Philosophy 74 - 4.3.7 The Rise of Reason in the Early Modern Era

Although scholars agree that the early modern era ended with the 1789 French Revolution, there is still much debate about when it began. Some mark the beginning as the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople that drove scholars of the East into the West, carrying with them knowledge of Islamic intellectual advances. Some look to the Age of Discovery sparked by the Ottoman victory and the subsequent closing down of European access to trade routes (Goldstone 2009). Others point to the 1543 publication of Nicolas Copernicus’s text On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, the heliocentric theory that proposed the solar system revolved around the sun. In philosophy, the early modern era is delineated by the rapid advancement of natural philosophy, which in turn sparked the scientific revolution. This development relied upon the ability of scholars and clerics to openly question religious orthodoxy as the sole, authoritative source of truth and to instead seek answers through human reason.

Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), born in Poland and raised by his uncle who was a bishop in the Catholic Church, matriculated from the University of Krakow. Although appointed a canon in the Catholic Church, he was able to continue his studies in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine at universities in Padua and Bologna in Italy. At the time, the Catholic Church espoused the ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the solar system, in which the sun and the planets revolve around Earth. However, Copernicus’s mathematical analysis of the astronomical data indicated that Earth and other planets revolved around the sun. As a canon in the Catholic Church, Copernicus feared to publish this data and sat on his discovery for over two decades. It was only after his colleague and friend Lutheran professor of mathematics Georg Joachim Rheticus published Copernican ideas in Narratio Prima in 1540 that Copernicus released On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543. In an attempt to shield himself and his work, he dedicated the manuscript to the pope.

Read Like a Philosopher

Read this excerpt from the preface of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, which was dedicated to Pope Paul III. How does Copernicus’s use of the word consensus shift the authority for truth from the church to natural philosophers?

Those who know that the consensus of many centuries has sanctioned the conception that the earth remains at rest in the middle of the heavens as its center, would, I reflected, regard it as an insane pronouncement if I made the opposite assertion that the earth moves. . . . Therefore, when I considered this carefully, the contempt which I had to fear because of the novelty and apparent absurdity of my view, nearly induced me to abandon utterly the work I had begun.

Not a few other very eminent and scholarly men made the same request, urging that I should no longer through fear refuse to give out my work for the common benefit of students of Mathematics. Therefore I would not have it unknown to Your Holiness, the only thing which induced me to look for another way of reckoning the movements of the heavenly bodies was that I knew that mathematicians by no means agree in their investigation thereof.

Zera Yacob

Whereas Copernicus did not directly challenge church authority, the Ethiopian scholar Zera Yacob (1592–1692) did. Yacob, born in the district of Axum within the Ethiopian Empire, studied Christian, Jewish, and Islamic thought. Ethiopia had adopted Christianity as the state religion in 330 CE. The Christian kingdom resisted Islamic conquest for hundreds of years. By 1540, however, Ahmed Gragn, supported by the Ottoman Empire based in Turkey, succeeded in capturing much of the kingdom. The Ethiopian emperor then appealed to Portugal for support. Portugal sent troops that helped Ethiopia regain its territory. In the years that followed, Jesuit missionaries from Portugal arrived in Ethiopia and converted Emperor Susenyos from Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity to Catholicism. When Ethiopian Emperor Susenyos declared Catholicism the state religion in 1622, a civil war broke out. Yacob was forced to flee to the countryside. There, he composed much of Hatata (Inquiry), published in 1668 after the emperor’s death.

Although deeply religious, Yacob argued against the supremacy of one religion over another. Rather, he counseled that we must rely on reason to evaluate religious tracts and traditions—and in this way, reach God. For Yacob, God is not only the master of all things, but he also understands all things: “He is intelligent who understands all, for he created us as intelligent from the abundance of his intelligence” (Yacob 1976, 8). God had a purpose in creating humans as intelligent beings, and that purpose was for humans “to look for him and to grasp him and his wisdom in the path he has opened for [them] and to worship him as long as [they] live” (Yacob 1976, 8).

The method of inquiry Yacob proposed echoes the ideas of Augustine and Aquinas. It involves reflection, observation, and connecting to a God-given light, our reason. Yacob explained that “he who investigates with the pure intelligence set by the creator in the heart of each man and scrutinizes the order and laws of creation, will discover the truth” (Yacob 1976, 9). However, using scrutiny and reason, Yacob rejected some religious doctrine, in a manner that Augustine and Aquinas would have seen as sacrilegious. He discarded all beliefs that he judged to not agree with the “wisdom of the creator,” which he said we can know by observing “the order and laws of creation.” While accepting Moses as a prophet, Yacob rejected the stories of the miracles Moses is said to have performed. Similarly, Yacob called into question Mohammed’s miracles. Yacob believed that in the beginning, God had established the laws by which the world worked. Why would God violate his own laws by allowing some individuals to perform miracles? In Yacob’s view, the stories of these miracles arose instead from false human understanding.

Yacob, Copernicus, and others had to challenge religious authorities in arguing for a truth based on reason, mathematical logic, and scientific observation. However, by the 18th century, governments began to embrace these methods and establish schools and institutes to expand knowledge of the natural world. This period of change is known as the Enlightenment. This process, as well as the rapid development and implementation of new technologies and the spread of capitalism, is often referred to as modernization.

Much of the remainder of this text examines the ideas of thinkers who lived during the Enlightenment as well as later in the modern era. They laid out the foundations for scientific inquiry, laid down the arguments for government based on popular representation rather than divine rule, and proposed economic systems designed to create wealth, which freed societies from feudal bonds. In doing so, these thinkers studied the works of classical and medieval philosophy while advancing ideas about metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics that this text examines in the chapters that are to come.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax