"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Philosophy in the High Middle Ages

The philosophy of the High Middle Ages was a mix of Aristotle and Christianity. While the Early Middle Ages were dominated by platonic thought, Aristotle's philosophical system had a resurgence in the writings of such celebrated philosophers and university teachers from the High Middle Ages as Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham. According to Paul Vincent Spade: “This 'recovery' of Aristotle in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was a momentous event in the history of medieval philosophy.”1

To understand why a Greek philosopher who died some fifteen hundred years before should have such a great influence on the philosophy of the High Middle Ages it is necessary to understand the attitude of the period to the past. Previous philosophers and writers were looked upon with near reverence. Greek and Latin authors in particular were treasured by the philosophers of Western Europe.2 These previous writers were “authorities,” whether on history, literature, science or philosophy. Albert Ascoli explains the unchallenged influence the past had on medieval intellectuals: “In the Middle Ages an “author” (Latin auctor and autor; Italian autore) was not any old writer of literature, but was instead, and against the modern definition, a person who possessed auctoritas [authority], and who might also have produced texts that were known as auctoritates.”3 He explains further that they are almost exempt from challenge and believed to have a corner on the truth.4

Unfortunately, since they considered a wide range of authors to all be right they ran into a problem. C.S. Lewis explains: “they find it hard to believe that anything an old auctor has said is simply untrue. And they inherit a very heterogeneous collection of books; Judaic, pagan, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoical, Primitive Christian, Patristic... Obviously their auctors will contradict one another.”5 Trying to remedy the blatant contradictions between the pagan philosophers and the Christian Patriarchs became the overarching goal of the philosophers in the High Middle Ages. This attempt came to be called scholasticism.

Scholasticism was not so much a philosophy itself as a framework in which to look at and compare different philosophies. The medieval mind loved to organize things so when the jumbled mass of Greek and Roman philosophy tumbled into the Christian edifice, the scholastics picked up the pieces and constructed a new building that recycled elements from both. On the one hand, points out Paul Vincent Spade, classical pagan philosophy—particularly Aristotle—was “crucial for the development of medieval philosophy.” On the other hand, Spade reveals that the early Christian philosopher Augustine from the fifth century who had such a crucial role in orthodox church doctrine was “an authority who simply had to be accommodated. He shaped medieval thought as no one else did.”6 The self-appointed task of the scholastics was to synthesize these two philosophical systems.

At this point it should be clear that philosophy during the middle ages cannot be separated from theology. The philosophers of that time were theologians and vise versa. St. Thomas Aquinas is indisputably the greatest of these philosopher churchmen. He called philosophy the handmaiden of theology. His book written in Latin called the Summa Theologiae was “the first completed attempt to establish Christian theology as a scientific discipline.”7 Aquinas's life and work was the high point of philosophy in the High Middle Ages. He embodied the thinking of the scholastics when he wrote: “it is impossible that those things which are of philosophy can be contrary to those things which are of faith.”8

Some other distinctive philosophical questions from the High Middle Ages include the problem of evil and the possibility of freewill. In addition, the High Middle Ages were famous for the development of logic that took place at this time. I. M. BocheĊ„ski, in his study on the history of logic classified this period as one of the three greatest periods in the development of logic throughout history.9

The philosophical contribution of the High Middle Ages should not be underestimated. It was one of the most sophisticated mental climates in history. Thomas Aquinas, the leading philosopher of the period, is considered one of the greatest philosophers of all time. Gorge Gracia asserts that, “In intensity, sophistication, and achievement, the philosophical flowering in the thirteenth century could be rightly said to rival the golden age of Greek philosophy in the fourth century B.C.”10

1. Paul Vincent Spade: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Medieval Philosophy.” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/medieval-philosophy/

2. Jackson J. Spielvogel Western Civilization: A Brief History, 3rd ed. (Thomson-Wadsworth, 2005). 164

3. Albert Russel Ascoli. Dante and the Making of a Modern Author. http://www.cambridge.org/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780511380464&ss=exc

4. Ibid.

5. C. S. Lewis. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. (Canto Books, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995). 11

6. Paul Vincent Spade: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Medieval Philosophy.” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/medieval-philosophy/

7. Thomas Gilby, editor. Summa Theologiae, Volume 1: The Existence of God. (Image Books, Doubleday and Company, 1969). 12

8. As quoted in Jackson J. Spielvogel. Western Civilization: A Brief History, 3rd ed. (Thomson-Wadsworth, 2005) 166

9. As cited in Paul Vincent Spade: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Medieval Philosophy.” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/medieval-philosophy/).

10. Gorge Gracia and T.B. Noone. A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages, London 2003 pg. 1


Aaron and Jessica Telian said...

Informative. You likely already know this, but G. K. Chesterton's book on Thomas Aquinas is excellent. (Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox) Fascinating man.

Brian Carpentier said...

I just read that book a few months ago (picked it up at a thrift store for 50 cents). I was really excited when I bought it but was kinda disappointed for some reason. Nevertheless, I'd like to learn more about Aquinas, he sounds like one of the most brilliant men ever; however, the thing that struck me was how these scholastics like Aquinas tried to blend the sometimes erroneous philosophical and scientific ideas of the pagans with Christianity. The modern parallel that came to mind is the almost eager acceptance by some Christians of the "scientific" paradigm of our day: evolution. Why are we so eager to seem wise in the eyes of men by obsequiously agreeing with every fad, even when it means disagreeing with the faith. "What fellowship hath light with darkness."