Part 5 of 9
Translated by Simona Draghici, revised by Greg Johnson
What is a spatial revolution?
Man has a clear awareness of his space, which historically is subject to profound perturbations. To the plurality of forms of existence corresponds an equal plurality of spaces. Quite simultaneously, the plurality of skills or professions introduces a different environment in the everyday activities of all of us. The inhabitant of a big city has a different image of the world than does a farmer. A whale hunter has a vital space that differs from that of an opera-singer. Life and the world are seen in a different light by an airplane pilot, and they have different dimensions, depths, and horizons. The differences in the perception of space are even larger and deeper among various nations and among the various periods in the history of mankind.
The scientific theories of space may practically tell us a lot or next to nothing at one and the same time. For centuries, the few men of science who conceived of Earth as spherical were considered mentally deranged or wicked. In the modern age, various branches of science, with their increasing specialization, have come out with their particular notions of space. Geometry, physics, psychology, and biology each go their own ways, separate from each other. When asked, the scientists would reply that mathematical space is entirely different from the space of an electromagnetic field and that the latter in turn is completely different from the space as it is understood in psychology or in biology. That gives us half a dozen notions of space! There is no conceptual unity there, and the real problem risks being unraveled and fragmented by the irrelevant contiguity of these different notions. Neither the philosophy nor the epistemology of the nineteenth century provide us with a simple and all-encompassing answer but in fact leave us in the lurch.
Nevertheless, the forces and the powers that forge history wait for science to make up its mind as little as did Christopher Columbus and Copernicus. Each time the forces of history cause a new breach, the surge of new energies brings new lands and new seas into the visual field of human awareness, the spaces of historical existence undergo a corresponding change. Hence new criteria appear alongside new dimensions of political and historical activity, new sciences, new social systems; nations are born or reborn.
This redeployment may be so profound and so sudden that it alters not only man’s outlook, standards, and criteria but also the very contents of the notion of space. It is in that context that one may talk of a spatial revolution. Actually, all important changes in history more often than not imply a new perception of space. The true core of the global mutation, political, economic, and cultural, lies in it. Three historical examples will quickly make clear this general phenomenon: the consequences of the conquests made by Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire of the first century of our era, and the impact of the Crusades upon the development of Europe.
The conquests made by Alexander the Great opened to the Greeks a new and vaster, spatial horizon. The consequences were Hellenistic art and culture. The great philosopher Aristotle, a contemporary of that spatial mutation, saw the inhabited worlds of the East and the West increasingly coming together. Aristarchus of Samos, who lived a little later (310–230 BC), put forth the hypothesis that the Sun, a fixed star, was at the center of Earth’s orbit. Alexandria, a city founded by Alexander on the Nile, became the center of astonishing inventions in technology, mathematics, and physics. Euclid, the founder of the geometry that bears his name, taught there. Hero made astonishing technical discoveries in that city where Archimedes of Syracuse had gone to school before he invented some great war machines and discovered some of the laws of nature. The director of the Alexandrian Library, Eratoethenes (275–195 BC), anticipated Copernicus’ work by correctly calculating the Equator and by scientifically demonstrating the spherical shape of Earth. Notwithstanding, the Hellenistic world was not vast enough to be capable of opening itself to a revolution of the planetary space. Its knowledge remained the concern of learned circles, and no world ocean became part of its existential reality.
