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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


see New in Philosophy, Seventheenth Century Philosophy

God and Reason in the Middle Ages by Edward Grant (Cambridge University Press) Between 1100 and 1600, the emphasis on reason in the learning and intellectual life of Western Europe became more pervasive and widespread than ever before in the history of human civilization. This dramatic state of affairs followed the long, difficult period of the barbarian invasions, which ended around A.D. 1000 when a new and vibrant Europe emerged. Of crucial significance was the invention of the university around 1200 within which reason was institutionalized and where it became a deeply embedded, permanent feature of Western thought and culture. It is therefore appropriate to speak of an Age of Reason in the Middle Ages, and to view it as a forerunner and herald of the Age of Reason that was to come in the seventeenth century.

The object of this book is twofold: to describe how reason was manifested in the curriculum of medieval universities, especially in the subjects of logic, natural philosophy, and theology; and to explain how the Middle Ages acquired an undeserved reputation as an age of superstition, barbarism, and unreason.

 Excerpt: Without the rigorous use of reason to interpret the natural phenomena of our physical world, Western society could not have developed science to its present level. Indeed, our society cannot survive without science and the reasoning that makes it possible. Even the problems science causes can only be remedied by science itself. But when, how, and why did Western civilization place reason at the center of intellectual life and thereby make possible the development of modern science? The answer to the "when" part of this query is straightforward: the late Middle Ages, from around 1100 to 1500

In a book that is well known to scholars of eighteenth‑century intellectual history, Carl Becker showed rare insight into the nature of medieval thought when he characterized it as highly rationalistic. "I know," he explained, "it is the custom to call the thirteenth century an age of faith, and to contrast it with the eighteenth century, which is thought to be preeminently the age of reason."" Becker explains that "since eighteenth‑century writers employed reason to discredit Christian dogma, a `rationalist' in common parlance came to mean an `unbeliever,' one who denied the truth of Christianity. In this sense Voltaire was a rationalist, St. Thomas a man of faith." But Becker explains that Voltaire and Thomas did share something rather important, namely, "the profound conviction that their beliefs could be reasonably demonstrated." Because of this shared conviction, "in a very real sense, it may be said of the eighteenth century that it was an age of faith as well as of reason, and of the thirteenth century that it was an age of reason as well as of faith." Much of this study is an effort to provide evidential support for Becker's perceptive insights by demonstrating that medieval university scholars and teachers, spread over four centuries or more, placed a heavy reliance on reason. Moreover, in the history of civilization, they were the first to do so self-consciously on a grand scale.

In the modern incarnation of Western civilization, a new attitude emerged toward reason and rationality. By the "modern incarnation of Western civilization" I mean the new society that emerged from the transformation of the Roman Empire in Western Europe during the turbulent centuries of the barbarian invasions -- from approximately the sixth to tenth centuries. By the late eleventh century an energetic new society and civilization had come into existence and the momentous events that will be mentioned and discussed in this study were under way. A major feature of the new European society was an extraordinary emphasis on the use of reason to understand the world and to solve problems, both practical and theoretical. Although the scope of reason would be greater in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the period traditionally described as the Age of Reason, I shall argue that that age began in the late Middle Ages, which deserves to be regarded as the unqualified starting point for what would become a growing and evolving emphasis on reason as the arbiter of disputes and disagreements. The differences that seem to distinguish the use of reason in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from its use in the late Middle Ages derive largely from major changes in European history the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, to name two of the most significant. The range of uses to which reason could be applied undoubtedly expanded in the later period, but it could do so only because the ground had been solidly prepared in the preceding centuries. Reason was not a newly emphasized activity that burst forth in the so‑called Age of Reason in contrast to its relative absence in the late Middle Ages. I shall argue that the Age of Reason is hardly imaginable without the central role that reason played in the late Middle Ages. If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed in the Age of Reason, they were made possible only because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities.

Reason, however, is not a medieval invention. Indeed, it is an activity that is manifested in every civilization and in every culture. Humans could not survive without it. What differentiates Western civilization from other societies and cultures that used reason is the self‑consciousness with which it was used, and the scope, intensity, and duration of its application.

