the time was an assistant professor at the University of Texas. Novak has been credited as one of the first architects to show how his discipline could use cyberspace and its technologies to create new forms of architectural space. In ‘Liquid Architectures’ Novak argued that architecture that could and was built is only a small part of what architects actually produce. Through history there has always been architectural designs that could not be, and were never intended to be built. The ‘liquid architecture in cyberspace’ was Novak’s idea of the deliberately impossible structures architects could now design and build in Virtual reality.

Daniel C. Dennett’s ‘An Empirical theory of the Mind: The Evolution of Consciousness’ from Consciousness Explained, 1992. Dennett considered that consciousness was an emergent property of the brain, a feature that spontaneously arose from the brain’s structure and operation, but which could not be predicted. he drew an analogy between it and the way geese fly in ‘V’ formation, another emergent property that cannot be predicted from an examination of individual geese. In the chapter ‘An Empirical Theory of Consciousness’, Dennett argued that the brain and its components are analogous to parallel computer networks, all of which were capable of pretending to be other machines. It was an attempt to explain the emergence of consciousness, and humans’ ability to move from one mode of thought to another.

Neal Stephen’s 1992 SF novel, Snow Crash. This is set in the Virtual world of the Metaverse, and the Street, the Virtual space at the heart of it. Attached to the Street are various spaces where gravity and linear time do not exist. The novel is about the attempts of the central character, the appropriately named Hiro Protagonist, to combat the Snow Crash virus infecting this Virtual world. Although the book is set in Cyberspace, the book also has overtones of Augmented Reality, in which it is possible, using goggles, to see both real and Virtual space simultaneously.

Stephen Levy, ‘The Strong Claim’ in Artificial Life: The Quest for a New Creation, 1992. Artificial Life was a book tracing the development of the concept and the personalities and minds behind it. It combined science writing with biography. The concept of artificial life is based on the idea that as biological life is the manipulation of information, it should similarly be possible to replicate this in computers, which also manipulate information. Levy began his account of the idea’s development with the ‘finite automata’ of John Von Neumann before going on to John Horton Conway’s Game of Life. This is a version of cellular automata, and has been used to create Virtual creatures, which interact with each other and develop. These Virtual creatures are the Strong Claim, which this extract from Levy’s book explores.

Roger Lewin, ‘Life in a Computer’ in Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos, 1993. Lewin’s book, Complexity, discussed the changing patterns and order that can emerge from complex systems, such as the weather or colonies of animals. Genetic algorithms, invented by the American computer scientist John Holland, are algorithms designed to achieve optimum criteria. These are constructed according to genetic principles to achieve optimum performance by negotiating ‘fitness landscapes’ in the same way living organisms have done in their evolutionary development. In the extract reproduced here, Lewin discussed the use of genetic algorithms to construct the automata, or Virtual creatures with the capacity to evolve by Tom Ray in a simulated ecology of artificial life.

Pixel Juice Cover

The chapter, ‘Stash Rider’s, from Jeff Noon’s Vurt, 1993. Noon is a former pop musician, painter, and playwright. During his career he was playwright-in-residence at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Vurt was a cyberpunk novel set in a future Manchester, in which people use an all-purpose nanotechnological smart lubricant, Vaz, to mend their bodies, physiologies and machines. The Vurt of the book’s title is a psychedelic drug taken by using a feather to tickle the back of the throat. As well as ordinary humans, Mancester also has a population of half-human dogmen, shadowcops and robocrusties, second-class citizens who are the products of a previous fecundity affecting humans, animals and objects in a bio-technological disaster. The book is based on Norbert Wiener’s idea that the brain is similar to the computer. This was developed by some cognitive psychologists into the suggestion that the brain could similarly be programmed and dissected as a series of programmes.

PK Dick Religion

A Page from Robert Crumb’s The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick, depicting the strange Gnostic experiences that occurred to Dick in March 1974, and which formed the basis of his book, Valis.

Techgnosis Cover

Erik Davis, Techgnosis: magic, memory, and the Angels of Information, 1993. Davis here argued that underlying modern information and image-rich culture was the ancient, human urge to create mythologies placing events and objects within a cosmological hierarchy, imbuing them with order and meaning. The book is therefore an exploration of the connections and similarities between the new technologies of cyberspace and ancient, arcane and scientifically discredited concepts.


The evil robot from Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis, which mixed Science Fiction with religious imagery. The inverted pentagram behind the robot links her and her creator to world of black magic.

Scott Bukatman, ‘Terminal Resistance/ Cyborg Acceptance’, in Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, 1993. Bukatman is Assistant Professor in the Media Arts Program at the University of New Mexico, and the consulting editor for the academic journal, Science Fiction Studies.In Terminal Identity he examines the way space and technology in SF. He considers that modern society is in crisis, as the established relationships between humanity, space, machines, and gender and sexuality and the way they are represented have been broken down. He argues that in the past there was a dichotomy between the external, rational world and the internal world of the mind, which was full of ghosts, fantasies and Virtual beings. Digital technology has reversed this relationship, so that it is now the external world that is full of the strange, fantastic and unreal. Modern information technology offers a kind of transcendence, at the cost of the violation of the purity of the flesh, as the body is invaded by the products of technology.

Anne Balsamo, ‘Feminism for the Incurably Informed’ in South Atlantic Quarterly’, 1993. Anne Balsamo is Professor of Literature, Communication and Culture at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and the author of the 1996 book, Technologies of the Gendered Body. ‘Feminism for the Incurably Informed’ is a feminist reading of Pat Cadigan’s SF novel, Synners. The Synners of the title are people, who take images from the brains of performers and rearticulate them for mass consumption, in a shifting, Virtual world, that is also always being reconfigured, repackaged and resold. Balsamo identifies Cadigan’s recurring motif of ‘change for the machines’, as encapsulating the issues that surround digital technology and its effect on the gendered body. She believes that humans have now become used to using machines as part of their identity, and wonders what this actually means and whether we can avoid being excessively reliant on them.

Sherry Turkle, ‘Constructions and Reconstructions of the Self in Virtual Reality’, 1994. Turkle is a clinical psychologist and the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Sociology of Science in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT. Turkle uses Allucquere Rosanne Stone’s concept of the ‘consensual locus’ to explore the formation of identities in Multi-User Dungeons in Role-Playing Games such as Dungeons and Dragons. The ‘consensual locus’ is a person’s online persona, and their real-world personal interactions. She considers the consensual locus and the different realities it creates constitute a means for therapeutic interactions in the Virtual worlds of online Role-Playing Games. In an argument that should delight many fans of the RPG, she contradicts the image of them as lonely, socially retarded, rather sad individuals. she instead shows that the Virtual scenarios encountered in the games allow them to negotiate similar social situations in reality.

Kevin Kelly, ‘An Open Universe’, from Out of Control, 1994. Kelly is the former editor and publisher of the Hippie Whole Earth Review, and is the executive editor of Wired magazine. In Out of Control Kelly speculated on the vast possibilities that would arise through the hybridization of the biological with digital technology to form what Kelly calls ‘the neo-biological’. Kelly feels that this would result in the appearance of biological machines that would use emergent behaviour to evolve in relation to each other, rather than according to the strict parameters laid down by their programmers. The chapter included in the book examined the similarities between genes and their potential to create a massive ‘gene space’ of infinite possibilities through their capacity for recombination, and parallel computing, in which programs also evolve rather than proceed linearly. Kelly discusses the definition of artificial life by one of its pioneers, Chris Langton, and the way the genetic model can therefore be used to create forms of it, which evolve according to a changing ‘fitness landscape’.

Johnny Mnemonic

Keanu Reeves enters Cyberspace in this scene from Johnny Mnemonic, scripted by William Gibson.

Greg Egan, Permutation City, 1994. Egan is a Science Fiction writer and computer programmer. In his novel, Permutation City, Egan examines the concept of Strong AI: the claim that computers may be able to develop true artificial intelligence similar to that of humans, and what it would be like to exist as a disembodied intelligence, downloaded onto a computer. One of the book’s main characters, Paul Derham, creates a computer copy of himself as part of his research into Strong AI. The book describes the differences between the relative speeds and virtual capabilities of Virtual and real space, as well as the possibility of creating copies of one’s personality to form ‘conscious’ avatars in Cyberspace, as Derham does in the book.

William Mitchell, ‘Soft Cities’, from City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn, 1995. Mitchell is another architect, who has investigated the potential impact of cyberspace on their discipline. He is Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT. In City of Bits Mitchell was one of the first researchers to consider the impact cyberspace and e-commerce would have on the structure and morphology of cities. The new cities formed by the impact of digital technology would be more than their visible, built environment. They would be connected to Virtual reality via the information superhighways.

Wearable Computer 2

Members of MIT’s Wearable Computing Project, modelling some of their inventions.

Karen A. Franck, ‘When I Enter Virtual Reality, What body Will I Leave Behind?, in Architectural Design, 1995. Franck is a professor in the School of Architecture and also the Department of Social Science and Policy Studies at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. Franck is interested in the body and gender, and in the essay collected in this book examined the extent to which people left them when they entered cyberspace. She considered that rather than losing them when they entered cyberspace, people split their bodies, with parts of them coming with us and allowing us to experience the Virtual realm. She believes cyberspace offers the opportunity to construct an area free of the gender stereotypes and ideas of beauty of normal space. Virtual reality offers a new kind of protection for the body, when people enter cyberspace, that allows them to experience more of, and understand, the other.

