Archive for the 'History' Category

Defining the Canon

A list of the works to be considered authoritative began to take form in the Christian community earlier than I had supposed. We always hear that the “definitive” list was not compiled in the 4th century, but less attention is paid to the fact that many of these works were considered authoritative well before then.

In about 180 CE (at almost the same time Irenaeus was defending the four Gospels against Marcion, who wanted to acknowledge Luke alone) there appeared the first listing of the books of the New Testament that bears a similarity with the present Christian canon. The Muratorian canon (as the list came to be known) listed the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Pauline letters, and the rest of the present New Testament with the omission of Hebrews, James, and the two letters attributed to Peter. The list included, however, the Shepard of Hermas, a popular work of the late first century. No definitive canon was established until the fourth century, and even then there would be disagreement over the Epistle to the Hebrews, but the attempt to form a distinctive Christian canon had begun.

— Robert Bruce Mullin, A Short World History of Christianity (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008)


Aristotelian Influences – Part 3

Or The Triumph of Aristotle in Medieval Theology

However, in 1231 Pope Gregory IX, while maintaing the prohibition, appointed a commission of theologians, William of Auxerre, Stephen of Provins and Simon of Authie, to correct the prohibited books of Aristotle, and as this measure obviously implied that the books were not fundamentally unsound, the prohibition tended to be neglected. It was extended to Toulouse in 1245 by Innocent IV, but by that date it was no longer possible to check the spread of Aristotelianism and from 1255 all the known works of Aristotle were officially lectured on in the University of Paris. The Holy See made no move against the university though in 1263 Pope Urban IV renewed the prohibition of 1210, probably out of fear of Averroism, the renewed prohibition remaining a dead letter. The Pope must have known perfectly well that William of Moerbeke was translating the prohibited works of Aristotle at his own court, and the prohibition of 1263 must have been a check to Averroism, not as a seriously meant attempt to put an end to all study of the Aristotelian philosophy. In any case the prohibition was of no effect, and finally in 1366 the Legates of Pope Urban V required from all candidates for the Licentiate of Arts at Paris a knowledge of all the known works of Aristotle. It had by then long been clear to the mediaevals that a work like the Liber de Causis was not Aristotelian and that the philosophy of Aristotle was not, except of course, in the eyes of the Latin Averroists, bound up with the interpretation given it by Averroes but could be harmonised with the Christian faith. Indeed the dogmas of faith themselves had by then been expressed by theologians in terms taken from the Aristotelian system.

This brief summary of the official attitude to Aristotle on the part of ecclesiastical and academic authority shows that Aristotelianism triumphed in the end. This does not mean, however, that all mediaeval philosophers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries extended an equal welcome to Aristotle or that they all understood him in the same way: the vigour and variety of mediaeval thought will be made clear in succeeding chapters. There is truth in the statement that that shadow of Aristotle hung over and dominated the philosophic thought of the Middle Ages, but it is not the whole truth, and we would have a very inadequate idea of mediaeval philosophy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries if we imagined that it was inspired and characterized by a slavish acceptance of every word of the great Greek philosopher.

Frederick Coplestone, S.J. – A History of Philosophy, Volume 2 (Doubleday, 1993)

Aristotelian Influences – Part 2

Or The Prohibition of Aristotle in Medieval Theology

However, the system of Aristotle did not meet with universal welcome and approbation, though it could not be ignored. Largely because the Liber de Causis (until St. Thomas discovered the truth), the so-called Theologia Aristotelis (extracts from the Enneads of Plotinus) and the De secretis secretorum (composed by an Arab philosopher in the eleventh or beginning of the twelfth century) were wrongly attributed to Aristotle, the latter’s philosophy tended to appear in a false light. Moreover, the attribution of these books to Aristotle naturally made it appear that the Arab comentators were justified in their neo-Platonic interpretation. Hence it came about that in 1210 the Provincial Council of Paris, meeting under the presidency of Peter of Corbeil, Archbishop of Sens, forbad the public or private teaching of Aristotle’s ‘natural philosophy’ or of the commentaries on them. This prohibition was imposed under pain of excommunication and applied to the University of Paris. In all probability ‘natural philosophy’ included the metaphysics of Aristotle, since when the statutes of the university were sanctioned by Robert de Courcon, Papal Legate, in 1215 Aristotle’s works on metaphysics and natural philosophy, as well as compendia of these works and the doctrines of David of Dinant, Amalric of Bene and Maurice of Spain (probably Averroes, the Moor or Maurus) were prohibited, though the study of Aristotle’s logic was ordered. The study of the Ethics was not forbidden.