The achievements of Western society were made possible because of the intellectual gifts it received from the pagan Greeks, the Byzantine Christian Greeks, and the civilization of Islam. Although reason was valued in these civilizations, it was consciously esteemed by a relatively small number of scholars who were never sufficiently influential to give reason the intellectual standing that it would receive in the medieval West. The West did what no other society had previously done: It institutionalized reason in its universities, which were themselves an invention of the West.

But what is reason? How should it be understood for the purpose of this inquiry? One cannot approach the use of reason in the Middle Ages without simultaneously thinking of its opposite activity, revelation. Strictly speaking, revelation, that is, the articles of faith, is not subject to reason. Revelation is true because it embraces truths that are believed to come directly from God, or from His revealed word in Holy Scripture. Such truths -- the Trinity, Incarnation, Redemption, and Eucharist -- are beyond the comprehension of human reason. Where reason applies logical analysis to problems about the physical world and to aspects of the spiritual world, the same kinds of analyses are of no avail when applied to articles of faith. Reason, Christians argued, could neither prove nor disprove such revealed truths. Nevertheless, as we shall see, Christian scholars, usually theologians or theologian‑natural philosophers, often tried to present reasoned analyses of revealed truths. They did so ostensibly better to understand, or to demonstrate, what they already believed on faith. We shall see that the use of reason in medieval theology and natural philosophy was pervasive and wide‑ranging. Indeed, medieval scholars often seem besotted with reason. But there was one boundary line that reason could not cross. Medieval intellectuals, whether logicians, theologians, or natural philosophers, could not arrive at conclusions that were contrary to revealed truth -- that was heresy. Not until the seventeenth century, and then far more pervasively in the eighteenth century, was reason applied to revelation without restriction or qualification.

So far as my study is concerned, that is the major difference in the way scholars used reason in the Middle Ages as compared to the way they used it in the Age of Reason. While it is a significant difference, it should not obscure the more fundamental truth that reason, and reasoned argumentation, lay at the heart of medieval intellectual life. Reason was the weapon of choice at medieval universities. Its systematic application to all the disciplines taught at the university gives us a sound basis for claiming that the academic use of reason on a broad, even vast, scale was a medieval invention.

With the exception of revealed truth, reason in the Middle Ages could be used to analyze virtually anything without fear of repression. By relating reason to revelation, however, we only learn about the bounds within which reason had to operate. From that, unfortunately, we do not learn what reason is. Since my objective is to describe how reason was viewed by medieval scholars, the role they assigned to it, and how they actually used it, it will be useful to characterize briefly the medieval attitude toward reason. During the late Middle Ages, reason in its traditional sense was regarded as "a faculty or capacity whose province is theoretical knowledge or inquiry; more broadly, the faculty concerned with ascertaining truth of any kind. The medieval understanding of theoretical knowledge was derived from Aristotle, and it embraced metaphysics, or theology as it was also called, natural philosophy, or physics, and mathematics. Overarching all these disciplines was logic, which was regarded by Aristotle and his medieval followers as the indispensable instrument for demonstrating theoretical knowledge., During the Middle Ages, reason was "contrasted sometimes with experience, sometimes with emotion and desire, sometimes with faith." In this study, I shall contrast reason with experience and faith, but ignore emotion and desire.

Although logic, reason's most precise expression, was the supreme tool for the application of reason to theoretical knowledge, reason was regarded as much broader than formal logic. Reason in the Middle Ages was not tied to any particular theory of knowledge. Nominalists, realists, empiricists, and partisans of other theories of knowledge in the history of philosophy have regarded themselves as consciously applying reason to the resolution of philosophical problems. A modern philosopher has presented a good sense of what the broader aspects of reason and rationality imply for all philosophers, including those of the Middle Ages. "Rational inquiry," he has declared, is to be viewed as an impersonal search for truth. It is impersonal in a number of respects. First, there is some method of inquiry that can be used by anyone. Second, the method yields evidence that would convince any rational person of the truth or falsity of a particular theory. Finally, the product of applying this method is a true theory that describes things adequately for any rational being and that, by virtue of discounting the influence of any particular being's contingent perspective, furnishes a picture of the universe from a cosmic or "God's eye" point of view,''

The importance of rationality in Western thought cannot be overestimated. For philosophers, it has been a "special tool for discovering truth,"'9 and for modern scientists, it has been the key to the transformation of society. Modern science is the outcome of a rigorous and successful application of reason to myriad problems that have confronted the human race over the centuries.

