The history of Humanity and knowledge are almost always presented as a succession of brilliant ideas artificially separated from the societies that generated the same figures who enunciated them. However, the history of knowledge is more similar to an eternal return of the same ideas applied to different social situations than a triumphal march towards truth. Ideas are important for change, but different class configurations in power also cause brutal reinterpretations or new applications of the same ideas that had been used before. Each ruling class leaves deep scars on the arts or sciences it promotes and generates, something that can be clearly seen by comparing the differences in the development of knowledge between the middle ages and the period of the rise of the bourgeoisie.
Mercury and Philology’s Bad Marriage
In most class societies that have existed throughout history, society was strictly divided between “intellectual” and “manual” work. The latter category included not only serfs and/or slaves, but merchants and craftsmen in a number of professions considered unworthy of a free man:
There are the activities of great men and those of lowly people. Moreover, the ambition of a single person requires the work of a hundred categories of workers. To want to force each one to provide for himself everything he needs, is to force everyone to constantly run up and down the roads. This is why it is usual to say: to some the work of the spirit, to others that of the muscles. Those who devote themselves to the work of the spirit govern, those who devote themselves to manual work are governed.
Mencius (孟子) c. 370 BCE
This is the model of pre-modern China, but also of the ancient Mediterranean world and its continuation in the form of the Middle Ages. According to the founding Carolingian account of the medieval arts, the unity and subordination of the arts is due to the marriage of Philology and Mercury, where the liberal arts of free men would come from the former and the mechanical arts from the subordinate classes from the latter. There was a clear contempt among the nobility and the clergy for the mechanical arts, which were constantly treated as inferior and, in the words of the famous 12th century theologian Hugh of St. Victor, as “adulterous arts,” which did nothing but grossly imitate the power of nature. The classification of the seven adulterous arts was variable, but almost always included the occupations of the incipient bourgeoisie and the peasants: manufacturing, trade, agriculture, alchemy, sometimes medicine. The mechanical arts were part of a totality along with the liberal arts, all were “useful”, but the mechanical ones brought nothing good in themselves for government or knowledge.
The last art to be discovered, and the least important knowledge of all belongs to mechanics.
Robert Kilwardby, De Ortu Scientiarum c. 1250
The heyday of the Middle Ages is marked by the growth of commercial cities, the arrival of the classical legacy from the Muslim world and the rise of that great medieval institution that still exists transformed in our era: the university.
In the great universities, such as those of Paris, Bologna or Oxford, students and teachers of theology, law and liberal arts meet to study a curriculum based on the work of the “Prince of Philosophers” (Aristotle) and to advance knowledge. However, this will not be the old slave-owning Aristotle, but rather a revamped version according to and for the needs of feudal society. Knowledge within the fields of the liberal arts made great advances in grammar, astronomy, Aristotelian physics and -especially- in logic, a field in which the questions that were formulated in the Middle Ages are still relevant today.
Contrary to the cliché, there were great experimentalists in the medieval era. Several of the greatest authors tried to solve the meteorological mysteries, among them the mechanism of the formation of rainbows. Aristotle insisted that water droplets generated the rainbow by directly reflecting sunlight like small mirrors, a blatant absurdity to medieval people. A mirror returns white light as the reader knows, no iridescence is generated on a reflective surface unless it is a very, very thin layer like certain oil films or soap bubbles. The question would be partially solved when one of the Parisian students, Theodoric of Freiberg, discovered through lenghty experimentation with glass vials the mechanism of the formation of the rainbow inside each drop. In each individual drop, a series of refractions and reflections occurred, returning iridescent light in the opposite direction to the sun’s rays, in a way similar to soap bubbles (whose mechanism couples the interference between two reflections and a refraction).
However, Theodoric was unable to explain why the rainbow is shaped like a bow, even though the knowledge needed to solve the riddle already existed by the 13th century. The mystery of the bow would not be completely solved until three centuries later by Descartes. The weight of “tradition” was too important in feudal ideology.
We say that one should teach what the Philosopher [Aristotle] said on a subject, by the authority of his philosophical doctrine and by the respect it deserves; and each one should interpret what he says according to his knowledge and ability. But it must be understood, as the Philosopher himself said, that one should never depart from what is evident to the senses.
