A Changing View of the Universe: Philosophy and Science in the Elizabethan Era

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A Changing View of the Universe: Philosophy and Science in the Elizabethan Era

By the early sixteenth century the mystery of what lay beyond the three known continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa had been solved. Thanks to the work of brave explorers, the unknown regions, which had previously been described in supernatural terms, were suddenly transformed into concrete world geography. (For more information on exploration, see Chapter 6.) This discovery marked a gradual change in the way European people viewed the universe during the Renaissance, the era beginning around 1350 in Europe, in which scholars turned their attention to classical Greek and Latin learning and shifted to a more rational (based on reason rather than spiritual belief or church authority) approach to philosophy, religion, and science. Historians consider the Renaissance the beginning of the last of three major divisions of European history: the classical or ancient era, during which the Greek and Roman civilizations flourished (c. 500 bce to c. 500 ce); the Middle Ages, or medieval era, which lasted from c. 500 to c. 1500; and the modern era, which began with the Renaissance and continues to the present. During the Elizabethan Era in England, the period associated with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) that is often considered to be a golden age in English history, people were in transition between the Middle Ages and modern times.

During the Middle Ages the mysteries of the natural world were viewed as part of God's design. Europeans considered it beyond the capacity of humans to understand these mysteries, and they believed it was wrong and even dangerous to try to control or change the set order of the world. During the Renaissance, however, more and more people accepted secular (non-religious) attempts to understand the natural world. They did not feel that their endeavors conflicted with Christian beliefs; rather, they believed that human learning and accomplishments increased the glory of the God that created them. Many events contributed to this change in worldview. Exploration, the rediscovery of the writings of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, new methods of education, the widespread distribution of books due to the development of the printing press, new scientific techniques, increasing trade and commerce, growing cities, and a rising middle class were all contributing factors.

The changing shape of the universe

In ancient and medieval times there was little or no distinction between the disciplines of science, philosophy, and religion. What we call science today was a part of a wider system called philosophy that combined factual, spiritual, and moral knowledge. The medieval model of the universe described below demonstrates this concept.

WORDS TO KNOW

alchemy:
A science of medieval times that attempted to transform base metals into gold and find a potion for eternal life.
angel:
A spiritual being ranking superior to humans, but at the lowest level of heavenly beings.
archangel:
A spiritual being ranked above the angels.
astrology:
The study of the position of stars and planets in the belief that they influence human affairs and events on Earth.
astronomy:
The scientific study of the stars, planets, and other celestial bodies.
civic:
Relating to the rights and duties of citizens.
classical:
Of or relating to the art, literature, architecture and way of life of ancient Greece or Rome, roughly between 500 bce and 500 ce.
empirical scientist:
A scientific researcher who relies on observation and experiments rather than theory.
heliocentric:
Relating to the principle that the sun is the center of the solar system, with the planets rotating around it.
humanism:
A cultural and intellectual movement during the Renaissance, following the rediscovery of the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome, that focused on human values, interests, and welfare.
hypothesis:
An explanation of natural phenomenon that has not yet been tested; a theory.
scholasticism:
An effort to reconcile the teachings of the ancient classical philosophers with medieval Christian theology.
secular:
Non-religious.
seraphim:
The top level of angels, ranking closest to God.

Medieval scholars adapted the ancient model of the universe that had been described in detail in the second century by the Greek philosopher Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100–c. 178). In the medieval model the universe was usually depicted as a system of spheres. At the center was a stationary, or unmoving, sphere called Earth. The spheres surrounding the Earth were the seven so-called "planets": the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Beyond the planets was a crystalline (hard and perfectly clear) sphere where the stars existed as fixed objects. Beyond these spheres were the heavens, with progressively higher spheres for the angels (spiritual beings ranking superior to humans, but at the lowest level of heavenly beings), archangels (spiritual beings ranked above angels), and seraphim (the top level of angels, ranking closest to God). God existed outside of the spheres, where he could watch over the entire system. His primary focus, however, was on human beings at the center of the universe. Beyond the realm of God was the end of the universe, which was considered finite (having a definite end).

According to the Christian religion the Earth had become a place of change, corruption, and death after Adam and Eve committed the original sin of eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge. Medieval people considered everything in the sublunar sphere (located beneath the sphere containing the moon, sun, and planets; Earth) to be mortal, or subject to death, while everything above the sphere of the moon was eternal. The outer spheres rotated around the Earth in a state of perfect harmony, but because of Original Sin, no human being was able to experience this perfection unless he or she reached heaven after death.

