Aristotle was introduced into the University of Paris by secular
teachers. These were often referred to as the "Latin Averroists"
because much of their reading of Aristotle was taken from Muslim
sources, and because they accepted the idea proposed by Averroes
that their were two different kinds of truth. If truth as
obtained from scripture and truth obtained from reasoning
contradicted one another then both are true. Obviously this
idea, called "double truth", was condemned by the pope and the
teachers at the Faculty of Arts in Paris were forbidden from
teaching it. The most important of these was Siger of Brabant
who was a few years younger than Thomas Aquinas. It is
significant for our understanding both of Siger's ideas and of
the period itself to understand that Siger claimed to be a
faithful Christian. In a sense he was facing the same problem
with regard to philosophy that Galileo was to face in regard to
science. He was interpreting what Aristotle said. He did not
suggest that this was necessarily a higher sense of truth than
revelation. It was Aquinas who modified Aristotle to fit in with
Christian thought. In attempting to bringing Aristotle's thought
into a true focus he believed he was doing history. What he
could not know was that he was beginning a split between
philosophy and theology that was to continue to widen over the
next three centuries. Soon philosophy was to be identified with
the thought of Aristotle.
The Platonic elements of Medieval Christianity came from Plotinus
through Augustine. Even at this late date Plato himself had
never been translated. In 1277 Siger
was summoned before the inquisition. He preferred instead to
travel to Rome and place his case before the Pope. Pope Nicholas
III acquitted him of heresy, but kept him under house arrest.
There he was murdered by his demented secretary.
The part of Siger's philosophy that interests us as we explore
the relationship between philosophy and culture was an outgrowth
of the medieval argument concerning the existence of universals.
As you may recall the argument was put to rest by Peter Abelard
when he said that Universals are simply the meanings behind the
names. This might have solved the problem from an Augustinian
point of view, but it posed some serious difficulties when
examined in an Aristotelian context. Remember that for Aristotle
universals were inductive generalizations from particulars.
Siger approached it as a problem presented by the meaning of the
existence of mental entities. The universal, he said, is not a
substance. However, he derived this from Aristotle's Metaphysics
book VII which dealt with primary substances. In the Categories
Aristotle called universals secondary substances. Thus we must
assume that like Abelard, he is not giving universals a unique
existence. However, he went on, if this is true then they still
must be distinct and separated from particulars. He claimed then
that this implied that there must be two things in every
universal. That which is denominated universal, and the
intention of universality. The universal in the sense that it is
universal does not exist except in the mind because nothing is
called universal because it exists of its own nature. The active
intellect does not abstract from particulars. It produces an
abstract of particulars. This led to a new
theory of knowledge.
A certain thing is said to be known because there is a
knowledge of it and it happens that it is understood. The
thing itself, however, with respect to what it is, although
it be outside the mind, yet in respect to its being
understood, that is, in so far as there is an understanding
of it, exists only in the mind. Because, if universals are
universals, and they are understood as such, namely abstract
and common to particulars, then the universal as universals
do not exist except in the mind.
Particulars cannot be the subject of knowledge because
particulars are constantly in the process of changing. Thus what
can be known are universals. By making universals, that is, what
can be known, (Remember that Aristotle said, for example, that nothing can be
known concerning a horse because it is always changing, we can know a great deal
about horses, the universal.) abstracts in the mind developed through the active
intellect Siger has made a considerable advance in theories of
mind and knowledge from any that had been presented before.
However, this concept was put forward out of the Averroist
concept of the commonality of the intellect. This concept
considered the intellect to be common to all men. Something that
existed on its own but was shared by all men. As we shall see
Aquinas showed this to be contrary to Christian teachings and
became one more point where Siger and his group were condemned.
That did not make his ideas unimportant. We will see them
developed further in the philosophies of John Locke and Emmanuel
This is the thirteenth century and it is of considerable note
that we see here the beginning of the development of secular
philosophy, and it is of considerable note that this secular
philosophy was identified with Aristotle. Also, a new potent
secular force has been added to the background of medieval
feudalism. The growth of trade with the east, the growth of
commerce in general, the development of guilds where tradesmen
could pool their talents and control the production of goods for
sale. Forces such as these resulted in the growth of cities with
different kinds of human relations. And we must not forget that
these relations were between free, even if not equal, men. This
is the birth of the Renaissance. The shift toward Aristotelianism and to the importance of particulars was a
natural outgrowth of these changes. Just as important was the
struggle going on in European society between the Church and
secular authorities. The Church's stand against teaching
Aristotle stemmed from a sense of a new opposing source of
There developed two schools of philosophical importance
during the thirteenth century that the Papal authority had less
control over in spite of the fact that both were religious
orders. The Franciscans, whose approach was primarily
Augustinian, and the Dominicans who tended toward Aristotelianism. Since the friars of both schools had taken
oaths of poverty, they were called the "mendicant" schools. St.
Dominick formed his order primarily to develop teachers of
Christian theology. When St. Francis of Assisi began his, he was
neither an educated nor a learned man. His idea was to teach by
example. He wanted his followers to live the life of Christ.
However, by the thirteenth century the Franciscans had drifted
from the strict guidelines of the founder and finally, with St.
Bonaventure, the shift to a teaching order was complete.
Though Aristotelianism had been growing since the tenth century,
Bonaventure and the Franciscans maintained at least some
Augustinian philosophical views. However, they could not do this
without injecting some Aristotelian ideas. For example, in an
Aristotelian-like approach they said that God can be known
through creatures as cause through effect. This implied that
objects of sense perception are the means by which we arrive at
knowledge that transcends sense perception. On the other hand,
in a Platonic-Augustinian way he said that recognitions of the
limitations and imperfections in creatures resulted in an implied
awareness of a standard by which they are judged. The idea of
perfection, he said, is a sign of divine presence in the soul.
God is reflected in nature. Nature is a vestige of God. He is
manifested more clearly in the human soul which is God's image.
Bonaventure maintained that a self-sufficient philosopher will
inevitably fall into error. Though human reason, weakened by the
fall, can attain philosophical knowledge, the more it tried to
transcend the field of sense perception the more it will stumble.
If philosophers were to come to a knowledge of God untainted by
error then Augustinian divine illumination was necessary.