Reason and Society in the Middle Ages

by Alexander Murray

This book was given to me by the attendees of one of the early Phrontisterions (2004?) in appreciation for the service I had rendered in organizing the conference. I read it back then and learned a great deal. However, what you get from a book depends heavily on what you bring to the experience, and given all the new material I have read on the Middle Ages, I decided that a re-reading might be worthwhile for my continuing research in the history of thinking

Some would call this book ‘wide-ranging’; I think it is better described as a brain dump. The author appears to have memorized every document written in Europe during the Middle Ages, organized it all by reference to reason and its role in society, and dumped the resulting heap onto the pages of this book. It is certainly a well-organized heap, but it still reads like a brain dump rather than a single thesis. The author is spilling a lifetime of research onto the reader. As such, it doesn’t make for exciting reading, but it is nevertheless chock full of important observations.

The most important of these is the triumph of rationalism in the European mind. Now, Europe had inherited from classical times their notion of the importance of rationalism, but classical rationalism was little more than the intellectual discipline required to inhibit one’s emotional reactions. Classical rationalism wasn’t about the details of how to think rationally; it was instead the principle that one should not permit emotion to cloud one’s thinking. 

The Europeans accepted this principle, but they took it a step further: they recognized that knowledge plus logical thinking bestowed power. Mr. Murray provides a nice example of this from the book Secretum Secretorum (“The Secret of Secrets”). This book has a murky history. It presented itself as a guide written by Aristotle for Alexander, but we know that to be a falsehood. Still, the false attribution hyped the book: Aristotle was the smartest of the ancients, and Alexander was the greatest conquerer in history, so obviously the ’secrets’ that Aristotle gave Alexander were worth learning, right? The Europeans got it from the Islamic scholars, but we don’t know whether they got it from classical sources. Whatever the case, this book was not highly esteemed by Islamic scholars, but the Europeans went wild over it. This was a best-seller, to the limited degree that was possible when books had to be copied by hand onto expensive parchment. Something like 250 copies of this book are STILL extant in the libraries of Europe.

The popularity of the book arose from a theme that recurs though out, best exemplified by this quote:

Now I will tell you a short maxim which alone would suffice to guide you in all matters temporal and spiritual, even if I had not told you others. O Alexander, the head of policy and judgement is Reason. It is the health of the soul and the mirror of faults… it is the chief of all praiseworthy things, and the fountain-head of all glories.

Another theme that Murray develops is the rising importance of arithmetic in European. This went hand in hand with the rise of mercantilism. In many other societies of the time, especially the Chinese, merchants were held to be necessary evils. They produced nothing of value themselves; all they did was buy other people’s products and sell them at a higher price. As such, they were, in the view of many, leeches who added nothing to society. 

While such views permeated Europe in the early Middle Ages, after about 1000 CE, that started to change. Merchants started to gain street cred, thereby attracting more talent. Skill in arithmetic was a big advantage for a merchant, so schools teaching the basic skills of the merchant — reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic — popped up, first in Italy, and later spreading to the rest of Europe. Certainly by 1400 CE, the average European merchant was both literature and numerate. 

As the reputation of reason grew in European society, class structures shifted. A chasm opened up between the educated few and the uneducated peasantry. Educated people sniffed at their illiterate inferiors, and whenever the peasants went on one of their periodic rampages, they always sought out educated people to kill. 

Intellectual snobbery extended upwards, too. A major theme in the evolution of the Church during the Middle Ages was the replacement of nobility in the hierarchy with educated clerics. The underlying logic was simple enough: why give a bishopric to some illiterate noble who can’t even read the Bible? Over the course of centuries, the educated class made this argument stick. It even began extending into the governments themselves: if you wanted to be important in court, it was a good idea to learn to read and write.

Thus, over the 500 years from about 1000 CE to 1500 CE, Europe developed an affinity for rationalism and learning. That affinity paved the way for the Scientific Revolution.