Three stories from the Renaissance

This follows on from a previous post, Some notes on western civilization.

Successful myths are powerful and often partly true. Myth is an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined, in patterns that reinforce a culture’s deepest values and aspirations… Myths are so fraught with meaning that we live and die by them. They are the maps by which cultures navigate through time.
– Ronald Wright, ‘A Short History of Progress’, p4

Some stories are repeated over and over until they become true. In fact they become obviously true; they become the kind of truth that rarely needs to be said, and so spends most of its time just floating around as a background assumption. They become so familiar that it takes a surprisingly large mental effort to drag them out of the background and into the foreground of our thoughts.

Stories like this aren’t necessarily historically incorrect, but they probably present the past in a particular light, highlighting certain things and leaving certain other things out.

Several important stories about western civilization are set in the time of the Renaissance, or roughly 1300-1700. (That is not to say the stories were written in that period; most were written a century or two after the events they describe.)

Here are some stories:

  • The story of the Italian Renaissance painters: Starting in the 1300s, Italian artists created a new artistic style, imitating the style of artworks from ancient Rome, and became adept at realistically showing three-dimensional perspective on a two-dimensional canvas. The new style spread throughout Europe and the Renaissance painters created the greatest artworks the world has ever known.

    A painting showing a naked man reaching out to touch the hand of God (a man with a white beard surrounded by angels).
    ‘The Creation of Adam’, part of Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel in Rome, Italy. It is objectively the greatest painting the world has ever known.
  • The story of Renaissance Humanism: In the 1300s, books by Aristotle and other ancient Greek philosophers became available in Europe. European scholars reading the new-old works for the first time, were impressed that the ancient thinkers had given free rein to their powers of reason and imagination, without being confined by tradition or religious orthodoxy. They created a movement called Humanism which quickly spread throughout Europe, emphasizing individual liberty, reason, and the power of the human intellect.

  • The story of the Scientific Revolution: European scientists took up where ancient Greek natural philosophers such as Aristotle and Ptolemy had left off a thousand years before in their quest to understand the natural world. It began in 1543 when Copernicus argued that the sun and not the earth lay at the center of the solar system. This idea changed the way people thought about the cosmos (i.e. they no longer thought they were at the center of it, with the planets, sun and stars all orbiting around them). The culmination of the Scientific Revolution was in 1687, when Isaac Newton showed that the motion of the planets is governed by the same kind of force (gravity) as the motion of a thrown object here on earth, and that all bodies move according to the famous equation FORCE = MASS * ACCELERATION. Some other key figures along the way were Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo. These early scientists emphasised the importance of observation and experiment and developed the Scientific Method which is still the cornerstone of scientific research today. They insisted that theology and natural science should be separate fields of study, and that religious beliefs should not guide the direction of natural science research. (This seems obvious to us, but at the time the notion that there were different kinds of knowledge, which should be kept separate from one-another, was strange and controversial).

The parts that got left out

The Renaissance stories are not exactly false, but they do leave some crucial information out, for instance:

  • The Humanist philosophy that appeared in fourteenth-century Europe was built upon an older, Arabic-language tradition of using reason, logic, and empirical observation to make sense of the world. Like the European Christian thinkers who would come after them, Islamic world thinkers such as Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Averroes and Avicenna revered Aristotle as the greatest philosopher the world had ever known. They studied, translated, and commented upon Aristotle’s works, refined his ideas, and also wrote entirely new philosophical works, all of which would be eagerly read by European Humanists.

