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Medieval Philosophy

An Introduction to Medieval Philosophy

Mark Daniels introduces a whole millenium of ideas.

Let us start by considering three points. First, medieval philosophy came from a period when philosophy was under attack: the proponents of religious faith felt that the claims of the philosophers concerning the superiority of reason were false and this led to medieval philosophers such as Aquinas and Averroes having to defend the purpose and the existence of philosophy from first principles. Second, many of the texts, especially those of Judaeo-Muslim medieval philosophy, have a richness and complexity that texts of other periods simply lack – philosophy written as poetry, philosophical stories which make major points, etc. There are even major philosophical works – such as Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed – which admit of several wholly opposed interpretations. Third, and lastly, the relevance of various medieval projects to modern problems. The development of computers and the attempt to model events which happen in the world around us led to the development of a logical language capable of handling the various modal qualities describing time and possibility. This replicated the development of a similar language during the middle ages to discuss matters such as the Christian trinity, second coming of Jesus and resurrection of the dead. Knowledge of the medieval success would have greatly facilitated the modem reconstruction.

Now that we have considered the possibility that the subject is one which might deserve our interest, let us move on to put it into context. The parameters of the time span of our subject have been widely debated. The widest stretches from the time of Philo of Alexandria (a Jew who lived c.50 CE) to that of Spinoza (d.1677 CE). Narrower definitions encompass the period from the Carolingian revival in c.800 CE to 1400 CE. Most would, however, include St Augustine of Hippo (c.400 CE).

Many medieval thinkers were highly successful in the areas of their work – which was not philosophy. St Anselm was Archbishop of Canterbury. Peter of Spain rose to become Pope. Grosseteste was Bishop of Lincoln and the first Chancellor of Oxford University. HaLevi was a poet whose works are recited today by the Spanish and Portuguese Jews in synagogue during the Day of Atonement. Maimonides was a doctor in the Egyptian royal court and codified Jewish law in 14 volumes. Gersonides’s navigational tables were used for centuries. Avicenna’s medical works were taught in Europe until the 17th Century and he was deeply involved in Persian politics. Al-Ghazzali was a leading mystic and legal authority. Averroes rose to become Qadi (Supreme Judge) of Cordoba. Two of the best-known thinkers, Abelard and Heloise, had a famous romance which unfortunately led to Abelard being castrated by ruffians hired by Heloise’s uncle. These people were not dull and boring!

There were a number of different projects which were investigated. In all three religious traditions, philosophers speculated on the relationship between faith and reason (including attempts to prove by reason that the fount of faith, the Almighty, must exist). They also argued that the teachings of Plato (and later, of Aristotle) were compatible with the tenets of their respective faiths. Another frequent subject of interest was the problem of evil. Yet another concerned the manner in which it was possible to describe God – leading to considerations on the use and limits of language. In Christian Europe, much energy was spent arguing about the nature of universals such as redness and happiness: whether they had any real existence in themselves or whether they were merely aspects of individual items. Time was also spent on logic, as explained above. In the Muslim and Jewish world, interest centred on the nature of the soul and the possibility of meaningful contact with the Almighty. There were also discussions on the nature of both time and space and considerations of the nature of causation. All three traditions fostered speculation on aesthetics (see Umberto Eco’s book on Aquinas’ aesthetics), the nature of ethics, of political philosophy and the nature of a just society and on the relationship between ‘church’ and ‘state’.

It must be confessed that most medieval writing is not exactly easy to read. The style is unusual – some of the great works such as Aquinas’ Summa Theologica are written in the form of a medieval disputation with Questions followed by Articles, Objections and then Replies. Another popular form of writing is the commentary – such as the Longer, Mid-length and Shorter commentaries of Averroes on the works of Aristotle or the many commentaries on Peter Lombard’s Sententiarum.

Another problem involves that of copying manuscripts. Scribes often made mistakes – leaving out lines or words or misspelling words. Sometimes footnotes or glosses on a manuscript written in by an owner might be included in the body text of the new copy. This affected not only the originals of the works which we read today – but also the works read at the time by our medieval thinkers.

In conclusion, we can hopefully see that there is rather more to medieval philosophy than a set of long involved debates about squeezing angels onto pinheads!

