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Adelard's Questions and Ockham's Razor:
Connections between Medieval Philosophy and Modern Science

(Released November 2008)

  by Carolyn Scearce  


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The Early Middle Ages


During the transition between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages a number of pivotal events and people exerted a long lasting influence that helped to shape the intellectual character of the medieval period. Constantine, a fourth century Roman emperor, reshaped both the map and the religious direction of the age to follow. Prior to Constantine's rule, Rome viewed Christianity with suspicion and distaste. During his lifetime, however, Constantine sanctioned and on his death bed converted to Christianity. By this change, Christianity went from being a persecuted sect to being allied with temporal authority. Additionally, Constantine moved the capitol of the empire to Constantinople. This move led to the division of the empire into two parts, the Greek speaking east and the Latin speaking west. While the eastern empire survived for another thousand years, social and political instability eroded the western empire to a shadow of its former authority.

map of German migrations into Roman empire
Germanic Migration. The western Roman Empire is in orange, the eastern in blue.

The intellectual heritage on which Western Culture, and consequently modern science, is founded rests not on the empire that survived, but on the empire that fell. From the fragments of this disintegrating empire, new cultures were formed. In the fifth century Vandals sacked Rome, and in the centuries that followed Rome was periodically invaded by various barbarian groups. Barbarians may have conquered Rome in a physical sense, but Rome returned the favor in a cultural and moral sense. Even in decline Roman culture still had much to offer in the form of language, literature, laws, education, the new state religion of Christianity, and material artifacts. The physical conquest of Western Europe by Rome may have come to an end around the fifth century, but its cultural influence lasts to modern times. To the varied tribes and kingdoms of the west, Latin became the second language of the literate classes. This shared language allowed the various Western European kingdoms to create a single intellectual community.

thugs grabbing Roman women
Vandals sacking Rome

The Latin west did not rebuild its civilization in isolation. The Medieval period is really a story of three faiths and the interactions of their three cultures: the Christianity of the Byzantine East and the Catholic West, the Islamic Middle East, and a scattered Jewish population (Durant, 1950). Though this Discovery Guide focuses most directly on the Latin West, the importance of the interaction between Arabic and western culture cannot be overlooked in developing a coherent narrative relating the intellectual development of medieval European culture.

Cultural borrowing plays an important role in the story of the intellectual development of the Middle Ages. Medieval culture borrowed from Roman culture, which had previously borrowed from Greek culture. Medieval society developed its social structure on Roman conventions, but Greek philosophy played an important role in the development of medieval philosophy. The works of Plato and his student Aristotle defined much of the philosophical debate of the Middle Ages. The two philosophers held very different views on the nature of reality. Plato privileged conceptual reality over physical reality. He doubted the ability of sensory information to provide a reliable picture of ultimate reality. Since human experience is mediated through sensory interaction, Plato did not offer much hope for humans to genuinely comprehend ultimate reality. Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that physical reality was ultimate reality. He believed the physical world was causal and intelligible. Sensory information was usually reliable, and with the aid of reason and sensory input, humans could gain a reliable understanding of the universe. The differing views of Plato and Aristotle became an important point of contention in the Middle Ages. In the early Middle Ages, however, Platonic philosophy held sway, as can be seen in the contribution of two very important intellectuals of the time, Augustine and Boethius.

Augustine with pen and apple
Saint Augustine, 354 - 430 A.D.

Augustine, the most influential theologian of the early Middle Ages, initially resisted, but was eventually converted to the Christian faith of his mother. He lived during the fifth century. Though he resided in North Africa during the sack of Rome, news of its capture troubled him and profoundly influenced his latter work; he dedicated 14 years to his response in The City of God. Augustine's intellectual leanings attracted him to Platonic philosophy. He shaped his theology around Platonic thought, taking what aspects he could readily reconcile with his faith and discarding the rest. He advocated co-opting any useful knowledge from paganism, and felt that with the use of reason, Christians could beat pagans at their own game. Augustine believed that knowledge could only be obtained through direct sensory experience. Since history and even language were not accessible to direct experience, he felt it necessary to accept authority in the process of seeking truth (Williams, 2007). Faith and authority served as the truth seekers' starting point, and then reason could be used to test faith and authority to confirm truth.

Boethius, a sixth century philosopher and statesman, served as consol under Goth occupied Rome. Son of a prominent senatorial family, in his youth he received 18 years of education in Athens. Prompted by concern over the decline in Greek literacy, Boethius embarked on an ambitious translation project. He intended to translate all of Aristotle's philosophical and ethical works as well as the complete dialogues of Plato from Greek into Latin (Luscombe, 1997). Boethius succeeded in translating Aristotle's works on logic, and also contributed educational texts on mathematics and music. An accusation of treason interrupted Boethius' translation efforts; he was thrown into prison where he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy. Though generally Boethius was more comfortable with Aristotle than Augustine was, in this most influential of his original works, he held a Platonic rather than Aristotelian outlook. Soon after finishing this work he was executed.

Though Augustine expressed some interest in natural philosophy, he felt the highest purpose of mankind was to turn their thoughts to God. The best case he made for the study of natural philosophy was that Christians should not make themselves appear ridiculous in their description of natural phenomena by advocating views that better educated people knew to be untrue (Williams, 2007). Augustine's theology dominated Medieval thought for over half a millennia and through it a second hand Platonism. The only actual Platonic text that was passed down to the early Middle Ages was a partial rendition of the Timaeus. Boethius' original and translated works served as a major part of the early medieval educational curriculum. A number of Boethius' Aristotelian translations were lost, at least temporarily, before they could be transmitted to his immediate successors.

Platonic philosophy is not as conducive to the study of natural philosophy as are Aristotelian views. After Boethius, early medieval thinkers had no access to Aristotle's metaphysical thought or his study of natural philosophy. Times were marked by political and civil instability, and the leisure required for intellectual pursuit was frequently lacking. Consequently, it is hardly surprising that the early Middle Ages did not contribute much to the pursuit of natural philosophy.

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