The Chinese and the Irrational
James Evans in The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy has written an extremely thorough account of astronomy during historical times in the Middle East and Europe, up to and including Kepler just prior to the telescope. In his view, “The remarkable accuracy of the Babylonian observers is a silly fiction that one still frequently encounters in popular writing about early astronomy.” The important thing is that there was a tradition of making observations, recording them carefully and a social mechanism for preserving the records.
The gods were believed to speak through objects and events in the natural world, including animal entrails, dreams and celestial phenomena. Omens were important for every level of Mesopotamian society, yet astronomical observations did not become the major focus of divination until after 1500 BC. Mesopotamian bureaucrats and astronomers/astrologers gradually amassed detailed information about the movement of the planets after 800 BC.
By the fifth century BC, Babylonian celestial divination had expanded to embrace horoscopic astrology, which used planetary positions at the moment of the date of birth to predict individual fortunes. As explained by science historian James Evans, “While horoscopic astrology was certainly of Babylonian origin (as, indeed, the Greek and Roman writers always claimed), it was elaborated into a complex system by the Greeks. Thus, the familiar and fantastically complicated system of horoscopic astrology with dozens of conflicting rules does not descend from remote antiquity. Rather it is a product of Hellenistic and Roman times.”
An Egyptian astronomical interest can be detected in the alignment of their temples and pyramids, but rarely on the level of sophistication seen in Mesopotamia. The ceilings of royal tombs from the Middle Kingdom on, for instance in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, contain drawings that could be described as simple celestial maps, yet with the partial exception of their solar calendar it does not seem to have occurred to them to seek for any deeper explanation of what they observed. The Egyptians “seem to have produced no systematic records of planetary movements, eclipses, or other phenomena of a plainly irregular sort.”
To the ancient Greeks, the planets were “wandering stars.” Our word planet comes from a Greek verb meaning to wander. The modern names for the five naked-eye planets are the names of Roman divinities which were more or less equivalent to a number of Greek gods. Most people today probably know this. What many of them don’t know is that some of the Greek names themselves may have been derived from Babylonian divinities in Mesopotamia.
Mars was often associated with war because of its reddish color, which can be spotted through naked-eye observations; the ancient Egyptians called it the Red One. However, there are other parallels that are unlikely to be accidental. In ancient Mesopotamia, Ishtar was the Babylonian and Assyrian counterpart of Inanna, the moody Sumerian goddess of love and fertility, identified with the planet Venus. To the Romans, Venus was the goddess of love and fertility, their equivalent of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, who was also a symbol of love and fertility.
In the eyes of Walter Burkert, a few similarities between the Epic of Gilgamesh and Homeric poetry can no longer be ignored. He is nevertheless careful to point out that natural and political philosophy in the true sense was a Greek invention as much as was deductive proof in mathematics. As Ibn Warraq puts it, “what emerges is something entirely distinctive: what we call Greek civilization. The very strength of this civilization lay in its ability to learn from and improve upon the ideas, art, and literature of the Near East, Persia, India, and Egypt.”
The website of the American Institute of Physics states that despite their observations, the explanations that the Babylonian, Mayan and early Chinese sky-watchers devised for planetary movements “were no more than colorful myths. Scientific cosmology – the search for a picture of the universe that would make sense with no mention of divine beings – began with the Greeks. They sought to look beyond the patterns of numbers to something fundamental…. Aristotle taught that rotating spheres carried the Moon, Sun, planets, and stars around a stationary Earth. The Earth was unique because of its central position and its material composition. All generation and corruption occurred in the ‘sublunar’ region, below the Moon and above the Earth. This region was composed of the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. Beyond the Moon was the unchanging and perfect celestial region. It was composed of a mysterious fifth element. Greek philosophers estimated the distance to the Moon, and even tried to calculate the size of the entire universe. They believed it was finite.”
The goals and methods of Babylonian astronomy were very different from those of the Greeks. In particular, the Babylonians seem to have had little interest in the actual motions of the celestial bodies as long as they could predict eclipses. Later Greek astronomers were well aware of these fundamental differences in the approach. “For example, Theon of Smyrna says that the Babylonian astronomers, using arithmetical methods, succeeded in confirming the observed facts and in predicting future phenomena, but that, nevertheless, their methods were imperfect, for they were not based on a sufficient understanding of nature, and one must also examine these matters physically.” They did not base their astronomy on an elaborate philosophy of nature. There was no Babylonian, Egyptian or Indian equivalent of Aristotle.