John Frazer, ‘A Natural Model for Architecture/ The Nature of the Evolutionary Model’, from An Evolutionary Architecture, 1995. Frazer was a unit master at the Architectural Association in London, Director of Computer-Aided Design at the University of Ulster, at which he received a personal Chair in 1984, as well as lecturing at Cambridge University. He was one of the founders of Autographics Software Ltd in 1983, which pioneered microprocessor graphics. Impressed by information ecologies and the spaces between objects, Frazer and his colleagues have developed computer architectural experiments using genetic algorithms, cellular automata, emergent behaviour, complexity and feedback loops to create a dynamic architecture, whose forms are beyond the total control of architect that programmes them. He models his approach to the built environment to the multi-celled structures found in nature. His own evolutionary architecture uses a ‘genetic code script’, with rules for the code’s development, the code’s mapping to a Virtual model, the characteristics of the environment for the model’s development, and the selection criteria. Spiller in his introduction to Frazer’s chapter notes that ‘he goes beyond the usual notions of architectural beauty and aesthetics’, although his work is not without them. Frazer was also pioneering in recognising the potential computers have for allowing architects design buildings, and create varied spaces in both the real, and Virtual worlds.

Nicholas Negroponte, ‘Iconographics’, from Being Digital, 1995. Negroponte is director of the Media lab at MIT, and the founder of Wired magazine, for which he also writes. Being Digital was Negroponte’s account of the revolution in digital technology. He stated he wanted to write the book, as it was aimed at parents, politicians and executives, who at that time did not have access to the digital media in which it could otherwise be published. He also wanted to revisit some of the old ideas in his Wired column, and see whether they were still true due to the very rapid changes in the technology and its application that can occur in a short space of time. Surprisingly, and heartening for the defenders of hardcopy books now under attack from their digital competitors like Kindle, Negroponte was of the opinion that the printed page still had the greater capacity to stimulate the imagination than the computer screen.

Stelarc Arm

Performance Artist and Cyborg Stelarc with his artificial third arm.

Stelarc, ‘Towards the Post-Human: From Psycho-body to Cyber-system’, Architectural Design, 1995. Stelarc is an Australian performance artist, several of whose performances involved him being suspended in public spaces on meat hooks. He believes that the body has now been rendered obsolete by technology, and that it must be hollowed, hardened, dehydrated and often anaesthetised. He has also used medical, cybernetic and Virtual reality technology and procedures to explore and enhance the body’s own capabilities. He has amplified his brainwaves, heartbeat, blood flow and muscle signals during his performances, as well as filming the interior of his lungs, stomach and colon. He has a prosthetic ‘third arm’ attached to his stomach, which operates through the movements of the muscles there. In another performance, he attached galvanic stimulators to his body and wired himself up to the internet. A search programme looked through the net for images of body parts. When it found them, those parts were stimulated electronically. viewers of the performance about the globe in three different cities could also stimulate his body remotely. He has also had a third ear grafted, with a proximity sensor that makes it make a loud screech if any comes close. He was one of the researchers into the Transhuman condition, who was interviewed, along with that master of transgressive literature, J.G. Ballard, in BBC 3’s excellent and stimulating series, Grave New Worlds.

John Perry Barlow, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, 1996. Barlow is a former rancher, and lyricist for the LSD-influenced hippy band, the Grateful Dead. He has written for a number of publications, including Communications of the ACM, Mondo 2000, the New York Times, Time, and been on the editorial board of Wired. He was one of the co-founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1990. He wrote the ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ in response to the passage of the Telecom Reform Act in America in 1996. This made it illegal to use any of the seven dirty words forbidden in broadcast media on-line, to discuss abortion or to talk about any bodily function except in the most clinical terms.

Lawnmower Man

The sex scene from the 1992 SF film, Lawnmower Man.

Mark Dery, ‘Robocopulation: Sex Times Technology Equals the Future’, from Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, 1996. Dery is a cultural critic, who has written on the numerous subcultures that have arisen through computer technology in a number of magazines, including Wired, Rolling Stone, Mondo 2000, The Village Voice and New York Times, and edited the book Flame Wars. Escape Velocity explored these new technological subcultures of cyberpunks, net hippies, techno-pagans and others. In the chapter ‘Robocopulation’, he explored the way artists in the past, as well as people in the present, have tried to use and explore the sensual and sexual possibilities of the machine. These have included the French painter, Francis Picabia, who tried to depict in his art a ‘mechanomorphic’ sensuality. Dery also described the new digital technology of ‘teledildonics’, where the participants are separate from and remote from each other, but experience the sensations of sex through special electronic suits fitted with sensors and stimulators. He also discussed the way the internet has been extensively used to broadcast pornographic images and the sexual conversations of Cybersex.


Everyone’s favourite menacing cyborg: Arnie as the Terminator.

Hans Moravec, ‘The Senses Have No Future’, 1998. Moravec is the director of the Carnegie Mellon University Mobile Robot Laboratory. He is supposed to have built his first robot when he was ten years old. His work attempts to give robots three-dimensional spatial awareness through a variety of sensors. He was made famous, or infamous, for his 1988 book, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. In this book, Moravec predicted that by the middle of this century, if not sooner, it would be possible to download human consciousness, either into cyberspace or into a robotic body. Moravec himself believes this will be necessary if humans are to keep pace with the rapid evolution of machine intelligence. The book points out that Moravec views have been challenged at two points. First, Moravec believes that during the downloading process the brain would be destroyed as it is gradually scanned and copied, layer by layer, until the brain case is empty. If current technological trends continue, however, Greg Egan’s view of the copying process in Permutation City may be more accurate, and the process may not involve the destruction of the original human. Furthermore, Erik Davis in Techgnosis notes that psycho-neuro-immunologists argue that consciousness arises from the entire body. Meditators and mystics across the world also consider that there are many different states of consciousness that cannot be identified with the conceptual activity examined by cognitive science and which Moravec wishes to simulate.

Michael Heim, ‘The Virtual Reality of the Tea Ceremony’, The Virtual Dimension, 1998. Heim teaches internet and new media design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, where he also directs at Tai Chi group. Heim views the computer as introducing a new technologized space of thought that it contemplatively ordered, erotic and poetic. He has stated that cyberspace is a metaphysical laboratory for examining our sense of the real. He believes that as western science has progressed, it has become increasingly similar to eastern mysticism. He cites as examples of this the liquid metaphors used to describe the transmission of information, and fractal computer interfaces that are curiously similar to Zen gardens. He is afraid that the navigators and builders of cyberspaces are in danger of performing unsymbolic and thoughtless work work, to which a similar philosophy exists in the tea ceremony. He therefore argues that the tea ceremony may give cyberspace more of a sense of place and move it away from being blandly ubiquitous.

Anthony Dunne, ‘Hertzian Space’, Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design, 1999. Anthony is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal College of Art in London. He and his design partner, Fiona Raby, create designs for products and architectural elements that respond to the electromagnetic spectrum. They deliberately reject the ‘form-porn’ aesthetic in which the skin of a product is designed to conceal a set of very ordinary components, and to become as obsolete as swiftly as possible. They are in favour of a design philosophy in which nothing is overwrought, accentuated or just there for its own sake. They note that many objects react to and respond to the electromagnetic impulses all around us, such as the ring of the telephone when it receives its signal, or a computer mouse that can quack like a duck, tweet, or laugh like a baby if so designed. In Hertzian Tales Dunne describes his aspirations, the people he admires and who have influenced him, and his concepts of the ‘post-optimal object’, ‘para-functionality’ and ‘infra-ordinary space’. The book’s introduction is by Gillian Crampton Smith, the former Professor of Computer Related Design at the RCA. She notes that objects are rarely purely functional, but also have ritual or symbolic meanings. This fact has largely been ignored in the design of computer technology. She views Dunne’s work as introducing an ‘aesthetics of use’ into electronic objects, through the interactivity made possible by computers. This in turn seeks to produce a more nuanced cooperation with the object, which may in turn enhance social contact and everyday experience. Dunne, Raby and Smith therefore hope that such computerised products will encourage the user to enter a new space of communal interaction, rather than the lonely and self-obsessed spaces they see as often produced by the technology.

Margaret Wertheim, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, 1999. Wertheim is a science journalist specialising in the relationship between physics and religion. Wertheim considers that the internet and Virtual reality are portals into a new, religious space – a ‘soul space’. This is in contrast to the way the industrial revolution and the secular spaces of modernism collapsed the old, medieval dualist concept of space, divided between heaven and Earth. Wertheim goes on to show the parallels between the conceptions of space in Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the renaissance ‘theatres of memory’ mnemonic devices explored by Frances Yates in her book, the Art of Memory. Dante’s Cornices acted as mnemonic device for memorising the place of things and ideas in the cosmic hierarchy, while his trilogy is also full of less elevated references to contemporary politics and gossip. Contemporary cyberspace also possesses a ‘low code’ content, which, along with its elusive phenomenological character, makes it a ‘new soul space’. Cyberspace is only partly located in real, physical space, and so lies outside the multitude of dimensions and hyperspace posited by physicists and scientists. It is a realm beyond physical law. Her conception is the complete opposite of Stelarc’s, which far from viewing Cyberspace as the modern version of an ancient concept, sees it as a completely modern innovation that has rendered the old ideas about the body obsolete.

