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Monday, January 7, 2013

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Book Review 1: God and Reason In the Middle Ages, by Edward Grant

A magnificent corpus of historical veracity.

by Ferdinand III


Edward Grant is one of the most respected historians of the Middle Ages. He dispenses quite easily with the 'Dark Ages' nonsense, which permeates the collective modern consciousness, formed as it was by the ego's of the 'Enlightenment' era, such as Gibbon or Voltaire; or by the romantic hogwash of Walter Scott, all of whom were products of the revolutions of the mind, spirit, matter, and reason during the Middle Ages.


Without the momentous events that unfolded in the Middle Ages, during the period from approximately 1100 to 1500, the seventeenth-century version of the Age of Reason could not have occurred.”


This statement is an obvious truism. Remove Christian Scholasticism, Christian reason and science, and Christian enquiry of natural philosophy and there is no 17th century 'age of science', or the 18th century's 'age of enlightenment'.


The modern world is a direct derivative of the Middle Ages, and especially of the high Middle Ages 1100-1300 A.D.

Nothing less than a capacity for establishing the foundations of the nation state, parliaments, democracy, commerce, banking, higher education, and various literary forms, such as novels and history. By the late Middle Ages, Europe had also produced numerous labor saving technological innovations. The profound problems involved in reconciling church and state, and natural philosophy and Scripture were first seriously encountered in this same period. Indeed it was during the Middle Ages that canon and civil law were reorganized and revitalized....from the canon law also came the concept of a corporation, which enabled various institutions in the West – commercial, educational, and religious – to organize and govern themselves in a manner that had never been done before.”


Reason informed faith. The two were complementary, not mutually exclusive:

With perhaps a few exceptions, philosophers, scientists, and natural philosophers in the ancient and medieval periods believed unequivocally in the existence of a unique, objective world that, with the exception of miracles, was regarded as intelligible, lawful, and essentially knowable.”


Europe, between the 9th and 13th centuries experienced the greatest increase in living standards in human history. The entire construct of living was altered: “[at the end of the 12th century]...the level of commerce and manufacturing in Europe was probably greater than it had been at the height of the Roman Empire....A money economy had come into being.... Thus it was that cities became a powerful force in the economic, political, religious, and cultural life of the European continent.”


Clement, St. Augustine, Boethius and many other Christian theologians in the 4th and 5th centuries laid down Platonic, Aristotelian, and natural philosophical frameworks which would be the basis of centuries of debate, investigation, and rational discourse.


....between the fourth and eight centuries, such authors as Macrobius, Chalcidius, Martianus, Capella, Boethius, Cassiodorus, Isidore of Seville, and Venerable Bede, produced the means for understanding the cosmic structure and operation of the world. For natural philosophy in the form of cosmology and cosmic reflections, they relied primarily on the Timaeus of Plato....”


The understanding of natural biology and philosophy was undoubtedly rather meagre during the Middle Ages. But it was a start, and the Church both supported and funded its development, as it also abetted and invigorated economic and scientific experimentation and creation.


As Grant relates there is a direct thread between Boethuis and say Anselm of Canterbury who was the first Christian Scholastic – a term used to describe the methodological use of reason to understand and support faith, a process in which natural philosophy and revelatory theology are debated, mixed, rejected at times, or merged. Anselm lived in the late 11th century and he was a direct progeny of earlier Christian – rationalist thinkers dating back to the days of Clement in the 4th century.


Anselm's application of rigorous reasoning to theology has earned him the title 'father of scholasticism'. He was apparently the first to treat theology in a manner sufficiently rigorous to lay the foundations for its conversion to a science by twelfth and thirteenth-century theologians.”


Europe's scientific 'method' and 'revolution', wrongly attributed to the 17th century, is an outcome of the Christian scholastic application of reason to everything in the world, including scripture. During the Middle Ages reason was applied as a standard to measure and evaluate everything from natural biology to liturgy and revelation. Reason was also used to evangelize the faith and guard it from heresy:


When the Dominican Order was formed in the first quarter of the thirteenth century to combat the Cathars, the members of the order studied Aristotelian natural philosophy in depth to provide rational and natural arguments that could be used in their preachings against their determined heretical foes.”


As Grant outlines, all of the great ancient thinkers – Pythagoras, Euclid, Archimedes, Hiero, Galen, Aristotle and Plato [and many others besides] – were well known to the Medieval scholar. They were used extensively and built upon or in some cases, either redacted and corrected or simply rejected. There is much that is wrong in Aristotle for example. But there is no dispute that he did rely on reason, even if his own use of science, empiricism, rigorous methodology and common-sense was at times, severely in short supply. Medieval Christian scholars knew and recognized such shortcomings in their search for reason, God, beauty, understanding and truth based on free-will rationality.


More from Grant later.


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