Theodoric of Freiberg, De Iride et Radialibus Impressionibus c. 1305
Such tradition was extremely recent – Aristotle’s teaching had been banned a century before for being new, potentially atheistic and “dangerous”. However, the doctors of the church had managed to twist the prince of philosophers into a defender of the Christian religion, the divine right of monarchs, and, of course, the superiority of the liberal arts over the mechanical arts. God became the final Aristotelian cause, and the monopoly of access to knowledge about nature remained in the hands of the priests, who could “interpret” the substantial forms divinely given to nature according to the scriptures. The two swords – the temporal power of the nobility and the religious power of the church – reigned over society and thus saw their power and empire over the subordinate classes justified. Due to the substantial forms, neither the mechanical arts nor experimentation on the transformation and composition of matter had much to contribute to knowledge:
Art by its own capacity cannot confer a substantial form, but it can do this through a natural agent, as is clear in the case of fire where art is capable of inducing the form of fire in wood. But there are substantial forms that art cannot induce in any way, because it cannot find the corresponding passive and active subjects. Even in these can art induce a resemblance, as when alchemists produce something similar to gold in its external appearance. But it is not real gold, because the substantial form of gold is not induced by the heat of the fire – which the alchemists use – but by the heat of the sun in a certain place where the mineral force flourishes.
Thomas Aquinas. Comments on the second book of judgments c. 1260
The optics experiments were not intended to change any substantial form, sunlight was natural light in a rainbow and in a glass “raindrop”. However, for the scholastics a manipulation of the fundamental properties of matter was absurd. The result would only be a perversion of the natural forces operating within matter.
Naturally, the minority defending Mercury’s arts outside the university and power did not think so:
Fire caused by natural lightning and fire caused by rubbing flint are the same fire. The natural air and the artificial air produced by boiling are the same air […] Green salt, vitriol, tutia [zinc oxide] and ammonia salt are both artificial and natural. But the artificial [product] is even better than the natural one, something that anyone who knows about minerals cannot deny […] The natural tree and the grafted tree are both trees. […] Therefore the works of man can be natural according to their essence and artificial according to their mode of production.
Book of Hermes. 12th century
The impact and limitations imposed by feudal society are not just apparent in what was taught in the universities, but also in the ideologies of state governance. The market is defended as a guarantee of justice through the exchange of equivalents, endorsed by the monarch and his control over the kingdom and the currency. For Aristotle and the medievals, there exist two ways of using money, one natural and the other unnatural. Using money to promote exchange in the market is the natural way, using money to generate more money (i.e. as capital) is the unnatural way. Only the layers of the subordinate classes considered most despicable by medieval ideologues engage in making profit from the simplest and oldest forms of capital.
However, the Middle Ages are drawing to a close and kingdoms are entering into endless wars. Collecting taxes is not enough, kings are continually devaluing currency -the infamous monetary mutations- removing it from circulation and minting new currency with less and less precious metals per coin (with the king keeping the difference to finance wars and courtly pomp). Trade will be completely disrupted and the kingdom will enter an ever-deepening spiral of devaluation. One of the greatest Aristotelian masters of the 14th century, Nicole Oresme, writes his treatise on currency and advises King Charles V of France to stop the mutations and allow the French economy to get back on its feet. The text is a full defense of the feudal order, Aristotelically argued and demonstrating why the kingdom’s gold keeps flowing abroad no matter how much the king forces the kingdom’s merchants to accept the mutated currency by force. It will also be the last defense.
But it is a monstrous and unnatural thing for something unfruitful, something specifically sterile, to bear fruit and multiply. Therefore, when profit is made from money, not by using it to buy natural wealth, which corresponds to its natural use, but by making it more of itself, by exchanging one form of it for another, or giving one form for another, that profit is vile and unnatural […] In my opinion there are three ways in which profit can be made from money without using it for its natural purpose; the first is the art of the money-changer or banker, the other is usury, and the third is the manipulation of currency. The first way is despicable, the second bad and the third worse.
Nicole Oresme, De Moneta c. 1373
In the midst of the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Death epidemic, the descendants of Charles V returned to the spiral of mutation and ended up ruining the kingdom, until the work of the great bourgeois manufacturers in the service of the king managed to save the royal estate in the 15th century. France has moved on to a new era, and from Louis XI onwards the king will rely increasingly on the bourgeoisie and declare war on the nobility. The great lords will raise armies to fight the king and will besiege Paris several times… The end of the feudal order is approaching little by little.