The last extract in the anthology is Spiller’s own article, ‘Vacillating Objects’, from Architectural Design, 1999. Spiller was the guest editor of the ‘Architects in Cyberspace’ edition of Architectural Design in 1995 through his interest in invigorating architecture through Cyberspace and the blurred boundary between the real and the Virtual. His own research has included the changing status of architectural drawings, smart materials, computer-aided manufacturing, emergent systems, responsive environments, the architectural design of Cyberspace, interactivity, cybernetics, evolving systems and algorithmic design, as well as cellular automata and complexity. Spiller was interested in using algorithms as a way creating responsive, non-prescriptive architectural designs. Algorithms offered a way to describe fluctuating conditions in responsive environments. That edition of Architectural Review was the architectural publication to describe the immense potential information technology offered architects since the 1960s. It included articles by philosophers, architects, performance artists, theorists of digital art and psychologists. It was followed by Digital Dreams and ‘Architects in Cyberspace 2’. He predicts that the architecture of the future ‘will be an architecture of ecological wefts, technological distortions and digital necromancy’. He believes it will mix objects not often connected with each other for aesthetic or practical reasons, or for exploration. Objects, some of which will be invisible, will simultaneously flit across a variety of terrain and so demolish the idea of the privileged site plan as the objects become ubiquitous and doppelgangered.

Cyberspace, Architecture and Post-Modernism

Phaidon are publishers of books on art, and so, as you’d expect from such a publisher, the book contains a profuse number of beautiful illustrations. Spiller’s job as an architect, and the various other contributors to the anthology, who are also members of the profession -Gordon Pask, Cedric Price, Paul Virilio, Marcos Novak, William Mitchell, Karen A. Franck John Frazer and Anthony Dunne – explains why Phaidon, rather than a science publisher, should publish it. Several of the contributors – Deleuze, Guattari, and Virilio, for example, are also key figures in Post-Modern philosophy. They and their ideas have recently come under attack. Spiller notes that Deleuze and Guattari are extremely difficult to understand. In fact the American mathematician, Alan Sokal, and his Belgian colleague Bricmont, have demonstrated in their book, Intellectual Impostures, that much Post-Modern philosophy is actually nonsensical. They took a number of leading Post-Modern philosophers and showed that they misunderstood the scientific concepts they included in their writings. These did not add anything to their arguments, but were simply there to make their confused, often incoherent prose seem far more intellectually profound than it really was. It has been widely known for some time that Post-Modernism originally arose in architecture, where it was defined by the inclusion, or quotation, of historic architectural features in modern buildings, before it moved into philosophy. What is new, which this book demonstrates, is how the founders of Post-Modernism were influenced by the new information technology, and, in Virilio’s case, cyberspace.

The selected texts include some of the classic works on information technology, cyberspace and its effect on humanity, such as those of Babbage, Forster, Bush, Bolter, Wiener, Licklider, Engelbart, McLuhan, Moravec, Stelarc and, most famously, Gibson’s Neuromancer. Before Reading University’s professor of Cybernetics, Kevin Warwick, experimented with being a cyborg, Stelarc was very nearly the real thing, wiring himself up to the Net, and giving himself another, prosthetic arm and ear. When he announced his intention to have this last added to his anatomy on Radio 3’s Grave New Worlds, it made the poor continuity announcer feel quite ill. She was heard after the programme saying something along the lines of, ‘And if that hasn’t made you feel too bad, you can recover by listening to one of the great pieces of classical music on next’. Others have talked the talk about cyborgs, but Stelarc really did walk the walk.

Stelarc Body

Graphic from Stelarc’s performance, ‘Involuntary Body/ Third Hand’.

Philosophical Objections to Downloading

Many, perhaps most, of the pieces, are highly controversial. The possibility of downloading one’s intelligence into a computer rests on the identification of mind with brain, and this is open to strong criticism on philosophical and neurological grounds. Many philosophers, such as the former neurologist Raymond Tallis, have pointed out that the brain is not a computer. This is just the latest metaphor used to describe the most complex organised structure in the universe. Previous centuries have described it in terms of a telephone exchange, or a series of fountains. Daniel C. Dennett’s attempts to explain consciousness in terms of brain function and evolutionary history has also been criticised. Despite the book’s title, it does not actually explain how consciousness arises, only how various parts of the brain perform particular cognitive or mental functions.

Genderless Societies Unpopular, Shown in Criticism of Star Trek Episode by Gay Fans

Some of the feminist ideas about Cyberspace and cyborgisation are also probably too radical to be acceptable for most people. Feminism is about raising the status of women and promoting greater equality between the sexes, particularly with the intention of giving women greater freedom to pursue careers and occupations previously only open to men. Although this naturally involves the redefinition of the gender roles, I doubt very many would want humanity to move beyond gender altogether. The controversy surrounding one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which acted as a metaphor for homosexuality and related gender issues is an illustration of this. In the episode, ‘The Outcast’ the crew of the Enterprise encounter the J’naii, a race that has evolved out of gender. Occasionally, however, a throwback occurs, which is either male or female. These individuals are persecuted by the state. If found, they are captured and forcibly given therapy and medical intervention to make them a normal member of their sexless race. One of the J’naii, who has been on the Enterprise assisting with its latest task on the planet, is just such a throwback. It is a female, and in love with Riker. She is arrested, and taken away. Riker attempts to free her in a raid, but it is too late. The person has already been treated and so can have no romantic interest in him as a member of a race with gender.

Jnali Trek

Riker pursues a forbidden romance with a genderless alien in the Star Trek:TNG episode ‘The Outcast’.

Star Trek: The Next Generation was lampooned when it first appeared for being ‘politically correct’. It was firmly anti-racist and anti-sexist. The phrase ‘Where no man has gone before’ in the opening dedication had been altered to ‘Where no-one has gone before’. The ship’s security officer, Tasha Yar, was a woman, and the Federation stood for inter-planetary multiculturalism, rather than simply the multi-racial tolerance, mixed with 1960s American values of the Classic Trek series. There was pressure at the time for the series to promote a pro-gay stance. The gay members of the SF milieu, such as the organisation of gay SF fans, the Gaylaxians, wanted the producers to introduce gay characters and stories. They hoped, for example, for an episode in which Picard would perform a ship’s marriage for a same-sex couple. David Gerrold, one of the script editors and writers on the original series, who went on to become the script editor for the 1980s Buck Rogers show, was supportive. This was, however, too radical a step for the producers and the TV networks. The episode with Riker and his paramour from a genderless society was therefore seen as a compromise, an attempt to present a pro-gay message, albeit metaphorically.This episode angered rather than satisfied the show’s gay fans. They were particularly upset by the suggestion that somehow gays were opposed to gender, and wished to create a genderless society.

Some of the ideas about the creation of alternative bodies and identities in Cyberspace is also morally dubious. One of the examples of this cited by Truckle is of an individual, who came on-line claiming to be severely disabled woman. This person could only communicate using the keyboard through a probe mounted on their head. This person became popular and attracted many friends. One of these tried to track her down and meet her in person. When they did so, this disabled woman turned about to be a fit and well man. ‘Her’ friends, especially the women, were understandably upset and felt betrayed. Even more seriously, there is the problem of paedophiles grooming their young victims on-line, by pretending to be other youngsters.

Virtual Personas Little Different from Conventional Strategies for Real-Life Anonymity

It’s also true that the creation of different, Virtual personas on-line isn’t radically different to the strategies people have adopted throughout history in real life. Conmen are once example of this, but far more benign examples have been the way authors have adopted pseudonyms to get their work published. The great German satirist, Kurt Tucholsky, wrote under a series of pseudonyms and personas, some of which argued with each other in the Weimar press. If you do it on-line, it called using sock-puppets. Many of those, who adopted pseudonyms and fake personas were women authors, who would otherwise not have been published if their true gender and identity had been known, such as George Eliot. Another example from Science Fiction literary history is James Tiptree junior. Tiptree was the author of a number of prize winning short stories between 1967 and 1977, and was lauded as the equal of Robert Silverberg and Ursula Le Guin. He was the author of such great stories as ‘Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death’. Outside of his writing career, he had a high-power job in Washington. He was finally unmasked in 1977 by a fan, Jeffrey D. Smith, as Alice Sheldon. Sheldon had travelled widely in Africa as a child, been a professional painter, and the first woman to go through the US Air Force Intelligence School. With her husband she helped form the CIA. She had used the techniques taught to her as a spy to construct the false persona of Tiptree.

In the world of the Role-Playing Game, whether real or on computer, it’s also the case that changes of identity and gender are taken as fun, rather than anything more profound or serious. I’ve known a number of RPGers, who’ve played on board and computer games as members of the opposite sex without any deeper interest in issues of gender and identity. They were just interested in playing a particular character, that happened to be of the opposite sex, in an adventure game.

Robocop 2

The Cybernetic hero of the film, Robocop.The story of a policeman, Murphy, who is transformed into a cyborg policeman after being brutally gunned down and his attempts to bring the criminals and the corrupt businessmen behind them and his transformation to justice. Murphy as the Robocop is initially very much a machine, until he rediscovers his own humanity during a dream. It represents the terrible dehumanisation that could result from such radical mechanisation of the human body.

