Home
Up

THE REBIRTH OF ARISTOTLE

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 Kant.

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 knowledge.

BONAVENTURE

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.