Arriving At The Truth

The theologian must be able, like the student of any other discipline, to distinguish truth from falsehood and to prove a disputed point. It was a commonplace of the encyclopaedists that it was supremely the province of logic to distinguish truth from falsehood, although it might be more accurate

KNOWING AND LANGUAGE to say that logic deals in validity of inference. Mediaeval scholars made use of the instruments of formal reasoning to establish conclusions in every discipline. Yet reasoning must have matter to work on. The propositions from which syllogisms are constructed can be seen to lead to true conclusions only if they themselves are shown to be true.

There were broadly two ways in which a proposition could be tested. The first depended on its being self-evidently true, or capable of demonstration from a self-evident truth. That brings us into the immensely complex area of the mediaeval theory of topics.

In his Posterior Analytics Aristotle speaks of the first principles on which all sciences must rest and discusses whether each sphere of knowledge must have first principles peculiar to itself, which define it as a science. Euclid, in his Elements of Geometry, makes use of axioms as the starting-points for demonstration. These are, by definition, themselves indemonstrable. They rest upon their self-evident truth. Geometry is unique among the sciences, as Plato perhaps recognised, in its capacity for demonstration from first principles in this way, but the elegance and cogency of the demonstrative method gave it strong appeal to mediaeval scholars who wanted to provide the strongest possible proof, especially in matters of theology.

Before demonstration can proceed it is necessary to be sure of the first principles on which it is to be built. Here the mediaeval heritage was complex and to some degree confusing. Aristotle's Posterior Analytics was not in use until the late twelfth century. Before its arrival, discussion turned on Cicero and Boethius, with, from the mid-twelfth century, some notion of Euclid's contribution.9 Cicero writes as a rhetorician familiar with both logicians' and rhetoricians' use of 'topics' (loci) in the Roman world. For the orator a 'topic' may be no more than an illustrative story, an anecdote, an exemplum, brought in to support a contention. For the logician it is a maxim or axiom of some sort.10 Boethius commented on Cicero's Topics, and wrote a monograph on the difference between dialectical and rhetorical use of topoi, but he did not transmit to the early Middle Ages any direct knowledge of Aristotle's Topics. Boethius realised that Cicero's loci are not strictly axioms or individual first principles, but rather classes of axioms. He also noted a difference which was to be the first importance to mediaeval theory, between 'dialectical' arguments, in which the axioms that form the premisses or propositions of a syllogism do not have to the self-evidently true but only inherently probable; and 'demonstrative' arguments, in which they must be self-evidently true.

Boethius made a further significant contribution to this discussion, in a work which falls outside his group of logical textbooks. In the De

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES Hebdomadibus he discusses the notion of beginning from self-evidence truths (communis animi conceptiones) and proceeding to build up on them other truths which will be accepted by everyone as soon as it is shown how they depend on first principles. It is noteworthy that the phrase communis animi conceptio was used by the twelfth-century translators of Euclid to render his 'axiom'. Boethius does not in fact continue in a Euclidean way in the De Hebdomadibus. Instead, he tantalises the reader by leaving it to him to work out which of the listed axioms supports the argument at each point, and the twelfth-century commentators on the De Hebdomadibus spent a good deal of effort in trying to agree on the solution to the puzzle.

What, then, is the status of the axioms of theology which we call 'articles of faith'? Alan of Lille discussed various contemporary viewpoints. Some say that faith is a general perception of invisible things which pertain to the Christian religion (ad Christianam religionempertinentium). An article of faith is a particular perception of a specific thing, for example, of the Nativity of Christ or his Passion. Some say that the Nativity, Passion, and so on are themselves the articles of faith, not faith's perception of them. Others, Alan among them, think that 'invisible' means 'intelligible'. That is to say, the events themselves were visible when they occurred, but there was in the Nativity and the Passion and the other eventus on which faith rests some invisible truth beyond ordinary human perception. An example is the union of divine and human nature in Christ.11 This notion of the presence of an element of mystery, a profound truth too deep to be immediately self-evident to human reason,12 is important in connection with the special problems posed by the articles of faith.

Alan of Lille and his younger contemporary Nicholas of Amiens made ambitious attempts to work out a whole system of Christian theology from a set of axioms, Alan in his Regulae Theologicae and Nicholas in a De Fide Catholica. Alan kept to what may be called a 'Boethian' pattern. He took a first axiom and tried to draw others out of it in a stream, introducing new principles as he needed them. Nicholas proceeded in a Euclidean way, beginning with axioms, postulates and definitions, constructing theorems, and using theorems already demonstrated as the first principles of later demonstrations.13 Both found that things went relatively smoothly while they were dealing with the topics of the Boethian theologia, but that topics like redemption, Church and sacraments presented difficulties of another order.

Alan of Lille died in 1202. He was thus one of the last major scholars of the period before Aristotle's Libri naturales became generally available in the West, and his set of theological axioms therefore have some importance as

KNOWING AND LANGUAGE evidence of what could be done with philosophy in theology's service before Aristotle's controversial assistance was brought more fully into play in Paris and elsewhere.

