Following centuries of religious and political unrest, countless wars, and the infamous Black Death, which ravaged through nearly one third of the European population, Nicolaus Copernicus set off the Scientific Revolution in 1543 with his publication of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. However, this revolution would not be restricted to only the sciences, but it would forever change the global landscape in every aspect of life.
Although, named the Scientific Revolution, this metamorphosis of thought was not restricted to chemistry but touched on nearly every intellectually based subject. This widespread change was the product of a series of unique influences. Essentially, political, religious, and social factors contributed significantly towards the work of scientists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, by inspiring ambitious individuals to improve: their lives, the institutions that governed them, and human civilization as a whole.
To begin, Politiques used scientific development to establish a very powerful and intelligent persona, in order to provide themselves with a superior stature in comparison their less educated subjects. Some of these leaders like Louis XIV, were advised by a new type of scientist, the philosopher, who emerged in a growing number as thinkers of the Enlightenment.
For example, in a letter in 1676, French Minister Jean Baptiste Colbert explains, “the splendor and happiness of the State consists not only in maintaining the glory of arms abroad, but also in displaying at home an abundance of wealth and in causing the arts and sciences to flourish”(Doc. 11). The minister himself, may have even had his own philosophical advisors, who promoted ideas like establishing academic academies and laboratories to further advance the intelligence of the French man.
Colbert also mentions displaying an abundance of wealth, which historically in France many lavish palaces like Versailles existed, and the absolute monarch Louis XIV was not one to shy away from the glamour. France demanded very high taxes from its people, including the Huguenots, and an anonymous drawing dating from 1671 exemplifies the magnificent architecture and display of wealth that the taille produced. The drawing depicts Louis XIV visiting the French Royal Academy, where he is surrounded by scientific tools and gadgets that signify the remarkable and growing intelligence of France.
This is revealed as the growing field of science, and the discovery of the atom also allowed many to believe that humans possessed “an Infinite Wisdom and Power”(Doc. 8) that further supported belief in the Divine Right of Kings, that the French throne had been specifically chosen by god. Another instrumental force was religion, which was led by clerical officials, and also played a significant role as it provided scientists of the revolution with an inspiration, that they were efficiently employing all the intellectual ability that God had blessed them with.
The aforementioned Polish Priest and astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus, is an epitome of an religiously inspired individual. In his 1543 book, On the revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, in a dedication to Pope Paul III he states, “the learned and unlearned alike may see that I shrink from no man’s criticism. It is to your Holiness rather than to anyone else that I have chosen to dedicate these studies of mine… Mathematics are for mathematicians, and they, if I be not wholly deceived, will hold that my labors contribute even to the well being of the church,” (Doc. 1).
Corpernicus’ words illustrate the belief of many others of the time period, who aspired to both please their local clerical leaders as well as the lord himself. Similarly, the well known French theologian John Calvin also preached that the science was a beauty of the work done by god. In 1554, Calvin commented, “for astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God,” (Doc. 2). Copernicus and Calvin were very well respected individuals and their words reflected the thoughts and beliefs of countless others.
Another supporter of the religious calling of the Scientific Revolution was the Italian monk, Giovanni Ciampoli, the author of many letters including one to Galileo, the father of modern science. Galileo, also an Italian, was a physicist, astronomer, and mathematician, who contributed to many great intellectual advances and also improved the telescope. The 1615 letter read, “it is indispensable, therefore, to remove the possibility of malignant rumors by repeatedly showing your willingness to defer to the authority of those who have jurisdiction over the human intellect in matters of the interpretation of Scripture” (Doc 3).
This text is valuable for more than just its face value, as it suggests the positive and negative of these new astonishing discoveries. The Catholic Church faced a dilemma as some scientific matters began to conflict with teachings of the ancient scriptures, but at the same time others justified and seemed to prove the Bible to be true. In summary, many of these enlightenment thinkers and scientists were very pious and devoted to pleasing their lord, which led to a very dedicated effort in scientific study.
Lastly, the social aspect of society also contributed to scientific work, as many aspired to improve their individual lives, in addition to the well being of all of society. This attitude which was present across the European landscape, can be perfectly summed up by English philosopher, Francis Bacon. In his 1620 publication of The Great Instauration, Bacon remarks, “the true and lawful goal of the sciences is this: that human life be endowed with new discoveries and powers,” (Doc. 4). This statement magnifies the focus that society believed that it could continue to improve both locally and secularly.
This was aided by the presence of rationalism and critical thinking, which combined with the scientific method, made many need facts in order to believe things that were formerly believed through faith alone. A French monk and philosopher, Marin Mersenne, exemplifies this new insistence on the absolute truth as in a letter he states, “at least I am assured my experiments have been repeated more than 30 times, and some more than 100 times, before reliable witnesses, all who agree with my conclusions” (Doc 5).
In a similar fashion, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, wrote, “in geometry few men care what the truth may be, since it affects no one’s ambition, profit, or lust. But if Euclid’s proposition that the three angles of a triangle are equal to the two angles of a square, conflicted with the interests of those who rule, I know it would be suppressed” (Doc. 7). Both of these individuals portray a society that is determined for the truth and nothing but the truth, in experiments as well as from their nation’s governing bodies.
Hobbes criticism of the potential suppression of information is one of the many examples of potential improvements that revolutionary thinkers thought could be improved. Other social pressures included a call for friendship “among those whose minds are above partisan zeal because of their devotion to truth and human welfare,” (Doc. 6) and equality in learning opportunities for women. Although, the feminist cry of Margaret Cavendish, who remarked, “were it allowable for our sex, I might set up my own school of natural philosophy.
But I, being a woman, do fear they would soon cast me out of their schools,” (Doc. 9). Despite, Cavendish’s unsuccessful aspirations, her thoughts were shared by many other educated women, and in a short time this cycle would go full circle as the wife of Voltaire, Emilie du Chatelet, would shortly after establish herself and her sex as an intellectual power. Ultimately, the scientific work of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a product of many influential factors that spanned from monarchs, religious leaders, and the ambitious individual.
Politics as well as religion played very dominant roles in motivating scientists and philosophers to undertake the in depth studies that they became engaged in. Social influences, also contributed a significant role and coincided with both political and religious change. In final analysis, the Scientific Revolution was a period of remarkable change and extravagant discoveries, advances, and improvements across all aspects of life; that would have been miniscule without the instrumental effect that political, religious, social factors had on human civilization.