Science, Romance and the Scientific Romance of Christendom

 A written version of the remarks given by John C Wright at the Franciscan University of Steubenville April 12th to the Science Fiction class of Dr Craig, at his invitation.

Being a lifelong fan of science fiction, and recent convert from the hardest of hardcore atheist to the hardest core of the Christian faith, Roman Catholicism, I am qualified to speak about both, and particularly about the role of Christianity in the development of science and of science fiction, and the role of science fiction in the imagination of Christendom.

I submit to your candid judgment that the science fiction story, or, as it is properly called, scientific romance, is the conflux of the roman or romance which was the unique cultural product of the Christian Middle Ages, and the scientific revolution, which was the unique cultural product of the Christian Middle Ages.

Further, I make the bolder and more outrageous claim that neither Scientific Romances nor Scientific Investigation can flourish for long in a non-Christian or postchristian cultural milieu, for the reason that both are based on uniquely Christian theological and metaphysical foundations. So I am saying not only is there not a war between science fiction section of the bookstore and the Church, I am saying that if the Church departs, the science fiction bookstore soon follows.

Unfortunately, since mine is merely a guest-lecture and not a semester-length course, where I perforce must argue my bold and outrageous claim with no time to give my reasons for each any every supporting bold and outrageous claims atop which my main claim rests. If any student would be kind enough to make a note of any bold and outrageous claims I might assert, I will do my manly best to give what proof or evidence allows me to support it in questions later.

Let me give my qualifications, such as they are, for my knowledge in both fields.

I enjoy such a potent degree of fame as a science fiction writer that my name is known everywhere my books are read. I mean everywhere, as far away as my basement and occasionally in my living room. My fame is such that there are members of my family who recognize my name after only a few reminders.

I completely kidding about that. No one in my family would read that sciffy stuff.

Anyway. In my youth I was an omnivorous reader of all things science fictional, reading two books a day, and my familiarity with the field was such that if I had not read an author writing in it, I had read a review. My knowledge was encyclopedic, and valuable memory space which could have been used for recollecting things like my phone number or the address of my house was taken up memorizing thinks like Isaac Asimov’s three rules of robotics. I say my knowledge of all things science fictional was rather than is encyclopedic, because after the success of STAR WARS, the field expanded beyond the ability of even a devout reader to keep abreast of it. Science fiction once was a haven, or, rather  a ghetto for geeks, whereas nowadays science fiction has largely upstaged the mainstream.

My qualification for speaking about Christianity is that I am the chief of sinners.

Having been granted particular grace, and saved, by openly supernatural means, miracles and visions and so forth, from continuing in the blind darkness of my atheism, and being required to investigate the claims of the various denominations in order to discover to which to attach my loyalties after my conversion, I made myself familiar with at least an amateur knowledge of apologetics and Christian history.

It behooves us to begin with definitions. What is science fiction? What is Christendom?

I submit that Christendom is the unique culture that arose from the blending of Jewish monotheism and Hellenic rationalistic philosophy to produce something never seen before or since: a society based on theological and ergo metaphysical principles. Christendom is to be distinguished from the Dar al-Islam, the House of Submission, which is monotheistic without being rationalistic or intellectual.

I submit that science fiction is the unique product of the industrial and scientific revolution which characterized the history of the West, by which I mean the history of Christendom, since the fall of the Roman Empire. Science fiction is the romance of the scientific age, or, if you like, the mythology which springs from the naturalistic world view of natural philosophy.

By naturalism, I mean the attempt to explain physical aspects of the cosmos without recourse to supernatural explanations. It is the black and white view of the world with the color pallet removed.

Science fiction would seem at first to be a paradox, that is, an attempt to restore to the black and white universe all the supernatural color drained out of it by the scientific method.

But, as any good scientists will tell you, and any honest science fiction writer, the process of science has nothing to do with the daydreams of science fiction, unless it we SF writers enjoy perhaps the humble role of a cheerleader or a popularize-er.

The reason why a natural philosopher, or, as they are now called, a physicist, does not concern himself with the supernatural explanations for things, ,the whys and wherefores, the moral meaning, the aesthetics, the theological ramifications, is that his method is deliberately limited to discovering the mechanics. He looks for the invariant relationships, or called, between the measurable phenomena of the causes of matter in motion and the effects of matter in motion. Imponderables are beyond the scope of his method. Philosophical ramifications are beyond the scope of his method. Ultimate meanings – or for that matter, any meaning at all – are beyond the scope of his method.

Subject matter to which these sharply limited methods cannot apply, such as, for example, human action or animal behaviors, are disciplines without being sciences properly so called. Sociology, for example, or psychology, except when dealing with neuropsychology, the medical aspects of brain actions, are called sciences only as a courtesy. You will discover more insight into human nature reading the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes than reading anything by Sigmund Freud.

But in the fields where they are free to act, the natural sciences made titanic, nay, unparalleled strides in Christendom, and created a technological civilization, the first in history.

Perhaps you have heard that the Chinese invented gunpowder and the Hindi invented the zero and Greeks invented geometry, and that therefore science is a universal property of all mankind.  A useful distinction is needed here. The Hellenistic and the Roman world invented many useful techniques for things we would now call technology, such as the aqueduct, or call science, as the theorem of Pythagoras, Ptolemaic astronomy. But science as such is an invention of the Middle Ages. Before that, the natural sciences were not investigated in any systematic way.

Perhaps you have heard that the Middle Ages were a time of backward barbarism, superstition and obscurantism. Why, and so it was, but the barbarians were coming from the south and east and north into Christendom. The social order, including such things as the monetary system and the central administration of the laws, did indeed collapse with the fall of the West, but neither the intellectual nor the technical flowering of the civilization slowed because of this. Christian civilization in the East proceeded as best as it could under the attacks of Mohammedanism. It is also fashionable these days to give the Mohammedan credit for the high culture and civilization that flourished from Andalusia to Alexandria. It is usually overlooked that Asia Minor, the Near East and Northern Africa was Christian, indeed, it was the Roman Empire, and, later, it was the Roman Empire of the East, and while it suffered a change of masters, it did not revert to barbarism or become renovated after the periods of conquest. The Jewish physicians and mathematicians in Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, for example, continued their studies just the same under the Imperators as under the Sultans, and the Christian scholars in Constantinople did not all vanish when her name was changed to Istanbul. A close examination of the period will reveal that the Muslim concentration within a population is proportional to the decline of scientific achievement.

The list of inventions created in the Middle Ages would exhaust the patience of an historian. I will mention only in passing a few off the top of my head: the stirrup, the spur, the horse collar, the horse shoe, the wheelbarrow, the chimney, the paper mill, windmills, escapement and clockworks, the pointed arch, the flying buttress, the jib sail, the stern-mounted rudder, the button, the steel crossbow, the quadrant, the almanac, the hour glass, the eyeglass, oil paintings, and most important of all, the university.

While all cultures, even the most primitive have learning, and all civilizations have scholars, only the Christians ever invented the university, an self governing institution solely devoted to the investigation of the trivium and quadrivium. It is not coincidence that to this day the terms used for logical syllogisms and logical fallacies are in Latin; it is no coincidence that the scientific names for everything from beasts to chemicals is in Latin, the language of science.

One of the astonishing things I discovered after my conversion, or at least, it was an astonishment to me, was that nearly everything I knew about history was false. When England and Germany broke away politically, religiously and culturally as much as they could from the rest of the European civilization, they did their level best to rewrite and reinterpret history into a revised form that denigrated all the accomplishments of the universal and ecumenical catholic Christian Church, and offer alternate explanations or alternate origins for her accomplishments.

Under this revised history, or, to be precise, mythology, the Roman Empire fell due to the invasion of virile outer barbarians racially distinct from the Imperial civilization, and everything from free elections to chivalry toward women sprang from the barbaric rather that civilized sources.

Moreover, according to this mythology, the Middle Ages were a time of magic, when men burned witches; whereas the previous Hellenic civilization was a time of enlightened investigation of the natural world, a time of logic and philosophy.

Allow me to quote from my fellow science fiction writer and good friend Mike Flynn:

The philosophers of the “Age of Reason” called the Middle Ages the “Age of Faith,” and claimed that because “God did it!” was the answer to everything, no one searched for natural laws. Some have since imagined a “war” between science and religion, and accused the medievals of suppressing science, forbidding medical autopsies, and burning scientists. Bad times for science and reason!

Or was it? In fact, the Middle Ages were steeped in reason, logic, and natural philosophy. These subjects comprised virtually the entire curriculum of the universities. The first medical autopsies were done in medieval Europe. And no medieval philosopher was ever prosecuted for a conclusion in natural philosophy. In his twelfth-century Dragmaticon, William of Conches wrote, “[They say] ‘We do not know how this is, but we know that God can do it.’ You poor fools! God can make a cow out of a tree, but has He ever done so? Therefore show some reason why a thing is so, or cease to hold that it is so.” Not even the “Age of Reason” could have said it better.


Well, the most famous philosopher of the Hellenic culture, Socrates, was condemned to death for his investigations, while Aristotle fled into exile. The Hellenes were a people soaked in magic and mysticism, to which the clean intellectualism of Christianity was a shocking and refreshing change. Julian the Apostate, eager to reintroduce the Old Religion, in order to foretell the outcome of his war in Persia, had a slave girl disemboweled and her entrails examined by haruspices, official readers of entrails.

