September 2019 Print

He Destroyed the Enlightenment Myth

Interview with Fr. Paul Robinson, SSPX

Father, who do you think was the most important Catholic scientist of the 20th century?

I think it would be Pierre Duhem (1861-1916).

Pierre who? I have never heard of him!

Alas, that is all too often the case. He deserves to be much more famous than he is, especially among Catholics.

Why so?

Because he single-handedly destroyed the Enlightenment myth that the Catholic Middle Ages were anti-science; that the Church is an institution which, when she has the power to do so, ruthlessly stifles scientific endeavor; and that scientific knowledge must be suppressed if Catholics are to hold on to their Faith.

That’s a whopping myth! How could a single person take it out?

In the same way that you wipe out the many other lies of the Enlightenment: you bring forward the facts. The paper trail revealing the true disposition of the Middle Ages toward science had been lost. And when the great scientists of the “Century of Genius,” the 17th century, appeared—scientists like Descartes, Galileo, and Newton—they refused to acknowledge their debt to medieval science. As such, their discoveries seemed to appear out of nowhere.

And that opened the door for anti-Catholic mythology, the black legend of a tyrannical, science-hating Church?

Yes! The enemies of the Church, starting in the second half of the 18th century, crafted a full-blown narrative around the 17th-century discoveries. It is like a novel with the ominous title “The Scientific Revolution.” The tale starts with nice, pagan, nature-worshipping Greeks who are in love with mathematics, astronomy, and the other natural sciences. Then, the great ogre appears, Mother Church. She hates scientific knowledge because it takes away her tyrannical power over her subjects. When they study science, they realize that she has been telling them terrible stories in order to keep them in a bondage of fear.

And, let me guess, then Galileo and Newton come on the scene like knights in shining armor?

Exactly! Out of nowhere, more sudden than Athena popping out of Jupiter’s head, Galileo, Newton, and company drop out of the benign, scientific heavens, and slay the multi-headed hydra of lies that has been besetting benighted Christendom for centuries upon centuries.

But surely people did not take such a stupid mythology seriously.

Well, it is an interesting fact of human nature that those who are biased against someone else will easily swallow any lie about them. And, by the time of the American and French Revolutions, people outside the Church were all too ready to take any “fake news” about the Church as the Gospel truth, no matter how far-fetched it might be.

Meanwhile, those who are inside the Church cannot help but be affected by the traction that such lies gain in society. They put Catholics continually on the defensive, cause them to be in doubt about some aspects of their history, and tempt them to take unbalanced stances on the relationship between faith and science. In the end, only having the facts in hand is able to remedy the problem.

Was Pierre Duhem the ultimate fact-checker?

Indeed, he was! Duhem was teaching at the University of Bordeaux. He had lost his wife prematurely and was living with his daughter Hélène, who was a mere infant when her mother died. This left him above-average free time to pursue his passion for science. He specifically wanted to establish a perfect form of physics, “one in which every mathematical detail would relate to aspects of physical reality” (The Realist Guide to Religion and Science, p. 155).

That sounds like a very ambitious task! Was he successful?

No, he wasn’t! But his pursuit of that goal led him to a success that non-Catholics would call serendipitous, but we would call providential. He started doing historical research at the university’s library in order to trace the use of mathematics in physics back to its ultimate origin.

What did he find?

Well, the main thing he discovered was that the so-called “Scientific Revolution” did not happen in a vacuum. Galileo and Newton were not gods descending to dwell among mortals. Rather, they were standing on the shoulders of giants, as Newton himself indicated. And those giants were medieval Catholics and, Heaven help us, scholastics, the most hated class of intellectual for the Enlightenment groupies!

In other words, Duhem found that the 17th century scientists knew about and relied upon a wealth of important and ground-breaking scientific thought that had taken place in the 13th to the 16th centuries. He methodically unearthed medieval Latin manuscripts, grasped all that the authors were saying, classified their writings, compared them, and documented the historical scientific bridge between Greek science and modern science, that bridge being of medieval construction.

Can you give an example?

Certainly! Let us consider his research on the history of statics. Statics is “the branch of mechanics concerned with bodies at rest and forces in equilibrium” (Oxford Dictionary of English). According to the Enlightenment, statics was born in the 17th century without any help from the Middle Ages. Duhem proved that this was not at all the case in his The Origin of Statics.

Can you quote his findings?

Gladly. In the preface to that work, he states the following:

“At the very outset, this research led us to make some unforeseen observations. It proved to us that the works of Leonardo da Vinci, so rich in new ideas on mechanics, had in no way remained unknown to the mechanicians of the Renaissance, as was commonly assumed. It further proved that his works were used by many scientists of the 16th century, in particular, by Cardan and Benedetti, and that they furnished Cardan with his profound insights on the operation of machines and on the impossibility of perpetual motion.”

So, da Vinci made some important discoveries in the late 15th and early 16th century?

Yes. But it gets worse! Duhem continues: “We had already commenced retracing this development in the Revue des questions scientifiques, when we chanced upon a text by Tartaglia, nowhere mentioned in any history of statics, which proved to us that what we had done so far had to be rethought on an entirely different level.”

What did the text of Tartaglia contain?