In Elizabethan England most people accepted the medieval model of the universe and the moral lesson it conveyed. They had faith in the set order of the universe and feared chaos if the order of things—God's design—was disrupted. Everyone and everything had its assigned role and rank, or degree, in the universe, from the lowest rocks to the highest orders of angels. Evil and misfortune were thought to result when people tried to change their place in this order. English playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616) expressed this common view in a famous passage of his 1603 play Troilus and Cressida:

    … The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre [the Earth]
    Observe degree, priority, and place….
    Take but degree away, untune that string,
    And hark what discord [disharmony] follows.
 
            Source: The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974, p.455.

Although the medieval model of the universe persisted throughout the Renaissance, a new theory about the shape of the universe arose around 1512, when Polish astronomer Nicholaus Copernicus (1473–1543) wrote De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres), explaining his heliocentric theory. This theory held that the Earth, along with the other planets, rotated around the sun. Copernicus had arrived at this theory using mathematics and observation of the stars and planets. Though he was convinced of his findings, he was reluctant to publicize his ideas, since they contradicted the teachings of the church. According to church leaders the Earth was the center of the universe because the humans who lived there were the constant focus of God's divine rule. Copernicus waited more than thirty years to have his work published, but many European astronomers knew of his theories and some continued his work.

The heliocentric model of the universe would not find widespread acceptance until 1609, but by the time Elizabeth took the throne in 1558 people had started to doubt the medieval model. Europeans no longer looked up at the sky with the same certainty that they were looking at the home of the angels. As people began to understand the universe as an infinite (having no end) realm, the human place within it grew increasingly uncertain. Where previously there had been an almost unquestioned belief that all human experiences were part of a divine plan, during the Renaissance many people began to believe in chance: the idea that events occur at random. The individual now felt that he or she had some control over daily life. Elizabethans found a new faith in the power of the individual to unravel the mysteries of the physical world—just as human beings in the early sixteenth century had explored the great unknown areas on the world map. These changes happened very gradually, however; most people during the Elizabethan Era held onto the medieval model of the universe even as they began to adopt a new worldview.

Renaissance education and the rise of humanism

Most scholars in the Middle Ages had been part of a movement called scholasticism, an effort to reconcile the teachings of the ancient classical philosophers with medieval Christian theology. They had rediscovered the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 bce) during the thirteenth century and followed his example in trying to explain their religion through logic and reason. Medieval universities and monasteries adopted a technique in which a teacher raised a question, usually about an aspect of Christian knowledge that seemed to conflict with ancient philosophy. The students then entered a philosophical debate trying to reconcile Christianity and ancient philosophy through logic.

Scholasticism was gradually replaced with a new form of higher education, called humanism. Humanism is the cultural and intellectual movement during the Renaissance, following the rediscovery of the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome, that focused on human values, interests, and welfare. The movement began in the city-state of Florence around 1350. The father of humanism, poet and scholar Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374), was frustrated by the scholastics' continual arguing over the fine points of religion. Such debates, he felt, were abstract and not particularly relevant to daily life. Petrach began to collect and study the texts of ancient writers other than Aristotle. The ancients had been more interested in the way humans lived—in learning to live as a good citizen of one's homeland—than in what happened after death. Studying the ancient texts directed readers' focus to moral truths that could be applied to human life. Petrarch persuaded other scholars to join his search for ancient manuscripts from the early civilizations of Greece and Rome, and widespread interest in classical texts followed.

The Printing Press Helps Bring Humanism to England

The printing press, a machine that could quickly print copies of text in large quantities, helped spread the values of humanism across Europe during the Renaissance. The early development of the printing press took place in Germany in the mid-fifteenth century. German inventor Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1398–1468) developed the first press to publish a long printed book, the famous Gutenberg Bible, between 1454 and 1456. By 1500 more than one thousand printing presses had been established across Europe, and they had collectively produced more than nine million copies of more than forty thousand separate book titles. For the first time books were readily available to anyone who could read them. Though most early books were religious works, there was also a market for the printed texts of the recently rediscovered Greek and Roman writings.

The printing press arrived in England in 1476, when royal servant and translator William Caxton (c. 1422–c. 1491) established a press in Westminster, a city near London. Because European printers were already selling printed copies of ancient classics in England, Caxton decided to focus on original English works or translations in the vernacular, or everyday language. Caxton's books found a ready market among the nobility and wealthy merchants, and because they were printed in the vernacular, the middle and lower classes were also drawn to them. In his fifteen years as a printer at Westminster, Caxton published more than one hundred titles, helping to bring humanism to England. His works also promoted early English literature, providing a basis for the Elizabethan poets, essayists, and dramatists to come.

