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Philosophy and Civilization in the Middle Ages
By Maurice DeWulf
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
i. Relational aspects of philosophy in the Middle Ages. ii. Methods. iii. The importance of the twelfth century and of the thirteenth century in mediaeval civilization. iv. Survey of these centuries.
THE study of mediaeval philosophy has undergone considerable change in recent years, and the developments in this field of research have been important. On all sides the soil has been turned, and just as in archaeological excavation, as at Pompeii or at Timgad, here too discoveries unexpectedly rich are rewarding our search. For such men as John Scotus Eriugena, Anselm of Canterbury, Abaelard, Hugo of St. Victor, John of Salisbury, Alexander of Hales, Bonaventure, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Siger of Brabant, Thierry of Freiburg, Roger Bacon, William of Occam,—these are truly thinkers of the first order, and their labours are worthy of the notable studies now increasingly made of them. There is, further, a host of other philosophers whose thought has been unveiled, and whose significance will become the more clear as historical research progresses.
The study of mediaeval philosophy, however, has heretofore contented itself chiefly with establishing actual doctrines, and with indicating their development or the connection between one philosopher and another, while little attention has been given to the historical setting of these doctrines in the mediaeval civilization itself. But in the throbbing vitality of a civilization there is an interdependence of the numerous and complex elements constituting it; such, for example, are the economic well-being, the family and social institutions, the political and juridical systems, the moral and religious and aesthetic aspirations, the scientific and philosophical conceptions, the feeling for progress in human development. The interdependence of these various momenta is perhaps more readily apparent in the realms of economics and politics and art, but it is to be found also in the operation of the intellectual and moral factors.
It might seem at first sight that philosophy would enjoy a certain immunity from the vicissitudes of temporal change, because of the problems with which it deals; but closer view reveals that it too is caught inevitably within the meshes of the temporal net. For the work of Plato or of Aristotle, this is admitted as a commonplace by the historians of philosophy; the thought of these philosophers reflects the conditions of the Athenian society of their day. Similarly, no one pretends to arrive at a proper understanding of such thinkers as Francis Bacon and Hobbes except in the light of the political and economic and the broadly cultural conditions of their age. Just so in our study of mediaeval philosophy, we may not properly consider Anselm, or Thomas Aquinas, or William of Occam as men whose thoughts float free without anchorage. They too are the sons of their age. Nay more, there is a certain philosophical atmosphere which is created by the collective thought of numerous thinkers; and this is subject to influences issuing from the spirit of the age, in its economic, political, social, moral, religious and artistic aspects. Moreover, while philosophical thought is thus affected from without, it also exerts its own influence in turn upon the general culture with which it is organically connected.
For the thought of the Middle Ages the time has come when we must take account of this mutual dependence. Indeed we may even regard with advantage the example of natural history, whose museums no longer exhibit their specimens as so many lifeless objects in a bare cage,—on the contrary, they are represented as if they were still alive in their native jungle.
The point of view, therefore, which we choose for our treatment in these lectures, is that of the relational aspects in mediaeval philosophy—a study which relates the philosophy to the other factors in that civilization taken as an organic whole. We shall be concerned therefore less with isolated personalities than with the general philosophical mind of the age, its way of conceiving life and reality.
Before indicating the chronological limits and the general outline of our study, it is of paramount importance to examine a question of method which confronts us at the outset, the right solution of which is of great consequence:—Just how may we understand the mediaeval civilization in order to judge it aright?
To understand the mediaeval civilization,—to penetrate into its very spirit—we must first of all avoid forcing parallels with the mentality and customs of our own age. Many a study has been marred because its author was unable to resist this temptation. Mediaeval civilization is not the same as that of our own age. Its factors have a different meaning; they were made for men of a different age. Charlemagne's famous sword can now be wielded only with great difficulty, and the heavy armor of the iron-mailed knights no longer suits the needs of our twentieth-century soldiers. Nor is it otherwise with the mediaeval civilization considered as a whole; it is not fitted to our own conditions.
