Friday, July 3, 2020

"What did Augustine know?"

This is a new series and I find the first installment fascinating. Give it a read, from the blog Multa Legenda...

There are things that everyone just knows, there are things that “everyone knows” but few actually understand, and there are things that “everyone knows,” but some don’t believe.

Let me state a few propositions, by way of example:
  1. Britain is currently under partial lockdown, Elizabeth II is Queen of the United Kingdom, and Boris Johnson is Prime Minister. (I am writing on June 17, 2020).
  2. The Earth goes around the Sun, and the novel pneumonia that began spreading in China in roughly November 2019 is caused by the coronavirus denoted (by the standard nomenclature while I write this post) SARS-CoV-2.
  3. The Earth is undergoing climate change due to increased production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by human, who are a product of several millennia of mammalian evolution by natural selection.
Every one of these propositions represents the standard view, among experts, on the political situation in Britain, astronomy and medical science, and the origins of the human race and the present ramifications of its industrialization for the Earth’s ecosystem. But they hold quite different significance for most people.

That Britain is in lockdown is, for the person in Britain, an obvious fact, like saying that grass is green. To deny it would require careful qualifications (this “lockdown” is not a real lockdown; grass is often brown in winter or in summer heat), and, without them, would risk making one look utterly ignorant or out of touch with reality. Likewise, if I said that the Sun goes around the Earth. But that is not, though I have studied a fair amount of physics, something I have actually tested directly. I take it on the trust of universal consensus, and confirm that trust by the knowledge that ordinary experience of seasons, the phases of the moon, and the calendrical cycle do not contradict it.

That the Earth goes around the Sun has, as people sometimes say, a different epistemic status than the claim that Britain is in lockdown or my grandmother’s hair is grey. I believe all these things to be true, but I know some in ways that I do not know others. And, of those things I know on others’ authority, I of course hold some more deeply than others. I would be greatly surprised to hear that SARS-CoV-2 does not cause the novel pneumonia and reluctant to believe anyone who said so. Still, if such evidence were to be produced and gain evident currency among virologists, I would not hold onto a hypothesis formed under the pressure of a spreading epidemic with the tenacity with which I would hold onto a hypothesis upheld by centuries of astronomical observation and confirmed by the great successes of engineering (satellites, space stations, moon landings) enabled by an astronomy that includes, among its many findings, that the Earth orbits the Sun in an elliptical path.

There are many people who would insist with equal certainty on anthropogenic climate change and human evolution, but there are also many people who would adamantly deny them. Among either group, one view can become what everyone is supposed to know in that group, even if only one view holds the general respect of the educated (and so constitutes what everyone–in society as a whole–is supposed to know). To hold to a position or resist can thus take on overtones of politics and of something more indefinite and yet undeniably important: class will not quite do, as it suggests that social rank is decisive, but perhaps status. Controversy and opposition can shape what one thinks is under discussion, and imbue the discussion with a moral hue that, say, doubting heliocrentrism would not.

Today, the obvious objects of such tenacious, socially-inflected belief and disbelief involve science, sex, and some issues of practical governance. In late antiquity, we find that kind of tenacity focused on sexual lifestyles, too, but it’s ordinarily self-denial and refusal of marriage, not any sense of orientation, that is the main issue at stake. It’s monasticism, not liberation. The great dividing lines have to do with religion. There’s no party politics to speak of in the later Roman Empire, and very little substantial public controversy over natural science.

What I aim to do in this series of posts, therefore, is to take a number of topics–science, economics, civic life, and so forth–and say what it was that everyone knew about them in Augustine’s day. I do mean to keep those different senses of “everyone knowing” in play. Augustine will usually be our main source, and his views weren’t always uncontroversial. In fact, on many issues, they are distinctly controversial: he is describing what he thinks ought to become common knowledge, or what he wishes were, or what was common knowledge in his overlapping monastic, catholic, and educated circles. In some cases, we will quite distinctly be seeing “the world according to Augustine”: what he thought, possibly alone. But even then we are seeing what a particular ancient person thought, and that’s worthwhile in itself.

1 comment:

  1. A few nitpicks:

    Humans "are a product of several millennia of mammalian evolution by natural selection"? For "millennia" we should read "hundreds of millions of years". Homo sapiens goes back a couple hundred thousand years.

    A geocentric cosmology is not wrong--space has no absolute center, it is just a matter of perspective. And also utility, since the math is much easier when we assume the sun is the center of our solar system, otherwise we'd have to deal with things like, epicycles in the orbit of Mars.

    "Lockdown" and "the Queen of England" are abstractions that are best thought of as general descriptions of human behavior. There are a number of people claiming to be the Pope of Rome, other than the obvious candidate. For all I know, they may be right in their claims that, for example, the Holy Spirit has chosen one of them to lead the Catholic Church after all the post-Vatican II popes fell into heresy. In the same way, I can call myself the Queen of England, and who is to say I'm not? Being queen, or pope, is not so much a fact about the person, as about the masses who bow to them (which I, and the various anti-popes, unfortunately lack).