Philosophy In 13thcentury Europe

The Augustinian philosophy program itself continued up to the 13 th century (and beyond), with the liberal arts and certain elements of the Stoic and Platonist philosophies that had been assimilated into it helping to direct the mind to the heights of sacred Scripture. In the new universities, founded in the late 12th and early 13 th centuries, the curriculum of the Arts Faculty served a preparatory function, providing students with the liberal arts — tools they needed for their later work in the studies of Scripture, law, and medicine. The principal component in this preparatory program of studies that might be considered philosophy in the technical sense was dialectic or logic. During these years of preparatory studies in dialectic, the Old Logic (the Isagoge or Introduction of Porphyry and The Categories and On Interpretation of Aristotle, with Boethius's commentaries) and the New Logic (Aristotle's Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Topics, and Sophistical Refutations, translated in the 12th century) were the core of the logic curriculum.

During and after these introductory studies, students could learn indirectly the philosophies of the Stoics and Platonists that had been assimilated into the commentaries, questions, and disputations they followed. Philosophy in its strict technical sense, however, only gradually gained a stronger foothold in the universities. This additional philosophical learning only came with the translations of Aristotle's nonlogical works (such as The Physics, On the Soul,Metaphysics, On the Heavens, and Nicomachean Ethics), and the Greek and Arabic commentaries on them that were translated in the late 12th century and throughout much of the 13th. It was at this point that medieval Christians directly encountered the very real challenge presented by a "pure" philosopher, Aristotle, to their inherited Christian world-view. During the first half of the 13th century, the public reading of Aristotle's works in courses was frequently prohibited, but in 1255 at Paris these works became part of the official curriculum. In effect, from this time on, the Faculty of Arts gradually became a faculty focused mainly on Aristotelian philosophy.

The condemnation in 1277 of certain propositions alleged to be taught in the Faculty of Arts at Paris reveals how the arrival of Aristotle's purely pagan view of reality could challenge the dominant Christian view that had been passed down through the teachings of the Church Fathers, especially through the works of St. Augustine. Was it possible to employ Aristotle's philosophy as a handmaid or servant of Scripture without respecting his philosophy on its own terms? Was it possible to take Aristotle most seriously and not have to adapt in a significant way the traditional Christian vision of reality? The seriousness of the challenge is evident if we pay attention to the condemned statements that deal with philosophy:

1. That there is no more excellent state than to give one's self to philosophy.

2. That the wise men of the world are only the philosophers.

3. That there is no question that can be dealt with through reason that the philosopher should not dispute and definitively settle, because reasons are gathered from things.

Such claims and the reaction to them at the University of Paris reveal well the serious effect the arrival of Aristotle's philosophy had on the universities. In reality, the universities for the most part developed their curriculum in the Arts Faculty and the Theology Faculty as a response to this Aristotelian challenge. The thrust of the third proposition listed above reveals the condemned claim that—from a certain interpretation of Aristotle's works — the intelligible content of reality was exhausted by the natural abilities of a philosopher. Articles of the Christian faith, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation, had no intelligibility from this radical Aristotelian perspective. They were simply articles of faith, statements to be blindly believed. The claims implied in this proposition were a denial of the meaning and truth-value of all the articles of the Christian faith, a rejection of the meaningfulness of the Septuagint text of Isaiah the prophet (Isaiah 7:9), "Unless you believe, you shall not understand," and a dismissal of theology as "Faith seeking understanding," the motto of the tradition flowing from St. Augustine through St. Anselm.

Here we have clear evidence that a certain approach to Aristotle's philosophy was viewed as a challenge to the intelligible character of Christian belief. Yet we also have similar evidence that at the University of Paris Aristotelian philosophical argument had gained a real hearing and was for many, in different ways, a respected discipline despite the problems to which the condemnations pointed. There was a saying in the earlier years of the 13th-century universities that "one should never get gray hair in the Arts Faculty." This was a way of characterizing the preparatory character of the Arts Faculty when its curriculum was mainly centered on the seven liberal arts. In these circumstances, masters' of arts should want eventually to move on to the higher, more challenging, faculties of Scripture, law, and medicine. When the Arts Faculty gradually became an Aristotelian philosophy enclave, some of the teachers wanted to stay. They thought, or at least were deemed to think, that philosophy dealt with reality and that theology was a matter of pure belief, empty of intelligibility, or that Scripture and theology put into simple and imaginative language the truths that were more literally and subtly expressed by the philosophers. This view, however, was certainly not a stance that dominated. For most members of the Arts Faculty and all members of the Theology Faculty at this time, Aristotelian philosophy was a handmaid to theology. Among these, some judged that it could be a better handmaid when a knowledge of it was developed in as strong a way as possible and on its own terms. Others, such as Peter John Olivi, saw this push for a stronger role of philosophy as an effort to idolize Aristotle, turning him into "a god of this world."

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