Sunday, November 23, 2014

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Aristotle and the Church – a complex relationship.

The Enlightenment- wrong again.

by Ferdinand III

The 'Enlightenment' detested Aristotle, mostly because Aristotelian theory supported much of Church liturgy and science. To debunk the Church and the entire corpus of Christian Scholasticism which gave rise to both the modern world and science [long before Galileo there was light]; the post-Baroque eras had to dispense with Aristotle. Much of what the Greek sage wrote was of course wrong, and there was precious little experimentation in his work. But his insistence that natural processes and observable facts were a vital part in understanding reality is undeniable. So too was his belief that reason whatever that word may mean and in whatever various forms it may take, could not by itself explain everything in the world around us, especially the miracle of life. It was this latter advancement which so offended the self-proclaimed geniuses of the Enlightenment.

Aristotle maintained that there could only be one world and one planet with life which contained a conscious being, namely ourselves. Most of the ancient Greek philosophers, excluding Epicurus [only material processes exist] and Democritus [everything is chaotic atoms], knew that the complexity of life could not arise by chance, and that the complexity of variables which form life, reality and even our own consciousness would not arise randomly. The modern belief that atoms crashing around in some material-naturalist process turning mud into the medical professional is hardly new. It is a pagan concept as old as philosophy.

The Church and the 'West' knew all about Aristotle long in advance of the modern era, as the 4th century writings of St. Augustine, and the 5th century essays by Boethius make clear. Byzantium, the great Christian center of learning with the world's most advanced corpus of learning and science, was in constant cultural, military and trade contact with the West dating from the time of Justinian [early 6th century]. Transmission of Greek and Roman texts was a long, tedious and painful process, from Byzantium westwards but it occurred long before the Saracen invasions and destruction.

Within the Church between the time of St. Augustine [circa 400 AD] and St. Thomas Aquinas [circa 1240 AD], we find that there were 3 basic reactions to Aristotle's ideas. St. Augustine and his followers adamantly rejected all of Aristotelian naturalism as anathema to the Christian idea of an immanent and all-powerful God. St. Thomas and his disciples cautiously embraced Aristotelian theory and Christianized it. A third group with Siger of Brabant at its head, enthusiastically received Aristotelian ideas and propounded them as superior to much of Church doctrine. The Enlightenment idea that the Church uniformly and without reservation accepted Aristotle’s various theories about naturalism, is of course quite false.

There is plenty within Aristotelian theology which is wrong and undeniably absurd including concepts such as a stationary Earth, a 3 layered cosmos, evolution, fixed geo-centricity, incorrect ideas about atmospheric chemical composition etc. However, one should not apply modern knowledge and even techniques to a man and his academy which existed 2300 years ago. In this vein the reaction of the Church to Aristotle's ideas strikes the observer as both normal, and commendable. After thought, experimentation, and inquiry some within the Church accepted part of Aristotle’s very large corpus of work. Others rejected some aspects of it. A few either imbibed all of it, or dispensed with the entire lot of it.

I see nothing irrational in any of this. It demonstrates a healthy regard for both debate and rational investigation. This of course destroys the Enlightenment myth that the Church in-toto, slavering, spitting, dumb and unclean, accepted Aristotle. It certainly did not, especially the musings that were entirely materialistic and naturalistic including evolution. And it was the Church and its scientists who uncovered the basic laws of science, including long before Galileo, mean speed theorems, gravity, rotational speed of the Earth [see the writings of Pope Sylvester II in 999]; and heliocentricity. Aristotelian ideas were part of the investigation of nature, matter, reality and the immaterial. They were neither preeminent within Church doctrine, nor were they rejected. They were analyzed, dissected, some Aristotelian ideas were accepted, some discarded. This appears to be entirely rational.