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Responding to Aristotle

Responding to Aristotle


With the translation of all Aristotle’s known works from Greek and Arabic into Latin during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, western Europeans had access to a “complete system” of philosophy. That is, logic, episte-mology, metaphysics, natural philosophy, philosophy of mind, and ethics were presented in what looked like systematic order. Medieval philosophers responded to this new body of knowledge by attempting to integrate it with previously established philosophical systems, constructing their own syntheses by combining elements of Neopla-tonism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism, and Christianity.

Aristotle’s Major Contributions. First, Aristotle provided a logical method for analyzing arguments, the syllogism, a form of argument that includes a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. (For example: All boys like baseball. John is a boy. Therefore, John likes baseball.) Second, he provided a theory of proof (demonstration) with links to what became Euclidian geometry. This theory was part of the foundation for the notion of a medieval science (scientia), and it was influential through the early seventeenth centuries. Third, Aristotle provided a way of asking fundamental philosophical questions. Fourth, he presented a revolutionary theory of mind that seemed to be set in opposition to Platonism and to be somewhat distinct from the materialism of Stoicism. In this view the human being was a unity in which mind and body could not be separated without loss of that unity. Thus, the human being was not a “Ghost [spirit] inhabiting a machine,” but rather a body-soul unity in which the rational-intellectual soul was seen as that part of the human being that might be unchangeable. This view was strongly resisted by medieval Neoplatonists, who thought that it compromised the spirituality, immateriality, and immortality of the soul. Aristotle had seen his teaching on the soul as the culmination of his natural philosophy. Above all, he placed human knowledge in the context of being in the world and set the foundation for thinking about the human being as one substance, not as two joined together. Fifth, Aristotle provided an influential treatment of the moral virtues in his Nicomachean Ethics. By 1249 Robert Grosseteste had translated this major work of western ethics into Latin, and it became the ethics schoolbook for western students. His Politics, translated in about 1260, became the textbook on ancient political theory. Aristotle’s ethics and politics favored the sort of mixed government of kingship, aristocracy, and democracy that emerged in the later Middle Ages, providing an alternative to the various forms of Christian Neoplatonic political theory that were used to justify medieval kingship.

Augustine versus Aristotle. It would be an oversimplification to define the basic conflict in later medieval philosophy as one between Aristotle and Augustine. In fact, Neo-Augustinians such as John Peckham and Peter John Olivi, who opposed some of Aristotle’s teachings, made use of his philosophy in other areas. For Aristotle moral virtues were closely tied to the use of reason, which deliberates and determines one’s actions. There was no need for an additional faculty called the will to perform this operation. This view gives primacy to an intellectual—rather than emotional—basis for virtuous activity. This school of thought came to be associated with the Dominican scholars Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. Some medieval Neo-Augustinians, specifically Franciscans such as Bonaventure, William of Baglione, John Peckham, and especially Peter John Olivi, argued that Aristotle, “the accursed pagan,” should be subordinated to the Christian philosopher Augustine. For these thinkers, Augustine’s emphasis on the primacy of free will, in which will was a power related to but different from reason, had moved the debate about moral action beyond Aristotle’s purely rational considerations. Concerned with the human propensity to sin and evil, these thinkers thought that Augustine’s analysis of moral decisions explored psychological depths not perceived by Aristotle. That is, a person could know the good that they should do, but by a perverse act of the will he or she could end up doing the exact opposite. These Neo-Augustinians, then, wanted to speak about the “virtues of the will” as distinct from purely intellectual virtues. The adherents of these two positions, the Dominicans and Franciscans, tended to become hardened in their commitment to their positions, which have lasted into modern philosophical debates.

