Medieval Europe 814-1450: Philosophy

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 3. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

The Foundations: Augustine and Boethius

The Augustinian Model

Although Augustine (354-430) lived during the waning decades of the Roman Empire in the West, his influence was crucial in the Middle Ages, for his work as a theologian trying to reconcile belief with reason defined a major problem that would be at the heart of philosophical pursuit for the next thousand years. It was Augustine, the great bishop of Hippo in North Africa, who established the first successful synthesis between a school of Greek philosophy (namely, Neoplatonism) and the Christian religion. A

genius of the first rank, Augustine agonized over the pursuit of truth, falling prey to several positions that he eventually rejected as false, including skepticism. Finally, when in his thirties, he was lent a copy of the treatises of the Greek philosopher and disciple of Plato, Plotinus (205-270). A new world suddenly opened to him, and within the context of the other-worldly philosophy of Plotinus, the teachings of the Christians, previously rejected as primitive and unsophisticated, now made sense. “Far be it from us to suppose that God abhors in us that by which he has made us superior to the other animals [that is, the reason],” he wrote in one of his letters. Faith alone is not sufficient, as it was for Tertullian (c. 160-220), the greatest of the early Latin Christian theologians. Humans are rational creatures and crave to know, and this natural desire for knowledge cannot be quenched. As articulated by Augustine, this stance became the overriding theme of the medieval enterprise: faith in search of understanding. “Unless you believe,” wrote the prophet Isaiah, whom Augustine frequently quoted, “you shall not understand.” This adage became the motif of the succeeding age, which since the fifteenth century has been labeled the “Middle Ages.”

Boethius as Translator

Exactly half a century after the death of Augustine, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, the man sometimes called “The Last of the Romans,” was born in privileged circumstances, but privilege that coexisted with a new political reality. The Roman Empire in the West by the late fifth century had ceased to exist, and the Italian peninsula was ruled by the Ostrogoths. Notwithstanding, Boethius received the best philosophical education available. He studied at either Athens in Greece or Alexandria in Egypt, the latter the site of the greatest library of the ancient world, where among other things he mastered the Greek language. Rightly convinced that Greek was becoming a dead language in Western Europe, he undertook what he hoped would be his lifelong project—the translating of Plato’s and Aristotle’s complete works into Latin—in order to show the ultimate harmony of their thought. Unfortunately for later centuries, Boethius had not made much headway in his project—in fact he had translated only two of Aristotle’s six volumes on logic—when he came under suspicion of treason and was cast into prison under sentence of death. Nonetheless, the translations and commentaries he completed formed much of the basis for logical inquiry—what was called the “old logic”—until the recovery of the remaining works of Aristotle, which occurred in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

The Consolation of Philosophy

While in prison, awaiting a cruel and, in his view, unjust execution for treason, Boethius wrote his most famous and enduring work, a dialogue entitled The Consolation of Philosophy. Destined to become a “best seller” in the Middle Ages (a status determined by the number of Latin manuscript copies and vernacular translations), the work deals with the problem of evil in a very existential setting. Boethius asks why he, a good and virtuous man, lost everything—his power, his wealth, contact with his family, and, not least, his good name. He receives consolation in his troubled state from Lady Philosophy, who is a personification of Boethius’s better self. She tells him that happiness does not consist in the goods of fortune (a Stoic message) but rather in the unending possession of the Highest Good, which is God, a goal still within his grasp. The question of whether Boethius was a Christian used to be much debated, since he never made any explicit references to his religion in the Consolation. Ever since the discovery and authentication of his tractates on theological topics, however, the question has been laid to rest.

Rationalism in the Age of Charlemagne

The Schoolmaster Eriugena

In the centuries separating Boethius and the Age of Charlemagne (who built the kingdom of the Franks into an empire in the ninth century) there was little philosophical activity. That was, however, soon to change. One of the most fruitful decrees of the newly crowned emperor was to establish a school at every cathedral in his realm, which extended throughout what is now France, Germany, northern Italy, and parts of the Low Countries. Intended for the education of the clergy, the focus in these schools was on basic grammatical and mathematical skills—in other words, the “three R’s.” The creation of schools, however, meant a need for teachers. It was thus that the Celtic monk from the remote West of Ireland, John Scotus Eriugena, was brought to the court of Charlemagne’s grandson, Charles the Bald. Eriugena was destined to become the greatest Irish philosopher of all time, and in a rare tribute his image until recently adorned the five-pound note issued by the Republic of Ireland.

Translating Dionysius

The Irish monks of this time period, almost alone in the Latin West, had somehow preserved a knowledge of the Greek language. Hence, while serving at the court of Charles the Bald in the middle of the ninth century, Eriugena was asked to translate from Greek the writings of Dionysius, called the pseudo-Areopagite (fl. c. 500). These writings, four in all, constitute the longest-lived forgery in Western history: they were signed “Dionysius, companion of St. Paul” and thus accorded enormous respect, until finally in the Renaissance they were discovered to have been written at least 400 years later than claimed. Working with primitive Greek-Latin glossaries and no knowledge of Greek paleography (unable, for example, to distinguish between “therefore” and “therefore not”), Eriugena produced a translation that was so flawed that the pope’s librarian complained that he had buried the meaning of Dionysius in a deep cavern where it must await a new translation. Notwithstanding, Eriugena’s translation was the basis for the study of Dionysius for 300 years.

The Concept of Division

Stimulated by Dionysius’s version of Platonic thought—which was purer than the synthesis achieved by Augustine—Eriugena produced the first summa (“summary treatment” of a discipline) in Western philosophy. The work, which he called Periphyseon (On the Division of Nature), deals with nature and the ways in which it encompasses the entire universe, both being and non-being. Eriugena divided the summary into four components: that which creates and is not created; that which is created and also creates; that which is created and does not create; and finally that which neither creates nor is created. He treated successively the Creator-God, the primordial causes emanating from Him (Plato’s Forms), the material universe, and God-as-End. He looked at creation as a process of division beginning with God, through the primordial causes to a multiplicity of things, and finally returning to God in a cosmic resolution.

Reconciling Platonism and Christianity

Eriugena went further in trusting the powers of his reason than was to be the norm for Christian philosophers, occasionally forcing the biblical text to agree with what his Platonically-schooled reason dictated. One example was the issue of the human body. For Plato, the body was evil. But to a Christian philosopher, the human body was created by God and therefore must be something good. The resolution for Eriugena was that God created humans without bodies, and that the acquisition of bodies as well as sexual differentiation was a result of the Fall. The Genesis text recounting Adam and Eve making loincloths of fig leaves is to be interpreted allegorically, argued Eriugena—that is, that they were making for themselves bodies. Thus, Eriugena remained both a Christian and a Platonist at the same time. In this bold design, Eriugena went further in the direction of Platonism than any other Christian writer, and it is not surprising that long after his death his work was condemned on three counts of heretical teaching early in the thirteenth century.

Anselm of Canterbury

The Beginning of the Modern Age

Whether or not the ending of the first millennium aroused the same apocalyptic fears as the year 2000 witnessed, a growing number of modern historians in fact see the year 1000 as marking the beginning of the modern age. The life of St. Anselm (1033-1109), who is commonly called Anselm of Canterbury, in many ways reflects this new era. Born in the Val d’Aosta area of northern Italy, he left home at an early age to seek an education (and to escape a repressive father). Significantly, he headed not south to Mediterranean countries but north to Normandy in the north of France, attracted to the monastery of Bec because of the reputation of its abbot, the learned Lanfranc. In those dark centuries whatever glimmer of culture and learning still existed was being preserved in these monastic centers. Among other activities at the monasteries that followed the Rule of St. Benedict, monks would copy whatever piece of writing came into their hands, not infrequently without being able to read what they were copying. It was in the quiet and seclusion of Bec that Anselm wrote his best philosophical works. Eventually he succeeded Lanfranc as abbot when the latter was made archbishop of Canterbury, following the Norman Conquest in 1066. Called by historians “the second Augustine,” Anselm had an almost unbounded confidence in the power of reason. He even went so far as to seek what he called “necessary reasons” for the Incarnation, the central teaching of Christianity.

