Sunday, February 28, 2010

Errores Philosophorum

There’s a famous passage in Betrand Russell’s History of Philosophy in which he declares that Thomas Aquinas was not a real philosopher, since the Catholic Church dictated to him in advance all the answers. What he did was not philosophy but special pleading. To anyone who’s even slightly familiar with medieval thought this statement is laughably ignorant, given the fierce centuries-spanning debates over crucial logical, psychological, physical and metaphysical issues that preoccupied the greatest minds between Augustine and Descartes and which prepared the ground (I mean this in both good and bad ways) for the developments of Renaissance and Enlightenment philosophy, in which Aquinas was only one (albeit an important) participant. I can only conclude that Russell had read very little Aquinas and practically nothing of other medieval thinkers.

On the other hand, the charge is also frequently leveled, especially by many Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians of a certain intellectual disposition, that the Latin West gave entirely too much ground to philosophy, doing an enormous amount of damage to theology especially in the time between Augustine and Descartes by using concepts, arguments, and methods derived from philosophy and applying them to divine matters, corrupting the purity of Revelation and Tradition with essentially pagan interpolations. Evoking the famous phrase of Pascal, they accuse medieval (and later) Catholicism of worshipping the God of the Philosophers, forgetting or abandoning the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

I find this charge just as uncompelling. It’s been said that when you’re attacked by two opposite extremes on two contradictory grounds, chances are you’re in a pretty good middle position.

I once read a fascinating little book called Errores Philosophorum, by Giles of Rome, an monk and bishop of the Augustinian Order of Hermits who died in the second decade of the fourteenth century. In it he examines the writings of the pagan, Islamic, and Jewish philosophers who were most influential in the Western intellectual climate of his day, and points out the places in their respective works in which each teaches or argues for positions incompatible with Christian doctrine. It’s full of interesting bits; my favorite chapter was the one on the Islamic thinker Alkindi, who tried to use physics to explain the the efficacy of astrology and “the magical arts” (artibus magicis). For Giles, as for any good Christian, astrology and magic are rank superstitions and any attempt to argue on their behalf will be a philosophical error.

The pertinent statement to which I wish to draw the reader’s attention, however, is in the chapter on Aristotle. Giles says, Quoniam uno inconvenienti dato multa sequuntur, ex uno malo fundmento protulit Philosophus multos errores, that is, “Because from one erroneous foundation many falsities follow, from one bad principle the Philosopher has advanced many errors.”

This one fundamental error of Aristotle’s, according to Giles, is the principle that nothing new comes into being without a preceding motion, from which follows the denial of creation, the assertion of the eternity of the world, and other things contrary to Christian teaching. But for my purposes there are two interesting things about the opening sentence just quoted. The first is that it’s also the opening sentence of Thomas Aquinas’ De Ente et Essentia, a metaphysical work building on Aristotelian principles but very unAristotelian in its arguments and conclusions (and, by the way, the content of which is in no way provided by Catholic dogma and with which many theologians disagreed). The second is that the statement, “From one erroneous foundation” etc., at the head of a chapter critiquing various philosophical errors of Aristotle, is taken from Aristotle (Physics I, 195a11) himself!

These facts illustrate the real attitude of the medieval scholastics toward philosophy, which was neither too credulous and open to deleterious influence, nor excessively critical and unwilling to accept a good idea where one could be found. Where a medieval thinker thought an idea, whether coming from a pagan, Muslim, or Jew, had reason on his side, he would accept it and incorporate it into his own scheme of thought. Where he thought a non-Christian philosopher was wrong, especially where the thinker argued for something contrary to Christian doctrine or something which implied such, the Christian would argue against him. But as often as not the Christian would not refute the infidel using the Bible, the pope, or some other Christian authority, but using the principles of the infidel philosophers themselves! I know firsthand of many, many cases where scholastics argue that Aristotle or whoever was wrong about such-and-such given Aristotle’s own principles, and where he came to a conclusion incompatible with Christianity, this is not simply because he lacked the True Faith, but also and especially because he had failed as a philosopher to discover the best arguments available to reason on the subject.

To use an image they themselves loved to reproduce, the medievals saw themselves as the Jews during the Exodus, who as they were leaving Egypt for the promised land despoiled the Egyptians of the riches owed to them for their generations of servitude (i.e. they claimed reparations). The riches of Truth for them came from God, and properly belonged to those who were God’s friends and faithful servants. If the pagans and infidels had come into possession some truth on their own, it belonged with just as much right to Christianity as well, and so Christians would appropriate good reasons and good arguments wherever they found them.

Of course in order to have such an attitude they had to have a profound confidence in the harmony of faith and reason, an assurance that truth could never be in conflict with truth. If Christianity were true and if the mind had the capacity to discover philosophical truth on its own, then as long as both were functioning properly in their own spheres, they could only complement each other, and not conflict. An apparent discordance was to be resolved by striving to find better theories, more encompassing explanations, deeper understanding, rather than by a retreat into either rationalism or fideism, the two opposed alternatives of the modern world.

N.B. This post is another recycle, very lightly edited. Although it's only a few years old, I'm surprised again at how overblown the style seems to me. Maybe I still sound like that and I just don't notice!

1 comment:

Brandon said...

I think Geach somewhere says that he once overheard Russell saying that he had read the complete corpus of St. Thomas; Geach uses it as one of his examples for a discussion of lying.