The reason why we think of the Greek as logical and philosophical culture is that the monks of the Dark Ages carefully preserved the ancient writings concerning grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

The monks did not preserve the mystery religions, the mysticism, no more than did the Romans after the conversion of the Empire preserve the barbaric customs and traditions of their pagan fathers, such as slavery, gladiatorial combat, exposing unwanted infants, the right of the father to kill disobedient sons, temple prostitution, temple sodomy prostitution, and no fault divorce.

The people the Church persecuted were not scientists. She upheld and supported the sciences—it was not the secular power, after all, that funded and founded the universities, that was all done by the Church. The people the Church persecuted were astrologers and alchemists. By clearing the strangling underbrush of magic away, the Church is the only thing that permitted science to exist at all.

The Church crushed astrology to allow astronomy to flourish. The oldest astronomical observatory still in use anywhere in the world, significantly enough, is the Vatican observatory.

While much ado is made about the trial of Galileo, let it be recalled that this was during the Reformation.  And besides, he was not charged with teaching the theory of Copernicus (who was a Churchman in orders in any case), Galileo was charged with teaching that the Church did not have the power to interpret scriptures, which was the touchstone issue of the day.

The witch burnings and the alchemists and all the whole esoteric tradition comes from the Renaissance and later. The Witch hunts were a particular hallmark of Protestants who were in rebellion against the Church, and among the things they wished to discard was the intellectual tradition of the Greek, which was one of the two fountainheads of the Christian tradition.

It is true that Giordano Bruno was burned by the Church as a heretic. The philosophers of the so called Age of Reason held that this was because Bruno proposed that there were infinite worlds in infinite space. They dubbed him a scientist, and later, their epigones named a crater on the Moon after him in honor of his martyrdom to science. Bruno was actually a magician of the esoteric tradition, much more likely to regard the moon as a planetary intelligence shedding astrological influences rather than an astronomical body made of material substances.

Similar myths of martyrology are told about Hypatia of Alexandria, also allegedly a scientists flayed to death by science-hating Christians for daring to be a scientist. Some more imaginative people add she was killed for being a woman by woman-hating Christians. In reality she was one of the many people, Jewish or Christian or Pagan, killed for political reasons by mobs drunk on the partisan hatreds in the turbulent period—she was not killed for inventing the astrolabe (which she did not invent) but for creating mistrust between Orestes, the Imperial Roman Prefect, and Cyril the Patriarch.

During the Thirteenth Century, when the West was in a period historians by rights should call the First Scientific Revolution, in the Near East, despite their promising start, the Mohammedans managed to strangle off the beginnings of their own technological and scientific progress.

There are a number of reasons for this, but the main was that Christendom had a man named Aquinas, who in his Summa Theologica argued and convinced his culture to believe, that reason and faith are not at odds, and that the rational investigation of either revealed or investigated truth is part of the whole truth; whereas the House of Submission had a man named Al-Ghazali, who in his work called Incoherence of the Philosophers argued and convinced his culture to believe, that reason and faith are at odds, utterly incompatible. Incoherence denies secondary causation, even to the point that Al-Ghazali argues that fire does not burn cloth:

The agent of the burning is God, through His creating the black in the cotton and the disconnection of its parts, and it is God who made the cotton burn and made it ashes either through the intermediation of angels or without intermediation. For fire is a dead body which has no action, and what is the proof that it is the agent? Indeed, the philosophers have no other proof than the observation of the occurrence of the burning, when there is contact with fire, but observation proves only a simultaneity, not a causation, and, in reality, there is no other cause but God.

You cannot have the scientific investigation of chemistry, or even the pseudo-scientific investigation of alchemy, in a society convinced of the principle that there is one and only one cause for all effects.

This leads me to my first controversial point: Science arose in Christendom because it could arise nowhere else.

Allow me by way of introduction to quote again from the indispensable Mike Flynn

To summarize briefly, the Latins believed that:

  • The universe was rationally ordered because a single rational God had willed it into being,
  • This order was knowable by autonomous human reason by ‘measuring, numbering, and weighing’ (and reason could be trusted in this regard),
  • Matter could act directly on matter in “the common course of nature;” and because God was true to his promises, these actions were dependable and repeatable; and
  • The discovery of such relations was a worthwhile pursuit for adults.

They also embedded this pursuit in their culture through broad-based cultural institutions:

  • Creating independent, self-governing corporations in the social space between Church and State.
  • Accepting with enthusiasm the work of pagan philosophers and Muslim commentators and reconciling them with their religious beliefs.
  • Teaching logic, reason, and natural philosophy systematically across the whole of Europe in self-governing universities, in consequence of which:
  • Nearly every medieval theologian was first trained in natural philosophy, which created enthusiasm for rather than resistance to the study of nature.

Encouraged freedom of inquiry and a culture of “poking into things” by means of the Questions genre and the disputatio.

The reason it could arise nowhere else is that, while scientific breakthroughs are made by particular geniuses, and which refinements of technique are possible in any civilization, scientific progress itself is a orderly group effort, and must be sustained by the consensus of the general society. You cannot have a generally literate society, as Europe had in the Late Middle Ages, without a university system that enjoyed academic freedom.

Science or natural philosophy cannot be maintained by the consensus of society unless that same consensus accept the metaphysical and theological axioms on which natural science is based.

Much useless ink has been spilled in the attempts to place the epistemological basis of empiricism itself on an empirical basis, but for obvious reasons it cannot be done. Unlike my other bold and controversial statements, it is simply obvious that empiricism, which is a universal theory of the nature of that imponderable called knowledge, cannot be confirmed by the particular and concrete observations of things perceivable by the senses. You cannot prove a universal with particulars.

Metaphysics is by definition the investigation of the axiomatic assumptions of physics, and other philosophical disciplines. Again, it is uncontroversial because incontrovertible that one cannot have physics without metaphysics, and that the conclusions of metaphysics cannot be confirmed or denied by physics. For example, if you stepped into a universe where heavier weights fell faster than lighter, dropping two cannon balls off the leaning tower of Pisa would quickly and irrefutably demonstrate that fact. But if you stepped into a universe were there was no such thing as the law of cause and effect, assuming such a universe were imaginable, no experiment would either prove or disprove such a thing.

Indeed, one cannot believe that empiricism produces true knowledge until and unless one believes certain metaphysical axioms, including, among others, the axioms that

first, the a material world that is rationally ordered, and

second, that that human mind is rational and free and therefore is able to investigate the cosmos, by propounding logical theories, and assenting to the truth and dissenting from the false, and

and that, third, the cosmos operates by secondary causes in an orderly therefore predictable way.

By a secondary cause I mean that the First Cause, whatever or whoever is responsible for there being a cosmos rather than a nothingness, set in motion agents able themselves to set effects in motion. Empirical science is an investigation of these agents or secondary causes.

Despite the imaginative powers of the human race, the human mind cannot conceive of any but a few alternatives to Christianity, that is, to the immanent and transcendent monotheism of a rational and benevolent creator.

1. Paganism

The first alternative to the Christian worldview is magical thinking or paganism, such as classical polytheism, which proposes a non-transcendent world that there are secondary causes—every tree has its dryad and every stream its naiad—but no coherent primary cause to the universe. If there is no single first cause to the universe, there are no universal laws, and without a belief in universal laws, there can be no systematic investigation into the universal laws. It is for this reason primarily that the Greek philosophies never made the next step which seems natural to us, but incomprehensible to them, of systematizing their speculations, seeking evidence, or examining both sides of questions about natural philosophy in an atmosphere of open academic freedom.

2. Fatalism

A common devolution of polytheist thought is fatalism, which is the view that necessity determines all things, including the lives and deaths of the gods, which are, like man and beast, creatures younger that the world or springing for no reason from a primal chaos and to which they return. All things are fated, everything is inevitable, and nothing is worth doing. Ancient fatalists believed that astrological influences controlled all things and that men had no free will, and modern fatalists believe it is genetic influences, or nervous system mechanics, or ideological superstructures created by economic world-historical forces. Hinduism with its supine attitude to Karma and Dharma is the most obvious example of a fatalistic religion.

Marxism is an ideological modern and materialistic form of fatalism, as is Behaviorism and other attempts to reduce the human psyche to a mechanical explanation.

3. Mysticism

Another common evolution of polytheist thought is mysticism, such as Buddhism, which escapes from the endless suffering of Karma and Dharma by dismissing the world as an illusion, if not a trap.

The material world, whether rationally ordered or not, is not worth investigating, neither the natural world of physics nor the supernatural world of theology. In a famous passage in Buddhist holy writ, when the Enlightened One is asked by Vacchagotta the Wanderer whether the soul is eternal or whether the soul perishes, the Buddha answers him with silence, because the soul, being an illusion of the ego, can neither perish nor exist eternally. The issue that divides the Sadducees and the Pharisees in the Gospels cannot even be asked in the Buddhist world view. It would be like asking a Christian Scientist about the germ theory of disease.

4. Rigorist Monotheism

Another alternative is any rigorist theology that rejects the concept of secondary causes, since everything is done directly by the immediate will of God. Mohammedanism is the clearest and most obvious example of this alternate, but strains of it exist in other heterodoxies and heresies.

