Introduction to the Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution

The term Scientific Revolution is in itself controversial. Traditionally the term is used to describe the spectacular intellectual triumphs of sixteenth and seventeenth century European astronomy and physical science. But perhaps this is a rather simplistic view because much of the success of the scientific revolution was based firmly on achievements made during the Renaissance and before. The term revolution implies a rapid transformation but many scientific discoveries were achieved gradually phase by phase over a long period of time.

Despite this qualification by 1700 educated people conceived the universe as a mechanical structure like a clock and nature was supposed to be open to investigation by means of experimentation and mathematical analysis. Such new attitudes contrasted markedly with traditional idea i.e. that the Earth was immobile and the centre of the universe which was composed of a series of crystalline spheres and nature was a living organism. In the medieval world picture Aristotle rules – the heavens were unchangeable, motion of the planets was circular and perfect. Below the moon the Earth was changeable and was composed of only four elements – earth, water, air and fire. Thomas Aquinas had sought to assimilate Christian doctrine to the philosophy of Aristotle.

The major shift in outlook during the early modern period was closely associated with a broader cultural transformation in which the acquisition of natural knowledge and the control of nature were associated with man’s religious destiny. Thus the scientific revolution, if the term be allowed to stand, reflected revolution or change in other areas of society. In particular in this essay I want to discuss how the scientific revolution was a reflection of changes taking place in the Renaissance, religious change in the Reformation, technical and educational changes in particular which reflect world geographical discoveries and with a brief mention of politics, economics and war’s effect on science.


During the Renaissance Aristotle’s views had been questioned. Nicole Oresme denied the validity of reasoned argument and physical theory. Aristotle had developed a physical system largely by deductive reasoning but the Nominalists rejected deduction from the mere nature of objects and applied a stronger emphasis on empirical facts. Jean Buridan and Oresme advocated such views. Oresme felt that Christian doctrine was the only valid authority for knowledge and theology was the Queen of Sciences. The limitation of human reason implied that Christian doctrine alone could serve as the ultimate authority for human understanding. As the Renaissance progressed the interest in natural magic became dominant in the study of the natural world and such an investigation was sanctioned by the rediscovery of the texts of Hermes Trismegistus, quite wrongly believed to be of great antiquity.

The hermetic writings contain a blend of mysticism, magical and Christian elements. Renaissance thinkers thus secured the harmony between Christian theology and the vision of the natural world in the hermetic texts. The hermetic emphasis on the control of power by man was a significant feature of Renaissance natural magic or alchemy of which the chief exponent was Paracelsus. From this example we can see how an important stimulus to research (even if often of not direct scientific value) were the texts made available by the humanist scholars. The work of all the Greek writers was made available and the work of recovery was a precondition for future advance in scientific thinking even if many old ideas were rejected or open to misinterpretation such as the Hermetica which made astrology, alchemy and magic acceptable which would retard the advance of actual science. However, the humanists did the world of science a great service in spreading Plato’s ideas because underlying the work of Copernicus, Brahe and Kepler was the Platonic assumption that the world could be explained in mathematical terms. The idea was applied to astronomy originally because Aristotle had held that mathematics could not explain phenomena on earth adequately but this view was overturned and led to the rise of mechanics under Galileo and Simon Stevin aided and abetted by the humanist translations of Archimedes.

From these example I hope it is clear that Renaissance humanism had a profound impact on the scientific revolution by making old knowledge available. But humanism’s influence was wider than that because their study of the original sources had not been confined to scientific treatises and the Bible itself was scrutinized which ultimately led (amongst other causes) to the Reformation. But before I go on to discuss religion and its influence on the scientific revolution one last theme of the Renaissance in connection with science needs to be discussed – namely the contribution of the Renaissance painters.

These were the first to develop a close and accurate observation of nature and we can see in the work of Leonardo da Vinci details of human anatomy, plants and rocks. Albrecht Durer’s ‘Hare’ and other works are well known for their close attention to detail while Leonardo’s and Andreas Vasalius’ anatomical drawings opened up new fields as far as medicine was concerned.


Thus the scientific revolution was in part a reflection of a revolution in learning and art that had taken place in the Renaissance. The humanists had contributed to scientific knowledge by their translations of Aristotle, Archimedes, Plato and Galen but perhaps more significantly they were indirectly partly responsible for the religious revolutions of the period in question. There is a great debate over the relationship of Protestantism to science. Perhaps at first glance we can see a profound relationship between the two because of Protestant’s share of scientific activity. For example in the Royal Society of 1663 62% of the members were of Puritan origin; the majority of sixteenth century botanists were Protestants e.g. Brunfels, Boch and Fuchs. However, I do not think such abstract examples prove much. Despite this the coincidence of new learning and new doctrine does exist but this may also be due to economic and social factors rather than religion per se. In commercial cities religious tolerance was furthered by the interests of trade but it should be remembered that in early modern society religious sanction was necessary for something to become socially acceptable. If Catholic authorities sometimes refused to sanction scientific research people would be less likely to pursue such activity. Max Weber argued that the Calvinist doctrine of election and belief that performance of good works is an outward sign of election determined intramundane asceticism which in turn led to greater economic activity and fostered capitalism.

