God and Reason in the Middle Ages

by Edward Grant

October 16th, 2008

This is a history of the relationship between rationalism and Christian learning during the Middle Ages. It is common knowledge that the Middle Ages were a time of anti-rational superstition. This common knowledge is all wrong. What really happened is considerably more complex. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Church became the repository of learning for Christian culture. The fundamental driving motivation here was the the reverence that the Church held for books. It wasn't just the Bible -- there were mountains of other documents that were considered essential to the Christian heritage. Writings by the Patristic Fathers (Augustine, Jerome, and others) were considered to be just as important as the Bible itself. The education of a monk included readings in the Greek and Roman classics, so these too were preserved. While the rest of Europe descended into ignorant chaos, the monasteries were islands of literacy and knowledge. And the literacy that the monasteries preserved was important to the administration of European governments, so they prospered and grew powerful.

Many if not most of the literate monks were dullards who merely read and copied, but among such a population there had to be the occasional bright mind that couldn't help but compare and contrast the ideas of the many thinkers that they were reading. The ideas of Socrates, Plato, and above all Aristotle could not be isolated from those of Paul, Augustine, and Origen. There were so many fascinating parallels and disturbing inconsistencies! Thinking led to writing, and soon these brighter clerics were putting their own thoughts down on parchment -- and these ideas also entered the stream of monastic copying.

Sometime after the Crusades, there was a blossoming of thought. Perhaps it was the tidal wave of Greek thought that passed from Islamic nations to Christendom after the Crusades. Perhaps it was the increase in the size of monasteries due to their increasing influence in society and the general increase in wealth after 1100 CE. Whatever the reason, there was an explosion of new thinking starting around 1100 CE. Thinkers such as Abelard and Aquinas tackled the problem of reconciling the rationalism of Aristotelian thought with Christian theology.

There were two separate streams of thought: natural philosophy and theology. Natural philosophy was what we today call science, and was considered to be of lesser value than theology. There was a strong feeling that the two areas should be kept separate from each other, but that separation was impossible to maintain. Both groups were deeply affected by the apparent power of the Aristotelian syllogism. Logic was rationalism made into a tool for intellectual power, a way to not just find the truth, but to prove it. And so they explored and developed the idea. Unfortunately, Aristotelian logic fell short of their needs; it was too simple, too basic to be applied to real problems. So the Christian intellectuals began developing a "technology of logic" involving all sorts of complicated terminology. There were
quiddities (the defining characteristic of any concept) and sententia (what we now call logical propositions) and other arcana.

All of this gave rise to a school of thought now known as
scholasticism. It was endlessly complicated and delighted in exploring wild and crazy hypothetical situations. The infamous question "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin" was part of scholasticism, although it was not considered an important question -- merely a curious one.

Ultimately scholasticism died of senility. Three factors contributed to its demise. First, its focus on theological questions relying on inherantly contradictory sources from the Bible and from classical literature insured that it could never reach any firm conclusions. Second, it gave second-class status to empiricism, which would have prevented it from going off on some of its wilder tangents. Third, it failed to realize the crucial importance of rigorously defined terminology when engaging in logical analysis. For example, the term energy means different things to different people, but to physicists its meaning is rigorously defined and absolutely clear. Scholasiticism never applied this concept systematically and so ended up drowning in semantic mush.

Although scholasticism itself died of senility, we must not forget that it represented the first serious, concerted effort to understand the nature of the universe in logical terms. Scholasticists were handicapped by too many obstacles, but they laid the groundwork for the subsequent development of mathematics and science. Modern science did not leap out of nothing in the 17th century; it was the culmination of cultural developments in Christendom that were initiated by the scholasticists.

The author is keen to wipe clean the stain against the Middle Ages that they were a time of irrationality and superstition. Yet I think he's wrong. It's true that a small cadre of sophisticated thinkers developed and refined rationalism and laid the foundations for scientific inquiry. But these thinkers were not representative of the Middle Ages as a whole. They were eggheads laboring in isolation. Nothing they did seeped out of their monasteries and universities to alter the societies in which they lived. So while we can extol the great thinkers who blazed the trail for later scientists, let us not extend our praise to the societies in which they lived, which remained ignorant, superstitious, and irrational.

One last tidbit: the author points out that the sphericity of the earth was common knowledge throughout the Middle Ages. The claim that people thought the earth was flat is just plain wrong.