Paganism and Fatalism and Mysticism are pre-Christian; Rigorism is heretical or alternate-Christian; let me mention in order of decreasing dignity the post-Christian or non-Christian alternate world views.

5. Deism or Confucianism

An alternative, which is no real alternative at all, is not to be concerned with the question. This is the attempt to have a physics without a metaphysics, or to have a religious-ness without theology.

It is impossible, but what can be done is to have an inarticulate metaphysics, which will coast in the mind of the consensus of society, and can continue until it is seriously questioned. This is the stance of the so-called Enlightenment, and an abortive attempt to reduce divine revelation to natural reason, called Deism.

Deism never caught on in the West, albeit Thomas Paine did his level best to propagate it. But it is a more primitive and inarticulate philosophy than Christianity so it is hard for it to take root in Christianized soil.

In the East, the closest analogy to Deism is Confucianism, which is notoriously unconcerned with metaphysical speculation, and concerned with pragmatic material realities only.

The closest thing we have to official Deism is the Chaplin’s corps in the military, or the carefully undesignated Supreme Being to which the Boy Scouts are required by their Boy Scout law to which to be reverent. Of necessity these can express no alliance to anything but the most Erasmian and ecumenical of theological concepts.

6. Ideologies or Legalism

The next alternative springs from the degeneration of Deism. It is, oddly enough, is the most dangerous of all, because natural abhors a vacuum and so does supernature. By this I mean that when a society does not have an agreed theological and metaphysical consensus, an established Church culturally even in not legally, it will inevitably produce an ersatz or counterfeit version of theology.

This can take two forms: the legalism and ceremonial of the pre-Christian East is likely where there is no monotheism against which it must compete. The legalism of the Eastern jurists and philosophers following Confucius was so much like a religion, in that it demanded the whole man and governed every smallest aspect of life, that to this day many honest observers in the West categorize Confucianism as a religion.

In the West, counterfeit theology competes with the Christian worldview and is rightly called postchristian. And this is the unique cultural product of postchristian cults and cultures, otherwise known as an ideology.

An ideology is a theological consensus masquerading as either a political or economic theory. The masquerade is easily detected.

Theology concerns all reality, and the relation of reality to man. It has implications in all branches of philosophy, in ontology, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and so on. Economics is the discipline that studies the invariant relations or formal causes of market place exchanges. Real economists discuss things like the effect of tariffs on wage rates.

Ideologues posing as economists discuss things like their apocalyptic visions of the coming New Jerusalem or Utopia in which all oppressions and inequalities will be abolished after the law of supply and demand, and all other laws of cause and effect, are abolished by a worldwide bloodbath.

Real jurists or legal theorists discuss things like how best to order the laws as to preserve the public weal and encourage virtue in the citizens.

Ideologues posing as jurists discuss things that have no bearing whatsoever on the law, such as the spirit of the national character, or such as whether alleged climate changes are due to human industrial activity or whether the institution of marriage should celebrate homosexual unions. If these last two things sound like political rather than scientific or ethical or theological questions to you, it is because and only because you live in a society that has endured three generations or more of persuasion and propaganda, or, to be precise, missionary work from an ersatz  religion aka from various ideologies.

7 Nihilism

Because ideologies are ersatz religions, they will pall as soon as their various fanciful promises of utopia are discovered to be cynical falsehoods. The logical next step of devolution is called Nihilism, which is the metaphysical supposition that there is no such thing as metaphysics, nor, indeed, any truth of any kind.

This is not a philosophy but an attempt to live without philosophy, and, in truth, without thought.

Let me caution you that I do not mean despair. I am using the term in its technical sense and not the common meaning. By nihilism here I mean the inarticulate metaphysical position that holds that all metaphysical statements (including, one presumes, the speaker’s own) are false.

The statement that there are no truths if true, is false.

The idea that reality is what one makes of it sounds like an exhortation to be active in the determination of your own opinions and judgments, but it is, if treated with a logical consistency, a paradoxical statement that there is no truth. This gives a man, or the consensus of society, the choice, if he says it, either of rejecting the idea of truth or the idea of logical consistency.

It is something like a zen koan, a riddle meant to paralyze the thinkers ability to think, or, to be quite blunt, it is a willingness to reject reason and truth as part of a more general attempt to reject God.

* * *

So, in sum, the alternatives to Christianity are first, a magic as in classical polytheism, second, fatalism views such as in Hinduism, third, mysticism as in Buddhism, fourth, rigorist creeds as Mohammedanism, fifth and sixth a naturalistic theology as Deism or Confucianism, sixth ersatz theology as modern ideologies, and seventh being postmodernism which is more generally called nihilism.

Now, unwittingly, in listing the alternatives to Christianity, I have covered the philosophical and theological history of human thought in a few minutes. Be warned that any summation will be inaccurate and riddled with exceptions. Nowhere in my scheme do I make mention of Judaism, for example, nor did I mention where, or even whether, Taoism or Shinto or Stoicism would be fitted into the scheme.

I trust it is clear enough why none of these worldviews can coexist or even tolerate scientific rationalism.

1.     Magical thinking is antithetical to science because it rejects secondary causation, not to mention hostile on psychological grounds. You cannot worship the river god and dam the river.

2.     Fatalism does not reject the existence of science, but a logically consistent view of fatalism rejects the existence of the scientist.

Once you believe all your personality characteristics, opinions and judgments are determined primordially by stellar influences, as in astrology, or by genetic or subconscious neuropsycholigical programming (as in the pseudo-Freudian or pseudo-Darwinian ideology we can called Scientism or the worship of science) then all your judgments, including your scientific ones, are suspect.

3.     Mysticism rejects not only the scientific study of the cosmos, but all of the cosmos perceived by the senses as deception, and, in a logically consistent form of mysticism such as Buddhism, rejects the perceiver as well.

4.     Rigorism rejects science, or any study of secondary causes, as offensive to the untrammeled majesty of God.

5.     Deism can coexist with science until and unless its inarticulate metaphysical principles are questioned logically. It can coast on the fumes of the Christian world view as long as the social vehicle is rolling downhill and meets no obstruction.

6.     Ideologies would seem at first to be compatible with scientific progress, particularly since one of the main, if not the main, ideology of the postchristian West has been an idolatrous worship of science, or the attempt to substitute physics or panphysicalism for theology.

In reality nothing is deadlier to true scientific progress than the idolatrous worship of science. You cannot both worship science and study science for the same reason you cannot both worship the river god and dam the river. It is logically impossible for a thing to be an end in and of itself and of supreme value in and of itself, which any object of worship must by definition be; and at the same time and in the same sense to be a useful intermediate value for the sake of some higher end, merely a means to a goal.

The example of Lysenko in Soviet Russia, that most scientific of scientific socialist paradises, is explicit, and is consequently almost unknown in the West. Lysenko revised biology according to approved Marxist politically correct thought, without regard to what the biological data, the evidence of the senses, contradicted. Everything was analyzed into Hegelian terms of thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

The madness of Lysenko was seen in this students. In the 1920s the Soviet biologist Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov carried out breeding experiments attempting to cross breed humans and apes to produce a hybrid creature to serve as a super soldier. The mere fact that this sounds like a science fiction story, and a bad pulp-paperback science fiction story at that, tells you something of the intellectual and moral degradation that accompanies those worship science and prostitute science to ideology, rather than do science.

The upshot of Lysenkoism is that Soviet scientists were simply not allowed to come to conclusions, no matter what the data said, which disagreed with Lysenko and his apostles.

The recent debacle when it was revealed that the United Nations panel on Climate Change had been deliberately deceived by scientists from East Anglia University, who falsified their climate data, destroyed the evidence, and used underhanded pressure to silence any dissent is an manifestation of the same philosophy in action.

All ideologies, by their very nature, are false, because they pretend not to be religions, but they extend to every aspect and nuance of life, just as a religion does. But because ideologies rest on something other than a claim of divine revelation, all must assert a particular set of politically correct truths which are sacrosanct, and not to be examined, questioned, or held up to skepticism. It is theology as performed without theological discussion or debate or dissent. By its very nature, political correctness is not factual correctness and is hostile to it. Science, on the other hand, by its very nature is concerned only with factual correctness, not with the pieties of political correctness.

7.     Nihilism, is the final devolution of human philosophy and theology to nothingness.

If there is some stage to the degradation of philosophy beyond the insolent and paradoxical rejection of all philosophy, all I can say is that as a philosopher I am unable to conceive it and as a science fiction writer I am unable to imagine it. If these are not the End Times of which the Apocalypse of John darkly describes, they are at least a halt state in the intellectual progress of mankind.

Nihilism, in case you have not noticed, is the default metaphysical consensus of the modern day, it is activity taught in our academies, promoted and propagated in our popular entertainments, and slowly but surely being enforced with legal sanctions. To speak out, for example, against the nihilist position that all sexual passions have no moral aesthetic or legal meaning other than what the individual chooses to assign to them is already classified as a hate crime, if you are unwise enough to identify a particular practice as a sexual perversion, or ask that it not be celebrated and taught to your children.

