Book Plunge: Science Education in the Early Roman Empire

What do I think of Richard Carrier’s latest book published by Pitchstone Publishing? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

When I saw Carrier had a new book coming, I decided I had to order it immediately. Carrier is one of the biggest names in atheism today for some reason and I want to be on top of what is being said as a Christian, so I placed my request and waited. The book actually came before the release date, which was a surprise, but I’m not complaining.

To start, some people will be surprised that this book is short. Had it not been for the presidential debates and then getting ready to spend Anime Weekend Atlanta with my wife, I can conceive of someone going through this in a day. The content pages aren’t large in number, they have footnotes, and the font seems larger than normal. This isn’t a complaint by the way, but just a statement of fact.

Reading this also, one in many ways seems to encounter a Carrier that they haven’t seen before. I thought his book on the historicity of Jesus just went for stretch after stretch after stretch and his book on sense and goodness without God had no real referencing to speak of. The style in this is quite different and I would not have known it was a Carrier book unless I had read it on the front because that was so incredibly different, but I understand that this is based on his dissertation so that’s probably what explains it.

I actually think the book is quite informative as well. It’s important to note that science wasn’t taught as much not because it was looked down on per se, but because attitudes like virtue and rhetoric were seen as more important. This is understandable. As Lewis wrote that many people can put up one kind of moral behavior and posit that for morality and think they are more moral than people of the past because of where they excel, ignoring where they are weak, so can it be done with knowledge. For the ancients, it was rhetoric and persuasive ability that mattered. For the medievals, it was the knowledge of God that was on top. For moderns, it’s science. Of course, it’s my persuasion that we can learn from all three.

Carrier does want to compare the time to the Middle Ages, but here you see that he has not really looked at it as much. I look forward to seeing what Hannam and O’Neill will say in response. Let’s look at some such passages in Carrier to see what I mean.

“How many youths studied the enkykios (A basic curriculum consisting of scientific knowledge) and its basic science content in the Middle Ages?  I suspect it is not likely even to be comparable, much less greater. But I must leave that for others to determine.” (p. 85)

“But I suspect very much the same could be said for the Middle Ages.” (p. 89)

“It seems unlikely that these standards for the education of scientists and philosophers continued in the Middle Ages, which oversaw a broad decline of scientific knowledge, and the gradual elimination of even the idea of a philosophy school.” (p. 119)

“Medieval state and public support for education is not likely to compare as well, until the rise of the universities, yet even those were small and few in number for quite some time and thus, at least until the Renaissance, might not have surpassed what had already been available in the Roman Empire.” (p. 136)

Statements like this do show that we need to wait for that information to come out. As I said, I look forward to what Hannam and O’Neill have to say, particularly about Christianity not being responsible for the rise of science. Still, this book is actually an interesting and enjoyable read and I think contains information that is worth further study. We’ll have to see what others have to say about it.

In Christ,
Nick Peters