This course introduces key developments in medieval understandings of nature (better called “natural philosophy” rather than “science”) through a direct engagement with primary sources. We consider how the texts and authorities of antiquity (Plato and Aristotle, most notably) were assimilated, adapted and transformed during the Roman Empire, in Islam, and in later medieval Christian Europe. Questions such as the role of ‘nature’ in defining human happiness, the good life, and the character of political power will figure prominently. We will attend to the limits of ‘natural’ reason in relation to established disciplines like theology, as well as more contested areas of knowledge such as magic, astrology and alchemy. The approach taken will be that of intellectual history, in the sense that we will focus on fundamental concepts articulated by the authors and on careful textual exegesis, while always attentive to the wider historical and cultural contexts. Especially given that this course’s authors, texts and contexts are quite distant in time from our contemporary world, there will also be occasions for us to reflect on the challenges facing the modern inquirer into pre-modern conceptions of nature and scientific knowledge.
Cross-listing: CLAS 2002.03