Are philosophy and religion—reason and faith—fundamentally at odds? From today’s strict division between questions of logic and questions of belief, one might think so. But for 1,000 years during a pivotal era of Western thought, reason and faith went hand-in-hand in the search for answers to the most profound issues investigated by Christianity’s most committed scholars:
- Can God’s existence and attributes be established by reason alone?
- Are there Christian doctrines that are beyond the scope of logical demonstration?
- How can Christian beliefs be defended against objections and made internally consistent?
These questions posed by the great philosophers of the Middle Ages bear no resemblance to the stereotypical medieval dispute about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin—a problem that apparently no one in the Middle Ages discussed. Instead, they are emblematic of an extraordinarily rich period of intellectual ferment, when the best minds of the age participated in a common struggle with transcendent questions, using reasoning in the service of faith.
From Augustine to Ockham
Reason and Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages examines this ambitious project. In 24 half-hour lectures, you will learn about the great Christian philosophers from Augustine to Ockham, following their efforts to illuminate the full scope of Christian doctrine using philosophical tools inherited, in large part, from the ancient Greeks. Far from being “Dark” Ages, this was an era when faith was not blind and reason was not godless, when the great philosophers and the great theologians were the very same people, and no one saw anything surprising about that.
Your teacher is Professor Thomas Williams, an award-winning educator and noted historian of medieval philosophy. Belying the image of the recondite medieval scholar, Professor Williams lectures with spontaneity, humor, enthusiasm, and warmth. He is especially well qualified to take you through the key texts of the period; he has published translations of several of them. Furthermore, he has made his own translations of all of the extracts used in the course, which include material that is not available elsewhere and is therefore left out of most introductory college courses on the subject.
Why Study Medieval Philosophy?
Today, medieval philosophy is an often-overlooked period between ancient philosophy and the Enlightenment. You will find it rewarding to explore for many excellent reasons:
- A bridge between ancient and modern: The ideas of ancient thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle were rediscovered by medieval philosophers, who applied them to theological problems. Modern philosophy, in turn, began as a response to the medieval project.
- Tools for understanding Christianity: Medieval philosophers probed deeply into the fundamental nature of Christian teachings. Perhaps no other thinkers worked so diligently to show how the Christian faith is consistent with what can be demonstrated by reason.
- An intellectual challenge: What are the limits of reason? Medieval philosophers continually tested these boundaries, and by thinking critically about their arguments you can enhance the rigor of your own ideas.
- A exemplar for philosophical inquiry: Whatever your own beliefs, engagement with the different styles of careful argument employed by medieval philosophers can inspire you in your own search for wisdom.
Professor Williams notes that medieval Christian philosophy was largely disengaged from the political and cultural currents of the time, so that these lectures necessarily concentrate almost exclusively on philosophy. Nonetheless, it is significant that so much intellectual energy went into addressing issues of faith. If you are interested in medieval history this course will serve as a fascinating philosophical backdrop to illuminate debates that occupied many of the greatest minds of the era.
Eight Extraordinary Philosophers
Who were these great minds? Among the philosophers you will encounter in this course, you focus on eight in detail:
- Augustine of Hippo (354–430) was influenced by Plato’s distinction between the intelligible realm, which is perfect and accessible only by the mind; and the sensible realm, which is imperfect and apprehensible by the senses. He argued that God’s perfection and goodness is equally manifest in both spheres.
- Boethius (c. 476–c. 526) wrote his influential The Consolation of Philosophy while in prison awaiting execution. In the book, philosophy is personified as a woman who shows how human freedom and moral responsibility are possible within God’s providential governance of the universe.
- Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) formed his views as a teacher of monks who wished to understand logically what they believed by faith. Anselm’s most famous demonstration of a Christian truth is his “ontological argument” for God’s existence, which holds that God is “that than which a greater cannot be thought.”
- Peter Abelard (1079–1142) acknowledged that God surpasses the power of human understanding, but he was not willing to make the incomprehensibility of God an excuse for obscurity or careless thinking. Some of his bold reformulations of Christian doctrine provoked ecclesiastical censure.
Plato continued to be the dominant influence on medieval philosophers until the 13th century, when the translation of most of Aristotle’s works into Latin offered a powerful and controversial tool for systematizing Christian thought. The second half of this course examines philosophers engaging with this new trend.
- Bonaventure (1217–74) was willing to borrow Aristotle’s teachings when he found them useful, as in his account of theoretical knowledge; but he rejected Aristotle’s view that the world has always existed and argued passionately against what he took to be excessive enthusiasm for Aristotle.
- Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) used the works of Aristotle as his primary philosophical inspiration, developing arguments for the existence of God as well as an account of the powers and limits of human reason in knowing God. After Aquinas’s death, some of his views were officially proscribed by the Condemnation of 1277.
- John Duns Scotus (1265/66–1308) began from roughly the same theory of knowledge as Aquinas but ended up with a radically different account of religious language. He was known as the “Subtle Doctor” for his ingenious arguments. His surname, Duns, is the origin of our word “dunce”—a slur on the ineptness of his imitators.
- William of Ockham (c. 1288–1347) made famous the principle now called “Ockham’s razor,” which gives preference to simplicity in explanations. His tenacity in using this principle led to a breakdown in the harmonious relationship between theology and philosophy envisioned by both Aquinas and Scotus.
By the end of Ockham’s life Aristotelianism was losing ground rapidly. Within a generation, a new Renaissance version of Platonism was widespread and thriving. Thus a philosophical era that began with Augustine’s adoption of a Platonic worldview closed, a thousand years later, with the revival of a very similar outlook.
Faith Seeking Understanding
The golden age of philosophers pursuing both reason and faith may be long past, but their mission continues to inspire thoughtful people today—not least Professor Williams.
In the first lecture he notes: “I got interested in philosophy as a teenager because of religious questions—questions about how to make sense of the things I believed, how to defend them, how to understand them, and how to make them square with other things I knew, or thought I knew. And I quickly became attracted to medieval philosophers precisely because their questions were my questions. Their project, like mine, was one of faith seeking understanding; and they carried out that project with a rigor, an intensity, and—I think—a success that is unmatched in the history of philosophy.”
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