This is a review of a movie released in 2009 – “Agora,” starring Rachel Weisz. Why, you may ask, is a 2009 movie review relevant to Daily Kos readers? Well, this movie, aside from being a beautifully made film – one of my all-time favorites – addresses a topic that is as relevant today as it was in the 4th century AD, when the events of the movie actually took place. This movie is about the origins of the conflict between science and the Christian church, and how (spoiler alert) the rise of Christianity essentially stopped the progress of science in the Western world for over 1000 years. This is a movie that brings tears to my eyes and a chill to my spine – a movie that, even though virtually no one in the US saw it when it was released, should be required viewing by every American.
Have you ever wondered why more than 1700 years went by between the golden age of the Greek democracy in Athens and the scientific discoveries of the 16th century – the period that spans what we now call the Dark Ages? Certainly Greek astronomers like Hipparchus, Aristarchus, and Pythagoras made sophisticated measurements and excellent observations about the stars and planets and recorded many unusual features of those “heavenly” bodies. Had a culture existed in the West that encouraged scientific inquiry, who knows how fast our knowledge of astronomy and other disciplines might have increased?
The 2009 movie “Agora” indirectly addresses this question. Directed by Alejandro Amenabar, this Spanish film stars Rachel Weisz as Hypatia of Alexandria and lays out the events in Alexandria that caused scientific inquiry to collapse. Even though the story sounds like a fairy tale, Hypatia was a real person who lived in 4th century Alexandria, overcame sexist traditions to teach mathematics, science and philosophy at the university, and developed scientific insights into astronomy and the motion of the planets. Inevitably and predictably, she came into conflict with the Christian church and ultimately lost her battle with those who wanted to suppress her voice.
Fourth-century Alexandria was a turning point in the rise of Christianity, pitting the newly empowered Christians against the adherents of the “pagan” Greek and Roman mythologies, the followers of Zeus, Venus, Dionysus, and the rest of the Olympian gang. The library at Alexandria, containing collections of the most important books of the ancient world, would be the focal point of the Christian obsession with blasphemous pagan science, and a famous casualty of the Christian juggernaut. It is no coincidence that more than 1000 years would pass before the stranglehold that the church held on science and astronomy would be loosened by the collective works of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton and others.
Of course Galileo had the great advantage of the invention of the telescope to accelerate his thinking and bolster his observations. But who’s to say that the telescope, the microscope, the printing press, and other enabling discoveries might not have happened hundreds of years sooner if not for the oppressive influence of the church on free inquiry. Think of all the potential scientists who might have advanced the cause of knowledge, but instead succumbed to religious doctrine of their age, who might have brought the world closer to our present state of knowledge, and to development of the automobile, the airplane, the computer, and the iPad, but instead, never rose to challenge the authority of the church.
Try to grasp the magnitude of this passage of time. By contrast consider the events of the 20th century, when science, freed from the constraints of religious dogma, brought the world out of the horse-and-buggy era into the internet-fueled information age in less than 100 years. Imagine instead a 1000 year interruption in the march of science that might have fueled advances in medicine, astronomy, biology, physics, cosmology, you-name-it, in order to permit the church to engage in arcane discussions of angels dancing on pins, witches, hellfire, eternal damnation, and the suppression of anyone who challenged their worldview, via inquisitions, excommunications, pogroms, crusades, whatever it took. Go figure.
Of course it will be argued that “Agora” is a work of fiction, that causes and effects are never so simple, that it is impossible to know the true course or cause of events that happened 1500 years ago. Still it is not speculation that suppression of science and oppression of women happened and was directly and indirectly enabled by the Christian church over the centuries.
Now fast forward to a world where the basic tenets of biology, cosmology, evolution, and climatology are regularly challenged by religiously inspired flat-earth advocates, who astoundingly are actually taken seriously. If this frightens you as much as it does me, go out and find the movie “Agora,” Netflix it, buy it at Amazon, recommend it to your friends. Don’t let the advocates of cruelty and ignorance win. Save the planet – it’s important.
11:56 PM PT: Update: My sincere thanks to the many commenters, astute students of history all, who pointed out a number of historical inaccuracies and oversimplifications in my diary. I certainly learned a great deal from their collective perspectives.
Several people objected to my 1700 year estimate. That number was based on the period of time between the work of Aristarchus (who died approx 230 BCE) and Copernicus (who died in 1543 CE), more than 1770 years apart. Both men postulated that the earth revolves around the sun, but little work was done to advance the heliocentric theory between them (albeit not entirely, perhaps not even primarily, due to religious suppression). That the earth is the center of creation is a critical tenet of the Christian church, hence my implied suggestion that the church suppressed investigation of this aspect of astronomy for a very long time, and was still suppressing this line of thinking even as late as Galileo, which I believe remains valid – to suggest otherwise is disingenuous. I speculated that had there been no suppression, astronomy and related disciplines might have advanced much faster, but I obviously have no proof of that.
I did not mean to imply that there were no advances during that entire period. As several astute commenters pointed out, there were certainly significant scientific achievements during this time (thanks, rbird and rduran). Several centuries lapsed between Aristarchus and Hypatia, and the church cannot be blamed for the lack of progress on the heliocentric theory over this period. I have no credible explanation for why the heliocentric theory did not fare better during those periods.
rduran also points out that there were cultures in other parts of the world, unencumbered by Christianity, that also resulted in no significant scientific advances. But creation myths are central to all the world’s religions, and pursuit of any astronomical theories that would invalidate them would have come under the same religious scrutiny.
I used the term “Dark Ages”, which as BMScott pointed out is no longer an historically valid descriptor. In fact, the period I was referring to is more appropriately the Middle Ages, 6th to 13th centuries CE, which is a more appropriate time period to impugn religious motivation to the suppression of science in Europe. The 1700 year time frame I described certainly “spanned” the Middle Ages, albeit with other periods of relative scientific, religious, and artistic freedom and creativity included.
The events depicted in the film “Agora” are fictionalized and simplified for dramatic effect, as I stated in my original diary. However, I still believe that my conclusions are inescapable, especially that “Agora” is a film not to be missed.