Jesuits: Savants

  • Article (book chapter)
  • 46 pages
  • Level: university

This article by Mordechai Feingold is the introductory chapter to the 2003 book Jesuit Science and the Republic of Letters, edited by Feingold and published by The MIT Press. Feingold provides an overview of Jesuit scientists and of the advantages and disadvantages (from a scientific point of view) of doing science within the Jesuit order—an organization whose mission was not scientific but spiritual. Feingold writes:

The aim of this introductory chapter is to get past the stereotypes that surrounded the Society of Jesus during the first 200 years of its existence and evaluate the scientific dimension of its intellectual contribution, independent of its religious mission. It is my contention that, by and large, the scholarly activities and aspirations of Jesuits were indistinguishable from those of other contemporary savants, secular or ordained, irrespective of denomination. True, constraints on the pursuit of secular learning were more stringent among Jesuits, as were the mechanisms regulating their teachings, publications, and contacts with outsiders. But this cannot be automatically construed to mean that the Jesuits harbored a greater number of reactionary, prejudiced, or bigoted scholars than did other Catholic orders (or, for that matter, the various Protestant churches). Indeed, my research indicates that while scholarship often served partisan goals in the charged religious atmosphere of the early modern period, Jesuit scientific practitioners as a group seem to have resisted the temptation to yoke science to other ends as well as did practitioners of any other religious denomination….

It may seem surprising that, notwithstanding [the constraints, and disciplinary measures associated with them] (which must have been applied to hundreds of Jesuit philosophers and mathematicians in the course of the early modern period), only a few Jesuits left or were expelled from the Society as a consequence of such measures. In part, this is a testimony to the gravity with which Jesuit practitioners took their vows. But it is also clear that for most members—who never doubted the primacy of the religious mission of the Society even when they differed on the extent of the dangers that the new philosophies posed to the traditional relations between philosophy and theology—the constraints were a burden to be contended with from within the Order. Many continued to preach the benefit of at least a modicum of philosophical freedom, even in print.

Click here for an excerpt, courtesy of Google Books.

From the publisher, MIT Press:

Founded in 1540, the Society of Jesus was viewed for centuries as an impediment to the development of modern science. The Jesuit educational system was deemed conservative and antithetical to creative thought, while the Order and its members were blamed by Galileo, Descartes, and their disciples for virtually every proceeding against the new science. No wonder a consensus emerged that little reason existed for historians to take Jesuit science seriously. Only during the past two decades have scholars begun to question this received view of the Jesuit role in the Scientific Revolution, and this book contributes significantly to that reassessment. Focusing on the institutional setting of Jesuit science, the contributors take a new and broader look at the overall intellectual environment of the Collegio Romano and other Jesuit colleges to see how Jesuit scholars taught and worked, to examine the context of the Jesuit response to the new philosophies, and to chart the Jesuits’ scientific contributions. Their conclusions indicate that Jesuit practitioners were indeed instrumental in elevating the status of mathematics and in stressing the importance of experimental science; yet, at the same time, the Jesuits were members of a religious order with a clearly defined apostolic mission. Understanding both the contributions of Jesuit practitioners and the constraints under which they worked helps us to gain a clearer and more complete perspective on the emergence of the scientific worldview.