Mechanism

2006-02-05

In Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000 to 1700, Carlo Cippola writes as follows (pp. 171-172):

Why Europeans produced the mechanical clock is much more subtle.... The men of the thirteenth century thought of measuring time in mechanical terms because they had developed a mechanical outlook of which the mills and the bell ringing mechanisms were significant evidence.... These contraptions were both the result and the evidence of an irrepressible taste for mechanical achievements.

The constant and generalized preoccupation with machines and mechanical solutions had a double order of consequences. On the one hand, undeniable productivity gains were achieved in a number of productive sectors. On the other hand, a cumulative process was set into motion by which the more the machine was studied the more it reinfoced the mechanical outlook of the people. Books on mechanics proliferated in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. More significant than that, the mechanical outlook began to pervade such improbable fields as art and philosophy. While the artist of the Far East delighted in painting flowers, fish, and horses, Leonardo da Vinci and Francesco di Giorgio Martini were obsessed with machinery. Philosophers came to regard the universe as a great piece of clockwork, the human body as a piece of machinery, and God as an outstanding clockmaker.

If, at the time of the Scientific Revolution, the leading branch of learning was mechanics, if the very characteristic of the Scientific Revolution was, as has been said, the mechanization of the world view, all this was not a new development unrelated to previous events; on the contrary, it was the logical consequence of a mental outlook which had matured in the preceding centuries. And we, with our obsession for computers, mechanical gadgetry and mathematical models, represent the final outcome of a centuries-long development.

The dominant theme of the Greco-Roman and the oriental conceptions of the world was that of harmony between man and nature -- a relationship that presupposed the existence of irresistable forces in nature to which man was compelled inevitably to submit. The myths of Daedalus, Prometheus, and the Tower of Babel indicated the fate of those who attempted to reverse the man-nature relationship, presuming to assert the dominance of man....

The medieval world somehow managed to break this tradition.

Significantly, that break occurred not because of philosophical speculation, artistic inspiration, or scientific exploration -- it occurred because of long centuries of human experience, starting in the tenth century and growing slowly, exponentially, over the following 500+ years (we moderns are simply the inheritors and extenders of the mechanistic world-view that began to emerge in the Middle Ages).


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