Thursday, February 4, 2010

Henry of Ghent's Krazy Kwestions

Speaking of Henry of Ghent, while it's true that the Summa quaestionum ordinarium has a lot of interesting-looking stuff in it - I've only read small portions here and there - there are more laughs in his quodlibets. This is true for a lot of scholastics, actually, since in a quodlibet anyone can ask whatever they like, and they frequently ask silly and crazy and awesome questions. Check out this epic run in Henry's Quodlibet XV:

q. 10. Whether the glorious soul, having resumed its glorious body, can see a sensible object without the sense medium.
q. 11. Whether a man generated by a man and a woman - if he were assumed into a unity of person with the Son of God - would be the son of that man.
q.12. Whether a master or scholar who is held to the canonical hours, if he were to fail to say them one day on account of study and reading, with the intention and hope of making it up and saying them another day, would sin mortally.
q.13. Whether the conception of the Virgin Mary should be celebrated on account of the conception.
q.14. Whether the indulgences of prelates are as efficacious as they sound.
q.15. Whether it is licit for masters to dispute about the power of prelates.
q.16. Whether a knight charging and flying ahead of his associates into an army of enemies performs an act of magnanimity.

This little collection of topics gives, all by itself a picture of medieval life as vibrant as a passage in Chaucer or Snorre Sturluson. Technical questions and wild hypothetical speculation and chivalry! q.12 gives you a perfect portrait of the troubled conscience of some poor cleric, guilty about the sort of procrastination I would no doubt be tempted to commit were I in his shoes. q.13 has someone really interested in a theological subject not yet settled by the Magisterium (or the subtle doctor). q.15 is a hilarious rebuke to q.14. I'd like to believe that at this session at the University of Paris in Advent 1291, or maybe Lent 1292, a good time was had by all.


onus probandi said...

Now I can see why Erasmus and More scoffed at Scholasticism; sarcastically dismissing it as ridiculous as it was stupid (at least, this was strictly with respect to the quite risible form it took during their days -- which I believe -- and I leave correction to my betters -- was at a time when Scholasticism was in its declining years). *wink*

Indeed, there were a collection of works (e.g., written exchanges between the two and perhaps colleagues at Oxford and their infamously erudite London Group) authored by both gentlemen that made clever parody of Scholasticism.

London Humanists: 1
Late Scholastics: 0

Lee Faber said...

I for one would see the abandonment of the quodlibetal form (accomplished by 1350), and the exlcusive use of the Summa as a text book as a decline.

Michael Sullivan said...

I agree. The quodlibets required spontaneity; a master had to think on his feet and respond genuinely to other positions. If people sometimes asked silly questions and had serious debates about trivialities, well, that still happens today. The fact that that the Humanists made fun of it doesn't prove much when they were pretty ignorant of scholastic thought and culture.

And frankly I just don't see a downside to including such topics in these sorts of works. Just because two discussions are each a quaestio doesn't mean they're in the same genre.

Brandon said...

And I think, too, that one of the marks of a good teacher in the first place is to be able to take something silly and turn it to good use; the quality of the doctrine is to be judged not by the silliness of the questions but by how much you can learn from the answers.

Michael Sullivan said...

Brandon, that's a good point. There's an amusing question in one of Aquinas' quodlibets about "which is more powerful - wine, women, or kings?" which he uses to make some serious points. His answer, I believe, is that each is most powerful within its domain, but that the domains are incommensurate.

Lee Faber said...

Another point; the last few days I've been going through medieval library catalogues for benedictines, mendicants, etc., and while they are well supplied with scholastic writings, they also have lots of classical sources, and were big fans of contemporary literature as well, such as the prophecies of Merlin, which pops up several times. So while the scholastics didn't write like the humanists, they had the same books in their libraries.

onus probandi said...

"The fact that that the Humanists made fun of it doesn't prove much when they were pretty ignorant of scholastic thought and culture."

But doesn't this make light of the erudition of such great gentlemen such as Erasmus and More?

After all, not only were these men naturally gifted, but their academic training started fairly young.

Even before the age of 14, school children were already skilled in the art of disputandi, making full advantage of the noble works, thoughts and arguments of venerable figures of classical references (unlike today where these have become an antique discipline, good for nothing more than didactic B.S.-ing) to the point where these adolescents were numbered, even at this tender age, amongst the apprenticii of the Inn, studying Law; endeavouring to become counted amongst those magni claroque, professional pleaders of cases before bench and bar.

If memory serves, some of the things these gentlemen poked fun at where quaestios that seemed typical of the time like (paraphrasing heavily, of course, since I can't exactly recall these verbatim) (1)could Jesus have come as a mule? (2) if he did, could a mule be crucified?, etc.

Granted, perhaps something even vaguely valuable might arise from something so silly as these; still, you can't fault them for their derogatory opinions concerning scholasticism in light of all the apparently ridiculous, which seemed the very nature of that sort of scholasticism that existed in their day (which, admittedly, might have been exceedingly different from the distinguished form it took in the days of the Great Aquinas).

Michael Sullivan said...


just because Erasmus and More were very learned - Erasmus an eminent classicist and More a top lawyer - and excellent writers, doesn't tell us anything about whether they were competent to judge other areas of scholarship.

Now I can't say too much about 16th century scholasticism, because I don't know too much about it. However, I suspect that the large majority of people talking about its decadence and degradation know little more about it than I do. Just as with the "Enlightenment", the "Renaissance" is called that because the story the humanists told about the rebirth of learning was universally accepted by posterity. Whether that story is true is another matter. Does anyone even look at the case for the other side?