Perhaps to an extent this is true. Calvinism could provide the religious sanction for manual and experimental work – all labour was a calling and such views were held by William Perkins and Latimer for example. The ethos of labor had received further impetus by the earlier emancipation of the artisan class which followed hard on the heels of religious freedom. Merton extended Weber’s arguments in stating that the attitudes if self restraint, simplicity and diligence furthered the aptitude for scientific research.

On the surface such arguments may sound convincing but there were many notable ‘scientists’ who were not Protestant and in any event the doctrine of predestination was not specifically Calvinist or even Protestant.

Perhaps the preponderant influence of Protestantism was an emphasis on the general priesthood of all believers under which system anyone could study. Although traditionalism remained strong in most Protestant countries and their universities was very conservative new ideas did have a better chance of being heard. There was no Holy Office or Index to prevent the emergence of new ideas that had been illustrated by the church’s conflict with Galileo. The analogy between the liberation from ecclesiastical and philosophical tradition by the Reformation and the liberation of science from ancient authority by new learning was not lost on contemporaries. Thomas Sprat pointed to what the Reformation and new learning had in common in that both of them refer to original sources – one to Scripture and one to the book of nature.

Against this some have argued that Protestantism was less favorably inclined towards Copernicus’ system than the Roman Catholics before the trial of Galileo but really only Melanchthon condemned the motion of the earth and Calvin thought that Moses had written part of the Bible for the common people – he fully recognized the discrepancies between the Bible and science but to his credit did not repudiate science. This accommodation theory wa sin turn to influence William Gilbert, Edward Wright and van Lansbergen.

The influence of Protestantism or more especially Puritanism on science can also be seen to interact with social factors. Puritanism found many adherents among the newly emancipated class of merchants, artisans and navigators – a ‘class’ that more and more showed and interest in science and technology. Gresham College was a Puritan hotbed and although Bacon was not strictly a Puritan his ideas found great acceptance among them. Francis Bacon exerted a powerful influence on the scientific tradition of the seventeenth century. Bacon was more of an essayist and moral philosopher than a scientist but in his ‘Advancement of Learning’ 1605 and ‘New Atlantis’ 1627 he offered schemes for the reconstruction of learning by the careful collection and comparison of data and use of experiments. Bacon thought that science should be directed towards religious ends – the restoration of knowledge that Adam lost at the Fall. This was certainly in keeping with many Puritan’s views.

Some historians argue that Puritanism was especially conducive to the pursuit of the sciences but there were more than religious motives for science. Nevertheless within the pattern of links between religious attitude and science the works of Puritan intellectuals from 1620 to the Restoration were important. Puritan reformers e.g the Prussian emigre Samuel Hartlib stressed the importance of the reformation of education, medicine, technology and agriculture. The revival of learning was the means for the realization of the utopian paradise and eschatological and utopian expectorations ran high during the Puritan Revolution. Nor was such feeling confined to England. Notable scientists such as Pascal supported the Jansenists in their struggle against the Jesuits and upheld the ideas of Galileo, Copernicus and Torricelli.

If Protestantism in its varied forms tended to encourage rather than discourage science this is in marked contrast to some Catholic attitudes towards scientific advance. However, before we denounce all Catholics as being backward looking and intransigent we should remember that the Renaissance itself and the consequent revolution in knowledge had been born in Catholic Italy. Galileo’s ‘Starry Messenger’ 1610, however, did cause a sensation which was made worse by his literary ability and character. He denied that theology alone could determine right or wrong in scientific fields and asserted the authority of the methods of science. His conflict led to the placing of Copernicus’ work ion the Index and Galileo’s house arrest. We can see how different sects reacted to the scientific revolution to only a limited extent because Galileo was an exception but perhaps his treatment shows the reluctance of some parts of the Catholic church to adopt new ideas of the cosmos once it had managed to adopt Aristotle’s and Ptolemaic ideas.

It is true to say that the scientific revolution was a reflection of revolution in other areas of society to a certain extent. Scientific advance was associated with religious revolution but we must beware of saying all Protestants were Copernicans and vice versa. Voet in the Netherlands and John Owen were both devout Protestants but refused to believe in Copernicus’ ideas and much of the ‘new learning’ had come from the Catholic humanists.