Danger of Dehumanisation in Cyborg Enhancement

As for cyborgisation, while this does offer immense opportunities for personal enhancement and augmentation, it also presents serious ethical dangers. I doubt many people would object to the idea of immortality or longevity offered by the prospect of nanomachines repairing the damage to their cells caused by the aging process, such as has been suggested by that great Transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil. On the other hand, there is the terrible danger of complete depersonalisation as advanced technology replaces everything we most value and cherish about humanity. The end result of this process is the emotionless, depersonalised machine creatures of Science Fiction, the Daleks and Cybermen of Doctor Who, and the Borg with their collective hive mind in Star Trek. The Cybermen were the result of a conversation between their creator and his mother. They had been talking about spare part surgery, and the monsters’ creator found himself wondering if this would result in a creature that didn’t know whether it was a man or machine. He depicted them without emotion, because he believed that they would not need them through living in a completely technological environment. Few people would want to join them in their machine hell.

Much Modern Architecture Ugly

Modern architecture is also contentious. While the chapters on computer-aided design and Cyberspace and computer design philosophies are fascinating, it’s unfortunately true that much of modern architecture actually isn’t very attractive. One only has to read the ‘Nooks and Corners’ column in Private Eye to read what their writer, ‘Piloti’, thinks of many of the great contemporary architects, such as Richard Rogers, and their attempts to deconstruct architecture. The results of this have been some truly unattractive buildings of the type Prince Charles once memorably and notoriously described as ‘monstrous carbuncles’.

Despite these criticisms, the pieces presented here are thought-provoking, stimulating and present powerful insights into way computers and digital age have revolutionised modern culture and society, and their immense potential for radically changing not just society, but humanity and its conception of self and reality, as well as the alternative world that would have resulted had Babbage’s great machine actually been built.


Lenin: Atheist Propaganda Official Soviet Policy

May 31, 2013

Lenin and The Official Publication of Soviet Militant Atheism: Necessity of Including Non-Communist Atheists

This is further to my post yesterday, in which I explained that atheism was a vital part of Communist ideology, citing Marx and Engels. In his article ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’, published in the March, 1922 issue of Trotsky’s journal, Pod Znamenem Marksizma (Under the Banner of Marxism), Lenin advocated the establishment of atheist materialism and propaganda as a vital part of Soviet ideology. He praised the above magazine, for including both Communists and Non-Communist materialists. ‘This statement says that not all those gathered round the journal Pod Znamen Marksizma are Communists but that they are all consistent materialists. I think that this alliance of Communists and Non-Communists is absolutely essential and correctly defines the purposes of the journal … Without an alliance with non-Communists in the most diverse spheres of activity there can be no question of any successful communist construction. … This also applies to the defence of materialism and Marxism’.

‘At any rate, in Russia we still have – and shall undoubtedly have for a fairly long time to come – materialists from the non-communist camp, and it is our absolute duty to enlist all adherent of consistent and militant materialism in the joint work of combating philosophical reaction and the philosophical prejudices of so-called educated society’. Lenin furthermore said of the magazine that ‘such a journal must be a militant atheist organ. We have departments, or at least state institutions, which are in charge of this work. But the work is being carried on with extreme apathy and very unsatisfactorily, and is apparently suffering from the general conditions of our truly Russian (even though Soviet) bureaucratic ways. It is therefore highly essential that in addition to the work of these state institutions, and in order to improve and infuse life into that work, a journal which sets out to propagandise militant materialism must carry on untiring atheist propganda and an untiring atheist fight. The literature on the subject in all languages should be carefully followed and everything at all valuable in this sphere should be translated, or at least reviewed’.

Communists Should Publish Atheist Propaganda

Lenin then cited Engels’ recommendation that Communists should translate and republish the militant atheist literature of the eighteenth for mass distribution amongst the people. This should be done in abridged editions omitting material that was unscientific and ‘naive’, and including brief postscripts pointing out the progress in the scientific criticism of religion since the eighteenth century. This material should not be purely Marxist. ‘These masses should be supplied with the most varied atheist propaganda material, they should be made familiar with facts from the most diverse spheres of life, they should be approached in every possible way, so as to interest them, rouse them from their religious torpor, stir them from the varied angles and by the most varied methods, and so forth’. He then stated that this material was more suitable than the dry material of Marxism.

He considered one of the journal’s tasks should be atheist propaganda, particularly using material showing the connection between the modern bourgeoisie and religious institutions and propaganda, particular in America, where the connection between the boureoisie and religion was not obvious:

Pod Znamen Marksizma, which set out to be an organ of militant materialism, should devote much of its space to atheist propaganda, to reviews of the literature on the subject and to correcting the immense shortcomings of our governmental work in this field. It is particularly important to utilise books and pamphlets which contain many concrete facts and comparisons showing how the class interests and the class organisations of the modern bourgeoisie are connected with the organisation of religious institutions and religious propaganda.

All material relating to the United States of America, where the official, state connection between religion and capital is less manifest, is extremely important’.

Communists to Ally with Militant Atheist Scientists

He also recommended that the Communists should also ally themselves with those scientists, who inclined towards materialism and were willing to spread it:

‘In addition to the alliance with consistent materialist who do not belong to the Communist Party, of no less and perhaps even of more important for the work which militant materialism should perform is an alliance with those modern natural scientists who incline towards materialism and are not afraid to defend and preach it as against the modish philosophical wanderings into idealism and scepticism which are prevalent in so-called educated society.’

Communist Atheism Threatened by Non-Communist Atheists and Science

For all that Lenin advocated an alliance with non-Communist atheist materialists, particularly scientists, he felt threatened by those atheists, that were, in his view, insufficiently hostile to religion. He inveighed against these as the ‘ideological slaves of the bourgeoisie, as ‘graduated flunkeys of clericalism’. He attacked an atheist account of Christianity’s origins by a Russian scientist, Professor R.Y. Wipper, because Wipper declared that he was above extremes of both idealism and materialism. He similarly attacked a book by the German author, Arthur Drews, which tried to make the case that Christ didn’t exist, because Drews wished for a revived, purified religion that would withstand ‘the daily growing naturalist torrent’. He was particularly afraid of contemporary philosophical trends towards religion that were based on the investigation of radioactivity – the discovery of radium – and particularly Einstein’s theory of relativity. ‘It should be remembered that the shap upheaval which modern natural science is undergoing ery often gives rise to reactionary philosophical schools and minor schools, trends and minor trends. Unless, therefore, the problems raised by the recent revolution in natural science are followed, and unless natural scientists are enlisted in the work of a philosophical journal, militant materialism can be neither militant nor materialism’. He believed that the interest caused by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and other scientific developments since the late 19th century were leading the world’s people to atheism. This movement towards atheist materialism could only be politically and philosophically secure if it was firmly based in Marxist philosophy, particularly the Hegelian dialectic.

Communist Atheism and Science to be Based on Marxist Dialectic

‘For our attitude towrads this phenomenon to be a politically conscious one, it must be realised that no natural science and no materialism can hold its own in the struggle against the onslaught of bourgeois ideas and the restoration of the borgeois world outlook unless it stands on solid philosophical ground. In order to hold his own in this struggle and carry it to a victorious finish, the natural scientist must be a modern materialist, a conscious adherent of the materialism represented by Marx, i.e., he must be a dialectal materialist…In my opinion, the ediotrs and contributors of Pod Znamenem Marsksizma should be a kind of “Society of Materialist Friends of Hegelian Dialectics”. Modern natural scientists (if they known how to seek, if we learn to help them) will find in the Hegelian dialectics, materialistically interpreted, a series of answers to the philosophical problems which are being raised by the revolution in natural science and which make the intellectual admirers of bourgeois fashion “stumble” into reaction’.

Communist Atheism Highly Ideological, Soviet Science Explicitly Atheist, Communist Politicisation of Science Retarded Scientific Progress

Lenin’s demand for Marxist atheism to appeal to scientists partly explains why a number of scientists did join the Communist party, such as J.B.S. Haldane. It also shows that the Marxist conception of atheism felt itself to be highly vulnerable to developments in natural science that appeared to contradict a pure materialism. Furthermore, the highly politicised, ideological form of atheism that formed the core of Marxism was to be imported into science itself. Now the proponents of Intelligent Design theory have maintained that atheism and materialism have corrupted science. While this is generally highly contentious, nevertheless it was true of Soviet Science. Soviet Science was supposed to be informed and based on Marxist materialism. As a result, it was highly politicised. The Soviet Union could produce some superb scientists, such as the rocket pioneer Sergei Korolyev. Yet it could also viciously persecute those individuals whose scientific views did not find official favour, with the result that in many areas Soviet Science was remarkably backwards. They remained behind in computer technology, for example, because Stalin’s scientific advisor believed it was a pseudo-science. It is therefore very clear that for Lenin, Marxism was a kind of militant atheism to be promoted as the only true atheism, and that Marxist atheist materialism was to form a vital part of the Soviet scientific enterprise.


V.I. Lenin, ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’, in Lenin: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1968) 653-60.