The Maya in Mesoamerica devoted much attention to divination and amassed detailed studies of the movements of the Sun, Moon and planets over long periods of time. The Inca elites in pre-Columbian South America, too, elaborated special forms of divination. The Chinese had their own ideas about the stars and divination from an early date, but may have absorbed additional ideas from Babylonian astrology by way of India during the Han Dynasty.
The Chinese lunisolar calendar with its twelve Zodiac signs (the rat, ox, tiger etc.) is used for marking holidays such as the Chinese New Year. The first known divinations there are found on inscribed oracle bones and turtle shells in the city of Anyang in northeastern China from 1200 BC or slightly before and “concern military expeditions, the construction of towns, illnesses, journeys, births – of significance to the King or (what comes to the same) the state.”
The cosmological outlook of the Chinese organically linked the Earth, and above all the royal family, to the Heavens and the spirit world. The misbehavior of officials, it was thought, and especially of the Emperor himself, might result in famines, earthquakes, droughts or other natural disasters because they had displeased the spirit world. Similarly, anomalies in the heavens were taken as portents of the future and might predict future events that should be known only to the Emperor. For this reason, there was a powerful inclination in Imperial China to keep sky watching confined to the official bureaucracy under a veil of secrecy.
Geoffrey Ernest Richard Lloyd, a prominent historian from the University of Cambridge, England, explores the origins of systematic inquiry in Greece, China and Mesopotamia with his book The Ambitions of Curiosity: Understanding the World in Ancient Greece and China:
“Both Chinese and Greeks shared the notion that the world as a whole – ‘heaven and earth’ in Chinese terms, the cosmos in Greek ones – is orderly, but the forms their notions of orderliness took differ, providing interesting insights also into their divergent notions of intelligibility. In China, the regular relations between heaven and earth are, in a sense, the responsibility of the Emperor who acts as a mediator between them. On him depend not just the welfare of ‘all under heaven’, but also the orderly relations between heaven and earth themselves. They are a matter of due processes of change: yet these could be disrupted. When irregularities occurred, that could be taken as a warning, a sign of danger or even that the Emperor’s mandate was coming to an end – though the non-occurrence of an eclipse could be taken as a sign of his virtue. Order in the heavens, in that sense, could not be taken for granted. In Greece, by contrast, cosmic regularities are unchanging.”
G.E.R Lloyd goes on to show that the most important aspects of the institutional framework in China were the existence of considerable numbers of official posts, the sense that it was the ruler or his ministers that were the prime audience and the acceptance of the authority of the canons. “In Greece, with far fewer established positions available, far more depended on the skill that individuals showed in the cut and thrust of open debate – whether within a school or group, or between them, or just among individuals. It was success in argument with rivals that secured a reputation, essential not least if you were to make a living as a teacher. In these respects, the tradition of debate itself stands out as the key institution (of a different kind from those of bureaux or courts) in the situation within which most Greek intellectuals operated.”
As the esteemed author Charles Murray asks, was axiomatic logic inevitable? That is far from certain. “It is easy to assume that someone like Aristotle was not so much brilliant as fortunate in being born when he was. A number of basic truths were going to be figured out early in mankind’s intellectual history, and Aristotle gave voice to some of them first. If he hadn’t, someone else soon would have. But is that really true? Take as an example the discovery of formal logic in which Aristotle played such a crucial role. Nobody had discovered logic (that we know of) in the civilizations of the preceding five millennia. Thinkers in the non-Western world had another two millennia after Aristotle to discover formal logic independently, but they didn’t. Were we in the West ‘bound’ to discover logic because of some underlying aspect of Western culture? Maybe, but what we know for certain is that the invention of logic occurred in only one time and one place, that it was done by a handful of individuals, and that it changed the history of the world. Saying that a few ancient Greeks merely got there first isn’t adequate acknowledgement of their leap of imagination and intellect.”
A small band of Greek thinkers, starting with Thales from about 600 BC, embarked on a serious, critical inquiry into the nature of the world around them. The Milesian philosophers disagreed and used logic and reason to criticize the ideas of others. They did not immediately leave all traces of supernatural intervention behind; a perspective of repeated divine intervention could be traced in some of the writings of Herodotus in the fifth century BC.
