Jacques Maritain Center : Aristotle and the Christian Church



THE Aristotelian philosophy meanders down the ages in two distinct streams, both welling forth from the Alexandrian School like life-blood from the human heart, to meet and mingle centuries afterwards, in the leavening of intellectual life. We have seen that the Western current set in with Boëthius. He gave students, with his own comments, the treatises of Aristotle on the Categories and, in his own word, that on Interpretation.{1} Therein they learned to distinguish between substance and accident, to consider a subject in regard to its environments of time and place, its quality and quantity, its manner and habit of existence, and the like; they learned to establish the relations of subject and predicate, of affirmation and negation, of the possible and the impossible, of the contingent and the necessary; they learned how to examine words, phrases, and sentences. All this was wholesome. It was giving the still untrained intellect of mediaeval youth a means, and an example of the highest authority, whereby to fix precision of terms, to classify, to define and divide, and to construct propositions with accuracy. But in addition to all this, Boëthius gave a short treatise of Porphyry (232-304) written as an introduction to the Categories. It bas been considered a valuable improvement upon the doctrine of Aristotle. But, in the opening chapter of that little treatise, Porphyry poses a problem which he does not there attempt to solve; which is amongst the most important in the history of philosophy; which is also amongst the most difficult to solve, and upon the solution of which schools and even peoples have quarrelled. It is the threefold problem concerning the nature of genus and species. Do genus and species subsist, or are they solely mental fabrications? If subsisting, are they corporeal or incorporeal? Finally, do they exist apart from sensible objects, or are they in those objects, forming with them something co-existent?{2} Such are the questions which Porphyry put and refrained, from answering,{3} but which Boëthius threw into the Western brain. Porphyry refrained from their solution then and there, because of their difficulty and because they required great research;{4} and yet Porphyry held the traditions of the Lyceum and the Academy, and was furnished in the Alexandrian libraries with all the means of research. But without the philosophical traditions of Athens, and without the means of determining the historical position of the problem; with simply a few definitions and with the instrument of the syllogism, the Schoolmen attacked it with all the rashness and energy that come of great ignorance and great strength. It was an epoch-making problem, but it was prematurely thrown upon the intellectual world of the West. Minds were not sufficiently trained for its profitable discussion. None the less did they grapple with it and fight over it; and in the sparks of light that escaped from that question did they discuss all other questions. "Since the world began to solve the question of Porphyry," says John of Salisbury, "the world has well grown old; more time has been consumed than it has taken the Caesars to conquer and rule the world; more money has been expended on it than ever was in the treasure of Croesus."{5}

But, can we say that we are still free from the problem? Are we not constructing all our philosophy upon the one problem underlying that of Porphyry? Have we gotten beyond the problem of knowing? Are we not divided into as many rival camps, upon the very same issues under cover of other names as were the Schoolmen? Attempt a solution; at once you lay yourself open to attack and contradiction, and other solutions equally plausible are posited, only in turn to be replaced by others again neither more nor less plausible than your own. Had Boëthius allowed that Introduction of Porphyry to lie buried in the East, what might be the history of thought to day? Would men have devoted more time to observation, to language, to letters? Would national literatures have become more developed? Or did the robust discipline, the strain and struggle of intellect clashing with intellect, and wrestling with a problem that even such giants as Plato and Aristotle could no more place beyond dispute than have Kant or Rosmini been able to do in our own day -- did it help to lay deeper the foundations of thought and prepare for later developments? Answer we these questionings how we will, the fact remains that thus the problem took possession of the intellect of Europe and for centuries threw it into a turmoil of controversy not unfrequently carried on with passion and recrimination.

It is needless to enter upon the absorbing work that during those ages occupied the Church in her mission of civilizing the barbarians who invaded and overturned the old Roman culture. Small room was there for philosophy in this work. Small place had it in the intelligence of the child of Nature, just emerging from his woodland home, with his simple habits and his few wants. To teach him the elementary truths of the Christian religion, to subdue the native fierceness of his nature, to accustom him to peaceful pursuits, and above all, to induce him to live up to the Christian standard of morality -- this was the primary work of the Church. To this must all else yield. If ever pope understood the spirit of the Church, it was Gregory the Great (550-604). He was a student devoted to his books. But possessing in an eminent degree the Roman genius for administration and organization, he makes all else subservient to this end at a time when administration and organization are most needed. Now, Gregory learns that a bishop gives his time and attention to the teaching of letters, doubtless at the sacrifice of his more imperative duty of administering his diocese and furthering the kingdom of God amongst his people; and forthwith Gregory rebukes him severely for undertaking to teach youths pagan myths when in all probability their souls were famishing for the bread of Christian truth.{6} This rebuke has been misunderstood because the times and the circumstances have been ignored.

