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Let’s Get Medieval

by Rick Lewis

Welcome to Philosophy Now’s 50th issue! Remembering the magazine’s very small-scale beginnings (in my spare bedroom, actually), I’m amazed that we’ve reached our Golden Jubilee in such good shape, and would like to say thanks very much to all the contributors and readers who have made it possible.

But that’s enough nostalgia for one issue. Let’s turn our faces resolutely to the future with this special issue on ... medieval philosophy? Surely some mistake here? Medieval philosophy is, to put it kindly, something of a minority subject in English-language universities. In the minds of the intellectual public it is associated with monks squabbling pedantically about the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin. The most famous style of philosophy in the medieval period was scholasticism, yet scholasticism has become almost a term of abuse in philosophical circles, suggesting a dry and over-academic pedantry divorced from any concern with the real world. In this spirit critics have sometimes accused modern analytic philosophy of being ‘the new scholasticism’.

Outside such coffee house circles, the reputation of the thousand-year medieval epoch is even lower. Medieval means drafty castles with dank dungeons, peasants laboriously tilling muddy fields, plague, poverty, brutal kings and wall-to-wall ignorance. In the film Pulp Fiction, the mobster Marsellus threatens somebody with the line, “I’m gonna get medieval on your ass!”, which captures the popular perception of the period rather neatly.

So the widespread view is that the medieval period is a dark and tediously over-religious interval between the ‘glory that was Rome’ and the bright dawn of the Renaissance, suffering by comparison both with what came before and what followed after. But this long night is studded with bright stars, for the accomplishments of medieval philosophers were many and varied.

It is true that in Western Europe the period got off to an unpromising start, as the collapse of learning meant that the remaining scholars in the West could no longer obtain classical texts including Plato and Aristotle. The execution of Boethius in Pavia in 526 removed the last scholar capable of translating Greek. Libraries fell into ruins or, like the great one in Alexandria, were torched by invading armies. However, as is well known, learning was preserved in monasteries and later the first universities were established.

Meanwhile, Islamic scholars made advances in astronomy and medicine and wrote much original philosophy, as well as writing commentaries on Aristotle and eventually reintroducing classical learning into the West. Meanwhile in Muslim-ruled Spain, Jewish philosophers had a golden age.

The history of medieval philosophy is long and varied. Scholars will riffle through these pages, cast their eyes heavenwards, catch them again, and sigh “No St Augustine? No Avicenna? No William of Ockham? How can this be a medieval philosophy special?” Guys, what can I say? There is simply too much medieval philosophy for us to cover it all. Besides, this is a magazine, not an encyclopedia. However, as a nod to the three main traditions of medieval philosophy we do have an article each on a Christian, an Islamic and a Jewish philosopher. We also have Mark Daniels’ excellent introduction to the period (p.7). Ian Dungate’s article on medieval Just War theory confirms Mark’s contention that some of the ideas developed in the middle ages still very much matter today. (So much for angels dancing on pins!) Stephen Stewart casts a shaft of light on the half-forgotten Carolingian period. Chad Trainer’s piece on Leonardo the Philosopher takes us to the very end of the medieval period, to the original Renaissance man. Finally, Peter Cave’s short story about Buridan’s mule reminds us that it is possible to be ever so rational and still be an Ass.

Inflammatory Ideas

In January a huge fire broke out at Tytherleigh’s shipping warehouse in Essex, creating so much smoke that police had to close London’s orbital motorway, the M25. We later found out that the blaze had consumed all the copies of Philosophy Now waiting to be shipped to newsagents in Australia. So if you live in Oz and weren’t able to find Issue 49 in your usual stockist, that’s why. Sorry about that. Supplies for newsstands in Britain and North America weren’t affected.

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