The Idea Of Philosophy

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Christians who spoke of 'philosophy' did not mean the same thing in the fifth century as they were to do a thousand years later. Mediaeval readers were drawing upon much the same body of textbooks as were already regarded as the classics of the subject in Augustine's time. But they no longer lived in a world where 'being a philosopher' was a practical alternative to being a Christian, and where one might meet and talk with men who had made that choice. Philosophy in the Middle Ages was largely an academic study, and chiefly confined in its scope to those themes and topics on which the surviving ancient textbooks provided some teaching. It was a live and growing discipline, but no longer in quite the same way as it had been in the first Christian centuries, when rival schools and factions sprang up and died away, and the enterprising were constantly trying out new permutations of Platonist, Aristotelian and Stoic ideas. That is not to say that the mediaevals did not do significant new work in philosophy. But they did so, as it were, piecemeal, pushing forward frontiers at particular points, and not as a rule in ways creative of new systems of life and thought.

The philosophical systems known to Augustine were not only intellectual but also practical and moral. They were in general designed to lead the adherent through the course of his life in virtue, towards a goal of happiness (Aristotle making the telos, or purpose, happiness, the Stoics tending to see virtue as an end in itself). Augustine had read Varro's (now lost) book of 288 possible philosophies (De Civ. Dei XIX.i.2). They all, he observes, set the beata vita or 'blessed life' before mankind as the end to be attained, in one form or another. Augustine himself did not think it inappropriate to write a book De Beata Vita in the first months after his conversion to Christianity, in which he felt free to make use of whatever in the philosophers he found

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES helpful, and consistent with his Christian belief. It was also not uncongenial to the philosophically minded Christian to go along, at least in part, with the conception of the divine which philosophers had come to find satisfactory: emptied, as it were, of any character but those of goodness, beauty, truth, justice; sometimes of everything but pure being; sometimes even of that. It was therefore neither difficult nor intrinsically objectionable to identify such a Supreme Being with the God of the Christians. No syncretism was involved. One simply took the view that Plato, for example, had come by natural reason to that real but limited understanding of the nature of God which St Paul tells us is to be had by contemplation of his creation (Romans 1.19-20). If philosophers argued that the happy life was attained by those who aspired to rise as high as possible above their lower natures, and to imitate God in a tranquillity which turned its back on worldly lusts and worldly ambitions, Christians need have no quarrel with that. They will wish to go further. But they can take such philosophical endeavours as the companionable efforts of fellow-travellers on the same road. For those philosophers who accepted the immortality of the soul, the happy life was not confined to the present but extended, and indeed had its full realisation, beyond this life. Here again they were not necessarily at cross-purposes with Christians (although, as we shall see, there were important differences). Christianity was, in this sense, itself a philosophy.

We must move to Boethius (c.480-c.524) to pursue the theme of philosophy as the guide of life, at least in the West.1 The Consolation of Philosophy remained a challenge to Christian scholars because it appears to show a Boethius, presumably Christian when he wrote the theological tractates, returning to philosophy under the pressures of political imprisonment and despair at the end of his life. In his dialogue with a Philosophia who has to be much altered before she can be identified with the Sapientia or Holy Wisdom of the Old Testament or with the Christ of the New,2 Boethius is first led to see that he need not lose faith in the ultimate benevolent purpose and continuing power of Providence just because his own life now seems to be at the mercy of fickle Fortune. Then he is taken through a discussion of the manner in which the details of human fate may be seen to depend ultimately upon a divine and unchanging simplicity, and through an exploration of the problem of divine foreknowledge in its relation to human freedom. There is nothing in what is said which is incompatible with Boethius' remaining a Christian. But it is Philosophia who is his guide and who brings him a consolation which depends ultimately upon resignation and an intellectual grasp of the essential orderliness of what had before seemed a random and disorderly sequence of catastrophes.


Boethius' Consolation was read and commented upon by Carolingian authors, among them Remigius of Auxerre (c.841-c.908), who sought out what philosophy he could find in ancient texts. The Consolation was translated into several vernaculars in the same period. Nevertheless, it remained true that one could no longer meet a philosopher in the way that Augustine or Boethius could. There were no individuals in Western Europe after Bede's day (c.673-735) who would call themselves philosophers not Christians, who were choosing a philosophical system as a basis for a way of life in preference to Christianity (though, as we shall see, some thought it might be a guide in addition to Christianity).

This was in part the result of the major changes in cultural patterns brought about by the fall of the Roman Empire. It was no longer the case that those who ruled Europe were educated in rhetoric and philosophy. Many were illiterate, and most were more concerned with the practicalities of war and government than with patronage of learning. It fell largely to the monasteries and the cathedral schools (where clergy who were to serve the cathedral were trained) to sustain what level of scholarship they could. Bede's mentor, Benedict Biscop (c.628-89), travelled on the continent, spent some time as a monk at Lerins, and brought back from Rome, and Monte Cassino in South Italy, the manuscripts which were to lay the foundation of the libraries of the monasteries he founded at Wearmouth and Jarrow in the north of England. Bede was given into his care as a child oblate at the age of 7. He spent a productive life making the heritage of books a working part of the tradition of Western monastic life. He wrote on spelling and other grammaticalia; the procedure for calculating the date of Easter; the natural world (using Isidore, Suetonius and Pliny); history and biography designed to show the hand of God in human affairs; and a vast body of Scriptural commentary derived from Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose and Gregory the Great, with some reflections of his own. The character of all this was practical. Bede sought to meet the needs of his monks, to create a Christian scholarship which was useful and edifying rather than speculative, and in this he was spectacularly successful.

