Did Eusebius attack science?

Browsing a usenet forum today, I came across a vitriolic post attacking the Christians by quoting all the ancient Christian authors who did not happen to hold the same views of science as those living nearly a score of centuries later.  For some reason the poster did not include the ancient non-Christian authors in his survey.  Nor, of course, did he provide references for any of his “quotations”. Instead he was repeating an usenet post from sci.physics from May 10, 1993, by a certain Gregory Aharonian, who wrote as follows:

Recently Will Brandt at Caltech posted a very excellent timetable of significant historical events in the field of science.  Given that science is a much a search for the new as a fight against the old (or at least that’s my opinion), I thought I would post a list of historical events where religion did something against science or unscientific.  There is no particular significance to the events I have included, other than I came across them while researching various things.  Incidents touch on physics, mathematics, engineering, medicine and computers.

After a quantity of stuff, arranged by date, there is this:

#300
#Noted Catholic Bishops declare science to be of no interest to Christians
The attitude of most of the Church Fathers towards science, however, was one of indifference or hostility. Bishop Eusebius, the noted historian of the early Christian Church, says of scientists: “It is not through ignorance of the things admired by them, but through contempt of their useless labor, that we think little of these matters, turning our souls to better things“.  Basil of Caesarea declares it “a matter of no interest to us whether the earth is a sphere or a cylinder or a disk, or concave like a fan”. Lactantius calls the study of astronomy “bad and senseless”. Like many other churchmen, he combats the pagan Greek notion that the earth is round and argues on scriptual grounds that it must be flat.

It is always a good idea to verify such things.  First, for the Eusebius quotation, I did a google search for “the things admired by them, but through contempt of their useless”.  This indicated that the text was widely used on a certain kind of website, such as this one

But far more usefully, it led me to an article in Popular Science, Vol. 8, No. 25, Feb. 1876.  Pp.385-409 (and “to be continued”!) contain an article entitled The Warfare of Science, and written by a certain Andrew D. White, stated to be “President of Cornell University”.  On page 387 appears something very like our material. 

But we must start on page 386 to see the context:

Among the legacies the thought left by the ancient world to the modern, were certain ideas of the rotundity of the earth.  These ideas were vague; they were mixed with absurdities, but they were germ ideas, and, after the barbarian storm which ushered in the modern world had begun to clear away, these germ ideas began to bud and bloom in the minds of a few thinking men, and these men hazarded the suggestion that the earth is round — is a globe. [1]

The greatest and most earnest men of the time took fright at once.  To them, the idea of the earth’s rotundity seemed fraught with dangers to Scripture: by which, of course, they meant their interpretation of Scripture.

Among the first who took up arms against the new thinkers was Eusebius.  He endeavored to turn off these ideas by bringing  science into contempt.  He endeavored to make  the innovators understand that he and the fathers of the Church despised all such inquiries. Speaking of the innovations in physical science, he said: “It is not through ignorance of the things admired by them, but through contempt of their useless labor, that we think little of these matters, turning our souls to better things.”[1]

The first footnote refers to Plato and the Timaeus; and also to Cicero’s works.  The second footnote may be given in full.

1.  See Eusebius, “Praep. Ev.,” xv., 61.

There is a certain confusion in Dr White’s eloquent paragraphs, for he seems to suppose that Eusebius lived, not in ancient times, but in the Middle Ages; and in days when society was entirely Christian, rather than in the days of the persecution of Diocletian.  But doubtless this is merely an accident.

But what does Eusebius say? 

Well, in the days when I was scanning large quantities of literature, one of the items I scanned was the only English translation of the Praeparatio Evangelica.  This is a large and scholarly work, stuffed to the gills with word-for-word extracts of Greek philosophy.  Book 15 may be found here.

The book consists of listing the opinions of a whole range of Greek philosophers on a wide range of subjects, and thereby showing that they cannot be used as an authority, since they disagree violently among themselves on all of them.  The quotations run to some 50 chapters, and are too long to reproduce here.  Let us merely give the last section, from chapters 59-61 (I have abbreviated the chapter titles, which may not be authorial anyway):

So much, then, concerning the Sea.

But as to those who professed to give physiological explanations about the whole world, and things celestial and ethereal, and the conception of the universe, how little they knew even of their own nature, you may learn from their discordant utterances on these points also, as follows.

LX —- OF THE PARTS OF THE SOUL.

PYTHAGORAS, Plato: in the first analysis the Soul has two parts; for it has one part rational and another irrational. But in close and exact consideration, its parts are three: for they distinguish the irrational into the irascible and the appetitive.

‘The Stoics: it is composed of eight parts; five senses, sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch; and a sixth, speech; a seventh, generation; and an eighth, the actual ruling principle, from which proceeds the extension of all these through their proper organs, in a similar manner to the tentacles of the polypus.

‘Democritus, Epicurus: the Soul consists of two parts, its rational faculty being settled in the breast, and the irrational diffused over the whole complexity of the body.

‘But Democritus thought that all things, even dead bodies, naturally partake of a certain kind of soul, because in an obscure way they have some warmth and sensation, though the greater part is dissipated.’

