Monthly Archives: June 2017

The Unrecognized Beginning of Modern Man

In her book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Barbara Tuchman described the worldview-altering effect of the Black Death, the devastating spread of bubonic plague across Europe that killed 50 million people in the years 1346 to 1353: “Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut. Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.”

Before the 14th century, most people believed disasters—earthquakes, floods, plagues—were punishment from God for their sins. But it is a sign of progress that we mostly understand now that the universe does not exist and operate merely to teach us a lesson.

It is good and right to gather wisdom and strength from the experience of life but, as the protagonist’s wife in the 2000 movie, Remember the Titans pondered, “Sometimes life’s just hard, for no reason at all.” It takes courage to deal with the realization that, as Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.

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The Last Blossom from a Dying Plant?

In Never at Rest, largely regarded as the standard biography of Isaac Newton, Richard Westfall describes the moment in history when Newton and others reached a tipping point for how modern man would evaluate the truth of ideas:

“The antipodes of alchemy with its eternal and exasperating secretiveness was mathematics, the very claim of which to be called knowledge rested on demonstrations open to all. Where the one made its way deviously with allusion and symbolism, the other proceeded in the cold light of rigorous logic. The diversity of the intellectual world of the seventeenth century has perhaps no better illustration than the coexistence of two such antithetical enquiries, both apparently in flourishing condition. Only to later ages would it be clear that seventeenth-century alchemy was the last blossom from a dying plant and seventeenth-century mathematics the first blooming of a hardy perennial. Whatever the state of alchemy, certainly it was manifest in 1661 that mathematics was a flourishing enterprise.”

But clearly, each generation confronts its own ideas which live by “exasperating secretiveness” and “[make their] way deviously with allusion and symbolism.” What was manifest more than 350 years ago must be made clear again and again.

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