*The Story of Western Thought.
By: Crane Binton
CHAPTER 6 - The Middle Ages
THE VERY TERM ‘‘Middle Ages’’ is a j udginent of value. Originally a derogatory one. It stood for what, its coiners considered, the thousand-year valley or depression between the great peaks of Ancient and Modern. The term and its Latin derivation ‘medieval” was firmly established in popular usage by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. By the nineteenth century the tripartite division of Ancient, Medieval and Modern had become fixed, to the extent that it has been used by Westerners for such histories as that of China, where it has no meaning at all.
A fixed, conventional nomenclature, however, sas one distinct advantage: It loses most of its original flavor of praise or blame. We think now of ‘‘medieval’’ as denoting in European history roughly the thousand years from 500 to 1500 Its earliest centuries from 500 to 900, or 1000, are sometimes known as the Dark i nc Ages, a term from which even constant use can hardly wash the e1ement of dispraise. The Middle Ages proper are cons de red as lasting with some ovcr-lapping and much imprecision from Charlemagne in the ninth century to Columbus in the fifteenth. Just as the fifth century B.C. is commonly regarded as the flowering of the culture of the polis, so the thirteenth century is regarded as the flowering of the medieval culture. Finally, this culture was that of the western part of the old Roman Empire, with the addition of the newer extensions into central Europe, Ireland, Scotland, and Scandinavia. The eastern part of the Empire, constantly encroached upon by the Slays, Arabs, and Turks, lasted in Constantinople until 1453. But its history is really the history of a separate society, and even its direct cultural influences on the West were probably less than those made by Islam.
he reputation of the Middle Ages has varied greatly in the few centuries since their end. Only quite recently, and among men scornful of classical education, has Graeco-Roman culture been attacked. But the writers and artists of the late fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries were already most contemptuous of their medieval predecessors. Many of the famous slanders on medieval culture, such as the statement that medieval philosophers spent their time debating how many angels could stand on the point of a pin, have their origin in these early years of modern times. Our own contemporary slander on the Middle Ages characteristically takes such forms as “a thousand years without a bath.” Even the adjective “Gothic,” which we now apply with overtones of praise to the architecture of medieval times, was originally a term of scorn, equivalent to “barbarous.”
The reputation of the Middle Ages was at its low point in the mid-eighteenth century, the “age of prose and reason.” The romantic movement of the next generation, headed by Sir Walter Scott, fell in love with the poetry an(l unreasonableness of what they thought of as the Middle Ages. People actually began building again in the medieval style; at one noted American university, it is said, the new Gothic stone steps were deliberately hollowed out to look worn by generations of use, as Gothic steps should. Boys during the romantic revival of medievalism played at Robin Hood, and their elders illuminated manuscripts and wrote ballads.
There was in the later nineteenth century a reaction that quelled, though it did not extinguish, this enthusiasm for the Middle Ages. Today the average American student is indifferent enough about the Middle Ages; on the whole, he tends to a vague condemnation of them as unprogressive and superstitious. But the minority of lovers and haters are both very vocal, and furnish us with our major problem in this chapter. For some, many but by no means all of them Roman Catholics, the Middle Ages, and especially the thirteenth century, represent the peak of human achieve-ment, a society without modern wealth and scientific technology, but with a basic social and moral equilibrium, a practical social justice, and a Christian way of life that more than make up for the absence of material abundance. For others, many but not all of them positivists, radicals, anti-Christians, firm believers in progress, the Middle Ages remain a barbarous, uperstitious, caste-ridden, unprogressive time of suffering for the many, of violence and empty show for the few. Each of these views contributes important elements to an understanding of the Middle Ages; each, taken as an unmodified whole, is false.
The Institutions of Medieval Culture
The first thing to get clear about medieval culture is that it had to be built slowly on what it is no mere metaphor to call ruins. The Dark Ages, though not a complete break in the complicated set of threads that tie us to the past, did see the breaking of many and the fraying of almost all these threads. \Ve cannot here attempt to measure all these breaks. They were most probably complete at the higher levels of politics and administration and in economic life. No one could run anything extensive—business, state, association of any sort—save, of course, the Catholic Church. The Church remained for these centuries the one European institution that really worked, that really held together, for one can hardly count the tradition of the Roman Empire, nor even its Law, as persisting, effective institutions in these centuries. At most, some Roman municipalities seem to have carried on. Even the Church had by the tenth century accumulated a number of abuses, marriage or concubinage of priests, sale of clerical offices, worldliness of all sorts, that cried out for reform.
From this Europe urban civilization almost vanished. Towns in western Europe were but local market centers, and those towns which came nearest our notions of urban life were commonly centers of church administration, seats of bishops or archbishops, or were growing up around the great monastic centers. Men lived for the most part in small, economically autarkic (self-sufficient) farming villages. Trade was rare, and mostly limited to articles of luxury, or to the minerals necessary to the feudal lords’ armor and swords. Even the Roman roads were abandoned, and travel confined to foot or horseback. Society was sharply divided into the feudal warrior-chieftains and the peasants and craftsmen. There was hardly any middle class. The warrior-chieftains fought among themselves, usually to the detriment of the commoners’ crops and other property. But the peasants at least did not have to fight.
At the low points of the seventh or the tenth century, many other threads of culture were nearly severed. Formal thought was preserve(l by the Church, and Latin was never wholly lost. The Latin of the Dark Ages was, however, a simplified and sometimes a most ungrammatical Latin. What new writing there was concerned itself almost wholly with religion, and was mostly mere compilation from and comment on earlier work. What is sometimes called the Carolingian Renaissance of the eighth and ninth centuries, associated with the emperor Charlemagne, is hardly more than an elementary revival (if rather more grammatical Latin, and a beginning of the characteristically medieval formal education to which we shall come in a moment.
