Modern Criticisms Of Medieval Philosophy And Theology

The scientific revolution influenced specifically modern conceptions of man and the universe that shared the rejection of the medieval and classical outlook. The new paradigm of scientific explanation—the mathematical law applied to empirical phenomena—had proved increasingly successful. The final victory of this new science was Isaac Newton's universal law of gravitation, accounting for the motion of all bodies, earthly and heavenly. Even though the success of the new science related to bodies, such as the confirmation of Nicolaus Copernicus's heliocentric theory, it also influenced the explanation of other dimensions of existence. And even though the new science focused mainly on how things occur (in mathematical terms), while medieval science focused mainly on the purpose or why of things, the new emphasis replaced, more than supplemented, the old. Insofar as the question why fell outside the new explanatory boundaries, it came to be seen by many as unscientific. Rather, mechanistic explanations began to dominate.

For the medieval mind, on the other hand, why something happens cannot be divorced from how it happens, since the end always governs the means. To Thomas Aquinas, the notion of law — for instance, the natural law (which grounds his ethics)—is through and through teleo-logical: Man is inclined to virtue because this is the best fulfillment of his rational nature. Immanuel Kant's morals offer a telling contrast to Aquinas's medieval approach. Kant, in his very search for human freedom and autonomy, presupposes a mechanistic view of the world: "Thus a kingdom of ends is possible only on the analogy of a kingdom of nature; yet the former is possible only through maxims, i.e., self imposed rules, while the latter is possible only through laws of efficient causes necessitated from without . . . nature as a whole is viewed as a machine" (Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, II, 1981, 438). In other words, Kant's categorical imperative is meant as a (self-determined and thus free) law analogous to the (necessary) law of nature. Yet Kant still wants his imperative to be as necessary, universal, and compelling as the mechanistic laws of nature. Moreover, he wants the moral agent to focus on the purely formal aspect of the action—the capacity of the action to become a universal law—rather than on the proper ends of man's nature considered as a whole.

The growing influence of the new science presupposed at least some acceptance of its fundamental premise: Reality is primarily what is reducible to mathematical laws, namely, bodies. This premise is manifested most saliently in the modern assumption, found, for example, in Galileo, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke: External bodies possess objective or primary reality, while the mind of the perceiver is a more subjective or secondary reality. This distinction has metaphysical and moral ramifications. Concerning metaphysics, with spiritual dimensions relegated to the subjective, material reality becomes the primary criterion and reference point. René Descartes' search for certitude in the human subject itself presupposes the characteristic modern break between the objective and subjective realms. Concerning morals, with teleology relegated to the past, emphasis is placed either on the practical benefits of human endeavor, as in Francis Bacon, or on abstract principles, as in Kant.

These remarks on the scientific revolution and its ensuing influence on philosophy are not meant as a resolution of choice between the modern and the medieval outlooks. They are meant simply to point out that modern philosophy, like medieval philosophy, also rests on basic assumptions about man and the universe. They are also meant to point out that the success of the new science pertained to an area of reality— namely, material reality—specifically to an aspect of material reality— namely, how it works. The question of the extent to which modern science applies to the rest of reality is open for debate. So too is the question of the relative strengths of medieval and modern philosophy.

However, other factors aside from the scientific revolution, such as new political and economic realities, contributed to the modern rejection of the medieval outlook. The modern period cannot be discussed fully here, but some of the philosophical views that voice this rejection can be pointed out. It is possible to trace various elements of medieval philosophy and theology and indicate their survival in the writings of modern authors. This effort has already been made in the case of Descartes with the attempts at establishing his dependence on various Jesuit sources, especially Francisco Suarez's Disputationes and the Suarezian manuals used at La Flèche, the Jesuit school where Descartes began his philosophical studies. Nonetheless, despite certain limited inheritances from medieval philosophy and theology, the predominant attitude among modern authors in regard to their medieval predecessors is one of rejection.

This stance of rejection holds for many areas of thought. It is most evident in The Prince written by Niccolo Machiavelli in 1513. In chapter 15, Machiavelli criticizes the whole orientation of classical and medieval political and moral philosophy:

For many authors have constructed imaginary republics and principalities that have never existed in practice and never could; for the gap between how people actually behave and how they ought to behave is so great that anyone who ignores everyday reality in order to live up to an ideal will soon discover he has been taught how to destroy himself, not how to preserve himself. For anyone who wants to act the part of a good man in all circumstances will bring about his own ruin, for those he has to deal with will not all be good. So it is necessary for a ruler, if he wants to hold on to power, to learn how not to be good, and know when it is and when it is not necessary to use this knowledge. (Machiavelli, trans. D. Wootton, 1995, 47-49)

The Greek word for virtue or human excellence, arete, was translated into Latin as virtus. Virtutes (virtues) for the ancient and medieval philosophers were the characteristics or habits human beings had to develop to become excellent human beings. For Machiavelli, "virtue" took on a new meaning: the Italian virtù for him meant "learning how not to be good, and knowing when it is and when it is not necessary to use this knowledge." Machiavelli's virtù is more aptly translated as cunning.