Proof of God’s Existence

The work of Anselm that is most familiar to contemporary philosophers, however, is a short treatise entitled Proslogion, which means an address or discourse. It is called this because it is addressed to God, and it asks God’s help in proving not only God’s existence but also everything else that has been taught about Him. It was a part of Anselm’s belief as a Christian that God is something than which a greater cannot be thought. But to be in the mind and in reality is surely greater than to be in the mind alone. Therefore, to deny that God exists, as the atheist does, is to involve oneself in a contradiction: something than which a greater cannot be thought is the same as that than which a greater can be thought.

Gaunilon’s Response

This philosophical argument, which was to receive more attention in future centuries than any other, already proved provocative in Anselm’s own day. A monk by the name of Gaunilon, about whom nothing is known except his monastery (Marmoutier in the south of France), wrote a response, which he entitled On Behalf of the Fool. “Fool” is Scriptural language for the atheist, and Gaunilon, though a believer, did not think Anselm had proved anything to the man without faith. First, he did not believe this formula for God (“something than which nothing greater can be thought”) was meaningful, and therefore it did not exist in the mind in any real way, that is, in any way different from non-real things. And second, even if it did, one could not conclude from this that God existed in reality, just as one could not conclude that the most perfect island that the mind can conjure must really exist; otherwise, any truly existing island, no matter how humble, would be greater.

Anselm’s Reply

The long-distance correspondence between Gaunilon and Anselm ended with Anselm’s reply to the “fool”: of course his way of thinking about God is meaningful to Gaunilon for it is part of his faith as a Christian. But even if his attacker were truly a godless man, Anselm showed how he might construct a meaningful concept of God from his experience in a contingent world. Everyone has experience of beings that begin and end; is it not clear that beings that begin but never come to an end are greater—even if one has no experience of such beings? And so Anselm concluded that a being that has neither beginning nor end nor duration is greater than any other conceivable being, and therefore close to a being than whom a greater cannot be thought.

The Advantages of Dialogue

The “dialogue” between Anselm and Gaunilon shows clearly the great advantages to be gained by such exchanges. As Aristotle had said, philosophical dialogue “polishes” the truth. Though he has been called the “Father of Scholasticism,” the fact is that Anselm was a monk, which entailed a retreat from the world to be “alone with the Alone,” as Plotinus phrased it; hence the etymology of “monk” from monos, meaning “alone.” A few decades after Anselm’s death, the situation was to change dramatically; institutions were evolving that were to create the proper cultural climate for philosophical activity up to the end of the Middle Ages and beyond.

The Problem of Universals

Concerning Genus and Species

The question on which Peter Abelard (c. 1079-1142) originally made his name and indeed the question that engaged philosophers at the fledgling school at Paris was the so-called problem of universals (common terms like “animal” or “man”). Sparked by a casual remark by Boethius in one of his commentaries on Aristotle’s logic (“concerning genus and species, whether they have real existence or are merely and solely creations of the mind … on all this I make no pronouncement”), the debate raged for nearly half a century. John of Salisbury (c. 1120-1180), a Paris graduate, visited his alma mater twenty years after he had left for England and remarked that the Paris masters in the intervening years had made no progress in resolving the conundrum concerning universals.

Realism and Nominalism

The debate surrounding universals focused on the problem of whether universals, essential to speech and communication, had any status outside of the mind. For instance, does “dogness” or “horseness” have any reality apart from one’s thinking? The question generated two extreme positions: realism—that the universal exists as such outside the mind, like the Forms of Plato—and nominalism—that the universal is only a word, from the Latin nomen, meaning “name.” According to Roscelin, a member of the latter school, the only reality possessed by the universal was the flatus vocis—”the breath made by the voice as it pronounced the word.” William of Champeaux (c. 1070-1121), a champion of the former view, believed that there was something that Socrates and Plato, for example, had in common, something by virtue of which each could be called human. When his student Abelard attacked his position, William retreated to a new position: namely, that although Socrates and Plato had nothing in common, each had an element that can be called “indifferently” the same. Abelard again demolished this position as well, and William, thoroughly humiliated, was driven into retirement. Notwithstanding his failure in the battles of academe, William was subsequently consecrated bishop of Châlons-sur-Marne.

Abelard’s “Conceptualism”

Originally a student of Roscelin’s, Abelard himself moved away from his master’s position and, partly as a result of his debates with William, adopted a view known as conceptualism, which was close to what Aristotle’s would have been had he isolated the problem: that is, that the universal is present within the particular thing, but not as such; it needs to be abstracted by the mind and therefore stands as a mental representation of the nature of the thing, while remaining other than the particular thing itself.

The Triumph of Nominalism

The harsh reality of a nominalist view is that if universals were only words, then no nature would have any reality. In other words, there would be no such thing as human nature or angelic nature or even divine nature; natural law would be left without a foundation. Only individuals exist; universals are simply a convenience of the human mind. While philosophical interest moved away from the problem by the end of the twelfth century, the nominalists reasserted themselves in the fourteenth century, at which point they triumphed over all other positions, and their victory spelled the effective end of the medieval synthesis. Foremost among the champions of this re-emergent nominalism was the Franciscan William of Ockham (c. 1290-1349), the central theme of whose philosophy was the individual thing. Each individual reality was so self-contained that it shared nothing with anything else. It was a philosophy, in other words, of the singular. For the sake of communication and indeed convenience, words need to be used to represent these singular things, but these are no more than fictions (ficta), not reducible to the notion of a thing in the world. The word “man” does not adequately represent Socrates or any part of Socrates, but functions like a mental model. Ultimately, however, this fiction theory fell afoul of his “razor”—the principle of philosophical economy—and Ockham abandoned it in favor of a view that can be more adequately termed “conceptualism”: that is, a universal is simply an act of understanding whereby people are aware of things in terms of their more or less generalizable features.

The Schools of the Twelfth Century

The School at Chartres

The ascendancy of Paris as the intellectual center not only of France but of all of Europe was by no means inevitable. In the first half of the twelfth century, in fact, Paris’s rival was the school at Chartres, some fifty miles to the south. The cathedral school there enjoyed a succession of first-rate masters, whose focus was the seven liberal arts: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics. These subjects of study assumed visible form, carved in stone over the main portal of the cathedral, dialectics being represented by a portrait of Aristotle. Notwithstanding their interest in Aristotle’s logic—mediated through the translations and commentaries of Boethius—the masters of Chartres were more at home with the philosophy of Plato. They worked mainly from the Timaeus, the only one of Plato’s dialogues available to them, and attempted to match up the Platonic myth of cosmogenesis (that is, the generation of the cosmos) with the story of creation in the book of Genesis.

Gilbert of Poitiers and Essentialism

Perhaps the most brilliant and creative of the Chartres masters was Gilbert of Poitiers (1076-1154), who repeated and refined the distinction Boethius made between “that which is” and “that by which a thing is what it is.” The individual “Socrates,” in short, is distinct from that which makes Socrates what he is—his humanity. These are the foundational principles of a metaphysical view known as essentialism: to be is to be a certain kind. To the extent that a thing changes, to that extent is it not completely what it is. Hence anything that has the ability to change is in flux and has no true identity at any point in time. It is change, finally, that distinguishes the creature from the Creator, who is completely self-identical and therefore completely changeless.

John of Salisbury and the Policraticus

Also counted by some among the notables of Chartres was the Englishman John of Salisbury (c. 1120-1180). Secretary to Thomas Becket (c. 1118-1170), archbishop of Canterbury, he joined his master in exile following Becket’s dispute with King Henry II (1133-1189). After Becket’s murder John was appointed bishop of Chartres, where he ended his days. The most influential of John’s writings was the Policraticus, whose aim was to demonstrate that secular as well as ecclesiastical courts must be ruled by philosophical wisdom in order to direct that polity to eternal happiness. Though influenced by Plato’s political thinking, John expanded Plato’s three classes of society into four, adding craftsmen to the ruling, military, and worker classes. The king, representing the King of kings on earth, is responsible for attaining and preserving the common good. The bad king becomes a tyrant, and John invested his subjects with the right, and even the duty, of protecting themselves against such a ruler. Unlike Aristotle’s (and later Aquinas’s) political philosophy, John’s state rested on positive law, not natural law. A law is a law because the king declares it a law and has the power to enforce it. John had his own rather practical solution to the problem of universals: the mind is capable, he says, of contemplating the resemblances between individual things; these things are called by the name of genus or species; they are not, however, realities apart from the things, but merely fuzzy likenesses of them, reflected on the mirror of the mind. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, John’s letters as well as his ecclesiastical history provide us with valuable insights into his times. His narrative, for example, of the trial of Gilbert of Poitiers, with whom John had studied and who was tried for heresy in 1148, is the only objective account of that event.