Yet we must not exaggerate. At the top the Catholic Church held together, and at the bottom, in local life, in the things that touch the individual, many threads held. On the whole, techniques of getting a living probably suffered less than nineteenth-century thought. Agricultural skills fell off from the highest Roman standards, but those standards had been far from universal in the Empire. Artistic skills in a technical sense probably suffered; the lines from master to apprentice were broken. Still, there was some excellent stone carving in almost every century, and it may be that the desire rather than the ability to be photographically faithful to nature in art was lost. The typical craftsman’s skills in textiles, weapons, furniture, and the like were roughened, but again by no means lost. The monks who cleared the forests and drained the swamps introduced new methods; they improved. invented.
Gradually the full fabric of civilization was restored, so that in the high Middle Ages, the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, only a blind hater of things medieval would deny the existence of a fully developed culture. Even materially, the culture of the centers of this new world, France, England, the Low Countries, northern Italy, the Rhineland, had reached as high a level as that attained by the Greeks and the Romans. Intellectually and emotionally this new culture represents a way of life which, as we have noted, still fascinates many of us today.
The Church remained in the high Middle Ages the great center of intellectual life. For the first time in ‘Western society, there came to be a systematic, graded education under common control. It was not universal education, but it was an education open to really bright, bookish boys (not, of course, girls) even from the lowest classes. The common control was not a single bureaucratic one, like a state superintendent of education; it was that of the Catholic Church, with its numerous organs of education and administration, with its admirably organized clergy, and with its supreme head in the pope.
The elementary schools had grown up around monastic centers, or as adjuncts of cathedrals, occasionally as town schools. They taught the very elementary things, and especially Latin, which was no longer spoken as a common tongue except among the learned. Note, however, that for the learned it was a spoken as well as a written tongue, and the bright little boys began it very young. Education of the upper classes, neglected in the Dark Ages, gradually resulted in the literacy or semi-literacy of a large number of noblemen; but even so, most upper-class education was in the arts of war and the chase and in the practice of running estates.
The characteristic educational institution of the Middle Ages, rnd one of its major legacies to us, is the university. Next to the Roman Catholic Church itself, certain universities, Paris, Oxford, and Bologna for instance, are the oldest unbroken human institutions in the Western world today. (France and England, it may be argued, are older as nations, but they are certainly not politically unbroken institutions.) Most of these universities had their start very early in the Middle Ages, as church schools or the like. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries they had attained their characteristic form, a fcrmal association of teachers and scholars into a corporate whole with very great freedom from political authorities, and with at least freedom of status within the ecclesiastical organization. These universities, after proper examination, conferred degrees, that of Master of Arts qualifying the recipient for most intellectual occupations, though the doctorate was very soon established as a qualification for the highest posts.
These universities taught the higher reaches of the subjects that formed the established basis of medieval formal education—the famous quadrivium (geometry, astronomy, music, and arithmetic) and the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric). Do not let these formal names mislead you. Actually under these strange names there lies concealed most of what still forms the basis of liberal education. The experimental sciences are not there, and neither, of course, are the amazing variety of practical subjects, from the internal combustion engine to success in marriage, that have somehow got into modern American educational curricula. The medieval student, after grounding in Latin as a living scholarly tongue and literature and in the mathematical sciences (quadrivium), could go on to study one of the two genuinely learned professions, law or medicine, or he could go on to what is basically the equivalent of our graduate work in philosophy and literature. Both the philosophy and the literature (Latin) would seem restricted to a modern scholar used to the great a Ia carte list of courses in a modern graduate school. But, as we shall see, the formal thought of the Middle Ages grappled with all the major problems of learning.
By the thirteenth century the learned career had come to be a fully recognized part of medieval social organization at the intellectual level. There was impcrium, the function of political administration, sacerdotium, the priestly function, and studium, the scholarly function. There was even, among the university students themselves, something we should recognize as college life. The contrast of “town and gown” dates from medieval times. The students played, drank, sang, and organized hoaxes and practical jokes; there were student riots, not infrequently accompanied by bloodshed. The whole thing was infinitely less organized, less a mirror of the adult world, than our own American “youth culture.” Still, as compared with the life of the young in Greece or Rome, this medieval student life has a very modern flavor.
Admirers of the Middle Ages—indeed, some very distinguished and scholarly students of the Middle Ages—have insisted that the basic underlying spirit of the medieval studium was very different indeed from that of modern higher education. The absence of experimental science from formal medieval education and the presence of a single, universally acknowlcdgcd religious faith, are obvious differences; they characterize, however, the wholc of medieval intellectual life, and to them we shall return. The difference more usually noted for student life in itself is the absence, in medieval times, of our acute modern spirit of competition, an acceptance of one’s position in life. And indeed, although in purely intellectual matters medieval Schoolmcn were extremely competitive and seem to have had the scholar’s full complement of vanity, quarrclsomcness, and desire to out-argue an opponent, poor students clearly did not usually expect to use the medieval university as a stepping-stone to a bank presidency or a board chairmanship. There may have been in the medieval student more self—consecration to learning for learning’s sake than there is in the modern. Even so, the studiurn was in many senses a career open to talents, and here as elsewhere in the Middle Ages one is struck with the fact that there is, for a society in which everyone is supposed to know his place, a great deal of pushing and shoving.
Most of the members of the studium even in the high Middle Ages, had taken some kind of ecclesiastical orders, were in some sense a part of the Church. Most of them, it is true, did not have cure of souls, that is, the charge of a parish with the priestly duties of shepherd of the flock, and the Church understandably was less strict in supervising their private lives than it was with parish priests. But to an extent we can hardly understand today’, the Church penetrated and controlled all human activity, especially intellectual activity. In the earlier Middle Ages, the ability to read was in itself taken as a sign that a man was a priest. Hence the term not yet quite dead, “benefit of clergy,” which meant that a man who could prove he could read could thereby count, if he got in difficulty with the authorities, on being tried in an ecclesiastical, not in an ordinary lay court. In the Dark Ages all work requiring literacy—keeping of accounts and registers letter writing, drafting documents—was done by priests, for only priests had the necessary education. Though this monopoly no longer existed in the high Middle Ages, the clergy even then bore a much larger part of the administrative work of the world than they do now.