© Mark Daniels 2005

Mark Daniels is minister at Croydon Synagogue in London and was on the Philosophy Now staff in the 1990s, during which time he edited or co-edited several issues of the magazine. He has a special interest in Maimonides (see here).

Finding Out More

Good anthologies of medieval philosophy include:
The Age of Belief (ed Anne Fremantle) 1954, short and cheerful (200 pages)
Medieval Philosophy(ed Wippel & Wolter) 1969, better but longer (500pp)
• A good academic history of Christian thinking is Medieval Thought by David Luscombe 1997, OUP
• An eclectic introduction to Islamic Philosophy (with lots of fun snippets – but guaranteed to give academics the galloping heeby-jeebies) is Studies in Muslim Philosophy by M Saeed Sheikh (3rd ed 1974) printed by Sr Muhammed Ashraf and available in good Islamic bookshops
• For a philosophical novel with commentary, take a gander at the remarkable Avicenna and the Visionary Recital by Henry Corbin (Princeton/Bollingen 1960/88) or read the Journey of the Soul by ibn Tufail (Hai bin Yaqzan) translated by Riad Kocache, Octagon Press London 1982.

Eras of Medieval Christian Thought

Medieval Christian philosophy can be split up into four different periods:

• The Dark Ages
With the destruction of the Roman Empire by the barbarians (and the final destruction of the remnants of the Great Library of Alexandria by the Muslims), the civilisation of the Classical World was lost. A few lamps of knowledge were kept flickering by such as Isidore of Seville and Cassiodorus who wrote various encyclopedias of knowledge. The works of Boethius and St Augustine provided a link with Classical Thought.

• From the Carolingian Renaissance (c. 800) to the rediscovery of Aristotle (c. 1200).
Famously, Dun Scotus Eriugena was brought over from Ireland to France to translate the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite from Greek for the Carolingian Court. Other thinkers of this period included Abelard (the logician and lover of Heloise) and St Anselm (of the Ontological Proof of the Existence of God).

• From the Rediscovery of Aristotle (c. 1200) to the Renaissance (1400s).
The translation of Aristotle’s works from Arabic into Latin provided new material encouraging a rethink of philosophy. The great minds of this period included St Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham (to whom Ockham’s razor is attributed). The religious difficulties with Aristotle’s approach resulted in a set of Condemnations (1270 – Paris; 1277 - Paris [the famous 219 erroneous propositions of Stephen Tempier, Bishop of Paris] - and another in Oxford; and 1284 - Canterbury).

• From the Renaissance to the end of Scholasticism (c.1600).
The rediscovery of Plato and the works of such as the Stoics and the Epicureans led to another re-assessment of philosophy as their Greek works were brought over from Byzantium together with translators such as George of Trebizond. Eventually the new approaches of Descartes and the other early modern philosophers encouraged a rejection of the old ways and philosophy ‘restarted’ with a new project and outlook. Thinkers of this period include Nicholas of Cusa and Francis Suarez.


Plato and Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle were the two leading influences on medieval thought. At the beginning of our period the leading thinkers were St Augustine of Hippo 345-430), Boethius (c.480-c.525), and psuedo-Dionysius the Areopagite (c.500?) who merged the thinking of Plato with Christianity (Boethius drew on Aristotle too) and this moulded Medieval Philosophy until the rediscovery of Aristotle in the 1200s when Aquinas managed a similar synthesis of Aristotelianism with Christianity. We need to be aware that the medieval views of these two thinkers were not identical with our modern understanding of them. Plato, for example, was unread in the Latin-speaking world – the only dialogue available in Latin was part of his Timaeus with a commentary by Chalcidius (c.350). Consequently the medievals lacked our modern understanding of how Plato’s thinking developed in his early, middle and late periods – or of how his ideas had been modified by later schools such as the neo-Platonists. Aristotle on the other hand was mostly known through Boethius’ Latin translations of his Categories and De Interpretatione combined with synopses of his works such as Themistius’ paraphrase of his categories, the Categoriae Decem. In the 1200s there was a rush of translation of almost his entire surviving canon into Latin by such worthies as James of Venice, William of Moerbeke and Michael Scot. These were accompanied by commentaries such as those of Averroes and also by psuedo-Aristotelian works such as the Secretum Secretorum, the Magna Moralia and de Plantis, some of which were neo-Platonic in outlook.

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