Hugh of Saint-Victor and the Victorines

A third school may be mentioned as testimony to the breadth and richness of twelfth-century intellectual currents—namely, the Victorines. Chased out of the schools by the rapier wit of Abelard, William of Champeaux, master of the school of Notre-Dame in Paris and reputed to be the foremost logician of his day, retired to the Augustinian house of canons regular of Saint-Victor on the Left Bank, where he resumed his teaching. There followed a succession of gifted theologians, known collectively as the Victorines, among whom were Hugh of Saint-Victor (1096-1141) and his successor, Richard of Saint-Victor (d. 1173). Dismissed by many historians of philosophy as a mystic, Hugh was, in fact, a rigorous thinker who was nevertheless convinced that the pursuit of truth was inseparable from the pursuit of virtue. “Learn everything you can,” he writes, “you will find in time that nothing is wasted.” This statement set the tone for Hugh’s vision of theology: namely, that the knowledge of all the sciences serves as an introduction to what had been styled the queen of the sciences; philosophy was theology’s ancilla, its “serving girl.” It is this conception that in subsequent generations led to the most intense philosophizing of the Middle Ages—and possibly the most intense philosophizing the world has ever known.

The Victorine Program of Education and its Aftermath

Hugh’s educational program was laid out in a vast compilation entitled Didascalicon, which established in excruciating detail the curriculum to be undertaken by the budding theologian. He divided philosophy into four categories: theoretical, practical, mechanical, and logical. The first, theoretical, was subdivided into theology, physics, and mathematics; practical philosophy was subdivided into solitary, private, and public; mechanical—a Hugonian invention—into cloth-making, armament, trade, agriculture, hunting, medicine, and theater arts; and lastly, logic into grammar and disputation. It was this educational program that linked Hugh to the later Victorines. While it is not clear whether Richard of Saint-Victor was Hugh’s personal student or not, he was certainly the latter’s doctrinal disciple. Honored by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) with a place in Paradise in his Divine Comedy as one who was “in contemplation more than a man,” Richard was a master of spirituality or mysticism. In his Benjamin Major and Benjamin Minor Richard stressed love over knowledge, drawing principally from the tradition of Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite; God is attained only fleetingly and in a “cloud of darkness,” a metaphor that was to have great currency in the succeeding centuries. It is a movement known as negative theology—the notion that the truest thing that can be said of God is that no one knows what God is.

Peter Lombard and the Book of the Sentences

Although there was no actual twelfth-century “school” associated with the teachings of Peter Lombard (c. 1100-1160), bishop of Paris, his contribution to theology in this period was profound: he was the author of what has been referred to as “one of the least read of the world’s great books.” Called the Books of the Sentences, Lombard’s great work not only attempts to reconcile seemingly contrary texts in the manner of Abelard’s Sic et Non, it also arranges the opinions (sententiae in Latin) of the church fathers, especially Augustine, into a system with a logical order of development. Canvassing as it does the whole of the discipline, it was an obvious choice for a textbook in theology, and from the end of the twelfth century until the sixteenth every candidate for a terminal degree in the sacred science was required to spend at least two years “commenting” on Lombard’s Sentences. Literally hundreds of these commentaries survive, most of them still in manuscript form.

Philosophy among the Muslims and the Jews

The Influence of Aristotle

While the Latin West was moving toward the triumph of scholasticism, other important developments were occurring in the territories under Islamic rule. Within a century of the appearance of the Prophet Muhammad, his followers had conquered all of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula (consisting of modern Spain and Portugal), which they called al-Andalus. Along with other spoils of conquest, the entire corpus of Aristotle’s writings, minus the Politics, had fallen into their hands. Translated into Arabic with the help of Syrian Christians over a period of a century and a half (c. 750-900), Aristotle, virtually unknown at the time to the Latins, was to become, as it were, the “house philosopher” of the Muslim world. Philosophy for Muslim thinkers primarily consisted of comments on the writings of the pagan Aristotle. Sometimes these commentaries concentrated on explaining phrase by phrase the Aristotelian text. Sometimes the commentaries combined a literal explanation with a more expanded development of Aristotle’s teachings. The commentaries could also assume the form of parallel treatments of topics suggested by the Aristotelian text. The prominent Islamic philosopher Averroës, whom Latin-speaking thinkers called simply “Commentator” (The Commentor, as if there were no other) practiced all three kinds.

Alkindi And Alfarabi

The first important name in the tradition of commentators on Aristotle’s work was Alkindi, who lived most of his years in Persia and in 873 died in Baghdad. In his commentaries on Aristotle’s work on the soul, Alkindi elaborated on the philosopher’s distinction between the passive and active intellect. According to Alkindi the latter was a single superhuman intelligence active for all mankind; it performed the function of abstracting universals from particulars and depositing them in the particular passive intellects, much like a bee sucks nectar from a flower and deposits it in a hive. An equally original thinker was Alfarabi, who lived his entire adult life in Baghdad, dying there in 950. He was, most notably, the first to distinguish between essence (what a thing is) and existence (that by which a thing is real). With this distinction he was able to account in metaphysical terms for the absolute otherness of the Creator and at the same time for the utter contingency of the creature (creatures may possibly exist, but may possibly not exist; they are, in other words, not necessary). Existence, claimed Alfarabi, was merely an accident of the essence; it did not belong to the nature of anything (except God) to exist rather than not to exist. On the other hand, Alfarabi borrowed from Alkindi (and ultimately from the Neoplatonists) the concept of a single active intellect, which provides for all human minds the intelligibilities of things; ultimately God, and not the senses, is the sole adequate cause of our coming to know the truth about things.

Avicenna and the Necessary Being

A generation later there appeared on the scene the man who would become the most influential of all Muslim thinkers, the Persian Ibn Sina (980-1037) or Avicenna, as the Latins were to call him. He was a person of great learning; hisCanon (meaning a “rule” or “measure”) on the theory and practice of medicine, for example, was the single most authoritative work on the subject between the great physician, Galen (c. 129-c. 200), and the Renaissance. Moreover, his interpretation of Aristotle’s thought—more faithful to the text than Alfarabi’s—was destined to reverberate in the Christian as well as in the Muslim tradition. Avicenna, for example, was the first to distinguish necessary from contingent or possible being, thus providing St. Thomas Aquinas with one of his arguments for God’s existence. The things that are encountered in the world exist, but they need not exist; they do not exist necessarily; there is nothing about their natures that demands that they exist rather than not. But if the universe were composed wholly of such beings, it would have already ceased to exist, given the Aristotelian conviction that the universe has existed eternally. One is therefore compelled to conclude that there is in the universe of beings at least one necessary being, a being which cannot not-exist, a being whom Avicenna called “Allah” or God. Although Avicenna’s system had much to recommend it to Christian thinkers of the High Middle Ages, there were nonetheless elements of his teaching that could not be assimilated to medieval Christian theology, such as the eternal existence of the world and the necessary character of God’s governance. According to Avicenna, the divinity creates out of necessity and rules the universe through the mediation of a hierarchy of intelligences, which are superior orders of angels, and spheres. God knows the sub-lunar world, the world of humans, only in general terms and does not know particulars. This is, of course, implicitly a denial of divine providence and also of free choice of the will, a doctrine firmly established in the Christian tradition by St. Augustine.


