By Susan J. Fleck. May, 1995.
For truth, as Aristotl
says, agrees with itself and bears witness to itself in every way. –Averroes.
If you follow reason
far enough it always leads to conclusions that are contrary to reason. –Samuel
Many are destined to
reason wrongly; others, not to reason at all; and others, to persecute those
who do reason. –Voltaire.
For Christians, “right” belief is so crucially important
and erroneous belief, or heresy, is so terrifying. The difference between them, as Norman
Melchert points out, is heaven and hell, thus making belief choices intensely
personal and of ultimate consequence.(1, 259) This paper will explore how the medieval era
philosophers dealt with the so-called dichotomy of faith versus reason. It will show the major role that Aristotle
had in the various attempts to harmonize reason with faith, and how conflicts
between Aristotelian and Christian doctrines became a major issue within the
Church. The leading philosophers and
theologians of the thirteenth century were all associated with the
The legacy of trying to reconcile faith with reason
reaches back to
Do you think that
individual men have wisdoms of their own?
Or is there one wisdom common to all, so that a man is wiser the more he
participates in it? . . . Surely you do not suppose that wisdom is anything but
the truth in which the chief good is beheld and possessed? . . . . Meanwhile we have established that
there is such a thing as wisdom, but we have not yet determined whether it is
one and common to all, or whether individual wise men have their particular
wisdoms just as they have their particular souls or minds. . . . Accordingly,
you will never deny that there is an unchangeable truth which contains
everything that is unchangeably true. . . . Who would say that what is
available to be shared by all reasoning and intelligent persons can be the
private property of any of them? (4,
However, Augustine’s Platonist side extends this thinking to incorporate his Great Chain of Being doctrine, giving voluntarism priority over the intellect, once we use our intellect to acknowledge absolute truth:
promised . . . to show you something superior to the human mind and
reason. There it is, truth itself. . . .
What is called separation from truth and wisdom is a perverse will which loves
lower things. No one wills anything
involuntarily. . . . But if there is nothing more excellent, then truth itself
is God. . . . God exists and is the truest and fullest being. . . . Now we
attain it with a certain if tenuous form of knowledge. . . . when will cleaves
to this good, man attains the happy life. . . . Therefore there is nothing so
much in our power as is the will itself.
For as soon as we will [volumus]
immediately will [voluntas] is there.
. . (4, 48-59)
St. Anselm, convinced about the power of the intellect, carried on Augustine’s strategy of “faith seeking understanding” and relied on inner mediation, thinking that once he obtained the right attitude, he could be illuminated by reason’s ability. Anselm’s tie to Aristotle comes through the chain of commentaries from Porphyry and Boethius. The philosophers commanded Anselm’s respect, but he felt they did not attain the whole truth because they were not quite in the right frame of mind to receive truth properly. Anselm adopted realism in that the genera and species would not disappear if you took them away from all their instances. Universals, then, are in the mind and the universe, and particulars merely participate in them. For example, each instance of horse has the whole universal, horseness, in it. Anselm picked up where Augustine left off with the ‘great chain of being’, in that ontologically, some things have more being than others, until you get to evil, which is non-being. The biggest being for Anselm was being all by itself - i.e., God is just being: that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-conceived. Anselm could therefore prove God’s existence ontologically, since His being is a necessity, and because a necessary being is better than one merely contingent. Anselm held that God must have both aspects, to be in idea and reality. With this concept, existence is a predicate, a property, and a perfection, which is assumed when you say ‘more being than others’. This ontological argument falls apart if you take these assumptions away. (6, Mar. 9)
Aristotle’s works were initially lost, but found again and were preserved in the Greek speaking world. When Islam took over a large part of the world, scholars translated Aristotle into Arabic and many thought Aristotle was ‘telling the truth’, which was inconsistent with the teachings of Islam. Many tried to make them come together. Averroes explained the important roles of reason and the philosophers: “The Law makes philosophic studies obligatory. . . . we are under an obligation to carry on our study of beings by intellectual reasoning. . . . And logic must be learned from the ancient masters, regardless of the fact that they were not Muslims.”(4, 298) We will briefly examine why some of these Aristotelian doctrines adopted by Islamic philosophers were controversial and were also in conflict with Christianity.
