quotes & notes

Aristotle’s Children
Richard E. Rubenstein

Richard E. Rubenstein

These pages: Aristotle’s Children

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Aristotle’s Children

How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages

Copyright © 2003 by Richard E. Rubenstein


Chapter Five
“Hark, Hark, the Dogs Do Bark”

Aristotle and the Teaching Friars

Note (Hal’s):

1215-1260: Dominicans and Franciscans at the universities
William of Auvergne, Robert Grosseteste, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, William of Saint-Amour

— end note

It is odd to think of professional heresy-hunters as the advocates for a revolution in thinking, and a scientific revolution at that. From a modern vantage point, one would expect the more secular-minded masters of arts to have been the Aristotelian movement’s strongest advocates, and theological zealots its most adamant opponents. But the Dominican and Franciscan theologians were not “fundamentalists” in the modern sense. They were passionate conservatives who believed that the European awakening was irreversible and that the tools of reason, even those developed by pagan philosophers, could be used to advance the long-term interests of orthodox religion.




As Albert and his young friend Thomas Aquinas saw it, the theory of light as a universal cause––a mystical belief that could not be verified by experiment or observation––turned science from the study of particular causes into a study of occult relationships. Nor did they agree that human knowledge was the result of divine “illumination.” Rather, knowledge was a product of the reason that the Creator had made part of man’s natural endowment. Franciscan teachers like Roger Bacon lectured on Aristotle and framed their theories in Aristotelian language, but the essence of their work was Neoplatonic mysticism, which revived the outmoded distinction between matter and spirit. Bacon had accused his opponents of splitting science from religion and removing God from active involvement in the universe. With equal justification, they could accuse him of mystifying science and limiting God’s boundless creativity.



Although they agreed that the faith must at all costs be preserved, both Dominicans and Franciscans, teaching friars and secular masters, assumed that what the researchers were discovering by using their senses and their reason was real, and that religion would have to come to terms with it. The great issue, in other words, was not whether inquiring into nature’s workings was a good thing or a bad thing. It was a good thing, since both reason and nature were from God. The issue was how to define the proper territory and boundaries of the religious and scientific (“philosophical”) modes of inquiry, and how to establish a healthy relationship between them. As Aquinas was to say later, it was how to embrace both realms of knowledge fully in one harmonious vision.



Chapter Six
This Man Understands”

The Great Debate at the University of Paris

Note (Hal’s):

later 12th c.: condemnations of 1270 and 1277; university radicalism
Siger de Brabant, Aquinas, John Peckham, Stephen Tempier

— end note

Double Truth meant that a proposition could be true scientifically but false theologically, or the other way round, and that there was no way of using one type of truth to falsify the other type. This second point was crucial, since even Aquinas, the apostle of reason, admitted that a few unshakable doctrines of faith, such as the incarnation of God as man, were scientifically undemonstrable, and a few apparently reasonable this-worldly doctrines, like the eternity of the universe, were falsified by faith. But if both kinds of truth were equally true––if neither kind trumped the other in cases of conflict––Christian thinking would be in crisis. Not only would Double Truth produce logical contradictions (the same statement could be true and false simultaneously), in practice it would force people to choose between faith and reason.



Chapter Seven
“Ockham’s Razor”

The Divorce of Faith and Reason

Note (Hal’s):

early 14th c.: secular power struggles; Franciscan “Spiritual” radicals; German opposition to papal power
Boniface VIII, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Ludwig of Bavaria, John XXII, Meister Eckhart

— end note

Now that it was clear that the lust for knowledge was as irrepressible as carnal desire, the authorities could appreciate how cleverly Thomas had harnessed that craving to the sacred doctrines and institutions of the Church. The Dominican theologian deserved canonization not only because of his spiritual gifts but because his “baptism” of Aristotle had yielded two great apparent benefits. It did for scientific enterprise what Innocent III had done for popular evangelism––that is, it brought a potentially hostile force inside the Church-run universities, where it could be watched, controlled, and used for the greater glory of God; and, by creating a “natural theology,” it gave sacred doctrines the prestige and persuasiveness of scientific truth.

God creates the universe, said William of Ockham, but the patterns that we discover by reasoning abstractly about created things are the products of our mental processes, not evidence of divine intentions. Reason is not inherent in nature, which obeys God’s unfathomable will, but in our own minds.

With this thunderclap, modern empirical science was born––or, at least, conceived.



Even now, reading William of Ockham is like watching a high-wire artist operate without a safety net. Philosophically speaking, the abyss that yawns beneath him is a permanent divorce between faith and reason. Politically speaking, it is the pit into which the Inquisition was prepared to hurl brilliant theorists who carried their ideas too far. For although William was as devout a Christian as Duns Scotus or any other theologian of his time, the direction in which his thinking pointed was strangely similar to that for which Siger de Brabant and his followers had been condemned in 1277. Like Siger, William did not adhere to the doctrine of Double Truth. He had no doubt that the truths revealed by God were uncontradictable. But, again like Siger, his thoughts seemed to lead toward the conclusion that there were two sorts of truth: one for investigators of nature, the other for theologians and worshipers of God. Moreover, there was something about the way in which Ockham expressed his ideas that almost invited prosecution. A modern analyst might say that he wanted to generate a crisis that would force him to choose between his commitments to the organized Church and to the Church as the people of God.