Natural Philosophy. The influence of Aristotle and other rediscovered ancient texts in medieval science, then called natural philosophy, may be seen in the career of one of the early chancellors of Oxford University, Robert Grosseteste (circa 1168–1253), who went on to become bishop of Lincoln. His major commentary on Aristotle’s theory of demonstrative proof (completed by the late 1220s) in the Posterior Analytics raised the notions of argument and proof to a high analytic level and it showed that Aristotle could not be understood without a thorough knowledge of Euclidian geometry. He also composed notes on the Physics of Aristotle and wrote


The list of 219 propositions that the bishop of Paris condemned as heretical in 1277 included the following notions:

That there is no more excellent state in life than the study of philosophy. (40)

That the only wise people in the world are the philosophers. (154)

That in order to have some certitude about any conclusion, one must base oneself on self-evident principles. (151)

That one should not believe anything unless it is self-evident or can be shown from self-evident principles. (37)

That one should not be content with authority to have certitude about any question. (150)

That nothing can be known about God except that He is, or his existence. (215).

That God does not know things other than himself. (3)

That God cannot know changeable contingent things immediately except through their particular and proximate causes. (56)

That the first cause cannot make more than one world. (56)

That all separated substances (angels) are co-eternal with the first substance. (5)

That God could not move the heavens in a straight line, the reason being that he would then leave a vacuum. (49)

That the First Principle cannot be the cause of diverse products here below without the mediation of odier causes.…(43)

That the World is Eternal because that which has a nature by which it is able to exist for the whole future has a nature by which it was able to exist in the whole past. (98)

That the World is Eternal as regards all species contained in it, and that time, motion, matter, agent, and receiver are eternal.…(87)

That no agent is in potency to one or the other of two outcomes; on the contrary, it is determined or necessitated. (160)

That nothing happens by chance, but everything comes about by necessity.…(21)

That the differences of condition among humans, both as regards spiritual powers and temporal goods are traced back to the diverse signs of the heavens (the Zodiac). (143)

That God cannot make numerically different souls. (27)

That a human is human independent of the rational soul. (11)

That the Intellect is numerically one for all.…(32)

That the intellect is not the form of (the structuring principle of) the body, except in the manner in which a helmsman is the form of a ship, and the intellect is not an essential perfection of man. (7)

That the Intellect which is the human’s ultimate perfection is completely separated. (121)

That the Will and the Intellect are not moved to act by themselves but by an external cause, namely, the heavenly bodies. (133)

That the Good which is possible for humans consists in the intellectual virtues. (144)

That happiness is had in this life and nor in another. (176)

That after death man loses every good. (15)

That religious visions and mystical vision are the result of natural causes. (33)

That the natural moral law torbidi the killing of irrational animals, although not only of these. (20)

That the Christian Law impedes Learning. (175)

That there are Fables and Falsehoods in the Christian Law just as in others [that is, Jewish and Islamic Laws]. (174)

That the teachings of Theologians are based on Fables. (152)

That Creation is nor possible, even though the contrary must be held according to the Faith. (184)

That one should not pray. (180)

That simple fornication, namely, that of an unmarried man with an unmarried woman, is not a sin. (183)

That a sin against nature, such as abuse in intercourse, is not against the nature of the individual, although it is against the nature of the species. (166)

That pleasure in sexual acts does not impede the act or use of the intellect. (172)

That continence is not essentially a virtue. (168)

That humility in the degree to which one… deprecates or lowers himself is not a virtue. (171)

That the philosopher must not concede the Resurrection of the Body because it cannot be investigated by reason. (18)

significant scientific treatises such as De Luce (On Light), De sphera (On the Sphere), and De iride (On the Rainbow). For these works Grosseteste drew not only on Aristotle but also on optical knowledge from recently translated works by Euclid and Ptolemy.

Aristotle at the University of Paris. While scholars welcomed the influx of works by Aristotle and other ancient Greeks, as well as the writings of Arabic philosophers, some Church leaders were concerned about challenges to religious orthodoxy that might arise from students of these “pagan” works. In 1210 Church officials in France banned the teaching of Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics at the University of Paris and renewed the ban in 1215 and 1228. It also condemned two scholars in philosophy posthumously for expressing heretical views. But despite such condemnations, the university got a charter through the influence of papal legate Robert of Courcon, and interest in philosophy and theology grew. One major figure who emerged during this period was William of Auvergne, who went on to become bishop of Paris and chancellor of the university. After the condemnation of Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics, he observed the ban while attempting to integrate other aspects of Aristotle’s thought, as well as aspects of the philosophies of other Greek and Islamic thinkers into Augustinian Christian philosophy. Like Gros-seteste, he was impressed by the philosophical power of the works of Avicenna and read Aristotle in the light of Avicenna’s commentaries.