No legal sanction, at present, underpins the aesthetic nihilism which says that beauty does not exist, except as an arbitrary assignment of meaning in the eye of the beholder, but then again, legal sanction is not necessary, since modern art, which has been devoted absolutely and consistently for a century to promoting this nihilism, is supported by the public tax dollars. The idea that ugliness is precisely the same as beauty is the unspoken yet official aesthetic theory of the established governments of the West.

Now let us in the short time remaining mention the relation of these philosophies to their aesthetic expressions in literature, particularly that genre called science fiction. Let us go down the list backward:

1.     Nihilism, in case you have not noticed, is almost insufferably boring. It is boring to write about and boring to read, because it is literally about nothing.

2.     Ideological literature is sufferably boring, not quite as boring as nihilism, because at least ideological literature can be monotonously concerned with the one-note theme of whatever the ideologue is attempting to propagate. Under a society controlled by an ideology, the political correctness must influence, then censor, and then expurgate any artistic merit from the society. All art becomes propaganda. Do I need to give examples why politically correct literature and stories are boring, or is it obvious enough from your own encounters with it? Artists are by divine muses commanded to serve the truth, and political correctness is commanded by the mundane powers that be to serve the untruths that serve the interests of the party.

3.     Deist literature is what is called Modernism or Mundanism. The basic principles of modernism are that no story should involve any wonders or splendor, nor take place in exotic locations, nor involve heroism except unless leavened by a sense of futility or irony, and should be realistic—and realistic the Modernist means the artificiality of having a plot with a beginning and a middle and an end must be done away with. The other arts in the Deist or Modernism world view suffer from similar attempts to destroy formality and beauty, which is why Modem sculpture neither uplifts nor even represents anything, and why Modern poetry isn’t poetical.

Allow me to quote from my fellow science fiction author Dave Wolverton:

William Dean Howells was the “Father of Modern Realism,” who was an editor for The Atlantic Monthly from 1866-1876.

He claimed that authors had gone astray by being imitators of one another rather than of nature. He proscribed writing about “interesting” characters–such as famous historical figures or creatures of myth. He decried exotic settings–places such as Rome or Pompeii, and he denounced tales that told of uncommon events. He praised stories that dealt with the everyday, where “nobody murders or debauches anybody else; there is no arson or pillage of any sort; there is no ghost, or a ravening beast, or a hair-breadth escape, or a shipwreck, or a monster of self-sacrifice, or a lady five thousand years old in the course of the whole story.” He denounced tales with sexual innuendo. He said that instead he wanted to publish stories about the plight of the “common man,” just living an ordinary existence. Because Howells was the editor of the largest and most powerful magazine of the time (and because of its fabulous payment rates, a short story sale to that magazine could support a writer for a year or two), his views had a tremendous influence on American writers.

But as a writer of fantastic literature, I immediately have to question Howells’s dictates on a number of grounds.

Howells contended that good literature could only be written if we did three things: 1) Restrict the kinds of settings we deal with. 2) Restrict the kinds of characters we deal with. 3) Restrict the scope of conflicts we deal with.

This is what I am calling Deist literature, albeit, since Howells was a socialist and was promoting writing which served the interests of social justice or somesuch jabberwocky, Deist literature shades by intermediate fine degrees over into boring propaganda of ideological writing.

You may have wondered why modern stories concentrate so much on technically difficult techniques and flourishes, such a James Joyces stream-of-consciousness writing and many-layered plays on words, rather than on the basics of sound storytelling. You may wonder why modern stories use more and more baroque and difficult methods of story telling to tell stories with less and less drama.

I submit that this happened because the tortured and artificial restrictions on story telling imposed by the consensus championed by the Howells of the literary world forced the artistic genius to seek the expression of his genius not in the normal and Shakespearian manifestation of poetic diction, moral quandaries, adventure, wonder, the Witches of Macbeth and the Ghost of Hamlet and so on. Mainstream writers had to waste their effort in elaborate word games of insubstantial nothingness because the metaphysical and theological philosophy and worldview of their culture forbade them from dealing with anything transcendentally important.

The other metaphysical stances of rigorism and mysticism and fatalism and magical thinking have this one thing in common: they do not permit the Shakespearean naturalism which identifies characters, noble and base alike, as having unique worth, or making their moral quandaries the center of the dramatic action.

A rigorist cannot have Prospero summon up the pagan goddesses to bless the wedding of Miranda and Ferdinand because the idea of magicians and secondary spiritual beings is anathema to the Puritan mind. The mystic cannot have them marry at all, since all sensuality is a trap and a snare for the senses. The typically Shakespearean sensuality and attachment to life is absent from that world view. The fatalist can tell a fine tragedy, like that of Oedipus, but he cannot celebrate the romance of the marriage of Miranda, since if events could not possibly have turned out any other way, the danger and hence the drama, even within the play itself, is false and illusion. The typically Shakespearean transcendence and otherworldliness and attachment to things above and beyond this life is absent from that world view.

None of them allow for romanticism, which is the mystical admiration of those things which to the world’s eye seem worthless.

Just to avoid confusion, be warned that I am not using the word Romance to refer to love stories. I mean the long medieval narrative in prose or verse that tells of the adventures and heroic exploits of chivalric heroes: as the matter of Britain or France, tales of Charlemagne or Arthur, and likewise a long fictitious tale of heroes and extraordinary or mysterious events, usually set in a distant time or place.

The essence of romance is chivalry. Chivalry is unique to Christendom, since it is the attempt of the strong to protect the weak, of the knight to protect the widow, the orphan and the damsel. It is respect for those the world despises, beggars and exiles. It is the bowing low to look up at great things, and to be raised up to even greater things on the Last Day.

This paradox is absent in pagan literature. In a Greek Epic, for example, the heroes, even if doomed, are always heroic. The character of a Sir Percival, the holy fool, or a Robin Hood, the admirable thief, would be inconceivable to the Homeric hero. The closest one could get would be such artistic triumphs might be the scene where Odysseus disguised as a beggar might throw off his rags and be revealed as a king.

Only in the Christian world view could the beggar throw off his rags and still be a beggar, and yet be equal in the eyes of a God who is no respecter of persons to a king.

In the Hindu world view, a man’s caste was a precise representation and reward of his Karmic ergo spiritual worth. The Christian world view is diametrically and therefore dramatically opposite: not only could a mendicant wanderer like Francis of Assisi be a saint, so too could a scholar like Thomas Aquinas, or a king like  Saint Louis of France.

Amyclas in the Pharsalia of Lucan can be admired because he is too poor to be in awe of Caesar, for the Romans were pre-Christian enough to admire simplicity and stoicism even in a poor man.

(Nor should Christians be singled out as the only admirers of hermits and virgins and other manifestations of stoic simplicity: simplicity is Christian only in the sense that love of simplicity is common to all cultures.)

But the particular tension between the individual soul and his ability to overcome the world without being a part of it, the romance of rebellion against all the giant and titanic powers, principalities, and dominations of this cosmos, is again, inconceivable outside the Christian context. Pagan heroes can be humiliated, but they cannot be humble.

All romances, at their ultimate core, are rebellions against frightful odds for high ideals. In pagan epics and folktales, this usually, and I myself can think of no exceptions, had to do with the tragic interruption of the divinely ordained harmony of life, and the efforts of the hero to reestablish, often with divine aid, the status quo ante.

The personal conflicts or moral inner life which forms the backbone of Shakespearean and Catholic drama is absent: Odysseus or Achilles suffers nothing other than the suffering due to the great and kingly men as a side effect of their greatness. There is no character like Hamlet in any ancient literature. The moral conflict faces by Antigone is perhaps the closest to a drama of the Christian Era, but even it lacks that indefinable essential property which makes it romance rather than epic.

The greatest flowering of Art, after the astonishing accomplishments of the Athenian poets of their Golden Age, ran from Dante to Milton and beyond, not merely in literature, but also in architecture, music, and the visual arts.

Then with the suddenness of a disease, the artistic world in nearly every department from painting to symphony to the building of Cathedrals turned ugly and started to produce gray slabs. jarring noise, dissonance, aberration, distortion, nonsense, vomit and grotesquerie.

In 1914 Marcel Duchamp hung a toilet bowl in a museum gallery. The long golden age of post Renaissance art, the greatest accomplishment of human expression of beauty, was over. What had happened?

Art is an expression of the inner soul, or, as a philosopher would say, the concrete example of the metaphysics of your world view. The Christian world view worships and adores a God of inexpressible and sublime beauty, but also the jarring bathos and horror if that same God in agony on the cross, a sight at which the archangels tremble. For Christians, truth and virtue and beauty are real things, not matter of personal opinion or social convenience.

For the postchristians, truth is a Pontius Pilate thing, not of an particular interest, except as a weapon to wound others, virtue is a social control mechanism, and beauty is an affront to the freedom to adore the ghastly nastiness of hell.

What happened in 1914 which made Europe start adoring toilets as high art? The world wars happened. The loss of faith happened. All the criticisms and mythologies which the loyal and fervid Protestant propagandists had invented as scourges to desecrate the name and memory of the Roman Church and the history of the Middle Ages were in an instant wrestled from their grasp and used by Deist and Atheist ideologues from Voltaire to Marx as scourges to desecrate the name and memory of all Christianity, and of all history.

Wonder fled from the gray onslaught of this newly naturalistic and disenchanted world.

