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The Belfast Address - Pt. 3

( Originally Published 1916 )

During the drought of the Middle Ages in Christen-dom, the Arabian intellect, as forcibly shown by Draper, was active. With the intrusion of the Moors into Spain, order, learning, and refinement took the place of their opposites. When smitten with disease, the Christian peasant resorted to a shrine, the Moorish one to an instructed physician. The Arabs encouraged translations from the Greek philosophers, but not from the Greek poets. They turned in disgust "from the lewdness of our classical mythology, and denounced as an unpardonable blasphemy all connection between the impure Olympian Jove and the Most High God." Draper traces still further than Whew-ell the Arab elements in our scientific terms. He gives examples of what Arabian men of science accomplished, dwelling particularly on Alhazen, who was the first to correct the Platonic notion that rays of light are emitted by the eye. Alhazen discovered atmospheric refraction, and showed that we see the sun and the moon after they have set. He explained the enlargement of the sun and moon, and the shortening of the vertical diameters of both these bodies when near the horizon. He was aware that the atmosphere decreases in density with increase of elevation, and actually fixed its height at 58% miles. In the "Book of the Balance of Wisdom," he sets forth the connection between the weight of the atmosphere and its increasing density. He shows that a body will weigh differently in a rare and dense atmosphere, and he considers the force with which plunged bodies rise through heavier media. He understood the doctrine of the centre of gravity, and applied it to the investigation of balances and steelyards. He recognized gravity as a force, though he fell into the error of assuming it to diminish simply as the distance, and of making it purely terrestrial. He knew the relation between the velocities, spaces, and times of falling bodies, and had distinct ideas of capillary attraction. He improved the hydrometer. The determinations of the densities of bodies, as given by Alhazen, approach very closely to our own. "I join," says Draper, "in the pious prayer of Alhazen, that in the day of judgment the All-Merciful will take pity on the soul of Abur-Raihân, because he was the first of the race of men to construct a table of specific gravities." If all this be historic truth (and I have entire confidence in Dr. Draper), well may he "deplore the systematic manner in which the literature of Europe has contrived to put out of sight our scientific obligations to the Mohammedans."

The strain upon the mind during the stationary period toward ultra-terrestrial things, to the neglect of problems close at hand, was sure to provoke reaction. But the re-action was gradual; for the ground was dangerous, and a power was at hand competent to crush the critic who went too far. To elude this power, and still allow opportunity for the expression of opinion, the doctrine of "two-fold truth" was invented, according to which an opinion might be held "theologically," and the opposite opinion "philosophically." Thus, in the thirteenth century, the creation of the world in six days, and the unchangeableness of the individual soul, which had been so distinctly affirmed by St. Thomas Aquinas, were both denied philosophically, but admitted to be true as articles of the Catholic faith. When Protagoras uttered the maxim which brought upon him so much vituperation, that "opposite assertions are equally true," he simply meant to affirm men's differences to be so great, that what was subjectively true to the one might be subjectively untrue to the other. The great Sophist never meant to play fast and loose with the truth by saying that one of two opposite assertions, made by the same individual, could possibly escape being a lie. It was not "sophistry," but the dread of theologic vengeance, that generated this double dealing with conviction; and it is astonishing to notice what lengths were allowed to men who were adroit in the use of artifices of this kind.

Toward the close of the stationary period a word-weariness, if I may so express it, took more and more possession of men's minds. Christendom had become sick of the School Philosophy and its verbal wastes, which led to no issue, but left the intellect in everlasting haze. Here and there was heard the voice of one impatiently crying in the wilderness, "Not unto Aristotle, not unto subtle hypothesis, not unto Church, Bible, or blind tradition, must we turn for a knowledge of the universe, but to the direct investigation of Nature by observation and experiment." In 1543 the epoch-marking work of Copernicus on the paths of the heavenly bodies appeared. The total crash of Aristotle's closed universe, with the earth at its centre, followed as a consequence, and "The earth moves!" became a kind of watchword among intellectual freemen. Copernicus was Canon of the church of Frauenburg in the diocese of - Ermeland. For three-and-thirty years he had withdrawn himself from the world, and devoted himself to the consolidation of his great scheme of the solar system. He made its blocks eternal; and even to those who feared it, and desired its overthrow, it was so obviously strong that they refrained for a time from meddling with it. In the last year of the life of Copernicus his book appeared: it is said that the old man received a copy of it a few days before his death, and then departed in peace.

The Italian philosopher, Giordano Bruno, was one of the earliest converts to the new astronomy. Taking Lucretius as his exemplar, he revived the notion of the infinity of worlds; and, combining with it the doctrine of Copernicus, reached the sublime generalization that the fixed stars are suns, scattered numberless through space, and accompanied by satellites, which bear the same relation to them that our earth does to our sun, or our moon to our earth. This was an expansion of transcendent import; but Bruno came closer than this to our present line of thought. Struck with the problem of the generation and maintenance of organisms, and duly pondering it, he came to the conclusion that Nature, in her productions, does not imitate the technic of man. Her process is one of unravelling and unfolding. The infinity of forms under which matter appears was not imposed upon it by an external artificer; by its own intrinsic force and virtue it brings these forms forth. Matter is not the mere naked, empty capacity which philosophers have pictured her to be, but the universal mother, who brings forth all things as the fruit of her own womb.

This outspoken man was originally a Dominican monk. He was accused of heresy and had to fly, seeking refuge in Geneva, Paris, England and Germany. In 1592 he fell into the hands of the Inquisition at Venice. He was imprisoned for many years, tried, degraded, excommunicated, and handed over to the Civil power, with the request that he should be treated gently, and "without the shedding of blood." This meant that he was to be burned; and burned accordingly be was, on February 16, 1600. To escape a similar fate Galileo, thirty-three years afterward, abjured upon his knees, with his hands upon the holy Gospels, the heliocentric doctrine, which he knew to be true. After Galileo came Kepler, who from his German home defied the ultramontane power. He traced out from pre-existing observations the laws of planetary motion. Materials were thus prepared for Newton, who bound those empirical laws together by the principle of gravitation.

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