LXI.  ‘PLATO, Democritus: it is in the head as a whole.

‘Straton: between the eyebrows.

‘Erasistratus: about the membrane of the brain, which he calls the epicranis.

‘Herophilus: in the cavity of the brain, which is also its base.

‘Parmenides: in the breast as a whole.

‘Epicurus, and all the Stoics: in the heart as a whole.

‘Diogenes: in the arterial cavity of the heart, which is full of breath.

‘Empedocles in the composition of the blood.

‘Others in the membrane of the pericardium: and others in the diaphragm. Some of the more recent philosophers say that it reaches through from the head to the diaphragm.

‘Pythagoras: the vital power is around the heart; but the rational , and intelligent faculty in the region of the head.’

So far, then, as to their opinions on these matters.

Eusebius then draws the natural conclusion.  For if these men are authorities, what use is their authority to anyone?

Do you not think therefore that with judgement and reason we have justly kept aloof from the unprofitable and erroneous and vain labour of them all, and do not busy ourselves at all about the said subjects (for we do not see the utility of them, nor any tendency to benefit and gain good for mankind), but cling solely to piety towards God the creator of all things, and by a life of temperance, and all godly behaviour according to virtue, strive to live in a manner pleasing to Him who is God over all?

But if even you from malice and envy hesitate to admit our true testimony, you shall be again anticipated by Socrates, the wisest of all Greeks, who has truthfully declared his votes in our favour. Those meteorological babblers, for instance, he used to expose in their folly, and say that they were no better than madmen, expressly convicting them not merely of striving after things unattainable, but also of wasting time about things useless and unprofitable to man’s life. And this shall be testified to you by our former witness Xenophon, one of the best-known of the companions of Socrates, who writes as follows in his Memorabilia:

LXII.  [XENOPHON] ‘No one ever yet saw Socrates do or heard him say anything impious or unholy. For he did not discourse about the nature of the universe or the other subjects, like most of them, speculating upon the condition of the cosmos, as the Sophists call it, and by what forces of necessity the celestial phenomena severally are produced: rather he used to expose the foolishness of those who troubled themselves about such things.

‘Such, then, was the nature of his remarks about those who busied themselves with these matters: but he himself was always discoursing of human interests, inquiring what was, pious, what impious; what noble, what base; what just, what unjust; what sanity, what madness.’

These, then, were the opinions of Socrates. And next after him Aristippus of Cyrene, and then later Ariston of Chios, undertook to maintain that morals were the only proper subject of philosophy; for these inquiries were practicable and useful, but the discussions about nature were quite the contrary, neither being comprehensible, nor having any use, even if they were clearly understood.

For it would be no advantage to us, not even if soaring higher in the air than Perseus,

‘O’er ocean’s wave, and o’er the Pleiades,’

we could with our very eyes survey the whole world, and the nature of all ‘beings,’ of whatever kind that is.

For we certainly shall not be on that account wiser, or more just or brave or temperate, nay, not even strong, or beautiful, or rich, without which advantages happiness is impossible.

Such are the remarks of Eusebius.

Is this an attack, in desperate fear of novelty, on the idea that the world is round?  It is not.  The subject is remote from the author’s mind.  He is concerned with one thing, and one only; to prepare men to hear the gospel, to point out that the teachings of the Jews are of no value, and those of the Greeks also except insofar as they point men to the need for moral improvement.

It is meaningless to complain that Eusebius attacks “science”.  In his day nothing of the kind existed.  Our own modern systems were unknown to him, and equally unknown to those he attacked.  He attacked, rather, the Greek philosophers, or rather Sophists, the peddlers of ideas to those willing to pay to be entertained thereby.

We remember Pythagoras for his theorems.  But in the ancient world he was just another teacher, with a set of invented ideas and rituals, such as not eating beans.

But to return to Dr. White: are his words found here?  There are not.  Rather they are found in chapter 1 of book 15:

As we have been deferring up to the present time our final discourse hereon, which is the fifteenth Book of the treatise in hand, we will now make up what is lacking to the discussions which we have travelled through, by still further dragging into light the solemn doctrines of the fine philosophy of the Greeks, and laying bare before the eyes of all the useless learning therein. And before all things we shall show that not from ignorance of the things which they admire, but from contempt of the unprofitable study therein we have cared very little for them, and devoted our own souls to the practice of things far better.

I suspect that Eusebius would have been amused by A. D. White.  For after all, Eusebius has already answered White’s objection by quoting Socrates.  It is not an attack on the value of science to point out the futility of empty speculation.  It is not an attack on learning and reason to follow the path of moral self-improvement advocated by all the best philosophers of antiquity, and the moralists of every age and country.  Only a man of White’s limited sympathies could suppose it.

As for the modern poster with whom we started, we may feel confident that he had never read a line of Eusebius, nor verified whether what he said was true.  Eusebius was not discussing “scientists”, nor science.

1 Response to “Did Eusebius attack science?”


  1. Did Basil of Caesarea attack science at Roger Pearse

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