Again, in thousands of rural parishes, even in town parishes, the priest was the effective link with the outside world, the world of ideas as well as of wars, taxes, intrigues. The sermon, though never in Catholic practice the overwhelming thing it came to be in some Protestant sects, was nevertheless a way of spreading ideas. Indeed, the pulpit gave to the medieval Church the very great advantage of a near-monopoly of the ways of influencing public opinion. In the absence of newspapers, radio, or anything like the classical traveling lecturer (rhetorician), the Church alone could make effective propaganda. Ideas otherwise could spread among the masses only by informal word of mouth. The fact that the papacy possessed this medieval equivalent of the power of the press and radio is surely one of the reasons why the medieval popes so long held their own against the growing power of lay rulers.
Finally, it is to the Church that we owe the preservation of Greek and Latin literature, Of course, extremists among the Christians thought of pagan literature as the devil’s work and would have had it destroyed; even for the ordinary pious cleric, there remained something of the attraction of forbidden fruit in pagan imaginative literature. Still, the monks collected and the monks copied, both in the East and in the West. Losses were great, especially during the long years of the breakup of the Roman Empire. But enough survived so that we know well the culture of the Greeks and Rom ins Nor was the work of the monastic copiers limited to the transmission of the classics. They also copied—in modern terms, published the Latin writings of contemporary medieval theologians and philosophers, and the vernacular writings of medieval poets and storytellers. We owe to them not only Cicero, but also Aquinas and the Chanson de Roland.
Men trained in the Church had, then, almost a monopoly of the intellectual life. The Church was lecture platform, press, publisher, library, school, and college. Yet it is not accurate to think of the Middle Ages as priest-ridden, and certainly not as dominated by a fundamentalist, puritanical, censorious Church. Moreover, there are important phases of medieval intellectual life by no means monopolized by clerics. If the upper classes of the Dark Ages were hardly more than professional fighters, by the high Middle Ages they had acquired much broader interests—-in law and administration, in poetry and romance, in the extraordinary way of life known as chivalry, even occasionally in scholarship. The greatest of medieval philosophers, St. Thomas Aquinas, was by birth an Italian nobleman. In the vernacular literatures, Italian, French, English, and others well launched by the high Middle Ages, we get all sorts of elements from popular life, including a good deal of ribaldry and coarseness to prove that the old Adam had not been spirited away. It is not, perhaps, as easy to show for the Middle Ages a relation between the more formal level of thought and the life of the ordinary man as it is, say, for the century of Voltaire, Rousseau, Jefferson, and their fellows of the Enlightenment. Still, the formal scholastic philosophy of the Middle Ages was by no means a system in a vacuum. Precisely because of the structure of medieval society, because of the prestige of clerics, formal philosophy is a safer guide to ordinary human aspirations than it is in a period like the present, where philosophy is actually a very isolated academic pursuit.
Medieval Theology and Philosophy
In medieval thought, theology was indeed the “Queen of the Sciences.” The medieval thinker did use the separate words “theology” and “philosophy,” but in fact they are inseparably There remained always a part for mystery, for faith; but the theologian, like the philosopher, was a thinker, a man who reasoned about what went on in the universe. He believed that, if no man could wholly penetrate God’s place, still there was such a place, and by reasoning the human thinker could get an imperfect, but useful, indeed essential, series of notions about God’s place.
The medieval thinkers built, of course, on the basis of the work of the early Christian Fathers, and on the Church practices and attitudes we have described in the previous chapter. Of all the writings of the Fathers the most important for the Middle Ages, and indeed for all subsequent Christianity, are those of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, who lived in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Augustine was of Roman-African noble stock, with a pagan father and a Christian mother (canonized as St. Monica). He (died in 431, during the siege of his episcopal seat by the Vandals, a Germanic tribe. He is thus a child of the ancient world, yet also in a sense a man of the medieval world. Certainly that world later was to adopt him as the greatest of the Latin .fathers.
Augustine is one of the major figures in Western thought, on a par with Plato and Aristotle. We cannot in a book of this sort do him justice. He should be read directly, if only in his Confessions, one of the few autobiographies that have survived from the classical world. Thanks to this book, and to the very full survival of his many incidental polemical writings, as well as the great, systematic City of God, we can know Augustine as a person much better than almost any other figure in the classical world. He is full of contradictions, of the twistings and turnings of a richly endowed personality cast into the strange, disintegrating world of Roman culture. One is tempted to think that he embraced Christianity as the one sound integrating principle in a world of confusion—in other words, that this descendent of practical Romanized gentlemen was true to the balanced, worldly. common-sense Roman tradition. Yet Augustine, if a Roman, was of African blood. One can equally well discern a deep emotional drive, a sounding of the depths from which somehow came to Augustine the miraculous quiet of God. At any rate, before his conversion to Christianity he had sampled most of the carnal delights, and many of the spiritual consolations of his world, including Manichaeanism and Neoplatonism.
In Augustine the Christian bishop there is still this extraordinary activity, and this tension—so very Christian—between the flesh and the spirit. The flesh no longer draws Augustine to self-indulgence; the world is now a world a bishop can and must deal with, help put in order, help rescue from the evils of disorder. Augustine, like Paul, had a tireless cure of souls, a practical man’s absorption in the countless details of running things. Note that, in the pure mystical tradition, the world as a place to clean up is more subtly and more dangerously the devil’s lure than is the world as a place to wallow in. Yet seen from outside that tradition, Augustine seems one kind, and a perfectly genuine kind, of mystic. His was no practical cleaner’s chore, which could seem to make progress, but rather the eternal and impossible task of perfect spiritual cleansing. Augustine was in the City of Earth only that he might make it the City of God. Clearly, as he went about his daily tasks this other- worldliness could not have been obsessive or he would not have remained Bishop of Hippo. But it remains at the basis of his doctrine, and gives him his characteristic place in Christian thought.
