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Ruth’s Reviews: God’s Philosophers – James Hannam

God's Philosophers.jpgRuth Francis, Nature’s Head of Press, is reviewing all the entries shortlisted for the Royal Society’s science book prize. She’ll be reading one per week and posting her thoughts on The Great Beyond every Friday between now and the prize ceremony on 21 October.

Far from their reputation as ‘dark’, the Middle Ages were a period of huge technological and cultural advance. So argues James Hannam in his vivid depiction of the 11th to 17th centuries.

God’s Philosophers condenses six hundred years of history and brings to life the key players who pushed forward philosophy and reason.

Along with debunking the ‘Dark Ages’ myth, one of Hannam’s key arguments is that the church was not as anti-science as is now commonly understood. Many of the book’s cast of characters were church figures, including the famous philosopher Thomas Aquinas who was so devout he eschewed all honours the church tried to give him and remained a humble friar throughout his life. His most famous work Summa Theologiae is still considered a classic.

Aquinas was made a saint, but others were punished by the church. One heretical thinker, Amaury of Bene, was not only forced to recant his beliefs but three years after his death was dug up and burned along with some of his unrelenting followers.

Rich with such stories, this book describes often short, dramatic lives while reminding us just how far society travelled in Europe between the time of the Norman conquest of England and the trial of Galileo.

In his conclusion Hannam suggests: “It would be wrong to romanticise the period and we should be very grateful that we do not have to live in it. But the hard life that people had to bear only makes their progress in science and many other fields all the more impressive. We should not write them off as superstitious primitives.”

This period has been poorly documented, and I think this makes Hannam’s account all the more extraordinary. It is engaging, informative and I heartily recommend it.

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    CathyBy said:

    A comment on Aquinas – while he was canonised 50 years after his death, his work based on Aristotle was opposed in his lifetime and some of his propositions condemned immediately after it. Even for future saints scholarship wasn’t peaceful.

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    Earl Wajenberg said:

    Aquinas’ situation has some analogies to that of moderns who are “fans” of both religion and science. He and his fellow early Scholastics had to find a way to reconcile doctrine with philosophy. One solution he resolutely rejected was the idea of separating “philosophical truth” and “religious truth.” There is only truth, Aquinas insisted. “All truth is God’s truth.” This didn’t make things easy, but it kept people interested in what was true, even in matters far removed from prosaic life.

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    Charles Freeman said:

    I agree with you, Ruth, that Hannam’s book is engaging but it has major academic weaknesses about which I have written on the New Humanist blog.Charles Freeman

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    sohbet said:

    was a victim of malaria when I was young. Then when I got older and the 2nd World war was over, it appears that I did not experience malaria episode any more. I believe Chinese herbal medicine for marlaria is still effective for malaria because they have used them for centuries.

    Why not looking into Chinese herbal medicine as potential alternative to the new drug!

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