Scholastic Philosophy

Scholasticism began in the 12th century and was marked by an adherence to Catholic orthodoxy, and by the ascension of Aristotle as the preeminent authority in philosophy, in place of Plato. Russell remarks that this period represents an increase in intellectual confidence as well as freedom of the exercise of reason, at least as far as adherence to orthodoxy permitted. It also suffers from an unquestioning view of Aristotle, and an indifference to facts, science and the benefits of empirical study.

St Thomas Aquinas

St Thomas Aquinas was born on the early 13th century. While at University in Naples he became a Dominican and developed an unusually deep understanding of Aristotle for the time, benefiting from relatively recent Latin translations of his original works. Aquinas achieved complete success in the not straightforward task of reconciling Aristotle with Christian orthodoxy, and securing the primacy of Aristotle, who would among scholastics become known simply as ‘The Philosopher’. Aquinas used reason to explain the truth of the Catholic Faith, where it was appropriate in his view to do so. Reason can prove many parts of the faith but not others, such as the nature of God. Nothing in revelation is contrary to reason, but reason belongs only to the learned – for everyone else revelation must suffice.

Human happiness does not consist in material pleasures or virtuous acts but in knowledge of God. Some knowledge can be gained by contemplation and faith, but true knowledge is only gained in heaven. Aquinas used reason to prove the existence of God, although he rejected the ontological argument on the basis that humans are not able to conceive of or understand God in any meaningful way, and so what we think of as God is not sufficient to prove his existence. Aquinas’ principle argument is based on Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover’. The idea is that movement of anything (including living things) is ultimately caused by something else, a ‘mover’. However, there must logically be a start point for this movement, an ‘unmoved mover’ which is God. In addition, the existence of perfect things in the world (including immaterial things such as mathematical concepts) must have their source in something completely perfect. Finally, given that even lifeless things appear to serve a purpose, that purpose must belong to some being external to them. Aquinas broadly agrees with the teachings of Augustine, including on the key issues of original sin and predestination, and with Aristotle’s understanding of the soul as the ‘form’ of the body.

Russell has more criticism than praise for Aquinas as a philosopher, and does not believe his immense reputation to be justified. Aquinas would generally explain a doctrine fairly and with force before refuting it, but his subsequent use of reason is insincere since the conclusion to be reached is fixed in advance by Catholic orthodoxy. Aquinas is systematic but lacks the originality and curiosity of Plato and other great philosophers. Where he cannot find reason to support orthodoxy he is all too ready to fall back on revelation.

The Franciscans

The Franciscans were rivals of the Dominicans, and did not accept the authority of Aquinas. They also took a more balanced view on the relative merits between Aristotle and Plato. Some believed that Plato’s ideas establish wisdom but not knowledge, where Aristotle’s ideas establish knowledge but not wisdom. The Franciscans and Dominicans disagreed on a question related to Aristotle’s theory of universals. It was agreed that all objects (including living objects) have properties which are essential (their essence) and those which are accidental. St Aquinas and the Dominicans believed that two objects for which the same universal word can be applied (e.g. two humans) must be identical in terms of their essence. This requires a belief that pure matter is always the same (as if it were all made of the same element), such that two people could to a large extent be two identical pieces of matter, only physically different by occupying a different position in space. The Franciscans believed that all individual objects are completely unique, including with respect to their essence. This debate is hard for modern minds to follow as we no longer have a conception of a single ‘substance’, but believe that all matter is made up of different combinations of various atomic elements.

Roger Bacon

Roger Bacon was unlike philosophers of his day in highly valuing experiment as a source of knowledge, and had a passion for mathematics and science. He also had a passion for criticising his contemporaries and identified four causes of ignorance. Firstly the influence of ignorant sources of authority, secondly the influence of custom, thirdly the opinion of the uneducated crowd and fourthly the influence of those who conceal their ignorance by apparent wisdom. From these four plagues spring all human evils. This type of thinking suggests the beginnings of modernity, but Bacon still believes that the Scriptures are infallible, and like many contemporary ‘men of science’ believed in magic, alchemy and astrology. 

William of Occam

William of Occam was born at the end of the 13th century and became a leading figure in the conciliar movement, which aimed to replace the absolutist power of the Pope with a democratic system within the Church. Power would reside in a General Council whose members would be elected by various local councils. This differed from Protestantism which rejected all forms of religious organisational structures. He is best known for his maxim ‘Occam’s razor’, namely ‘it is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer’. In a philosophical sense, if a solution exists which does not require inventing hypothetical entities, then that solution is to be preferred. Occam helped to separate logic and human knowledge from theology and metaphysics. Understanding applies to material things. The ideas we conceive of help us to understand things, but are not things themselves. Two people might be said to be similar, but ‘similarity’ is not a thing, only an idea in the mind that helps understand the two people better. Augustine had supposed things to be generally unintelligible and people unintelligent, but Occam’s attitude gave those that came after him greater confidence to increase human knowledge.

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