Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2868: SCHOLASTICISM

by Andrew Boyd

Today, reason or revelation? The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

We no longer refer to the period stretching from the fifth to fifteenth century as the Dark Ages, opting instead for the Middle Ages. Certainly, the time from the collapse of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance wasn’t Western Civilization’s most intellectually productive. But it witnessed some important steps on the path to the Enlightenment.

Among those steps was scholasticism. From Christianity’s earliest days, Church scholars were confronted with the question of how to reconcile faith with reason. But during the Middle Ages it was thrust to the forefront with the rediscovery of Aristotle. While most of Aristotle’s works had been lost to Western Civilization, they’d been preserved in the Arabic world by Muslim scholars. Translations made their way back to the West beginning in the twelfth century, arriving in centers of learning which were steeped in the Christian faith.

Aristotle

What were scholars, who at the time were primarily theologians, to make of Aristotle? On one hand, he was greatly admired; a towering historical figure. On the other, many of his views were heretical. Aristotle believed, for instance, that the world had always existed, a position in direct contradiction with the biblical account of creation.

Middle Ages

The response by Christian scholars varied. In some cases, Aristotle’s works were banned. But the predominant impact was a renewed emphasis on reason.

Scholasticism was in part about a means of reasoning; a means we still use today. The scholastic method of teaching involves constant questioning. Arguments are made for and against propositions. A rational discussion then ensues until a clear understanding is reached. A proposition isn’t true just because someone says so.

But scholasticism was more than just a means of reasoning. It was about illuminating the faith. How could reason shed light on faith in previously unimagined ways? Nowhere is this clearer than in the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, arguably the most influential of the scholastics.

Saint Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas reads like a philosopher. Propositions. Arguments. Conclusions. The logic in his thinking is clearly on display. But his every conclusion validates his faith. Aquinas derived his beliefs from faith, not reason. To do otherwise, he believed, “would be to elevate the human mind above the divine mind.” Reason was a gift from the Perfect One, useful for solidifying — and in many cases establishing — Church doctrine. But push come to shove, reason was subservient to faith.

And that’s why scholastics have often been marginalized, and understandably so in a world where evidence-based reason reigns supreme. Still, scholasticism offers a window into a period from which humankind would springboard into a new era; a vivid picture of the creative mind at the sunset of the Middle Ages.

I’m Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we’re in-terested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Notes and references:

P. Eardley and C. Still. Aquinas: A Guide for the Perplexed. London and New York: Continuum Publishing, 2010.

Rediscovery of Aristotle. From the Wikipedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rediscovery_of_Aristotle. Accessed March 12, 2013.

Scholasticism. From the Catholic Encyclopedia website: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13548a.htm. Accessed March 12, 2013.

Scholasticism. From the Wikipedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scholasticism. Accessed March 12, 2013.

All pictures are from Wikimedia Commons.

This episode was first aired on March 14, 2013.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2013 by John H. Lienhard.