The laughing anatomist
The commercial cities of the Italian peninsula saw their power increase from the 14th century onwards and increased the circulation of money and trade in general, bringing the bourgeoisie to the fore. The bourgeoisie and aristocrats employed the best craftsmen to compete and distinguish themselves as a new ruling class by sponsoring all sorts of new trends.
The human mind claims for itself a right to divinity not only in creating and shaping matter through the methods of the arts, as we have said, but also in transmuting the forms [species] of things […] Here we marvel that the souls of men dedicated to God rule over the elements, control the winds, disperse the mists, cure the diseases of the human body and the rest. These things were done in certain ages by various peoples, as the poets sing, the historians narrate, and the best philosophers do not deny, the ancient theologians testify, especially by Hermes and Orpheus, and recent theologians demonstrate in word and deed.
Marsilio Ficino, Platonic Theology 1482
We are at the beginning of the Renaissance, and practically the first thing the new current will do is to vindicate the mechanical arts. A whole series of schools and tendencies were established parallel to the universities – where medieval influence still lingers – and called into question the centrality of Aristotle and the speculative method.
[The mechanical arts] are the true sciences, those which experience has made penetrate the senses and silenced the languages of the litigants […] experience does not feed its researchers with dreams but proceeds according to a series of real stages to an end.
Leonardo da Vinci, Trattato della Pintura c. 1540
This challenge is still being carried out in the name of the lost wisdom of the ancients, which entails resurrecting Platonic philosophy, the pre-Socratics and all types of imported esotericism. As Ficino makes clear in the above quotation, a good part of the interest in the ancients is still focused on theological issues. Christianity itself is by no means in danger yet, but the monopoly of the Catholic Church and its ideological control are in question. It will be in the name of a renewal of Christianity that Protestant philosophers will call for “knowledge from the point of view of the maker”, with clear parallels between the craftsman and the Platonic demiurge god. But this Renaissance concoction lacks an essential aspect of medieval Aristotelianism, the latter being a more or less complete system developed over centuries and in several respects more reasonable than the initial Renaissance extravagances. Where the Aristotelian “must not depart from what is evident to the senses”, the Renaissance followers have to fill the mechanistic gap with all kinds of magic and abstract delusions to justify the results of the experience. Monads, celestial forces, particles and all sorts of stuff keep combining in a multitude of ways in Renaissance treatises.
At the same time, the mechanical arts cease to be a dishonorable pastime for the Renaissance lord or aristocrat. From the 16th and 17th centuries onwards, “gentleman farmers” dedicated themselves to and proudly participated in agricultural improvement, lords and kings set up laboratories and hired chemists, literati, doctors to improve the management of the kingdom and fill the ever-dwindling state treasuries, and finally some universities began to open up to change.
The way to connect the phenomena described by experience into an explanatory system will not come from any truly new idea, but from an old acquaintance of medieval scholars: the atomism of Epicurus and Democritus. In fact, atomism had served as the basis for John Wyclif and the Lollards’ attack on the church by denying the transubstantiation of the consecrated host into the body of Christ. Although this ended up causing peasant revolts against the Hundred Years War in the 14th century and a certain degree of proto-Protestantism, under medieval conditions it could not go beyond a doctrinal theological dispute. Similarly, the atomism of Indian Jainism never engendered anything more than doctrinal disputes without any application. From the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, the interest in Epicurus and Democritus became more practical. Lucretius’ “Rerum Natura” was rediscovered by Marsilio Ficino himself in the 15th century and all the Roman mythology about Democritus translated and spread during the Renaissance.
Although nothing is left of the real Democritus, for the Romans (and for Renaissance scientists) Democritus was at the same time no less than both the great anatomist who had taught Hippocrates comparative anatomy and also the father and promoter of alchemy, thanks to a whole series of much more recent Egyptian treatises written in the name of Democritus. If Pliny and Seneca confirmed it, why would the Renaissance researcher doubt Democritus’ deeds?
Medicine was advancing at full speed between the 16th and 17th centuries and thanks to the Renaissance, the university in Italy had freed itself from some of the medieval obstacles and had focused on medical experimentation. Vesalius, almost a century before the publication of Galileo’s texts, had fought an uphill battle defending experimental anatomy against the medieval medicine of Galen and Hippocrates. Democritus had become the patron saint of physicians:
Anatomy is therefore not a dissecting [dissectrix], but rather a dissolving [dissolutrix] discipline […] It is clear then, that what we call Anatomy is the reduction by means of art [artificious] of the universe of the animal body in its smallest component parts.