Of this vast work we can here note but three things. First, Augustine’s whole work is a synthesizing and encyclopedic one. He touched upon almost every matter of doctrine and in important matters went into great detail. His point of view is in most respects central enough to Latin Christian experience to serve as a basis for medieval orthodoxy. On the Trinity, on the sacraments, above all on the manifold reaches of the Christian drama of sin and salvation, Augustine was an admirable source and foundation. Second, Augustine’s great work, the City of God, put the Christian point of view, the Christian cosmology, in a form that has always had a pronounced attraction for Western men, that of a philosophy of history. Augustine made Christianity not merely a drama, but a process in time. The City of God was written partly because Augustine wished to refute the common pagan accusation that the increasingly evident weakness of the Roman Empire was due to Christian other-worldliness, if not to plain Christian wickedness. Augustine has no trouble in showing that many cities and empires had already decayed and fallen long before the revelation of Christianity had been made. It is the nature of the cities of this world to decay. Only the City of God is eternal. That city is not yet on earth, though it is promised us even here; meaiiwhile, God has revealed its existence to us, and through his son Jesus has given us all a chance to become citizens of it. But that other City of Earth lives on, and the two cities are in eternal civil war until at the day of judgment they are finally to be separated forever, their citizens no longer torn by the possibility of changing citizenship, the saved forever blessed, the damned forever tortured.
Third, as it seems to an outsider at least, there remains a part of Augustine that is a constant invitation to heresy, the heresy of the perfectionist. This side of ugustine’s work comes out clearly in what was perhaps the most influential of his theological doctrines, that of determinism, or predestination. It was sharpened in conflict with Pelagius, a British monk who defended a heretical degree of freedom of the will. The basic issue is one of the oldest that confronts man thinking, that of individual freedom of choice against some form of determinism. Now Christianity has always had difficulty admitting that human beings can make free choices (possess freedom of the will), if only because such freedom would seem a derogation from the overwhelming power Christianity attributes to its God. How can a mere worm like man will something that God has not willed? God is literally everything, including my thoughts and yours, my desires and yours. He has made, he rules, both the City of God and the City of Earth. If indeed some of us become citizens of the City of God, it is not because we had the power, so to speak, to naturalize ourselves, but because God from the beginning had chosen us as citizens, because he bestowed upon us the gift of irresistible grace. This gift of grace—a gift no man can win, or even, in one sense, deserve—is the free gift of God to his chosen ones, and for them makes salvation, the escape from the consequences of original sin, possible. Mere men can thirst after grace, can ask God for this gift. The decision is God’s,.in his infinite wisdom that has already made all decisions for all time.
Now all this is good logic (once you postulate an omnipotent God) and it is good logic of the sentiments, also. For the emotionally stirred, complete submission to such a God is the wiping out of the self, is peace. Men have exhausted themselves in metaphors to express this feeling; we have used a very common one, that of the worm. There are, however, especially from the point of view of those trying hard to keep things going in this world, some difficulties with these deterministic doctrines. The most obvious of these difficulties is by no means the most common, though it has always worried the sensibly orthodox: If God has determined everything in advance, why hasn’t he determined a man’s desire to get drunk, or steal, or fornicate? If man has no free will, how can he have any moral responsibility? God is responsible for all man’s desires. How can he resist them, since in resisting them he resists God?
Actually this position is very rarely taken. It simply is a fact that those who believe most rigorously in determinism act as if their every moment were a portentous decision for the right and against the wrong. Nevertheless, the logical threat of moral irresponsibility hovers over all doctrines of determinism, and there is something in ordinary human nature that clings to some common-sense belief in the reality of individual choices, in free will. The Catholic Church itself is in practice semi-Augustinian on this point. It accepts the awful necessity of determinism by reason of God’s ineffable majesty; obviously man cannot really resist God. But for the sake of the drama God wills to take place on this earth, in order that the fight may be real, we must accept for man a sort of delegated moral responsibility.
There is, however, another and more common danger to orthodoxy in extreme determinism. It would seem that the notion of a great irresistible force sweeping things away from the vulgar, ordinary, obvious state of things is of great attraction to men of strong ternperament in rebellion against their surroundings. Now the Bishop of Hippo was by no means always in such a state of rebellion; he believed man’s free will was reconcilable with God’s foreknowledge absolute—but Augustine the mystic, Augustine the ardent lover of God, was such a rebel. The man who wants this world to be very much what it is not seems peculiarly likely to hold that he knows just how and why it must change into something else. The reformer —not always, but often—wants to know that his plans are God’s plans, or the plans of Dialectical Materialism. It is surely significant that, after Augustine, two of the greatest supporters of rigid determinism, Calvin and Karl Marx, have also been leaders of great reforming movements, movements inspired above all by contempt for the commonplace, the comfortable, the daily routine of living. There is a tendency within Catholicism for reformist groups to appeal to Augustine, as conformist groups appeal to St. Thomas Aquinas.
From Augustine a line, dim and uncertain at first, leads on to the culmination of medieval formal thought in Scholasticism. Now Scholasticism is a mature system of thought, ripened in one of the great ages of Western culture. Its original works are numerous and have been well preserved; modern comment on it is copious. Again, in accordance with the scale of this hook, we can but suggest certain major points of interest in Scholasticism, with the hope that the reader will go directly to some of the writings of the Scholastics.
First, however, it should be noted that for that special kind of intellectual history concerned with the transmission of learning, with the complex study of manuscripts, translations, and cultural cross-fertilization, the background of medieval thought presents a fascinating story. To the small but solid stock of materials preserved in the West throughout the Dark Ages there was added, notably in the eleventh century, a mass of materials translated from the Arabic. The Arabs under Mohammed and his successors had conquered widely in the eastern part of the old Roman Empire, and by the mid-eighth century had swept over Spain, Sicily, and southern Italy. In this general region they held on through the next few centuries; indeed they were not wholly driven out of Spain until the end of the Middle Ages. Anticlerical historians have long delighted to contrast the intellectual freedom and prowess of the Arabs in these centuries with the torpor and obscurantism they find among Western Christians. It is a fact that from 700 to about 1000 the Arabs had an active intellectual class, interested above all in science and philosophy. We shall return shortly to their scientific work. Philosophically, they were not in fact strikingly original, but they did have access to Greek originals, especially to much better and more complete versions of Aristotle than those available in the West. These were translated into Arabic, and as the West grew well out of the Dark Ages and the Crusades increased Christian-Moslem contacts, above all as the learned communities we have described above grew and thirsted for more books, translators rendered this Greek work from Arabic into Latin. The ost famous of these translators, Gerard of Cremona, who worked at Toledo in Spain, is said to have translated some ninety separate works from the Arabic.