So, where did the Witches of Macbeth and the Ghost of Hamlet and the Hippogriff of Ariosto and all the other wonders and demigods of the wonder tales of old, which were and always have been the core meal of the human story loving psyche, to what poor cramped quarters where they exiled?

Obviously, to the only place a materialistic and theologically tone deaf culture could still find wonder: in science and in the disorienting new world that science was discovering.

Onto this stage, and roughly at the same time, came the two forms of the fantastic romance which the awareness of the scientific revolution entailed.

The first is science fiction. It is the mythology of the scientific age, the place to stow all the wonders the agnostic and increasing postchristian and postrational world cannot abide. It is particularly telling that the early Pulp magazines would often bear stories, set in science fictional backgrounds, but concerning gods and demigods, amazons, heroes, warlords, and the other apparatus of ancient epics and medieval romances. The preferred weapon of the Galactic Empire is the sword.

The second is fantasy. It is the deliberate and nostalgic attempt to revisit, not without melancholy, the vanished world view of the pagan and renaissance ages, when men believed in Minotaurs or Witches.

The first science fiction generation was divided into Hard science fiction, which speculated about the rational applications of technology, and followed the tropes established by Jules Verne, a faithful Catholic of the Gallic Church, and also into Soft science fiction, which speculated about the social and philosophical implications of scientific change and progress, and followed the tropes established by HG Wells, a faithful member of that odd Protestant heresy called Socialism.

There followed a pulp era, which followed the tropes established by the founder of American scientific romances, Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose emphasis was on the romance and adventure. He followed the tropes of the Medieval romances. The pulps were famed for their wonder and spectacle.

John W Campbell Jr introduced three writers of a new and humanistic take on the material, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and AE van Vogt. Each of these man had markedly differing political views, but they shared a common world view and an idea of man’s place in the universe. It was what I above called the Deist theological view: it was a vision of the universe as a neutral but dangerous puzzle or clockwork, of which man’s reason and only his reason would allow him to prevail.

The New Wave of Michael Moorcock was a reaction against Campellian triumphalism and optimism, and he and his school were of the ideological theology. Moorcock was to science fiction what Howell was to mainstream literature, an attempt to confine the genre to particular mundane themes and fatalistic or socially relevant moral attitudes.

Ursula K LeGuin and also Cordwainer Smith cannot be legitimately assigned to the same school of literature, but they do both represent a rebellion against the dictate of the Campbell school. Man’s all conquering reason was not sufficient, or even necessarily beneficial, in humanity dealings with the cosmos. Both these writers portrayed, with no loss of their artistic genius, a more delicate and mystical take on the matter of science fiction. LeGuin’s take was informed by her Taoism, and Smith (or Lineberger, to use his real name) by his Christianity.

The Cyberpunk movement vanguarded by William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, and Walter John Williams started as an energetic approach incorporating a vast number of kitchen sink ideas – instead of writing a story where one technological change produces one social oddity, the writers of this school proposed countless changes that would change mankind itself. But the school of cyberpunk was a devolution away from the ideological metaphysics of Moorcock and his school, and it had no place to go except into the sewer pit of nihilism.

New Weird and Slipstream and other post-Cyberpunk genres express this cyberpunkish nihilism more clearly, and also represent a postmodern dead end. It is not coincidence that modern fantasy, which had been popular since Professor Tolkien wrote in the 1950’s suddenly blossomed. The same flight of wonder which invigorated the lonely and unappreciated genre of science fiction, now that wonder was hounded away from science fiction, fled into the land of the unicorns.

The most recent trend in fantasy is to introduce social justice, various ideologies from Objectivism in the Sword of Truth series to the Cynicism of the Songs of Ice and Fire Series. Where the wonder shall go once the nihilists have crushed it out of fantasy stories, the genre who exists only to express wonder, that I cannot guess.

But the historical answer is plain: the only thing which invigorates any art that has been desecrated, or any civilization that falls into a Dark Age, the only renaissance that revives what is lost, is the return to the unique fountainhead both of science, and romance, and of the scientific romance.

The only hope for science fiction is the same thing that is the only hope for the world. Namely, it is time and past time for Christendom to return to our true home.


  1. Comment by Joseph M (was Ishmael Alighieri):

    Questions of Why and What For, as you mention, aren’t the strong suit of Science(tm). In fact, since science can’t, by definition, answer these questions, fans of Science tend to pretend they don’t exist. Therefore, an argument that explains why science arose only in Christendom (itself a fact so obvious it requires years of training to miss) is met with something like scorn.

    Instead, we have nonsense like this:, which, insofar as it is accurate, comes off as damning with faint praise. (Not to pick on Islam in particular in this context, because similar (and in the case of China and India, better) claims are made for all other non-western ancient societies.) Sure, Arabs and other Muslims are as smart and inventive as anybody else, so no one should be surprised that, over the centuries, many useful things got invented within the Islamic world. Yet, this is not weighed against what one sees with one’s own eyes: travel to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, as I did a few years ago, and look around – Western technology everywhere the eye can see. Western-style buildings build with construction equipment with western names on them, on western-style streets zooming with western cars. Even the legendary horses and camels are housed in huge air-conditioned barns. Their is nothing there to see that’s uniquely Islamic – even the traditional dress is made from western fabrics, even the mosques are built western style.

    So, here are devote Muslims with money to burn – and they burn it on Western stuff. They built a gigantic mosque – with Western technology and engineering and building materials. They built several even bigger shopping malls. Put in a nice airport. This does not speak well of Islamic technological progress. Especially, try to find places where the West and its technology and science have been kept out – and you’re looking at rural Afghanistan (and even there, the weapons and vehicles are western).

    But the point isn’t really to make Muslims feel better about themselves – it’s to defeat the claim that science is a product of Christendom. However, this claim is if anything reinforced by recognizing Islamic genius – the question then becomes: why did the Islamic world make so little of all that creativity? Why no Islamic universities cranking out natural philosophers by the thousands? Why no Islamic Newton cranking out a dozen new sciences in one lifetime? Why no Islamic Edison working in an Islamic Menlo Park? Better yet, why no society eager to embrace and support such endeavors? Where are all the undergrad and graduate level scientists? Oh, right – they’re here and in Europe. Why?

    “The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the firmament proclaims the works of his hands.
    Day unto day pours forth speech;
    night unto night whispers knowledge.”

    The West came to see Psalm 19 and many similar prayers and scripture passages as a divine invitation to consider the works of God’s hands – trying to understand God’s mind by studying the works of His hands was deemed a worthy thing. And it was inconceivable that a God who declared Himself “the Way, the Truth and the Life” would mislead by His works. As the esteemed Mike Flynn points out, science began as Art Appreciation, and only later became Engineering.

    In a way, to understand science, it is more important to understand that the Church in the West believed the Universe to be the physical manifestation of the coherent and knowable Mind of God, and therefore worthy of study, than it is to recognize the truth of that belief. In other words, disputing the historical fact that the Church believes and has long believed this is one thing; arguing over whether it is true or not is another.

    But, like the laughable Drake Equation you recently sent up, the problem with concocting another theory of the origin of science is that we have only one example: as far as we know, science arose only once, and only under in Christendom, despite intelligence, curiosity, inventiveness and dogged perseverance being found among all peoples. So, what’s the secret sauce, if it ain’t how we understand God?

  2. Ping from Science, and why it arose only in Christendom « Yard Sale of the Mind:

    […] Here is a great little speech given by John C Wright. I’ve commented there. […]

  3. Comment by Joseph M (was Ishmael Alighieri):

    And since I can’t stop commenting…

    Here is a little bit I wrote up on one of the chief effects of ideology (which also applies to other categories Mr. wright describes as they fade inevitably into ideologies):

    Weird coincidence: was up late last night reading Mike Flynn’s “In the Country of the Blind” (about 1/2 through) in which the protagonist uncovers a conspiracy that, among other things, wishes to turn the many into obedient, mindless sheep for the convenience of the few – which turns out to be exactly what Fichte (the German philosopher between Kant and Hegel) explicitly advised doing to the Germans. In around 1820. The Kaisers took his advice. Paid off in greater industrial growth, legendary German efficiency – and a couple world wars and a bit of genocide. So let’s call that a mixed result.

  4. Comment by Nate Winchester:

    What’s the chances we can get an audio/podcast edition of these remarks?

  5. Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

    Joseph M says:
    “So, what’s the secret sauce, if it ain’t how we understand God?”
    Or the secret is that God taught us how to understand Him and ourselves and how to live. The proper development of science is one of the consequences of proper human life.

  6. Comment by MintaMarieMorze:

    I have to read this in sections, because I have things I have to do, but I’ve gotten this far and I think this is a sentence fragment:

    “By nihilism here I mean the inarticulate metaphysical position that holds that all metaphysical statements (including, one presumes, the speaker’s own).”

    I think you meant:

    “By nihilism here I mean the inarticulate metaphysical position that holds that all metaphysical statements (including, one presumes, the speaker’s own), are false.”

    Or something like that.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Yikes! and thanks. Correction made.

      • Comment by CPE Gaebler:

        I found two more of those:

        “Al-Ghazali, who in his work called Incoherence of the Philosophers, argued and convinced his culture to believe, that reason and faith.”

        should probably be something like

        “Al-Ghazali, who in his work called Incoherence of the Philosophers, argued and convinced his culture to believe, that reason and faith are at odds.”