Review: God’s Philosophers by James Hannam (London: Icon Books 2009)

April 8, 2013

Bede's Book Cover

I received a copy of this book about four or so years ago when it was first published for review on my blog. Unfortunately, I was buy with other things at the time, and increasingly frustrated with arguing with some of the commenters. So the review has been delayed until now.

Subtitled ‘How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science’, the book is the result of James’ research for his doctorate into the history of medieval science. James’ is a Roman Catholic with a background in physics. He is also ‘Bede’, who runs the Bede’s Library website, and the Quodlibitum blog. These are Christian apologetics websites discussing science, philosophy and history. James is a Roman Catholic, but his website deals with issues that affect all Christians, and specifically those with an interest in science and its history regardless of their particular denomination. He states on his website that he initially found it difficult to get the book published. One publisher explicitly told him they rejected it because they were atheists, which should show that atheists are as capable of intellectual bigotry and censorship as their religious opponents.

The books’ chapters discuss technological innovation and advancement during the ‘Dark Ages’ following the fall of Rome, the beginning of medieval academic science with with the career of Pope Gerbert of Aurillac, the rise of rationalism and the intellectual prestige of theology, and the controversies of St. Anselm, Peter Abelard, Roscelin and Berenger. It also covers the twelfth renaissance, including William of Conches and Adelard of Bath, as well as the translation of scientific and philosophical works from Greek and Arabic, and the foundation of the first universities. It discusses the Church’s attempts to combat heresy during the thirteenth century, which included the University of Paris’ ban on Aristotle, the establishment of Inquisition and the foundation of the Dominican and Franciscan orders of friars. He also discusses the Christianisation of pagan Graeco-Roman science and philosophy by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, and the controversies with the Latin Averroeists, such as Siger of Brabant. These followed Aristotle in believing in the eternity of the world, and that humans possessed a single, collective mind rather than individual souls. That chapter also describes the architectural innovations that led to the construction of the great cathedrals. There are other chapters on magic and medieval medicine, alchemy and astrology, including the philosophers stone and the elixir of life, and the occult forces which the medievals believed permeated the cosmos; Roger Bacon is also discussed along with medieval war machines such as the trebuchet and medieval optics, which had its background in the theological view that light illuminated not just the physical world, but also the mind and soul. There are further chapters on the great medieval clockmaker Richard of Wallinford, the Merton Calculators, and the culmination of medieval science in the great scholars and clergymen of the later Middle Ages, Jean Buridan, Nicole Oresme, and its decline following the Black Death. The book also discusses fifteenth century scholars and developments such as Nicholas of Cusa, medieval geography and the impact of Columbus’ discovery of the New World the Fall of Constantinople and the invention of printing. It also covers Humanism and the Reformation, the great polymaths of the sixteenth century, medicine and surgery in the sixteenth century, Copernicus and Humanist Astronomy, as well as the further, radical developments in astronomy introduced by Clavius and Kepler. The last three chapters are on the career of Galileo, which also include a section on the execution of the renaissance heretic Giordano Bruno.

Throughout the book, James criticises and attacks many of the myths that have grown up about medieval science, particularly that the medieval church was hostile to it and that the Middle Ages was a period of scientific ignorance until the Renaissance and the ‘Scientific Revolution’ of the 17th century. In his introduction, James traces the origin of this idea from Petrarch and the Renaissance Humanists, through Enlightenment anticlerical and atheist writers such as Voltaire and D’Alembert, through to 19th century scholars such as Andrew Dickson Wright and Thomas Huxley. Popular science presenters such as Carl Sagan, James Burke and Jacob Bronowski further promoted this myth in the 20th century. The book’s conclusion ‘A Scientific Revolution?’ further criticises this idea, and argues that there was never a scientific revolution in the sense that science somehow appeared only in the seventeenth century. Instead, he argues that the great advances of the seventeenth century were built on the considerable foundations of medieval science and its scholars. One of the most astonishing pieces in the book is the fact that in some respects Renaissance Humanism was actually a step backwards from the great advances of the Middle Ages. The popular view of Humanism, that generations of schoolchildren and adults have been taught, is that the revival of classical learning at the end of the Middle Ages led people out of the ignorance of the Middle Ages and into a new age of learning and discovery. The medieval scholars and natural philosophers were aware of some of the flaws in Aristotelian science. While they remained impressed with the Aristotelian system, they sought to refine and modify it so that it conformed to observed reality. The renaissance Humanists, by contrast, wished to purge natural philosophy of these accretions and so return to the original scientific views of Aristotle himself. This was the background to Galileo’s own attack on Aristotelianism in the Dialogue of the Two World Systems. This includes a passage where a natural philosopher attempts to show an Aristotelian that the brain, rather than the heart, was the centre of intelligence through dissection. The philosopher shows the myriad nerves running to the brain, compared with only a single, thin nerve leading to the heart. The Aristotelian agrees that he would be convinced that the brain is indeed the seat of thought, if Aristotle had not declared otherwise. Such scepticism towards Aristotle did not just come from developments in anatomy, but also from medieval revisions of Aristotle, such as Jean Buridan’s theories of motion. James also points out that the Reformation did not lead to advances in science, as has been argued in the past. He also shows that the medieval resistance to the Copernican sun-centred model of the universe were scientific, not theological in basis. One Spanish theologian wrote a book stating that the revolution of the Earth was perfectly acceptable theologically, as the Bible was written to express the view of the cosmos as it was seen from Earth, rather than from space. His next book attacked the idea that the Earth moved purely because it was believed to be scientifically nonsensical.

The book has numerous illustrations and a useful section for further reading. Its written for the popular, lay audience and provides a comprehensive overview of the development of medieval and sixteenth century science. This is much needed, as many of the classic treatments of medieval science and its advances, such as Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine and A.C. Crombie’s Augustine to Galileo: Science in the Middle Ages were published decades ago – Gimpel in the 1970s, while Crombie’s as long ago as 1952. Both of these are still well worth reading. Several of the recent books on medieval science are written for a university readership and can be very expensive. One encyclopedia of medieval science and technology costs about £300, which is beyond the pocket of most people. Despite books like the above, the image of the Middle Ages as an age of scientific ignorance is still extremely strong. One popular history of science for children I found in my local library went straight from the ancient Greeks to the renaissance. If it did have a section on the Middle Ages, it was so short that I missed it. Modern historians of science have rejected the view that religion and science are somehow at war and incompatible. Nevertheless, it’s a fundamental part of the New Atheism, including Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. As for Sagan, Bronowski and Burke, they were brilliant broadcasters and science journalists who did much to popularise it. Like Bede, I can remember being enthralled by Sagan’s Cosmos when it was broadcast on the Beeb back in the 80s, along with Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. As good as they were, however, their view of the Middle Ages and its achievements was partisan and extremely flawed. For a much better view, I recommend people read this book.

Christianity and the Survival of Ancient Learning

April 4, 2008

The decline of the Roman Empire and its final collapse was accompanied by a profound loss of the learning of the ancient world that left the West intellectually impoverished before the gradual rediscovery of these ancient texts in Arabic and Greek editions from the 12th century onwards. The loss of so much of the intellectual heritage of the Roman Empire in the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire is one of the reasons previous generations of historians have referred to the early medieval period as the Dark Ages. The causes of the collapse of the Roman Empire are numerous – economic decline, political and social stagnation, a massive contraction in population and the barbarian invasions all acted to bring about its end. However, there is also the frequent accusation that Christianity was also a major cause of the destruction of Roman civilisation through its supposed opposition to pagan learning. This is supposed to have resulted in a campaign of destruction by Christians against ancient science and philosophy, so that instead of enjoying ancient science and wisdom, Western Europe was left in scientific and philosophical ignorance under the absolute control of the Church.

The belief that Christianity actively encouraged the destruction of ancient Greek and Roman learning, and so was responsible for the emergence of the Dark Ages can be traced back to the anticlerical writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, who admired the intellectual achievements of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, and saw the Church as suppressing reason in favour of a rigidly enforced and irrational faith. The early Christians were indeed critical of much ancient literature and the Roman education system, because of their basis in paganism. Despite this, the Church included intellectually curious people who attempted to collect and preserve ancient literature and philosophy as the Roman Empire declined. Much of the ancient learning was lost through a process of apathy and the destruction caused by the barbarian invasions, rather than a deliberate policy by the Church. In the chaos of the barbarian invasions and the following centuries, it was the Church that preserved the ancient learning, and established the system of schools and universities based on the ancient curriculum to teach it and the other, ancient texts when they were rediscovered.

