Seventeenth Century Developments
There is nothing in history that exists in a vacuum. As the most basic student of the discipline understands, cause and effect are the prime motivators. An event, any event, has its roots in the past. A period of time such as the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, did not suddenly happen. The scientific advances made in Europe during the eighteen century were built upon the foundations of the previous century. The great scientists of the seventeenth century pushed human understanding past Medieval notions, expanding ideas about the Universe, God, and the Human Condition.
There are three great Renaissance scientists:
- Nicolas Copernicus
- Galileo Galilei
- William Harvey
Each one challenged the established, accepted notions of the universe and revolutionized human understanding. Nicholas Copernicus destroyed the Ptolemaic view of the universe when he correctly demonstrated that the Earth revolves around the sun. Learned in medicine and astronomy, Copernicus published De revolutionibus in 1543, shortly before his death ("Nicholaus Copernicus"). Galileo, perhaps the greatest of the three, discovered the pendulum, followed by research on motion, mechanical devices, and his invention of the telescope. It was his discovery and observation of the four moons of Jupiter that supported the Copernican system. Of course, Galileo was persecuted by the Church for his "heresy" ("Galileo Project"). William Harvey also buried an accepted ancient. His study of the human body, published in De Motu Cordis, advanced medical knowledge significantly. In the course of his experiments, Harvey developed the scientific method.
Knowing what these men did, how then, can it be said that they affected the Enlightenment? First there is the new, Copernican system of the universe. Previous understanding of the solar system was replete with retrograde motion and complex patterns in which the sun and planets moved. For Copernicus, supported by Galileo's Jupiter observations, the universe became a series of concentric circles. The Earth and the planets moved around the sun like the gears of a clock. It was simple, and it was perfect. In the Enlightenment, the idea surfaced that the universe did indeed work along like a cosmic clock. God, then, became the clockmaker. He was no longer a distant, wrathful figure, but an orderly scientist. Mathematics and science could therefore be applied to all aspects of the universe. This is the birth of Reason.