But according to times and opportunities we may trace the slow expansion of the mediaeval intellect. The work so auspiciously begun by Boëthius is continued by Cassiodorus (468-562), who in his old age compiles manuals for youths. Isidore of Seville (d. 636) keeps up the tradition of learning. The Venerable Beda (673-735) also prepares a compendium of philosophy for his boys. Alcuin (736-804) teaches the Dialectics from some of the treatises of Boëthius and from a compendium of the Categories, which he erroneously attributed to St. Augustine. The doses of Aristotle so far administered to the youth of Western Europe were of a mild character. The only part of his writings known in the ninth century was that on Interpretation as translated by Boëthius.{7} Towards the end of the tenth century, the same author's version of the Categories began to be introduced.{8} The education given was more grammatical than philosophical. The Dialectics taught, dwelt almost exclusively among words. Still, by means of these handbooks is the Aristotelian tradition kept alive.

With the eleventh century a new spirit of study breathes over the face of Western Europe. Larger scope of speculation is exercised. The focus of this new spirit is to be found in the Monastery of Bec, where the sacred fires are kept up by Lanfranc and Anselm. But in proportion as intellectual activity becomes rife, does the spirit of rationalism grow bold. It dictates the unorthodox assertions of a Roscellin. It inspires the restless activity of an Abélard (1079-1142). Men become possessed of a mania for knowledge, and like Abélard fly hither and thither to every master of reputation, only to find their thirst increasing and their craving more unsatisfied. Abélard is attracted to Laon by the fame of the monk Anselm. He has left on record his impression: "I approached this tree to gather fruit, but I found it sterile like the fig-tree cursed by the Saviour."{9} Adelard of Bath (flor. 1100-1130) drifts first to Tours, then also to Laon; but satisfied, neither with himself nor his teachers, he leaves his pupils and, braving untold perils, travels amongst the Greeks, the Syrians, and the Arabs, bringing back with him doctrines more Platonic than Aristotelian.{10} But during the twelfth century the stream of Peripatetic philosophy swells to larger dimensions. Other books of Aristotle find their way into the West, and are translated, and throw more light upon the Catagories and Predicaments, and give further ground for argument.{11} Peter the Lombard (d. 1164) applies Aristotelian principles to theological questions,{12} and constructs the celebrated Book of Sentences, which long after continued to be the manual of all theological students. He was only repeating -- and perhaps reproducing -- what John of Damascus had done four hundred years previously.{13}

{1} De Interpretatione. It was more generally known as The Perîhermenias. Under this name St. Thomas comments upon it.

{2} Isagoge, cap. i.

{3} Porphyry had already given their solution after Plotinus, in the Enneades, lib. v.

{4} Altissimum enim negotium est hujusmodi et majoris egens inquisitionis. Isagoge, ibid

{5} Polycraticus, lib. vii. cap. xii. col. 664. Edit. Migne.

{6} Epistolarum, lib, xi. 54.

{7} Hauréau, Hist. de la Phil. Schol., tom. i. p. 97.

{8} Ibid., loc. cit.

{9} Haréau, Hist. de la Phil. Schol., tom. i. loc. cit. p. 296.

{10} Jourdain, Am., Recherches Critques sur les Traductions d'Aristote, pp. 97-99, 258-278.

{11} Several translations from the Greek were made during this century. See Jourdain, ibid., cap. ii. James of Venice, for instance, before 1128, translated the Topics, the Prior and Posterior Analytics, and the Elenchos, p. 58.

{12} Not without protest later on. Prior Walter of St. Victor, about 1180, includes him with Abélard, Gilbert, and Peter of Poictiers, as the four labyrinths of France, and accuses all of them of treating with Scholastic levity, being inspired by the Aristotelian spirit, the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation (Du Boulay, Hist. Univ. Par., tom. ii. p. 402; Launoy, De Var. Arist. Hist., pp. 49, 50).

{13} The first Latin translation of the Fons Scientiae appeared in 1150. We know what frequent use St. Thomas makes of it in his Summa.

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