Early Christians Attitudes to Pagan Education

Ancient pagan opponents of Christianity had indeed attacked it for being a religion of the uneducated. Celsus claimed that Christianity was spread by people with only the most basic levels of literacy, such as woolworkers, cobblers, laundry workers, illiterate peasants and stupid women who told children to disregard their fathers and school-teachers and obey them instead. 1 Galen attacked his rivals in medicine by stating that, while he demonstrated his theories, they offered no proof and simply expected to be believed, like ‘the school of Moses and Christ’. 2 Christians, on the other hand, attacked formal education as a way of countering the claim that they were uneducated, stating that philosophers could not agree on anything and only spent time arguing with each other. Christian simplicity was frequently held up as giving a greater understanding than pagan philosophy. When Abba Arsenius, one of the Desert Fathers of Egyptian monasticism, was asked why he consulted an old Egyptian monk, who was a peasant, about his distracting thoughts, when he had a good Latin and Greek education, he replied that it was because, although he knew Latin and Greek, he did not know even the peasant monk’s alphabet. 3 For Abba Arsenius, the peasant monk, in his simplicity, had greater wisdom than Arsenius himself with his excellent classical education. Jerome and St. Augustine both argued against the pagan educational system because they felt that schoolchildren would be corrupted by its paganism. Basil of Caesarea, however, believed that some pagan literature could be used in Christian education, and his work Ad Iuvenes (Advice to the Young) was particularly influential in the Renaissance. 4

In fact the early Christians included extremely well-educated people from nearly all levels of society, from the wealthy to those much lower in the social scale. Abba Arsenius, for example, before he became a monk had been tutor to the sons of the emperor Honorius. Both Ambrose of Milan and Basil of Caesarea were highly educated and used complex philosophical arguments in their discussions of the Christian faith. 5 While there were school texts for Christians that omitted pagan mythology, the educational curriculum for them soon also included Homer for those who spoke Greek, and Virgil for Latin speakers. 6 Indeed, Christianity was from a very early period associated with books and literature. A painting of the Last Judgement in the Catacombs shows a group of Christians arriving holding their books. When a group of Christian prisoners were asked by the governor of Africa what they had brought with them to court, they replied that it was ‘texts of Paul, a just man.’ 7 Clement of Alexandria, in his Paedagogus, wrote in a fine style of elevated Attic Greek, referring to Homer and the Comic poets and basing part of his argument on Stoic philosophy. Contemporary scholars have compared this favourably with pagan works, stating that his literary allusions were proof ‘of the range and stamina of a cultured Christian author and his audience. The pagan schools had produced nothing more dazzling.’ 8 Further down the social scale, in Rome in the late 180s there was a group of Greek-speaking Christians from Asia Minor who studied Euclid’s geometry, Aristotelian philosophy and Galen, led by Theodotus, a leather worker, although this group was subsequently excommunicated for heresy. 9 The Bodmer collection of papyri, a group of nine scrolls and 29 codices discovered at the end of 1952 near the village of Dishna in Egypt also indicates that the early Christian community there read the great works of literature of the Classical world as well as the Bible. 10 As well as 24 volumes of Biblical texts, the collection includes Homer, Menander, Thucydides and Cicero. Some scholars have found the presence of these secular, pagan works amongst the Christian volumes so out of place that they have suggested that the collection is really two hoards, which were added together by the sellers to make the contents more attractive to the Western scholars who purchased them when they were discovered. The simplest explanation, however, is that the various works in the collection do indeed come from the same library, and that the early Christians of Upper Egypt were well acquainted with the Greek and Roman classics. 11

Survival of Classical Culture during the Dark Ages

The fall of the Roman Empire did not result in the end of secular literature and learning in the West. During the reign of Theodoric, who ruled northern Italy from 491-526, both Romans and Ostrogoths read and collected books. These collectors were generally cultured members of the senatorial aristocracy, who were active in preserving and revising the texts of many of the great works of classical culture. Their private libraries included not just Christian texts, but also the works of Greek scientists, philosophers and historians. According to Virgil the Grammarian in the 7th century, it was customary to have two separate libraries for Christian and pagan literature respectively. This practice corresponded to the earlier Roman custom of creating separate libraries for Greek and Latin works. 12 In fact the barbarian invaders were generally literate and Christian, though Arian rather than Catholic, and viewed themselves as the heirs to ancient Roman culture, which was immensely admired. Thus there was widespread book production in Italy, Spain and Gaul during the fifth and sixth centuries. 13 The royal library of the Visigothic kings at Toledo in Spain contained profane as well as Christian works, and the aristocracy and clergy were well-educated in the pagan classics. Isidore of Seville, the author of the Etymologies, one of the first Christian encyclopedias, read Vergil as well as the Christian poets. Spanish monks generally did not reject secular literature, and they defended the study of pagan works, which they sometimes claimed contained prefigurations of Christian truth. 14 

The Ancient Roman Educational System

Nevertheless, much learning was lost due to the barbarian invasions. The Frankish invasion in Gaul resulted in the complete destruction of the education system there by the second half of the seventh century. 15 This situation was not helped by the fact that there was nothing like a system of free public education in ancient Rome. The emperors had early adopted the role of patrons of learning, granting material privileges and sometimes stipends to leading scholars. Vespasian made Quintilian, the great Roman rhetorician and educationalist, a professor of literature and rhetoric, and subsequent emperors established similar chairs at Rome, Athens and elsewhere. Nevertheless, education was restricted to the wealthy, and responsibility for the establishment of lower schools was left to individual local authorities and parents with the necessary funds to pay for a schoolmaster. 16 Elementary classes were held in an open porch in the public square, partitioned off from the passing traffic by a sheet of tent-cloth stretched between the pillars. Schoolmasters in both Rome and ancient Greek had little respect and were poorly paid. Although Athens had passed legislation regulating conditions in schools, possibly dating from the time of Solon, the Greek cities rarely required high standards in their schoolmasters. The unregulated nature of ancient education meant that high qualifications for school teachers were often not demanded. As a result the low status of the school teacher was often insultingly contrasted with the great value of education itself. In the fourth century BC Demosthenes attacked his rival, Aeschines, with the comment that Demosthenes himself had been to school, while Aeschines’ father had only been the schoolteacher. 17 The ludi magister, or elementary school teacher, was often a slave or freedman. The pay for these was so low that they were required to have at least 30 pupils before they had the same monthly salary as a carpenter. Juvenal considered teaching to be in the same category of jobs as bath-attendants, fortune-tellers and tight-rope walkers. Cicero placed them with medicine below members of the liberal professions, but above shopkeepers and manual labourers. 18 The secondary school teacher, the grammaticus, under Diocletian received a salary four times that of the ludi magister, though they were as likely to be a slave or freedman. The secondary schools were better equipped than the primary schools, with a few maps and busts of the poets. Nevertheless, it was still held in an open porch. 19

The Ancient Jewish School System in the Diaspora

The Jewish educational system during the Diaspora was rather different. In order to protect their religion and culture from Hellenization, the Jews established a system of schools. These included the Beth-hasepher, or House of the Book, or elementary school, to teach boys from six or seven to 13 the Torah. Although it was originally held in any suitable room, by the late second century AD it was held in the synagogue. It was a private, fee-paying school, though a tax levied on all parents meant that entry to it was free for those who could not afford to pay. 20 Beyond the elementary school was the Beth-hamidrash, or House of Study or exposition, where boys from 13 to 17 years old were taught the Midrash or Oral Law. 21 The religious nature of Jewish education demanded high moral qualities from its teachers. He was expected to have the required knowledge of the Torah,  a highly moral character, patience, a good understanding of children and be married. It was stated that ‘If the teacher can be compared to an angel of the Lord of Hosts the Torah may be sought at his mouth: if not, if the Torah may not be sought at his mouth.’ 22 As a result, the Jewish elementary school teacher was respected far more than Greek or Roman schoolmasters. Nevertheless, their tenure was not secure. In the early days of the private schools they were placed in the same class as village craftsmen. After the creation of the communally organised school system, they were the lowest of the communal officials. 23 Commentators on the ancient Jewish educational system note that it was not merely intended to prepare the child for adult life at the expense of their present situation. The religious curriculum of festivals, prayers, benedictions and the Torah and psalms was intended to give the child spiritual and moral benefit for himself, so he could play his part in the religious life of the community as a child. It was based on the notion, completely absent in the ancient Greek world, that the child had rights and was expected to play their role in the community. 24

The Roman Curriculum and Lack of Science Education

The Roman curriculum itself consisted of grammar, rhetoric, literature and philosophy with oratory. 25 Although the elementary schools could also include a calculator, or teacher of arithmetic, unlike the Greeks, Roman education did not include science or mathematics. 26 Indeed, Roman scientific works were all translations or adaptations of Greek works. Celsus, however, wrote a history of medicine, and there were numerous handbooks for practical subjects. There were also a number of encyclopedias published. Cato the Censor in 180 BC wrote a summary of all the contemporary knowledge of medicine, farming and oratory. This was later surpassed by Varro’s nine books on grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music, medicine and architecture. The great textbook of Roman biology, the Natural History of Pliny the Elder, survived into the Middle Ages.  While Pliny’s book was original, Seneca based his work of science, Natural Questions, mainly on Aristotle. 27 The Romans were not, however, interested in mathematics. Cicero described any insoluble mystery as an ‘archimedean problem’. Roman interest in Greek science was limited to brief, practical manuals. These had a wide circulation, but do not appear to have inspired Romans to engage in similar research. 28 Pliny in his Natural History complained of the marked lack of research in the contemporary Roman Empire, and contrasted it with the plethora of works produced by the Greeks when the existence of wars between independent states and pirates disrupted communications. ‘Yet now in these glad times of peace, under an emperor who so delights in the advancement of letters and science, no addition whatever is being made to knowledge by means of original research, and in fact even the discoveries of our predecessors are not being thoroughly studied,’ he lamented. 29 Thus long before Christianity gained power, there was an increasing lack of interest in science and philosophy in the Roman world.