Three centuries later, when Julius Caesar left Rome in order to conquer Gaul and Britain, people’s eyes opened upon the northwest, and the Atlantic came within reach. That was the first step towards the spatial entity that nowadays is called “Europe.” In the first century of the Roman Empire, and particularly under Nero, the consciousness of a profound mutation became so strong and compelling that one may speak of a revolutionary transformation of space, at least as far as the leading intellects were concerned. That historic moment, which coincided with the first century of our era is worth special attention. The visual field expanded towards the east and the west, towards the north and the south. Wars of conquest and civil wars overhauled the space, from Spain to Persia, and from Britain to Egypt. The contact established among lands and peoples so distant from one another nourished a feeling of unity inherent in a common political destiny. From anywhere in the Empire, whether from Germany or Syria, Africa or Illyria, a general could be elevated by his own soldiers to the office of Imperator in Rome. The Isthmus of Corinth was pierced, and Arabia skirted on the south. Nero had sent an expedition to the sources of the Nile. Agrippa’s map of the world and Strabo’s geography are evidence of this spatial expansion. From then on the reality of the spherical shape of Earth ceased to be the exclusive knowledge of a handful of astronomers or mathematicians. It was around that time that Seneca, a famous philosopher and Nero’s tutor before becoming his victim, put the quasi-planetary feelings experienced by his contemporaries in a couple of well-rounded verses and sentences. He was saying quite clearly that one could sail with the wind blowing from behind from the Atlantic shores of Spain, that is from the east, and by navigating westwards, reach India, an Eastern land in not too many days. In his tragedy Medea, he made a strange prediction in fine verse:
The Indian drinks of the icy Araxes.
The Persians quaff the Elbe and the Rhine.
An age will come in the far-off centuries,
When Ocean will loosen the bonds of things,
And the whole broad Earth will be revealed,
When Thetis will disclose new worlds.
And Thule will no longer be the bound.
I quote these verses because they convey a global feeling of apace that was current in the first century of our era. The beginning of our era did indeed mark not only a turnabout of the feelings and the sentiments of the age but also the realization of the global space and planetary horizon. Seneca’s words cast a mysterious bridge over to modern times and the age of the great discoveries: they would cross several centuries of spatial blindness and “continentalization” characteristic of the European Middle Ages. They lent reflective minds the sentiment of a vaster space, of a planetary expanse, and helped to discover America. As many of his contemporaries, Christopher Columbus was familiar with Seneca’s words and in them found the goading and encouragement he needed to undertake his voyage to the New World, the audacious expedition to reach the East by sailing westwards, and which he did in fact. The name “New World” (novus orbis), which Seneca had used, was immediately given to the newly discovered America in 1492.
The fall of the Roman Empire, the expansion of Is1am, the Arab and Turkish invasions brought about a contraction of space and a “continentalization” of Europe that lasted several centuries. Retreat from the sea, absence of a fleet, and total territorialization are characteristic features of the early Middle Ages and the feudal system. Between 500 and 1100, Europe became a feudal and agrarian continental mass, the dominant stratum of which, the feudal lords, left the spiritual matters and even reading and writing to the church and the clergy. Famous kings and heroes of that age were unable to read and write. They had monks and chaplains for that. It was likely that in a maritime realm, the rulers could not afford ignoring those skills for long, as was the case in those realms, exclusively terrestrial and centered on a rural economy. It was the Crusades, after all, that gave the French, English, and German knights and merchants the chance to discover the Near East. In the north, the German Hanse and the Teutonic knights opened a new horizon. It was the beginning of a trade and communications network that eventually came to be known as the “world economy of the Middle Ages.”
Moreover, this spatial expansion coincided with a profound cultural mutation. Everywhere in Europe new political forms made their appearance. France, England, and Sicily witnessed the emergence of centralized administrations that to a degree signaled the advent of the modern state. Northern and Central Italy were the stage of a new urban culture. Universities were set up, giving rise to a new theology and a jurisprudence without precedent. The rediscovery of Roman law led to the formation of a new, cultured class, the lawyers, and put an end to the monopoly exercised by the ecclesiastical clergy, which had been typical of medieval feudalism. In the new, Gothic art, in architecture, sculpture, and painting, a more forceful rhythm was set in motion, overtaking the static space of ancient Roman art and replacing it by a field of dynamic forces. The Gothic arch is a structure in which the elements balance and support each other simply by their weight. It conveys an entirely new sense of space when compared to the heavy and static masses of Roman structures. Unlike the temples of Antiquity and the Renaiassance architecture that would follow it, Gothic art imparts a particular thrust and movement that dislodges apace.
1. Achilles’ mother, Thetis, is here the goddess of the sea. Another version has “Tiphys” instead, who was the pilot of the Argo, the ship that took the Argonauts to the Black Sea to win the Golden Fleece.