From the Publisher: Past Ideas Inform the Future

Are we at the end of a modern Renaissance and on the verge of another Enlightenment period?

My son has been studying the Renaissance, and as I watched the Super Bowl in February, noticing the plethora of electric car ads, I thought of some similarities between that era and our own post-modern age. Specifically, it occurred to me that the Enlightenment was some 200 years after the Renaissance ideas that preceded it. It wasn’t an easy transition.

One of these ideas, geocentrism – that the Earth is at the center of the solar system – seems ludicrous to us now but it was more than just political suicide to question it back then. Often it meant death and torture. Copernicus, who postulated that the Earth revolved around the sun (heliocentrism), played his cards close to the vest, sharing his work only with other astronomers. He did not publish his theories until the year of his death in 1543.

When Galileo proved Copernicus correct some years later, it didn’t go over well. Forced to denounce and curse his work under threat of torture, Galileo agreed that Earth stood still at the center of the universe after all, only to supposedly mutter under his tongue immediately afterward the famous quote, “and yet it moves!”

There are many lessons in this. Certainly, what seems mad in one’s time can be shown to be correct later – so correct, in this case, that it helped form the foundation of modern science.

And as said in the Bible, a prophet is not without honor but in his home country. It was Galileo’s Catholic Church that browbeat the astronomer into capitulation, even in a time when similar “magical” discoveries were being pursued, such as the inventions of Leonardo DaVinci.

To be fair, Galileo was independent-minded, a bit of a rock star. He never married his wife and his heliocentric bent put him in the crosshairs of the Inquisition not once but twice. In 1616 the Catholic Church banned Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, which provides the foundation for Galileo’s theories, and ordered Galileo to stop supporting them.

When Galileo published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632, the church found it too “helio” and summoned the astronomer before the Inquisition.

Convicted of “vehement suspicion of heresy,” Galileo was forced to live the rest of his life under house arrest. Much was made of his “confession,” which in the eyes of the church meant his views now verified their geocentric theory. Not only was his book banned, but the church also banned any other article he had written or would ever write.

It wasn’t until about 200 years later that Dialogue was removed from the church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or Index of Forbidden Books – well after the Age of Enlightenment began in the 18th century. Obviously book banning didn’t prevent Galileo’s ideas from percolating during this subsequent era, which saw the application of many Renaissance ideas come to life and led to the Industrial Revolution. It may have even helped. As Shakespeare said, “the truth will out.”

Galileo’s experience does shed light on some of the ideas percolating today, and the controversy surrounding them. I’ve wondered if we are on the tail end of a modern Renaissance and on the verge of another enlightenment period, as some of the ideas emerging from 20th century modernism find 21st century applications.

Looking over this year’s Economic Yearbook, I am encouraged to see sustainability projects lighting up the Georgia business ecosystem. Investment in electric vehicles and recycling technology reminds me a bit of the ramp-up to the Industrial Revolution. What at first seemed an insurmountable task – teaching invisible concepts that contradicted the status quo – led to unforeseeable new inventions and conveniences.

The Enlightenment wasn’t limited to science, and the emerging Industrial Revolution came amid social upheaval, which reflected the difficulties of putting Renaissance concepts into practice. The growing pains continue into our own era and remind us that these changes in the course of civilization weren’t that long ago – and still have their opponents.

We can only hope to improve on the processes of bygone eras so that subsequent generations can then carry these advancements forward. Those who try to silence progress won’t find it easy.

Categories: From the Publisher, Opinions