Mr. Royal, Let’s Get Our Christian History Correct, Shall We?
Robert Royal, editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., wrote an article titled “Pascal’s Fire.”
Mr. Royal, like many today who are trying to adhere to the Catholic Christianity that has been passed down to us over the centuries, climbs back to one of his favorite Catholic philosophers, Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662). To be sure, Pascal is to be admired for the incisive thinker he was. He certainly was nobody’s fool. He told it like it was, and with unabashed truthfulness. Unlike most philosophers today who, after Immanuel Kant’s wrecking ball that boasted it destroyed Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs for the existence of God, Pascal was a devout believer in his Church, his Bible, and his Tradition. From thence he spoke, even if it was often dressed in philosophical jargon for the more educated of society.
There is one note of caution regarding Pascal, however. He was a Jansenist. In 1653, Pope Innocent X, in Cum occasione, condemned the five major doctrines of Jansenism as heresy—especially the relationship between human free will and predestination. Jansenists tried to accommodate the pope’s decree and were accepted under Pope Clement IX. But later Clement XI issued the decree Unigenitus Dei Filius and there was no more toleration of Jansenism.
Be that as it may, Mr. Royal’s praise for Pascal is unfortunately marred by his own historiography of the time in which Pascal lived—during the great Galileo affair when the Church adamantly told Galileo he was wrong about what went around what. Here is what Mr. Royal claims:
In the mid-seventeenth century, people began to feel the collapse of the old geocentric science, “tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,” John Donne wrote at the time.
It appears from his short excerpt from Donne’s famous poem that Mr. Royal is reticent to point out that Donne’s poem was actually a lament for the fall of geocentrism, not a welcome step in the advancement of mankind. We can see this from the context of Donne’s poem, which the relevant part reads:
And new philosophy calls all in doubt
The element of fire is quite put out
The sun is lost, and th’ Earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies
We can easily see that Donne’s poem is a cry in the night and hardly a shout for joy. The “new philosophy” (e.g., Copernicanism, Descartes’ Cartesianism, and the like) is what put everything “all in pieces” and made “all coherence gone.” In short, Donne is lamenting that, whatever the Copernican system was, in one fell swoop it destroyed the culture and society that went before it. Things were easily understood before Copernicus, but now, as Donne sees it, everything is confused. Donne’s sentiments on the Copernican revolution are similar to Koestler’s, writing in the 20th century but looking back in hindsight at the damage that Copernicus did to the minds of men:
The new philosophy destroyed the mediaeval vision of an immutable social order in a walled-in universe together with its fixed hierarchy of moral values, and transformed the European landscape, society, culture, habits and general outlook as thoroughly as if a new species had arisen on this planet.
Another great 20th century historian, Alexandre Koyré, says much the same:
I need not insist on the overwhelming scientific and philosophical importance of Copernican astronomy, which, by removing the earth from the center of the world and placing it among the planets, undermined the very foundation of the traditional cosmic world-order…as we know, the immediate effect of the Copernican revolution was to spread skepticism and bewilderment….At the end we find nihilism and despair….The infinite Universe of the New Cosmology, infinite in Duration as well as in Extension, in which eternal matter in accordance with eternal and necessary laws moves endlessly and aimlessly in eternal space, inherited all the ontological attributes of Divinity. Yet only those – all the others the departed God took away with Him.
Another example of Mr. Royal’s historiography is as follows:
The ancient Ptolemaic system with earth at the bottom (not “the center,” as C. S. Lewis shows in his great little book The Discarded Image) was a pagan, not a Christian model.
As Einstein once said, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” In Mr. Royal’s case, a single incorrect statement will make us wonder if Mr. Royal really knows what he is talking about.