European History Pt. 27 — Europe’s Changing Worldview

In the narrative of Europe’s history, I’m up to about 1763. We are basically about to see Britain’s golden age.

Before going forward though, the book takes a whole chapter to recap the 150 odd years leading up to 1763. The purpose is to explain the growth in knowledge, scientific, political, and sociological.

This is a very noble goal, but for some reason, I don’t feel that interested in it. Perhaps this is because I know about the science and philosophy of this  period from my professional activities and so the subject has lost a little bit of its magic. Anyway, I think I’m going to go through this chapter with an eye toward grabbing some of the highlights.

The book nicely summarizes Science as changing our material surroundings, influencing pop culture (Freud, Einstein), and laying the groundwork for democracy and liberalism by emphasizing the reasoned, non-violent exchange of ideas, and even revolutionizing our metaphysical assumptions. Science changed our view of god (did it destroy God?) and placed us within a universe that we now suppose, has an essential order to it.

I talked about witches before, and this is where the book gets to them. Witchcraft accusations were common against men and women (but more commonly women) up until 1650 when they declined. However, in Salem, there were witchcraft accusations in 1692 and in 1722 some witches were put to death in Ireland. These are the last recorded witchcraft incidents.

The book makes a fascinating observation about the way in which science was a savior for the collective mind of Europe during and after the 30 years war, which left the countryside in the hands of various roving bands of thugs. Chaos reigned and this was reflected in the collective psyche.

Science in time provided Europe with a new faith in itself. The rise of science in the seventeenth century possibly saved European civilization from petering out in a long postmedieval afterglow or from wandering off into the diverse paths of a genial skepticism, ineffectual philosophizing, desultory magic, or mad fear of the unknown.

Next, the book makes a distinction between sciences like chemistry and biology, which came into their own after 1800 (I find that kind of hard to believe since they started being such paradigmatically observational sciences, i.e., a lot of the early work in these disciplines were just opening up bodies and looking at them. Or looking at cells through a microscope.).

Nonetheless, the book maintains that astronomy and physics advanced the quickest in this time because Europe was undergoing a mathematical revolution. In 1614, logarithms were invented, and calculus was invented in the back half of the 1600s by Newton and Leibniz.

The Heavenly bodies

Copernicus introduced his theory of a heliocentric universe in 1543 in a book published after his death. He had determined that mathematically, it made more sense to think of the universe as heliocentric rather than geocentric.

After Copernicus was Johannes Kepler, a german genius who had a mystical belief in numbers. He carried Copernicus’ system furthered by showing how ELLIPSES were at the heart of planetary motion and that there was a precise mathematical relationship involved. This was a huge step for the human mind: that natural happenings could be precisely described with numbers.

As most people know, the story is carried forward by Galileo, who lived one half in the 16th century and one half in the 17th century, dying in 1642 (the year Newton was born). In 1609, he built a telescope and looked up at the heavens. He recorded several groundbreaking results, including the fact that the planets were made out of STUFF and were not celestial crystals. He also came up with a system of motion for TERRESTIAL objects. In other words, he found out about inertia and how things fell at the same rate regardless of mass.

All was set for Newton.


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