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on 14 February 2018
God's Philosophers takes the reader on a tour of the intellectual life and times one of history's less alluring eras. The text is suffused with Hannam's clear passion for his topic, whilst retaining a well-researched authoritativeness throughout; as such, it is a pleasure to read, rendering both enjoyment and information to the reader. His mission, to refute the idea that, intellectually, the middle ages was a dull interregnum between the classical era and the renaissance, is a resounding success.

Before reading, it is important to understand what the book actually is - it is not a mere history of technology, a list or narrative of inventions and advancements, but a history of science as a philosophy. Indeed, for almost all of the book, a history of science as a philosophy before any philosophy recognisable as modern science actually existed; as Hannam puts it in his conclusion, "the story of the gestation of science". As such, much of the book is devoted to philosophers and theologians (and philosophies and theologies) and to the dominant intellectual institution of the time, the Catholic church. Through these, Hannam charts a course showing how the rediscovery, elevation and extension of classical philosophy lead first to the introduction of logic and rational argument in theology, through increasingly observational natural philosophy, until something resembling modern proof by experimentation emerges. This story is replete with heroes and villains, triumphs and failures; very often, the same ideas that drive progress in one period end up retarding it in the next, as they get taken over, and stymied, by the establishment.

The book does have a few minor faults. In the introduction, Hannam pushes his agendas and grinds his axes far too strongly for my taste - fortunately this is somewhat toned down in the main text, and only invoked when the Hannam has facts to back it up. In a few places, Hannam seems to have got carried away, spending large amounts of time on developments that seem unimportant; it seem hard to justify, for instance, a book on the history of science devoting three-quarters of a chapter to the protestant reformation, and then concluding that it had no impact on the development of science.

Overall, this book will keep you occupied and entertained, while teaching you something new. You'll get a beguiling cast of characters, some challenging philosophy, interesting science and a clear explanation of how these were important in the emergence of modern science.
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on 15 October 2017
This was a belting read: several hundred pages went by very quickly and I was genuinely interested in what happened next because Hannam has such an engaging style: chatty without being childish or matey, detailed without having lumpy or awkward sentences.

I can’t, however, feel that he has made his case. Yes, it is very true that religious institutions created universities and funded research for the sheer heck of doing research, because ‘natural theology’ is still a branch of ‘theology’, considered at the time the ‘queen of sciences’ BUT, and it’s a bit BUT, too much of the early part of the book is about the nature of God and the theological arguments surrounding that: the argument is most definitely not full of examples of people who were Christians, doing science, and discovering things that laid the foundations for what came next, other than the long, gradual shrugging, sloughing off of the influence of Aristotle and Ptolemy.

Hannam also fails to make his case by pointing out that the general people went to the local ‘faith healers’ because they were less likely to kill you, rather than because everyone was indoctrinated into superstition as the New Atheists would have it, then trying to claim that those very same incompetent, harmful scientists /doctors were laying the foundations of modern science. No sorry, cake, eating it, no washing up, and not getting fat is not a viable option.

A valuable distinction is, however, made over the meaning of ‘humanism’ when it was founded in the late middle ages / Renassiance as one faded into the other (there is no sudden change, another valuable point also made) and how it is used now (chapter 14), and this seems to be, ironically, when the book also undergoes a ‘renaissance’ or ‘reformation’ into it’s line of argument, where the religious aspects of Copernicus, Galileo and etc are brought out.

Where the book is most useful is in chapters 18 to 21 when a great deal of, interestingly written, time is spent disassembling the ‘myths’ (big stories) surrounding Galileo in particular. As ever, the reduced, slap-dash, ‘atheist scientist narrating popular science documentary’ version is way off what actually happened: Galileo didn’t help his case by being rude, telling people how to do their jobs, rocking the boat when it didn’t need to be in a sensitive, post-Reformation world where the Roman Catholic church as an institution is feeling edgy, needling to ‘lick its wounds’, and trying to (re)assert some authority to create stability.

There is also an intriguing taste, that could have been expanded if some of the theological debates had been diminished, of how much is owed to the Arabian and Muslim worlds, and one might also have had room to have explained the ‘translation period’, where Islam was essentially a sponge that soaked up as much knowledge as it could find, ie a good thing, and not the bunch of raving religious idiots it is negatively stereotyped as now.

