Wednesday, 5 July 2017


Today is the anniversary of the publication, in 1687, of Newton’s Principia Mathematica.

Science as that term is generally understood began at Paris in 1277, when Étienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris and Censor of the Sorbonne, responded to the growth of Aristotelianism by condemning from Scripture (i.e., explicitly from revelation as apprehended by the gift of faith) two hundred and nineteen propositions expressing the Aristotelian versions of several of humanity’s ordinary beliefs. 

Those beliefs were, and are, eternalism, the belief that the universe has always existed; animism, that the universe is an animal, a living and organic being; pantheism, that the universe is in itself the ultimate reality, the first cause, God; astrology, that all earthly phenomena are caused, or at least influenced, by the pantheistic movements of the stars; and cyclicism, that every event repeats exactly after a sufficiently long time the precise length of which varies according to culture, and has already so repeated itself, ad infinitum).

In particular, Tempier strongly insisted on God’s creation of the world ex nihilo, a truth which has always been axiomatically acknowledged as able to be known only from revelation by the faith that is itself mediated by the Church’s ministry of God’s Word and Sacraments, with the liturgical context of that ministry passing on from age to age and from place to place the Revelation recorded in and as the Bible and the Apostolic Tradition of which the Canon of Scripture is part.

This ruling of ecclesial authority as such made possible the discovery around 1330, by Jean Bodin, Rector of the Sorbonne, of what he himself called impetus, but which was in fact nothing other than the first principle of “Newtonian” Mechanics, and thus of “science”, Newton’s First Law, the law of inertia: that a body which has been struck will continue to move with constant velocity for so long as no force acts on it.

Bodin’s pupil Nicole Oresme, afterwards Bishop of Lisieux, developed this discovery vigorously and in detail, around 1360. The ideas of Buridan and Oresme spread throughout Europe’s universities for three centuries, and were especially associated with Spanish Salamanca, with Portuguese Coimbra, and with the Jesuits’ Collegio Romano, now the Gregorian University.

They passed, through Leonardo da Vinci and others, to those who would formulate them in precise mathematical terms: Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Huygens, and finally Sir Isaac Newton in the conventionally foundational text of modern science, his Principia Mathematica of 1687. 

Without the Christian Revelation (apprehended by the faith mediated in, as and through the life of the Church), human beings are by inclination eternalistic, animistic, pantheistic, astrological and cyclicistic; and in that intellectual condition, the scientific project is impossible.

The reception of Newton’s Principia bespeaks a willingness (whether or not it can be identified in the work itself) to regard science as independent of the wider scientia crowned by regina scientiae, to have physics and the logical without metaphysics and the ontological, ratio unrelated to fides. This is disastrous for science, which cannot demonstrate, but rather must presuppose, the falseness of eternalism, animism, pantheism, astrology and cyclicism.

And it is also disastrous for art, because the world comes to be seen in terms of a logic newly detached from aesthetics, as from ethics. Thus, these become mere matters of taste or opinion, dislocated even from each other in defiance both of the whole Western philosophical tradition and to use in its ordinary manner a term deriving from Newton’s Early Modern age, of common sense.

In such an environment, art attracts increasing distrust as the morally evil is held up as having aesthetic, and not least literary, merit. Meanwhile, aesthetic experiences are so distinguished from everyday experiences that art is degraded to a frivolity and an indulgence. Thus, they are restricted to those who have the time and the money for it, indeed who actually have too much time on their hands and more money than they know what to do with.

At the same time, regard for the true and the good declines relentlessly in the supposedly superficial context of poor aesthetics, of literally false and bad art. Doctrinal orthodoxy and moral standards slip and slide where the liturgy and its accoutrements are less than adequately tasteful or edifying. Educational standards collapse and crime rockets in the midst of hideous architecture and décor. And so forth.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. You are truly a lost leader. An intellect like this going to waste is the lifelong shame of Hilary Armstrong, Neil Fleming and Laura Pidcock.