The reason for the prohibition was, as already indicated, largely due to the ascription to Aristotle of works which were not by him. Amalric of Bene, whose writings were included in the prohibition of 1215, maintained doctrines which were at variance with Christian teaching and which would naturally appear to find some support in the philosophy of Aristotle, if the latter were interpreted in the light of all the books attributed to him, while David of Dinant, the other heretical philosopher whose writings were prohibited, had actually appealed to the Metaphysics, which had been translated into Latin from the Greek version brought from Byzantium before 1210. To these considerations must be added the undoubted fact that Aristotle maintained the eternity of the world. It was, therefore, not unnatural that the Aristotelian system, especially when coupled with the philosophies of Daivd of Dinant, Amalric of Bene and Averroes, should appear as a danger to orthodoxy in the eyes of the traditionalists. The logic of Aristotle had long been in use, even if the full Organon had come into circulation only comparatively recently, but the complete metaphysical and cosmological teaching of Aristotle was a novelty, a novelty rendered all the more dangerous through association with heretical philosophies.

Frederick Coplestone, S.J. – A History of Philosophy, Volume 2 (Doubleday, 1993)

Aristotelian Influences – Part 1

Or The Rise of Aristotle in Medieval Theology

The translation of work of Aristotle and his commentators, as well as of the Arabian thinkers, provided the Latin Scholastics with a great wealth of intellectual material.  In particular they were provided with the knowledge of philosophical systems which were methodologically independent of theology and which were presented as the human mind’s reflection on the universe. The systems of Aristotle, of Avicenna, of Averroes, opened up a wide vista of the scope of human reason and it was clear to the mediaevals that the truth attained in them must have been independent of Christian revelation, since it had been attained by a Greek philosopher and his Greek and Islamic commentators… It is, of course, true that Aristotle’s system not unaturally took the limelight in preference to those of his commentators, and his philosophy tended to appear in the eyes of those Latins who were favourably impressed as the ne plus ultra of human intellectual endevour, since it constituted the most sustained and extensive effort of the human mind with which they were aquainted; but they were quite well aware that it was the work of reason, not a set of revealed dogmas. To us, looking back from a long way off, it may seem that some of the mediaevals exaggerated the genius of Aristotle (we also know that that they did not realise the existence of different strate or periods in Aristotle’s thought), but we should not put ourselves for a moment in their place and try to imagine the impression which would be made on a mediaeval philosopher by the sight of what in any case is one of the supreme achievements of the human mind, a system which, in regard to both completeness and close reasoning, was unparalleled in the thought of the early Middle Ages.

Frederick Coplestone, S.J. – A History of Philosophy, Volume 2 (Doubleday, 1993)

Coplestone’s “A History of Philosophy”

It is well known that in many ways St. Augustine was influenced by Plato, whereas St. Thomas Aquinas was more influenced by Aristotle. Though the distinctions of influence are not so stark, it is true that each “baptised” the thought of these two great Greek philosophers in their own way. That said, I have found it very helpful to know a little about the philosophy of Plato when reading Augustine, and the same goes for Aristotle when reading Aquinas. The Summa was in many ways a confusing labyrinth of philosophical jargon and nonsense until I came to understand (in part) the thought of Aristotle. Once I had a grasp on the Aristotelian distinctions of form and matter, St. Thomas opened up before me in all it’s grandeur. Perhaps that is putting it too dramatically, but something like that surely happened.

In an endeavor to more fully understand the philosophical underpinnings of my Christian faith, not to mention trying to better understand my own existence and the world around me, I have been slowly making my way through Frederick Coplestone’s A History of Philosophy. There are 9 volumes in all (for us in the United States), and I have just made my way into Volume 2. The first volume deals with ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and is perhaps the most important volume for understanding great Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas, as it goes through in good detail the thought of both Plato and Aristotle. Volume 2 picks up with the philosophical influences of the early church fathers, which acts as a prelude to the first great Christian philosopher, St. Augustine. It should be noted that Coplestone is fully aware that the early fathers did not make distinctions between philosophy and theology. Therefor he readily admits of the dangers inherent in untangling a philosophy (his work is after all one of the history of philosophy) from the theology of those who saw no such distinctions. Nevertheless, clear influences of neo-platonism and, to some extent, stoicism can be traced in the thought of these early Christian thinkers such as Justin Martyr, Origen, Tertullian, and John Damascene. Likewise, these influences can be seen in the two great minds of the Western Church, Augustine and Aquinas.

In all, the 2nd volume of Coplestone’s work will cover the philosophy of the early Church through St. Augustine, and on to St. Anselm, St. Bonaventure, St Albert the Great, St Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus; a period that spans 1,300 years. Coplestone covers all of this under the heading of “Medieval Philosophy” though he recognizes that he uses the term losely and that no period ever remains distinct from that which precedes it or comes after. I happily detect a note of Christopher Dawson’s influence! Volume 3 will pick up where volume 2 left off and go through what Copleston refers to as “Late Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy.” This 3rd volume will begin with William of Ockham and go through to Francis Bacon and the dawning of a Renaissance philosophy with Francis Suarez.

