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Lynn White.pdf


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published their great works. It is no derogation of their accomplishments,
however, to point out that such structures as the Fabrica and the De
revolutionibus do not appear overnight. The distinctive Western tradition of
science, in fact, began in the late 11th century with a massive movement of
translation of Arabic and Greek scientific works into Latin. A few notable
books-- Theophrastus, for example--escaped the West's avid new appetite
for science, but within less than 200 years effectively the entire corpus of
Greek and Muslim science was available in Latin, and was being eagerly
read and criticized in the new European universities. Out of criticism arose
new observation, speculation, and increasing distrust of ancient authorities.
By the late 13th century Europe had seized global scientific leadership from
the faltering hands of Islam. It would be as absurd to deny the profound
originality of Newton, Galileo, or Copernicus as to deny that of the 14th
century scholastic scientists like Buridan or Oresme on whose work they
built. Before the 11th century, science scarcely existed in the Latin West,
even in Roman times. From the 11th century onward, the scientific sector of
Occidental culture has increased in a steady crescendo.
Since both our technological and our scientific movements got
their start, acquired their character, and achieved world dominance in the
Middle Ages, it would seem that we cannot understand their nature or their
present impact upon ecology without examining fundamental medieval
assumptions and developments.

Medieval View of Man and Nature
Until recently, agriculture has been the chief occupation even in
"advanced" societies; hence, any change in methods of tillage has much
importance. Early plows, drawn by two oxen, did not normally turn the sod
but merely scratched it. Thus, cross- plowing was needed and fields tended
to be squarish. In the fairly light soils and semiarid climates of the Near
East and Mediterranean, this worked well. But such a plow was
inappropriate to the wet climate and often sticky soils of northern Europe.
By the latter part of the 7th century after Christ, however, following obscure
beginnings, certain northern peasants were using an entirely new kind of
plow, equipped with a vertical knife to cut the line of the furrow, a
horizontal share to slice under the sod, and a moldboard to turn it over. The
friction of this plow with the soil was so great that it normally required not
two but eight oxen. It attacked the land with such violence that crossplowing was not needed, and fields tended to be shaped in long strips.

In the days of the scratch-plow, fields were distributed generally in
units capable of supporting a single family. Subsistence farming was the
presupposition. But no peasant owned eight oxen: to use the new and more
efficient plow, peasants pooled their oxen to form large plow-teams,
originally receiving (it would appear) plowed strips in proportion to their
contribution. Thus, distribution of land was based no longer on the needs of
a family but, rather, on the capacity of a power machine to till the earth.
Man's relation to the soil was profoundly changed. Formerly man had been
part of nature; now he was the exploiter of nature. Nowhere else in the
world did farmers develop any analogous agricultural implement. Is it
coincidence that modern technology, with its ruthlessness toward nature,
has so largely been produced by descendants of these peasants of northern
Europe?
This same exploitive attitude appears slightly before A.D. 830 in
Western illustrated calendars. In older calendars the months were shown as
passive personifications. The new Frankish calendars, which set the style
for the Middle Ages, are very different: they show men coercing the world
around them--plowing, harvesting, chopping trees, butchering pigs. Man
and nature are two things, and man is master.
These novelties seem to be in harmony with larger intellectual
patterns. What people do about their ecology depends on what they think
about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is
deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny--that is, by
religion. To Western eyes this is very evident in, say, India or Ceylon. It is
equally true of ourselves and of our medieval ancestors.
The victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic
revolution in the history of our culture. It has become fashionable today to
say that, for better or worse, we live in the "post-Christian age." Certainly
the forms of our thinking and language have largely ceased to be Christian,
but to my eye the substance often remains amazingly akin to that of the
past. Our daily habits of action, for example, are dominated by an implicit
faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco- Roman
antiquity or to the Orient. It is rooted in, and is indefensible apart from,
Judeo- Christian theology. The fact that Communists share it merely helps
to show what can be demonstrated on many other grounds: that Marxism,
like Islam, is a Judeo-Christian heresy. We continue today to live, as we
have lived for about 1700 years, very largely in a context of Christian
axioms.

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