1277

I’m still slowly working my way through Gwenaëlle Aubry’s Genèse du dieu souverain. She notes that Peter Abelard’s student Peter Lombard (1096-1160) — whose Sentences became the standard textbook of Christian theology throughout the later European middle ages — rejected the novel teachings of Abelard, and defended basically Augustinian views on omnipotence. A more radical notion of omnipotence was advanced by Hugh of Saint-Cher (c. 1200-1263), who first introduced the distinction between God’s potentia absoluta or “absolute” power, and what he called potentia conditionata or “conditioned” power, which later authors referred to as potentia ordinata. Although Bonaventure, Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas among others rejected Hugh’s distinction, it would later be adopted by Duns Scotus and many others.

Aubry argues that Bishop of Paris Etienne Tempier’s condemnation of 219 propositions in 1277 actually reflected a less extreme, more traditionally Augustinian, stance on omnipotence than the “absolute power” of Hugh of Saint-Cher. I’ve briefly commented on the 1277 condemnation before.

The accepted mid-20th century view was that the condemnation was prompted by the emergence of a trend of “Latin Averroism”, of which Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia were supposed to have been the leading representatives. The translations of Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle from the Arabic were largely responsible for the rise of Latin Aristotelianisms, but closer scholarship has shown that even the most “Averroist” Latin thinkers considered themselves simply as Aristotelian, and diverged from the more particular views of Averroes on important details. A revised view of the condemnation was that it simply addressed “radical Aristotelianism” — a wholehearted embrace of Aristotle and various Arabic philosophers that was deemed to be in conflict with Christianity.

Alain de Libera has emphasized, however, that what the condemnation addressed was not merely doctrinal or academic matters, but the first social emergence of “intellectuals” in Europe, along with the idea of an ethical Aristotelianism as a way of life. While some authors have seen this as an essentially secular development and as a direct challenge to Christianity, de Libera, Kurt Flasch, and Burkhard Mojsisch have made the picture much more complicated by documenting on the one hand how this development was continued by the German students of Albert the Great, and on the other that the trend of Rhenish mysticism that included the great Meister Eckhart developed out of German Albertism.

The condemned propositions themselves are quite diverse — from praise of philosophy, reason, and this-worldly ethics to general questioning of authority; to assertion of various limits on God’s power; to Aristotelian emphasis on the importance of “secondary” causes; to theses on the characteristics of neoplatonic separate intellects; to expressions of astrological determinism; to rejection of specific points of accepted Christian doctrine. It is unlikely that any single person adhered to them all; certainly the German Albertist Dominicans whom de Libera, Flasch, and Mojsisch have associated with the broader trend addressed by the condemnation would have not have endorsed the rejection of points of common doctrine.

Those who have seen a theological-political confrontation between Augustinianism and Aristotelianism in the condemnation are not wrong, but it is more complicated than that. The Albertists did not see themselves as opposed to Augustine.

Scholars have debated whether any of the condemned propositions were intended to target Thomas Aquinas. Shortly after the condemnation, Bishop Tempier in fact attempted a move against the teaching of the not-yet-canonized Aquinas, which was thwarted in part by the efforts of Albert the Great, who traveled back to Paris to defend the reputation of his recently deceased student. In between, Tempier succeeded in getting the theologian Giles of Rome reprimanded, although Giles was allowed to resume teaching shortly thereafter and did not much change his arguments. Giles was himself the author of a treatise on the “errors of the philosophers”, but this did not prevent him from making use of philosophical arguments in his theology. Theology during this time generally became far more involved with philosophical questions than it had been.

Albert the Great, who along with Roger Bacon was the first European to lecture on the main body of Aristotle’s works after they were translated from the Arabic, developed a style in which he would alternately say “now I speak as a philosopher” and then “now I speak as a theologian”. This was in contrast to Aquinas, who preferred to emphasize the unity of truth. Around the time of Tempier’s condemnation, unnamed “Averroists” were accused of holding that Christianity and “philosophy” contradicted one another but were somehow both true. Scholars have generally concluded that no one literally held such a view, but it strikes me that it might have originated as a hostile caricature of Albert.

Errors of the Philosophers

As the works of Aristotle and other authors translated from the Arabic became unbanned and began to be understood, this caused considerable tension in the previously insular Latin West. Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and others worked to reconcile the two intersecting traditions. Secular masters of arts who were not theologians often concentrated mainly on reading the new texts as they stood — a tradition that continued through the Renaissance. The bishop of Paris issued lists of condemned propositions in 1270 and 1277 (see Wikipedia and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Scholars generally agree that there was no coherent group or single individual targeted by the whole of the longer 1277 one, which also contained a few propositions endorsed by the not-yet-canonized Aquinas.

In the 20th century, Pierre Duhem influentially claimed that the 1277 condemnation had a large positive effect on nascent medieval natural science, by freeing it from the alleged dogmatism of Aristotle, but with more research, scholarly consensus has backed sharply away from this (although I think there is still some distance to go). This is a good example of the lingering effects of anti-Aristotelian prejudice. Contrary to the stereotype, medieval Aristotelians often cheerfully adopted new ideas when they seemed to have merit, and Italian Aristotelianism in particular was especially friendly to such developments.

A little treatise attributed to Giles of Rome (excerpt relating to Aristotle here) on “the errors of the philosophers” appeared around 1270. In other writings, Giles was by no means hostile to all philosophy, but here he focused on matters of theological concern at the time, with a bit more motivation and analysis than the actual condemnations. “Philosophers” refers with some specificity to the canon of falsafa translated from the Arabic.

As Giles analyzed it, the main issue underlying concerns about Aristotle himself lay in the principle that later scholastics referred to as “nothing comes from nothing”, and that Leibniz later endorsed as the principle of sufficient reason. Leibniz and others found this constructive-flavored notion implicit in Aristotelian and neoplatonic thought to be compatible with theological concerns. More generally, many theologians have found ways to read the broad spirit of Greek rationalism and naturalism as not inherently opposed to their concerns. Greek rationalism and naturalism, unlike many of their modern variants, were not reductive in nature. The thought of Aristotle in particular provides sophisticated resources for integrating concepts of immanent purpose in a rational account of the world that makes no special pleadings.

The notion of creation from nothing is itself a theological interpretation not literally present in Genesis, but creation in time is literally present, and many theologians have been reluctant to give it a figurative interpretation, even though broad principles of interpretation as far back as Augustine allow for figurative interpretation when there are issues with a literal reading. Aquinas, for one, took a diplomatic middle position that reason cannot decide between possibilities of eternal creation or creation in time, so he adopted a forgiving attitude toward Aristotle on the related question of the eternity of the world. I believe Aristotle and the neoplatonists on the other hand clearly thought reason did rule out a creation in time, and that this did not in any way destroy higher spiritual values. Personally, I want to say that they were right on this, so I respectfully disagree with the diplomatic Thomistic position, while considering it historically progressive in its context. (See also Fortunes of Aristotle; God and the Soul; Strong Omnipotence; Occasionalism; Pseudo-Dionysius on the Soul.)