However, I feel that it is time to move away from religion to explore some of the other aspects of the scientific revolution. Religion was not the only factor experiencing a revolution in early modern society. The scientific revolution followed an earlier technological revolution which was a response to practical problems of the day. There were many earlier developments in the mechanical arts. Perhaps most notably of all there was the earlier invention of the printing press. Gutenberg’s invention had stimulated the technological revolution itself by creating a demand for specially cast metals and more complex machinery but much more significantly it helped enormously the dissemination of new ideas and knowledge without which there would have been no scientific revolution. The knowledge of the ancients would have been confirmed to a few academics and the ideas of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo in particular would not have had the influence they did on Newton if the ideas had not spread. The scientific revolution owes a great debt to the foregoing technological revolution in printing.

But the technological revolution consisted of more than printing. The famous humanist Luis Vives advised scholars to visit workshops and said ordinary man knew better than the philosophers who instead of real nature imagined ‘Forms, ideas and other chimerae’. Peter Ramus urged the same advice and in England there was close cooperation between craftsman and would be scientists at Gresham College, a similar development took place in Holland at Leyden university and at Rotterdam.

War and Politics

The much earlier invention of and use gunpowder in warfare was related to politics. This eventually had further spin offs in the studies of ballistics and metallurgical crafts,. Drurer himself wrote a book on the fortification of cities and Leonardo and Michelangelo served as military engineers from time to time. Mathematicians were summoned by the emergent states to produce accurate maps (e.g. Mercator), artillery, ciphers for diplomatic correspondence or to supervise the mints. Thus the needs of war, which were frequent in this turbulent period, influenced the scientific revolution via the demand for improvements in technology. Theories of surveying, projection, ballistics, cryptography, statistics and economics developed. Georg Bauer (Agricola) was a classical example of someone who studied practical problems and this resulted in his mining book ‘De re metalica’.


Perhaps more significantly the new geographical discoveries of Columbus, Diaz, Magellan, and Vespucci all had an impact on the scientific revolution. The practical problems of navigation led to the creation of better astronomical tables, improved maps and compass before the true onset of the scientific revolution. In addition to this demand the explorers themselves returned much interesting information from the New World. Columbus was a remarkably astute observer of flora and fauna for example. Exploration in turn was influenced by economics and politics. War was not the stimulating factor here but the discovery of new trade routes was. Thus we can see that there is a long chain of interaction from the economic and political demands of the emerging nations of Europe via technological and practical innovation to the advancement of the scientific revolution. The trades and crafts provided new technology, techniques and apparatus including the telescope, metallurgy, dyestuffs and surveying. War had stimulated therapeutics, and medicine, ballistics and engineering.

However, I think there is a very real danger of exaggerating the impact of practical problems on the scientific revolution. Technology and theoretical science touched each other at points but frequently ignored each other – for example the dyeing industry had little effect on chemical theory. Ambroise Pare’s medical advances in therapeutics had little effect on medical theory and who can tell if William Gilbert’s ideas were inspired by practical problems or by philosophy?


We have explored the effects of the Renaissance revival of learning, the influence of the Reformation, and technological advances stemming largely from the needs of war, politics and discovery of new lands. There are obvious connections between such developments and the scientific revolution but this should not blind us to the fact that the scientific revolution also picked up some momentum of its own, for example Boyle’s chemistry and examination of the physical properties of gases show the influence of Descartes particle theories as well as application of Baconian experimental methods. It could be argued that printing, a technological innovation, allowed ‘scientists’ ideas to spread theories. The theories of one man provided the stimulus to further research from another rather than the stimulus of any exogenous factor or revolutionary change. Descartes work provoked a storm of criticism from Pascal, Boyle and Newton. Isaac Newton himself, whose achievements are often seen as the culmination of the scientific revolution, in his work ‘Mathematical Principles of Natural philosophy’ 1687 had some base in the work of Kepler. Kepler in turn was indebted to Tycho Brahe and Copernicus. These example help to illustrate the fact that apart from the initial injection of the wisdom of antiquity the scientific revolution gathered a momentum of its own and was thus not simply a refection of revolution in other areas of early modern society. The scientific revolution was more original than that – for example the mechanical conception of the universe which had replaced old organic theories owed little directly to ancient philosophy the reformation or advances in technology. Such theories were the ideas of Descartes, Kepler and Newton’s individual genius rather than a reflection of revolution in other areas of society.

In conclusion it can be said that the scientific revolution was a reflection of a revolution in other areas of early modern society to only a certain extent. The early modern period witnessed political, religious, technological and geographical revolutions and these in turn were reflected in scientific developments but to admit this is not to detract from the fact that the scientific revolution itself, once established, gathered its own initiatives as a genuine interest in science grew throughout the period.

Dr Simon Harding

Source by Dr Simon Harding

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