A new program of education resulted from the study of the classics. First students learned the classical Latin and Greek languages, then studied the classical texts intently in order to learn their moral and civic (relating to the rights and duties of citizens) principles. At universities throughout Europe the earlier emphasis on logic, classification, and philosophical debate gave way to a new focus on moral philosophy, literature, and history. These studies were considered humanistic, focusing on humans rather than religion, and hence the movement came to be called humanism. Though these courses were secular, the people who taught them were usually devout Christians.

Most Renaissance humanists did not limit their knowledge to one branch of learning. The term "Renaissance man" describes an individual whose talents spanned a variety of disciplines. Two of the most famous Italian Renaissance artists, for example, followed several fields of study. Michelangelo (1475–1564) was a remarkable painter and sculptor and also a skilled architect and poet. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) enhanced his artwork by studying mathematics, engineering, and anatomy, the study of the structure of the human body. Though some upper-class Renaissance women were well educated, they were usually not considered men's intellectual equals or given the opportunity to achieve independent fame and fortune. Queen Elizabeth, however, was a ruler, poet, translator, dancer, and musician, and she would certainly fit into the definition of the Renaissance individual.

The first English humanists

The values of humanism spread from Italy to France, Germany, England, and the Netherlands around the end of the fifteenth century. One of the greatest humanist scholars was the Dutch cleric Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536), who had been trained in a monastery and had taken his orders as a priest. Displeased with the monastery's scholastic approach to education, Erasmus went to Paris to teach. He eventually became a professor of Greek at Cambridge University in England. His best-known writings were about Christianity. Like Petrarch, he believed that scholastics had corrupted the faith, making doctrines too complicated to be useful in everyday life. His book In Praise of Folly (1509) is a criticism of the clergy and scholars of his day. In this and many other works he captivated the reading public with his common sense and his practical application of humanist theory to real life. When Martin Luther's (1483–1546) Protestant reforms spread in the 1520s many colleagues thought Erasmus would join the efforts to form a new Christian church. But Erasmus remained a loyal Catholic, believing reforms should be undertaken within the church.

Erasmus's good friend, English writer and statesman Thomas More (1478–1535), shared his frustration with the corruption in religion and politics. More's greatest work, Utopia (1516), was based on the Greek philosopher Plato's (c. 428–c. 348 bce) classic work The Republic, which attempts to determine the traits of a perfect state. Utopia describes an imaginary land noticeably lacking the greed and violence common to Europe. Contrasting contemporary England to the ideal world of his book, More demonstrates a more reasonable way to live, in which the government functions to increase human happiness. Like Erasmus, More had no trouble reconciling his Catholic faith with the teachings of the ancient Greeks.

Humanism during the reign of Henry VIII

Renaissance humanism was popular among educators and scholars in England in the early 1500s—the first decades of King Henry VIII's (1491–1547; reigned 1509–47) rule. The king had been educated by humanists and placed humanist statesmen in high government positions. Thomas More became one of his chief advisors. But in the 1530s Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church because it would not grant an annulment to his marriage, and created his own English religion. Those who would not comply with his religion were punished or executed. During the remainder of his reign few dared speak freely or honestly about what they believed. Thomas More was an exception. Unable to support the king's actions in breaking with the church, he resigned from his office as the king's advisor. Henry still demanded that More swear an oath rejecting the Roman Catholic pope's authority over the church in England and endorsing the king's right to lead the church in England. More's conscience would not allow him to take the oath, and for his refusal, he was executed in 1535.

During the Middle Ages England's two major universities, Oxford and Cambridge, had been bustling centers of scholasticism, active in the training of young men for careers in the Catholic Church. During the reign of Henry VIII, however, when the Catholic Church was no longer accepted in the kingdom and few dared discuss their beliefs, attendance at the universities dropped greatly and did not pick up again until after the king's death. In the 1550s Oxford and Cambridge once again filled with students. At this time, though, the revived schools were staffed by well-educated humanists, an increasing number of whom were Protestant reformers. Along with the traditional curriculum of liberal arts and philosophy, English universities featured a new focus on the study of Greek and Latin. Students were mainly members of the nobility, and many of them did not intend to enter church-related careers. A university education had become necessary for many other professions, such as serving in Parliament or becoming an officer of the state.

