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The Foundations of Modernity: What do we owe the medieval period?

Was the medieval period a time of darkness and ignorance? What Modern ideas have their roots in medieval thought?

One suspects the belief that the current age is superior – both morally and intellectually – to all preceding ages is ubiquitous in society. However, not all points in the past are reproached equally; none more so, I believe, than the medieval period. The improvement in scientific knowledge is used as a catch-all proof that the medieval period was a time of ignorance and superstition. This essay intends to show that there was a vibrant philosophic atmosphere for much of the Middle Ages, and, furthermore, that scholasticism was not merely pedantic squabbles about how many angels could fit on the point of a needle.

In beginning a discussion of the medieval world, and its philosophic outlook (scholasticism), one must start with St Thomas Aquinas. It is of utmost importance to dispel the notion that medieval theologians made no distinction between theology and philosophy. ‘That St Thomas made a formal and explicit distinction between dogmatic theology and philosophy is an…indubitable fact.’ This is not to say that philosophy in the medieval period – or philosophy per se – has nothing to say about God: for the important distinction is between philosophy and dogmatic theology – namely, those theologies specific to organised religion (belief in the Holy Trinity, for example). This distinction is still held by most Catholics and, indeed, by many Jewish and Muslim believers today. Aquinas did not believe that people have innate knowledge of God; nor did he believe that he could prove a priori (independent of experience) that God exists. Indeed, this brings me on to another point which Aquinas stressed – a point, incidentally, that is commonly attributed to Immanuel Kant.

In ‘The Critique of Pure Reason,’ Immanuel Kant attempts to show how synthetic a priori knowledge is possible: that is to say, how things we know independent of experience can also tell us something about the empirical world. Kant is exalted for this ‘discovery’; when, in fact, Aquinas made a similar observation 500 years prior. As the philosopher Frederick Copleston says, ‘he believed…that there are propositions which are necessary and yet at the same time give information about reality.’ This may seem rather esoteric, if not opaque, but it is indicative of the fact that much of what was ostensibly discovered in the Enlightenment, was already formulated in the supposed darkness of the Middle Ages.

‘With the Middle Ages we reach a period of widespread and brilliant improvement. The text of Aristotle is recovered. Its rapid assimilation by Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas opens a new world of thought,’ wrote C.S. Lewis describing the change from the ‘dark ages’ to the medieval age. To my mind, the most consequential aspect of the rediscovery of Aristotle – or, as G.K. Chesterton said, Aristotle’s ‘baptism’ – is the development (for it is truly a progress) in moral philosophy. I do not here have the space to discuss Aristotle’s virtue ethics, or its soundness. Suffice it to say, however, that it is a substantially different account from that of the Enlightenment projects or modern ethical theory – in so far as the latter exists at all! What I do want to point out is that Aquinas’ moral theory, and that of other medieval theologians, is not simply divine command theory: which is to say, they deny that actions are right or morally good purely because God says so.

Alasdair MacIntyre describes the position of many medieval thinkers: ‘To say what someone ought to do is at one and the same time to say what course of action will in these circumstances as a matter of fact lead toward a man’s true end and to say what the law, ordained by God and comprehended by reason, enjoins.’ That is to say, that through reason one can comprehend the natural law and recognise what actions will lead to the fulfilment of man’s true end, which is beatitude, or, more crudely, happiness. When MacIntyre says ‘as a matter of fact,’ he refers to the proposition that what actions and virtues will lead us toward our telos is a factual matter: in chess, for example, what move will give you check-mate, and what move you ‘ought’ to do, is one and the same. One need not accept this to recognise the distinctive character of medieval moral thought, and perhaps recognise that it has something to add to our discourse today.

I would go so far as to say that even scepticism – the very tool that was used against scholastic metaphysics in the 17th and 18th centuries – has its roots in the medieval period. William of Ockham was a 14th century theologian, and he is most known for his theory of ‘nominalism.’ Put simply, nominalism proposes that there are no universal essences; a corollary of this being that the existence of one individual thing cannot prove the existence of another thing. Ockham believed that ‘the divine omnipotence cannot…be philosophically proved’; so too did he deny that the immateriality, or existence, of the soul can be proved through reason.

Thus, the medieval period was not, of course, one coherent, dogmatic philosophic project; there was many different philosophic systems and currents of thought. While certain issues were raised about topics that many in the modern world would find meaningless – how many angels could fit on the point of a needle, for example – this was certainly not where the heart of medieval philosophy lay. Indeed, I should also maintain that our contemporary society still bears witness to the vestigial of medieval thought.

To those of us in the Anglosphere, 20th century philosophy may seem distinct from all preceding centuries. To an extent, this is true: the degree to which analytic philosophy focuses on language and logic is, indeed, unsurpassed in different historical periods. Yet, this is not to say that analytic philosophy has no forebears – not least in the Middle Ages. Nominalism, for example, ‘was predominantly analytic and critical in character, with a marked interest in logical studies.’ Aquinas was also interested in language and the analysis of terms, ‘a considerable amount of his philosophy appears to concern terminology and questions of language.’ Even those parts of contemporary thinking which most bear the mark of our age – radical scepticism and pedantic analytic philosophy – have their roots in the past; and very often their fountainhead is the medieval period.

There is one overriding objection that is commonly found when arguments for the validity and importance of medieval thought is made – namely, the Catholic Church censored and controlled what was published and studied in the Middle Ages. There was not freedom of speech as we have it today; some viewpoints were suppressed, others pushed. To which one can only reply – indeed. Far am I from denying it; but to be aghast at the lack of liberal democracy in the medieval period is to be guilty of an anachronism. (One should also note that this objection assumes implicitly the superiority of the liberal view).

It is through the lens of the Enlightenment that our age approaches the medieval period; and it is indeed an obscure lens. What else provides explanation for sentences like this from Steven Pinker concerning ‘counter-enlightenment’ movements: ‘No sooner did people step into the light than they were advised that darkness wasn’t so bad after all, that they should stop daring to understand so much, that dogmas and formulas deserved another chance, and that human nature’s destiny was not progress but decline.’ This is not in fact satire: this is a sincere belief, albeit in crude form. This sentiment is common to many – educated and uneducated alike.

Many scholars and academics believe that Immanuel Kant dispelled with the remnants of scholasticism with his insights into epistemology and metaphysics; the scepticism of Hume and others is seen as a new phenomenon. I take the simple view that these positions – and, indeed, other Enlightenment ‘projects’ – have roots, and their superiors, in the medieval period.

Tony Mcilwraith

Tony studies Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen; he is currently the President of the Philosophy Society. Tony's main interests are in moral philosophy, the philosophy of aesthetics, and theology.