Plagiarism. He was a Venetian mathematician who lived from 1500-1557. Duhem describes his deception as follows: “It was Tartaglia who, long before Stevin and Galileo, had determined the apparent weight of a body on an inclined plane. He had very correctly deduced this law from a principle which Descartes was later to affirm in its complete generality. But this magnificent discovery, which no historian of mechanics mentions, did not come from Tartaglia. It was nothing but an impudent act of plagiarism on his part, and Ferrari bitterly reproached him for it and gave credit for this discovery to a 13th-century mechanician, Jordanus Nemorarius.”

So, the main discovery was actually made in the Middle Ages?

Yes! Duhem’s finding that Jordanus was the genius behind that particular principle of mechanics was momentous. Ferrari had dropped Jordanus’s name and this led Duhem to turn the library upside down to find Jordanus’s actual text: “In order to determine precisely what mechanics owed to Jordanus and his students, we had to go back to the contemporary sources, to the manuscripts. Thus, we were forced to go through all of the manuscripts dealing with statics which we were able to find at the Bibliothèque Mazarine.”

Thank God he undertook that incredible effort! What did he end up finding?

What Duhem described as “totally unforeseen conclusions,” conclusions that revolutionized his scientific career, if you can pardon the expression. After he discovered Jordanus in 1904, for the rest of his life, he would expend his vast capacity for research and writing to establish those conclusions, and in a way so thorough that it would be nigh impossible to refute them.

The conclusion being that science was born in the Middle Ages?

Precisely! It turns out that medieval Christendom was electric with a scientific creativity that the world had never seen.

How did Duhem express it in the text that you have been quoting?

As follows: “Not only did the Occidental Middle Ages directly or, indirectly through Arab intermediaries, inherit the tradition of certain Hellenic theories concerning the lever and the Roman balance, but through its own intellectual activity gave birth to a statics autonomous from and unknown in Antiquity. As early as the beginnings of the 13th century, and perhaps even earlier, Jordanus de Nemore had demonstrated the law of the lever by proceeding from the following postulate: the same work is needed to lift different weights when the weights are in inverse proportion to the heights which they travel through.”

And this knowledge was not lost in the succeeding centuries?

No! On the contrary, it was passed on and built up. “This idea, which can be found in germinal form in the treatise of Jordanus, was progressively developed in the works of his followers up to Leonardo da Vinci, Cardan, Roberval, Descartes, and Wallis, and reached its final formulation in the letter which John Bernoulli sent to Varignon, as well as in the Méchanique analytique of Lagrange and in the works of Willard Gibbs. Thus, the science which we are legitimately so proud of today grew out of a science born around the year 1300.

Astounding! That’s myth-busting on a nuclear scale.

Indeed, we would find it difficult to accuse Duhem of hyperbole when he wraps up by saying: “The so-called [scientific] intellectual revolutions consisted, in most cases, of nothing but an evolution developing over long periods of time. The so-called Renaissances were frequently nothing but unjust and sterile reactions.”

The Renaissance and the Enlightenment have always appeared superficial to the Catholic mind, but it is quite nice to have documentary proof! Did Duhem write anything else?

Did he ever. He was a prolific writer. Besides his many academic articles in the Revue des questions scientifiques and even a dozen or so articles in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia (see especially “History of Physics”), he produced a constant stream of multi-volume works on the history of science. Fr. Stanley Jaki was right to refer to his labors as “superhuman” and put his incredible output in context: “With no assistants to help him, with none of the modern research conveniences—xerox machines, microfilms, not even a typewriter or a ball point pen—at his disposal to save most precious time for reflection and writing, he labored in a way inconceivable today. The least known aspect of this related to his right hand—all too ready to tremble during his last ten years when he filled 120 notebooks, each 200 pages, with excerpts from almost 100 medieval manuscripts” (Scientist and Catholic: Pierre Duhem, pp. 88-89).

Is there any particular work that stands out?

His magnum opus was a ten-volume, 5000 page tome entitled Système du Monde, a history of science on a scale the world had never seen before.

Is there anything else of interest about that work?

Yes, the fact that only a few volumes were published during his lifetime and his daughter Hélène had to fight with the publisher for decades to have the other volumes published, as promised in the contract. Her ultimately successful efforts in dealing with the Mexican manager of the French publication firm (true story!) is recounted by Fr. Jaki in Reluctant Heroine: The Life and Work of Hélène Duhem.

What about Pierre? Is there anything about his life that would endear him to Catholics?

There are many things: the fact of his great love of the Faith and even holiness. He practically had the Imitation of Christ memorized, he engaged in many charitable works, and he bore some difficult crosses with a supernatural patience.

Can you name some of those crosses?

Besides the sudden death of his wife and their son, to whom she had just given birth, Duhem suffered from a chronic stomach ailment throughout his life. He also was the victim of the professional jealousy of Berthelot, who was “almost omnipotent in France in matters relating to science at the time.” Duhem correctly argued against Berthelot’s “principle of maximum work,” and Berthelot responded by trying to hamstring Duhem’s academic career, successfully blocking a lucrative teaching position for Duhem in Paris, and delaying his nomination to the French Academy of Sciences until 1913. Moreover, Duhem was plagiarized not a few times during his lifetime, but his usual recourse in response was silence.

It sounds as if he was edifying as well as brilliant! That’s a shame that so few Catholics know about him.

Well, at least the readers of The Angelus are among those few!

But have we only scratched the surface with Duhem? You mentioned the origin of statics in the Middle Ages. Weren’t the medieval scholastics responsible for much more than that?

Indeed, they invented the very tool by which scientific investigation is conducted today, the scientific method. To learn about that, read the next article!