For Averroes, the chain of being ranges from pure matter at the lowest scale to pure Act, God, at the highest, with “nature” in between, comprising of entities composed of potency and act. Prime matter is pure potential and absent of all determination, and is therefore coeternal with God, who draws out the forms of material things from the potency of pure matter.(2, 197) He accepted Aristotle’s concept of a universe containing sublunar and translunar worlds. The sublunar world, our world, is subject to generation and corruption, while the translunar world of celestial spheres is eternal and represents body and a mover. Averroes held that the soul and intelligence were embodied in the immaterial celestial mover.(4, 294) With this view, you could still have a creation doctrine, by saying that, given all the contingent beings, there must be a necessary being. Nonetheless, it is a very weak creation doctrine.
Averroes held that the intellect was immaterial and universal, and therefore was common to all men. Knowledge becomes particularized only through phantasms which interface with the imagination, which is the same thing as Aristotle’s passive intellect, according to Averroes.(4, 295) Aristotle says that in order to know something, you have to leave an entity in tact and bring information about it into your mind and use your reason. You cannot have intuition with Aristotelian epistemology. You actualize your mind, not with respect to opinion, but with respect to knowing. Therefore, your knowledge is not numerically distinct with others. You have an ‘agent intellect’ already in act, such that when you actualize your own intellect, your are having identically the same thoughts, in so far as it is actualized, as God. This leads to the conclusion that immortality is general and not particular, and it also denies sanctions in the next life. Christians struggled with this problem to retain personal immortality: When I actualize my potential mind, it needs to be just my mind working, so that, when I die, I can go to heaven and be a mind, waiting to be reunited with my body. (6, Mar. 21)
Averroes maintains the relationship between the unity of the intellect with the doctrine of the eternity of the species:
. . .
we are of the opinion that the material intellect is a single one for all human
beings and since we are also of the opinion that the human species is eternal .
. . it follows that the material intellect is never devoid of the natural
principles which are common to the whole human species, namely, the first
propositions and individual concepts which are common to all. (4, 331)
The eternity of the species doctrine, in turn, is related to the doctrines of the unity of essence is in existence, and the eternity of the world. For example, the essence of human beings is rationality. The answer to the question ‘would there be a concept human beings if there were no humans?’ - would be ‘no’. The efficient cause of a human is his parents. If you keep pushing this back, to their parents, and so on, it goes to infinity, because the essence of humans follows from this premise. It is part of the definition of a human being that it takes the act of procreation from parents in order to make a human being. This goes on forever because the species are eternal. If you had a first man, you could not have an essential property for there to be a first man. So Aristotle just declares that the world is eternal and all the species in it.(6, Mar. 14 & 21) If prime matter is pure potential and coeternal with God, then creation must be eternal and the world of corruption and generation must be eternal. Again, this causes major problems with the Christian creation doctrine.
This also calls into question God’s relationship to man and the world. Averroes turned to Aristotle’s divine thought thinking itself in describing God. Averroes thought that creation was the causal structure of the world, rather than the neoplatonic view of the world’s emanation from a first principle.(4, 294) The causal structure of the world entailed that, with the possible exception of certain human actions, everything happens for sufficient causes. This conflicts with the possibility of miracles and also negates a meaningful relationship between God and man.
I mentioned above that the Islamic philosophers attempted a reconciliation of Aristotle’s ideas with orthodox Islamic theology. Given these doctrines and obvious problems relating them to common views of Allah, how was this so-called harmonizing brought about? It was attempted through the use of the ‘double truth’ theory. Frederick Coppleston explains that this theory “does not mean that a proposition can be true in philosophy and false in theology or vice versa; rather, that one and the same truth is understood clearly in philosophy and expressed allegorically in theology.” It is the philosopher who determines what needs to be interpreted allegorically. Averroes, in particular, had disdain for fideistic conservatives. It was this attitude which led to burning of philosophic works and prohibition of the study of Greek philosophy.(2, 199) Averroes says that faith is for the people who are not capable of finding the truth through reason, and believed that God gave us the Koran because very few are able to come to theoretical truth. (6, Mar. 21) He spells out the purpose of double meaning:
. . .
