BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Creator, midwife and guardian of science
, July 19, 2014
THE FRAGILE FLAME
by Hal G.P. Colebatch
(Perth, WA: Acashic Publishing)
Paperback: 620 pages
Reviewed by Jeremy Buxton
Western Australian author Hal Colebatch’s latest book, The Fragile Flame, is a comprehensive study of history and literature, which describes both the rise of scientific and technological achievement and the threats to its continued existence.
Totalitarianism, anti-rationalism and the cult of the primitive are the enemies of science, while Western Christianity has been its best support. Other prerequisites for technological progress include the rule of law, moderate taxation, security of property, the absence of slavery, support from the elites, and a belief in free will.
Dr Colebatch reminds us that the resulting flourishing of applied technology has greatly eased the harsh lives and labour of ordinary people and supplied them with affordable necessities.
Classical Greece gave rise to science, but was technologically feeble. The Roman empire, thanks to its greater institutional stability, developed technology, but lacked the impulse to advance it further. Both these ancient civilisations were handicapped by their prejudice against the miners, traders and artisans who are essential for technological advancement.
By contrast, Christianity emphasised the dignity of work, teaching the principle of individual moral responsibility rather than passivity, and the compatibility of faith with reason. Jesus Christ’s injunction to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s repudiated the notion of an all-powerful state, while St Thomas Aquinas taught that private property accords with natural law.
Western monasteries combined philosophical speculation with practical work. They housed scholar-technician monks who transcribed books and engineered water-wheels and clocks, whose benefits were shared with the general community. Christianity allowed for empirical experimentation, the germ of science; fostered mining and metallurgy; and condemned such mischievous pseudo-sciences as astrology. Notable early Christian kings, Charlemagne and Alfred the Great, were determined to spread the light of learning.
Dr Colebatch states that “Western Christianity, a religion with unique features, was, in general and despite some conflicts (inevitable when dealing with huge and complex bodies of thought), the creator, midwife and guardian of the one and unique scientific and technological civilisation”.
He adds that “while the New Age is marked by bad religion and bad science coming together, the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas would hold it inevitable that true religion and true science also come together”.
However, science and technology stagnated in the Byzantine Empire because of its disdain for trade, an ultimate cause of its fall. Islam was too intolerant to foster science, and Confucianism was too obsessed with stability. The Chinese empire banned mining in 1078 and towards the beginning of the 16th century scrapped its blue-water navy.
In Western Europe, it was often royal and elite patronage that made possible many of the great advances of science and practical innovation of the 17th and 18th centuries. King George III, a great patron of science with a keen interest in astronomy, paid for much of Captain James Cook’s epic voyage to observe the transit of Venus in Tahiti. The scientist, Sir Joseph Banks, who accompanied Cook, was both a representative figure of the British Enlightenment and a devout Christian. However, when the French Revolution sought to elevate reason and repudiate Christian faith, the end result was unrestrained barbarity.
Colebatch describes how, during the latter part of the 19th century, Germany invested in technology and in educating its industrial workforce until its economic prowess surpassed that of Britain. But Hitler, on coming to power, suppressed independent scientific enquiry and directed the superb pre-existing German technology into illogical and self-defeating ends.
Hal Colebatch’s vast literary knowledge is used to illustrate the theme that science and technology raise living standards. In John Masefield’s famous poem “Cargoes”, it is the “dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smokestack” that should be extolled over the romantic galley and galleon, because its mass-produced “cheap tin trays” will improve the lives of ordinary people. We are reminded that Rudyard Kipling wrote of the romance of machinery and that Douglas Stewart paid tribute to aeronauts and scientists.
On the other hand, the poet William Blake was an anti-Enlightenment “irrationalist” who rejected Reason. His “dark satanic mills” referred not only to the factories producing needed goods for the poor as much as the rich, but also to the universities that produced scientists. There follows a depressing list of writers who rejected science and technology because they actually opposed the material benefits they would bring to the despised masses. Colebatch castigates Thomas Carlyle, William Morris and John Ruskin, along with Blake, as “enemies of civilisation”.
Colebatch’s later chapters, with titles such as “Britain’s Science Holocaust”, “Assault of the Savages” and “Reprimitivisation”, tell of today’s neglect of and hostility towards science.
The decline in science teaching in modern Britain is matched by an unhealthy obsession with soccer, talentless celebrities and New Age pagan pseudo-science. The “fragile flame” of scientific and technological civilisation is undermined by weak governments and attacked by intellectuals — and not all of them are from the political Left.
Hal Colebatch has written a superb world history of science and applied technology while warning of its vulnerability and making the strongest case for its protection against modern-day ignorance, indifference and barbarism.