William of Occam

The activities of the devout Germans loosely known as the “friends of God” give a strong foretaste of the coming Protestant movement, with its inwardness and evangelical zeal, its communities of “saints,” its intense focus on Scripture, and its relative lack of interest in scientific reasoning. At almost the same time, Ockham’s successors in Paris engineered a revival of natural philosophy that served as a gateway to the discoveries made later by scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton.

So began the divorce between faith and reason––the emergence, in fact, of the Double Truth that had so troubled the dreams of medieval scholars and churchmen.

Chapter Eight
“God Does Not Have to Move These Circles Anymore”

Aristotle and the Modern World

Note (Hal’s):

mid-14th c. and later: science separated from religion; attempts to discredit Aristotle and scholasticism; modern consequences
Jean Buridan, Nicole Oresme, Francis Bacon, Martin Luther, Thomas Hobbes

— end note

The idea of a medieval “dark age” is a corollary of the origin myth of modern science: the notion that scientific research could not emerge as a respected and productive activity until it had liberated itself from the clutches of a dogmatic, authoritarian faith. The dramatic theme is rationality versus religion, with religion playing the role of the oppressive censor or persecutor, and selected scientists and freethinkers that of the hero or martyr.

For a world-renowned philosopher to have raised the hypothesis of a rotating earth to a level of scientific acceptability was a revolutionary act. Once Oresme had broken with Aristotle by asserting that the earth’s immobility could not be proved by reason, the cat was out of the bag. In a flash, the stationary earth also became a mere hypothesis that could be proved or disproved by later evidence. Moreover, as Copernicus (who was familiar with Oresme’s work) later recognized, the same principles used to support the idea of a rotating earth could also be used to support the revolution of the earth and other planets around an immobile sun. And further evidence might show that the sun itself was a moving body, one star among others in a vast, mobile universe.

Oresme’s breakthrough, in other words, was as much psychological and cultural as it was scientific.

Christian thinkers of the medieval renaissance could not rest content with the idea either that the world was a puppet show with God pulling the strings or that it was a godless machine. Nor could they accept the choice between a human nature totally depraved and entirely dependent upon God’s arbitrary will or one totally free and self-determining. Their attempts to resolve these contradictions were inevitably unstable, producing further dialogue, criticism, and revision. And this very instability was the key to further progress. While differing strongly among themselves, the scholastics maintained the idea of an integrated, explicable, and interesting universe that they had extracted from Aristotle. They also affirmed the Judeo-Christian idea of a creative, caring, all-powerful God who is free to remake the universe at will.



In the modern period, faith and reason would enter upon a new relationship––no longer a turbulent marriage, but a fractious divorce in which the alienated parties, greatly changed by their separation, meet periodically to argue about the terms of their separation, and, on rare occasions, to take inspiration from each other.
Fundamentalist literalism, in other words, was not a feature of the medieval worldview from which modern rationalists had to be “liberated.” It came into the world as a result of the same attack on Aristotelian-Christian thinking that produced secular science. One can imagine this as a sort of intellectual nuclear fission. Bombarded by its early modernist opponents, Aristotelianism implodes, generating a coldly objectivist science and a passionately subjectivist religion.
Although most of us would not want to reconstitute the medieval order even if we could, the era’s ideals and achievements stand as a continuing reproach to the deficiencies of modern culture. For a time, the West opened itself up to revolutionary new ideas from non-Western sources and from fervent mass movements in the streets. For a time, rationist thinkers and people of faith engaged each other in an intense, continuous dialogue productive of new insights for both sides. For a time, religious fundamentalism and power politics were subordinated to the quest for a universal morality capable of inspiring people to act as members of a transnational community. One does not have to be nostalgic for the Middle Ages to recognize that obliterating this part of our past makes the present seem eternal, and obliterates alternative futures.
The Catholic Church was no more compelled to oppose Copernican cosmology than Protestant churches were to oppose Darwinian evolution. Given the leeways of textual interpretation, the reasons for such opposition often lie more in a religious organization’s social and political commitments than in Holy Writ itself.



The end of the Aristotelian era left us with these urgent needs unsatisfied. Science, deprived of its connection with religious faith, has become increasingly technical and “value-free,” while religious commitments, cut loose from their naturalistic moorings, seem increasingly a matter of arbitrary “instincts” or tastes. Worse yet, with global economic and military power concentrating at an unprecedented rate in the hands of a few powerful elites, both faith and reason tend to become tools in the hands of raw, self-aggrandizing power.

Under these circumstances, the partners to this former marriage, turbulent though it was, cannot help dreaming of a possible reconciliation. Reason could transform the earth, if only science and technology were inspired and guided by a new global morality. Faith would expand and mature, if only the world’s religions addressed themselves to long-term trends in society and nature, and helped to create that global morality.

text checked (see note) Feb 2005

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Graphics copyright © 2004 by Hal Keen