But the success and popularity of his works underlines the nature of the change which had taken place. One would not now meet individuals in the West who were living their lives according to a philosophical and moral system which was, although not Christian, to all intents and purposes a religion as well as a set of intellectually apprehended opinions about the universe. One could ask whether Boethius may have been as much a philosopher as a Christian in this sense. But it is not a question which could be asked of a contemporary of Bede two hundred years later. From

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES now on, the termphilosophus would be used in one of two ways: to refer to an individual among the ancient philosophers;3 or to contemporaries who appeared to be adopting their methods as thinkers and going along with their ideas, although remaining themselves Christian scholars.4 Of the first, it was possible to continue to take Augustine's view, that they were in the main good and intelligent men who had had the misfortune to be born before Christ, but who had made admirable and even useful progress towards an understanding of the truth. If some of their views had to be excluded from acceptance by Christians, that was only to be expected, and the task of Christian theological scholarship was to sift the wheat from the chaff.

Of the second, it was necessary to take a suspicious view. Here were contemporaries who called themselves Christians, arguing on grounds of reason for opinions which were not always clearly compatible with Christian orthodoxy, and indeed sometimes flagrantly contradicted it. Instances of this pejorative use ofphilosophi for the moderns are to be found from late in the eleventh century. When Gilbert Crispin, then abbot of Westminster, describes a 'philosophical society' (meeting in London), he presents us with a mystery, for no other writer of the time hints at any such thing, even as a literary fiction. Gilbert's philosophi were probably no more than that, for his purpose is to construct a setting in which to conduct a dialogue between a philosopher and a Christian as a pair for his dialogue between a Christian and a Jew. (There are many ways in and out of the meeting place. He needs a guide. His introductory description is full of symbolism. He has to wait outside until summoned in.)5

The gathering, when he enters it, is discussing, in twos and threes, not one but several questions. Some are trying to reconcile Aristotle and Porphyry on genera and species. Some are trying to determine whether grammar is a branch of logic. The debate which catches Gilbert's interest is between 'two philosophers of different sects' (diversae sectae), a Christian and a pagan (gentilis). The issue between them is the rational grounds for Christian faith, and the credit which should be given to the authority of revelation. The 'philosophical society' recedes into the background as the discussion works its way through the content of the Christian faith. We hear no more of the litterati homines, and in any case Gilbert makes it plain as he introduces them that they were 'as it seemed to me, students of the discipline of logic'; only in the sketchiest sense does he envisage them as like the philosophers of old.

Peter Abelard, a younger contemporary of Gilbert's, taught in northern France. He wrote a dialogue involving a philosopher, a Jew and a Christian, introduced this time by a dream-sequence. That in itself indicates the impossibility of finding real philosophers for the exercise. 'As is the way in

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY dreams . . .' he begins ('iuxta visionis modum).' The main topic in the part of the dialogue between Christian and Jew is the Incarnation, which Gilbert's treatise, and perhaps Anselm of Canterbury's Why God became man (Cur Deus Homo), shows to have been currently fashionable.7 In his discussion with the Philosopher the Christian tackles the problem of the nature of the highest Good and of beatitudo, and the way in which the virtues may lead to its attainment; they also consider the supreme evil, punishment and the Last Things. There are hints that Abelard had picked up from his reading some notion of the character of the ancient philosopher. His Philosopher criticises the Jews as beasts wrapped up in their senses, who need miracles to move them to faith, while philosophers seek to know the reason why; these 'Greeks seek wisdom', Abelard says.8 There is an understanding of the search for happiness as a journey towards perfection.9 To arrive there is to be blessed. But Abelard suffers like Gilbert from the disadvantage of never having met an individual who would call himself a philosopher as opposed to a Christian.

In the Middle Ages, then, we are, in practice, dealing with Christian thinkers who have read a little ancient philosophy, and not with those whose lives are guided by a philosophical system. Thus Abelard is reduced to comparing the results of using proofs drawn from revelation with proofs drawn exclusively from reason, rather as Gilbert does; he has to do without a live philosopher. John of Wales, Franciscan preacher of the thirteenth century, made a stout effort to describe the good philosopher, and found him much like a friar in his learning and humility.10 Some of those teaching philosophy in the Paris Arts Faculty late in the same century were also evidently trying to revive the notion that philosophy is a way of life. In 1277 the condemned propositions included the statements (40) that there is no more excellent way of life than the philosophical and (154) that only philosophers are wise. Again, we glimpse in a thirteenth-century accessus or introduction to philosophy an attempt to depict philosophy as a guide of life. An introduction to the Consolation itself describes Boethius as showing the way philosophy can comfort in the face of human experience of the changeableness of all good things on earth, the deceptiveness of a happiness more apparent than real; we are told that he sets before us the working of providence, so that we may face with a quiet mind whatever befalls us (Lafleur, pp. 229-32).