A good read for how the world change from after the Romans left to not quite up to the Stuarts, and a brave attempt at debunking the “science good, religion bad” childishness, but the argument remains unproven in this particular book. I will still keep it as I have turned quite a few page corners over to mark where I got something out of it.
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on 15 October 2017
This was a belting read: several hundred pages went by very quickly and I was genuinely interested in what happened next because Hannam has such an engaging style: chatty without being childish or matey, detailed without having lumpy or awkward sentences.

I can’t, however, feel that he has made his case. Yes, it is very true that religious institutions created universities and funded research for the sheer heck of doing research, because ‘natural theology’ is still a branch of ‘theology’, considered at the time the ‘queen of sciences’ BUT, and it’s a bit BUT, too much of the early part of the book is about the nature of God and the theological arguments surrounding that: the argument is most definitely not full of examples of people who were Christians, doing science, and discovering things that laid the foundations for what came next, other than the long, gradual shrugging, sloughing off of the influence of Aristotle and Ptolemy.

Hannam also fails to make his case by pointing out that the general people went to the local ‘faith healers’ because they were less likely to kill you, rather than because everyone was indoctrinated into superstition as the New Atheists would have it, then trying to claim that those very same incompetent, harmful scientists /doctors were laying the foundations of modern science. No sorry, cake, eating it, no washing up, and not getting fat is not a viable option.

A valuable distinction is, however, made over the meaning of ‘humanism’ when it was founded in the late middle ages / Renassiance as one faded into the other (there is no sudden change, another valuable point also made) and how it is used now (chapter 14), and this seems to be, ironically, when the book also undergoes a ‘renaissance’ or ‘reformation’ into it’s line of argument, where the religious aspects of Copernicus, Galileo and etc are brought out.

Where the book is most useful is in chapters 18 to 21 when a great deal of, interestingly written, time is spent disassembling the ‘myths’ (big stories) surrounding Galileo in particular. As ever, the reduced, slap-dash, ‘atheist scientist narrating popular science documentary’ version is way off what actually happened: Galileo didn’t help his case by being rude, telling people how to do their jobs, rocking the boat when it didn’t need to be in a sensitive, post-Reformation world where the Roman Catholic church as an institution is feeling edgy, needling to ‘lick its wounds’, and trying to (re)assert some authority to create stability.

There is also an intriguing taste, that could have been expanded if some of the theological debates had been diminished, of how much is owed to the Arabian and Muslim worlds, and one might also have had room to have explained the ‘translation period’, where Islam was essentially a sponge that soaked up as much knowledge as it could find, ie a good thing, and not the bunch of raving religious idiots it is negatively stereotyped as now.

A good read for how the world change from after the Romans left to not quite up to the Stuarts, and a brave attempt at debunking the “science good, religion bad” childishness, but the argument remains unproven in this particular book. I will still keep it as I have turned quite a few page corners over to mark where I got something out of it.
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on 20 June 2017
Saw a lecture by James Bannam and it made me want to read the full works. Really well written in a very good style, certainly far from dull and some very surprising facts being given on how our science developed from these times.
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on 16 May 2017
very good.
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on 29 April 2017
A brilliant debunking of the myth that Christianity is anti-science.
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on 1 December 2016
This opens up a fascinating world of history that eludes most of us we a scientific training. If you are not a scientist do not be deterred, this book is very readable.
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on 19 July 2016
A relatively heavy read but a thorough investigation of how the philosophers would have struggled to succeed without the church.
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on 28 May 2016
Being a medievalist, I skipped large parts of the book that did not contribute in any way to my knowledge, but I have still learnt new things. There was certainly nothing about the mean speed theorem in my medieval philosophy class.

For someone who is not a historian, this is an excellent book, even though not perfectly free from misguided assumptions (like the complete uselessness of medieval medicine), or out-dated information (the use of stirrups had spread across Europe much earlier than the Author claimed) – but these are minor drawbacks. The book is very readable. To a non-professional reader, it offers a fresh look at the Middle Ages as a period of social development and progress in human knowledge. In this respect, it is also a very useful book, disproving much of the widespread prejudice about those times.

The Author may seem overly keen to defend the Catholic Church against the accusations for the curbing of the free thought, but he is also right in pointing out that, first, there were/are taboos in every period of history and every cultural milieu, and second, it was the Catholic Church that created the conditions for the philosophers to become scientists, and it was the people of the Church themselves who took the natural philosophy to the level of scientific research.
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on 14 July 2015
Clear and well written account of an interesting period, with enough rigour to seem reliable and enough narrative to stay interesting!
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