Thursday, November 12, 2009

America & Modernity

I hope to make a few useful observations about Cato-Unbound's latest symposium on modernity.

The seeds of modernity trace to the beginning of Western Civilization, particularly to Greco-Romanism. The Greeks invented or discovered science. And Rome, at its peak, invented things like the aqueducts, so advanced for their time, that the world would not again see until close to the modern era. (This clip from "The Life of Brian" brilliantly pokes fun at pagan achievements at the expense of the early Judeo-Christians living in Rome.)

Still, when Rome went Christian, it was mainly the bright minds within the Roman Catholic Church who preserved the great knowledge of Greco-Roman antiquity and incorporated such into Christendom. One thinks of Aquinas' affinity for Aristotle.

But those seeds still didn't begin to grow into the tree of modernity until around 1800. For instance, as Cato's Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, in their chapter of "Material Progress," notes, if you compare the life of George Washington to Julius Caesar's in 44BC, you'd see that though Washington could take advantage of some notable material advances that didn't exist in Caeser's day, their material worlds were far closer to one another's than either are to today's modern technological world.

In other words, there was a watershed in technological progress. It began in the late 18th Century.

So what caused it? That's what Cato's Symposium debates.

My studies conclude it wasn't God, the Bible, Christianity or Thomism (after all, these had been around for a long time before the watershed, but may in fact have contributed to the information contained in the seeds). Rather it was a form of Enlightenment humanism that put the focus of socio-politics on man, his material (as opposed to spiritual) needs, and the "progress of the human mind," as Jefferson once termed it.

This isn't to say the Founders and the philosophers they followed, as scientifically minded, materialistically concerned people, were secret atheists or hostile to religion, as some have supposed. To the contrary, they tended to appreciate the way religion civilized man and made him self-governable which was indispensable to modern republican government. (America's Founders also believed that the states, and voluntary local institutions, should bear the primary if not sole responsibility for promoting the kind of religion useful to modern republican government.)

But, as America's Founders intended it, God and religion would not be the chief focus of the Novus Ordo Seclorum. Man's material needs would. One need look to the United States' original Constitution for evidence. Such is a document of limited, enumerated powers. And, whereas it endowes those things that relate to man's material concerns, the Constitution left religion unendowned. As Walter Berns put it:

[W]hereas…[the Constitution] grants Congress the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” (see Article I, section 8[8]), it nowhere gives it the power to promote religious belief. Rather, the First Amendment seems to deny it such a power. — “Making Patriots,” p. 43.

Also striking is how many key American Founders and the philosophers they followed were scientists, usually natural, in some formal or serious armchair way. For instance, Benjamin Rush was a medical doctor. Benjamin Franklin invented bi-focals and the lighting rod. Thomas Jefferson invented "the swivel chair, a pedometer, a machine to make fiber from hemp, a letter-copying machine, and the lazy susan." The Founders idolized such British figures as Isaac Newton (discoverer of gravity), John Locke (a medical doctor), Joseph Priestley (the co-discoverer of oxygen), all natural scientists, in addition to being other things. They also idolized men like Adam Smith (the father of the modern science of economics), and Richard Price (the father of the modern science of finance). Indeed morals, law and politics were all viewed as "sciences" of some sort -- part of the "the new science of man." Principles thereto were "discovered," not posited. And they believed sound governments could be built according to almost (if not literal) geometric principles.

Religion too, they believed, could be reduced to a rational science. They did not yet discover that God didn't exist (as some scientists have claimed to have discovered today). All of the above mentioned figures, I sincerely believe, devoutly believed in God's existence. However, their scientific rationalistic approach to religion (as to all other things) led most of them to doubt or deny the Trinity (1+1+1 = 3 not 1) and the infallibility of the Bible (those parts of the text that seemed most unbelievable according to a scientific perspective).

As it were, following the advice of scientifically minded Enlightenment philosophers, America was founded to be a scientific, commercial republic, one whose chief focus would be meeting man's material needs and wants. Such a system has been termed "liberal democracy."