Foundation of Libraries by Christian Church

Nevertheless, despite the decline in scientific and philosophical research in the Western Roman Empire and the chaos and disruption caused by the barbarian invasions, western churchmen were still active in founding libraries. Cassiodorus in the fifth century, for example, had dreamed of founding a Christian university when he was young, and collected books for its library. This project came to an end with the Gothic War of the 530s, but nevertheless he was able to use the books to establish a smaller library at the Vivarium, the monastery he founded at Squilace on the southern coast of Italy. By the 560s the library was the centre of a substantial collection of Christian religious texts, though it did not long survive the death of its founder. 30 Other monasteries in 6th century Italy also contained important libraries. Lucullanum, near Naples, held copies of the Gospels, the letters of St. Augustine, the Excepta of Augustine’s works by Eugippius, and Origen and Rufinus. The most important of these monastic libraries, however, was that established by St. Benedict at Monte Cassino in 529.

Monte Cassino was the mother house of the Benedictine order and so immensely influential in the history of western monasticism. Under St. Benedict’s Rule, all monks were expected to read as well as perform manual work. 31 Originally monks were expected to spend four hours a day reading, but this period was curtailed in the 10th century due to the expansion of the liturgical services. Nevertheless, the obligation to read still continued. 32 They were also expected to spend Sundays reading. 33 Every monk was required to take a book out at Lent to read straight through, with no skipping or putting it aside to do something else. 34 There is a list from 1040 of the books borrowed by individual monks at Cluny. The vast majority of the monks chose religious works, with only one reading a secular author, Livy. 35 Nevertheless, Benedictine libraries also included secular authors. Thus, during the reign of the Frankish king Charlemagne, the monks studied the rhetoricians Cicero and Quintilian, Vergil, and arithmetic, geometry, natural history, astronomy and music, though Aristotle and Euclid were known only in the Latin editions of Boethius. 36 The monastic libraries also included books on agriculture and surveying, as well as medical anthologies, such as the works of Galen and Hippocrates. 37

It was not only the Roman Catholic church that established monastic libraries. The medieval Irish Celtic Church was one of the foremost centres of learning in early medieval Europe. To authors like Thomas Cahill, it was the Irish who saved European civilisation in this period through the preservation of Greek and Roman literature and culture in their monasteries. Each Irish Celtic abbey contained a scriptorium, or teach screptra – ‘house of writing’, in Irish, in which the books were kept in polairi, leather satchels hanging from pegs. These satchels were used to protect the books in them when they were carried from one location to another. 38 Irish monks were missionary and peripatetic, wandering across Europe to spread Christianity. In doing so, they founded monasteries and established libraries. The great Irish abbot, Columban, established a monastery at Bobbio in northern Italy. Although this was originally established to provide the scholarship to combat the Arian heresy, it expanded beyond that to become one of the greatest centres of learning in early medieval Italy. While most of the books were religious, it also included a number of secular works, including authors such as Aristotle, Vergil, Cicero, Ovid, Terence, Martial, Perseus, Juvenal, Pliny, Lucan, Valerius Flaccus, Cato, as well as Orosius, Cassiodorus and Boethius. So devoted were the monks to continuing Latin culture that they even erased Biblical texts so that the parchment could be used for Latin grammars. 39 Eventually the monastery declined due to internal dissension and repeated attacks by rival Christian princes. Nevertheless, it played a major role in the preservation of the ancient classics. ‘We owe to the Bobbio library the texts that we have of many classics of Roman literature – texts that were copied at Bobbio from manuscripts once housed in the villas of Roman patricians.’ 40 In Britain, the Cathedral school at York was also a major centre for European learning. Established by Egbert, a pupil of the great Anglo-Saxon churchman, Bede, under Egbert’s successor, archbishop Ethelbert, it possessed one of the finest libraries in Europe. 41 According to the Anglo-Saxon cleric and scholar Alcuin, who later became one of the leading ecclesiastical scholars in France under Charlemagne, the library not only contained religious works, but also secular authors such as Aristotle, Pliny and Pompey. 42

The Byzantine empire also possessed a number of major libraries. Constantine had established a school in Constantinople, which was given a library by Julian the Apostate. Enthusiastically supported by the emperors, this contained 120,000 volumes. In 372 the emperor Valens ordered that it should be staffed by seven antiquarians, charged with maintaining the collection and making new copies. The library had its own scriptorium, but also purchased books from monastic libraries, such as the monasteries at Constantinople and Mount Athos. 43 However, public access to the library was restricted after a fire in 476. Nevertheless, other major monasteries and churches also maintained libraries, though these tended to be overwhelmingly religious in nature. The library at Patmos only contained 15 secular authors amongst its collection of 330 books. 44

Despite this, the Byzantine Empire was highly cultured with an intellectual heritage directly descended from ancient Greece and Rome. The curriculum at the University of Constantinople included ancient philosophy, rhetoric and the natural sciences as well as theology, using texts compiled by Alexandrian schoolmasters in the first century AD. 45 The empire had a much higher literacy rate than that of western Europe, and wealthy patrons of learning themselves created great private libraries. Educated Byzantines knew Plato, as well as the Bible and religious works such as the writings of St. John of the Ladder. 46 There was a flourishing book trade which even exported works to Arab libraries. 47 There was no conflict between ancient classical humanism and Christianity, as they were part of the same living tradition, as both the Church Fathers and the ancient philosophers spoke Greek. Thus clerics like Bishop Eustathios of Salonika, were able to write commentaries on secular, classical authors like Homer, as well as their sermons. 48 Nearly every Greek text that survives today was produced by a Byzantine copyist, usually a monk, and so Byzantium preserved, interpreted and passed on the heritage of the ancient world. 49 Some secular classical learning also entered Kievan Russia through the collections of aphorisms that circulated in Byzantium and were translated into Old Church Slavonic after Russia converted to Christianity. This included the 11th century Melissa, ‘Bee’, which was translated into Old Church Slavonic as the Pchela, and contained quotations from Democritus, Plato, Aristotle, Philo and Epictetus. 50

Christian Translation of Scientific Texts and the Beginnings of Muslim Science

Christian scholars were also active in the translation of the classical scientific and medical works that formed the basis of the medieval Islamic scientific project. During the Middle Ages science and philosophy in Islam was more advanced than in the West. The abbasid caliphs al-Mamun, al-Mansur and al-Rashid had attempted to introduce and integrate the scientific knowledge from the various nations of their empire through their translation into Arabic, establishing a Bayt al-Hikma – ‘House of Science’ – as a library of scientific works. These caliphs, according to tradition, acquired scientific and medical texts from Byzantium. The most active translator of medical texts for the library was a Nestorian Christian, Hunayn ibn Ishaq. 51 Hunayn led a team of scholars who translated Hippocrates and Galen into Arabic. His son, Ishaq, who succeeded him, translated Aristotle, Euclid’s Elements and Ptolemy’s Almagest. 52 The abbasid caliphs drew for some of their medical knowledge on a medical school established by Nestorian Christians in Jundishapur in Iran after their expulsion from Edessa in 489. This school taught Greek medicine in Syriac and Persian translations, and the head of the school, the Nestorian Jibra’il ibn Bakhtishu, was summoned to Baghdad in 765 AD to serve as the court physician to the caliph al-Mansur. Under the caliph Harun al-Rashid, Jibra’il was responsible for the construction of the bimaristan or hospital at Baghdad, modelled on the Syro-Persian hospital established at Jundishapur. The hospital at Baghdad built by Jibra’il subsequently become the model for other hospitals in Baghdad and elsewhere. 53 

Christian Inclusion of Science and Secular Learning

In Christianity, St. Augustine argued for the inclusion of all the disciplines of the pagan classical world in a Christian curriculum of study in his De Doctrina Christiana. Augustine considered that a knowledge of sciences, such as that of plants and animals, precious stones, numerology, astronomy and music all helped to lead to a greater understanding of the truth of the Bible, especially the allegories and imagery in scripture. 54 He also argued that scholars should learn rhetoric in order to lead people to a love of Biblical knowledge. 55

St. Augustine was not alone in seeking to use pagan, classical knowledge in the service of Christian learning. As well as founding the Vivarium library, Cassiodorus, like St. Augustine, also wrote an educational work, the Institutiones or ‘Divine and Secular Learning’. 56 Describing itself as ‘an introduction to divine and human readings’, this also recommended the study of grammar, history, science and mathematics as leading to a greater understanding of the Bible and God’s creation, and included them with a syllabus of theological study for the practice of monasticism. 57 However, rather than integrate these elements into a single whole, Cassiodorus arranged them into two sections, the first dealing with the Bible, and the second covering the liberal arts needed for its interpretation. This second part could also be read on its own, purely as a summary of secular knowledge, and this is what many of its readers appear to have done. Of the surviving manuscripts of the book, only three contain both parts one and two. The other versions of the book are copies of either the first or second parts of the book on their own. The fact that part two of the book, dealing with secular studies, was copied separately indicates that such learning was already enjoyed and studies for its own sake, apart from its relevance to religious scholarship. 58

Following St. Augustine and Cassiodorus, Gerbert of Reims was also particularly influential in the establishment of the ancient classical scholarship in the medieval curriculum in the late tenth century. From 972 onwards Gerbert taught Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and his works on arithmetic and music, as well as Porphyry’s Introduction to Logic, Aristotle’s Categories and De Interpretatione, Cicero’s Topics, as well as astronomy and the theory of music. He also taught the authors Virgil, Statius, Terence, Juvenal, Persius, Horace and Lucan. 59

