Nature is never so admired as when she is understood–                         Fontenelle

Scientific knowledge lives at two levels: First, it is in the minds of those engaged in science. Second, in the public mind, where it ranges from nebulous sympathetic understanding to total incomprehension or downright opposition, often from commentators who don’t have a clear idea of  what science is all about. By and large educated people have some respect for science as a mode of explaining and exploiting the natural world, just as they enjoy and appreciate art, music, and red wine without being connoisseurs. With all that, science marches on, tottering its way forward towards a better understanding of the world, never sure it has all the right and final answers to questions to which other systems of thought have given confident answers that have survived for millennia.

In this context I will recall today Bernard de Fontenelle (born: 11 February 1657) who lived to be almost a hundred years. He was an erudite scholar, brilliant wit, and effective exponent of science. He fostered enlightened thinking, using enjoyable language. He warned that people would reject science as useless if they didn’t understand it. Already when modern science was in its infancy Fontenelle was so impressed with the power of mathematics that he wrote: “Even a work of morality, politics, criticism will be more elegant, other things being equal, if it is shaped by the hand of geometry.” He felt the joy that mathematics can give, saying: “Nothing proves more clearly that the mind seeks truth, and nothing reflects more glory upon it, than the delight it takes, sometimes in spite of itself, in the driest and thorniest researches of algebra.”

In 1686 Fontenelle wrote a charming book on planets and stars. In the form of conversations with a marquise while taking walks in a garden, he expounded  the sun-centered planetary system and speculated on the possibility of life on the Moon and elsewhere in the universe. This book saw many editions, and brought basic knowledge of the new astronomy to thousands of educated people. It was the first example of (what is called in French) vulgarisation (popularization) of scientific knowledge: a genre in which many authors were to write in generations to come. This was as much a service to science as the discovery of a new satellite or organism.

Fontenelle reflected on history and subtly suggested that mythologies were fables of ancient peoples: a politically incorrect view even in the twenty-first century, except when the word refers to the mythologies of cultures other than one’s own. He sowed the seeds for a critical study of religious texts and a historical approach to hagiography, another daring venture which was and  still is anathema in many quarters. He was not inclined to believe in miracles, which made him unusual for his times. He had an aversion for superstitions which clutter(ed) the minds of the vast majority of peoples. Thus he held  revolutionary,  rebellious, reprehensible attitudes for his times. He often published anonymously.

Fontenelle was brought up as a Catholic, but he argued for religious tolerance: in those days this meant not being too harsh on Protestants. Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists were nowhere near to be intolerant toward. It is difficult in this day and age to even imagine the religious persecution that was rampant in Europe in those times. In 1598 Henry IV of Catholic France signed the famous Edict  of Nantes which  guaranteed Protestants (the Huguenots) equal protection under the law. This was one of the earliest steps towards the secularization in Western civilization. However, less than a hundred years later Louis XIV – regarded as one of the greatest of French monarchs – revoked this Edict. This meant that Protestants had to convert to Christianity or else… [History can sometimes reverse its march towards a more just and enlightened world. It would be foolhardy to imagine that this cannot happen even in currently enlightened societies.] This led to an exodus of more than 400,000 people from France, reminding us of  refugee problems in our own times in the Middle East.

Fontenelle wrote a critical piece against the annulment of the Edict of  Nantes in a disguised format: as a conflict between two people called Eegenu and Mreo in a distant island. Actually these names are anagrams of Calvin’s Geneva (u and v are same in Latin) and Catholicism’s Rome.  He could have been arrested for this attack on the king, but he promptly wrote a poem praising Louis XIV under whom religion had triumphed. He also good connections at the court.

Fontenelle foresaw that science would rise to great heights, but he  feared humanity was too weak to look at truth straight in the eye. Fontenelle served as Perpetual Secretary of the Académie Royale des Sciences for forty years. In this capacity he delivered several eulogies and wrote a systematic history of the institution. These writings are valuable to scholars to this day. Fontenelle was one of the spirits that inspired the French Encyclopédie, and the associated Enlightenment which were to significantly affect the course of human history.

Three independent factors gradually contributed to the hegemony that Western civilization still enjoys in many contexts, but which is slowly but surely dwindling in the twenty-first century. These are: (a) the Colonialist economic exploitation that began in the sixteenth century and enriched the coffers of the colonizing countries. (b) The emergence of modern science and the consequent industrial revolution. (c) Bold thinkers who wrote against dark-age beliefs and practices who managed to overcome repressive royal and ecclesiastical authorities; and eventually asserted themselves and gained the upper have.

Bernard de Fontenelle was one of the scores of thinkers who gave a push along this direction. The struggle for free thought and for freedom from religious and traditional backward-looking authorities is going on in many parts of the world where economic prosperity and technological advances, based on Western models, are occurring at an accelerated pace. 

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