whenever a statement in Scripture conflicts in its apparent meaning with a
conclusion of demonstration, if Scripture is considered carefully, and the rest
of its contents searched page by page, there will invariably be found among the
expressions of Scripture something which in its apparent meaning bears witness
to that allegorical interpretation or comes close to bearing witness. All Muslims accept the principle of
allegorical interpretation; they only disagree about the extent of its
application. . . . The double meaning has been given to suit people’s diverse
intelligence. The apparent
contradictions are meant to stimulate the learned to deeper study. (4, 303)
Now, let us turn to the Latin theologian-philosophers, and see how they deal with Aristotle and the heretical notions from the Arabic commentators. In general, reason guided by revelation would be the Latins’ approach, and they would side more with faith than with reason. In particular, and to limit the scope of this discussion, we will focus on St. Thomas Aquinas, who knew that personal immortality and salvation was at stake. A major theme with Aquinas is “faith builds on reason, and grace builds on nature”. Aquinas accepted Aristotle’s ideas which were consistent with his faith, but he amended what he found to be contrary to faith. Aquinas’ affinity with Aristotle stemmed from his view that the world was created with genuinely operative causes and powers. Man’s natural reason is one of these powers. It enables man to have knowledge of natural essences and to deduce truths from these natural effects, including even the knowledge of the very existence of God.(4, 504)
Theology for Aquinas is like an applied science which tries to make sense of revelation. Aquinas does not give reason priority over revelation, but he does agree with Averroes that only a few would come to God by the light of reason:
necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God, besides the
philosophical sciences investigated by human reason. . . . Hence it was
necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human
reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. . . . For the truth
about God, such as reason can know it, would only be known by a few, and that
after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors; whereas man’s whole
salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. . . .It
was therefore necessary that, besides the philosophical sciences investigated
by reason, there should be a sacred science by way of revelation. (4, 516)
Aquinas, like Aristotle, starts from the existent world and inquires what its being is. He reflects how his dual epistemology of reason and revelation stem from the material world:
befitting Holy Scripture to put forward divine and spiritual truths by means of
comparisons with material things. For
God provides for everything according to the capacity of its nature. Now it is natural to man to attain to
intellectual truths through sensible things, because all our knowledge
originates from sense. (4,
On some important points, Aquinas disagreed with the Philosopher. For example, Aquinas avers: “It is absolutely impossible for one intellect to belong to all men.” He based this conclusion on the principle that the soul is the form of man, the form is the principle of being, and “it is impossible for many distinct individuals to have one form . . .”(4, 544) In spite of his emphasis on Scripture and revelation, Aquinas did not meet with immediate success, as reflected in the Condemnations of 1277. Several of Aquinas’ views were questioned, such as the unicity of the substantial form, which was unable to explain how the dead body of Christ was the same as the living body. That theory was also damaging to the veneration of the bodies of the saints. Other examples of problem Aquinas theories were of matter as the principle of individuation, and of the individualization of angels.(2, 432)
Let us look a little closer to Aquinas’ doctrine that matter was the principle of individuation. How could God know particulars under this scheme? Aquinas claims that “God knows all things, both universal and particular.” But Aquinas says that God’s knowledge compared to things themselves is analogous to comparing the knowledge of art to the objects of art. God’s providence extends to individuals because God, as the first agent, has ordered all things towards an end.(4, 533)
God’s knowledge of particulars, under Aquinas’ scheme, then, is really of a universal nature. This is due to Aquinas’ essentialism. Our intellect can know directly only universals, which are abstracted from individual things, and can know singulars only indirectly as represented by the phantasms.(4, 557) Aquinas thinks the immediate object of the human intellect is the essence of the material thing. Reflection on objects in the material world leads the mind to form a distinction, leading to further distinctions between substance and accident, and between different kinds of accident. Further reflection leads to a deeper level of the constitution of material being - you abstract the essence from instances. Only concrete individual compositions of matter and form actually exist, as opposed to universal forms, or exemplars, as described by Plato. The form, for Aquinas, is the universal element that merely places an object within a class, a species. As an essentialist, he thinks there is something about humans which make them what they are and which glues them together as a unique entity - i.e., rationality. All other traits can be derived from this - e.g., man can laugh because he is rational.
