The following is a paper that I wrote in 1999. I need to get back into this stuff!

Aeternitas Mundi and the Independence of Philosophy



      In the early part of the second millenium, contact with Islamic civilization in the Balkans, in Spain, and on the seaways of the Mediterranean reintroduced Christian thinkers to a long-forgotten Aristotle, and to the living intellectual bargain stuck between philosophy and Islamic theology. Compounding new chunks of the Aristotelian corpus to his logic, western Europeans of the thirteenth century faced an exotic philosophical system of enormous depth and complexity. Aristotelianism represented, not some philosophical-cum-mystical movement, such as the heresies of the Patristic church and the late Middle Ages, but an explanation, complete unto itself, of the world in completely material terms. For the first time since its clash with Stoicism and neo-Platonism many centuries earlier, Christian theology faced an independent philosophical system capable of supporting a forest of theories any many hedges of proofs on its own turf. Within this episode, a flashpoint of controversy was the doctrine of creation: the question of the eternity of the world broached again as major metaphysical hurdle for Aristotelianism in any form. Here, we will consider the reactions of Thomas Aquinas, Siger of Brabant, and Boethius of Dacia to this question.


The Condemnation of Aristotelianism


      At the University of Paris, then the intellectual capital of Christendom, scholastic philosophers of the thirteenth century responding to the challenge of Aristotle fell into three distinct schools. The first of these, located practically in the person of Thomas Aquinas, sought to accommodate Aristotelian ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics to the imperatives of Christian revelation, considering the Gospel, not as the abrogation, but as the fulfillment of accurate but essentially secular philosophy. The second of these, the so-called “Latin Averroists represented chiefly by Siger of Brabant and also by Boethius of Dacia, are often thought to have accepted philosophical conclusions, as a so-called “double-truth,”  independently of apparently contradicting claims by the Bible and its interpreters. A third school arrived in the form of neo-Augustinian movement anticipated by Bonaventure and led by John Pecham and Henry of Ghent. (1)

      Local synods meeting in Paris condemned Aristotelianism in 1270 and 1277. The papacy had already forbade the teaching of the metaphysical works of Aristotle in 1231. Over the generation, this proscription would fall by the wayside. On 10 December 1270, Stephen Tempier, Bishop of Paris, condemned thirteen errors, among them four clearly associated with the teaching of Siger: that the intellect of all men is numerically one and the same; that the world is eternal; that there never was a first man; that after death the separated soul does not suffer from corporeal fire. (2) Over the next seven years, opposition to Aristotelian philosophy smoldered. In the interval, Thomas Aquinas went to his reward (1274)  and Siger of Brabant found his way into retirement (1276). On 7 March 1999, in response to a papal request for investigation, Tempier, acting upon the advice of a committee of theologians including Henry of Ghent, condemned 219 heretical propositions.

      Heading this list were propositions “that there is no more excellent state than to study philosophy” and “that the only wise men in the world are philosophers." (3) Anxious to forestall the imperialism of reason, Tempier denied “that there is no rationally disputable question that the philosophers ought not to dispute and determine, because reasons are derived from things.” (4) For “philosophy under one or another of its parts to consider all things” went hand in hand with the equally arrogant refusals “not to be content with authority to have any certitude in any question” and “not [to] hold anything unless it is self-evident or can be manifested from self-evident principles.” (5) In the same vein, the sufficiency of reason is denied in the proposition no. 8: “That our intellect by its own natural power may can obtain to a knowledge of the first cause." (6)

      On the heels of a prologue directed against the autonomy of philosophy, poured forth a cascade of assorted propositions, often redundant and occasionally contradictory, as may be expected in the output of a committee. Many idiosyncrasies in the list seem to have been occasioned by outcome of attempts by M.A.’s at the Paris to debate theology. (7) A number of the condemnations (e.g., nos. 34, 38, 39, 40) cast aspersion upon the separate existence of the soul or the intelligent principles, denying their co-temporal existence with God. Several propositions are directed not only at the radical Aristotelians, but even at Aquinas, denying matter as the mode through which men are individuated (nos. 42, 43). Prominent within those condemned were theses touching the eternity of the world. The world is not able to exist in the past because it is able to exist for the future (no. 84, cf. no. 87). The presence of newness in effects does not require corresponding newness in causes (no. 85). Related to this is the denial of the eternity both of the agent and possible intellects (no. 129), and of the generation of man (no. 138). (8)

      On the point of creation, the condemnations reveal conservative theologians intent upon preserving power and attributes of God in traditional Augustinian terms. God cannot be reduced to a prime mover distinct from the rest of the universe only by his efficient priority (cf. nos. 24, 25, 26). God, for Tempier and company, clearly exists as a being metaphysically discontinuous from and even incomprehensible to his creation. However, any purely secular understanding of the world is insufficient; faith is not accessory but necessary. Witness proposition no. 216. “That a philosopher must not concede the resurrection to come, because it cannot be investigated by reason.—This is erroneous because even a philosopher must bring his mind into captivity to the obedience of Christ." (9)




      The local historical impetus for the Condemnations of 1270 and 1277 are located in points given a century earlier by Averroes (1126-1198) in his Decisive Treatise. Discussing the differences of agreement between the ancients and his contemporary fellow Muslims, Averroes asserts that they agree that there are three classes of beings. The first, “the status of bodies whose generation is apprehended by sense,” is that of being which is brought into existence by other than itself and by something . . . and it is preceded in time." (10) The second class is God, “the being which is not made from or by anything and is not preceded in time." (11) To Averroes, a third class of being exists about which all confusion centers, “that which is not made from anything and which is not preceded by time, but which is brought into existence by something." (12) To Averroes, this is simply the world. Noting that both theologians and philosophers agree on the future infinite extension of time, Averroes narrows their disagreement to the issue of the past finitude or infinitude of its past existence.

      To the Arab, this difference is not especially great, certainly not enough to brand the philosophers’ position “irreligious.” Not only is he unable to secure a proof-text for the divine existence apart from any other book, but he argues that the Koran apparently posits further modes of being not only after this present time, but also before. By this tactic, he is able to reduce both theologians and philosophers to the “level playing field” of allegorizing the apparent meaning of revelation. For Averroes, the theological allegory is deficient precisely because it lacks the consensus held by the philosophers. (13)


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