Further, in order to understand the Middle Ages, we must think directly after their manner of thinking. When a beginner commences the study of a foreign language, he is invariably advised to think directly in that language, instead of painfully translating words and phrases from his native tongue. Just so a right study of the civilization of the Middle Ages must take it in and for itself, in its internal elements and structure; it must be understood from within. To this end each factor must be separately considered and defined,—in itself and also with due regard to the particular significance attaching to it at any given epoch.
Furthermore, the several factors that make up a civilization should be collectively examined and viewed as a coherent whole; for only so is its unique harmony revealed. Such a harmony varies from one period to another. Therefore, we should violate the most elementary principles of historical criticism, if we were to predicate of the fifteenth century truths which apply only to the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries; or to attribute to formative periods such as the tenth and the eleventh centuries what is evidenced only in the central period of the Middle Ages.
If the above principles of internal criticism are necessary in discerning the spirit of mediaeval civilization, they are no less indispensable for arriving at a just estimate of that spirit. While this civilization is different from our own, it is not to be judged as either worse or better. To determine its worth we must not compare its institutions with those of to-day. It is positively distressing to see historians, under the spell of special sympathies, proclaim the thirteenth century the best of all centuries of human history and prefer its institutions to our own. Such laudatores temporis acti really injure the cause which they intend to serve. But it is equally distressing to see others, more numerous, decry thirteenth-century civilization, and strenuously declaim against the imprudent dreamer who would carry certain of its ideas and customs into our modern world. To go back to the Middle Ages is out of the question; retrogression is impossible, for the past will ever be the past. To prefer to our railways, for instance, the long and perilous horseback rides of that age is of course absurd; but in the same way, to depreciate the Middle Ages by contrasting them at all with our modern ways of living, thinking, or feeling seems to me meaningless.
This would be tantamount to reviving the errors of the Renaissance, which was infatuated with its own world and disdained everything mediaeval. This error has been strangely persistent, and it merits examination because of the lessons entailed. Disdain for the past begot ignorance, ignorance begot injustice, injustice begot prejudice. Being unable or unwilling to go back to thirteenth-century documents, the critics of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries judged the whole period by reference to late and decadent scholasticism; the golden age was thus involved in the condemnation deserved only by the age of decadence. The historians of the eighteenth century, and of the beginning of the nineteenth century, inherited the estimate thus erroneously made by the men of the Renaissance and the Reformation; they accepted it uncritically and passed on the error unchanged. That, in brief, is the story of the perpetuation of the reproach attaching to the Middle Ages.
A singular instance of the loss involved in thus failing to appreciate the merits of the past is the contempt which was professed for the "Gothic" architecture,—both because of its mediaeval origin and because the term came to be synonymous with "barbaric." One can understand, to be sure, how through ignorance or routine or education cultured minds in the Renaissance period might refuse to open dusty manuscripts and bulky folios; their preference for humanistic works,—such as those of Vives or of Agricola or of Nizolius or of others even more superficial—to the dry subtleties of the contemporary "terminists" is perfectly intelligible. But it is inconceivable to us how the great cathedrals of Paris, Rheims, Amiens, Chartres, Cologne, and Strasbourg failed to find favour with men of cultivated taste, and how they could have been included in the general condemnation of things mediaeval. For, those wonders in stone were not hidden in the recesses of library cases. On the contrary, they raised high above the cities their spires, their arches, their silhouettes,—and, indeed, as an heroic protest against the injustice of men. That a revival of Greek architecture might have aroused enthusiasm is easily intelligible; but it is hard to understand how Montesquieu, Fénelon, Goethe, who passed daily such Gothic cathedrals, could turn away from them and speak of them disparagingly and even refuse to cross their thresholds,—being, as they said, the remnants of a decadent age. Goethe's confession on this point is significant indeed. He tells us how at the beginning of his stay at Strasbourg, he was wont to pass the cathedral with indifference; but one day he entered, and as he did so his eyes were fascinated with a beauty which he had not before seen; thereafter, not only did he give up his prejudices against Gothic art, but he became enamoured of the beautiful cathedral that raises its red-brown spires above the plains of Alsace. "Educated among the detractors of Gothic architecture," he writes, "I nourished my antipathy against these overloaded, complicated ornaments. which gave the effect of gloomy religion by their very oddity.... But here I seemed suddenly to see a new revelation; what had been objectionable appeared admirable, and the reverse,—the perception of beauty in all its attractiveness, was impressed on my soul."