The queen's education

Queen Elizabeth exemplified the transition between medieval times and the Renaissance. For her, as for many others, the new worldview of the Renaissance existed side by side with the well-established views of the Middle Ages. Her understanding of her power as a queen was based on the medieval concept that everyone's role in life had been determined by God and could not be questioned or changed; she held firmly to this belief throughout her life. Elizabeth's education, though, was based on the new learning of the Renaissance. It fostered within her a lifetime curiosity about astronomy and mathematics, the new geography, and classical philosophy.

Renaissance Medicine

Since the days of Aristotle science had been based on the belief that all of the Earth's matter was made up of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. Human beings were thought to be microcosms, or little worlds, that were smaller versions of the macrocosm, or the world at large. Thus the four elements of the world were thought to correspond to four humors, or body fluids, in humans. These fluids, which were associated with human characteristics, were believed to exist in a state of balance within the body. The four humors had the following corresponding elements and traits:

  • Blood corresponded to the element of fire and was associated with a cheerful character.
  • Phlegm (mucus) corresponded to earth and was associated with a slow, unexcitable nature.
  • Black bile (digestive juices) corresponded with water and was associated with sadness and depression.
  • Yellow bile corresponded to air and was associated with anger and bad temper.

Renaissance philosophy held that imbalance in the body's humors resulted in disease. Thus treatments for disease were usually attempts to restore balance by draining off an excess of one of the humors. Elizabethan doctors frequently practiced bloodletting—cutting open a vein to let the blood flow—to cure fevers, infections, and diseases. Sometimes they placed leeches (blood-sucking worms) on prescribed parts of the body to suck out blood. In other cases they induced vomiting. According to modern medicine most of these remedies were harmful, or at least not helpful, to the patient.

In the early Renaissance, some scholars began to study the human body through dissection, cutting the body open in order to examine the organs, and systematic observation. The pioneers of the new science of anatomy were Leonardo da Vinci, whose fascination in the workings of the human body led to masterful sketches of its internal structures, and Belgian anatomist and physician Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564). In 1543 Vesalius wrote a seven-volume text on the structure of the human body illustrated with engravings based on his own drawings. Vesalius rejected the medical theories that had been passed down from the ancient Greeks and Romans. He believed that the only reliable source of information on human anatomy was the close observation of a dissected human corpse. He showed the human body to be composed of internal organs that function together, and his descriptions and drawings were the most accurate study of anatomy ever undertaken up to that time.

As a young girl Elizabeth lived in a royal household at Hatfield, twenty miles north of London. There she, her half-brother Edward (1537–1553), half-sister Mary (1516–1558), and other noble children were educated by England's finest teachers. Most of the royal tutors came from the humanist tradition at Cambridge University, and among them was one of the top Greek scholars in England, Roger Ascham (1515–1568). Ascham had arrived at Cambridge in 1530, just in time to participate in the revolutionary changes brought about by the Renaissance. He remained there as an educator after graduating.

In 1548 Elizabeth invited Ascham to be her personal tutor. Under Ascham's guidance Elizabeth studied languages, religious studies, grammar, logic, mathematics, philosophy, history, penmanship, and music, but Ascham stressed language studies over all else. His method of teaching Elizabeth Greek, Latin, and French languages was to have her translate texts from their original language into English and then to translate her own English translations back into the original language. Elizabeth was an exceptionally good student; she was fluent in six languages by the age of eleven. Ascham took a bold step in instructing her in the art of public speaking, which was a highly unusual subject for a woman at the time. Elizabeth excelled in it.

As a humanist, Ascham believed that education's purpose was to provide a practical guide to living a moral life. Though we cannot know the extent of his effect on the future queen, a comparison of Elizabeth and her father, Henry VIII, shows a widely different view of the monarch's responsibility. While Henry viewed his every whim as divinely ordained, Elizabeth carefully crafted her public image and her actions to try to meet her civic responsibility. One of the things Ascham valued most was style, or speaking, writing, and comporting oneself with intelligence and elegance. This emphasis on style was fundamental to Elizabeth's reign as queen of England, and undoubtedly influenced her court and the culture of her land.