The only Muslim philosopher to challenge Avicenna’s preeminence was a polymath (one versed in many fields of knowledge) from Córdoba, Spain—then a part of al-Andalus or Western Islam—Ibn Rushd (c. 1126-1198), known to Latin thinkers as Averroës. Trained in medicine and in law, Averroës was not the creative thinker that Avicenna was, but he did have tremendous critical powers and took on the task of commenting on all of Aristotle’s works with the purpose of making them more accessible to the Muslims. In this project he was indefatigable, writing over thirty commentaries on the man known simply as the Philosopher, sometimes as many as three different commentaries on the same work—an epitome or summary, a middle commentary, and a long commentary. Ultimately he fell out of favor with the religious leaders of the country, and by the time of his death in 1198 the Islamic world had begun to de-emphasize the philosophical system-building which had been inspired by Aristotle.

Averroës and the “Theory of Double Truth”

Averroës himself can be seen as a rationalist, in much the same vein as Scotus Eriugena. There are three classes of people, he claimed in The Decisive Treatise: the simple uneducated workers, the moderately educated people, and, finally, the exclusive coterie of philosophers—a division no doubt reflecting Plato’s division of society in the Republic. For members of the first class, only authoritative and emotional arguments are effective, and these simple and uneducated people have no choice but to interpret the Koran literally. Members of the second group are capable of probable or rhetorical arguments, and these people are called “theologians.” Finally, the rare geniuses, the philosophers, are able to follow—and must follow—demonstrations in the strict sense, even though their conclusions may seem to contradict the teachings of the Koran. In such cases of conflict, says Averroës, they are to read the Koran figuratively, so that they agree finally with the findings of their reason. Here can be found the roots of what will later be dubbed the “theory of double truth.”

Moses Maimonides

The greatest Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages, arguably the greatest Jewish thinker of all time, was also from Córdoba. His given name was Moses ben Maimon, but was known to the Latins as Maimonides or simply Rabbi Moses. Like the great Muslim thinkers, he was a polymath, and for much of his adult life was court physician to Saladin, the Muslim ruler of Egypt. As leader of the local Jewish community, he was also learned in Jewish law or Torah and wrote a voluminous legal codification known as the Mishnah Torah. The work, however, for which he is most widely known was written in Arabic and addressed to a young protégé named Joseph, The Guide for the Perplexed. There can be no conflict between faith and reason, Maimonides writes to Joseph, and any apparent conflict is the result either of misinterpreting the philosophers or misreading the Scriptures. The latter contain manifold metaphors, which are not to be taken literally; these predicates (words that affirm or deny something about the subject), in fact, tell us nothing about God, but only about God’s influence on us. For example, to refer to God metaphorically as a mighty fortress, as the Psalmist does, is merely to express the comfort and security the believer feels as a result of his faith.

Maimonides and the Metaphysics of Existence

On the thorny question of the eternity of the world, Maimonides reasons both that Aristotle’s arguments in favor thereof are not conclusive and that, in any case, his position is not incompatible with God’s creation: it is possible, given divine omnipotence, that God created the world eternally. God can create a world of any duration he wishes. It was an argument that was later to be taken up by St. Thomas Aquinas. Three of Maimonides’s arguments for God’s existence—from change, from efficient causality, and from contingency and necessity—were also to find echoes in Aquinas’s Summaof theology. But the most profound influence of the Jewish thinker upon the Christian was in the interpretation of the text in Scripture where God names Himself in response to Moses’s question. Written in four Hebrew letters and thus called the Tetragrammaton (meaning simply “four letters”), the name was never uttered, but Maimonides believed it to mean “existence itself.” In other words, God’s very nature is to exist whereas in all other things—following Avicenna—existence is merely an accident. This insight would later be at the heart of Aquinas’s metaphysics of existence.

The Universities, Textbooks, and the Flowering of Scholasticism

The Golden Age of Scholasticism

Scholasticism is a term that was borrowed from the Greek word schole, which means “leisure,” and came to mean the activity of a person of leisure or a scholastikos, a scholar. By the twelfth century the term “scholastic” had come to signify the system whereby knowledge was imparted in an organized fashion and with a specific methodology. At first, the term was only applied to those schools which taught a certain curriculum of the seven liberal arts, headed by a scholasticus, or master scholar. Yet as more specific forms of study began to appear, there was need to expand the term scholasticism to signify any type of formal learning that occurred between a teacher of great knowledge and a student. Hence, as universities came into existence during the course of the twelfth century, many historians have called the rise in the level of education the “Golden Age of Scholasticism” in reference to the great importance placed on organized knowledge during this period.

The Rise of the University

The emergence of the university, a medieval invention, is a complex phenomenon, and it happened slightly differently in different parts of Europe during the course of the twelfth century. There is still considerable debate concerning which was first—Paris, Oxford, Salamanca, and Bologna are all in the running—and the resolution hinges on various criteria. What is essential for a school to be a university? If a written charter is key, for example, then the first university was Paris.

The University of Paris

In the case of Paris, what started as a cathedral school on an island in the Seine simply outgrew its locale and its structure, owing to the thousands of students from all over Europe, drawn to Paris by charismatic teachers like Peter Abelard. New organizational structures were needed, and out of this need a new institution began to take shape. Nothing quite like it existed before, and in all of its essentials the medieval university was identical with its modern counterpart. These essentials include a group of learned scholars, in different disciplines, all gathered at one place; a fixed course of study, called a curriculum, whose original meaning in the Latin of the day was “a path” or “period of time;” and, at the end of the course of study, a degree, which, proclaimed that its bearer was learned. With this degree in hand (the earliest was descriptively called a licentia ubique docendi, “a license to teach everywhere”), the graduate could present himself at universities such as Oxford, Bologna, or Salamanca, and if there was a position available, he got the job.

A Legal Corporation

This new kind of institution’s standing before the law was crucial to its existence: universities were legal corporations, associations of teachers and students with collective legal rights, often guaranteed by charter, originally from a pope, emperor, or king, and later issued by the town or the local prince or the resident prelate. One important aspect of the university’s legal standing was its exemption from the civil law. Membership in a university entailed exemption from military service, from taxation, and from trial in a court of civil law. An advantage of the last was that canon law—under whose jurisdiction fell all clerics—dealt out sentences that were more lenient, and never the death penalty. This system of two laws—one for clerics, including university folk, the other for townsfolk—led inevitably to what were called “town-gown” conflicts. Brawling students causing damage to a local tavern, for example, could not be tried by the local civic authorities; resentments were inevitable, as they are to this day.

A Student-Centered Model

The other model of corporate organization was in force at Bologna in Italy. The university at Bologna was founded for the study of law, itself spurred by the West’s recovery in the late eleventh century of the Roman Law issued by Justinian in the sixth century, later called the Codex Iuris Civilis. At Bologna the corporation or guild (universitas, in medieval Latin) was composed not of faculty, but of students, who ran a tight ship. Faculty members wishing to leave town for any reason were obliged to seek permission of the students; likewise if they wished to marry. Missing classes subjected the truant teacher to a fine. It was also at Bologna that the first women were licensed as teachers, although initially one of them, at least, was obliged to lecture from behind a screen, lest her beauty prove a distraction to her students.

The Focus on Textbooks

Courses for either model of university were organized not around a subject, but a text. Since books were expensive and in short supply, masters, scribes, and perhaps even wealthier students rented sections or “pieces” of the books (peciae) from “stationers” (so-called from their locations along university streets) to take home and copy, then return to exchange for another. This new book-centered context of learning inevitably left its mark on the way theology and philosophy (and all other disciplines, for that matter) were presented. For the first time in the history of philosophy, philosophers found themselves writing not dialogues or treatises or meditations, but textbooks. A textbook, to be successful, has several requirements: it must be well organized, comprehensive (covering all the essential parts of the discipline), and economically expressed. There was no room or time for fat. The downside was that these works were not especially fun to read.

The Rebirth of Aristotle

In one of those rare coincidences of history, universities were taking shape at the same time that the philosophy of Aristotle was reaching the West. The two occurrences are closely related. At the time when curricula were being established and authorities were looking about for textbooks, a freshly translated treatise from the pen of the pagan Aristotle appeared at hand as if bidden by the fates. Universal genius that he was, Aristotle had written on nearly every discipline known in antiquity. It was no surprise that Aristotle was quickly incorporated into the curriculum, making it impossible for a student at one of these universities, notwithstanding his philosophical prejudices, to ignore Aristotle.