The Influence of Paris. In 1230 Pope Gregory IX, while continuing the ban on Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics, issued a papal bull that led to a serious reorganization of the university that prevented unnecessary theological interference with the faculty of arts. At the same time Emperor Frederick II, who was attempting to control European universities, sent his adviser Michael Scot, to Paris with his new translations of Aristotle’s On Generation and Corruption and On the Heavens, and commentaries by Averroes. These works and other commentaries by Averroes were fundamental to the teaching of philosophy from 1230 until the mid seventeenth century. During the 1230s and 1240s two English philosophers, Richard Rufus of Cornwall and Roger Bacon, lectured on Aristotle at Paris with the help of Averroes’ commentaries. The German Dominican friar, Albertus Magnus (Albert of Lauingen), who taught at Paris in the late 1240s, set out around 1250 to paraphrase all the works of Aristotle for students. This paraphrase started out to explain Aristotle but ended up as a critical reading of Aristotle and a discussion of Aristotle’s theories in relation to other ancient theories such as those of the Platonists and the Stoics. This project, which he worked at until 1269, established Albertus as a great teacher (Magister magnus).

Aquinas and Aristotle. Thomas Aquinas studied under Albertus Magnus in Cologne from 1248 until 1252, when he went to the University of Paris, where he studied and taught until returning to Italy in 1259. (One of his fellow students was Bonaventure, who also graduated in 1256, joined the Franciscan Order, and wrote important philosophical-theological works of his own.) During the next decade Aquinas began his own commentaries and questions on Aristotle and also started work on his great synthetic works, Summa de veritate Catholicae fidei contra gentiles (Comprehensive Truth of the Catholic Faith against the Gentiles), which provides an examination of the nature and existence of God and a careful examination of themes from Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic philosophies, and Summa theologiae (Comprehensive Theology), his great synthesis of Aristotelianism and Christianity.

Crisis at Paris. Aquinas completed both these works after returning to Paris in 1268 or 1269. When he arrived, the university community was in turmoil, charged with polemic about the suitability of Aristotelian philosophy in a Christian context. The issue had reached a crisis point in about 1266, after scholars there had been lecturing on Aristotle for about thirty years and after the curriculum for the English and northern European students at the university had mandated the works of Aristotle as teaching and examination materials for the B.A. and M.A. since 1255. The crisis occurred because some new, young teachers of philosophy, especially Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia, argued that by “necessary reasons” some of Aristotle’s basic positions were true; yet, the opposite position was advocated by Christian faith, and therefore one must believe it as well. This argument set up the problem of a double truth, a contradictory relation between the propositions of philosophy and those of the Christian faith. There were three central opposing positions. First, the Aristotelian notion that there was no temporal beginning to the world contradicts the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic notion of the Creation. Second, Averroës imputed to Aristotle a belief that there was one “Possible Intellect” for the whole human race (that is, John Smith or Mary Jones does not actually think, rather all thought is the product of one anonymous universal mind) and a notion that all things on earth including human actions are necessarily determined by the laws that govern the heavens; these ideas contradict the Christian belief in individual free will. Finally, some of these teachers, such as Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia, held that the highest perfection on earth for a thinking human being is the happiness provided by the philosophical life, and, of course, some theologians saw this view as a denial of the primacy of the religious life.

Bonaventure’s Response. During the late 1260s and early 1270s, Bonaventure delivered a series of speeches at the Franciscan house of studies at the university, questioning the “orthodoxy” (correct teaching) of these young teachers, making official the claims of his colleagues Roger Bacon and William of Baglioni. In fact, drawing on other ancient philosophical traditions, especially Platonism, Bonaventure led a major challenge to the authority of Aristotle, arguing that while Aristotle had much to offer in logic and natural philosophy, he was deficient in metaphysics. For Bonaventure, Plato, Cicero, and Macrobius were greater philosophers than Aristotle. With Roger Bacon, John Peckham, and other Franciscans, Bonaventure advocated “Augustinianism” over the Averroist Aristotelians, often called Latin Averroists, and their theological partners in dialogue, such as Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas’s Response. Indeed, rather than issuing condemnations, Aquinas had entered into philosophical dialogue with the young masters, especially Siger of Brabant. In 1269, in the polemical treatise De unitate intellectus contra Averroistas (On the Unity of the Intellect against the Averroists), he outlined the main reasons why he thought Siger had misunderstood Aristotle on the nature of mind. Avoiding simple-minded appeals to authority, Aquinas set out to prove that both Averroes and Siger had interpreted Aristotle in a way that was neither historically nor conceptually correct. Siger replied in a series of books, but by a bout 1276 he had come near to agreeing with several of Aquinas’s positions.