Aquinas brings the neoplatonic chain of being into view when he describes God’s providence:
has immediate providence over everything, because he has in His intellect the
exemplars of everything, even the smallest; and whatsoever causes He assigns to
certain effects, He gives them the power to produce those effects . . . . there
are certain intermediaries of God’s providence, for He governs things inferior
by superior, not because of any defect in His power, but by reason of the
abundance of His goodness; so that the dignity of causality is imparted even to
creatures. . . . Now after the divine goodness, which is an extrinsic end to
all things, the principal good in things themselves is the perfection of the
universe; which would not be, were not all grades of being found in things. . .
. (4, 535-6)
Angels replaced Aristotle’s planets and stars for Aquinas, in terms of intelligent beings on this great chain. Since you had to fill every niche on this chain, there must be angels, Aquinas posited. This was another problem for him - why weren’t angels gods? He determined that they were created, but not eternal, and each of them must be its own species:
is impossible for there to be any matter without form, but it is not impossible
for there to be some from without matter.
For form just as form does not have dependence on matter. If some forms are found which can only be in
matter, this happens in that they are distant from the First Principle, which
is the first act and pure act. And so
those forms which are closest to the First Principle are forms inherently
subsisting without matter, for form does not require matter throughout the
genus, as was said. Forms of this kind
are intelligences . . . (4,
Duns Scotus, in the light of the Condemnations, endeavored to correct dangerous tendencies in Aquinas’ philosophy.(3, 484) Scotus got around the problem of God knowing only universals by claiming that every existent thing has its own individual essence, or form. The Christian god’s providence must not lie only with the knowledge of generals, but has to extend to particulars: the Scripture is very clear about this. God has a plan of redemption for each of us; Jesus is our personal savior; and God knows everything about us. Scotus can now have God truly knowing every blade of grass.(6, Apr. 11) Scotus argues further that if matter were the principle of individuation, then there must be matter in the rational soul, to account for the individuality of the rational soul after death.(2, 514) Aquinas says signate matter makes Brunellus different from Niger. Scotus denies this in believing in substantial matter, and not accidental matter. The essence is what makes something a unity. For each individual thing, the test is that you can pick it out to be a ‘this’; what makes ‘this’ a ‘this’. We are able to pick something out as a ‘this’ based on an intuition of being. Therefore, each thing has its own essence. It is the form that makes the quantity a ‘this’ (not the quantity, per se). Can human beings ever catch this? No: we have to see things through general concepts, and so, we cannot get things ‘right’, according to Scotus. Aristotle’s view was that we would know individual things, but not know the general concepts. Scotus has this precisely reversed: when you die, you are going to know individual things, and in this life, you are stuck with universals. He thinks that universals are just a formality. (6, Apr. 18 & 25)
William of Ockham agrees with Scotus’ intuitive knowledge of singulars, but he thinks that he is wrong in that our concepts pick up the real knowledge of things. Whereas Scotus has a theory of abstraction, Ockham says they (universals) are only in the mind. Concepts, for Ockham, do not reveal things about the world.(6, Apr. 25) Coppleston points out that the word ‘terminist’ would better describe Ockham, rather than the word ‘nominalist’. Ockham was criticizing the metaphysics of Scotus and Aquinas based on his understanding of Aristotle.(3, 12) His theory of terms was not new, in that ones’ apprehension of something naturally causes in the human mind a concept of that thing. The sounds we utter (words) as a reaction to a stimulus are natural signs. These signs are terms as elements in propositions ‘standing for’ something. For example in the proposition-sentence ‘the man is running’, man stands for a precise individual. In the sentence ‘man is mortal’, man is a sign which stands for things, men, which are not themselves signs.(3, 54)