The Rediscovery of Aristotle

Aristotle in the West and the East

Owing to vagaries of history, the complete body of Aristotle’s writings was lost to the Latin West. The only bits and pieces available were a couple of treatises on logic, a discipline Aristotle invented, and some commentaries on those works: in particular, the Categories and the On Interpretation (the texts translated by Boethius, both collectively referred to as the “Old Logic”); the Topics of Cicero, and the Topical Differences of Boethius, together with the latter’s translation of Porphyry’s Isagoge (Introduction to the Categories) as well as his commentaries on the Isagoge,Categories, and On Interpretation. This is all that was known—directly and indirectly—of Aristotle’s enormous contribution until the twelfth century. The same was not the case in the Muslim world. As part of the plunder from their conquest of much of the Mediterranean region, the Arabs fell heir to the Aristotelian corpus that had been recorded on scrolls that were in the hands of Nestorian Syrians (a heretical Christian sect). The Muslim conquerors quickly translated these works into Arabic. The pagan Aristotle subsequently became, as it were, the “house philosopher” of Muslim intellectuals, and it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that to philosophize for a Muslim between the ninth and the twelfth centuries was in large measure to comment on the works of the Philosopher (as he was called). The view that was widely held was that one could not go beyond Aristotle in matters of reason.

Recovery Through Translation

The Muslim monopoly on Aristotle’s philosophy began to change radically in the twelfth century. Owing to contacts with the Muslim world—some friendly, most hostile—European Christians began the process of recovering the philosophy of Aristotle and translating it into their own language, Latin, sometimes through the intermediary of one of the vernaculars. There were several points of contact: the Middle East, especially the rich capital of Byzantium, Constantinople; Sicily, always a melting pot of cultures; and finally, and most especially, Andalusia (Spain). In the Spanish city of Toledo, for example, re-conquered from the Moors (as Muslims in Spain were called), Christian monks worked with Jewish rabbis to translate the Arabic text first into Spanish, and then into Latin—all without the benefit of dictionaries. Thus it was that many Arabic words entered the West and eventually the English language: words likealcohol, algebra, coffee, zenith, plus a word which did not exist in the Roman system of numbering, zero, essential for mathematical place-notation and hence for mathematics.

Philosophical Divisions

It is difficult to exaggerate the impact Aristotle’s writings had on Western Europe. Here was a new and radically different view of nature, of the cosmos, and of the human person, a view that challenged long-held Christian philosophical understandings adapted from Neoplatonism. The reaction of Christian thinkers to this challenge is essentially the story of philosophy in the thirteenth century. For the first time in Christian history there arose different schools of philosophy, the litmus test being how one reacted to the natural philosophy of Aristotle. Those who thought that Aristotle was right on every count were called “Averroists”—or, better, “Latin Averroists” to distinguish them from their counterparts in the Muslim world. Those who preferred the tried and true synthesis of St. Augustine and rejected the innovations of the pagan Aristotle were known to historians as “Augustinians.” A third group that attempted to mediate between these two radical positions were known as “orthodox Aristotelians” or “Thomists,” a name derived from St. Thomas Aquinas, who was responsible for building a masterful synthesis of Christian teachings and Aristotelian philosophy.

Access to Greek Originals

By the middle of the thirteenth century the earliest translations of this Aristotelian material from the Arabic gave way to new translations from the Greek originals, which had been recovered in the meantime. Added to the list was the Greek version of Aristotle’s Politics, a work that the Arabs never possessed. It was to these new and improved translations that thinkers like Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas had access, and one would have to have worked with the earlier Arabic-Latin versions to appreciate the improvement.

Oxford Philosophy

Oxford and the Empirical Approach

While the University of Paris was earning its reputation as the premier school in the West for the study of theology—the Parens scientiarum (“The Mother of all Knowledge”) as Pope Gregory IX (c. 1145-1241) put it—the University at Oxford in England was developing its own tradition and making its own unique contribution. Many Englishmen had been active in the translation process in Spain and returned to England with word of new concepts and instruments of which no one in Britain had heard. One example was the astrolabe, used to observe the position of celestial bodies. In response to the interest in these new ideas, the young university at Oxford adopted a decidedly empirical approach to knowledge, even to theological knowledge.

Robert Grosseteste and Natural Philosophy

The person most responsible for harnessing and giving direction to these tendencies was the humbly born Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175-1253), “Robert of the large head” in Norman French. A master of arts as early as the last decades of the twelfth century, Grosseteste contributed a number of scientific treatises, displaying wide and original thinking. Perhaps the most important among these was a treatise entitled De luce (“On Light”), which was the only treatise on cosmogony (an account of the generation of the universe) between Plato and the Renaissance. In what one modern author has compared to a “big bang” theory, Grosseteste observed that a point of light immediately diffuses itself in all directions, in a spherical shape. Recalling that the Genesis story begins with God’s creation of light, Grosseteste found in its properties a natural explanation for physical reality, which therefore could be explained mathematically.

Grosseteste as Theologian and Bishop

Well into his fifties, Grosseteste changed careers and became a theologian, accepting a post as the first lecturer to the Franciscans at Oxford, although he never joined the order. As theologian, Grosseteste insisted on the centrality of Scripture as opposed to the more speculative theology practiced by commentators on the Sentences at Paris. He also insisted on the importance of mastering the languages of the sacred text and showed the way by learning Greek himself. A third career ensued, that of the powerful bishopric of Lincoln, in whose diocese and jurisdiction lay the university at Oxford. Though Grosseteste took his pastoral duties seriously, he was ever aware of developments at his old university. At one point he wrote a letter to the Oxford masters enjoining them to keep the earliest and preferred lecturing times (the 6 A.M. shift) for Scripture, not the Sentences. The master guilty of the contrary practice was a young Dominican by the name of Richard Fishacre, and it took a letter from the pope himself in defense of the practice and of Fishacre’s role before Grosseteste would desist.

Science as a Tool for Understanding

The notion of employing natural philosophy—what moderns would simply call “science”—as a tool for the understanding of the sacred text, however, remained the permanent legacy of the man known as “Lincolniensis” (Grosseteste’s sobriquet). A member of his “school,” Richard Fishacre, in the prologue to his Commentary on the Sentences—the first composed at Oxford—borrows the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar to illustrate the relationship between the disciplines. According to Fishacre’s interpretation of the Old Testament story, Abraham’s elderly wife Sarah could not become pregnant until Abraham slept with her serving girl, Hagar. Once Abraham had done so, Sarah was able to conceive, and Hagar was banished from the camp. In like manner, before the aspiring theologian can bear fruit, he has to bed down with the sciences, the knowledge of which is a necessary preparation for theology. The aspiring theologian should not, however, linger for too long a time in the bedchamber of the serving girl, but hurry on to the queen of the sciences.

A Model for Roger Bacon

Grosseteste’s approach became the model for the Christian theologian in the eyes of the contentious and outspoken Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1292), who praised Grosseteste’s knowledge of languages and the experimental sciences. Bacon himself wrote Greek and Hebrew grammars and had some familiarity with Arabic; he also contributed to the science of optics (according to one legend he was the inventor of eyeglasses) and the rainbow. Never shy about promoting his own projects, Bacon addressed his Opus maius, literally the “Greater Work,” to Pope Clement IV (d. 1268), who, unfortunately, died before he could give a response.

Latin Averroism

Aristotle and the University of Paris

While the works of the Muslim commentators on Aristotle were certainly cited by the Oxford masters, it was only at Paris that a distinct school evolved that took its inspiration from one of these commentators. The movement was known as “Latin Averroism,” after the Spanish Islamic philosopher Averroës, the principal commentator on Aristotle’s work, and originated in the arts faculty in the course of the 1260s. With its concentration on philosophy in its many branches (including disciplines that would today be counted among the sciences, like botany and physics), the bachelor of arts degree was the first earned by a university student in the Middle Ages. The professors in the arts faculty were expected to “reign” for a respectable time and then move on to one of the higher faculties, such as theology, law, or medicine. Non est senescendum in artibus—”do not grow old in the arts”—was a well known and widely observed saying.

