A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Medieval Philosophy, Part I

I’m lazy at the best of times, and since I currently lack the leisure time to write something new, I’m going back to the archives. Now, back by popular demand, here is an address on medieval philosophy I gave to The Richard III Society of Canada a few years ago – an organization of which, it must be said, I am not a member. They were simply kind enough to invite me to drone on to them about philosophy for an hour or so.

Since it’s a longish paper, I will divide it into two parts. Without further ado, here is the first.

* * * * *



It’s always hard to talk about philosophy with people who are not themselves philosophers. For many people, nothing can put them to sleep faster than an abstract philosophical discussion. For such people, philosophy acts a lot like Valium. If so, then medieval philosophy acts more like some sort of powerful horse tranquilizer. I will do my best to keep you awake, by making an inaccessible subject more accessible.

There are several ways one can write a “history of philosophy”. One way, which tends to be the philosopher’s way, would be to take a problem-based approach. On such an approach, we roll up our sleeves and dig into the actual philosophy of a period, get down in the muck, and examine the problems and issues which occupied the time and minds of philosophers through a given period. The only thing that makes such an approach historical is the chronological arrangement of material. Otherwise, it is philosophy rather than history.

Another possible way of approaching things is more properly historical. This would involve telling a story about the chronological development of philosophy as a practical discipline, its changing institutional structure, and what it meant to be a philosopher in a given period of the endeavour’s existence. This latter is, for the most part, the approach I’ll be taking. That should hopefully keep the boredom to a minimum.

However, we cannot completely avoid taking the occasional side glance at the actual philosophy that medieval philosophers produced. I will also keep this to a minimum by mostly directing such glances at a particular philosophical issue, namely the existence and nature of God. One of my reasons for choosing this particular issue is because perhaps the single most identifying characteristic of medieval philosophy — as opposed to other periods of philosophy — is its “God-centredness”.

Here’s a little taste of what I mean. One can open up a copy of William of Ockham’s (c. 1285-1347) Quodlibetal Questions — though I confess I don’t know why anyone would wish to — and find in quodlibet 1, question 8, William addressing the following burning philosophical issue that has confounded thinkers since time immemorial, namely “Can an angel move through a vacuum?” His answer is divided into two articles, each of which is composed of various objections and replies. It takes him several pages of careful analysis to get to the point. What is characteristic about William’s answer is that he approaches the question by asking whether or not there is such a thing as a vacuum. After all, if there’s no such thing as a vacuum, then it’s impossible for an angel to move through one. Never, through the entire process (and indeed throughout the entire book) does William consider what for a modern philosopher would be the real issue, namely whether or not there is even such a thing as an angel! (Incidentally, for those of you who can’t wait to find out the answer, William concluded that vacuums do indeed exist, and that therefore angels can move through them.)

Many modern critics of medieval philosophers have charged them with treating God in much the same way that William treats angels: as something given, not requiring demonstration. And it is true that many of them did take God for granted. But they could do this for at least three reasons:

1. Scripture and faith told them so, and neither Scripture nor faith was capable of rational doubt. The former was directly revealed to us by God himself, while the latter was simply something beyond the reach of reason, past the point where reason runs out.

2. Arguments for the existence and nature of God in fact had been offered which were considered to be more or less conclusive, at least as far as they were prepared to look into the matter. The ground had already been covered.

3. Medieval philosophy’s attitude towards the question of God illustrates the place of philosophy within the larger intellectual context, showing how the medievals traditionally thought of philosophy as “the handmaid of theology”. Philosophy served theology, and it was not philosophy’s place to go snooping into areas where it had no jurisdiction.

These are three senses in which medieval philosophy was “God-centred”, and so by looking at some of the arguments for God’s existence and nature, we get to the very beating heart of medieval philosophy.

Other than occasional looks at proofs of God’s existence, this paper will, as I said, be mainly concerned with looking at medieval philosophy as a practical and institutional phenomenon, and what it meant to be a professional philosopher in western Europe in the Middle Ages. We will be less concerned with the actual work produced by philosophers.

This will involve a brief excursus on medieval philosophy’s classical heritage, followed by an equally brief glance at early medieval philosophy (insofar as there was such a thing), to be followed by a more detailed examination of later medieval philosophy, say from 1150 onwards — the heyday of what is commonly referred to as medieval scholasticism. I have chosen to focus on the later period in part because it is in its later scholastic form that Richard III would have been familiar with it.

Incidentally, Richard must have been at least a little familiar with philosophy. The Walsh Philosophy Collection at the University of Toronto’s Fisher Rare Book Library has a beautiful copy of Duns Scotus’ (c. 1266-1308) Quaestiones in quattuor libros Sententiarum (“Disputed questions on [Peter Lombard’s] Four Books of Sentences”), which is believed to have been a presentation copy given to Richard while he was Duke of Gloucester. It was printed on vellum, in Venice, in 1476. Its presenter was the book’s editor, Thomas Pinketh (d. 1487), an Augustinian friar who had returned to England from Italy. He would go on to do service for Richard by preaching on the bastardy of Edward IV’s children.