Marco Aurelio Severino, “Zootomia Democritea”, 1640
In Padua, London and Leiden physicians called themselves the “true democriteans” and tried to apply the principle of resolving natural bodies to their smallest parts. But they had not forgotten Democritus the alchemist, whom they mentioned despite being still being unable to combine him with the rest of medicine. In the 17th century, the medical student René Descartes openly used Epicurus’ atomism (after rejecting the parts that implied the slightest danger of atheism) to reduce the phenomena of the universe to the mechanical interaction between particles. One of Severino’s colleagues in Italy, William Harvey, discovered the true mechanism of blood circulation through experiments and returned triumphantly to England. He did so while presenting a model openly comparing the microcosm of blood circulation to the functioning of the macrocosm of the absolutist state apparatus and its treasury.
Not only is this model one of the main foundations of modern English political thought, it was also one of the theoretical foundations of the Republican movement during the English Revolution. The fusion of the new medicine with the new physics and alchemy would be one of the main stimulants of the emergence of proto-economic theory in the research institutes sponsored directly by the English and French monarchy. The absolutist kingdom was absorbing and applying in its bosom the new mechanical science to improve its economic position during the era of mercantilism. This marked the final decline of medieval scholasticism, which disintegrated in the universities and only found defense in the re-feudalized remains of the Spanish university. Universities where doctors still advocated the uselessness of the arts to learn about nature and whose admittance, contrary to what happened in medieval Spain, was limited to the nobility. It would be way later, during the 18th century, when an extremely weak Spanish Enlightenment reached the Renaissance arguments against Scholasticism:
[In the words of Hippocrates] Democritus was the wisest and most sane man in the world. Another letter is found from Hippocrates to Democritus where he is recognized as the greatest natural philosopher of the world […] which in my opinion makes credible the accusation that some authors oppose to Aristotle, that he did not faithfully expound the opinions of Democritus and other Philosophers who preceded him, so as to establish in the world the kingship of his doctrine by discrediting all others and doing (says the great Francis Bacon of Verulam) with the other Philosophers what the Ottoman Emperors do, who in order to reign safely kill all their brothers.
Benito Jerónimo Feijóo, Teatro Crítico Universal c. 1740
In the early 18th century, the most famous medical institution has moved from the University of Padua to Leiden, where one of the most famous anatomists of all time, Sylvius (Franz de le Boë), has managed to combine Harvey with the particles of Descartes and the alchemy of Van Helmont in a complete model. All functions of the body are reducible to theoretically measurable mechanical and chemical interactions. Two of the students of Sylvius’ school will also be instrumental for science and politics. The first, Bernard Mandeville, will be one of the most famous proto-utilitarian theorists of the 18th century and influenced Malthus. The second, Hermann Boerhaave, after trying to separate “good” from “bad” alchemy, will be one of the main influences of François Quesnay, the founder of the French sect of the Economists.
The old feudal world, maintained more in its form than in its content, falls apart as the Enlightenment begins to take shape. The moral order is openly called into question, the assurances of salvation in the hereafter on condition of obedience to the feudal-clerical apparatus are no longer believable for a part of the bourgeoisie and the Enlightenment. With extensive quotes from a refurbished Lucretius and Epicurus, the Enlightened defend an entirely deterministic world made up of mechanisms where neither divine grace nor free will have any room. All this with a certain degree of irony, since the original Epicureans fought against absolute determinism… These Enlightenment figures, among them Helvétius, d’Alembert and practically the entire band of encyclopaedists met in the hall of Paul Henri Thiry, Leiden student and Baron of Holbach, to discuss the new science and the new world:
During the most frightening storm, excited by opposing winds, when the waves are as high as mountains, there is not a single particle of dust, or drop of water that has been placed at RANDOM; that does not have a sufficient cause to occupy the place where it is found to act in the way it should act […]
During these terrible convulsions, which sometimes shake up political societies, shake up their foundations and often cause the collapse of an empire – there is not a single action, a single word, a single thought, a single will, a single passion in the agents, acting either as destroyers or as victims, that is not the necessary result of the causes in action […] according to the situation these agents occupy in the moral whirlwind.