With Ockham you have a hierarchy where names of things (Brunellus) refers to the first order of things, and names of names (horse) are just categories of the first order of things, instead of universals which directly refer to things. Whereas Aquinas would agree with Ockham’s Aristotelian scientific categorization of existent things, Aquinas supposes a metaphysical basis for the similarity of natures, in that God created things belonging to the same species, that is, things with similar natures. Ockham did not adhere to this theory of divine ideas.(3, 58) A kind of reasoning in the form of hypothetical deductivism evolved from this nominalism, where one would hypothesize what might follow if a certain proposition were true.(6, Apr. 25) Coppleston points out that nominalists tended to believe that a statement could not be absolutely certain unless one could not state the opposite without a contradiction. While Aquinas thought one could prove at least the existence of a God who can make revelation, Ockham denied that His existence could be philosophically demonstrated. This lead to a sharper divide between theology and philosophy.(3, 84, 125)
In addition to this primacy of the particulars tendency, there was another major trend within Christianity as a result of the Condemnations. This was the major shift from the primacy of the intellect toward the primacy of the will, that is, a return to voluntarism. Will, according to Augustine, is based on love. Will is defined by the choices it makes, and the choices are driven by ‘loves’. Another thing Augustine thinks (which David Hume picked up) is that reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions. The mind is extremely selective. Aristotle and Plato thought that you could beat this problem with the discipline of mind over the will. Aquinas has not only an intellectual vision of the afterlife, he thinks that the intellect has primacy over the will; he thinks that the will is bound to follow what the mind realizes. This teaching is thoroughly rejected in the Condemnations. With this doctrine, your will is compelled, necessarily, to follow, and you have determinism. This is why Christians today have a deep disdain for behaviorism. So the first effect of the Condemnations was a return to Voluntarism, the primacy of will. This revived Augustinianism was voiced most by the Franciscans (of the intelligensia). Voluntarism and Nominalism arose out of a need to protect theology from Aristotelian philosophy. Given this, how can these later medieval era philosophers be classified as Aristotelians at all? Scholasticism had become extremely elaborate: a form of writing, extraordinarily developed using Aristotelian vocabulary, but using it to turn Aristotle inside out! (6, Apr. 18)
Scotus rejects Aquinas’ doctrine that when the mind clearly understands what is right, that the will chooses and loves it necessarily. The will is more perfect that the intellect to Scotus, based on the premise that the corruption of the will, that is, to hate God, is worse than the corruption of the intellect, that is, not to know God or think of God.(2, 539) While Scotus revived the Augustinian-Franciscan tradition of the superiority of the will, Coppleston points out that Scotus emphasized freedom rather than love. (2, 484) Whereas the will is a free power for Scotus, the intellect is not, and the will can play an important role in what one considers to be true.
not in the power of the intellect to restrain its assent to the truths which it
apprehends. . . . the will can command the intellect to assent to propositions
which are seen to be false . . . the will can co-operate mediately, as an
efficient cause, by moving the intellect to attend to this or that intelligible
object, to consider this or that argument.
(qtd. in 2, 538, 540)
While Scotus thought that God could dispense with natural law under certain circumstances, he agreed with Aquinas in that there are acts which are intrinsically evil and which are forbidden because they are evil, and not evil because they are forbidden. For Ockham, however, God is under no obligation, and the divine will / choice is the ultimate norm of morality, not divine essence. Under this view, God could cause a man to do something which would be considered evil if the man were responsible for it, but since God wills it to be done, then the act is considered right. If God caused someone to even hate God himself, then Ockham says that “neither would that man sin nor would God; for God is not under any obligation, while the man is not obliged, because the act would not be in his own power.”(qtd. in 3, 104) This example was given by Ockham to emphasize God’s divine omnipotence and liberty.