Philosophy as a Separate Discipline

It was, at any rate, among these philosophy professors that the conviction took hold that Aristotle represented the incarnation of the purest reason and that one could not go beyond the philosopher in matters of the human reason. Not only did they have a model in the great Aristotle, but masters were also gradually becoming more conscious of the value of philosophy as a discipline, a subject of study that could be pursued as an end in itself and not simply as a “handmaid” to theology. In other words, they wished to investigate what the philosophers had to say without concerning themselves about the implications for religious belief. The leaders of the movement, Siger of Brabant (c. 1240-between 1281 and 1284) and Boethius of Dacia (d. before 1277), saw their roles as ascertaining what the philosophers had held on the subject of the soul, for example, “by seeking the mind of the philosophers rather than the truth, since we are proceeding philosophically.” In his earlier writings on the soul (before 1270) Siger maintained that the human intellect was eternally caused by God as Aristotle professed, a view which he regarded as more probable than Augustine’s view that God created the soul in time and upon the conception of the body. He later modified this view somewhat, and in a recently discovered treatise he is seen to hold a view that is quite orthodox. Whether orthodox or not, the stratagem adopted by Siger and his associates was that they were presenting views that were not necessarily their own, but rather the views of Aristotle.

The Problem of “Double Truth”

Siger and Boethius and other Latin Averroists were clerics and hence bound in a kind of institutional way to uphold Christian teachings. So when some of these teachings contradicted positions argued by the pagan Aristotle, as was the case with the mortality of the rational soul and the eternal duration of the world, these philosophers were faced with the difficulty of reconciling their religious beliefs with their philosophical convictions. Although no textual evidence survives to support this, the claim was made by the Averroists’ enemies that they held a doctrine of “double truth”—that is, that one could hold one proposition as true according to one’s faith and its precise opposite as true according to one’s reason. In other words, it was possible for the same intellect to maintain that the soul was immortal (by faith) and yet not immortal (by reason).

Lasting Influences

This movement came under official condemnation by the bishop of Paris and the archbishop of Canterbury in 1277, but it managed to continue into the Renaissance as a viable school of philosophy. It found a welcome home in northern Italian universities such as Padua, and some say that even Dante, author of the Divine Comedy, was influenced by it. Curiously, he places one of its leading lights, Siger of Brabant, in his Paradiso, in the company of Aquinas, Bonaventure, Albert the Great, Boethius, Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite, and a half dozen other saints and doctors.


Challenging the Averroists

St. Thomas of Aquino in Italy, more commonly called Thomas Aquinas (1224 or 1225-1274), represents for many the pinnacle and climax of medieval philosophy, and his study has been recommended by popes from Leo XIII to the present occupant of the chair of Peter. A man large in soul as well as in body, Thomas was generally magnanimous in his writings toward his doctrinal enemies: a man must love his enemies, because they help him come closer to the truth. But he reserved his harshest words for the averroiste, clerics who upheld the teachings of Aristotle even when they contradicted the Scriptures. Thomas believed that truth is one and cannot contradict itself; therefore the dual truth system of the Latin Averroists was unthinkable. Moreover, he challenged the Averroists to debate him openly and not simply to talk with young boys (a reference to the age of the arts students and the fact that philosophy was taught in the arts faculty) on street corners.

Acknowledging the Natural World

Thomas, who as a student at Naples got an early grounding in the New Philosophy, discerned the value in Aristotle’s thinking precisely because of its naturalism, the view that there existed a natural explanation for all phenomena. For Aristotle, this world is the real world; reality is not elsewhere in some transcendent realm as in Plato’s thought. Christianity, moreover, is in its essence an “incarnational” religion, the foundational doctrine being that God became man. The Christian theologian therefore needs a philosophy that gives an accounting of the natural world, including the autonomy of the human person. A world in which creatures exercise their own proper causality, even while maintaining an existential dependence upon Being itself for their being, renders more glory to God in Thomas’s view. This is a radically different view than that taken by the Ash’arites, a group of Muslim theologians, who believed that it is God alone who is acting in all the causes appearing in the world. It is God causing the effect of heat in the presence of the fire or, in a modern rendering, it is God causing letters to appear on the computer screen, not the person entering the data.

Being as Act

To claim, therefore, that Thomas worked out a synthesis between Christianity and Aristotelianism is true as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. It can also be claimed with some justification that Thomas goes beyond Aristotle, not simply because he had the benefit of Divine Revelation, but because he was a better philosopher. His core insight—that being is fundamentally an act, or, in other words, is that which makes any thing real—opens a dimension beyond Aristotle’s and, indeed, any predecessor’s metaphysics, just as Einstein’s fourth dimension goes beyond the speculations of any previous physicist. This being-as-act enabled Thomas to account not only for the absolute transcendence of God—that God is totally other than creation—but also for his immanence—that God is present to creation in some intimate way. Aquinas thus avoids pantheism on the one hand—the view that God is all things or is a part of all things—and deism on the other—the eighteenth-century notion that God is responsible for creating the universe, but that is the end of his involvement, like the clockmaker who winds up the clock and then walks away.

An Authentic Existentialism

The “concept” of existence is a slippery one—the tendency of the human mind is to think in terms of “things”—and it is little wonder that Thomas’s theories were not fully grasped until the twentieth century, spurred by the insights of the school known as Existentialism. Most philosophers in his own time identified Thomas’s naturalism with the heterodox Aristotelianism of the Latin Averroists, and when the bishop of Paris drew up his list of condemned teachings three years after Thomas’s death in 1274, some two dozen of Thomas’s teachings were included. Thus, paradoxically, the thinker who in time became virtually identified with Catholic orthodoxy was shortly after his death under a cloud of suspicion for heresy.

The Conservative Reaction and the Condemnation of 1277

Bonaventure and the “Augustinians”

Even as Aristotle’s naturalistic philosophy became foundational to university curricula, there was strong resistance to his ideas. Historians, with their penchant for labeling, have called this group “Augustinians,” but in truth the term came to identify a whole complex set of teachings, not all the same. The most articulate of the group was Bonaventure (1217-1274), third successor of St. Francis as Minister General of the Friars Minor or, more popularly, the Franciscans. In the prologue to his major theological work, his Commentary on the Sentences, Bonaventure declares that he has no wish to be an innovator, that he wishes only to follow in the footsteps of the great St. Augustine, who not only is a valid guide for the things here below (the extent of Aristotle’s competence) but is also master of the things above, sometimes called wisdom. In fact, he claimed that no question had ever been propounded by the masters whose solution may not be found in the works of Augustine. Bonaventure’s own work relied heavily on that of Augustine; scholars have identified over three thousand citations of Augustine in the writings of Bonaventure. Like Augustine, moreover, Bonaventure insisted that theology must be rooted in faith; it is, in fact, faith in search of understanding, an idea that echoed St. Anselm’s assertion in the eleventh century. He believed that there is an infinite distance between knowing Christ and knowing an axiom of Euclid. Theology cannot be a purely speculative science, but is rather a way of life. It is this emphasis on the affective as opposed to the intellective that distinguished Bonaventure’s thought from that of his contemporary and fellow countryman Thomas Aquinas.

The Doctrine of Divine Illumination

Central to Bonaventure’s thought was the Augustinian doctrine of divine illumination. According to this doctrine, the knowledge received from the senses cannot account for the certitude that man enjoys with respect to truth. The sole sufficient cause of this certitude has to come from within. The problem becomes where this certitude originated. Either man is born knowing these truths (as Plato claimed) or man is dependent upon God’s light, which strengthens the mind to know the meanings of things. If the latter is the case—and Christian philosophers (in Bonaventure’s view) could not hold the former—then man possesses a simultaneous awareness of the truth of God’s existence in every truth that is known, in the same way that man is aware of the presence of light in the perception of color. Bonaventure invented a new word for this concept: contuitio, or “contuition”—that is, a “seeing-with” or concomitant realization. It is not that Bonaventure does not have arguments for God’s existence; he holds the record—twenty-nine in all, including the shortest ever written: “If God is God, God is.” But they are not rigorous and breathe an air of casualness. They are, in short, not demonstrations in the strict Aristotelian sense. Bonaventure himself calls them “exercises for the mind,” exercises to make more explicit what one holds already in an implicit way. Bonaventure’s certainty of God’s existence was such that he claimed to doubt his own existence more easily than that of God. Indeed, he calls the proposition “God exists” a verum indubitabile—”a truth which cannot be doubted.”

Revelation and Reason

Paradoxically, Bonaventure far exceeded Aquinas with respect to the confidence he placed in reason. In his Quaestiones disputatae de mysterio Trinitatis (Disputed Questions on the Mystery of the Trinity), Bonaventure maintained that it is possible to make intelligible this most mysterious truth of the Christian religion, namely the Trinity. Given the knowledge of the three Persons in the Godhead from revelation, it is possible for the reason to perceive the doctrine as logically necessary. Like Anselm, Bonaventure looked for “necessary reasons,” a notion that Aquinas explicitly denied. Philosophically, Bonaventure’s work can be seen as the extension of Augustine’s, tempered however by the distinctive spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi. Some scholars, furthermore, have argued for the deep influence of Bonaventure’s thought on contemporary philosophy: on hermeneutics, on process philosophy, and on German idealism. Within his own Order, however, he was within a short time supplanted by Scotism, the philosophical system of John Duns Scotus, which then became the quasi-official philosophy of the Franciscans.

The Condemnation of 1277

It was the conservatives like Bonaventure who would triumph in the conflict with the radical Aristotelians—at least in the short run. The story is easily told, but more difficult to assess. Pope John XXI (c. 1210-1277), who in his earlier life had made a name for himself in logic (in fact, his book, the Summa logicalis, was the most widely used logic text in the thirteenth century), had heard rumors of suspicious teachings emanating from the University of Paris, the premier center for theological studies in the West. He ordered Stephen Tempier, the bishop of Paris, to investigate. Taking this papal letter as his warrant, Tempier hastily assembled a panel of theologians and in short order drew up a list of 219 propositions from the teachings of the Parisian masters that he condemned as heretical. Included in the list were approximately two dozen teachings of St. Thomas. The fact that the condemnation was issued three years to the day after Aquinas’s death (7 March 1277) led some to suspect a personal insult to Thomas.

The Anti-Averroist Attack

The list itself was a hodgepodge. Condemned as heretical were a book on courtly love, one on geomancy (the art of foretelling the future by studying the patterns formed when earth is randomly thrown on the ground), and one on necromancy (the art of prophesying through communication with the dead). Condemned also were some teachings originally ascribed to Avicenna as well as to St. Thomas Aquinas (as, for example, the teaching that angels are “nowhere,” that is, not in a place). But the focus of the document was the teachings of the Latin Averroists: for example, that there is no more excellent state than to study philosophy; that the only wise men in the world are the philosophers; that God does not know things other than himself; that God is eternal in acting and moving, just as he is eternal in existing, otherwise he would be determined by some other thing that would be prior to him, and so forth. In the prologue to this very harsh document the bishop became the first to ascribe to the Averroists (averroiste) the teaching by which they came to be known:

For they [the Latin Averroists] say that these things are true according to philosophy but not according to the Catholic faith, as if there were two contrary truths and as if the truth of Sacred Scripture were contradicted by the truth in the sayings of the accursed pagans …

In other words, they held a theory of double truth.

The Divorce between Faith and Reason

If the principal aim was to wipe out the Averroist school, the condemnation was a failure. Its unintended effect, however, was wide-ranging: it created a new atmosphere, one in which theologians were more concerned with being right in the eyes of the Latin Church than they were in pursuing their insights to their logical conclusions. The greatest loss was to speculative theology, namely, a theology grounded in sound reason. In the new mood the trendy phrase became potentia absoluta “absolute power”: even though it makes no sense to human reason, God can do anything—even make it such that Caesar did not cross the Rubicon (when it is known that he did). It was the divorce between faith and reason and the beginning of the end of the golden age of medieval thought. Philosophy veered off into increased skepticism, doubting the very ability of the mind to know things, the logical conclusion of which was the universal and methodological doubt of Descartes in the seventeenth century, which most recent scholars consider the beginning of modern philosophy. Theology on the other hand headed in the direction of fideism, the view that religious belief is based solely on faith and not on evidence or reasoning, and private religious experience. The outcome of this tendency is to be seen in the flourishing of mysticism in the fourteenth century and ultimately in the Protestant Reformation.

The Scotist Way

The Subtle Doctor

The most powerful and certainly the most wily thinker of this new era was John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308), called the Doctor Subtilis or “the subtle doctor.” Born in the village of Duns in Scotland, Scotus, declared “Blessed” by the Roman Catholic Church, was educated at Oxford. Following his ordination to the priesthood in 1291 (one of the few solid dates from his life known to scholars), he “reigned” as master of theology at Oxford. He was subsequently sent to Paris, where he wrote a commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences. He occupied one of the chairs assigned to the Franciscans in 1305 and a short time later was sent by his superiors to Cologne, where he taught until his death in 1308. Given the fact that he died at the young age of 42, it is little wonder that much of his promise as a philosopher remained unfulfilled and much of the system he had outlined undeveloped. The fact that some of his works survive only in the form of a reportatio—a report taken down by a student—adds to the difficulty in understanding this complex thinker. Reflecting the new spirit of his age, Scotus defended the necessity of divine revelation against those rationalists who advanced the claims of reason alone. The philosophies of Aristotle and his Muslim commentators, by this time so integrated into Christian thinking, were powerless to explain the human condition with its innate sinfulness and need for grace and redemption.

The Concept of Infinite Being

Unlike St. Thomas, Scotus had a univocal, not an analogous, concept of being; in other words “being” meant the same thing in all of its instances. Scotus’ concept of being was everything that is not nothing. Thus emptied of content, being has neither depth nor degrees; nor is there room for the distinction so crucial for Aquinas between essence and being. Thus conceived, being for Scotus eluded comprehension in this life. Given this radically novel metaphysics, Scotus was forced to find a new path to God. All of the beings known to man are finite beings; they therefore demand a cause that is infinite and necessary. If the concept of infinite being is reasonable and not self-contradictory, then it must include the perfection of existence. In other words, if an infinite being is possible, it is necessary.

Divine Law and Divine Nature

God for Scotus was both completely rational and completely free. Nothing in the immutability of the divine nature demanded one course of action as opposed to another. The moral law was not the result of capriciousness on the part of the divine will, nor was it determined in any absolute sense by the divine essence. This meant that the divine law, which is the foundation of the moral law, was the product of the divine will, operating, however, in accord with the non-contradictory character of the divine nature. Thus God can change the rules of morality, according to Scotus, but he cannot contradict his own nature. He cannot, for example, command that he not be loved.

Knowledge of Uniqueness

Scotus was the first among the Franciscan masters to break with St. Augustine on the question of knowledge; he did not believe that man needed a special divine illumination in order to know truth. On the other hand, he also distanced himself from Aristotle in one important detail. For Aristotle the paradox was that we know individuals but only in a universal way; one knows Callias, said Aristotle, as man (a universal), not as Callias (an individual). Scotus found this explanation wanting and proposed an additional form or entity that makes each individual the individual he or she is; he even invented a word for it: haecceitas or “this-ness.” In addition to the formal realities we share in common, such as being embodied, living, sentient, and rational, there is an additional difference that is unique to each of us, and the mind is capable of knowing this uniqueness. The late nineteenth-century English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, a great admirer of Scotus, called it “the dearest freshness deep down things.”

Complexity and Distinctions

Like Augustine—and unlike Aquinas—Scotus gave primacy to the will over the intellect. True, desire is moved only by what is known, but the impetus toward the object comes from the will. The will is thus the higher faculty in that it moves the intellect to know what it knows. The complexity of his thought and the glut of distinctions (of which only a few have been suggested here) led his enemies to dub him the “Duns man,” which quickly evolved into the term of denigration that is with us to this day: dunce.

The Modern Way and the Triumph of Nominalism

The War of the Ways

The disintegration of the medieval synthesis played itself out in what Germans call die Wegestreit, the “war of the ways.” The situation was parallel to that which prevailed among Greek philosophers following the death of Aristotle: those with a philosophical bent would join one of the existing schools, learn its teachings, then do battle with the rival schools. The Dominicans had adopted the “Thomist way” after the teachings of Thomas Aquinas; its major challenger, favored by the Franciscans, was the “Scotist way” after the teachings of John Scotus. By mid-fourteenth century these were already seen as the old ways, and many embraced what was called the “modern way” (“modern” being a relative term), that is, the movement begun by William of Ockham (c. 1285-1347) and his followers.

Ockham’s Razor

If distrust of the reasoning power is in evidence in the thought of Scotus, a skeptical attitude became a hallmark of the modern way. Whereas St. Thomas opened his Summa of theology with a discussion of theology as a science, Ockham refused to grant it such status, asserting that theology is based on faith, not on evidence. He likewise limited the scope of theology in positing that only those truths that lead to salvation are considered “theological.” William’s philosophical obsession was the individual, which for him was the sole reality. Scotus’s multiplication of formal realities, like hishaecceitas “this-ness,” were pointless distinctions and mere subtleties that needed to be trimmed away. Ockham’s relentless wielding of the principle of philosophical economy became known as his “razor.”

Intuitive Knowledge

This abandonment of realism (“no universal is existent in any way whatsoever outside the mind of the knower,” he wrote) also entails for Ockham the abdication of abstractive knowledge. The latter can no more be shown to be real than the universals. According to Ockham, it is only possible to know individual things, and that knowledge is intuitive, not abstractive. For example, if a man has a pet, Buckfield, he attaches that knowledge to a sign, which in his language is “dog”; there is, however, no such thing as canine nature, either in reality or in the mind. Furthermore, what is intuited immediately is not the thing, but the sense image or “phantasm” of the thing. In this atomization of the knowing process, it is generally presumed that the image is caused by the thing, but of this there can be no certainty. The image may be an illusion, a dream, the result of a piece of bad meat; it may for that matter be caused by God, who after all possesses absolute power. For example, a point of light in the night sky is assumed to be a star. Was that image truly caused by the heavenly body so many light-years away? Ockham claimed that there was no way to be certain of this. In modern times, it is known that some of the lights in the night sky are stars that have long ago ceased to exist, but because of the vast distances their light is just now reaching our planet. Ockham would have been fascinated with this notion.

The Retreat From Reason: Mysticism

Escape from a Harsh Reality

The fourteenth century was on many fronts a desperate age, an age of disintegration. The papacy had been weakened morally and militarily by generations of struggle against the powerful rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, a dynasty that traced its legitimacy to the time of Charlemagne in the ninth century and controlled both Germany and northern Italy. As a result of this and other political conflicts, the papacy had become virtually a captive of the French crown at Avignon. Later in the century there were simultaneously three different men claiming to be pope. The magnificent structure of scholastic theology, elaborated as no other system of theology in the history of the world, was crumbling, brought down by the assaults of the Ockhamists. The bubonic plague was ravaging Europe, killing off approximately a third of the population. Especially hard-hit were urban centers, in which the universities were located. We know of at least two philosophers who fell victim to the epidemic. Yet, paradoxically, amid the social and ecclesiastical chaos, the age also witnessed the flowering of mysticism. Perhaps it was in part an escape from realities that had become too harsh, or it represented a retreat from the rational. Whatever the case, it was the age of Dante, exiled from his native city of Florence, who wrote the greatest epic poem in the Italian language, perhaps in any language, detailing his mystic journey through hell, purgatory, and finally paradise.

The Spirituality of Meister Eckhart

Especially fertile in spiritual developments was the Rhineland area of Germany and the Low Countries. Of the impressive number of mystics from this area the greatest was the German, John Eckhart, who had earned his degree of Master of Theology at Paris (hence the honorific “Meister”), and who had even served in an important administrative post in the Dominican Order. His academic writings, composed in Latin, were rather traditional and certainly above suspicion. It was in his sermons preached in his native language, however, that Meister Eckhart gave full vent to the exuberance of his spirituality. His following among lay people, especially nuns, soon gained the attention of the archbishop of Cologne, and Eckhart was cited before the Inquisition. Journeying to Avignon to argue his case before the pope, Eckhart intended to defend himself with the claim that heresy was a matter of the will, not the intellect; if he were wrong, he asked for correction, but he did not will to place himself outside of orthodoxy.

Towards Divine Union

Unfortunately, Eckhart died before his hearing. Notwithstanding, two years after his death in 1327, 28 of his teachings were condemned, including the following: “there is in the soul something that is uncreated and uncreatable,” “all creatures are a pure nothingness,” and “God loves souls, not their external works.” Taken out of context, these statements seem to affirm pantheism, deny the reality of creation, and anticipate the German religious reformer Martin Luther’s rejection of good works in the early sixteenth century. Such statements were bold and paradoxical to be sure, shocking even, but Eckhart’s sermons, when allowances are made for figurative and imaginative language—especially for inspired hyperbole—become expressions of a profound spirituality. It is a spirituality, moreover, that is God-centered, emphasizing the union of the soul with the divinity without intermediaries, without community, without sacrament. Eckhart urged his congregation to dismiss the agents of the soul—that is, the intellect and the will—and allow God to occupy the core of the soul, the fünklein, or “little spark.” Eckhart did not believe that man could do anything to merit this divine union, believing that it was all God’s doing. Man’s efforts count for nothing.

A Tradition of Passive Receptivity

Although they are subject to a Catholic interpretation, these teachings point in the direction of Protestantism, or at least to quietism, a religious attitude of passive receptivity. It was an attitude that drew more from Dionysius and Neoplatonism, and turned away from the relentless rationalism of High Scholasticism. It was an attitude, moreover, that found fertile soil in German-speaking lands, and several disciples followed in Eckhart’s footsteps: John Tauler (“the masters of Paris read big books … but these [the mystics] read the living book wherein everything lives”), Henry Suso, John Ruysbroeck, Gerard Groote, and Thomas à Kempis, the reputed author of The Imitation of Christ. The canonization process for Eckhart is currently underway after these many centuries, and it is a certitude that the condemned propositions will be reevaluated.

Nicholas of Cusa and Rhineland Mysticism

The enterprise of medieval philosophy can with some justification be extended into the fifteenth century and comes to an end with the towering figure of Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464). Nicholas, or Cusanus, studied with the Brothers of the Common Life, Gerard Groote’s foundation, which in turn was inspired by the Rhineland mystics. Cusanus was a prodigious and wealthy scholar; his personal library held over 300 manuscripts, including those authors most influential on his own thinking: Augustine, Proclus, Dionysius, Avicenna, and Eckhart.

The Unknowability of Truth

The title of his major work, On Learned Ignorance, summarizes quite accurately his central insight. Reason not only is powerless to reach the infinite, it is likewise incapable of knowing the whole truth about anything. Knowledge is like a polygon inscribed within a circle: sides can be added to the polygon indefinitely, but the polygon will never be identical with the circle. No matter how close the human mind approaches to the truth, it will never completely conform to it. Indeed, as in the Socratic paradox, the more that is known, the more the extent of one’s ignorance is recognized. With dazzling originality, Cusanus faulted Aristotle and his logic for the divisions in the Roman Church and in philosophical circles. He instead advocated a logic that was made to unite. He made his own the teaching of the ancient Greek Anaxagoras: “everything is in everything.” To create all things is for God to be all things. If this sounds dangerously like pantheism, one must remember Cusanus’s Neoplatonic roots that recognized that God is above being. Or, conversely, creation is but an explication or unfolding of God; since God is all, the creature is reduced to nothing.

The Fusion of Philosophy and Theology

In his treatise De li non aliud (“Concerning the Not-other”), Cusanus argued that the absolute cannot stand in a relationship of otherness to any relative being; hence the “Not-other,” or God, is both absolute in its causation and at the same time present to its effect in creation. Here Cusanus, a cardinal of the Catholic Church, proclaimed doctrines very similar to those that had been condemned as heretical a century earlier in Eckhart’s sermons. In a new century the assault on the rational structure of theology seems to have been rendered less unacceptable. But what actually happened in the waning of the Middle Ages is that the discipline of philosophy—which was distinct from, but clearly subordinate to, theology for the thinkers of the earlier medieval centuries—had, in the synthesis of Nicholas of Cusa, been assimilated into theology. The two disciplines are fused in Cusanus’s mystic vision. This fusion is quite at odds with the estrangement of philosophy and theology which otherwise prevailed in the late medieval period. In some ways Cusanus’s thought hearkens back to an earlier golden age.