An Overview Of The Medieval Intellectual World

The above samples of the different ways in which medieval philosophers and theologians read Aristotle are only a hint of the rich diversity that is found in the writings of the medieval authors from the three religious traditions that are examined. In the remaining part of this introduction, we attempt to present an overview of the world of medieval philosophy and theology to help the reader better locate the authors, events, and concepts presented in the dictionary that follows. This overview aims to provide the context for a fuller understanding of the descriptions given in the particular items treated in the present volume.

Essentially, medieval philosophers and theologians depended on revelation and reason as their sources. For them, revelation was the word of God found in their sacred Scriptures. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are described as having this in common: They are "people of the Book." Jews are guided by the Hebrew Scriptures. These same Scriptures are called the Old Testament by Christians, who have added the Scriptures of the New Testament to their canon of books revealed by God. Muslims also accept the Old and New Testaments as divinely revealed, and consider Moses and Christ as prophets. They interpret these Scriptures according to the later revelation of their prophet, Muhammad, that they believe is found in the Koran.

Respect for teachers was strong in all three traditions. For the Jewish people, this respect was inspired by the words of Daniel (12:3): "Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever." Similarly, Saint Paul (II Timothy 3:16) encouraged Christians to reflect on their sacred books with the words: "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." Ghazali, in Invocations and Supplications: Book IX of The Revival of the Religious Sciences (trans. K. Nakamura, 1990, 2), speaks for Muslims: "The guides for the road (straight path to God) are the learned men who are heirs of the Prophet. . . . I have therefore deemed it important to engage in writing this book to revive the science of religion, to bring to light the exemplary lives of the departed imams, and to show what branches of knowledge the prophets and the virtuous fathers regard as useful." In their studies, along with the Scriptures, the me-dievals also used the resources of reason. Reason for them often took the concrete form of a book, since the chief representatives of natural reason were the philosophers whose writings strongly influenced human efforts to understand the world and the meaning of life. For Moses Maimonides, a leading medieval Jewish thinker, the principal representative of reason was Aristotle. The same could be said for the Islamic author Averroes and for the Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas. For others in the same three traditions, the chief voice of reason came from the Neoplatonists: Plotinus and Proclus for the 11th-century Jewish philosopher Avicebron; Denis the Areopagyte for the ninth-century Christian author John Scotus Eriugena; and Proclus and the Neoplatonic Alexandrian commentators, especially John Philoponus, for the ninth-century Muslim writer al-Kindi. In their efforts to come to an understanding of God's wisdom, or the Book of Life, the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim authors used both books: revelation (or the Book of Scripture) and reason (or the Book of Nature).

These different religious traditions viewed revelation and reason in various ways. The Jewish and Muslim traditions tended to view the Scriptures predominantly as a collection of laws for guiding their actions as the people of God. The Christian tradition certainly adhered to moral precepts, such as the Ten Commandments, but it also viewed God's revelation as presenting essential elements of belief or faith. Christian doctrines, such as the Trinity of persons in God and the twofold nature of Christ, as God and man, required justification and meaningful clarification, as well as defenses when attacked. How could God be both one and three? How could Christ be both God and man? In less complicated ways, Judaism and Islam, though religions of law, are also religions of faith, and they also had need of theologies; they, too, had to provide justifications, clarifications, and defenses for beliefs concerning the nature and attributes of God, the character of creation, and the instruments of Divine Providence. All three religious traditions viewed God as the author of all things, and thus of revelation and of true reason. Al-Kindi, in his Metaphysics or On First Philosophy, expressed well the attitude that justified the use of all God-given sources in the search for truth: "We ought not to be ashamed of appreciating the truth and of acquiring it wherever it comes from, even if it comes from races distant and nations different from us. For the seeker of truth nothing takes precedence over the truth, and there is no disparagement of the truth, nor belittling either of him who speaks it or of him who conveys it" (ed. Abu Ridah, c. 1, 103, 4-8; trans. A. Ivry, 58).

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