Jacques Maritain Center : A History of Western Philosophy Vol. II / by Ralph McInerny

The Thirteenth Century

Chapter VII


In the preceding chapters of this part we have concentrated on a number of thinkers, selected for their generally recognized importance, and discussed what they taught with only glancing references to the milieu in which they carried on their activity. That milieu -- the university, and particularly the University of Paris -- was one in which many divergent currents flowed, in which the kind of activity we have regarded in isolation comes into confrontation and conflict with opposed teachings, attitudes, aspirations. We have made reference to the dispute that raged concerning the academic status of Franciscans and Dominicans at Paris, a dispute which had its import for the two most eminent men of the century, Bonaventure and Aquinas. Similarly, we have referred to the caution with which the new writings invading the West were met, the proscriptions that were laid down, and so forth. The men we have concentrated on have represented, by and large, the effort to learn from the new and to assimilate it by putting it into relation with what had been had before. Yet efforts at assimilation varied insofar as one or the other middleman between the Western Scholastics and Aristotle was given prominence. We have suggested that one of the signal accomplishments of Aquinas is to be found in his distinguishing between the doctrines of Aristotle and those of his interpreters in Islam, something that required a painstaking and direct reading of Aristotle in less and less defective texts. No doubt it was this effort that enabled Aquinas to state with the clarity he did the distinction between philosophy and theology. We must now say a few words of the context in which he did this.

We have been considering the universities of the thirteenth century, taking Paris as the great model, as places where the faculty of arts functioned as a stepping stone into the faculty of theology (or those of medicine and law). This suggests that the faculty of arts, and philosophy, which was its principal concern, had nothing terminal to it, that philosophy had its destiny in theology. It should be noted, moreover, that most of the men who have been the objects of our attention in the chapters of this part were theologians, wrote as theologians, saw philosophy from the vantage point of the principles of theology, and assessed its status accordingly. Yet it was at Paris that a conflict arose with regard to the relationship of philosophy and theology which was, in many of its aspects, a conflict between the faculty of arts and the faculty of theology.

It will be remembered that if there was anything that contributed to the determination of the relationship between philosophy and theology on the part of an Aquinas, it was the striking fact of the philosophical writings of Aristotle. Here, for the first time in centuries, the Christian intellectual found himself face to face with an elaborate and nuanced theory of reality in its various aspects, a theory reached in utter independence of the influence of faith. What greater proof could be required of the autonomy and viability of philosophy? Hand in hand with the appreciation of the autonomy of philosophy there went a sensitivity to those things Aristotle had taught which went contrary to Christian revelation. We have seen that, in large part due to the interpretations of Arabian commentators, it came to be a commonplace that Aristotle had taught that the world is eternal, that the survivability of the individual soul is a doubtful matter, and so forth. The typical reaction of Aquinas was to ask, first, whether this was what Aristotle actually taught. Quite often he reached the conclusion either that he had not taught what he was claimed to have taught or that he taught it in such a way that his doctrine was not in conflict with Christian belief. Others, like Bonaventure, lacking interest in the accuracy of the historical ascription of positions to Aristotle, applied the criteria of revealed truth to assess the alleged doctrines as false. Now while there is certainly a difference in approach between Aquinas and Bonaventure in this matter, the difference does not lie in the fact that the one thought revealed truth was a useful criterion and the other did not. Aquinas, as much as Bonaventure, may be taken to be guided by his faith in assuming that the position that holds firmly that the world has always existed must be false, or at least not provable. What is particularly interesting in the case of Aquinas is that he takes this initial judgment to be, not a foreclosing of argumentation, but an invitation to philosophizing. Let us, he suggests, look at the arguments; let us consult the texts. Animating his whole approach is the assumption that wherever there is a contradiction in terms the truth cannot lie on both sides of the contradiction. Now it was something like the latter position, the so-called two-truths theory, that came to be held by some masters of the faculty of arts in the middle of the century.

The two men most important for this controversy are Siger of Brabant and Boetius of Dacia. The movement associated with their names is commonly called "Latin Averroism." They were the objects of various polemical opuscula by figures already treated, for example, in the De imitate intellectus of Aquinas. Now, once more it must be emphasized that what Aquinas set out to do, and what he accomplished, in that little work was to save Aristotle, not to bury him -- to show that he had not taught what was being attributed to him concerning the faculties of the human soul. The controversy in question, then, may not be viewed as arising from the efforts of theologians to condemn philosophy, to restrict it, to destroy its autonomy, and so forth. Rather, it appears to be an effort of theologians to save philosophy from the philosophers -- just as nowadays it sometimes seems that it will fall to Christian philosophers to save theology from theologians who misread the import of current philosophical trends.

When we look at the writings of Siger of Brabant, we find a repetition of interpretations of Aristotle with which we are familiar from the Arabian commentators. Thus, God's causality is restricted to a first effect, a primary intelligence, to whose activity the next level of reality must be ascribed and so on. So too, Siger teaches the "eternity of the world. Since these positions call into question, respectively, the universality of God's causal efficacy and revealed truth, it becomes a matter of some interest to inquire how Siger squared his philosophical tenets with his Christian belief. Siger seems to have adopted an ambiguous stand on this matter. On the one hand, he suggests that he is merely examining the teachings of the (pagan) philosophers; on the other hand, he implies that these tenets are unavoidable conclusions of reason. Boetius of Dacia held views that are both more openly abrasive and unequivocal in their implications. As if from an excess of professional pride, Boetius held that the pursuit of philosophy is the highest human pursuit, that only philosophers are wise, and that there is absolutely no restriction on philosophical activity. More substantively, Boetius is said to have held that creation is impossible, even though faith requires us to believe that it is possible. With what one sometimes suspects must have been perverse delight, Boetius went on to list a number of other articles of Christian faith which are philosophical absurdities, though he seems never to have urged that men cease and desist believing them.

Latin Averroism, then, would seem to be grounded on what must seem a psychological impossibility, since it asked believers to accept logical contradictories. Not only did this call into question the reasonableness of faith -- something insisted on from the beginning of theological study -- it also characterized the philosophizing of the Christian in a way that would require him to be schizophrenic. The remedy called for was one that assigned their proper notes to faith and to philosophizing, and it was this remedy that was offered by theologians -- as well as by masters of arts not in sympathy with Siger and Boetius, and these nonsympathizers, we might note, were the majority in the faculty of arts at Paris.

We began by saying that this dispute became a dispute between the faculty of arts and the faculty of theology and went on to say that it must not be viewed as prompted by an animus against philosophy on the part of theologians. This last claim, while true in the terms we made it, must now be qualified. In 1277 the bishop of Paris, at the behest of the pope, condemned a list of 219 propositions. In presenting this list, the bishop, Stephen Tempier, made quite clear who the targets of his condemnation were: masters of the faculty of arts who taught things contrary to faith and who, when accused of heresy, took refuge in the claim that there is a distinction between the truth of philosophy and the truth of faith. One of the great ironies of the Condemnation of 1277 is that several tenets of Thomas Aquinas were among the propositions condemned. Further, if animosity between philosophers and theologians was not at the source of the dispute, it was certainly one of the consequences of the condemnation. Theologians became increasingly suspect of the activities of philosophers, and there was subsequently a tendency for the theologian to pursue his proper effort in growing independence from philosophical speculation. The reverse side of this coin, of course, was the tendency of philosophers who were also believers to ignore the relevance of their faith to their philosophizing.

If doctrines have a history, it is not linear, and if the history of philosophy is interesting, this is not because of movements which carry men along but rather because of individual philosophers. Men may think in a context, but the men who interest us as philosophers are less products of their times than producers of the spirit of their own and later times. To consider the movement into the thirteenth century of the complete Aristotelian corpus and of the Arabian commentators on Aristotle, as well as of Neoplatonic doctrines of an earlier time, is not to consider something that is independent of individual thinkers; on the contrary, such movements are ideal continua whose points are individual minds. All this is preface to our unwillingness now to discuss the fate and destiny of the movements of the thirteenth century. Finally, what is of philosophical interest in the thirteenth century are the writings of men like Bacon and Bonaventure, Albert and Aquinas, writings which are to a surprising degree accessible without paying great attention to the "spirit of the thirteenth century" or other abstractions taken as the putative antecedents of the efforts of such men. One of pitfalls of the historian is to interpret individuals in the light of their times, forgetful that those times are largely defined by us in terms of the great individuals who inhabited them. It would be easier to sustain the thesis that Aquinas thought against the grain of his age than that he is the perfect mirror of it, easier but perhaps no more fruitful. The suggestion that learning is a matter of entering into conversation with the great men of all times via their writings, while it may be marred by simplifying or overlooking the real difficulties and impediments that may obscure those writings to a later mentality, is, finally, the only defensible attitude toward the great minds of the past, of the thirteenth or any other century. We may compare the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by saying that in the former the schools were where the great teachers were, whereas in the latter the great teachers were where the schools were; however, in either case it is the great teachers who interest us -- and their greatness consists in large part in the way they transcend their times.

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