There were, then, the original materials of the trivium and the quadriviuin and the fast-growing libraries of new works, Greek,Arabic, and in the case of some mathematical work, ultimately Hindu, all now available in Latin. There was, if still no printing press, a large class of devoted monkish copyists, good libraries, and scholarly communities. Indeed, from the eleventh century on active thinkers in these communities were adding to the stock, were working out the foundations of medieval philosophy. To get the general spirit of this philosophy, let us look at the problem that was perhaps the central one of the time, the very old problem of universals.
The problem, which we have seen in a somewhat different form in Plato, centers for the medieval thinkers in the reality of class-concepts. The horse is a favorite example. One polar position, that of the nominalist, asserts that though there are a great many separate, individual horses, each of which is real, the class-concept “horse” corresponds to nothing real, and is merely a convenience for human thinking, merely a word, a kind of intellectual shorthand. For though actually Dobbin, and Ranger, and Silver, and Bucephalus are separate and individual horses—a fact we recognize by giving each a proper name—there is no such thing as a horse-in-general. Actually not even one oak tree is exactly like another; but it would be inconvenient to recognize this fact by giving each oak tree a proper name. The generic name, then, is a convenience, not a reality.
The polar opposite of this view is that of the realist. The medieval realist held that individual horses are but imperfect approximations to the perfect horse, the ideal horse which alone is real. It is true, the realist admits, that in this sense world we encounter through our receptor experiences (sensations) only separate individual horses; nevertheless, the fact that we can rise to the concept of horse-in-general should persuade us that what we find out through this high faculty of reason is truer than what we learn from sense experience alone. The supremely real is not the individual but the class.
Now nominalism, if carried at all toward its extreme, is a doctrine very hard to reconcile with Christianity. It tends to the position that that alone exists which I can apprehend as an individual, a specimen linked to my knowing through my senses or their refinement in instruments. A horse, a blade of grass, even, when a few centuries later the microscope is invented, a microbe—these are real to the nomnalist. But God? Or even the Church, as apart from the individuals that make it up? It is difficult for the extreme nominalist to make these very real. And in fact the logical implications of medieval nominalism put it in a class with what later came to be called materialism, positivism, rationalism, or empiricism.
Realism, also, had its dangers from the point of view of Christian orthodoxy, though less pressing and less obvious dangers. Realism took care of God and the Church, of justice and all the other moral ideas. But like any other other-worldly doctrine, it ran the risk of being pushed in the hands of a very logical—or a very mystical—thinker into a denial of what ordinary men find it rather hard to get away from, this vulgar world of eating, drinking, working, calculating, and other un-Platonic activity. And the Catholic Church for two thousand years has been very concerned with ordinary men and women, anxious not to get too far away from their minds and hearts.
Scholasticism, then, is in a sense a doctrine of compromise, and the greatest of the Scholastics, Aquinas, has been called “the first Whig,” after the moderate, compromise-loving British statesmen of the old eighteenth century. Yet it must be emphasized that in medieval formal thought there was room for the full philosophic spectrum, except perhaps for skepticism, which, although occurring occasionally in such a man as the emperor Frederick II, was condemned almost unanimously by the literate. One must not be misled by terms like “medieval unity,” nor by the notion that since the Church in the West was established supreme there was no opportunity for debate over basic philosophical issues. On the contrary, the Schoolmen belabored one another on the lecture platform and in writing quite as heartily as in any other great period of Western philosophy. One of them, Abelard, for instance, is a fairly hard-boiled nominalist much liked by modern positivists who generally loathe the Middle Ages; conversely, those moderns who love the Middle Ages for their supposed serenity and other-worldliness generally loathe Abelard. Indeed, by a man’s reaction to Abelard you can often predict his reaction to all medieval culture. But Abelard as a person was in many ways the eternal protesting philosopher—vain, quarrelsome, marvelously gifted in debate, a teacher who made ardent followers, quite lacking in Christian humility, and by temperament always against the established, the conventional, the moderate, the dull, and the successful of this world. Now you expect to find this temperament in free societies, a Socrates, a Tom Paine, a Bertrand Russell; but unless you have been spared the common American notions on the subject, you are surprised to find it so conspicuous in the Middle Ages. The answer is that in the West the Middle Ages were at their height one of the free societies. Abelard was in that society honored by a conspicuous position, and naturally felt the opposition of the people he so bitterly attacked. He was treated very badly indeed by his enemies, but he was not silenced.
At the very beginning of systematic medieval thinking we find in the ninth-century Scottis Erigena a kind of pre-realist, a thinker who comes so close to Neoplatonism that later ages found him rather dangerous. Toward the end of the thirteenth century we find in Duns Scotus another example of the dangers of scholastic realism, for this philosopher could never rest content with the imperfect arguments by which men prove that perfection exists, and wrote devastating criticisms of his predecessors, realists as well as nominalists. Duns Scotus spun out his own arguments for the realist position so that his works became a byword for oversubtlety, and helped add to the general discredit that came over Scholasticism at the end of the Middle Ages. William of Ockham, on the other hand, is the most famous of extreme nominalists. His philosophical position, he came to see, made it impossible for him to accept as reasonable many of the essential doctrines of the Church. Accordingly—and, one is tempted to say, like the good Englishman he was—Ockham chose to believe these doctrines anyway. In more formal language, he abandoned the characteristic medieval attempt to show that the truths of Christianity can be proved by human reason, and returned to something very near the position of one of the early Fathers, Tertullian, credo quia impossibile —I believe because it’s impossible.