Creation As Emanation: The Origin of Diversity in Albert the Greats On the Causes and the Procession of the Universe by Therese M. Bonin (Publications in Medieval Studies, 29: University of Notre Dame Press) examines Albert's reading of The Book of Causes with an eye toward two questions: First, how does Albert view the relation between faith and reason, so that he can identify creation from nothing with emanation

from God? And second, how does he understand Platonism and Aristotelianism, so that he can avoid the misreadings of his fellow theologians by finding in a late-fifth-century Neoplatonist the key to Aristotle's meaning?

Accidents of translation made many readers think that The Book of Causes taught that God made only the first creature, which in turn created the diverse multitude of lesser things. Thus, Albert's contemporaries in the Christian West took the text to uphold the supposedly Aristotelian doctrine that from the One only one thing can emanate-a doctrine they rejected, believing as they did that God freely determined the number and kinds of creatures. Albert, however, defended the philosophers against the theologians of his day, denying that the thesis "from the One only one proceeds" removed God's causality from the diversity and multiplicity of our world.

Theresa Bonin is associate professor of philosophy at Duquesne University where she directs the pre-theology program.

Excerpt: Many important motifs run throughout the Liber de causis, one of which has a special hold upon Albert's attention: that the outpouring from God is single. To draw together the threads of the argument, God is essentially good, so that his granting of goodnesses is without a more or a less. The evident gradation of beings results from their diverse receptive capacities, in turn determined by the mode of their substance. And what determines that? God alone creates, but secondary causes can form; now, the more the mediators involved in a thing's production (or, the more "distant" it is from the first cause), the less powerful its proximate cause. Still, why this declension of power among secondary causes? Again, the answer lies in the receptive capacities of the secondary causes, and the question of what determines their mode of being and receiving returns. Perhaps Nature does form generable things, and Soul Nature, and Intellect Soul, but what forms the first created thing? God? Possibly the talk of God's measuring every being with the appropriate measure will be taken to signify that God is not absent from the process of formation; however, the source would suggest another interpretation. Moreover, it seems problematic to trace a being's delimitation to pure, unbounded Goodness. The only explicit statement about the formation of Intellect is that it forms itself. Still, this seems to remove God's causality from the diversity of his effects, whereas the Liber insists that God's all-embracing power penetrates things most deeply and extends even to the last effects. The reader is left in some confusion.

The authority of the Liber on God's single efflux was reinforced by that of Aristotle's De generatione et corruptione: "Idem enim et similiter habens semper idem innatum est facere." Many scholastics sensed heresy: if God can make only one creature, then, since more than one creature exists, creatures must create the rest. Indeed, the Liber seemed to say just that in chapter 3: the first cause creates the being of Soul with Intellect mediating.61 But Albert appears not to have shared these fears: throughout De causis et processu universitatis, he makes strong arguments for the Peripatetic dictum; he even criticizes theologians who "misunderstand" and deny it, invoking Dionysius against them.

Martin Grabmann cites Albert's repeated claims to be reporting Peripatetic teaching, not his own, and points out Albert's perfectly orthodox opinion in Summa Theologiae (where he speaks in his own name), an opinion echoed in the writings of his disciples,6Z

Pierre Duhem finds this unsatisfactory. 63 When Albert's Aristotelian paraphrases refute Avicebron's doctrine that God's free choice determines what sorts of things are made, they refute the orthodox position; they choose the Neoplatonic theory of necessary emanation over the Augustinian tradition. True, Albert warns his readers against assuming he agrees with the opinions he expounds. But who can believe these protestations, since Albert takes sides and shows none of the historian's impartiality?


THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF LATER MEDIEVAL PHILOSOPHY: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Disintegration of Scholasticism, 1100-1600 edited by Norman Kretzmann, Anthony Kenny and Jan Pinberg($44.95, PAPER, Cambridge University Press, ISBN: 0521369339)

This is a history of the great age of scholasticism, from Abelard to the rejection of Aristotelianism in the Renaissance, combining the highest standards of medieval scholarship with a respect for the interests and insights of contemporary philosophers, particularly those working in the analytic tradition. Unlike histories of medieval philosophy which divide subject matter by individual thinkers and emphasize the parts of more historical and theological interest, this volume is organized by those topics in which recent philosophy has made the greatest progress, logic and epistemology. It also contains an extensive bibliography and biographies of the medieval figures discussed and comprehensive indexes that make it all indispensable reference tool for serious reader of medieval thought.

THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF LATER GREEK AND EARLY MEDIEVAL PHILOSOPHY by Arthur Hilary Armstrong ($130.00, HARDCOVER, Cambridge University Press ISBN: 052104054X) A major study soon to be reviewed.

THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL POLITICAL THOUGHT c. 350-1450 edited by J. H. Burns ($39.95, PAPERBACK, Cambridge University Press, ISBN: 0521423880; HARDCOVER)

This volume offers a comprehensive and authoritative account of the history of a complex and varied body of ideas over a period of more than a thousand years. A work of both synthesis and assessment, it presents the results of several decades of critical scholarship in the field, and reflects in its breadth of inquiry precisely that diversity of focus which characterized the medieval sense of the ‘political’ .Among the questions explored by the distinguished team of contributors are the nature of authority, of justice, of property; the problem of legitimacy, of allegiance, of resistance to the powers that be; the character and functions of the law, and the role of custom in sustaining social structure. While the predominant emphasis of the volume is necessarily upon those ideas that developed within Latin Christendom, some consideration is also given to the impact of Byzantine, Jewish and Islamic thought, and the whole comprises a unique distillation of knowledge upon the multifaceted nature of political and social thought.

Robert Grosseteste by James. J. McEvoy (Great Medieval Thinkers; Oxford University Press) (PAPERBACK) Robert Grosseteste (c 1168-1253) was the initiator of the English scientific tradition, one of the first chancellors of Oxford University, and a famous teacher and commentator on the newly discovered works of Aristotle. Grosseteste commented on some of Aristotle's works and translated the Ethica Nichomachea (Nicomachean Ethics) from Greek to Latin. He was deeply interested in scientific method, which he described as both inductive and deductive. By the observation of individual events in nature, man advances to a general law, called a "universal experimental principle," that accounts for these events. Experimentation either verifies or falsifies a theory by testing its empirical consequences. For Grosseteste the study of nature is impossible without mathematics. He cultivated the science of optics (perspectiva), which measures the behavior of light by mathematical means. His studies of the rainbow and comets employ both observation and mathematics. His treatise De luce (1215-20; On Light) embodies a metaphysics of light, presenting light as the basic form of all things and God as the primal uncreated light. He became Bishop of Lincoln in 1235, then the largest English diocese, which received from him a thorough visitation soon after his arrival. He met opposition in his attempts at vigorous reforms in the shape of his dean and chapter in the cathedral at Lincoln, who saw themselves as beyond his jurisdiction. The affair was settled in 1245 when the pope issued a bull giving the bishop full power over the Chapter. Robert attended the Council of Lyons that year and also traveled to Rome a few years later. In this book, James McEvoy provides the first general, inclusive overview of the entire range of Grosseteste's massive intellectual achievement.

There is genuine excitement in reading the closely reasoned and emerging approach to the natural world in this too little read British Bishop. McEvoys study provides a fine introduction and general assessment of this major medieval scholar. McEvoy is a preeminent scholar of Grosseteste his scholarly contributions being well represented in Robert Grosseteste, Exegete and Philosopher (Collected Studies Series, CS446: Variorum). There is an Electronic Grosseteste that provides access to his existent works:

  • to provide resources for research in the writings of Grosseteste, as well as the intellectual and cultural history of the thirteenth century;
  • to provide global access to texts that are currently out of print and in public domain;
  • to provide a searchable database of published texts which can faciliate the creation of editorial apparatus, or which can provide opportunities for linguistic analysis of Latin texts.

The project has four phases. Phase I, which received British Academy funding in 1999 to employ four part-time research assistants, has focused on the creation of electronic copies of Grosseteste's Latin works which are now in public domain: Grosseteste's philosophical and scientific works, and his letter collection. Phase II will include searchable texts that are still under copyright; these texts could not be copied nor downloaded. Phase III will be a listing of recent projects (and those in progress) related to Grosseteste studies. Finally, Phase IV will comprise an electronic bibliographic tool, based on S.H. Thomson's The Writings of Robert Grosseteste (with the kind permission of Cambridge University Press). The entire project should be completed by December 2001.

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