Was Christianity responsible for the death of Greek science?

The Claim

Early Muslims repeatedly claimed for polemical purposes that Christianity brought Greek science to an end.1 2 3 This view has become commonly accepted,4 though the reality is different. 5

Dating the Decline

Although estimates vary, historians of science typically agree that the decline of Greek science started before the Christian era.6 7 Farrington dates the decline from the 4th century BCE, 8 Seitz likewise,9 Ceccarelli from the end of the Alexandrian era in the next century (3rd century BCE),10 Rana from 120 BCE,11and Toulmin and Goodfield from around the same era.12

Reasons for the Decline

Though reasons for the decline of Greek science involve a complex interplay of factors, historians of science suggest a range of causes which have nothing to do with Christianity.

Devreese and Berghe identify a stagnation in Greek science resulting from the uncritical systematization of previous research, which was accepted without challenge, stifling further development.13

The same suggestion is made by Cohen,14 Pedersen,15 and Toulmin and Goodfield.16 Toulmin and Goodfield also note that increasing emphasis on the pagan mythological worldview, with its worship of the heavens and its religious explanations for natural phenomena, caused Greek science to lose ground. 17 18 19 20

Succeeding pagan philosophical systems contributed to disinterest in scientific enquiry during the Roman era.21 Similarly, Olson identifies Greek ideological reasons for the scientific decline.22

Lloyd, Cohen, and Gazale likewise suggest Greek science reached its limits for reasons within Greek civilization itself.23 24 25 Lloyd’s comments include criticism of the pagan Greek cosmology and mythology, which led scientific inquiry into errors such as geocentrism.26 27 Haffner makes the same observation.28 29

