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Cuvier’s History of the Natural Sciences

Georges Cuvier

8. Summary / Résumé

24. Antiquity and the Middle Ages: A Summary

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  • 1 [For Cuvier’s discussion of the Renaissance of letters and sciences, see Cuvier (Georges), Histoir (...)

1Before starting our discussion of the Renaissance of letters and sciences,1 a rebirth so well prepared by the discoveries and inventions of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, I shall present a summary of the works of antiquity and the Middle Ages.

2The total number of years devoted to the sciences is no more than four thousand, and in fact, it is no more than two thousand, if one considers only the eras that have left us actual records.

  • 2 [Stereotomy, the science or art of cutting solids into certain figures and sections, to be used in (...)

3Born in India, the sciences spread to Egypt, Chaldea, and Persia, where they seem to have made good progress, at least in regard to their practical application. The ancient Egyptians invented land measurement; they could transform minerals into glass; they had some notion of natural history and anatomy; mechanics was well developed among them, as well as stereotomy;2 like us they made enamel, earthenware, porcelain, and they could compound the most solid and brilliant colors; and medicine is thought to have originated in Egypt. On the other hand, all their learning was bound up in a metaphysical and pantheistic theory that the priests did not communicate to the people except by symbols that were unintelligible to the people. This part of the cult was the only part known to the many colonies that left Egypt about 1500 B.C. The colonies we know anything about were those that were led by Moses, Cecrops, Danaus, and Cadmus. The Egyptian symbols, transported into Greece without being explained there, gave birth in that country to a religion no longer symbolic, and the sciences, now outside the temples, were able to develop freely. However, almost a thousand years went by before Greece had philosophers who were truly interested in the sciences. About the year 600 B.C., two important revolutions occurred in Egypt that finally opened up that country to foreigners, and the Greeks, with their taste for the sciences, hastened to the land from which their first lawgivers had come and where they hoped to gather more extensive knowledge. Thales was the first to teach in Greece the philosophy he had gone to imbibe in the temples of Egypt. Pythagoras imitated him a short time later and founded his philosophical doctrine on principles clearly originating in Egypt. The learning that the Greek philosophers borrowed from Egypt was not great, but when spread abroad in a nation where no hereditary sacerdotal caste had exclusive right to it, it developed into something great.

4The advance of the sciences in Greece was at first slow and impeded; none of their branches were the object of concentrated study. The philosophers wrote embracing the universality of the sciences. Now, such general studies could but bring about erroneous systems, founded only upon a few particular truths generalized by their authors. Each school in Greece had its own system, and mystical ideas were beginning to rule everywhere when Socrates called attention to the emptiness of such subtleties and led men’s minds back to what one might call the philosophy of common sense.

5His disciple Plato founded a philosophical school on which the musings of the Pythagoreans exerted a baneful influence. Although Plato disregarded the only method by which true progress can be affected in the sciences, we must start with his Timaeus in order to establish the chronology of the works of the human spirit in the natural sciences.

6The intellectual impetus given Greece by Aristotle was much more powerful than that given by Plato. This vast genius produced an almost complete system for all the sciences –physical science, astronomy, zoology, botany, and others. He embraced the whole, made note of all things, and merited the title of the father of science by creating and practicing the true method proper for its rapid and sustained progress. This method is the method of observation, which was restored to learned men nineteen centuries later by Bacon. The immortal works of Aristotle were written in 350 B.C. and they enriched science with an innumerable quantity of facts; the human spirit was thus set on the path to unbounded improvement. However, except for Theophrastus, who applied the Aristotelian method to botany, Aristotle had no successor able to continue his work.

7After Aristotle came the school of Alexandria, where the Ptolemies [cf. table pp. 236-237] attracted the elite of the Greek scholars; but the works of this school had literature, history, and criticism for their principal object, and with the exception of anatomy, which made true progress through their efforts, the natural sciences were neglected by the Alexandrians. The same applies to Asia Minor.

8After Rome conquered Egypt, the sciences began to be cultivated there again, but despite the ease with which naturalists traveled in an empire that comprised almost all the civilized world, the first two centuries of the Christian era produced only compilers. The sinister effect of the reigns of Caligula and Nero brought to earth the flight of the human mind. One lone man, Galen, produced original works; he alone has a place next to Aristotle; he extended the boundaries of nearly every natural science, devoting himself especially to anatomy, zoology, and medicine.

9The third century of our era was turbulent and filled with anarchy. Soon afterwards, the efforts of all men of genius were taken up by the struggle between Christianity and paganism, and when order and calm were finally restored, the chain of scholarly work was too utterly broken to be renewed. Theology had invaded everything, and all the ingenuity of the Greek spirit was lost in mystical disputes. The few books of this time that dealt with natural history considered the science only from the standpoint of theology, or else merely cited facts, chosen uncritically, as allegories.

10Throughout the Roman Empire, science in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries was a deplorable spectacle of progressive decadence. In the sixth century, the barbarian invasion of the Western Empire took place.

11In the Middle Ages, which began with the definitive establishing of the Germanic nations in the Western Empire and ended in the fifteenth century, we have followed the history of the sciences in its threefold direction: 1° In the Byzantine Empire, where the language was Greek; 2° among the European nations, which, brought together by unity of religious belief under the spiritual dominion of the bishop of Rome, kept the Latin language; and 3° with the Arabians.

12The sciences continued to languish in the East, amid religious quarrels. Nevertheless, chemistry was born there, amid the chimeras of alchemy.