Admittedly, I have trouble picturing Richard actually reading the book: Scotus’ work represented medieval scholasticism at its most abstruse. Scotus was called “the Subtle Doctor” for his skill at thinking up possible objections to his positions, which he would then go on to answer in endless divisions and subdivisions of argument. Not exactly light chivalric romance. Nonetheless, I’ve brought a photograph of a leaf from Richard’s copy, which you can have a look at.


In the later ancient world, persons of means sent their adolescent children to some centre of learning to be trained up in philosophy and rhetoric, much the way one might send one’s children to a finishing school. By “centre of learning” I mean some city or urban area with a high concentration of teachers who had put out their shingles, and who gained their teaching qualifications by virtue of having been themselves trained by some eminent teacher. Such teachers were most often self-proclaimed adherents to one or more of the philosophical schools which existed in the Hellenistic world.

Typically, one adhered to a philosophical school in much the way that one adheres to a religion, for adopting such a philosophy gave one a comprehensive belief system which gave answers to one’s questions in just about any area: metaphysics, natural philosophy (what we’d call “science”), logic, ethics, politics, religion, Providence (or lack thereof). By telling me you were, say, a Stoic, I could infer much about what you believed and how you lived your life. In this sense, philosophy was a very practical endeavour, and was much more a part of the general culture than it is now.

When I refer to a philosophical “school”, I do not necessarily mean this in its modern, physical sense. Think of it rather as a philosophical tradition, with its characteristic answers to certain philosophical questions.

There were several schools, with differing fates in the post-Classical world. Without being exhaustive, the main ones were: Epicureanism, Scepticism, Aristotelianism, Platonism, and Stoicism.

Epicureanism and Scepticism fell off the map mainly because they proved irreconcilable with Christian dogma. Epicureans were atheistical, and so were Sceptics, at least insofar as they doubted that the existence of a Deity could be proved (indeed, their central belief was that nothing could be proved). Also, Epicureans defined the good life, the achievement of which was the purpose of ethics, as pleasure, which was obviously incompatible with Christian self-denial and disdain for the sensual world.

Surprisingly, Aristotelianism was a fairly marginal philosophy in ancient times, much less popular than the Big Three of Platonism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism. Aristotelianism was also in some tension with Christian dogma; for one thing, Aristotle believed in the eternity of the world, which did not sit well with the Scriptural account of Creation.

Stoicism and Platonism were much more agreeable to the early Christians. In the late Classical period Platonism had developed into neo-Platonism, a semi-mystical philosophy which emphasized the role of a transcendent Deity. Stoic ethics, which emphasized endurance and self-denial, and the moral equality of all (even slaves), had obvious affinities with the Christian view of the ethical life. Also, the Stoics believed that the world would come to an end, to be consumed by fire, and then to be reconstituted and begin all over again, and to run its course in exactly the same way. The Christians liked the sound of the sensible world coming to an end, but weren’t so keen on it starting up all over again!

For obvious reasons, Epicureanism and Scepticism didn’t have legs in a world turned Christian. Even Aristotelianism fared poorly, at least initially. Most of Aristotle’s works — with the notable exception of his logical works — were lost. However, knowledge of many of them would later be regained, though it would take thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and others to make his teachings compatible with Christian dogma.

Stoicism and Platonism were, in a way, victims of their own success. The early Christians were not, for the most part, a learned lot. Rather than do much thinking of their own, they often preferred the eclectic approach, taking what they liked from various philosophies, and discarding the remainder. There was much that they liked in the Stoics and neo-Platonists, and like an all-devouring empire, they ransacked Stoicism and neo-Platonism, and absorbed them into a single Christian thought-system. Much of the thought of St. Augustine and other early Christians can be characterized as a dog’s breakfast of Stoic and neo-Platonist leftovers re-heated.

For the curious, scholars fix the end of Classical philosophy by either of two traditional dates: AD 524, when the Roman philosopher Boethius was strangled in his prison cell, or AD 529, when the emperor Justinian closed down the remaining pagan philosophical schools in Athens. In either case, it would be centuries before anything resembling philosophy returned.


From the end of the Classical period until the age of Charlemagne (sixth to ninth centuries), there was really little philosophy to speak of. Historians tend to avoid the term “Dark Ages”, but as far as philosophy is concerned, the seventh to at least the ninth centuries were truly dark.