  1. ‘Like the Hellenes of late antiquity, who were convinced that the rise of Christianity meant the end of Greek science,77 Muslim authors blamed the decline of science and philosophy on the Christianization of the Roman empire.’, El-Cheikh, ‘Byzantium Viewed by the Arabs’, p. 106 (2004). []
  2. ‘Writing in the Almohad court, Abu Yahya b. Mas’ada similarly places the blame for the decline of science on Constantine the Great:’, ibid., p. 108. []
  3. ‘They all stress that the decline began in the fourth century A.D. and that Christianity was its root cause.’, ibid., p. 108. []
  4. ‘The common assumption has been that Christianity was anti-intellectual, preferring faith instead of knowledge, and this was responsible for the decline of science from which it did not recover for a millennium’, Lestrel, ‘Morphometrics for the Life Sciences’, p. 66 (2000). []
  5. ‘This is an oversimplification, as the picture is considerably more complicated (Lindbe, 1992).’, ibid., p. 66. []
  6. ‘Nevertheless, it is agreed by most historians of ancient science that creative Greek science was on the wane, perhaps as early as 200 B.C., certainly by A.D. 200.‘, Lindberg, ‘Science and the Early Church’, in Lindberg & Numbers, ‘God and Nature: historical essays on the encounter between Christianity and science’, p. 30 (1986). []
  7. At the end of the second century, when the great Hellenistic kingdoms declined, falling directly or indirectly under the sway of Rome, science seems to have fallen into a state of stagnation. True, the Greek part of the Roman Empire would witness the rise to fame of such great scientists as the physician Galen and the geographer and astronomer Ptolemy, but the golden age of Greek science and, for that matter, of Greek philosophy, had passed.’, UNESCO, ‘History of Humanity: From the seventh century B.C. to the seventh century A.D.’, p. 199 (1996). []
  8. ‘Benjamin Farrington, Greek Science (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), would push the decline of Greek science even earlier, to the fourth century BC.’, Lindberg, ‘Science and the Early Church’, ibid., p. 45. []
  9. ‘The highly innovative period of Greek science which lasted from about 500 BC to about 300 BC and, in a very real sense reached something in the nature of a termination with the rejection of Aristarchus’ solar-centered planetary system, was followed not so much by stagnation as by ferment of a very different kind from that which had taken place earlier.’, Seitz, ‘The Science Matrix: the Journey, Travails, Triumphs’, p. 22 (1998). []
  10. The end of the Alexandrian era marked the eclipse of the ancient Greek science, and the systematic study of the design of machines became stagnant for a long period of time.’, Ceccarelli, ‘Distinguished Figures in Mechanism and Machine Science’, p. 5 (2007). []
  11. After about 120 BC, the Greek Science started to lose its originality. Little of worth was produced after 200 A.D.’, Rana, ‘Geographical Thought: A systematic record of evolution’, p. 50 (2004). []
  12. It was not only that the first enthusiasm had gone: in addition, from 100 B.C. on, men began to doubt more and more whether after all rational inquiry alone could uncover the workings of the Heavens. And since this problem had been something of a touchstone for natural philosophy, failure in this direction had wider repercussions.’, Toulmin & Goodfield, ‘The fabric of the heavens: the development of astronomy and dynamics’, p. 130 (1999). []
  13. ‘One of the reasons why Greek science came to a halt is that the ideas of leading philosophers were accepted as decisive, while empirical tests were barely pursued.’, Devreese & Berghe, ”Magic is no magic’: the wonderful world of Simon Stevin’, p. xiv (2008). []
  14. In short, after A.D. 200 much effort is being spent on preserving the results of scientific inquiry achieved in earlier times, but (with the sole exceptions of Diophantos in the 3rd, Proklos in the 4th, and Philoponus in the 6th century A.D.) the original spirit of fresh research has meanwhile been lost.’, Cohen, ‘The Scientific Revolution: a historiographical inquiry’, p. 253 (1994). []
  15. Backed by their enormous library, Alexandrian scholars turned more and more to the systematization of past results. They were brilliant compilers, editors, and encyclopedists. Only Ptolemy’s eminent and creative work in astronomy is an exception. When with the advent of Plotinus (third century A.D.) neo-Platonist philosophy captured the minds of creative thinkers, the tide had turned. Later commentators like Proclos or Johannes Philoponus might occasionally venture new ideas of lasting value, and the writings of Simplikios must be regarded as an original contribution, as well as useful to a better understanding of traditional doctrines; but, in general, Hellenistic science had become stagnant.’, Pedersen, ‘Early Physics and Astronomy: A historical introduction’, p. 151 (1993). []
  16. ‘Greek astronomers began to limit their ambitions, and to concentrate on doing those things that they were already good at doing. They became satisfied with making small amendments to existing mathematical theories; filling in details rather than branching out in new directions. Since the progress of science demands that we should always be trying to solve the problems that have so far defeated us, and not just go on applying the techniques we already have, later Greek scientists in this way contributed positively to the decline of their subject.’, Toulmin & Goodfield, ‘The fabric of the heavens: the development of astronomy and dynamics’, pp. 130-131 (1999). []
  17. ‘By A.D. 200, astrology had recovered all the ground it ever lost, and had effectively displaced rational astrophysics.’, ibid., p. 130. []
  18. ‘Compare Ptolemy’s position, as stated here, with the attitudes of the earlier Greek natural philosophers. We are half-way back to the Babylonians.’, ibid., p. 143 (1999). []
  19. ‘The original Greek ambition to explain heavenly happenings in terms of causes familiar to us on Earth has been abandoned.’, ibid., p. 144. []
  20. ‘Aristotle’s physical distinction between the changeable Earth and the changeless Heavens was now taken with full theological earnestness; things in the Heavens were once again made objects of worship, as they had been in Babylonian times;’, ibid., p. 145. []
  21. ‘The Stoics had some valuable scientific ideas, particularly in connection with matter-theory, but for many of them the Divinity of the Heavens – which for Aristotle was a theoretical insight – was important rather as a profound religious truth. On this basis, some of them even built up a sophisticated kind of star-worship, teaching that a man’s soul escaped at death from his body, to be reunited with his own personal star. (Plate 5.) They believed that all natural events were causally determined, but this belief encouraged not scientific enquiry so much as faith in divination. Among the Romans, the serious alternative to Stoicism was the philosophy of Epicurus. This doctrine did no more than Stoicism to encourage scientific work: if anything, the Epicureans were even less interested in questions of astronomy. They turned men’s attention right away from the Heavens, arguing that what went on in the sky was of no concern to men, whose proper business was with the problems of life on this Earth. The Roman poet Lucretius, who popularized Epicurus’ views in the first century B.C., even dismissed the idea of the Antipodes and treated the sphericity of the Earth – which had been a commonplace in Athens for several centuries – as an entirely unproved speculation.’, ibid., p. 147. []
  22. ‘But among the significant factors, one must surely acknowledge the fact that for ideological reasons, Greek scientists seldom sought ways of developing practical consequences from their discoveries.’, Olson, ‘Science Deified and Science Defied: The Historical Significance of Science Vol. 1: From Bronze Age to the Beginnings of the Modern Era, ca 3500 B.C. to A.D. 1640’, p. 144 (1983). []
  23. ‘It is far from self-evident that Greek science, on the eve of its decay, still possessed an inherent capability for further growth. Rather, there are signs that Greek science had indeed reached the limits set to its natural progress:’, Cohen, ‘The Scientific Revolution: A historiographical inquiry’, p. 396 (1994). []
  24. ‘Altogether, to the small extent that Lloyd seeks to explain the lack of continuous growth displayed by Greek thought on nature, he ascribes it to “the weakness of the social and ideological basis of ancient science.”’, ibid., pp. 253-254. []
  25. ‘That view is not entirely fair, and the decline of Greek science should not be attributed solely to the Roman conquest. Its seeds must be sought within the Greek civilization itself. According to L. Brunschwig, “The science of antiquity lacked what we regard today as the very condition of knowledge: the connection between calculation and physical experimentation.”‘, Gazale, ‘Number: from Ahmes to Cantor’, p. 37 (2009). []
  26. ‘Nevertheless, despite the fertility in ideas, and despite the development of criteria and methods, the dominant cosmological view remained anthropocentric. The victory of geocentricity over heliocentricity was both a symptom and a cause of this.’, Lloyd, ‘Methods and Problems in Greek Science: Selected Papers’, p. 161 (1993). []
  27. ‘The anthropocentrism of Greek cosmology and science is in certain respects at least, a weakness.’, ibid., p. 162. []
  28. ‘The fundamental reason for the stillbirth of science in ancient Greece was a world view ‘steeped in the idea of eternal cycles.’ According to Aristotle, everything general, including ideas, recurred cyclically, and this undermined the concept of time.’, Haffner, ‘The Mystery of Reason’, p. 155 (2001). []
  29. ‘The Great Year was a circular barrier for the Greek mind and deprived it of insights and aspirations which were necessary for the growth of science.’, ibid., p. 155. []

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