The first 3 volumes of Coplestone’s A History of Philosophy will serve as an introduction to his much more lengthy treatment of modern philosophy. As Coplestone notes, you can’t understand modern philosophy without understanding what came before. As the famous dictum has it: all philosophy is but footnotes to Plato. This may be a slight overstatement, but the whole of philosophy can certainly be seen as a working out of the issues raised by Plato nearly 2,500 years ago. It’s just that in this working out, there are some outright rejections of parts of Plato’s thought if not all of it. Nonetheless, these rejections have no basis without Plato and those that followed him.

As I said, Volume 4 of Coplestone’s A History of Philosophy begins his lengthy treatment of modern philosophy. The next 6 volumes will cover everything from Descartes to Hume to Kant to Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche, all the way through to the philosophy of the last century with Bertrand Russel, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Jean-Paul Sartre; what is now known as post-modern philosophy. Of course, everything in between is covered as well, and this is primarily whyI have chosen to read through Coplestone’s intimidating 9 volume work. For reasons unknown to myself, I have a keen interest in modern philosophy, but I recognize the need for understanding the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and the classical Christian thinkers of the Church’s first millennium. The fact that Coplestone will give me a grounding in the “pre-modern” philosophers before plunging me into the thought of Descartes and beyond is something that I truly appreciate.

Having never taken a university class in anything resembling philosophy or theology – my university studies were more along the lines of calculus and advanced physics – I am self taught in matters pertaining to philosophy and theology. While the journey is fascinating, being self taught comes with its own very real limitations. I know plenty of “stuff” but not having the advantage of a classroom and a professor with whom to interact, I find it hard to synthesize all that I have learned. I know Plato taught X and Aquinas taught Y and Nietzsche taught Z, but I have hardly a clue on how X, Y, and Z are related or why Nietzsche taught Z in stark contrast with Plato’s X. This is where Coplestone comes in. By going on a journey from Plato to Sartre, I hope this synthesization – which is indeed a higher faculty of reason – will begin to materialize.

Coplestone’s A History of Philosophy comes highly recommended by many in the academic world. While Coplestone was a Jesuit and writes from a clearly Christian and Thomist point of view, his massive work also enjoys the support of secular philosophers. The blurb on the back of the book probably says it best, although keep in mind this is a blurb from the publisher so the danger of exaggeration is always present.

Conceived originally as a serious presentation of  the development of philosophy for Catholic  seminary students, Frederick Copleston’s nine-volume  A History Of Philosophy has  journeyed far beyond the modest purpose of its author to  universal acclaim as the best history of  philosophy in English.

Copleston, an Oxford Jesuit  of immense erudition who once tangled with A. J.  Ayer in a fabled debate about the existence of God  and the possibility of metaphysics, knew that  seminary students were fed a woefully inadequate diet  of theses and proofs, and that their familiarity  with most of history’s great thinkers was reduced  to simplistic caricatures. Copleston set out to  redress the wrong by writing a complete history of  Western philosophy, one crackling with incident and  intellectual excitement — and one that gives full  place to each thinker, presenting his thought in a  beautifully rounded manner and showing his links  to those who went before and to those who came  after him.

The result of Coplestone’s prodigious labors is a history of philosophy that is unlikely ever to be surpassed. Thought magazine summed up the general agreement among scholars and students alike when it reviewed Coplestone’s A History of Philosophy as “broad-minded and objective, comprehensive and scholarly, unified and well proportioned… We cannot recommend [it] too highly.”

After having read some 600 pages into the multi-thousand page work, I can add my recommendation as well. It may take me 10 years to complete all 9 volumes, but I have decided that is just fine with me. As I get older, I am learning the fine art of patience, a virtue I have lacked my entire life. If the good Lord blesses me with many more years I will enjoy learning more and more about philosophy, a topic I find so fascinating. If I do not make it through all 9 volumes that is ok too. There are far more important things in life, and my relationship with my Lord and Saviour is all that really matters in the end. Reading Coplestone (and Chesterton, and von Hildebrand, and C. S. Lewis, and Emil Brunner, and Ratzinger, and…. oh I could go on) is just icing on the cake of life.

I hope to quote more from Coplestone in the future of this blog. Not that the history of philosophy is oh so exciting (although, to me it kind of is), but one of the purposes of this blog is to help me think through the things I have read. In fact, that may be the real reason this blog exists. I find that as I quote verbatim from the authors I read, and write about the things they are saying, I am much more apt to remember the things I have learned. Whether or not anybody else actually reads what I write or quote is completely secondary (no offense!). I just recognize that others may benefit from what I read and write as well. All that to say, look for some quotations from Coplestone in the future, although don’t expect uber excitement unless your a bit of a philosophy dweeb like myself.

Until next time, have a very blessed Holy Week!