John Dee, mathematician, astrologer, and magician

In Elizabethan England people did not distinguish between astronomy, the scientific study of the stars and planets, and astrology, the study of the influence of the stars and planets on human life. Most accepted that the positions of the planets and stars determined human fate. In 1558, when it was time for Elizabeth to choose the day of her coronation, or crowning as queen, she turned to astrology to find the most favorable day. She selected as her astrologer John Dee (1527–1608). Dee was not only a respected astrologer, but also a scholar, mathematician, astronomer, ancient text collector, geographer, and author. Dee was a true example of a Renaissance man in England.

Dee was a brilliant student who, at the age of fifteen, studied Greek, Latin, philosophy, geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy at Cambridge University, finishing his degree in just two years. In 1547 he studied with the famed mapmaker Gerardus Mercator (1512–1594) in Belgium. (For more information on Mercator, see Chapter 6.) He would later use his mathematical skills and knowledge of mapmaking to instruct English sailors on geometry and navigation prior to their voyages to the New World. Dee was an excellent mathematician. He drew large crowds to hear him in Paris when he spoke about the Greek mathematician Euclid's (c. 325–c. 260 bce) principles of geometry.

Dee compiled a huge library of more than four thousand ancient and scholarly books. It was possibly the largest library in Europe at the time. Among his books Dee was most fascinated with those dealing with the supernatural. He was particularly interested in the symbols, language, and numbers used in communicating with the spirit world. He became absorbed in trying to find the pure language that had been used at the beginning of life on Earth, as well as magic numbers that could tap into the powers of the universe. He became absorbed in the supernatural, and soon rumors spread throughout England that he was a witch or black magician. Dee's purpose, though, was to find the ultimate truths about the universe. A Christian, he believed that God's power was beyond human understanding, but he sought to find the ways that divine power worked in the natural world, believing it was possible for humans to draw upon that power.

During his early years, Dee wrote two books that explored the power of the stars and planets to influence events in the human world—that is, to scientifically explain astrology. His work was equally devoted to astronomy. A new star appeared in the skies around 1572, bringing great fear to Europeans who thought it might be an evil omen. Dee studied it empirically, through scientific investigation, and accurately determined its distance from Earth using advanced mathematics. Queen Elizabeth was impressed with his skills, and asked him to advise her and teach her mathematics. However, she did not give him financial support, and Dee struggled with poverty throughout his life.

Dee is often remembered for the work of his later years. By 1581, certain that spirits were trying to communicate with him, he began gazing into a crystal ball, hoping to make contact with the supernatural world. A man named Edward Kelley convinced Dee that he could talk with angels. Dee gave Kelley a crystal ball and soon Kelley was relaying the messages of the angels to Dee, who recorded them. The two men wrote a book about their communications and the language used by the angels. This late period, during which Dee was reportedly communicating with the angels and practicing alchemy, a science of medieval times that attempted to transform base metals into gold and find a potion for eternal life, led later historians to dismiss his efforts as unscientific. But Dee's search for the

Alchemy

Alchemy was one of the most popular sciences of the Renaissance. At its most basic form, alchemy was the attempt to find the philosopher's stone, a stone or substance that could turn base metals, such as lead, into gold. For some, this pursuit was simply an effort to find great wealth, but for others, the ancient science of alchemy was actually far more complex, combining natural philosophy, metallurgical arts (the science of metals), and magic. True alchemists believed that if they could find the purifying agent that refined lead into gold, they could use the same substance or process to transform other matter into its perfect form. In trying to understand how metals develop within the Earth and their evolution toward perfection (gold), alchemists sought to understand the powers of divine creation in the natural world. In this way, alchemy was a kind of scientific exploration of God's work. Some Renaissance scientists pursued alchemy as a branch of medicine, seeking to find a process of purification, that could be practiced on humans. The end result would be perfection, or eternal life.

Most people viewed alchemy with awe and fear. They believed that to change the nature of metals was a disruption of the set order of the universe, since it moved beings from a low degree to a higher one. Interfering in God's creation was considered magic, but it was also considered science; in fact, science and magic were almost indistinguishable concepts in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. One university in Poland even offered an advanced degree in black magic. Nonetheless, magicians were often suspected of causing the world's problems. Scientists and mathematicians were viewed with suspicion as well.

Though alchemy is considered highly unscientific today, some of the top alchemists of the past were pioneers in the fields of chemistry and modern medicine. Perhaps the greatest alchemist, Swiss physician Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus (1493–1541) used knowledge from his alchemy experiments to develop successful chemical drug treatments for disease. Although his interest was in magic, astrology, and alchemy, Paracelsus was an empirical scientist. (An empirical scientist is one who relies on observation and experimental methods.) He contributed significantly to the development of medicine. Later scientists, including English physicist Isaac Newton (1642–1727), also experimented with alchemy.

truth is a remarkable story of the exploration of the universe and its powers based on the existing philosophy of his times.