Baron d’Holbach, “Système de la Nature”, 1770
It is at the same time the original version of the “Laplace’s demon”, where knowledge of the position and velocity of all the particles of the universe would make it possible to predict the future thanks to absolute determinism, and the reduction of morality to a “whirlwind” with material causes. In such a mechanistic world, the claim of the old clerical and absolutist apparatus to represent the common good was indefensible. How could one attempt to achieve the common good in such a society, separated from divine influences? One can continue to twist Epicurus in order to arrive at utilitarianism, a maximization of the common good – in the form of happiness – over the whole of society… For Mandeville and the economists inspired by Helvétius – Bentham among them– it will be clear, this needs to be done by breaking the old order by further promoting trade, agriculture, industry and consumption.
To obtain maximum collective happiness, the old non-economic ties between the classes of society had to be severed and replaced by an exchange of equivalents guaranteeing the freedom and equality of individual producers. Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith resurrected Aristotle to make him defend accumulation and the central role of the market in guaranteeing equality and justice in an increasingly commodified society… A capitalist Aristotle opposed to the ancient and medieval Aristotle reigns over society. The ancient mechanical arts, so reviled by the feudal world, reign over a society on the rise that at the time seemed to meet the expectations of rising health and wealth announced by the ancient chemists:
[These] lights and knowledge can only be derived from the study of the mathematical sciences, of good physics, of chemistry and of mineralogy; faculties which have taught men many useful truths, which have banished from the world many pernicious concerns, and to which the agriculture, arts and commerce of Europe owe the rapid progress they have made in this century.
Melchor de Jovellanos, 1782
The limits of the atomic soup
Throughout the 19th century and much of the 20th, the analogies between the workings of the chemical/physical world and the economy kept growing. For the utilitarianists, moral science must be based on the method of the new sciences, and their economist successors will continue to try to apply the advances of the physical sciences to economic and political problems. The triumph of the kinetic theory of gasses -definitively reducing the macroscopic properties of matter to the interactions between microscopic particles- and thermodynamics will be the high point of the reductionist enterprise in science and economists will soon upgrade their modeling of the economy as a system of interacting particles. Ranging from the similarity between income distributions and particle velocity distributions in a gas to Samuelson using the methods of his hero Willard Gibbs to maximize utility or profit in the same way that a maximum of free energy or another thermodynamic variable is found in a chemical system.
Edwin Wilson is not well known among economists, but his importance to Samuelson and therefore to his Fundamentals is hard to overestimate. Wilson was one of the two protégés of the great American physicist Willard Gibbs, leading Samuelson to repeatedly express his admiration for Wilson by calling Gibbs his own intellectual grandfather (this analogy would imply that Irving Fisher is Samuelson’s uncle). […]
For Samuelson [Le Chatelier’s principle he learned in Wilson’s classes] was an outcome that worked in any system in equilibrium, whether in physics, chemistry or economics. This would be an important idea in his later works.
Irving Fisher himself and the Keynesians would use hydraulic simulators and systems to integrate the outcome of many independent economic actions. The logic is the same as in gas theory and classical physical systems, causality is the simple one-way sum of interactions at the microscopic level to generate states at the macro level. A simple metaphysics derived from the period of the rise of the mechanical arts that allowed great discoveries to be made in the physical sciences but that notoriously fails to analyze complex systems such as the economy or living organisms. In these systems there is no direct and simple relationship between the micro and the macro, the final result is not a sum of micro parts:
The idea that macroeconomics not only needs a microfoundations, but that microeconomics can completely replace macroeconomics is the dominant position in modern economics. However, no one knows how to derive empirically relevant explanations for observable aggregates from the individual behaviors that generate them. Instead, claims of having produced microfoundations are defended on the basis of representative agent models in which a single agent treats the aggregates as objects of direct choice, with rules that apparently follow the logic and mathematics of microeconomics.
Kevin Hoover, “Idealizing Reduction: The microfoundations of macroeconomics”
Feudalism and capitalism generated their own ideological and knowledge systems in response to the interests and activities of their ruling classes. Both the aristocratic liberal arts and the mechanical arts of workshops, doctors and merchants, pushed the knowledge of Humanity during their respective rising periods. And in the same way, the monopoly of both put brakes on the development of the productive forces during their respective periods of decline. Both were and are partial visions of the maximum possibilities offered to Humanity… possibilities that can only begin to take shape by bringing together a Humanity divided into classes.