Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

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)

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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)

The Ontological Argument for God

Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) is famous for what has become known as the “ontological argument” for the existence of God. The argument is usually put forth in syllogistic form as follows:

  1. God is that which no greater can be thought
  2. That which no greater can be thought must exist, not only as an idea, but extramentally (extra nos)
  3. Therefore God exists, not only as an idea, but extramentally

Now, I admit that the argument as stated is less than convincing – for me anyway. Why must this idea (i.e. that which no greater can be thought) correspond to being? We know that thought, generally speaking, has no necessary correspondence to reality (i.e. being), else fairy tales would be an impossibility. We can imagine unicorns, elves, and fairy godmothers, but that does not mean they exist in reality. So why is it that the idea of God, that which no greater can be thought, corresponds to reality? What makes the idea of God different than that of a unicorn, such that the one necessarily exists while the other does not? Frederick Coplestone, S.J., elaborates in his 2nd volume of A History of Philosophy (Doubleday, 1993):

This proof starts from the idea of God as that than which no greater can be conceived, i.e. as absolutely perfect: that is what is meant by God.

Now, if such a being had only ideal reality, existed only in our subjective idea, we could still conceive a greater being, namely a being which did not exist simply in our idea but in objective reality. It follows, then, that the idea of God as absolute perfection is necessarily the idea of an existent Being, and St. Anselm argues that in this case no one can at the same time have the idea of God and yet deny His existence.

Now this is an interesting twist. The last sentence says that one cannot “have the idea of God and yet deny His existence.” So are we saying that the idea does not correspond to objective reality, per se, but only that the idea itself would be contradictory if we did not at the same time believe in its objective existence? This is a valid point and great as far as it goes, but I can’t believe that that is the sum of what Anselm was saying. His argument is, as it is said, an ontological one, not an epistimological one.

The argument seems to only make sense from what Coplestone calls, an “ultra-realist” point of view; the view that universals, or ideas (Plato), are an extramental, objective, and substantive reality in themselve (such that “horseness” is itself an objective substance). Thus God, who is the ultimate idea, must exist because ideas as such have an existence outside of us. However, I am not sure if Anselm was an ultra-realist or, what Coplestone calls, a “moderate-realist” in the vein of Saint Thomas Aquinas. A moderate-realist is one who believes that universals or real and objective, yet deny that universals such as “horseness,” “humanity,” whiteness,” etc. are substantive realities in themselves. The opposing view is that of monism, in which universals are not real in any objective way; i.e. universals are purely subjective constructs of human thought.

Still, this argument for God’s existence seems weak to me. Others have found it quite convincing, and since many people smarter than I have found the argument useful, I will assume that I am missing something. Although, I will note that Aquinas did reject this argument (according to Coplestone), but on what grounds I do not yet know. Perhaps I will know in a couple hundred pages when I reach the section on Aquinas in Coplestone’s A History of Philosophy. In the end, I really do wonder if it is on realist presuppositions that this argument is based and indeed found to be necessary. In other words, if you believe that universals are in some way real and objective, and that the idea of God necessarily entails a belief in His existence, then it naturally follows that God must exist. This is the only way that I can make some sense of the argument, but as with all presuppositions they may be attacked and the argument is thereby undercut at the knees, as it were.

Those are my thoughts, disjointed as they are. If anyone else has any further insight into this “ontological argument” for God’s existence, I would love to hear it. I find it (for lack of a better word) interesting that this argument has been taken as seriously as it has throughout the centuries. As Coplestone notes,

In the ‘modern’ era [the ontological argument] has had a dinstinguished, if chequered career. Descartes adopted and adapted it, Leibniz defended it in a careful and ingenious manner, Kant attacked it. In the Schools it is generally rejected, though some individual thinkers have maintained its validity.

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!

Philosophy on the Pitch

I know I haven’t been doing many serious posts lately, but no worries; with this post the trend will continue!

That has to be one of the funniest videos I have ever seen. Germany vs. Greece. Philosophy Futbol!

“And here come the Greeks, led out by their veteran center, Heraclitus… Let’s look at their team. As you’d expect, a much more defensive line up. Plato’s in goal. Socrates, the front runner there, and Aristotle as sweeper…. Aristotle, very much the man in form”

Simply brilliant.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Philosophy on the Pitch“, posted with vodpod

Thomistic Distinctions

The medieval canon lawyers placed the natural law in divine revelation as testified to in the two Testaments of Scripture. Thomas Aquinas, while not denying the position of the canonists, placed the natural law in creation itself. Aquinas distinguishes between the divine law found in Holy Scripture, and the natural law found in creation. This distinction is an important one. By placing the natural law in Scripture, its reach is limited to a particular time and place. However, if the natural law is placed within creation itself, this particular imprint of God on the human person is and has been available to the whole human race in every age.

Note, then, that whereas for the canonists the Scriptures are the first location of the natural law, for Thomas, of course, without denying the ultimate origin of the ius naturale in God, the order of nature has been distinguished from revelation, and, so far as we are concerned, is the first locus of the natural law. We might say that the canonists’ conception was more dominantly theological or undifferentiated, and in this sense we can see that Thomas’s view allows for a universe in which a natural order has sufficient integrity to be read by man without immediate recourse to revelation.

Far from unlinking natural law from the God of revelation, however, Thomas’s distinction between divine law and the natural law brings to full articulation an idea that had long been developing, namely that the path to holiness revealed in Scripture is not a positivistic decree only fideists can accept, but has a purchase on the inner rational structure of human nature. Thomas’s account of the relation between natural and divine law, it seems to me, reveals its deepest meaning when read against the background of his doctrine, rediscovered in our day by Henri de Lubac, that nature, as such, desires a fullness that it can attain only within the context of gracious elevation to the visio beatifica.

— Glenn W. Olsen, “Natural Law: The First Grace,” Communio XXXV (Fall 2008)


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