Anaximander judged eclipses to be the result of blockage of the apertures in rings of celestial fire. According to the philosopher Heraclitus, the heavenly bodies are bowls filled with fire, and an eclipse occurs when the open side of a bowl turns away from us. David C. Lindberg elaborates in his accessible book The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450:
“These theories of Anaximander and Heraclitus do not seem particularly sophisticated (fifty years after Heraclitus the philosophers Empedocles and Anaxagoras understood that eclipses were simply a case of cosmic shadows), but what is of critical importance is that they exclude the gods. The explanations are entirely naturalistic; eclipses do not reflect personal whim or the arbitrary fancies of the gods, but simply the nature of fiery rings or of celestial bowls and their fiery contents. The world of the philosophers, in short, was an orderly, predictable world in which things behave according to their natures. The Greek term used to denote this ordered world was kosmos, from which we draw our word ‘cosmology.’ The capricious world of divine intervention was being pushed aside, making room for order and regularity; chaos was yielding to kosmos. A clear distinction between the natural and the supernatural was emerging; and there was wide agreement that causes (if they are to be dealt with philosophically) must be sought only in the natures of things. The philosophers who introduced these new ways of thinking were called by Aristotle physikoi or physiologoi, from their concern with physis or nature.”
The Classical scholar Eric Robertson Dodds in 1951 published The Greeks and the Irrational as a critique of the commonly held view that ancient Greek culture represented the triumph of “rationalism.” He demonstrated with examples how perceived spiritual influences or the notion of divine inspiration was common in Greece up to the time of Plato. While maybe true, this should not cause us to forget some of the unique contributions that the Greeks did make.
As we have seen, philosophers in Greece knew that moonlight is reflected sunlight. Plutarch even suggested that people live on the Moon.Around 300 BC, the geographer Pytheas of Massilia described the ocean tides and suggested a relationship to the Moon. Poseidonius(ca. 135-50 BC), a Greek Stoic philosopher and teacher of the Roman statesman Cicero, also correlated variations in the tides with phases of the Moon, and in the second century BC the Chinese had recognized a connection between tides and the lunar cycle. While correct, these insights did not progress further since nobody could explain why there was such a correlation.
Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation enabled the first explanation. Most of the Earth’s tides are caused by the Moon, with the Sun contributing a smaller part and other planets like Jupiter have a negligible effect. When the Sun, Moon and Earth are aligned, the Sun’s and Moon’s gravity in combination create what we call spring tides, the highest high tides. This occurs at every new and full Moon. Neap tides are weak tides which occur during quarter Moons.
When the Moon passes through the shadow cast by the Earth we see a lunar eclipse. A solar eclipse occurs for a few minutes in the lunar shadow whenever the two celestial bodies line up vis-à-vis the Earth and the Moon is totally or partially obscuring the Earth’s view of the Sun. By pure chance, the Sun is 400 times larger than our Moon, but also 400 times farther from us, making the two bodies appear the same size relative to us. A similar coincidence does not happen anywhere else in our Solar System. Hundreds of millions of years from now, when the Moon has slowly moved further away from us, all solar eclipses on our planet will be partial.
Lunar eclipses can only occur at Full Moon when the Moon is directly opposite the Earth in relation to the Sun. The Chinese word for eclipseis chih, which means “to eat.” In ancient China, people beat drums and banged on pots to scare off the “heavenly dog” believed to be devouring the Sun. The bloody cast of the Moon in some eclipses only added to the fear of what was going on among many ancient peoples, quite possibly also in prehistoric Europe.
Even into the nineteenth century AD, the Chinese navy fired cannons to scare off the dragon or beast they imagined was eating the Moon. Christopher Columbus and his crew, stranded in Jamaica in 1503 on his fourth voyage, were wearing out their welcome with the natives who were feeding them. Columbus knew a lunar eclipse was coming and “predicted” the Moon’s disappearance. The natives begged him to bring it back which, of course, he did, in due time.
Unlike Mesoamericans, Andean peoples had not worked out the cycles of Earth, Sun and Moon that would allow them to predict eclipses, so these were frightening events. In South America, “when a solar eclipse occurred, the Incas would consult their diviners, who usually determined that a great prince was about to die and the Sun had thus gone into mourning. He continued that the Inca reaction was to sacrifice boys, girls, and livestock; the priestesses dedicated to the Sun went into mourning themselves, fasted, and made frequent sacrifices. Lunar eclipses were thought to occur because a puma or a snake was eating the moon. The corrective was to frighten the beast away by shouting, blowing trumpets, beating drums, hurling spears and other weapons toward the heavens, and whipping dogs until they howled.”