Ratzinger on Historical Method

For some reason, I know not why, I am fascinated by the question of historical knowledge. So what exactly can we “know” from the study of history? I often think that many of us have too bold an epistemology when it comes to history. I was happy to read that Joseph Ratzinger, once Cardinal and now Pope, in the opening pages of his 1977 work Eschatology, lays out his thoughts on the historical method as it relates to exegesis. In typical Catholic fashion he takes a view of history that is more incarnational in nature. Rather than seeing the past as a set of datum to be studied and analyzed, Ratzinger sees the past as part of the present. History is never just history; it is a living history. In Eschatology (Catholic University of America Press, 2007), Ratzinger writes:

It is according to this nonhistorical model of the natural sciences that exegetical results are very largely assessed today. They are thought of as a sum of fixed results, a body of knowledge with immaculate credentials, acquired in such a fashion that it has left behind its own history as a mere prehistory, and is now at our disposal like a set of mathematical measurements. The measuring of the human spirit, however, differs from the quantification of the physical world. To follow the history of exegesis over the last hundred years is to become aware that it reflects the whole spiritual history of that period. Here the observer speaks of the observed only through speaking of himself: the object becomes eloquent only in this indirect refraction. Now this does not mean that at the end of the day all we know is ourselves. Rather are we faced at this point with a kind of knowledge familiar to us from philosophy. (Not that the two are identical, nevertheless, they have a family resemblance.) The “results” of the history of philosophy do not consist in a catalogue of formulae which can be totted up into a final sum. Instead, they are series of raids on the deep places of being, carried out according to the possibilities of their own time. The history in which these explorations were made remains a living history, not a dead prehistory. As philosophizing continues, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas do not become prehistory: they remain the originating figures of an enduring approach to the Ground of what is. In their way of thought, and its access to the Origin, a certain aspect of reality, a dimension of being, is caught as in a mirror. None of them is philsophy or the philosopher.It is the multivalent message of the entire history, and its overall critical evaluation, that truth is disclosed and with it the possibility of fresh knowledge. Something analogous is true of such a foundational text as the Bible. Here, too, and especially where the heart of the scriptural message is concerned, there is no such thing as a definitive acquisition of scholarship: no interpretation from the past is ever completely old hat if in its time it turned to the text in true openess. Unfortunately, historical reason’s criticism of itself is still in its infancy. But one thing is certain: to employ in this domain the pardigm of knowledge characteristic of the natural sciences is fallacious. Only by listening to the whole history of interpretation can the present be purified by criticism and so brought into a position of genuine encounter with the text concerned.

The Music of Sparta

Or The Scandal of the Strings

Here is your completely random and amusing historical tidbit for today. The topic is that warrior haven of Sparta and its take on music during the 7th century before Christ. From Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, Vol. 2: The Life of Greece (Simon & Schuster 1966):

In that dim past before Lycurgus came, Sparta was a Greek city like the rest, and blossomed out in song and art as it would never do after him. Music above all was popular there, and rivaled man’s antiquity; for as far back as we can delve we find the Greeks singing. In Sparta, so frequently at war, music took a martial turn – the strong and simple “Doric mode”; and not only were other styles discouraged, but any deviation from this Doric style was punishable by law. Even Terpander, though he had quelled a sedition by his songs, was fined by the ephors, and his lyre nailed mute to the wall, because to suit his voice, he had dared to add another string to the instrument; and in a later generation Timotheus, who had expanded Terpander’s seven strings to eleven, was not allowed to compete at Sparta until the ephors had removed from his lyre the scandalously extra strings.

As humorous as the scandal of the strings is to us 21st century types, it seems that Sparta was a very musical city, even if that music served national (i.e. milataristic) purpose. I don’t know about you, but I find this highly fascinating! Durant continues:

Sparta, like England, had great composers when she imported them. Towards 670 [B.C.], supposedly at the behest of the Delphi oracle, Terpander was brought in from Lesbos to prepare a contest in choral sining at the festival of the Carneia. Likewise, Thaletas was summoned from Crete about 620; and soon after came Tyrtaeus, Alcman, and Polymnestus. Their labors went mostly to composing patriotic music and training choruses to sing it. Music was seldom taught to individual Spartans; as in revolutionary Russia, the communal spirit was so strong that music took a corporate form, and group competed with group in magnificent festivals of song and dance. Such choral singing gave the Spartans another opportunity for discipline and mass formations, for every voice was subject to the leader. At the feast of the Hyacinthia King Agesilaus sang obediently in the place and time assigned to him by the choral master; and at the festival of the Gymnopedia the whole body of Spartans, of every age and sex, joined in massive exercises of harmonious dance and antistrophal song. Such occasions must have provided a powerful stimulus and outlet to the patriotic sentiment.

Blog Hit Counter

  • 106,270 hits
Liturgy of the Hours