Whatever one thinks of it, liberal democracy, in putting the focus of socio-politics on science and man's material needs, proved quite effective. It led to the astounding technological advances seen in the last two hundred years. And because those technological advances applied to military and economic power, liberal democracy in general, America in particular, came to dominate world geo-politics.

Such, as I understand it, is the story of modernity.


Tom Van Dyke said...

This fascinating article from 1886

fills the hole between the Fall of Rome and Europe's Middle Ages [Aquinas, Roger Bacon, and forward]. The Muslim world preserved the Greek sciences and philosophy [until al-Ghazali returned Islam to religion].


Before there was secular humanism, there was Christian humanism, as seen in the Renaissance. Perhaps another historical hole in your theory, and further, that the Founders founded the US before "modernity" as we know it took hold.

It's claimed that the Enlightenment-as-modernity brought us to liberty, but the wheels were already turning in liberating the mind of Christendom [Roger Bacon [c.1250] was a monk, and every bit the scientist for his time as Isaac Newton].

Read the article and get back to me, folks.

jimmiraybob said...

This fascinating article from 1886...

Yes, fascinating:

Possibly the Semitic mind was incapable of a larger sweep. Perhaps the Aryan mind alone has the scientific genius, as the Semitic has the religious.

Back on planet reality one might want to examine some evidence and from the evidence form a hypothesis and then perhaps test the hypothesis by targeted experimentation or, as the science community, calls it, research, nd then develop a tad more informed conclusion (See what I did there? Slipped in some sciency stuff).

Speak of the devil:

Scientific Method: "Muslim scientists placed a greater emphasis on experimentation than previous ancient civilizations (for example, Greek philosophy placed a greater emphasis on rationality rather than empiricism),[13][16] which was due to the emphasis on empirical observation found in the Qur'an and Sunnah,[70][71][72][73] and the rigorous historical methods established in the science of hadith.[70] Muslim scientists thus combined precise observation, controlled experiment and careful records[16] with a new[13] approach to scientific inquiry which led to the development of the scientific method.[74] In particular, the empirical observations and experiments of Ibn al-Haytham (Alhacen) in his Book of Optics (1021) is seen as the beginning of the modern scientific method,[75] which he first introduced to optics and psychology. Rosanna Gorini writes:

"According to the majority of the historians al-Haytham was the pioneer of the modern scientific method. With his book he changed the meaning of the term optics and established experiments as the norm of proof in the field. His investigations are based not on abstract theories, but on experimental evidences and his experiments were systematic and repeatable."[74]

[...lots of other interesting tidbits...]

The kind of science that Franklin and Priestly practiced and that Washington heralded in his addresses to Congress owes its robust success as much to the contributions and advancements made within the Medieval Islamic world as the preceding Pagan Greco-Roman and the later Christian European societies. Science is a cumulative process and does not intrinsically depend on the "Aryan mind" nor the umbrella of any given prevailing religious influence.

I would, of course, hope that the curious mind would read the whole Wiki entry.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, the 1886 article does give proper credit to the Saracens for preserving the Greek sciences, however, argues that precious little actual progress came from their theoretical mastery:

We are forced to draw a distinction, too often lost sight of, between learning and science. An individual may be learned, and yet be devoid of that constructive and generalizing faculty which is central and controlling in science, and which the Greek mind possessed in large degree. This faculty has distinguished the nations of modern Europe since they came under the influence of Greek thought. A people enlightened by the accumulated knowledge of the ages preceding its existence may yet be so unproductive in the higher fields, where the power of generalization displays itself, as to compel future students of history to deny it a place among the nations conspicuous for their scientific genius. This is the case with the Saracens. They were, for their time, marvelously active and intelligent, enlightened, but not scientific.

Daniel said...

