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The Expansion of the Skeptical Crisis

The skeptical crisis in religion was expanded by the increased publication of ancient books. The result was that humanists discovered that ancient authors disagreed with one another pretty regularly. So, in addition to the religious crisis, there was a humanist skeptical crisis. Humanists were the scholars who studied the Greek and Roman classics. These ancient authors were considered to be authorities on the subjects about which they wrote. So the criterion for knowledge for a humanist might be this: A claim counts as knowledge if and only if it is stated by some ancient Greek or Roman author. So what happens when the humanist discovers that Plato says X and Aristotle says not X, that Cicero says Y and Marcus Aurelius says not Y? Since both claims (in either case) meet the criterion for being knowledge, there is no way to decide between them. So, one must suspend judgement.

Ptolemy, Astronomer
and Geographer
Then there were also some pretty dramatic developments in astronomy. The standard astronomical view in Europe, at least since Thomas Aquinas was the Ptolemaic view. This view held that the earth was at rest at the center of a finite universe, and the moon the planets, the sun and the other stars circled about the earth. As astronomical observation became more precise, more and more observations were found not to fit the Ptolemaic scheme. This required changes in the Ptolemaic account, complicating it greatly.
In 1543, Copernicus published a book in which he suggested that the sun was in the center and the earth revolved about it. Copernicus had been hired by the Vatican to reform the calender. His change to a sun centered theory beautifuly simplified the solar system but it also had rather dramatic consquences. It meant that the earth was not at the center of the universe as it had been in the Aquinian/Ptolemaic system, and this in turn meant that perhaps man was not the central object of divine concern. It also suggested that the earth was just another planet and not quite different in kind from all other astronomical bodies beyond the moon. In the Ptolemaic system, the sublunar realm was the realm of change. Beyond the moon lay the crystal spheres in which the stars revolved around the earth. This supralunar realm was supposed to be immutable. So the change from an earth-centered to a sun centered system had profound consequences. This change in astronomical perspective was the leading edge of what we have come to describe as the scientific revolution.

Besides these astronomical discoveries, Europeans were, as we have seen, discovering the Americas. One result of these explorations was that it became clear that Ptolemaic geography was inaccurate. And the exotic peoples Europeans encountered in their travels lived by very different customs than people in Europe. Europeans wore cloths and were somewhat sexually repressed, at least some of the natives had neither clothes nor inhibitions. At least this is how some of the Europeans saw it. Whose customs were right? It might be difficult to find a standard or a criterion by which to judge.

By the late years of the sixteenth century, the 1590s, there were quite articulate defenders of skepticism. Michel de Montaigne is probably the most notable of these. This is the man who gave us the famous Essays. But the early years of the 17th century, it was fashionable amongst French intellectuals to be a skeptic. Now, we often tend to think of skepticism as doubts concerning religion. But in the early seventeenth century it was quite possible to be a skeptic and a Catholic. Basically the line was - you can't figure these things out for yourselves - so accept your local religion - particularly Catholicism. This was, for example, the line which Erasmus took in arguing against Luther. This is sometimes called Fiedism. The idea here is that reason will not get you to the truth, so you must have faith.

Thus, for a while, there was an alliance between skepticism and Catholicism. Luther and Lutherans wanted no part of this, by the way. Luther thought that he had the truth. So he wanted nothing to do with skepticism.


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