January 11th, 2013
John William Draper’s version of the conflict between science and religion is quirky and idiosyncratic, and contains some unexpected bits. He shares with Andrew D. White a central claim, which too many people today continue to accept as true:
The History of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other.
Draper’s consistent praise of Islam for having supported and advanced science was unexpected and seems surprising. More surprising, however, is his view of Eastern Orthodox Christianity:
For this reason I have had little to say respecting the two great Christian confessions, the Protestant and Greek Churches. As to the latter, it has never, since the restoration of science, arrayed itself in opposition to the advancement of knowledge. On the contrary, it has always met it with welcome. It has observed a reverential attitude to truth, from whatever quarter it might come. Recognizing the apparent discrepancies between its interpretations of revealed truth and the discoveries of science, it has always expected that satisfactory explanations and reconciliations would ensue, and in this it has not been disappointed. It would have been well for modern civilization if the Roman Church had done the same.
His faith in an impartial, unbiased, and beneficent science recalls a more optimistic, if naïve, time. His ideal image of a-political science has become increasingly hard to defend:
As to Science, she has never sought to ally herself to civil power. She has never attempted to throw odium or inflict social ruin on any human being. She has never subjected any one to mental torment, physical torture, least of all to death, for the purpose of upholding or promoting her ideas. She presents herself unstained by cruelties and crimes. But in the Vatican—we have only to recall the Inquisition—the hands that are now raised in appeals to the Most Merciful are crimsoned. They have been steeped in blood!
While Draper eschewed footnotes and the other trappings of a scholarly work, he had a clear idea about the validity and value of a certain type of history. Like all things science-y, scientific history is the superior form of history because it is impartial and seeks to illuminate the universal laws that have shaped human affairs. Artistic history, by contrast, is inferior because it mistakenly assumes humans have some interesting agency, it distorts historical figures, making them heroes of our romantic fictions of the past:
There are two modes of historical composition, the artistic and the scientific. The former implies that men give origin to events; it therefore selects some prominent individual, pictures him under a fanciful form, and makes him the hero of a romance. The latter, insisting that human affairs present an unbroken chain, in which each fact is the offspring of some preceding fact, and the parent of some subsequent fact, declares that men do not control events, but that events control men. The former gives origin to compositions, which, however much they may interest or delight us, are “but a grade above novels; the latter is austere, perhaps even repulsive, for it sternly impresses us with a conviction of the irresistible dominion of law, and the insignificance of human exertions. In a subject so solemn as that to which this book is devoted, the romantic and the popular are altogether out of place. He who presumes to treat of it must fix his eyes steadfastly on that chain of destiny which universal history displays; he must turn with disdain from the phantom impostures of pontiffs and statesmen and kings.
Predictably, Draper violated his own injunction and wrote largely an artistic history, populated by a handful of heroes and as many villains, and a generous helping of romanticized conflicts between them.