        “modern fatalists believe that genetic influences, or nervous system mechanics, or ideological superstructures created by economic world-historical forces.”

        should probably be

        “modern fatalists believe that genetic influences, or nervous system mechanics, or ideological superstructures created by economic world-historical forces control all things and that men have no free will.”

  7. Comment by shana:

    I’m so HURT that no one told me (almost nearly able to be considered a fan along side Mr Wright’s mother) the date and time that he was speaking. Franciscan University is practically on my front lawn. Well, there is this river and a funky bridge and a state line between the campus and my front lawn, and a fairly steep hill and a coupla roads, but still! I could have stalked him in the hall and asked for him to get me Mike Flynn’s and Jagi Lamplighter’s autographs.

    And Dr David Craig, if only you had told my kid (in your 9 am Freshman English I class), I could have then BRIBED you to let me attend the talk. See? You missed out on enough money to maybe buy a cuppa coffee at Jazzman’s. And quite possibly also had a home-baked pan of brownies or cookies to sweeten the deal.

    I suppose that inability to exploit a situation for personal gain is why you teach English and not political science. :p

  8. Comment by tnelson52:

    three typos
    1.He looks for the invariant relationships, or called, between the measurable phenomena
    2. It is, oddly enough, is the most dangerous of all,

    3. the Christian scholars in Constantinople did not all vanish when her name was changed to Istanbul.
    This assumes that the name of Constantinople was changed to Istanbul early in history of Islam. In fact, Constantinople wasn’t captured by Muslims until 1453, long after the heyday of “Muslim” science, and even then the name wasn’t changed to Istanbul until the 1920s, under Kemal Attaturk.

  9. Ping from There Could be Only One Thing Better Than a Lecture on Science Fiction from John C. Wright…:

    […] reclaiming science fiction for the medieval tradition of storytelling to which it owes its genesis. Tolle, lege. It’s terrific.By the way, I am now reading Up Jim River, which is the sequel to The January Dancer, by Flynn. The […]

  10. Ping from A reader writes…:

    […] on to fling doors wide open, not merely to the vanishingly small elite, but to the riff-raff. The invaluable Mike Flynn writes:Between AD 1200 and AD 1500, hundreds of thousands of students – a quarter million in the […]

  11. Ping from Secular Humanism The Source Behind Education’s Ills Across The Board As We Decline In Knowledge, In Tolerance And In Morality | Start Thinking Right:

    […] a matter of factual history, “science” is uniquely a product of Judeo-Christianity.  It arose ONLY in Christendom as the result of belief in a Personal, Transcendent Creator God rather….  Belief in God was a necessary condition for the rise of science as not only the discoverer of […]

  12. Ping from Evolution Vs. The 10 Commandments: And The Winner Is…? | Start Thinking Right:

    […] Christians, 30 of whom could be characterized as devout because of their zeal.”  We find that science arose only once in human history – and it arose in Europe under the civilization then … Christianity provided the worldview foundations necessary and essential for the birth of science: […]

  13. Comment by John C Wright:

    ‘after my conversation’, instead of ‘after my conversion’.

    Thank you. I will make the correction.

    “Had the common herd had the opportunity to attend university, the naming system might have been very different.”

    But the common herd did attend University: it was not restricted to holy orders nor to the aristocracy. And anyone could join holy orders.

    Neither was it mass education as we see later in history. Peons were unlettered; but Burghers were not.

    In the period between the 5th and 13th century, the vulgate tongue developed, as the nations developed along with the concept of nationalism. Earlier in the period the more ecumenical is both the language and the political theory.

    I recommend Belloc’s EUROPE AND THE FAITH for a good overview of non-pro-Protestant history.

  14. Comment by John Hutchins:

    “But the common heard did attend University: it was not restricted to holy orders nor to the aristocracy.”

    I am not sure that the serfs could attend University, though I suppose they might be able to join a holy order to do it.

    Otherwise, this is somewhat true, one could attend university and not be in a holy order or aristocracy, though getting in might be harder (as it still is, even in the US for the Ivy League), ones prestige was less, and one had to be extra careful of what one did or said. I am aware of a few cases from my genealogy where non-aristocrats enrolled in the university under one name and then used the nearest aristocratic family members last name (even if not directly related to that person) once they had graduated.

  15. Comment by Sean Michael:

    Dear Mr. Wright:

    Some of the ideas you disccused in your essay were also mentioned by Poul Anderson in “Delenda Est,” one of his Time Patrol stories, he has Unattached Agent Manse Everard say: “No. It’s quite understandable. That’s why I asked about their religion. It’s always been purely pagan; even Judaism seems to have disappeared, and Buddhism hasn’t been very influential. As Whitehead pointed out, the medieval idea of one almighty God was important to the growth of science, by inculcating the lawfulness in nature. And Lewis Mumford added that the early monasteries were probably responsible for the mechanical clock–a very basic invention–because of having regular hours for prayer. Clocks seem to have come late in this world.” Everard smiled wryly, a shield against the sadness within. “Odd to talk like this, Whitehead and Mumford never lived.”

    I’ve also wondered, might one reason we have not received signals from non human rational beings from other worlds is because many have not developed the kind of scientific oriented civilization sprung from Christianity we have? Unless, possibly, Our Lord became Incarnate and founded non human Catholic Churches on other worlds–which might then in turn develop the scientific method?

    Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

  16. Comment by Robert Mitchell Jr:

    Nothing odd about it, you’re just a little parochial. The idea that manual labor is abhorrent is a modern day failing.

  17. Comment by The OFloinn:

    Between AD 1200 and AD 1500, hundreds of thousands of students – a quarter million in the German universities alone after 1350 – were exposed to science. … During these years, more literate Europeans had had access to scientific materials than any of their predecessors in earlier cultures, thanks largely to the emergence, rapid growth, and naturalistic arts curricula of the medieval universities.
    — Michael H. Shank, “Myth 2. That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth of Science,” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science, ed. Ronald L. Numbers.

    Then as now, as Edward Grant explains in his various books, the vast majority of students went into secular life after graduation. During their time at university, students were given color of clerical orders — which is how the English language got “clerks” from “clerics.” This was to provide them with what we now call “academic freedom,” since it barred the secular lords from interfering in the business of the universities.

    We tend to know the details of the lives of people who became important, and of course one way of becoming important was to enter the Church, especially for those commonly born. A couple of examples:
    Gertrude of Helfta was a poor orphan who entered the Benedictines, and eventually obtained her doctorate in theology.
    Nicole Oresme likely came from a peasant family in Normandy, since he attended the College of Navarre which was a royally-sponsored “fraternity” for students too poor to pay their expenses while studying at the University of Paris. (FYI “Colleges” were not themselves universities, but more akin to the eating clubs at Princeton. They were more like a combo of frat house and dormitory.)
    Albert of Saxony was the son of a farmer in a small village near Helmstedt. He was sent to study at the University of Prague and the University of Paris because of his talent. What we would call an academic scholarship.
    Now all three entered orders and one became an abbess, a saint and Doctor of the Church, and the other two became bishops. But they did not get to go to uni because one day in the future they would become players in the Church.

  18. Comment by Patrick:

    “Additionally, it strikes me as odd that people did not flock to become monks or priests, and thereby get out of manual labour.”

    The psychology that makes Socialism attractive isn’t powerlust, it’s a fantasy born in teenage laziness. Way to out yourself. Yikes.

  19. Comment by John C Wright:

    “The non-pro-Protestant book… is it pro-Catholic?”

    I assume so, but, to be honest, I cannot tell. Water does not seem wet to a fish.

    To me it seems normal and reasonable, but then again, the writer is a Catholic and I am a Catholic. Before that I was an atheist, so the normal instinctive reaction of hating the Virgin Mary and adoring the Virgin Queen never actually took root in my soul. As an atheist, all religion was equally absurd to me, so hierarchical, public and organized religion did not seem somehow innately more alien or sinister than non-hierarchical, private and fragmentary religion. I never regarded Luther as a rebellious hero rather than a mutineer, nor was I persuaded as an atheist that Biblical literalism from Georgia or Puritanism from Massachusetts Bay was more American than the Catholicism of Maryland. I simply did not have a dog in that fight.

    I will say that my extensive reading of the classical authors and my knowledge of the ancient world matches the account given by Belloc in his history, whereas the standardized English-and-German account (which runs from scientific Greeks to Evil Dark Ages to the Spanish Inquisition to the sunrise of Luther and the flowering of human dignity, liberty, science and All Good Things during the Enlightenment) is one that does not fit with my reading. The standard account has a huge blank spot covering the so called Age of Faith, and pretends our democratic institutions came out of nowhere, or out of the North Sea.

  20. Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

    Traditional convent/monastery orders often required people to enter with some money to aid in their support, unless they were going to be total lay brothers who worked for their keep. Friar orders and begging orders, not so much, just by the nature of their order. (And of course, you could always just decide to be a hermit, unless you were legally tied to the land and couldn’t walk fast enough to get out of Dodge.)

