Sunday, 11 November 2018

Western civilisation and the role of religion

It's true that things like democracy and science are western inventions, but the delineations of "western civilisation" are not well-known in the broader community. How did we get here? Where did it all come from? Why in Europe and not elsewhere?

You hear things in the media all the time that refer to these and similar questions. Just the other day on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) panel show The Drum, Murdoch journalist Caroline Overington was gushing about religion and how it had contributed to western civilisation. On the ABC again for the National Press Club address, Jennifer Westacott, head of the Business Council of Australia, was talking about how technological changes would require people to keep learning to ensure they remained employable into the future.

The thing is that everything started with the arts. The development of jet engines and antibiotics entailed a long process but essentially it was one that involved the gradual democratisation and consequent expansion of knowledge that started when Dante Alighieri (1285-1321) and Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) began to write in the vernacular instead of in Latin. Taking his cue from them, in England John Wycliffe made an English translation of the Vulgate Bible (the Latin book used by the Catholic Church; the translation was finished by 1382). His heresy was adapted further by Jan Hus in Bohemia, where it survived for 100 years before Luther's.

In the meantime, movable type had been invented in Germany in 1440 and with more and more affordable books appearing the process of nominalisation, where new words are formed out of complete sentences or out of phrases, accelerated learning.

The first new translation of the Bible into the vernacular from its originary languages was launched in Spain by Isabella of Castile and was finished in 1520, inspiring the Humanists in norther Europe to do likewise, which also resulted in the production of vernacular translations of works by classical Roman authors (the collection of which Petrarca had made fashionable). As monarchs and other community leaders adopted the new religious practices in northern Europe, boys were taught how to read. The Catholic Church got in on the act in 1540 with the establishment of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), in a Spain now ruled by Isabella’s grandson, Charles V. (The first university had been established in Bologna in the late 11th century.)

The 'Essais' of Montaigne, who had been brought up by his father to read widely, appeared in 1580. In his book the writer turns away from God to look inward at himself. Bacon's 'Novum Organum' appeared in 1620, in which the writer again turns away from God and tells people to study the natural world and how to go about it. In 1695, the Licensing of the Press Act was allowed to lapse in England, spurring the emergence of magazines which helped the process of nominalisation by promulgating tens of thousands of new ideas for an emerging middle class.

The rest, as they say, is history. What is clear however from knowing how this process unfolded is that it was usually religion that formed a barrier against the democratisation of knowledge. In order to get over that barrier, men had to fight against a stubborn Catholic Church intent on maintaining its rights and privileges. To a large degree, the process of democratisation that I’ve just described was carried out despite the actions of the Church, not because of it.


Andrew Elder said...

The world's oldest universities were in the Muslim world. The University of Fez is two centuries older than Bologna

Matthew da Silva said...

Thanks Andrew. I appreciate learning new things. Some comment on the basic thesis being forwarded in the post would be good too.