When it came to defining philosophy in the Middle Ages, the most practical way to make clear its scope proved to be to use a schema which shows its place in relation to other disciplines. Schemata of the arts and sciences have precedents in late classical and Carolingian encyclopaedists,

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES and in twelfth-century versions.11 In the thirteenth century, the task was undertaken again. About 1250, Arnulfus Provincialis, Master of Arts at Paris, listed the definitions of philosophy known to him. Seneca derives the word itself from 'love' and 'wisdom' and calls philosophy 'the love of wisdom'; he also describes it as 'love of right reason'; 'the study of virtue'; and the art of thinking aright, 'the study of mental correction' (corrigende mentis) (Lafleur, pp. 306-7, and Seneca, Ep. 89). Arnulf gathers another sheaf of definitions from the nature of philosophy a parte rei. Calcidius says that philosophy is 'the certain knowledge of both things seen and things unseen'. Gundissalinus and Isidore say that it is 'the certain knowledge of divine and human matters, conjoined with the study of right living' (Lafleur, p. 308). Isidore also offers the notion that philosophy is the art of arts and the science of sciences. Or philosophy may be said to be the study by which man grows closer to his Creator by the virtue proper to humanity (Lafleur, p. 309). Or philosophy is 'order benefitting the soul' (ordo anime conveniens), or 'man's self-knowledge', or 'the care, study and anxiety which relate to death', or 'the inquiry into nature and the knowledge of divine and human matters insofar as that is possible for man' (Lafleur, p. 310). And since sometimes 'philosophy' is used interchangeably with 'wisdom' or 'knowledge', the definitions of these terms too are relevant to the understanding of philosophy (Lafleur, p. 311).12

Something is also to be learned about the thirteenth-century notion of what philosophy is from an account of what it is not. One such accessus specifically excludes the mechanical and magical arts from philosophy. The mechanical arts, divided in the ancient way into weaving, arms-making, navigation, hunting, agriculture, medicine and theatre, are seen as positively opposed to philosophy because they 'teach the spirit to serve the flesh', which is the opposite of the purpose of philosophy. Magic is seen as beyond the pale of all other sciences, multifarious in its fivefold disciplines of divination, augury (mathematica), maleficent works, the casting of lots on the future, and illusion, a rogue study, neither liberal nor 'servile' (Lafleur, pp. 285-7).

Later authors were to continue the debate, and it was never to be possible to exclude the magical arts from philosophy altogether. Jean Gerson, for example, wrote in 1402 that philosophers think it probable that demons exist, and faith tells us it is a matter of certainty.13 Magic is real. The problem is not that it is a pseudo-science but that it stands in the way of truth by directing the mind to bodily, sensible and particular things.14 It does so in a more dangerous way than the mechanical sciences, which are merely unworthy of study. Magic involves making pacts with demons, and that is


a form of idolatry.15 It is inclined to vulgar error, too, because its operations flout the laws of nature.16 When we turn to magicians we break faith with God, growing impatient because he does not seem to hear our prayers or respond to our efforts to fast and go on pilgrimages.17 While it was believed that magic works, its study and practice continued to obtrude on those of philosophy and theology alike. The same was true for astrology. Gerson wrote in 1419, acknowledging that the heavens are God's instrument of government, and their motions more than mere signs. Astrologers, he says, must remember that their art is theology's handmaid and then they will not fall into impious errors and sacrilegious superstitions.18

The concepts of theology and philosophy, and of the peripheral sciences, the liberal arts, the mechanical arts, even the magical arts, can all be seen as hierarchically ordered to the supreme purpose of knowing God. It was generally held in the thirteenth century that the mechanical arts operate at such a humble level that they are not worth the study of those who are capable of learning better things, and indeed they may distract the soul from aspiring higher. The magical arts and astrology have a built-in tendency to error, because they do not have their sights fixed on God alone (although they are effective enough in the mediaeval view). The liberal arts ought to be theology's true handmaids, teaching skills which enable the soul to do theology (theologizare) better. But philosophy herself is too close to theology for comfort. She can be seen as embracing all these other arts and sciences, and also some of the area proper to theology itself.

A first conclusion to be drawn from all this is that the thirteenth-century masters got no further than their predecessors in 'placing' philosophy incontrovertibly among the arts and sciences. Nor did they succeed in defining the exact scope of the discipline in a manner with which everyone could agree. Philosophy was not like grammar or logic, with familiar elementary or more advanced textbooks, and an established place in the syllabus. Nevertheless, in practice, it was the study of the artes which proved best able to accommodate the influx of new textbooks on philosophical subjects when the rest of Aristotle arrived in the West from the end of the twelfth century. That led, as we shall see, to inter-Faculty rivalry in the universities. But before we come to that story we must look at the development in the Middle Ages of a corresponding 'idea of theology'.

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