Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy
Josef Pieper (St. Augustine’s Press, 2001)
192 pp. First reading.
Posted 26 February 2007.
This small volume introduces the reader to the characteristic mode of medieval European philosophy: scholasticism. Scholasticism is not a set of philosophical positions, but a method for inquiry and instruction. The word has come to represent the general intellectual climate of medieval academia.
At one level, the book is a kind of rogue’s gallery of medieval philosophers. Pieper moves chronologically from the sixth century to the fourteenth, introducing us to the most eminent and influential thinkers of the period. Thus we meet Boethius, a Roman who lived to see the fall of the Roman Empire, the author of the famous Consolatio Philosophiae, and the man whose translations of Aristotle’s logical works supplied Europe with the only books of Aristotle that it knew for many centuries. We meet Pseudo-Dionysius, who, owing to an advantageous case of mistaken identity, became the sole Greek author to exercise any great influence in the medieval Latin West. We meet St. Anselm of Canterbury (whom I was surprised to learn was an Italian by birth), Peter Abelard, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. We climb over St. Albertus Magnus to reach his pupil St. Thomas Aquinas, then spill down the other side, declining by degrees from Duns Scotus to William of Ockham, whose work Pieper takes to mark the end of the medieval period.
Along the way he also introduces us to some lesser known figures. Few people, I imagine, know very much about the sixth century statesman and monk Cassiodorus, but Pieper reminds us that we all owe him a great debt, for it was he who first prescribed that the copying of manuscripts be part of the monastic rule, and through his influence the thin thread of classical learning was sustained through the difficult years that followed the collapse of the Roman state. In fact, a great part of the texts which survive from ancient times do so because he had the foresight to promote their preservation — and it was foresight, not happenstance, for he knew very well what was happening to learning in his own time. His Institutiones is a catalogue of phrases and summaries, fragments shorn against the ruin of his civilization, through whom the memory that, for instance,
“philosophy is cognition of divine and human things, in so far as our minds can grasp them; that it is the science of sciences; that it is contemplation of death and learning how to die; that it is attainment of the greatest possible similarity to God”
was saved from oblivion. We also meet John of Salisbury, a twelfth century Englishman who was among the first to promote an empiricist approach to philosophy, and whose interesting biography includes having witnessed the murder of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. And there is his contemporary Hugh of St. Victor, who wrote the first great Summa of the high Middle Ages, and Peter Lombard, whose Sentances was the most popular textbook in theology for several hundred years.
But the book is more, much more, than just an historical tour, for Pieper has a point of view through which he views the history. What, after all, were all these thinkers trying to do, and why is it appropriate to study them all in one book, under one title? The answer is that they were all scholastics. And what are the defining features of scholasticism?
It is, as I said, the method by which medieval civilization tried to appropriate for itself the heritage of classical learning. Pieper sees the intellectual culture of medieval Europe as being primarily a project of Europe’s northern peoples. It was not, in other words, a continuation of classical culture, but the record of a foreign people attempting to appropriate and integrate classical culture into their own.
Yet European culture was more than the memory of Athens; it was — and is, pace the European Union — the marriage of Athens and Jerusalem. The most characteristic feature of scholasticism, says Pieper, was that it was a program for systematically negotiating the appropriate relationship between reason and faith, Athens and Jerusalem, and it is with this central issue in mind that Pieper undertakes his historical survey. How did the different thinkers of this period view the relationship of faith and reason?
The answers distribute themselves along a spectrum. At one end we have those who tended toward a rationalist position: Boethius himself, who wrote a theological tract on the Trinity in which he made not a single reference to Scripture; or St. Anselm, whose ontological argument attempts to prove that God’s existence is necessary in logic; or Peter Abelard, the hot-tempered Parisian dialectician. These men had a profound confidence in the power of human reason to penetrate to the truth of things, so much so that they seem sometimes to have believed that even the content of Revelation could be discerned without recourse to Revelation. At the other end of the spectrum we have Pseudo-Dionysius, advocate of the via negativa, arguing that reality is, in the strict sense, a mystery which can never be truly penetrated by a finite mind; or Hugh of St. Victor, who argued in the twelfth century that knowledge is valuable chiefly as a prerequisite for contemplation; or St. Bernard, who held that philosophy is oriented toward wholeness, who said that “Burning must be added to knowledge”, and who countered Anselm’s fides quarens intellectum with anima quarens Verbum.
The main problem with both of these extremes, at least for the purposes of understanding how faith and reason are to relate, is that for each there is the danger that they cease to be really related at all. If the emphasis falls too heavily to one side, the temptation to simply neglect the other will always be present.
I have called neglect of either faith or reason a “problem”, but why should that be so? If there are these two acts of the mind, two ways of knowing some particular aspect of the world, why should we insist on retaining a balance between them? Why not privilege one at the expense of the other, if either will do? The answer given by the Christian tradition is simply that faith and reason are not — or at least not usually — two ways of arriving at the same truth about the world. Rather, they are ways of knowing two different realms of reality. The realm that is accessible to human reason we may know by reason; the realm that is not we must know only by faith. To speak of the relationship of faith and reason, in this understanding, is to speak about the relationship between these two spheres of reality. And since knowledge in both spheres may continue to advance in each generation, the task of relating them never ends, but must be constantly renewed upon new, or at least expanded, grounds.
It is obvious that this effort is a difficult one, yet for thoughtful religious people it is a plain obligation. The articles of faith need to be brought into contact with secular knowledge, while still striving to remain faithful to the religious tradition. Secular knowledge, in turn, needs to be interpreted in the light of revelation. Advances in understanding — or even just apparent advances — may disrupt the harmony between the two spheres for a time, and those who live during that period of disruption face a serious challenge. The temptation may be to either forsake one or the other, or to adopt a theory of ‘double-truth’ wherein both faith and reason are confined to their respective areas of competency and never the twain shall meet. For intellectually honest people, however, this is not acceptable. Instead, they must live honestly and tenaciously within the tension.
It might seem that I am straying from the book under discussion, but this is not so, for this crack-up in which faith and reason part ways did in fact occur, and for Pieper it marked the end of scholasticism, and even the end of the medieval period.
How did it come about? In the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the entire Aristotelian corpus finally began to make its way into European universities. They had been preserved in Arab culture, and translations began to be produced in Spain, where Muslim and Christian societies mixed. (Pieper points out that some of these Greek texts took the scenic linguistic route to Latin, moving from Greek to Syriac, then to Persian, then Arabic, then Castilian, and then finally Latin!) Aristotle’s physics, ethics, and metaphysics hit European intellectuals like a bomb, and it seemed that the long work of appropriation, which for centuries had been proceeding along a largely Platonic line, would need to begin again, and on different grounds. And what were they to make of Aristotle’s startling new ideas, and how were they related to long-established theological principles? The tension between faith and reason which I discussed above was suddenly present, seemingly everywhere.
The effort at reconciliation was made, most successfully by Thomas Aquinas, but two years after his death the ecclesiastical authorities issued a formal condemnation of certain propositions advanced under the influence of Aristotelian ideas. The nature of these propositions was such that they merited censure, but the intervention of the Church had unforeseen, and unfortunate, consequences. For Pieper the Condemnation of 1277 is the pivot of medieval intellectual history because it cast a cold chill over the dialogue between theology and philosophy. The conversation was now a minefield, and theology became defensive and anxious instead of co-operative. The result was that faith confined itself to safe subjects, and reason went its own way.
The consequences were evident in the next generation. John Duns Scotus and William Ockham largely abandoned the effort at harmonization. They emphasized the doctrine of God’s absolute freedom, which implied that there could be no necessary reasons in God. In one blow, philosophical theology was crippled. But their ideas also dissolved the expectation of rationality in the natural world. In place of natural reasons, we were left only with singular facts. The result was empiricism, theologically grounded yet having no resources within itself to engage with theology. The imperative to bring the things of faith into contact with the things of reason fell away.
Like all of Pieper’s books, this small volume is thoughtful and challenging. It has value as an historical introduction to medieval philosophy, but also as a reminder of the ever-renewed obligation placed upon Christians to confront the world with faith, and vice versa. The medieval schoolmen made their attempt; it remains to us to make ours.
[St. Bernard of Clairvaux on motives in education]
There are many who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge: that is curiosity. There are others who desire to know in order that they may themselves be known: that is vanity. Others seek knowledge in order to sell it: that is dishonourable. But there are also some who seek knowledge in order to edify others: that is caritas. And again there are still others who seek knowledge in order to be edified: that is prudence.