Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History

By Euan Cameron | Go to book overview

5
Embattled Faiths: Religion and Natural Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century

ROBIN BRIGGS

Intellectual life in the seventeenth century was not confined to the religious and scientific spheres, yet in different ways these were the most dynamic or dominant elements, and virtually all other forms of thought were closely related to them. Religion and science were not distinct entities in the seventeenth century, nor were they widely seen as being in direct conflict. Knowledge of the natural world was also knowledge about the divine purpose. Nearly all the major intellectual figures who contributed to the 'scientific revolution' did so in a distinctly religious spirit, while numerous clerics were strong supporters of the new science. In many respects religious and scientific thought were indeed developing along parallel tracks, supporting rather than hindering one another much of the time. Both were powerfully impelled by a sense that reform was at once necessary and possible; this was arguably as true of the Catholic Church as it was of the Protestant denominations. Although there were some resounding clashes over the respective significance of scriptural and experimental evidence, on closer examination these were always very complex affairs, with the opposing positions far more nuanced than is apparent at first glance. This is hardly surprising, for most of the contestants were very sophisticated thinkers, whose shared culture was based on an intensive educational system. Just because their categories and concepts may seem strange to modern eyes, we should not underestimate the virtuosity with which they deployed them.

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