Thomas Harriot, mathematician and astronomer

Mathematician and scientist Thomas Harriot (1560–1621) was among the next generation of Elizabethan scientists. After taking his degree at Oxford University, Harriot was employed in 1584 by statesman and poet Walter Raleigh (1552–1618) as household accountant and the designer of Raleigh's ships. When Raleigh organized his first expedition to establish a colony in the New World, Harriot instructed its seamen in methods of navigation. The expedition returned, carrying two natives named Manteo and Wanchese, who had been kidnapped in the colony of Roanoke off the coast of what is now North Carolina. Harriot spent time with the two natives, learning their language and creating an alphabet so he could write it down. The following year Raleigh sent a second expedition to settle a colony in the New World. Harriot accompanied the group as the scientist and historian of the expedition. While sailing to the New World, Harriot observed and recorded a solar eclipse with remarkable accuracy. At the Roanoke colony Harriot worked with artist John White (died c. 1593), studying the native people, vegetation, animal life, and other natural resources. He published A Briefe and True Report, an account of his findings, in 1588. It was the first book in English to describe the New World. Among its many merits, the book served as a foundation of the science of anthropology. (Anthropology is the study of human beings, particularly in reference to their cultures, environment, physical characteristics, and origins.)

After returning to England Harriot continued his scientific observations of the natural universe, first with the financial support of Raleigh, and later under Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland (1564–1632). In his early thirties he began working in astronomy and optics, the study of light. Harriot studied the way light bent when it passed through a glass or through liquid, discovering the law of refraction (the bending of light). He is credited with being the first person in England to build and use a telescope. He used his telescope to draw some of the earliest maps of the moon's surface. He also observed Jupiter's moons, studied sunspots, dark spots that sometimes appear on the surface of the sun, and calculated the speed of the sun's rotation. Harriot considered many practical problems in his work, such as the flight of cannon shells in order to improve their accuracy. He even investigated specific gravity, the density of a substance compared to the density of water, and developed tables of the specific gravity of various materials. He never published any of his findings and is rarely credited for them.

Harriot is probably best known as a mathematician. He wrote an algebra textbook that was widely used for many years. In this book he developed a number of equations and notations that simplified algebra. He become the first mathematician to use the greater than (>) and less than (<) symbols, and he was one of the first to adopt the plus sign (+) and minus sign (−), lowercase letters for variables, and the equal sign (=).

Sir Francis Bacon, philosopher of science

Francis Bacon (1561–1626) was a statesman, lawyer, writer, philosopher, and scientist. During the reign of Elizabeth he was involved in many political schemes. Though he fell from the queen's favor for a time, by the end of her life he had proved his keen intelligence, and he went on to a more promising career in the reign of James I (1566–1625; reigned 1603–25).

Bacon is probably best remembered for his ambitious plan to revise the methods of science. His scientific approach, often called the Baconian method, was to study the natural world empirically, through collection of data, experimentation, observation, and testing hypotheses. (A hypothesis is an explanation of natural phenomenon that has not yet been tested; a theory). Bacon believed that science had not advanced because it was based on false theories—such as alchemy, the four humors, and the shape of the universe—derived from Aristotle and Plato. He believed that science should be based on the observation of nature and a process of reasoning developed out of such observation. He promoted a practical view of science as a discipline that could improve the quality of human life and eventually help humans to conquer nature. His philosophy of science greatly influenced the next generation of scientists, and spawned the Scientific Revolution, a period of major scientific change that took place in the seventeenth century.

For More Information

BOOKS

Aston, Margaret, ed. The Panorama of the Renaissance. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Kirkpatrick, Robin. The European Renaissance, 1400–1600. Harlow, England: Pearson Education, 2002.

The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.

Wightman, W. P. D. Science in a Renaissance Society. London: Hutchinson University Library, 1972.

Woolley, Benjamin. The Queen's Conjurer: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001.

WEB SITES

Kreis, Steven. "Renaissance Humanism." The History Guide: Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History. http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/humanism.html (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"The Renaissance Connection" (interactive). Allentown Art Museum. http://www.renaissanceconnection.org/main.cfm (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"The Spell Binder." http://www.channel4.com/science/microsites/S/spellbinder/index.shtml (accessed on July 11, 2006).