I think the type of scrutiny that went into the Hadith can be called scientific history as the Greeks understood it. Certainly the Arabic developments on mathematics qualified as creative science. Muslims' work on optics was scientific if Bacon's was, and I think it was (although it didn't really meet the standards of 16th century empiricism). Sharia is not the U.S. Constitution but it was a remarkable achievement of applied rationalism to create an synthesis of custom and revelation. Aristotle was developed and superceded in Christendom while he was restricted in Islam due to historical accident, not due to differences in aptitude.

jimmiraybob said...

Of course the 1886 article is long on assertion and short in detail as well as just being wrong, as easily contradicted by actual evidence readily available to the modern reader.

Hungerford - They [the Saracens] were, for their time, marvelously active and intelligent, enlightened, but not scientific.

And yet:

Ibn al-Haytham, a pioneer of modern optics,[79] used the scientific method to obtain the results in his Book of Optics. In particular, he combined observations, experiments and rational arguments to show that his modern intromission theory of vision, where rays of light are emitted from objects rather than from the eyes, is scientifically correct, and that the ancient emission theory of vision supported by Ptolemy and Euclid (where the eyes emit rays of light), and the ancient intromission theory supported by Aristotle (where objects emit physical particles to the eyes), were both wrong.[80] It is known that Roger Bacon was familiar with Ibn al-Haytham's work. Ibn al-Haytham is featured on the 10,000 Iraqi dinar note.

Ibn al-Haytham developed rigorous experimental methods of controlled scientific testing in order to verify theoretical hypotheses and substantiate inductive conjectures.[81] Ibn al-Haytham's scientific method was similar to the modern scientific method in that it consisted of the following procedures:[82]

1. Observation
2. Statement of problem
3. Formulation of hypothesis
4. Testing of hypothesis using experimentation
5. Analysis of experimental results
6. Interpretation of data and formulation of conclusion
7. Publication of findings

[This is, in essence, the modern scientific method.]

The development of the scientific method is considered to be fundamental to modern science and some — especially philosophers of science and practicing scientists — consider earlier inquiries into nature to be pre-scientific. Some consider Ibn al-Haytham to be the "first scientist" for this reason.[83]

In The Model of the Motions, Ibn al-Haytham also describes an early version of Occam's razor, where he employs only minimal hypotheses regarding the properties that characterize astronomical motions, as he attempts to eliminate from his planetary model the cosmological hypotheses that cannot be observed from Earth.[84]

Who is Hungerford and what are his qualifications?

continued below

jimmiraybob said...

I'm not trying to be unfair to later European scientists, but credit where credit is due. As I said above, science is an iterative and cumulative process. It modern science it's considered a major fau paux not to give proper accreditation to work preceding yours. I assume that there is also a Christian/Jewish and perhaps Islamic principle to cover this.

As to Roger Bacon, I don't mean in any way to diminish his work but it appears that in several instances he (as everyone in science does) relied on previous work done by Ibn al-Haytham, which in turn rested in part on earlier work.


[Roger] Bacon possessed one of the most commanding intellects of his age, and made many discoveries while coming near to many others, despite many disadvantages and discouragements. His Opus Majus contains treatments of mathematics and optics, alchemy and the manufacture of gunpowder, the positions and sizes of the celestial bodies, and anticipates later inventions such as microscopes, telescopes, spectacles, flying machines, hydraulics and steam ships. Bacon studied astrology and believed that the celestial bodies had an influence on the fate and mind of humans. The study of optics in part five of Opus Majus seems to draw on the works of the Muslim scientists, Alkindus (al-Kindi) and Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham), including a discussion of the physiology of eyesight, the anatomy of the eye and the brain, and considers light, distance, position, and size, direct vision, reflected vision, and refraction, mirrors and lenses. His research in optics was primarily oriented by the legacy of Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham; d. 1041) through a Latin translation of the latter's monumental Kitab al-manazir (De aspectibus; Perspectivae; The Optics), while the impact of the tradition of al-Kindi (Alkindus) was principally mediated through the influence that this Arabic scholar had on the optics of Robert Grosseteste. Moreover, Bacon's investigations of the properties of the magnifying glass partly rested on the handed down legacy of Arab opticians; mainly Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), who was in his turn influenced by Ibn Sahl's 10th century legacy in dioptrics.[26]

Ibn al-Haytham primer: here and here and here

Tom Van Dyke said...