Toby E. Huff shows in The Rise of Early Modern Science that a very different metaphysical outlook prevailed in Chinese civilization compared to the worldview we find in Europe:
“In place of the Western atomism governed by laws of nature, or the Islamic occasionalism governed by God’s will, we find an organic world of primary forces (yang and yin) and the five phases (metal, wood, water, fire, and earth) constantly shifting in recurrent cycles. Within this cosmos there is no prime mover, no high God, no lawgiver. Of course, it is assumed that there is a pattern to existence and that there is a unique way (tao) for all things. But the explanation of the patterns of existence is not to be sought in a set of laws or mechanical processes, but in the structure of the organic unity of the whole. Moreover, Chinese cosmological thought came to stress the harmonious unity of natural and human patterns. That is, the patterns of the natural world were studied in order to find correlative correspondences between the patterns of heaven and those of human society below.”
The web of government and spiritual forces was so intimate that the traffic between the earthly and the spiritual worlds was constantly trod by officials speaking as gods and spirits speaking as officials. “In such a manner, the divine sanctioning of the authority of the emperor had its counterparts on the local level, and these served to reinforce the autocratic structure of government and local administration.” The prevailing Confucian ethic stressed the need to maintain outward obedience and respect for all authorities. To Chinese eyes, such public displays as challenging the word of authority figures constitute unforgivable signs of disrespect and dissension and the ultimate betrayal of filial piety. “In short, the Confucian stress on obedience stifled the development of all forms of contentiousness in public forums.”
He stresses that although medieval Europeans could debate the hierarchy of angles, the marriage between Greek philosophy and Biblical doctrines created a basis for viewing the world as orderly. The almighty God could make miracles if He wanted to, but such miracles were held to be rare events and the exceptions that proved the rule. This is in sharp contrast to the whimsical nature of Allah as portrayed in Islam, whose actions can never be predicted.
Huff in his writings emphasizes “the European medieval belief that man is a rational creature, one possessed of reason and conscience, and by virtue of these capacities is capable of understanding and deciphering the secrets of nature, with or without the aid of Scripture. Similarly, the medieval Europeans frequently deployed the metaphors of the ‘world machine’ (machina mundi) and the ‘Book of Nature,’ two devices giving pattern and intelligibility to the study of nature. Both ideas were integral to the teachings of the medievals (as in the writings of Grosseteste and Sacrobosco), and this shows again how deeply the metaphysical and religious roots of scientific culture are imbedded in the history of the West.”
By the seventeenth century, the European astronomical presence in China was significant. Western scholars had proved themselves superior to local astronomers when it came to making calendars and accurate predictions of eclipses. European Jesuit scholars used their undeniable edge in scientific and astronomical matters as a way of gaining entrance to the higher levels of Chinese society with the goal of promoting Christianity there, but the need for predicting lucky and unlucky days together with astrological divination for the Emperor and his court created tensions as to how far devout Christians could accommodate very different Asian beliefs, including what they viewed as superstition. Chinese divinatory emphasis on finding properly chosen sites and times of burial was powerful, and “the siting and burial of royal ancestors was a momentous event with serious consequences for all those involved.”
Adam Schall von Bell (1591-1666) was a Jesuit missionary from Cologne, Germany, who worked in China. During the final years of the Ming and the early years of the Qing Dynasty he gained the official title of mandarin and was heavily involved in reforming the Chinese calendar. This prominent position, however, might involve significant dangers in China. He was charged with being responsible, as head of the Bureau of Astronomy, for selecting an inauspicious date for the burial of a young prince who died prematurely. The fiercely anti-Christian scholar Yang Guangxian (1597-1669) led the assault on Schall and the Jesuits. Huff tells the tale again, this time in his book Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution:
“Schall, the newly arrived Ferdinand Verbiest, and other Jesuits were rounded up, bound with ‘nine long and thick chains of iron, all with iron locks; three around the neck, three on the arms, and three on the feet,’ and carted off to jail. In the meantime, Yang Guangxian submitted still another memorial claiming that Schall, through his choice of an inauspicious date, was responsible not only for the premature death of the prince but also his mother and the emperor himself, who died of smallpox in 1661. Schall was partially paralyzed by a stroke precipitated by these events and had to rely on the Flemish Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest for his defense. An investigation was undertaken and, on April 24, 1665, Schall and all the others were judged guilty: Schall was to be executed by dismemberment. Others involved were to be exiled after receiving forty blows with the bamboo. The next day, however, an earthquake rocked Beijing, leading all concerned to believe that perhaps an injustice had been done. The Princess Dowager intervened, absolving the Jesuits. The Jesuits, except for Schall, were released.”