Scholarship of any kind was more a matter of preservation than of innovation, and a poor job was done of even that limited task. The medievals had a limited number of Plato’s dialogues to work from, they had many of Cicero’s works (themselves amounting to mere primers of philosophy), a few of Aristotle’s works — mainly his logical works, and Boethius’ Latin translations and commentaries on the latter. They had the Stoic Seneca’s writings. They had the works of some neo-Platonists, such as the third-century philosopher Porphyry. And of course, they had St. Augustine. Much of the Greek literature was available only in quite poor Latin translations. Otherwise, philosophical works were available only in scraps collected by encyclopaedists like Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636).

This was the state of things when the first glimmerings of philosophy re-emerged in the court of Charlemagne, who had hired into his service an Englishman by the name of Alcuin of York (c. 735-804) to organize his “Palatine School” at the imperial capital, Aachen. Alcuin encouraged the study of Aristotle’s logic, and wrote a work of his own on the topic, called the Dialectica.

Alcuin represents a fairly minor foray into philosophy. The first medieval philosopher worthy of the name was John Scotus Eriugena (c. 815-877). As the name “Scotus” implied, John was an Irishman. And in case anyone was in doubt, “Eriugena” is Latin for “Irish-born”. He wrote a dialogue entitled De divisione naturae (“On the Division of Nature”), which was remarkable for containing a complete system of philosophy, constructed through the use of the logical syllogism, and borrowing heavily from neo-Platonism.

The Syllogism.

Incidentally, a syllogism is a particular kind of deductive argument, composed of three sentences — a major premise and a minor premise, followed by a conclusion. An example of a valid syllogism would be:

1. All men are mortal.
2. Socrates is a man.
3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

In a valid syllogism, of which there are a limited number of forms, if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true as well. There must also be what’s called a “middle term”, a term common to both premises. In the example, the middle term is the category “men”. The middle term is necessary to ensure that the true premises bear some relation to each other; otherwise, one could construct a formally “valid” syllogism out of unrelated premises, generating any old conclusion. The resulting “argument” would not be an argument at all, but merely a juxtaposition of sentences that happen to be true. Example:

1. All men are mortal.
2. A pigeon is a bird.
3. Therefore, Socrates is Greek.

Syllogistic logic was developed by Aristotle, who had mapped out the argument forms, separating out the valid ones, and figured out the rules governing them. The logic of the syllogism was the logic of the medieval philosophers.

The Institutional Setting.

Universities as such did not yet exist. So we must look at where philosophy took place. As the case of Alcuin of York illustrates, there were schools in existence. Alcuin’s was a royal school, but most commonly, schools were situated near cathedrals, hence “cathedral schools”. Here, qualified teachers, often certified to teach by the local bishop after paying a fee, set up shop. In certain centres there might be a high concentration of schools, attracting teachers and students from other regions. As we’ll see, these centres would become the nuclei of universities.

One such centre of learning was Canterbury. Its most famous philosophical son was St. Anselm (1033-1109), Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm is well-known for a work called the Proslogion in which there first appears an argument for the existence of God called the “Ontological Argument”. I have warned you that we would be looking at such arguments. I’m throwing you into the deep end, as the Ontological Proof is probably the most difficult one to get one’s head around.

Anselm’s Ontological Proof.

Anselm’s proof was meant to do double duty: it would demonstrate the existence of God, and it would say something about His nature, namely that He exists necessarily, and that he is greater than anything which can be conceived. Here’s how the proof proceeds. Stay with me.

It begins with a definition of God as “that than which no greater can be thought”. Given this, it is impossible to deny God’s existence without involving oneself in a contradiction. Why? Because if God, as conceived in the definition, existed only in the mind, we could conceive of an even greater being, namely one that existed in reality. Therefore, to think of a being greater than anything that can be conceived entails thinking of a being that necessarily exists. Therefore, God must exist, and He is greater than anything, and He exists necessarily (i.e. He couldn’t not exist; or, as the jargon of medieval philosophy would put it, God’s essence is existence). The Ontological Proof represents, in general terms, an attempt to derive the existence of God from the idea of God.

If you don’t get it, don’t worry too much. It has seemed a pretty fishy argument to many. A monk named Guanilo, a contemporary of Anselm’s, noted that you could prove the existence of just about anything by using an argument with that form. Example: The most beautiful island must exist, because we can form the idea of such a concept. If such an island only existed in the mind, then one that existed in reality would be more beautiful. Therefore, it must exist, etc. But we know that there is no logical contradiction in denying the existence of “the most beautiful island”. We could easily imagine a world where there were no islands at all. Such a world would not represent a logical contradiction.

Try the same exercise with the concept of “the most powerful unicorn”, and you understand the absurdity that Guanilo is getting at. I don’t think it’s stepping too far out on a limb to assert that unicorns in fact do not exist, but Anselm’s logic seems to imply that a most powerful unicorn necessarily exists.

No comments:

Post a Comment