Although this authoritarian element in Ockham has attracted much attention, he does not ignore the role reason plays, nor the Aristotelian tradition:
be said that every right will is in conformity with right reason. . . . no
moral virtue, nor any virtuous act, is possible unless it is in conformity with
right reason; for right reason is included in the definition of virtue in the
second book of the Ethics. (qtd. in C3, 106)
With this doctrine, one is obliged to follow one’s conscience based on what one believes is right reasoning, even if there is faulty logic. Even when reasoning has gone astray, it would be a sin not to follow one’s conscience. There appears to be two moral theories with Ockham. On the one hand, we have the authoritarian principle that moral code depends entirely on God’s free choice, and therefore, can only be revealed to us since rational deduction could not give us knowledge of these laws. On the other hand, Ockham’s insistence on right reason seems to stem from his Aristotelian and medieval Scholasticism heritage. The former theory appears to be theologically based, and the latter, given in his capacity as a philosopher. (3, 107)
We have seen the heavy influence and wide interpretations of Aristotle throughout the Medieval period, stemming from Augustine. When Aristotle’s works were made available to the Latin European world, we saw what tremendous influence they had, especially in the person of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose philosophy and theology turned Augustine almost upside down. The Church became so alarmed by these trends, of both the Secular Aristotelians, and of those within the Church bent on Aristotelian concepts, such that official condemnations and banning of Aristotle’s works, and any discussions thereof, were ordered.
This alarmist attitude is clearly conveyed in Umberto Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose. The monk, Jorge, was supposedly hiding a book which was presumed to be Aristotle’s missing book on Divine Comedy. When confronted by William of Baskerville about why he committed the murders, Jorge claimed he was acting as God’s instrument in order to protect the library, and contended that much more was at stake. Let us hear from Jorge’s tongue about his perception about the powerful influence Aristotle had, the damage he had already inflicted, and the potential for a total breakdown of Christian theology if this one so-called missing book of Aristotle were to be let loose. When asked why, when there were many other books praising laughter, this one book filled him with such fear, Jorge responded:
|Because it was by the Philosopher [Aristotle]. Every book by that man has destroyed a part of the learning that Christianity had accumulated over the centuries. The fathers had said everything that needed to be known about the power of the Word, but then Boethius had only to gloss the Philosopher and the divine mystery of the Word was transformed into a human parody of categories and syllogism. . . . Every word of the Philosopher, by whom now even saints and prophets swear, has overturned the image of the world. But he had not succeeded in overturning the image of God. If this book were to become . . . had become an object for open interpretation, we would have crossed the last boundary. (5, 575-6)|
Whereas now, laughter is considered a foolishness of our flesh, Jorge speculates that Aristotle’s book would elevate laughter to an art and it would become the object of philosophy. It would go so far as to make laughter man’s end and free him from fear of the Devil. It would empower the ‘simple’ and point out to them that they have wisdom, something which the Church could not allow. Jorge thought providence was on his side, since only he had access to a book which he thought God had buried for so many centuries, and thus Jorge destroyed it in order to keep the simple within the shelter of the authority of the Church, and to keep the theology of that Church from eroding further.
Was Jorge successful? Did the following chapters of philosophy, in which nominalism, logical positivism, existentialism, and a lot of other ‘isms’ took root, succeed in finally eroding and abolishing the shadow of Aristotle? In the twentieth century, one philosopher in particular, Ayn Rand, has developed Aristotelian metaphysics and epistemology in the form of Objectivism. This philosophy has become influential in many circles, if not within mainstream philosophy (whatever that may be). Will her followers be successful in bringing Aristotle out of the shadows again? Only time will tell.
1. Melchert, Norman. The Great Conversation : A Historical Introduction to Philosophy. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1991.
2. Coppleston, S.J., Frederick. A History of Philosophy : Volume II : Augustine to Scotus. New York: Image Books. Doubleday. Image edition, 1985 (consists of Volumes I, II, III)
3. Coppleston, S.J., Frederick. A History of Philosophy : Volume III : Ockham to Suarez. New York: Image Books. Doubleday. Image edition, 1985 (consists of Volumes I, II, III)
4. Hyman, Arthur, and Walsh, James J. Philosophy in the Middle Ages : The Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Traditions. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1973. Second Edition.
5. Eco, Umberto. The Name of the Rose. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1983. Warner Books Edition.
6. Philosophy 291 : Medieval Philosophy, lecture notes. Spring, 1995. Dr. David Depew, instructor.
MLA style guidelines, using the number system for parenthetical documentation.