Craig Martin, Subverting Aristotle: Religion, History and Philosophy in Early Modern Science

Craig Martin, Subverting Aristotle: Religion, History and Philosophy in Early Modern Science (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2014) 272 pp. $54.95 Hb, EPUB, MOBI, PDF. ISBN: 9781421413167

Craig Martin sets out to provide an account of early modern anti-Aristotelianism as fundamentally informed by Christian piety. This thesis is important, and the book is full of worthy research. However, the richness of his topic overwhelms the author’s discussion.

Martin begins with the fundamental problem of Christianized Aristotelianism: Aristotelianism wasn’t Christian. Neither, that is, in its philosophers - Muslims (Avicenna and Averroes) and pagans (Alexander, Theophrastus, and The Philosopher himself, Aristotle); nor in their philosophies. The eternity of the world, the unicity of the soul, and the non-conceptuality of God were just three of the major Peripatetic positions that clearly clashed with scripture. Martin outlines three medieval Catholic strategies in response: (i) reject Aristotelianism outright (Bonaventure); (ii) recognize religion and natural philosophy as fundamentally separate domains (Albertus Magnus); or (iii) synthesize and compromise, with the help of the flexible Avicenna (Thomas Aquinas). Thomas, as is well known, won. Martin’s account of the fourteenth-century Scholastic settlement is clear and useful. However, he gives no attention to the underlying question of why the Church needed to grapple with Aristotle in the first place.

A hint is given in Martin’s second chapter, where Martin describes later attacks on Scholasticism from Petrarch and his school. Relatively uninterested in natural-philosophical inquiry tout court, humanists had little reason to make excuses for Aristotelian impiety. Instead, and motivated by loathing for Scholastic style, they were were free to polemicize along Bonaventuran lines. Since Averroes was understood as closer than Avicenna to the mind of The Philosopher, 'Averroist' emerges as an early-humanist epithet: it means a filthy, stupid, natural-philosophical plodder. All of which is very interesting, but confusing when it comes to Martin’s third chapter. Here, we are reminded that humanist influence on fifteenth-century Aristotelianism fostered the search for 'a purer Aristotle' - via Averroes. So the very movement that Petrarch co-founded tended toward the philosopher he excoriated. Doubtless, the apparent contradiction can be explained. But explanation is what one doesn’t find in Martin’s discussion.

In Martin’s next several chapters, while there are flashes of really wonderfully informative commentary, two dispiriting tendencies dominate. One is a kind of encyclopedism, as the author moves from period figure to period figure, giving a précis of each, under the vaguest possible logic of continuity or contrast. The other tendency is chronology, as Martin moves from century to century, phase to phase, just saying what he finds there. These procedures are better suited to bibliography than to analysis. Martin’s extremely eclectic data cry out for informative synthesis. But for the most part - until getting back to his main idea later in the book - Martin seems content just to present the data. It’s like a collection of beads in want of string.

In Chapter Five, Martin turns to Jesuit neo-Thomism, characterizing it in terms of a renewed insistence on the traditional settlement between a capacious Church and a Neoplatonized Avicenna. Averroes, the purer interpreter of Aristotle, was once more persona non grata. Meanwhile, there was to be no teaching of novel natural philosophy. One wonders whether this is entirely fair to, say, the world of the Collegio Romano; or how far we actually are here from very traditional narratives of Aristotelianism in the context of the Scientific Revolution. Nonetheless, the Jesuit settlement provided the basis, in Martin’s account, for the 'counter-attack' of the novatores. The wedge they were able to drive into existing natural philosophy was precisely Aristotelian impiety, scandalously covered up by the Society of Jesus under the aegis of Papist dogmatism. And thus, for Martin, the new science, far from being the escape of natural philosophy from the oppressive nest of faith, turns out to be an expression of Christian zeal.

This is an admirably revisionist claim about the role of faith in the emergence of scientific modernity. But there are several immediate problems. For one thing, Martin’s argument makes more sense in Protestant than in Catholic contexts. It is striking that Galileo, a very significant anti-Aristotelian with, shall we say, a complex relationship to the Church (and indeed to the Jesuits), is never discussed substantively in this book (though he is repeatedly mentioned in passing). For another thing, Martin is surely overstating the extent to which progressive seventeenth-century empiricism, perhaps especially in the English context, really was 'anti-Aristotelian,' or even anti-Scholastic, at all. We should never forget that Bacon, while criticizing 'the schoolmen' in The Advancement of Learning, dates the decline of knowledge from their getting eclipsed by humanists. Discussing John Wilkins’s and Seth Ward’s famous dressing-down of the schoolmaster John Webster in 1654, Martin finds the two Oxford dons making a neo-Thomistic move: Aristotle acknowleged God’s existence. Granted, as Martin points out, we can find Wilkins saying the opposite elsewhere. But does that mean that his 'real' position is, in an informative way, 'anti-Aristotelian'? I don’t think so.

Finally, Martin fails to make as strong a case as he wants for Christian faith as a genuinely motivating factor in whatever level of anti-Aristotelianism we find expressed by modernizing natural philosophers in the period. If we compare the three medieval meta-theories with which Martin began - Bonaventure’s, Albert’s, and Thomas’s - to seventeenth-century natural philosophy, what we find are echoes of Albert, not of Bonaventure. That is, while rejecting the Thomistic synthesis, the new thinkers don’t typically just play a religious trump. Rather, they typically call for a distinction, supposedly self-evident, between the respective purviews of faith and knowledge. So while Martin is claiming that Christian piety was a leading motivator for progressive anti-Aristotelians, it actually seems to be a zeal held under considerable control.

Moreover, those who are sceptical about Martin’s over-arching argument have a ready answer to it. Granted, sceptics can say, we will find many expressions of Christian piety emanating from proponents of the new empirical knowledge. But for the most part - they can go on - when we find this kind of talk in or around the emergence of the new science, we can discount it. For defending the faith is simply not what the new scientists, as such, are trying to do. Moreover, when the modernizers make Christian noises, noises are all they are making. In short, scientific condemnations of Aristotle as unChristian can be read as merely tactical. They establish bona fides (literally); but only in order to provide some necessary cover for new directions in natural-philosophical inquiry.

Martin has prepared no rejoinder for this predictable objection. If anything, he has furnished some ground for it. In his account of neo-Thomism, Martin cites numerous cases of Averroist natural philosophers altering or recanting their views under pressure from ecclesiastical authority. Later, Martin cites Hobbes as one of the new seventeenth-century voices passionately attacking Aristotle’s paganism - Hobbes, a Nicodemite tactician if ever there was one. The one argument Martin offers for the sincerity of anti-Thomistic piety in and around the new science is his citing of the example of Robert Boyle. But, for one thing, Boyle’s multiple Christian effusions are not themselves proof against scepticism, whether about Boyle’s sincerity, or about the productivity of his faith for his natural philosophy. For another, even if Boyle was pious, and that mattered for his thinking, that doesn’t prove anything about his peers in the movement for a new natural-philosophical empiricism.

Subverting Aristotle is a book that is not really able to deliver on its promise. It offers a lot of very useful and fine-grained research into the shifting fortunes of late-medieval and early-modern Scholasticism. But it never really synthesizes this research into a coherent or convincing argument.

J.D. Fleming, Simon Fraser University