The discredit in which mediaeval art was held has now definitely yielded to a more just estimate. Romanesque and Gothic architecture are now universally acknowledged to be things of beauty in and for themselves; certainly, in any case, without reference to the architecture of the twentieth century. Again, we acknowledge the merit of Giotto's frescoes, of the translucent stained glass of Chartres, without estimating them by modern standards of painting.
Similarly, no one today would commit himself to the prejudice, also not so old, that before Rousseau nature was not understood and that the thirteenth century was ignorant of its beauty. All of those who are familiar with the sculpture of the cathedrals and with illuminated manuscripts, or who have read the Divine Comedy of Dante and the poems of St. Francis, know how unjust that reproach is; and they never compare the thirteenthcentury interpretation of nature with that of our modern writers.
This marked contrast, between our appreciation of mediaeval art and the condemnation of it in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, indicates the canons to which we should adhere in reaching a just judgment of the past. Plainly, in order to understand the value of things mediaeval, we must have recourse to a standard other than that set by the conditions of our own time. For, what is true of art is also true of all other factors in a civilization.
If, then, we are to estimate aright the civilization of the thirteenth century, we must refer it to a fixed norm: the dignity and the worth of human nature. This will be readily granted by all who believe that human nature remains essentially the same, in spite of historical changes; and of course this was the common mediaeval doctrine. By this standard a civilization stands high when it achieves its own intense and coordinated expression of the essential aspirations of the individual and the collective life; when it realizes, in addition, an adequate degree of material welfare; when it rests also on a rational organization of the family, the state, and other groups; when it allows, further, for full development in philosophy, science and art; and when its morality and its religion foster their ideals on a basis of noble sentiments and refined emotions. In this sense the civilization of the thirteenth century must be counted among those that have succeeded in attaining to a high degree of perfection; for, certain unique functions and aspirations of humanity are therein revealed, and indeed in rare and striking form. Hence it furnishes us with documents of the first importance for our understanding of humanity; and for this reason it may instruct our present generation as it surely can all those to come. Homo sum, nil humani a me alienum puto.
From this point of view, and from this alone, may we properly call good or bad—let us not say better or worse—certain elements in our heritage from the Middle Ages. The praise or the blame which may be given to things mediaeval in these lectures will not proceed from a comparison of mediaeval conditions with those of our own age, but rather by reference to their harmony, or lack of it. with the essential nobility of human nature. We may speak then of things good and beautiful achieved by the Middle Ages; for they are human realities, even though they are enveloped within the historical past. The Fioretti of St. Francis, the Divine Comedy of Dante, the cathedrals, the feudal virtues, these are all sparks of the human soul, scintillae animae, whose lustre cannot be obscured; they have their message for all of humanity. And if certain doctrines in scholastic philosophy have maintained their value, as have certain doctrines of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Leibnitz, and others, this must be because they have a deeply human meaning which remains everlastingly true.
Within these limits it would be neither proper nor possible to abstain from praise and criticism. For, the historian is no mere registering machine, unmoved by love and hatred. On the contrary, he cannot be indifferent to good and evil, to progress and decline, to lofty aspirations and social evils; therefore, he cannot refrain from approving and condemning.
This method of historical reconstruction and appreciation is especially necessary in studying the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries,—perhaps more so than for any other mediaeval period. To this period, as the very heart of the Middle Ages, we shall limit our study, and for certain reasons which we may now consider.
First of all, this is the period when mediaeval civilization assumes definite form, with outlines and features that characterize a unique age in the life of humanity.
Excerpted from Philosophy and Civilization in the Middle Ages by Maurice DeWulf. Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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