Schall was placed under temporary house arrest and two non-Christian officials were pardoned, while several Chinese Christian converts, including Schall’s assistant Li Zubai, were beheaded for treason. Schall died the following year. The charges on which they were sentenced were those of sedition, although the judge admitted that he found it hard to determine which astronomical system was correct. Ironically, a few years later a test showed that Yang Guangxian as head of the Bureau of Astronomy could not produce a valid calendar in competition with Verbiest and the Europeans. He ended up being threatened with death himself for this failure and was eventually exiled to his home province, where he died.
A number of comments can be made about this episode. First of all is the fact that scholars often led a more dangerous and scientifically restricted life in China or in many other complex societies than they did in Europe, contrary to popular myth. Focusing only on the case of Galileo and ignoring this gives us a false picture of reality. First and foremost, however, it demonstrates that the leap to a (predominantly) non-magical worldview that had been achieved by certain Greek thinkers in Antiquity was far from self-evident. The Chinese, one of the most populous and prosperous nations in the world, as well as one of the cleverest according to themselves, still hadn’t made the same leap more than two thousand years later.
Some will probably claim that Europeans were just lucky and that other cultures were close to making a similar breakthrough. This view is highly questionable. The truth is that the most sophisticated Asian societies, or for that matter the complex urban cultures of Mesoamerica or the Andes region, were nowhere near making a similar breakthrough 500 years ago. Pre-colonial Australia and sub-Saharan Africa don’t even rank on the same scale in this regard.
The Chinese are practical people, which I for the most part mean as a compliment, and indeed often quite intelligent. One of the aspects of their culture that I find hard to relate to is their preoccupation with such things as “lucky and unlucky numbers.” Yes, you can encounter such notions in the West, too, but they are far more prominent in Oriental cultures. Many Chinese also seem to believe that luck is a character trait and that bad luck only happens to bad people.
From everything I have read, I have seen nothing to convince me that any other culture on Earth was moving in the same directions as Europeans did with the Scientific Revolution. Let us ask a provocative question: Would we have space travel today if we removed Europeans from the world? The answer is almost certainly no. China, the largest and richest country in Asia, was literally a couple of thousand years behind in certain crucial fields of astronomy, chemistry, mathematics and physics. Electricity was essentially unknown outside of Europe, as was calculus, the concept of gravity, modern material science and liquid hydrogen rocket fuel. My bet is that we would not have space travel, astrophysics or planetary science for a great many centuries to come without Europeans, as nobody else was independently close to making many of the crucial scientific and technological breakthroughs needed to achieve this.
Critics will no doubt point out that the ancient Greeks, despite their reputation for being rationalist and “non-magical,” could leave substantial room for superstition. This was true sometimes, just as it is true that a belief in occultism and horoscopes coexisted with the birth of modern science in Europe and is alive and well in parts of the Western world to this day.
Kepler was one of the greatest mathematical astronomers who ever lived, but there was also a mystical side to his cosmological ideas. As imperial mathematician in the 1600s he had to give astrological advice to the Holy Roman Emperor as a part of his duties, even though he himself was rather skeptical of horoscopes. Newton spent nearly as much time on alchemy or looking for hidden codes in the Bible as he did on mathematics. In the late 1800s the English chemist William Crookes, known for the Crookes tube, was a gifted scientist in addition to being passionately interested in spiritualism, including the possibility of talking to the dead. Science and non-science can and do coexist, occasionally even within the same individual.
And yet, there is something special about the European legacy of critical reason and the belief that reason, logic and public debate can be used to advance truth and insight into the natural world and the human world alike. After you subtract astrology and the notion that individual destinies are determined by spirits and stars, a belief that has been and partly still is very common around the world, a core of rationalism will emerge as one of the critical legacies of the ancient Greeks, running as a golden thread from them to modern Europe. It is easy to underestimate the importance of this, just as it is easy to take for granted many of the other unique advances made by Europeans, but we need to remember that there was never anything self-evident or inevitable about them. In the end, a (largely) rational understanding of the natural world was achieved in one civilization and in one civilization only: the European one.