Aquinas and the Neo-Augustinians. At the same time he was attempting to show the Latin Averroists the errors in their thinking, Aquinas was coming under attack for his own Aristotelian views, not only from Bonaventure but also from his students. In his doctoral defense John Peckham viciously attacked the position of Aquinas, who was present. When Aquinas’s friends chided him for not taking Peckham to task, he said that the young man should be allowed to enjoy his great day.

Condemned Propositions. In 1270 Church officials in Paris condemned the Averroists’ propositions. Then, matters at the university got increasingly serious, and a papal legate had to intervene. Eventually, in 1277, Pope John XXI asked the bishop of Paris, Stephen Tempier, to examine the matter and report to him. The bishop assembled a theological commission that recommended the condemnation of 219 propositions. Without first reporting to the Pope, the bishop issued the condemned propositions for the diocese of Paris, and the archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Kilwardby, issued his own list at Oxford. These propositions included ideas attributed to Siger of Brabant, Boethius of Dacia, and Thomas Aquinas, among others. Even though it was only a local condemnation, it had far-reaching consequences. Yet, by the end of the century, eminent Parisian scholars such as Godfrey of Fountains were publicly criticizing the list. Some modern scholars, including Edward Grant, believe that the condemnations had a positive effect on the development of the sciences. Since the Church encouraged scholars to explore non-Aristotelian positions, specifically in physics, fourteenth-century scientists such as the Parisians Nicholas Oresme and Jean Buridan asked questions and tried approaches that might not otherwise have arisen.

The Augustinian-Aristotelian Synthesis. Though the Franciscan Neo-Augustinians condemned Aristotle as just another accursed pagan and held that Augustine alone provided the best authority and model for a Christian philosophy and theology, a synthesis of Augustinian and Aristotelean thought did take place in the thirteenth century. In fact, most philosophers of that century attempted some kind of synthesis between Aristotle and Augustine. The Franciscans at Paris followed Augustine’s theory of knowledge by illumination, his doctrine of the will, and his views on creation. Yet, their major teachings synthesized Augustine’s positions with ideas from the Jewish philosopher Solomon Ibn Gebirol and Avicenna. In fact, Avicenna’s influence was so central to the thought of these Neo-Augustinians that the twentieth-century historian of medieval philosophy Etienne Gilson has called them “Augustinian Avicennians.” In the 1270s Henry of Ghent emerged as a leader of this group and the influence of his writings—which synthesize ideas from Aristotle and Averroës, as well as Augustine, Plato, and Avicenna—extended to major philosophers of the early fourteenth century, including Duns Scotus and William of Ockham.

The Aftermath. The crisis over teaching Aristotle created antagonism among the clergy. Reasonably open and flexible positions hardened into the “theses” or positions. Religious orders chose their own “official” philosophers: Albertus Magnus and, much later, Thomas Aquinas for the Dominicans, Bonaventure and Walter de la Mare for the Franciscans (who had to read Thomas Aquinas with a list of “corrections” by Walter de la Mare), and Giles of Rome for the Augustinians. As the orders argued, their struggle was overlaid with the question of the appropriateness of religious orders to own property when Jesus Christ and his Apostles had practiced evangelical sorders to ow n property


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Jacques Verger, Men of Learning in Europe at the End of the Middle Ages, translated by Lisa Neal and Steven Rendall (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000).

John F. Wippel, “The Condemnations of 1270 and 1277 at Paris,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 7(1977): 169-201.

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