Cahill — Heretics and Heroes

I really enjoy the “Hinges of History” series by Thomas Cahill. The author is part historian and part storyteller. That makes his books both entertaining and informative. I hope you read the whole series!

In several of the volumes he talks about the interplay between the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle being one of the major threads in the story of Western civilization. Plato speak of the reality which we see and touch as being of meaning only insofar as it helps us perceive the higher realities, those ideas or “forms” which lie behind the material level. There are chairs of all sorts and descriptions, for example, but behind them all is the idea of “chairness.”

Aristotle, on the other hand, differed with Plato, his teacher, and centered all his attention on what we actually perceive through our senses. We might say that, while Plato guided our attention to heaven, Aristotle keeps bringing us back to earth. The Renaissance painter Raphael captured the difference in his painting “The School of Athens” (1510).


Just two years before Raphael’s painting, Duhrer had made a drawing in preparation for one of his paintings. Though not intended at all to be a finished work, it has become one of the most frequently reproduced images in all the history of art, known simply as “The Praying Hands.”


What has this drawing to do with Cahill’s thesis? In the Renaissance, interest turned very strongly toward the earth, a la Aristotle. Plato’s invisible “forms” attracted little interest and prompted no new insights. Duhrer’s drawing centers our attention not to the One who hears our prayer but to the one who prays, not to heaven or to spiritual realities but simply to the visible, the earthly. Aristotle was winning!

God was not deliberately supplanted in Renaissance days. Faith remained strong for centuries. Now faith is being tested as never before, however, as our hands become engaged not in praying but in focusing our electron microscopes and grinding to perfection the lenses and mirrors which help us see the edges of the universe. Aristotle is still winning!

This, too, shall pass. For all the greatness of science, it will suffice for our spiritual nurture no more than does salt water slack our thirst. When our spiritual thirst becomes too great, we will seek heaven again. God will forgive us and welcome us home. We will be the Prodigal Sons returning.

I hope we do not then abandon science. We need both faith in the Creator and scientific examination of the Creation, just as an airplane needs both a left wing and a right. Why must we choose?


About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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