    Averroes (left) and Avicenna: two Aristotelian philosophers of the Islamic world whose ideas influenced the European Christian Humanist philosophers.
  • European scientists such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton were the successors to an earlier scientific and intellectual flowering which began in Bagdad in the 800s, in which early scientists of the Islamic world such as Al-Kindi, Al-Khwarizmi, Al-Razi, Ibn Al-Haytham and Al-Biruni emphasised the use of empirical observations and careful measurements to understand the natural world. In the 800s Caliph Al-Ma’mun ordered several large-scale research projects to be carried out, for example: measuring the positions of the sun, moon and stars in order to create more accurate astronomical tables, and painstakingly measuring out the north-south distance corresponding to one degree of latitude (with latitude determined using the positions of the stars) in order to calculate the diameter of the earth. These projects brought together teams of astronomers, geographers and other experts to carry out careful, repeated, systematic measurements. As Jim Al-Khalili points out in his book ‘Pathfinders: the Golden Age of Arabic Science’, these projects were an early example of large-scale, collaborative, government-funded research. (By contrast, Aristotle and the rest of the famous philosophers of ancient Greece were members of an aristocratic class, with inherited land and wealth, who funded their own research.)

    Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (left) was a Persian astronomer whose work influenced the European astronomer Copernicus (right).
  • Mathematics: if Copernicus, Newton, Galileo and the rest of them had truly picked up where Aristotle, Ptolemy, and other ancient Greek thinkers had left off they would have had to use clunky, difficult-to-work-with Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV… ) instead of the much sleeker Hindu-Arabic number system (0, 1, 2, 3, 4… ) which includes the concept of decimal places and, crucially, the number zero. They would have had an extensive knowledge of geometry, thanks to the ancient Greeks, but they would have had to do without algebra or any form of abstract mathematics.

A painting of Isaac Newton with bright pink text saying: 'You think I invented calcuslus without learning algerbra first? Haha, NOPE!'
A drawing of Al-Khwarizmi, with purple text that says: "Oh, you haven't hear of me? That's OK, I didn't invent anything important. Just, y'know, ALGEBRA."

The fable of Western Civilization

In the previous post I described the fable of Western Civilization, a silly story where a mysterious character called Western Civilization springs up out of nowhere in ancient Greece, continues on through ancient Rome, becomes Christian, goes to sleep for a thousand years, then wakes up in western Europe sometime around the year 1400.

The Renaissance stories fit nicely into this fable.

An illustration from an old book of fairytales: it shows a pretty young woman wearing a blue dress and a golden crown, lying asleep against a pillow.
Western Civilization, like Sleeping Beauty, is a fairy-tale character who falls into an enchanted slumber that lasts for many years.

An important part of the fable, which is never overtly stated but always strongly implied, is the idea that Western Civilization is unique, separate, and different from everyone else. It seems that the stories our culture tells about itself leave out all the parts where we gain knowledge from cultures that we do not think of as being “western”.

If you read the history of the Renaissance and you read between the lines a bit, it’s easy to see how the stories came to be written this way, with certain parts included and other parts left out. Renaissance humanists eagerly read works by philosophers of other religions and nationalities, but not all European Christians had such an open-minded approach. Many church officials held the view that all truth derived from the church, the Pope, the bible, and ultimately from God, and therefore they suspected that any knowledge gained from non-Christians was heretical. The Inquisition could arrest and torture people merely on the suspicion that their Christian beliefs might not be orthodox enough, so it’s not surprising that European thinkers played down their Muslim and Jewish sources, and emphasized the one external source of ideas that seemed comparatively harmless: the ancient Greeks.

It’s less easy to see why these stories have lasted so long. Anyone with a library card, access to Wikipedia and some time on their hands can find out that the familiar stories of the Renaissance, Humanism, and the Scientific Revolution are, if not exactly wrong, then at least seriously misleading and incomplete. There have probably been plenty of opportunities to correct these stories yet they have survived uncorrected, and continue to form a familiar part of popular culture. There must be some purpose that these stories serve, some function they fulfill, in order for them to have been repeated so faithfully through the years right up to the present day.


‘Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science’ by Jim Al-Khalili, 2010.

‘Science: A Four Thousand Year History’ by Patricia Fara, 2009.

‘The Medieval Experience’ by Francis Oakley, 1979.

‘The Birth of a New Physics’ by I. Bernard Cohen, 1960.

‘Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World’ edited by Francis Robinson, 1996.