In his Prologue Alan explains what he understands by a regula. Every science rests on its rules as on foundations. The 'maxims' of dialectic, the 'commonplaces' of rhetoric, the 'general opinions' of ethics, and so on are all peculiar to their proper disciplines. Alan does not base this doctrine on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics but on the authority of Boethius' De Hebdomadibus, which had been comprehensively commented on in the schools of northern France in his youth. He is attracted to Boethius by his acknowledgement that the [h]ebdomades are profoundly mysterious, of a depth and majesty which means that they are not for beginners. Boethius' communis animi conceptiones are self-evident truths, and therefore indemonstrable. Some of them are grasped by everyone. Others are intelligible only to those few who are able to understand deeper truths. Theological regulae seem to Alan to be of the latter kind, and he proposes to deal with 'these which scarcely anyone knows'. There is, then, an element of mystery necessary to Alan's scheme which Aristotle could not provide for, although the Posterior Analytics had been available for several generations when Alan wrote.

During the early thirteenth-century crisis over the introduction of the new Aristotle at Paris, William of Auxerre dismissed the idea that he might 'use the words of Aristotle as giving authentic proof ('tamquam authenticis ad probationem*). That is no more than employing a dialectical topic. It can furnish only probable proof, and one can base no more than opinion on it. His plan is to arrive at demonstrative certainty wherever he can. But in practice, systematic attempts at proof by demonstration alone were rare. They were too difficult. Theology did not lend itself to the method (any more than politics proved to do, when Dante attempted it in his De Monarchia). In practice, theologians proceeded by making a mixture of propositions which could be claimed to rest on their pure reasonableness and propositions which depended on authorities for their acceptability. A glance at Aquinas' Summae will make the point. Most often authorities are Scriptural (and thus carry direct divine warrant), or patristic (and thus carry very considerable weight as the words of Fathers of the Church).

In practice classical philosophical texts are also used throughout our period as sources which can be quoted in support of an argument. Often reservations are expressed, and it is always understood that a philosopher will never outweigh Scripture (even where his standing is high in general), if at some point he contradicts that explicit teaching of the Bible. Roger Bacon sees a need to explain that it is necessary for practical reasons for

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES Christian theologians to cite philosophical authorities in his own day. 'The principal occupation of theologians today is to treat questions; and the greater part of all questions has to do with the terms used by philosophy . . . the remainder, which is concerned with the terms theology employs, is itself discussed by means of the authorities and arguments and solutions of philosophy, as all educated people know.'14 He himself was always willing to 'bring in the testimonies of the philosophers' in theologicis, but he finds it politic to insist that the ones he uses are worthy examples, autentica.

Bacon's insistence on this point reflects much contemporary anxiety. He tries in his OpusMaius to give a systematic account of the issues. One may say of a philosopher as one may not of a Biblical author that he is a fallible and imperfect authority. Even Aristotle, who was, says Bacon, the wisest of the philosophers, was sometimes in error (I.iii). We should respect the achievement of those who pursued truth by the light of human understanding in the earliest ages, even if we can see that they have not been wholly successful (I.v). Here Bacon is apparently trying to strike a balance between that over-enthusiastic citation of philosophical authorities which was bringing some of his contemporaries into conflict with theologians; and the alternative of rejecting all philosophers out of hand as unworthy or mistaken.

He argued more than once that later generations are in a better position than earlier ones to see where the truth lies and to judge where their predecessors went wrong. The first seekers after truth had no help. Those who come after them had only their aid. But semper crevit sapientia (wisdom has grown), and bit by bit knowledge has been added to. We inherit the results of the labours of all who went before us (Bacon, Metaphysica, p. 5; see also Opus Maius In the twelfth century a similar view had been put more modestly by Bernard of Chartres, who is reported (by John of Salisbury, a former pupil) to have said that the modern scholar is like a dwarf sitting on the shoulders of the giants of old. He can see further than they could, but not because he is greater than they; quite the contrary. This gives us a double standard for the rating of the authority of secular authors and in particular for that of philosophers. On the one hand, they can be seen as persons of limited attainments, so that we now know better than they; on the other, they can be regarded as figures of great dignity, giants whose like no longer strides the land, and thus as authoritative for the purposes of quotation in support of an argument.

Aquinas asks whether a master who is deciding theological questions ought to use reasoning or authorities more. It is argued that in every science questions are best decided by the first principles of that science. But

KNOWING AND LANGUAGE the first principles of the science of theology are articles of faith, which are made known to us by authorities. So it would seem that theological questions ought chiefly to be decided by authorities. On the other hand, Titus 1.9 can be read as an endorsement of the use of reasoning to clear up contradictions. Aquinas' own opinion is that one should decide the matter by keeping the end in view. To remove doubts, authorities are best, and they should be chosen so as to convince the individuals concerned. For example, Jews will be convinced best by Old Testament texts. When the task in hand is one of teaching, as is the case in the schools, reasoning is best. If the Master uses nothing but 'bare authorities' he will certainly show the listener the truth, but the listener will not grow in understanding and so he will learn nothing (Quodlibet IV.q.ix.a.3).

Part II

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