    St. Albert the Great’s dad was some kind of very minor knight, but his uncle was just a merchant. The family sent him off (he was one of several kids in the family) with the uncle on a business trip to Italy, and Albert attended university classes while they were there, apparently thinking about becoming a lawyer. And then Albert of Saxony came preaching to the university on a Dominican recruitment trip, and that was that. Didn’t need money, didn’t need permission. So that was definitely one kind of mobility.

    If you ever get a chance to read his book “De Animalia” in the translation by the veterinarian guy, do it. It’s not just a book about biology; it’s a real window into his kind of medieval life, as he explains for each animal what he knows personally about it and why. (Played with antlions as a kid… got his brother monks to help him rappel down a cliff to check out bird nests… saw dinosaur bones in German cliffsides….)

    But anyway, you could stop being a serf in those days just by walking out and going to a city or town with the appropriate chartered liberties. There were plenty of free towns like that in Europe. Sometimes it only opened the opportunity to starve or be exploited in urban surroundings, but many medieval people went from rags to moderate riches by making it in the big city.

  21. Comment by The Ubiquitous:

    Did you mean to say Gertrude received her doctorate? If not, what’s your source that Gertrude would become a Doctor of the Church?

  22. Comment by John C Wright:

    Be more gentle to the boy. After I mocked poor Branabus for pretending to be a mind reader, don’t lets us do it too. We don’t know what he thinks, only what he says.

    And we know he knows nothing about the Middle Ages. Monks getting out of manual labor? BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA! The monks maintained road, cleared land, felled trees, drained swamps, and worked like dogs for free. They were practically volunteer slaves, and they maintained the common greens, which one would think any socialist would idolize and adore as pure communitarian spirit. The Dark Ages emerged into the Middle Ages because of the unpaid volunteer labor of the monk who rendered the European land fertile.

    I recommend Paul Johnson’s HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY to anyone who wants to know the story in detail.

    It is usually a story not told in English speaking countries, because we get our history books from historians laboring under the intellectual heirs to the terror of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth, widely regarded by non-Catholics are peaceful non-torturers who did not employ secret police tactics. Only Bloody Mary is remembered as bloody.

    No history that tells the true tale of the monasteries was popular in Protestant England, and when England transitioned from Anticatholic to Postchristian, the atmosphere did not become more favorable to Christian historical accomplishments.

  23. Comment by Mary:

    It was commonplace for a noble to be illiterate in the Middle Ages.

    I think you are confusing the Middle Ages with the Rennaissance and after — C. S. Lewis observed, in his work on Elizabethean literature (minus drama) that in the era, there were many complaints that the well-off were gobbling up the livings of the poor at the university.

  24. Comment by Patrick:

    “What do you think of the conduct of the German army during WW2?”

    Everything I’ve read leads me to conclude they were phenomenal. Over here though, I think our cultural understanding of the German army in WW2 draws a lot from the Imperial Army in Star Wars.

    Sorry for the unfair swipe. I have no idea if you’re physically lazy.

  25. Comment by John C Wright:

    Since I once was a non-Catholic and indeed an anti-Catholic, I am well able to compare my old viewpoint with my new and correct for bias. As I said before, the Catholic author’s account matches what I know from independent and rather thorough reading of ancient and original sources, and the Protestant authors do not.

    One example is that when a Catholic author mentions elections being held in medieval towns and burgs, or for various church offices, or when reporting on the size and penetration of the monasteries as landlords, and when reporting what the medieval law of land rents was, this agrees with my own independent and pre-Catholic knowledge of these subjects. When I read Voltaire talking about the right of prima nox, where Feudal lords bedded peasant girls on her wedding nights, I know it is make-believe. The law contains no such provision. When a modern tells me that the English Parliament springs directly from the influence of the Icelandic folkmoot, because the English are descended from hearty Teutonic freedom-loving proto-Englishmen from Norway, I know that is bogus, because I know from my legal studies that Roman corporation offices, such as the Mayorality of towns or guild offices, were elective.

    So your warnings against bias in this case are supererogatory, and were (in any case) already answered in the post to which you are replying.

  26. Comment by The Ubiquitous:

    Belloc, to name the most partisan Catholic historian I know, tends to be more accurate despite the universal temptation to partisanship.

    See, Anti-Catholicism was so severe in late Victorian England that Belloc was forced to go to primary sources. As such, if certain threads of his have since become frayed, his garment is far more intact than his contemporaries and his contemporaries’ successors.

  27. Comment by lotdw:

    “The monks maintained road, cleared land, felled trees, drained swamps, and worked like dogs for free.”

    While partially true, it is important to note that many monasteries had such work done for them in return for prayers or other services, and other monastic orders (most importantly the Cistercians) had their own class system within the monastery, in which the generally low-born lay brothers (conversi) did most of the manual labor.

    The latter was a development of the High Middle Ages, when the clergy had become suffused with feudal culture and was a good place to send your younger sons/daughters who couldn’t inherit.

    The above is from Southern’s Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, and there may be more current sources which say more/better/different.

  28. Comment by John Hutchins:

    Belloc is extremely pro-Catholic, from a Catholic perspective on things.

    He also contradicts himself, when it comes to the history of the Church he makes a big deal of how something recorded 200 years after the fact and thousands of miles removed is likely to be authoritative, but when it comes to the history of England he rejects as being myth something recorded less than 40 years after the fact and for which there is extensive cultural, linguistic, and genetic evidence for.

    More amusing from my point of view though is that if I take what he writes at face value, but dispute either continuity of the priesthood (as the LDS do) or the validity of the centralized structure (as many evangelicals do), the he provides ample evidence and indeed holds as being a great achievement exactly what the opposing side claims happened and claims was a horrible occurrence, that is the marriage of the Roman Church with Imperial authority and the continuation of Imperial authority in the Roman Church. Further, if one thinks the reformation was inspired by God, then his loss to explain the rapidity of discovery and invention and reformer just preceding the reformation and following it makes perfect sense.

    His great love for feudalism is disturbing to say the least. He is very much of the opinion that heretics deserve to be ruthlessly crushed and massacred, and apparently wishes he could do exactly that to me and my faith.

    Only on some of the facts do I disagree with him, on the interpretation and meaning of facts and events though I disagree with him quite a bit.

  29. Comment by Patrick:

    “heretics deserve to be ruthlessly crushed and massacred”

    Surely all people of goodwill can agree that the infidel must be destroyed. What could be more obvious?

  30. Comment by The Ubiquitous:

    He also contradicts himself, when it comes to the history of the Church he makes a big deal of how something recorded 200 years after the fact and thousands of miles removed is likely to be authoritative, but when it comes to the history of England he rejects as being myth something recorded less than 40 years after the fact and for which there is extensive cultural, linguistic, and genetic evidence for.

    False equivalency. We have no reason to suppose that there was a massive cultural shift by the chattering classes within Christianity, only evidence of what it was by the year 200. We have every reason to suppose this of the fragile Tudor dynasty, which no man can doubt directly broke with the faith of their fathers despite popular opposition.

    His great love for feudalism is disturbing to say the least. He is very much of the opinion that heretics deserve to be ruthlessly crushed and massacred, and apparently wishes he could do exactly that to me and my faith.

    The second sentence does not follow from the first. Also remember that at the time of Belloc there is no dispute your faith was not the faith of photogenic young men in ties and bicycle helmets. It was the faith of insular polygamists who, undoubtedly in lore of the day, terrorized the high desert. I would certainly agree that your faith as he knew it would deserve to be crushed. Whether we would actually crush it is another matter, and whether he had explicit hatred of your person is even less likely. And if he did, it would not discredit him where he spoke truth.

    Only on some of the facts do I disagree with him …

    Which is eminently to your credit!

  31. Comment by John C Wright:

    If the Protestants had been rebelling for the sake of religious freedom, a modern American would be prone to applaud the event. They were rebelling for the sake of reforming the established doctrine of the Church to eliminate the Eucharist, remove certain books from the Bible, and revive an ancient anti-Pelagisian controversy. Other questionable Church practices, such as the sale of indulgences, fueled the controversy.

    Where the Protestants gained political power, they immediately sought to impose religious conformity on the community, including the hanging and burning of heretics, or, in the case of the English crown, drawing and quartering.

    So the idea that heretics should be crushed and massacred is hardly unique to the Church in the days when what constituted heresy was determined by a due process. Indeed, the only Christian churches who never indulged in the persecution of heretics are the ones founded after disestablishment of the national churches. I know of no Christian who does not desire the unity of believers, except for particularly irenic fellows who think the matters of disagreement are technical and insignificant.

    So you are reading into Belloc a bloodthirstiness which atheists routinely read into all Churches, including your own, based on the fact that we have the truth and those who deviate from it imperil their souls. Anyone who believes that salvation depends on sound doctrine must logically have this attitude.

    Just to be clear: I don’t think the atheist read your heart any more clearly than you read Belloc’s.

  32. Comment by John Hutchins:

    It was not hyperbole but footnote that led to the comment on his desire to do the same to my faith.

    I desire unity of believers but trust that preaching, good works, and the spirit of God will lead to such unity, not torture or threat of torture, which may lead one to say they believe without meaning it.