Apart from the works of classical literature, there were a number of scientific and philosophical works circulating from the fourth to the tenth centuries in Latin editions. These included the first 53 chapters of Plato’s Timaeus, translated from the Greek in the fourth century by Chalcidius; Aristotle’s works on logic, such as the Logica Vetus, translated by Boethius; the anonymous Greek medical treatise, the Physiologus, which was written in Alexandria in the second century AD and tranlated into Latin in the fifth. A number of technical Compositiones were also translated from the Greek in the 8th century, while the ninth century saw the translation of parts of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. 60 Other works circulating in this period included Macrobius’ manual on dreams, In Somnium Scipionis, and Martianus Capella’s Satyricon, sive De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii et de Septem Artibus Liberalibus, or the Nuptials of Philology and Mercury, a manual on the seven liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, of the fifth century AD. 61 Amonst the scientific works produced during the Carolingian renaissance was a version of the astronomical treatise, the Phaenomena, written by the ancient Athenian poet Aratus, who lived c. 315-140/39 BC. 62 This ninth century version of the ancient poem on the constellations was produced as part of what the emperor Charlemagne saw as his ‘duty to ensure the progress of our churches.’ 63 Thus, even before the rediscovery of the Arab editions of the ancient classical authors that produced the twelfth century renaissance, the Church was active rediscovering, copying and preserving the classical heritage.

Establishment of Schools by the Christian Church

The Church was also active establishing a system of schools which taught this ancient learning not just to clerics but also to laypeople. Benedictine monasteries maintained two schools, an inner school for the oblates and novices studying for their career as monks, and an outer school for secular clergy and the sons of the nobility. 64 From the sixth to the thirteenth centuries there was a succession of orders from church councils, synods and bishops requiring that all clergy should teach free of charge. 65 There are recorded cases of men who had a monastic education, but did not become monks. Some English abbots maintained schools and schoolmasters to give poor boys a secular education. 66 All education was under the control of the local bishop, and during the twelfth century the schools of the local cathedral became grammar schools, so called because they taught Latin grammar. The education offered by the grammar schools was particularly attractive to laypeople, because in addition to Latin they often also taught one other liberal art. Thus, when the demand for education was too great for the local cathedral school to cope, additional grammar schools were founded, with the permission of the local bishop, attached to other institutions, such as almshouses and chantries, or founded by a trade guild. 67 

Loss of Classical Knowledge and Destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria

Nevertheless, much classical knowledge was lost despite the attempts of the Church to preserve it. Cassiodorus’ insistence on the essentially religious nature of monastic libraries contributed to ending the practice of monasteries copying pagan classics commissioned by wealthy lay people, though this practice returned during the Carolingian renaissance. 68 It has been suggested that the great library at Alexandria was destroyed either by Christians, or the Muslims when they invaded Egypt in 641 AD. In fact, rather than being destroyed in a single act of destruction, the library quietly declined and faded away through apathy and neglect after the decline of classical, humanistic civilisation. 69

Conclusion: The Christian Church Preserved ‘Romania’, the Roman Way of Life, into the Middle Ages

Thus, the Christian Church worked to preserve classical culture and learning during the decline of the Roman Empire and destruction of the barbarian invasions despite the intense dislike of pagan culture by the early Christians in the second century AD. The Roman educational system was destroyed not by the Christians, but through the economic, demographic, social and political decline of the Roman Empire and the barbarian invasions. ‘Thus the barbarian interlude did not result in a complete break between Christian Europe and the classical world; and the medieval church preserved in its Latin Bible, the Vulgate of St. Jerome, the strong moral emphasis of its Hebrew origins. Augustine owed much to Platonic thought, the medieval schoolmen much to Aristotle, but the bible was the source of their faith. We can trace these Hebrew and classical influences throughout the Middle Ages.’ 70 That the church worked to preserve classical culture is not surprising. St. Augustine, Cassiodorus and the Christian Church considered themselves perservers and supporters of Romania, the Roman way of life. 71 Thus far from working to destroy classical civilisation, the Christian church attempted to preserve and transform it, and in doing so the classical heritage survived the fall of the Roman Empire and the barbarian invasions into the Middle Ages, to form the basis of the modern world.


1. Gillian Clark, Christianity and Roman Society (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2004), p. 81.

2. Clark, Christianity and Roman Society, p. 82.

3. Clark, Christianity and Roman Society, p. 82; Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo, Cistercian Publications 1984), p. 10.

4. Clark, Christianity and Roman Society, p. 89; Irena Backus, ‘The Early Church in Renaissance and Reformation’ in Ian Hazlett, Early Christianity: Origins and Evolution to AD 600 (London, SPCK 1991), p. 298.

5. Clark, Christianity and Roman Society, p. 82.

6. Clark, Christianity and Roman Society, p. 89.

7. Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians in the Meditteranean World: From the Second Century AD to the Conversion of Constantine (London, Penguin 1986), p. 304.

8. Fox, Pagans and Christians, p. 306.

9. Fox, Pagans and Christians, p. 308.

10. Christopher De Hamel, The Book: A History of the Bible (London, Phaidon 2001), p. 316-7, 318.

11. De Hamel, The Book, p. 319.

12. Fred Lerner, The Story of Libraries from the Invention of Writing to the Computer Age (New York, Continuum 2001), p. 38.

13. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 38.

14. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 38.

15. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 38.

16. Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, eds., Roman Civilization – Vol. 2: Selected Readings – The Empire (New York, Columbia University Press 1990), p. 198.

17. E.B. Castle, Ancient Education and Today (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1961), p. 65.

18. Castle, Ancient Education, p. 126.

19. Castle, Ancient Education, p. 128.

20. Castle, Ancient Education, p. 177.

21. Castle, Ancient Education, p. 180.

22. Castle, Ancient Education, pp. 181-2.

23. Castle, Ancient Education, p. 182.

24. Castle, Ancient Education, p. 185.

25. Naphtali and Meyer, Roman Civilisation, p. 198.

26. Castle, Ancient Education, p. 124.

27. Esmond Wright, ed., History of the World: Prehistory to the Renaissance (Feltham, Newnes Books 1985), p. 237-8.

28. Wright, History of the World, p. 238.

29. Lewis and Reinhold, Roman Civilization, p. 210.

30. Lerner, Story of Libraries, pp. 38-9.

31. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 46; R.W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages (London, Century Hutchinson 1987), p. 180.

32. Southern, Making of the Middle Ages, p. 180.

33. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 46.

34. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 46; Southern, Making of the Middle Ages, p. 180.

35. Southern, Making of the Middle Ages, p. 182.

36. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 47.

37. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 48.

38. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 40.

39. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 41.

40. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 41.

41. Lerner, Story of Libraries, pp. 42-3.

42. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 43.

43. Lerner, Story of Libraries, pp. 49-50.

44. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 50.

45. Wright, History of the World, p. 358.

46. Wright, History of the World, p. 358.

47. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 50.

48. Wright, History of the World, p. 358.

49. Wright, History of the World, p. 358.

50. George Vernadsky, Kievan Russia (New Haven, Yale University Press), p. 283.

51. A.I. Sabra, ‘The Scientific Enterprise’ in Bernard Lewis, ed., The World of Islam: Faith, People, Culture (London, Thames and Hudson 1992), p. 181.

52. Sabra, ‘Scientific Enterprise’ in Lewis, ed., World of Islam, p. 182.

53. Sabra, ‘Scientific Enterprise’ in Lewis, ed., World of Islam, p. 182.

54. Southern, Making of the Middle Ages, p. 164.

55. Southern, Making of the Middle Ages, p. 165.

56. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 39; Southern, Making of the Middle Ages, p. 165.

57. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 39.

58. Southern, Making of the Middle Ages, p. 166.

59. Southern, Making of the Middle Ages, pp. 168-9.

60. A.C. Crombie, Augustine to Galileo Vol. 1 – Science in the Middle Ages- V-XIII Centuries (London, Mercury Books 1959), p. 37.

61. Crombie, Augustine to Galileo, vol. 1, p. 38; J.W. Adamson, ‘Education’ in C.G. Crump and E.F. Jacob, eds., The Legacy of the Middle Ages (Oxford, Clarendon 1926), p. 273.

62. Ranee Katzenstein and Emilie Savage-Smith, The Leiden Aratea: Ancient Constellations in a Medieval Manuscript (Malibu, the J. Paul Getty Museum 1988), p. 5

63. Katzenstein and Savage-Smith, Leiden Aratea, p. 7.

64. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 45; J.W. Adamson, ‘Education, in C.G. Crump and E.F. Jacob, eds., The Legacy of the Middle Ages (Oxford, Clarendon Press 1928), p. 257.

65. Adamson, ‘Education’, in Crump and Jacob, eds., Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 262.

66. Adamson, ‘Education’, in Crump and Jacob, eds., Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 258.

67. Adamson, ‘Education’, in Crump and Jacob, eds., Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 257.

68. Lerner, Story of Libraries, p. 39.

69. Lerner, Story of Libraries, pp. 30-1.

70. Castle, Ancient Education and Today, p. 188.

71. R.H.C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe from Constantine to St. Louis (Harlow, Longman 1988), p. 72.