Saturday, 4 May 2019

Science and Superstition

It is, I think, something of a common mistake among wargamers that the rest of human life does not matter to their tin men. Of course, in actually putting figures on the table and pushing them around, rolling dice and having a good experience, the rest of life does not make much difference. If, however, a wargamer can be persuaded to pull back just a little from the action, a richer context emerges for the battles, campaigns and wars which were undertaken. This might not affect directly how battles were fought, but it does impact indirectly.

One of the points made in this book:

Wilson, D., Superstition and Science: Mystics, Sceptics, Truth-Seekers and Charlatans (London: Robinson, 2017).

is that we should not consider the big thinkers in the age between the end of the medieval period and the French Revolution without at least an acknowledgement of the political, cultural and technical activities going on around them. In an age where the question most European people were asking ‘what must I do to be saved?’ the thinkers, as well as soldiers and diplomats, had metaphysical problems as well as the normal ones of moving around and eating.

Furthermore, technology did start to make a difference. The invention of the telescope, for example, must have had some sort of impact on the battlefield. Gunpowder too improved significantly across the era, as did methods of making artillery. McNeill, in last week’s book, has quite a lengthy section on why eighteenth-century French artillery improved so much and, hence, Napoleonic French artillery was streets ahead of the opposition, at least to start with.

Now it could be argued, and I guess probably has been argued, that such advances could and should have been made faster and better without the faith questions hanging around. Part of Wilson’s point is that yes, the church sometimes got things wrong and tried to stifle some ideas. The trial of Galileo is usually trumpeted at this point as the age of ignorance fighting a rearguard action against the enlightenment of science, of faith retreating against the onslaught of truth. As with all such stories, of course, the truth is a lot more complex than that, does not really impact of the Christian faith in the way that it is usually portrayed and possibly would not have happened at all if Galileo had not seemingly set out to irritate people who initially at least were on his side. The Church, while it was wedded to Aristotelian physics, we not quite the reactionary monolith that it is usually portrayed as.

Aristotelianism, of course, persisted post-Galileo. There were perfectly respectable Aristotelian scholars in the later seventeenth century, attempting to ‘fix’ the world view in the light of recent empirical data. In fact, they had a case. Galileo argues (and we all believe him) that a cannonball, once fired with a certain velocity at a certain angle, has a trajectory described by a parabola. It is the sort of thing done in A level applied mathematics papers. We can prove it nicely, given certain assumptions like a flat earth and a uniform gravitational field. The problem for Galileo is that, of course, the trajectory is not a parabola, as every gunner probably knew. The Aristotelian account worked as well. It was only when air resistance was added to the equations that the answer started to correlate with the experiment.

Mathematics, especially geometry, started to become more and more important. This fed into other areas of life. Thus the universe came to be regarded by some intellectuals as running mechanically, and this led to deism (although, as far as I can tell, all the deists actually denied deism). The world became something that ran on clockwork, and, eventually, so did armies and battles, at least in theory. The troops deployed in straight lines. They manned geometric fortifications. Siege engineers could predict the time table upon which the various stages of the siege would start and the day the fortress would fall. All of this seems to spring from a change in the view of the world in the intellectuals of the day. They were not living in ivory towers but in the real world of politics and wars (and disease, starvation, exploration, and so on).

Government power also increased. Communications improved, allowing control to be exerted at more of a distance. Coercion, in the form of armed force, became more common. The billeting of armies was separated from the civilian population and drill (again, with reference to McNeill, although Foucault makes the same point) creates a unit with loyalties to itself and its members, not the places where the members came from. Government thus became a calculation of how much tax could be extracted from the population to support standing armies which could be used to suppress dissent arising from the same rates of tax. A careful juggling act ensued, until, in France at least, the whole edifice came tumbling down with state bankruptcy.

An army, I have suggested, is a reflection of the culture from which it came. Eighteenth-century armies became more detached from the civilian population. Thus the French used Swiss and Irish troops, the English used Scottish and German. Armies were deeply political. The Glorious Revolution was sparked by James II’s attempt (at least, perceived attempt) to Catholicise the officers of the British standing army. That incident shows, at least, that monarchs, for all the ideology associated with monarchy, were not complete absolutists. Theories of government, like Locke’s and Hobbes’, might give more or less power to the centre, but practical monarchy relied on a degree of assent from nobility, gentry and the lower orders. The further an army was distanced from the population, the more suspicion it was treated with.

The early modern period was rife with conflict, both wars and ideological. The ‘victory’ of one side or another was not obvious to the participants and, often, the stories we tell about it are massively over-simplified. As Wilson observes, Newton spent far more time writing on occult ideas and theology (I think he was, in fact, vaguely heterodox) than he did about motion and mechanics or optics. To ignore the latter is to have less than half a picture of the man. To ignore intellectual activities is to have less than half a picture of the age.

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