English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities - Baroque & Enlightenment

Medieval Christian Scholasticism:

aims & methods; assumptions & conclusions -

and a sample from Thomas Aquinas

To appreciate what is original with Bacon and Descartes, we need to have a clear sense of the kind of method they saw the need to replace, and the relation of that method to a different goal served by the particular kind of knowledge it seeks. The shortest way for us to do this is to look, even if too briefly, at a sample of the kind of philosophy practiced by Thomas Aquinas some 4 centuries earlier.

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is one of the most important figures in the late middle ages in Europe. We will hardly be able to do justice to his immense body of work and the breadth of his achievements within this brief note. Some notion, however, of the range of his impact can be gained by reflecting on four facts. (1) The greatest poem of the European middle ages  Dante's Divine Comedy (1300)  is constructed around a moral architecture derived from Aquinas' Christianization of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. (2) In 1879  6 centuries after Aquinas' death, a century after the French Revolution, and only about a century ago  his system was declared by Pope Leo XIII to be the official Catholic philosophy. (3) Many of his positions are still taken seriously by Catholic and non-Catholic philosophers, who seek to apply them to important questions of modern life in economics, ethics and aesthetics.

For our present purposes, however, it is most relevant to note that, among the many central philosophical issues disputed in his day on which he took a stand, is the question of the relation between the competence and roles of reason on the one hand and faith on the other. The Christian partisans of the Arab muslim philosopher Averroes argued that faith and truth must be kept rigorously separate; the followers of Augustine argued that truth can only be a matter of faith. Aquinas powerfully argued that reason and faith are harmonious but autonomous realms, in which the truths of reason complement those of faith. Both reason and faith in revelation are gifts of God, but each has its own proper domain. Note that that this position entails a particular understanding of the limits of the effect on mankind of Original Sin, and insists that God underwrites a properly circumscribed confidence in the powers of unaided reason, which is understood itself to be one of the means by which God accomplishes certain of his intended revelations.rts of which can only be accepted by faith), but natural human reason as well is an expression of God's grace. This conclusion saved Aristotle for the Christian West, when his works otherwise would have been suppressed by the suspicious as intrinsically and thoroughgoingly heretical, along with his non-Christian advocate Averroes. Although Aristotle was eventually to be dethroned as an authority in natural philosophy, Aquinas' successful vindication of reason - and this is our fourth observation (4) promised above - prevented the fearful from declaring heretical (and this, moreover, under threat of the Sword) any inquiry that did not start and end with Holy Scripture, conforming along the way to the pronouncements of theologians certified by the Church. The Copernican Revolution and the writings of Bacon and Descartes are not the only things that would have been impossible if Aquinas had not prevailed in this dispute. It is by no means unthinkable that the complete works of Aristotle, Plato, and the Greek tragedians (to name a central few) would have been burned. Instead of the Renaissance, the likelier prospect would have been a resurgent "Dark Ages."

Among Aquinas' many works, two stand out like mountain peaks: the two "summae," or systematic expositions of arguments on related questions. The Summa contra gentiles (125860) - "against the gentiles" - was a defense of the fundamentals of the Christian faith against its non-Christian rivals - Islam, Judaism, and classical pagan philosophy. The Summa theologiae (126773), though incomplete, is a massive exposition of philosophy on theological principles. Both are classic examples of "the method of philosophy taught in the schools" - "scholasticism," for short.

Scholasticism in the West has a long history, beginning with the attempt of the Romanized Christians to instruct the German barbarian invaders in the fundamentals of the Christian-classical world view - that is, to try to conserve and propagate a heritage that threatened to be wiped out by the collapse of the Roman Empire. But the methods that it developed were not the exclusive property of Christians. Muslims and Jews developed their own versions in the course of the middle ages, as a method of spelling out the implications of the Privileged Text (the Qur'an or the Pentateuch) in the light of other traditions regarded as authoritative (the sayings and doings of the Prophet, the commentaries of the rabbis, the available works of Greek philosophy). The method is still forcefully in practice in American and British law: a special version of it is, in fact, the main business of our law schools to impart. If you can't do it, you simply cannot practice law in this country, because you cannot anticipate how a judge will go about interpreting a statute or applying the common law. The best way to get the hang of it is to plunge in: to analyze cases (published judicial decisions) to see how judges go about reaching their conclusions.

Unfortunately, we don't have the equivalent of a year of law school at our disposal. Still, the best way to see what scholasticism is about in the version (medieval) relevant to our present concerns, is to dig into examples, however brief. It is highly recommended that you obtain the optional Study Guide to accompany your reading of the following selections. It should help make your foray a good deal more efficient than it might otherwise be.

You will also want to review WH 219-222, 250-251.

Note: beginning with Fall 96 we will not be doing the readings from Aquinas.



Go to the selections from Aquinas' Summa contra gentiles.

Go to the selections from Aquinas' Summa theologiae.

Return to the discussion of Bacon's and Descartes' departures from scholasticism in philosophy.

Return to Reading List #3.

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      This page last updated 21 April 2000.