Book Review: God’s Philosophers by James Hannam

When I first saw this book (I forget where) it seemed just about as ‘up my street’ as a book could me. My main two passions are christianity and science. So books that cover the two (without being needlessly antagonistic towards each other) tend to end up on my reading list.

In his introduction Hannam sets out his aim which can be summarised as “myth-busting.” Some may regard it as revisionist, though I think that would be a little harsh. The central myth is that the latter middle ages did not contribute much to scientific thought, and that the Enlightenment emerged out of a medieval intellectual vacuum of The Dark Ages; the latter two terms Hannam regards as prejudicial and which are then subsequently rarely, if ever, used again.

Hannam also goes so far as to cite the particular examples which he considers have given rise to popular misconceptions, with John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science being probably the most famous example.

The structure of the book is one of multiple mini biographies. These are given in pretty much chronological order. The timeline covered is roughly A.D. 999, when Gerbert of Aurillac became pope, through to 1642 which saw the death of Galileo. Given this time period and the number of figures involved, it can be hard to keep track of who is who, though the appendix does contain a very helpful timeline as well as a list of characters with a 2-4 line summary of why they are important.

At the start of the book, one could be forgiven for questioning whether or not it’s a science book, as much of the discussion is theological in nature, and could be considered a summary of medieval church history, particularly given the inclusion of several popes into the discussion as well as Thomas Aquinas, famous for his Summa Theologica. But that’s kind of the point. As the book progresses, we get more and more towards what our modern 21st century sensibilities recognise as science, but it is a gradual process with no sudden great leaps.

I know from having read some other reviews of Hannam’s book that his viewpoint is not universally accepted. I myself am no expert in this period of history so cannot really comment on its validity. The strength of the book is its meticulous cross-referencing, where original sources are preferred over secondary and an extensive bibliography is also included. So any time a claim is made that may go against one’s preconceived notions, the author gives the reader all the help they need to check the relevant facts. But this is not merely a scholarly book; it’s written with evident enthusiasm for the subject being discussed, like a highly energetic tour guide taking you round an exhibit for which they have a passion. It’s this exuberance that comes off the page which makes it pleasure to read, as well being highly informative.

3 responses to “Book Review: God’s Philosophers by James Hannam

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