13Byzantium, sole possessor of the deposit of manuscripts from antiquity, exerted a felicitous influence on the rebirth of science after the fall of Constantinople.

14Barbarian conquests plunged the peoples of the West into the most profound ignorance. For one moment Charlemagne relit the flame of enlightenment, but his unworthy successors let it die out.

15In the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, the shadows of ignorance became more and more dense; the point was reached where not a single monk in Europe was able to write a chronicle in an intelligible manner.

  • 3 [Arnauld de Villeneuve or Arnold of Villanova (born 1238, died 1311 or 1313), a doctor, alchemist, (...)

16In the thirteenth century, a timely movement brought human intellects back to life. Albert the Great and his pupil Arnauld de Villeneuve3 revived the love for science by their extraordinary erudition and the publication of their many works. Roger Bacon even made some attempts, although premature, in the sciences; he weakened the yoke of authority and tried to render the experimental method triumphant; but his century was not able to follow in his footsteps, and the discoveries with which this great man enriched the sciences were not utilized until several centuries later.

17The founding of the mendicant orders and of the universities and the organizing of the Crusades in Europe instigated a tremendous movement in the human spirit, and in a short time caused it to make an advance that perhaps no other effect could have made so rapidly.

18At the end of the thirteenth century, therefore, everything seemed to be in place for a happy revolution in the sciences. But Europe in the course of the fourteenth century was in turmoil due to many different reasons, and the movement of the human spirit was arrested. It recommenced in the sixteenth century, this time more rapidly and better directed, thanks to the promise of liberty introduced by the Reformation.

19Although their progress in the natural sciences had been little noted, the Arabians exerted some influence on the people of Europe after the settlement of their first conquests. They applied themselves to the sciences with great ardor. They received instruction in the lands of the Byzantine Empire they had subjugated, and especially from the Nestorians and other votaries of dissident opinions whom the intolerance of the Byzantines forced into exile. They successfully cultivated the newly born chemistry; they invented procedures for distillation and divers metallurgical operations. The science of botany is obliged to them for its progress, and they enriched the materia medica with a great number of totally new acquisitions.

20But they made no contribution to zoology or anatomy; their religion was entirely opposed to the cultivation of these sciences.

21For three centuries, the ninth, tenth, and eleventh, the Arabian schools in Spain reached their highest degree of prosperity. The Jews, and even some Christians, came to Spain from every direction in Europe to study medicine. But towards the end of the twelfth century, the empire of the caliphs was dismembered and was fundamentally weak, and the sciences ceased to be cultivated there.

22The remarkable epoch of the Renaissance in Europe was made possible by a happy concurrence of external events characterized by inventions and discoveries that were a powerful aid in the progress of the human spirit. The application of the compass to navigation produced the discoveries by the Portuguese in the East. The invention of engraving and the printing press, the application of clear glass to constructing optical instruments, the use of the same substance for enclosing the cabinets containing objects of natural history, the practice of preserving such objects in wine spirits, all furnished the means for progress of which antiquity had been deprived.

23Learned men of the fifteenth century at first busied themselves with works of erudition. They reproduced and commented upon the works of the ancients. Later on, bolder and more independent spirits included in their commentaries a few new observations, and, with the number of these increasing, the sciences took on a development that we shall tell you about in our next meetings.

  • 4 [René Descartes, Latin Renatus Cartesius (born 31 March 1596, La Haye, now Descartes, France; died (...)

24Our goal in this history has been to demonstrate a fundamental truth that dominates all of science, and that, as you will see, springs forth from scholarly work in every era – namely, that the boldest, the most ingenious philosophical systems and speculations are of no use to the sciences, whereas facts well observed constitute lasting gains and assure their authors an honorable rank among the benefactors of humanity. Aristotle, Theophrastus, Galen, and several others have left us monuments that still have their place in our general knowledge after more than twenty centuries, whereas the turbulences of Descartes,4 risen almost in our own time, are already completely forgotten.


1 [For Cuvier’s discussion of the Renaissance of letters and sciences, see Cuvier (Georges), Histoire des Sciences Naturelles, depuis leur Origine jusqu’à nos Jours, chez tous les Peuples connus [professée au Collège de France, par Georges Cuvier; complétée, rédigée, annotée et publiée par M. Magdeleine de Saint-Agy], Paris: Fortin, Masson & Cie, 1841, vol. 2, 558 p.]

2 [Stereotomy, the science or art of cutting solids into certain figures and sections, to be used in industry and construction.]

3 [Arnauld de Villeneuve or Arnold of Villanova (born 1238, died 1311 or 1313), a doctor, alchemist, theologist, and famous astrologer of the thirteenth century. Regarded as the most eminent doctor of his century, thoroughly versed in medicine, chemistry, astrology and in theology, he was fluent in Latin, Hebrew, Arabic. At Montpellier where he taught, all of Europe came to hear his lessons in medicine and surgery.]

4 [René Descartes, Latin Renatus Cartesius (born 31 March 1596, La Haye, now Descartes, France; died 11 February 1650, Stockholm) is known as the father of modern philosophy. A seventeenth-century French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher, he was one of the first to oppose scholastic Aristotelianism. He began by methodically doubting knowledge based on authority, the senses, and reason, then found certainty in the intuition that, when he is thinking, he exists; this he expressed in the famous statement “I think, therefore I am.” He developed a dualistic system in which he distinguished radically between mind, the essence of which is thinking, and matter, the essence of which is extension in three dimensions. Descartes’s metaphysical system is intuitionist, derived by reason from innate ideas, but his physics and physiology, based on sensory knowledge, are mechanistic and empiricist.]

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