    Johnson’s History of Christianity seems to be saying that persecution of heretics was not a common feature in the Roman empire, nor in Judaism, nor in early Christianity. I have not read all of it yet but I am surprised that Johnson is Catholic; he definitely has Jesus having siblings, he definitely does not have Jesus forming a Church, he definitely does say that by the second century tradition is less reliable than the written scripture, which he also admits are highly corrupted. (He also has the Church formed by the early Apostles falling apart and disintegrating shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem, the first section of the book is excellent for LDS or evangelical apologetics, not sure how it is Catholic)

    Belloc appears to fall under #4. Rigorism in my opinion. He certainly seems to have a dislike of Science and gives the quote that science is a waste of time when compared to theology. I can’t tell (based on the one book) whether his thoughts on science are similar to his thoughts of industrialization and capitalism (that they are wholly evil things being departures from the perfect feudalism that the late Roman Empire imposed) or if he just thinks that it is not as noble as studying theology.

  33. Comment by The Ubiquitous:

    Technical differences are nothing? Then become Catholic, which is the faith of so nearly all Christians for the first millennium that mentioning any exceptions is a distortion. Become Catholic, for that was the faith of all Christians in the West for three times longer than Luther was dead.

  34. Comment by John Hutchins:

    We have no reason to suppose that there was a massive cultural shift by the chattering classes within Christianity, only evidence of what it was by the year 200. We have every reason to suppose this of the fragile Tudor dynasty, which no man can doubt directly broke with the faith of their fathers despite popular opposition.

    If you are going to say something make sure that you understand what it is I am talking about please. the Tudor dynasty is hardly something that was only recorded historically 40 years after the fact. I was referring to Belloc’s treatment of the Anglo Saxon settlement of Britain. As for the first part you may wish to read the other book that Mr. Wright has recommended in this comment thread, it covers such things in some detail.

    “The second sentence does not follow from the first.”

    I am sorry?

    Also remember that at the time of Belloc there is no dispute your faith was not the faith of photogenic young men in ties and bicycle helmets. It was the faith of insular polygamists who, undoubtedly in lore of the day, terrorized the high desert. I would certainly agree that your faith as he knew it would deserve to be crushed

    The first “photogenic young men in ties” were sent out before the church was officially formed and before there were properly photos. The first ones to England were sent not long after that and my faith has been known for “photogenic young men in ties” from nearly the beginning, before it was generally known that we practiced polygamy. One of my great-great-grandfathers was part of the first missionaries to go to Italy, for instance. A great-uncle of mine was a mission president in Europe at the start of WW2. My grandfather was a missionary in New Zealand during the great depression. I wouldn’t call that exactly insular; if Mr. Belloc had desired to actually understand my faith then he could have listened to the Elders preaching throughout England, as Mr. Chesterton did. It is like the Book of Mormon Musical calling us naive and isolated when speaking of two 19 year old’s going to Uganda, because that is what insular people do…

    Further some of my great-grandparents converted to the church in Scotland and Canada during the life of Mr. Belloc, and others were polygamists (all on my mothers side, my father being a convert when he was an adult). Hopefully you can begin to see why saying they deserved to be crushed (which thing was tried very often, by the way) is fairly insulting to me. Did Abraham, Jacob, others in the Old Testament, and Jews before and during the time of Christ that practiced polygamy deserve to be crushed?

    If anyone has been following such things they should be able to verify that this “vile and arrogant prejudice” of mine has just been reaffirmed and defended again.

  35. Comment by The Ubiquitous:

    … but to defend Mr. Belloc, who cannot speak for himself, please tell us: What was the genetic evidence available to him which he ignored? And, regarding the Mormons, explain how they did not live in the lore of his day as insular polygamists, and why he should have given Mormons a second thought.

  36. Comment by John Hutchins:

    What was the genetic evidence available to him which he ignored?

    Genetic none. However, most of the linguistic, cultural, and written records that are available to us were available to him. He had to write contrary to the accepted account of history of his day, which I realize is the point of him being mentioned in the first place, but when what he wrote is now proven false, in agreement with all evidence available to him at that time, then why should I accept his interpretation of anything else (like say, the history of the church in the first centuries which is contrary to generally accepted history, even according to the other history book mentioned)?

    And, regarding the Mormons, explain how they did not live in the lore of his day as insular polygamists, and why he should have given Mormons a second thought.

    Let me turn that around, why should the powers of the state and corporeal punishment be brought to bear against heretics and insular polygamists? If such power should be used then in what way was the Crucifixion wrong for either the Jews or Romans to do? Why should we consider the persecution of the Christians by the Roman empire to be wrong? How do you square that view, that heretics and insular polygamists should be persecuted, with the commands of Jesus to love all men, or the writings of Paul, Peter, or John?

    Belloc’s opinion of my faith is actually the lesser part of what I am pointing out. He is following the tradition of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, church councils, and papal pronouncements from over 1500 years of Catholic history. Using the defense that the Protestants did it too is no defense at all. They came from the Catholic Church and had drilled into them for over a thousand years what would happen if they disagreed with the Catholic authorities, if they are guilty or false for behaving in such a way then what does that say about the true experts and teachers of the subject?

    It does no good for an organization that claims to be the bride of Christ to defend itself by saying these bridesmaids are unfaithful because their garments are spotted with blood, when the claimed bride was the one that instructed the bridesmaids in the art and proper application of drenching oneself in the blood of those that would rather die then deny their faith. It does no good for that bride to say that she was merely keeping order in the kingdoms of the world, as her claimed Betrothed has said that His kingdom is not of this world and that the ruler of the kingdoms of this world is not Him. We can only know the Bridegroom by keeping His commandments. He commanded to love your enemy and taught compassion and service to the hated heretical Samaritans, not extermination, and condemned the wicked husbandmen.

  37. Comment by The Ubiquitous:

    Defending again only Belloc:

    1. False equivalence: When a historian specializing in Church history ventures outside his narrow expertise and is later shown wrong, why should you trust him on matters of Church history? Is this your question?

    2. Non sequitur: You did not answer the question as regards Mormons in Belloc’s time. You did not even, as you say, turn it around. You hit a talking point.

    3. Habeas corpus: I should be interested to see the ripping good yarn he wrote about the Mormons which says he “would have crushed” the Mormons. Not that I doubt it, but if you cannot provide the citation for analysis, you argue as a Manichee. (I say this believing that you are fully capable of providing a citation.)

  38. Comment by John Hutchins:

    1. False equivalence: When a historian specializing in Church history ventures outside his narrow expertise and is later shown wrong, why should you trust him on matters of Church history? Is this your question?

    No, he is a historian that was using the discrediting of the Anglo-Saxon invasion as a pivotal point in his history of the church (as it means that England is still a “Roman” state) and was doing it contrary to all available evidence of his day. Similarly, he has a different view of the Christianity during the first two centuries that is contrary to all available evidence of his day and ours and does not agree with even other Catholic historians that specialize in such things. Why should I pay attention to him on the subject of Christianity in the first two centuries when his thesis is already discredited with the Anglo-Saxon invasion and his merit as a scholar is discredited with the same?

    2. Non sequitur: You did not answer the question as regards Mormons in Belloc’s time

    It is not a Non sequitur nor is it a talking point. You said that the popular image of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was such that “as he knew it would deserve to be crushed”. Why does the popular image of any group matter in whether they deserve to be crushed? Also, why should any group deserve to be crushed in the first place? How do you justify your view?

    3. Habeas corpus: I should be interested to see the ripping good yarn he wrote about the Mormons which says he “would have crushed” the Mormons.

    From a footnote in section VIII: “The rise of these oddities is nearly contemporary with Wycliffe and is, like his career, about one hundred years previous to the Reformation proper: the sects are of various longevity […] others like the Mormons near a century, their close is not yet.”, which footnote is in a section on heretics (the Adamites and Wycliffites) that were (in his view) justifiably made extinct. In section II of the book he also justifies the martyrdom of heretics.

  39. Comment by The Ubiquitous:

    I do not see that you are interested in truth.

  40. Comment by The Ubiquitous:

    1. Read Christopher Dawson. His vision of Church history squares beautifully with Belloc.

  41. Comment by The Ubiquitous:

    2. Wrote I: And, regarding the Mormons, explain how they did not live in the lore of his day as insular polygamists, and why he should have given Mormons a second thought.

    in the lore of his day

    in the lore of his day

    in the lore of his day

  42. Comment by The Ubiquitous:

    3. Quite a stretch, as you’ve presented it.

  43. Comment by John Hutchins:

    For 2:

    in the lore of his day

    in the lore of his day

    in the lore of his day

    Why does the lore of his day or our day or any day matter in determining who deserves to be crushed? why does anyone deserve to be crushed for their beliefs? This is what I keep on pointing out and this is what others can’t seem to understand; that no one deserves to be crushed because of their beliefs, no matter the propaganda against them. Prosecuting anyone for breaking laws which are not formed with the purpose of persecuting their beliefs is fine, otherwise neither in his day, our day, or any other day does belief alone merit destruction as judged by any mortal being.

    I would be more willing to listen to your opinion on 3 if not for the way you have consistently treated what is labeled 2. I would be more willing to read the historian for 1 if not for your first response and my lack of desire to read potential propaganda pieces in favor of original documents. How about this, if you read all of James E. Talmage’s writings dealing with religion and I will read all of Mr. Dawson’s works (of which there appears to be considerably more) (or if there is someone that you think is better then Mr. Dawson (that I haven’t read already) then just let me know), I will start when you let me know you have started.

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