To such a position, of course, many ardent mystics had come in the beginning. In the range of medieval thought there is plenty of that anti-intellectualism of the anchorite, the flagellant, the romantic wild man. Yet medieval mysticism is by no means all of one piece. Most of the great mystics were not in fact anti-intellectuals in the sense of opposing as wicked or ineffective the ordinary uses of the mind They simply lived above calculation, spiritually at a level that has made many of them saints. The best-known medieval work of piety, the imitation of Christ attributed to Thomas a Kempis, is an admirable example of contained mysticism, which reconciles and consoles instead of prodding. We saw in the last chapter that one of the abiding notes of Christianity is a distrust of the intellect. Certainly this distrust appears in so Christian an age as the medieval. Adam of St. Victoi, St. Bernard, St. Francis of Assisi—the role of those who opposed the scholastic appeal to reason is long and varied.
At the thirteenth-century climax of medieval culture, then, there is the variety and spontaneity of philosophical reflection that we found in the great age of Greece. But there is also, again as in Greece, a balance, a middle point, a golden mean. In the Middle Ages, that balance is mature Scholasticism, one of the most successful efforts to resolve the tension between this world and the other, between the real and the ideal. The mature Scholastics appealed to reason, but to reason working from bases set up by authority, the authority of the Church seconded by that of Aristotle. Their reason was not the restless, probing, basically discontented and nonconforming force it has been at many times in human history—including, probably, our own. We have cited Abelard indeed as an example of just this sort of revolutionary reason, but Abelard is far from being a good Scholastic. The good Scholastic has the intellectual humility that seems to the nonconformist intellectual cowardice.
An excellent example of this moderating but basically intellectual force of medieval formal thought can be found in some of the theological doctrines to which final form was given in these years. The Eucharist, for instance, put rather starkly in the form of appearance and reality the never-ending Christian problem of this world and the other. The elements could not be bread and wine, but they could not help looking and tasting like bread and wine. The other-worldly way out was simply to deny that the elements, once consecrated, were in any way anything except the body and blood of Christ; the this-worldly way out was to accept the elements as bread and wine, and say that they merely symbolized Christ, refreshed the communicant’s memory of Christ. The latter way seemed always to orthodox Catholics a dangerous way out, for it eliminated the miracle and opened up other ways to the inroads of reason or common sense. And although the Catholic Church has always found a place for both reason and common sense, it has sought to keep them both in the place it thought fitting.
The characteristic medieval doctrine of transubstantiation, formally accepted by the fourth Lateran Council in 1215 after several centuries of debates among theologians, takes a sound other-worldly view, but preserves the common-sense decencies. The bread and wine have substance (Latin, substantia), a basic being or character, and accidents (Latin, accidentia), the qualities we feel and see and taste, and which in normal conditions help us build up approximate knowledge of their substance. By the miracle of the Mass the priest changes the substance of the bread and wine into the substance of the body and blood of Christ, but he effects no change whatever in the accidents, which remain those of bread and wine. We taste only accidents, never substance, so that in taking communion we naturally taste what we always taste at the home table. The chemist analyzes only accidents, never substance, so that the chemist who impiously analyzes consecrated bread and wine also reports no change. But change there is, the miraculous change of transubstantiation which transcends, but never crushes, our senses.
Earlier doctrines of redemption, though they did not present as grave dangers of heresy as did that of the Eucharist, were lacking in logical and emotional depth. The Fathers of the early Church had come to rest with the doctrine of ransom, according to which Christ had come to buy back man from Satan’s clutches by his suffering on the cross. This was a belief quite acceptable to ordinary men and for centuries held great popularity. But to subtler minds such ransom seemed almost a commercial transaction; moreover, it put God in a position unworthy of his omnipotence and dignity. The first of the great medieval realists, and perhaps the most creative of medieval thinkers in the field of theology, St. Anselm, brought forward in the doctrine of the atonement a much more satisfactory logical explanation of how Jesus brought redemption. Adam’s sin against God could not be canceled out by any sort of bookkeeping, and certainly not by any transaction with the devil. Man owed God reparation, but in his fallen state he could not possibly make such reparation. Jesus as God could take the necessary initiative to pay the debt he actually paid as a suffering man. Jesus was sinless, both as God and man, and could therefore freely atone for the sin of Adam, could, so to speak, satisfy by his intercession God’s justified anger with his children. Jesus the perfect voluntarily took on imperfection —and the suffering that goes with imperfection, for as man he suffered pain—that men might make the great and otherwise impossible first step toward human perfection. This is a subtle doctrine, and nonsense to many modern minds. But it is an attempt—and to the ardent other-worldly temper a dangerous attempt—to satisfy the intellectual element in man. Once more,.it would be much simpler to echo Tertullian and say that Jesus in a way that must always be unfathomable to the man who strings.words together in thought.
But this was not the scholastic way, and certainly not the way of the greatest of the Scholastics, St. Thomas Aquinas, who, though hedied at the age of forty-nine, has left a voluminous body of writings. Two of his books, the Summa contra gentiles and the Summa thealogica, are encyclopedias of medieval learning and philosophy, but systematic encyclopedias in which everything is co-ordinated from a central point of view, not mere miscellaneous information put together, like a modern encyclopedia, in alphabetical order. The central point of view is orthodox Catholic Christianity interpreted by a moderate realist (in the medieval sense of the word we have been using in this chapter), an orderly logician never tempted to excess even in logic, a prodigious scholar who somehow kept his links with the world of common sense.
For Aquinas, this is a sensible world, though by no means a serene, happy,easygoing one. In the main, God has designed this earth as a fit place for man, whom he created in his own image. Clearly, therefore, no such important human activity as thinking can be contrary to his design; nor indeed are any of the activities clearly natural to man to be considered in themselves wrong. There are indeed many possibilities for men to do wrong, and life on this earth is a constant struggle against the very real powers of evil. But here again God has given us his only Son, and in the Church founded on earth by that Son he has given us an unmistakable guide in the task of fulfilling his will.
Aquinas, then, started with the authority of revealed faith, with those truths we possess direct from God; according to Aquinas, all our thinking, if rightly done, merely confirms these truths, and helps us in this daily life to apply them. In that eternal Christian problem of faith against reason (remember the credo quia impossi bile! ) Scholasticism took a firm stand; there is no problem, because there is no opposition between faith and reason rightly understood. If a man put a series of arguments together and came out with a conclusion contrary to what orthodox Catholics believed, he was simply guilty of faulty logic, and the use of correct logic could readily show where he erred. Indeed Thomas Aquinas, like most of the later Scholastics, delighted in the game of inventing arguments against accepted beliefs, matching them with a set of even more ingenious arguments that usually went a little bit beyond the simpler requirements of the faith, and then reconciling them with an intellectual skill reminiscent of the trained athlete’s ability to master timing and co-ordination. Nor is the figure of speech misleading. The athlete like the scholastic thinker must avoid too much and too little, too early and too late, must focus the right amount of energy at the right place.
The right logic for Aquinas was the revived and once more fully understood method of Aristotle. We have noted that Aristotle himself was by temperament a middle- of-the-roader, that he could not accept Plato’s ideal other world, and that he could not by any means take this world as it came. Aristotle’s feeling for purposiveness in human life fitted admirably with the melioristic tendencies of Christianity. Aristotle’s method of thinking, which was to start with evident truths and by a process apparently natural to the human, or at least to the Western, mind, keep on spinning out a neat and consistent pattern of propositions, fitted well with the scholastic acceptance of revealed truths and with scholastic habits of reflection. You have heard this process of thinking referred to as deduction, and almost =certainly you have been led to contrast it unfavorably with another process of thinking, rendered respectable by the triumphs of modern science, and known as induction. Actually this is an oversimple, if not a false contrast, to which we shall return when we come to the great figure of Francis Bacon.
For the moment, it may be noted that if you work by this method of deduction from a starting point for half-a-dozen steps in a row without checking up on your facts (sense experience) you will probably arrive at a conclusion not in accordance with the facts. But this is not necessarily disastrous unless you are the kind of person known to us as an experimental scientist, or unless, like a physician or a garage mechanic, you are trying to work on a common-sense level much as the scientist works. You may wish, for instance, as the Scholastics wished, to find patterns of conduct that satisfy your desire to lead a good life. You may wish to find something better than the facts. You may wish to see where your mind leads you, as the mathematician does. For all these and many other purposes deduction will serve you well, especially if, like the Scholastics, you do return from your thinking from time to time at least to the facts of human behavior.
Aquinas certainly does have a base from which he never gets very far, even in his subtlest and most “scholastic” arguments. That base is the body of revealed truths of the Christian faith, supplemented by common sense and experience in many phases of human relations, and interpreted by an essentially moderating, reconciling mind with full access to the works of the Fathers, the earlier Schoolmen, and in particular Aristotle, who is often quoted in the Summa as simply “the Philosopher.”
Here, for instance, is an example of the mind and method of Aquinas. It is a relatively unimportant part of the Summa theologica, hut it is fairly easy to follow and brings out more clearly than some of the grander parts, such as that on the freedom of the will, how close to common sense Aquinas can be. He is discussing the specific conditions of “man’s first state,” the state of innocence before the Fall.
He comes to the question—a traditional one, odd as it may seem to moderns, in the literature—of what children were like in a state of innocence? Even more specifically, were they born with such perfect strength of body that they had full use of their limbs at birth, or were they like human children nowadays, helpless little wrigglers at birth? In the Garden of Eden, one might think that any form of helplessness would derogate from perfection, and that since God was making human life so different from what it later became he might well have made the human infant strong and perfect from the start, or even had the men and women born adult. And indeed the all-out perfectionist, other-worldly tradition tended to make Eden as unearthly as possible. Not so Aquinas; even his Eden was as “natural” a one as he could make it.
By faith alone do we hold truths which are above nature, and what we believe rests on authority. Wherefore, in making any assertion, we must be guided by the nature of things, except in those things which are above nature, and are made known to us by Divine authority. Now it is clear that it is as natural as it is befitting to the principles of human nature that children should not have sufficient strength br the use of their limbs immediately after birth. Because in proportion to other animals man has naturally a larger brain. Wherefore it is natural, on account of the considerable humidity of the brain in children, that the sinews which are instruments of movement, should not be apt for moving the limbs. On the other hand, no Catholic doubts it possible for a child to have, by Divine power, the use of its limbs immediately after birth.
Now we have it on the authority of Scripture that God made man right (Eccles. vii. 30), which rightness, as Augustine says, consists in the perfect subjection of the body to the soul. As, therefore, in the primitive state it was impossible to find in the human limbs anything repugnant to man’s well-ordered will, so was it impossible for those limbs to fail in executing the will’s commands. Now the human will is well ordered when it tends to acts which are befitting to man. But the same acts are not befitting to man at every season of life. We must, therefore, conclude that children would not have had sufficient strength for the use of their limbs for the purpose of performing every kind of act; but only for the acts befitting the state of infancy, such as suckling, and the like.
There is much typical of Thomism in this apparently trivial pas-sage—the clear supremacy granted to “truths which are above nature, which we hold by faith and receive through divine authority; the ready acceptance of divine omnipotence; the belief that generally God prefers to let nature run its course; that there is a “fitness” in human action conforming to observable laws of nature; that these laws of nature are basically purposeful in terms of human life; and finally, the appeal to authority, in this case the Old Testament and Augustine.
Certainly Aquinas is difficult for a twentieth-century American layman to read, though not more so than Kant, or than Aristotle himself. Part of the difficulty, then, lies in the fact that Aquinas is a professional philosopher of great technical ability and with the technician’s interest in refinements and precision that escape the amateur. Especially in the Summa theologica he did indeed write as simply as he could, for he meant the work for serious students and not just for his fellow professors. No doubt, however, that part of the difficulty an unprepared modern has in reading Aquinas lies in the very different assumptions a medieval philosopher made, lies in the strangeness (to us) of the intellectual climate of the Middle Ages. To this strangeness we shall return later in an effort to put into words the Zeitgeist of the Middle Ages.