OK, OK. And I read [mebbe in this article, mebbe somewheres else] that Columbus credited Ibn Rush [Averroes] for his conceptions of the round world, etc.

But the Muslim world never built those boats to circumnavigate it, and that's at the heart of Hungerford's thesis. The Saracens might have made all those astronomical observations, but didn't get to where Copernicus got.

As for the hadiths, what's the difference between that and rabbinical Judaism, which predates it by centuries?

Daniel said...

With the Rabbinic sources, sayings and stories are collected with no apparent historic referents. The collection of Hadiths required careful reference to sources with checking and cross-checking. Rabbinic Judaism is a very impressive accomplishment, but I see little in the way of scientific history.

I agree, BTW, that talk of the Islamic Golden Age is sometimes overstated. And the Classical sources were also preserved in some Christian monasteries. But Islam's contributions should not be understated either. (Of course, Islam's compatibility with modernity remains an open, and very important, question).

As for that round earth, the educated (Christian, Jewish, and Islamic) were in agreement on the shape. Columbus sailed because he was able to convince the credulous that the earth was much smaller than Aristotle calculated. If his source on that was Ibn Rush, then Ibn Rush had it wrong.

bpabbott said...

Regarding the Islamic Golden Age, I appear to have taken the phrase from a very different perspective.

I'd did not understand it in a comparitive way.

Rather I understood the term "Islamic Golden Age" to indicate the that, for Islam, the most significant contributions to human society where in the past.

The greatest of which (imo) was the preservation of the Library of Alexandria.

Mark in Spokane said...

I like the point you make here, and I think that when it comes to the "top-tier" founders, your observations regarding their basic approach to questions of faith, science and reason is pretty accurate (although I would quibble a bit about your characterization of their religious views).

One thing I would point out though is that once we venture beyond the "top-tier" founders (Washington, Jefferson, the Adamses, Jefferson, Madison) things get far more orthodox when it comes to religious faith. Probably the most currently overlooked essential founder -- Samuel Adams -- was a devout evangelical, as was Patrick Henry. Alexander Hamilton was an orthodox Episcopalian. The Catholic founding fathers -- Charles and Daniel Carroll -- were orthodox as well. As a consequence, the idea that the founders were all proto-modernists is a bit of a stretch to me.

Like modern America, the America of the founding period was a remarkably diverse place -- particularly intellectually. There were philosophes and tent-revivalists, rationalists and mystics, unitarians and orthodox believers, scientists and merchants and craftsmen and lawyers and frontiersmen, speculators and bankers. It's part of what makes the era so very interesting...

One more thing -- about the role of Islam in preserving classical knowledge. During the high Middle Ages in Europe, the standard Latin editions of Aristotle, for example, were usually translated from Arabic rather than Greek. Thomas Aquinas was unusual in that he used a Latin text of Aristotle that was based on a reconstructed Greek text -- translated into Latin by one of his fellow Dominican friars. But Thomas was unusual in that regard. Much of the Greek patrimony first made its way into Western consciousness via Arabic translations and commentaries, which were then put into Latin. Direct translations from the Greek were a rarity well into the beginnings of the Renaissance.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Hey, I didn't mean to start an epistemological war between an article from 1886 and the Wikipedia. Actually, my intention was to include the "Saracens" in the history of ideas, per Angie's mention---to include them, not diminish them.

The Golden Age of Islam took place precisely during Christendom's Dark Ages, which were indeed dark after the fall of the Roman Empire. And its decline coincided exactly with Christendom's rise as the home of reason, science, and the cutting edge of "civilization."

Ben, both Maimonides the Jew and Aquinas the Christian drew directly and picked up the baton from Islam philosophically from the top Aristotelian Ibn Rushd [Averroes], and if we think DaVinci was the tits, you should see al-Farabi---philosopher, physician, musician, and more.