Thomas Hobbes followed Machiavelli's negative view of the nature of human beings in The Citizen:

The greatest part of those men who have written aught concerning commonwealths, either suppose, or require us, or beg of us to believe that man is a creature born fit for society. The Greeks call him "a political animal"; and on this foundation they so build up the doctrine of civil society, as if for the preservation of peace, and the government of mankind, there were nothing else necessary than that men should agree to make certain covenants and conditions together, which they themselves should then call laws. (S. P. Lamprecht, 1949, 29-30)

For Hobbes, this is a false conception of man's nature, which is basically selfish. The positive view of man, according to Hobbes, also falsifies his character: Man's strongest control is fear. His behavior, in reality, is controlled by actual force or by the fear of force, not by reason or a desire to fulfill an ideal image he has of himself. Classical and medieval education is useless and ineffective, from Hobbes's perspective.

In his Leviathan, Hobbes brings forward another criticism, challenging the whole classical and medieval view of life's meaning. There is no ultimate eudaimonia (happiness), that is, there is no final goal that gives human life its real meaning. There is, in brief, no ultimate human good to be pursued; there are only the actual, finite goals we aim at each day: eating a good meal, having a comfortable home, enjoying good health, visiting a particular vacation spot, saving money for more such enjoyments in old age. There is no ultimate meaning to human life, only proximate satisfactions of our appetites. Francis Bacon, in The Great Instauration, endorsed a view of science that well fit this philosophical vision of Hobbes. Bacon ridiculed the various medieval followers of Aristotle: "Philosophy and the intellectual sciences stand like statues, worshipped and celebrated, but not moved or advanced. Nay, they sometimes flourish most in the hands of the first author, and afterwards degenerate."

He argued that "the wisdom derived from the Greeks is but like the boyhood of knowledge, and has the characteristic properties of boys: it can talk but it cannot generate, for it is fruitful of controversies but barren of works." He argued the case against the Aristotelian and medieval ideals of knowledge in favor of pursuing "inventions that may in some degree subdue and overcome the necessities and miseries of humanity." For Bacon, the true ends of knowledge are the benefits it brings to the material dimensions of man's earthly life.

In the realm of religion modern critics were also forceful opponents of medieval Scholasticism. Martin Luther, in his Disputation against

Scholastic Theology, argued against what he presented as the common opinion: that no man can become a theologian without Aristotle. He claimed that, on the contrary, "no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle" and "the whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light." He considered "the entire Ethics of Aristotle to be the worst enemy of grace."

In their views of ethics and politics, in their portraits of man's nature, in their considerations of life's purpose, in their presuppositions concerning true religion, the early modern authors were very critical of the direction and accomplishments of medieval developments in philosophy and theology. Later modern philosophers and theologians who disagreed with these early authors of modernity did not, however, choose to return to the perspectives of classical or medieval sources. They rather argued for new forms of modern ways of thinking. Kant, for example, disagreed with the pessimistic view of man presented by Hobbes, but also criticized the optimistic view offered by JeanJacques Rousseau. Instead of recovering an earlier view of man's nature, however, he chose instead to avoid the battle over man's nature. He decided to anchor his ethics and politics not in nature, but in pure reason, that is, the pursuit of rational self-consistency that would never make any act morally obligatory unless it could become a universal rational law. In his judgment, this approach to morality avoids foisting our opinions about something being right and wrong on others. It limits us from turning our desires into moral demands. It leaves outside the discussion of morals particular conceptions of what a man is or ought to be. Man can only obligate himself and others to what rational beings can be obligated to perform in terms of their rational self-consistency.

In considering the goals of science, the early modern view, espoused by Bacon, was to find inventions that might alleviate man's sufferings and satisfy his temporal needs. Rousseau criticized this view of the purpose of science in concrete ways by asking, What are man's real needs? He argued against the artificial needs created by society, which have pulled many human lives into a vortex of artificial desires. Yet he never thought of asking the classical and medieval question: What is man's ultimate desire? What is the most fulfilling form of human life?

One strong component of recent modern thought, accented particularly by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, is that nature is no longer a dominant characteristic of reality. The ruling category is history. We are ever progressing. Progress is not only the law of ever-improving technology, it is the law of human history. We as human beings are becoming ever freer by overcoming the obstacles to human progress. We are not as prejudiced as our forefathers. We no longer live in local ghettoes. We are becoming cosmopolitan, multicultural, a global village. The rallying cry is "Keep marching forward."

The modern critics of early modernity are true critics of the early moderns, yet they have not escaped the earlier basic presuppositions. In effect, Kant, Rousseau, and Hegel represent a second wave of modernity, and both waves are fundamentally at odds with classical and medieval thought. They portray the medieval world as passé, outdated, archaic.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment