Friday, March 06, 2009

Nicole Oresme, Bishop of Lisieux

Oresme was born in Normandy in (ca.) 1325. He was made bishop of Lisieux in 1377 and died in 1382.

Imagine my surprise when I called forth the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia for Oresme and found that it was written by Pierre Duhem! (You will hear more about him tomorrow.) Please read it, and see a far better treatment than I can do, by someone who read the actual works of this amazing man. Like the name of Buridan (of whom Oresme was the greatest disciple) I first learned of Oresme - and indeed of Duhem - from Father Jaki's masterwork, Science and Creation, and these three names appear frequently in Jaki's texts on the history of science:

"...the learned bishop of Lisieux and a man of very open mind... [Jaki, The Relevance of Physics 424]

The fascination with machines went so deep that a hundred years before Leonardo, Oresme found it fitting to compare the universe to a clock. And this he did, of all places, in a commentary on Aristotle's On the Heavens. For Oresme the skies, the stars, and the planets were no longer moved by desire or by intelligences in charge of each celestial body. The whole configuration and motion of the heavens reminded him rather of "a man making a clock and letting it go and be moved by itself." This was, of course, hardly a commentary in the usual sense of the word, but more a resolute shift from the organismic to the mechanical world view in physics. It signaled the beginning of a gradual abandonment in physics of the "holy and living principles" of the Peripatetics. The world was being spoken of less and less as a huge animal and more and more as an immense machine.
[Jaki, The Relevance of Physics 53 quoting Le livre du ciel et du monde, Book 2, chap. 2, edited by A. D. Menut and A. J. Denomy, Medieval Studies 4 (1942):170.

...Buridan’s originality made itself felt mainly through the writings of his most outstanding disciple, Nicole Oresme (1323(?)-1382), who completed his illustrious career as Bishop of Lisieux. This last honour came to Oresme as a reward for the many years of service on behalf of Charles V both before and after he ascended the throne in 1364. An enthusiastic patron of learning, Charles did his best to keep Oresme’s extraordinary abilities on the highest level of productivity. It was at Charles’ behest that Oresme had undertaken the translation and interpretation of three major works of Aristotle, the Nicomachean Ethics, the Politics, and On the Heavens, during the 1370’s. Together with the Politics, Oresme also translated and interpreted a spurious work of Aristotle, the Economics, a fact which throws light not only on the interests of his royal patron but also on the versatility of Oresme’s mind. It seems that the attention of the royal family was drawn to Oresme in 1359 at the latest by the remarkable works which he produced while at the College de Navarre, of which he became the grand master in 1356. Among those works are not only the routine commentaries on standard theological and philosophical texts required for academic promotions, but discussions replete with original insights covering such a range of topics as monetary theory, astronomy, astrology, geometry, and algebra. Concerning these discussions the originality of Oresme’s mind is best expressed in his prolific effort to apply the quantitative method even at phenomena and experiences which come largely under the realm of psychology. What he looked for in his De configurationibus qualitatum et motuum was a universal mathematical method equally applicable to physical changes as well as to changes occurring in man’s inner experiences. What all this amounted to was in a sense a call for a quantitative psychology and esthetics.A scholar of such calibre could confidently be expected to give a worthy account of his abilities when Charles V gave him the task of translating and explaining three major works of Aristotle. Of these, the On the Heavens, was scientific and it served for Oresme as the vehicle of expressing his long-nurtured reflections on some fundamental issues facing the scientific investigator of nature. The work today is recognized as a great classic of scientific literature.
[Jaki, Science and Creation 234-5]
After some very fair treatment of some opposing views Jaki goes on...
These passages show an acute awareness on Oresme’s part to correct, challenge, and surmount in virtue of his faith in the Creator the Aristotelian explanation of the universe. With respect to Aristotle’s insistence on the perfection of the universe Oresme emphasized that the perfection of the laws of nature was merely a modest reflection of the infinitely perfect attributes of the Creator. Obviously then Oresme had to reject out of hand the Aristotelian notion of an eternal, ungenerated, incorruptible heaven. Oresme allowed incorruptibility to the celestial region only in a restricted sense of its being frictionless, a proviso which effectively started the road to a unitary discussion of the motion of earthly and heavenly bodies. About the alleged eternity of the heavens Oresme most categorically stated that “the heavens did have a beginning not by natural generation but rather by God’s divine creation.” This sentence, which brings to a close his discussion of the question, is a worthy counterpart of the same section’s starting phrase. In it Oresme admits that the eternity of the heavens, or of the universe, is not in itself a self-contradictory notion, but it is contrary to the revealed fact that “the divine power... created the world out of nothingness.” In view of the created character of the heavens Oresme refused to go along with Aristotle’s insistence on its absolute changelessness and rejected the famous corollary of the Aristotelian claim of the eternity of the heavens, the endless recurrence of the same ideas and views. “This is not true,” reads Oresme’s terse rebuttal.

The difference between Augustine and Oresme in facing the idea of eternal recurrences is certainly remarkable. Augustine’s attitude still reflects tension and urgency. His age was still steeped in the astrological morass of pagan antiquity and he felt keenly its pervasive cultural pressure. Oresme’s calmness reflects the robust confidence of an overwhelmingly Christian ambience for which the once-and-for-all process of human and cosmic existence was almost as natural a conviction as the air one breathed. This is not to suggest that astrology in Oresme’s time had greatly weakened in exerting its debilitating influence. In a booklet Oresme felt impelled to call his royal patron’s attention to the futility of reading the future from the position of stars and planets. But on the level of scientific accounts of the world the question of eternal recurrences had already yielded to a new era of thinking rooted in the liberating influence of the dogma about creation by an absolutely sovereign Creator, the sole source of human and cosmic destiny.

To see in some particulars this liberating influence, it is enough to take a close look at the context of Oresme’s last remark on the idea of the Great Year. The context shows Oresme discussing the question of the plurality of worlds. For the necessitarian pantheism of Aristotle such a possibility was an anathema. For the Christian Oresme the Creator’s omnipotence guaranteed such a possibility, and he probed into it with obvious delight. His description of worlds enclosed within one another is a fascinating cosmological speculation. It evidences in several ways the special intellectual benefits which Oresme derived from his faith in the Creator. In answering the various objections to a set of worlds in which each world is smaller in the ratio of 2000 to 1 with respect to the world immediately surrounding it, Oresme parted with the strict Aristotelian definition of natural places and also with the idea implicit in the Aristotelian description of the world that the quantity of matter contained in the universe is determined by intrinsic necessity. Oresme clearly had no patience with such necessities, and the reason for this is given in his reply to the fifth objection against the plurality of worlds. According to the objection, which bears the heavy stamp of Aristotelian necessitarianism, several worlds would imply several gods. For Christian thinking such reasoning was patent absurdity, a verdict which came through strongly in Oresme’s concise reply: “One sovereign God would govern all such worlds.”
[Jaki, Science and Creation 236-8]

Note: Many footnotes are omitted from the above quotes; Jaki's texts are academic work of the first order, and meticulously documented.


At 11 March, 2009 02:35, Blogger TH2 said...

Its interesting that I just came across your blog, because a few days ago I just issued an article in mine on the origins of science, summarizing Duhem and Jaki's works on the issue. Great to find a fellow fan of Duhem/Jaki.



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