Makes DaVinci look quite ordinary. The Golden Age of Islam was quite golden.

But I do think the "Incoherence of the Philosophers" signaled the end. I sure wish Kristo were still around, as he was an expert at

So, please folks, I'm standing up for the Islamic Golden Age, and regret that it ever ended, as does the world.

To return to Jon's main point, I agree with Mark [I think] in arguing that the American Founding occurred before "modernism."

I share the criticism of modernity that the "classical liberalism" of Locke and Burke and Adam Smith and the Founders has nothing atall in common with "modern" liberalism of Immanuel Kant, utilitarianism, industrial revolutions, Marx, John Rawls, etc., simply because all those things came after the Founding.

You could check the dates on Wikipedia. I think they stand up.

It's not all a mush. I hated dates when I studied history as a kid, but they have great relevance once you become an adult.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I see your point but disagree (as the East Coast Straussians would) with your strong "nothing atall" way of categorizing.

Clearly Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, though they had significant differences also had some very signficant things in common (i.e., "the state of nature").

Ideas evolve. That is, they grow from roots. Historians and philosophers look back and determine when period A becomes period B and can find meaningful transitions between them where they exist (think of beethoven's 9th as *the* transitional piece from the classical to the romantic era of music).

The distinction you draw is more between the "early moderns" (of which the Founders were) and the "later moderns." Yes there were differences. However there were also common threads and transitions and connections between and among them.

The real watershed in philosophy came when the anti-moderns (or some might say the first post-moderns) Nietzsche and then Heidegger hit the scene. Those were the ones who tried to make a clean break with enlightenment modernity.

bpabbott said...


Thanks for the link to Al-Farabi. I was not familiar with him. He was obviously a brilliant individual.

I am in complete agreement that it is regrettable that the character of Muslim socieity duirng the Islamic Golden Age came to an end. Especially regrettable for the Muslims, I think.

Regarding Arab/Persian history I do think the Middle Ages were golden.

My prior comment was intended to convey the opinion, that with regards to progression of human society, the Middle Ages made a lesser contribution than periods prior, or periods after. Had the Muslim world not been successful in preserving the library of Alexandria the harm would dwarf any contributions made.

Regarding Alexandria, I've commonly encountered claims that the "Christians" of the Dark Ages had attempted to burn it down. Which I understand is to be regarded as a modern myth (see Library of Alexandria) … I thought I should mention that as the library is a common point in rhetorical attacks on Christians of that period, which is not my intention.

I also have no intent to criticize Muslim society. My point is only with regards to the relative contribution of past ages (or societies) on our society today.

In any event, having learned more on the Islamic Golden Age in the last day, I'd like to modify my prior comment.

In addition to the preservation of the library, this age also brought us the scientific method (h/t to jimmiraybob) and peer review. Each of those contributions have had a great impact on all of us.

Daniel said...


I am not familiar with the story about the Muslim preservation of the Library. I know several versions of the destruction of the library, most of which are set before the day of Mohammad. The only version I know post-Muhammad has Muslims destroying it.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jon, Leo Strauss is useless here, since his interest isn't in history, but the history of philosophy.

Since Strauss rejects religion's compatibility with philosophy, he detours around Aquinas and Christian thought, which were key in leading to the Founding.

Strauss' "modernity" begins with Machiavelli, where the quiet "truths" of the ancients were boldly proclaimed.

Strauss' Locke is subversive to the Thomistic natural law tradition, and although Strauss may be correct about Locke by reading between the lines, the Founding era read him as completely within the natural law tradition.

It might be fair to say that modernity did begin in the political world with Voltaire's spawn, the French Revolution, and that things were varying degrees of crap in Europe ever since, except of course under the post-WWII protection of the pax Americana.

And even still, they might be Weimar all over again.

bpabbott said...


It was my understanding that the library resided within the Islamic territories during the Islamic Golden Age.

After you comment, I tried to confirm, and discoverd that the actual location is not known/confirmed.

Perhaps someone has more info?