In spite of these difficulties, it should be clear that Aquinas belongs among the great philosophical systematizers of Western thought. His is a beautifully constructed system, which has been praised for this excellence, perhaps somewhat grudgingly, even by modern positivists and materialists who disagree with almost all that Scholasticism holds true. It is a system which, in its general bearing, sets man comfortably but not too comfortably in a world understandable to the human mind, in a world the human will cannot indeed wholly transform, but to which it can adjust. The world of Aquinas is a Christian world where man belongs, where he is at home. Finally, the system of Aquinas is a marvelously balanced system, holding the middle way in all the great problems of philosophy, and holding it with the ease of supreme skill. Again the image of the athlete occurs, and one thinks of the tightrope walker. But Aquinas is never showy, and never seems to strive after this middle way. It is, to use a favorite word of his, which troubled him much less than it troubles our semantically worried age, part of his nature.
Like most such balanced achievements, that of Aquinas is bound to seem dull to many ardent, curious, or otherwise discontented spirits. Aquinas is no crusader. Like Burke, he would reform in order to conserve. He never laughs, never lets himself risk the light touch. Of course, theology and philosophy were in his day subjects of supreme seriousness. But Aquinas has not even a touch of the ironist. We have just remarked that the Eden of Aquinas was as natural as he could make it. He probably had no emotional conception of Eden, and he had a good deal of common sense. But you must not think that he ever brings in common sense to chasten, correct, or lighten the very great load of not-common sense that Christianity—and the whole human race—carries. Aquinas, who seems to this writer very little indeed of a mystic, none the less takes the concrete heritage of Christian mysticism, of Christian other-worldliness, with admirable ease, without struggling, as part of what was given him. He makes his peace with it, in a sense tames it. Aquinas is not the philosopher for the Christian anxious to storm heaven; he is an admirable philosopher for the Christian seeking peace of mind, and a disturbing one for the peace of mind of the non-Christian.
Medieval Theories of Human Relations
We have attempted to show how medieval philosophers and men of learning, working on the materials left them by the Fathers of the Church, and on a good deal of the classical tradition, arrived at the formal philosophy we call Scholasticism. We have seen that within medieval formal thought is to be found almost as great a range as within classical thought; and we have found that the culminating system of Scholasticism is the all-embracing, almost eclectic, almost commonsense moderation of Aquinas. The medieval answers to the Big Questions were very different from the Greek answers; the medieval methods of thought were not so different. That is one reason why Aristotle could be so readily used by the Schoolmen. In the somewhat lesser but still big questions of human conduct and political organization the medieval answers are also new. Inevitably in morals and politics Christian notions of good and evil, and the concrete circumstances of medieval life, show up more clearly than in the more abstract fields of theology and philosophy. And, above all, the insistent problem of the relation between theory and practice, which can always be dismissed as irrelevant or undignified by the sufficiently determined metaphysician, can hardly be suppressed in problems of human relations.
It is sometimes maintained that the gap between ideal and practice in human relations is, for Western man, at its widest in the Middle Ages. Now the problem of the relation between ideal type and actuality in society is a continuing one in our tradition. Certainly Plato was well aware of it. The gap is hardly one that call be measured. on a graph, like the difference between the goal for a charity drive and the actual contributions made. Just conceivably, if we could measure for various Western societies the gap between ideals and actuality, we might find it a cons, ant. Those who hold that the gap was wider in the Middle Ages argue as follows. In ideal, the Middle Ages provided for men on earth a well-organized and orderly life; The Church took care of men’s souls, the feudal nobility p reserved civil order, the peasants and craftsmen worked unenviously and steadily at useful tasks; a beautifully ordered nexus of rights and duties bound each, from swineherd to emperor and pope; each man knew his place, was secure in his place, happy in it; this was a society of status instead of the mad competitions and uncertainties of modern society, but a society in which the Christian concept of the equality of all men before God had, so to speak, put a firm floor under the humblest and poorest of men; an orderly, stratified society of morally free
In practice—and those hostile to the Middle ages can cite horrendous details—even in the thirteenth, “greatest of centuries,” and even in that center of medieval achievement northwestern Europe (modern France, England, the Low Countries, and the Rhineland), there were constant gangster wars among the feudal barons, corruption, laziness, worldliness, and worse among the clergy, poverty among the great masses, endemic disease, frequent famine, outbursts of class warfare—in short, and at the best, the customary misbehavior and unhappiness one finds in the human race, perhaps in some ways rather worse than usual.
The gap between the ideal and the real exists in all societies. We hardly need to be reminded of the gap between American democratic theory and practice. The above statements exaggerate the innocent perfectionism of the “ought to be” of the Middle Ages, and they exaggerate (perhaps even more) the miseries of the Middle Ages “is.” Yet again we must insist that there remains a grain of truth in the commomy held notion that there is a striking gap between medieval theory and medieval fact, between the excellent intentions of medieval moralists, and what even so great an admirer of the Middle Ages as Henry Osborn Taylor calls the “spotted actuality.”
The width of the gap may be due in part to the fact that during the Dark Ages and the early Middle Ages the intellectual class was even more removed than in other Western societies from the daily give and take of life. It may be that, faced with the disorders, the breakdown of central authority, the partial relapse into barbarism of medieval society was in fact a dynamic society, growing in population, wealth, technical command over resources, and therefore subject to stresses and strains its social theory tended to assume were nonexistent. Let us, without attempting to cover the field by individual writers, take a characteristic concrete phase of the field, and try to make the problem real.
One of the commoner polarities of social theory and practice is that between a caste society and a society of complete individual social mobility. At one pole each individual is born to a place in society—a job, an income, a social role, a set of opinions—which he retains all his life. Plato’s ideal society seems to some interpreters pretty close to this extreme, and of course the bees and the ants actually live in this sort of society. At the other pole is a society in which all members are as free of all the others as possible, each individual doing what seems desirable to him at any time, with no one tied to job, family, or social position—to a status, in short. Naturally there has never been such a society as this last, but we can say that many Americans think of our society as composed of free, mobile, and equal individuals; and we can further say that in fact our society is, as human societies have gone in the past, closer than most to the pole of individual social mobility. The popular saying “three generations from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves” is a good concrete example of this attitude. .
Now no such saying would have made sense to men of the Middle Ages. But in the later Middle Ages, such a saying was by no means wholly wide of the facts. The fifteenth century especially saw many impoverished feudal noblemen, many newly rich merchants and court favorites. In theory among the Scholastics, and even among thinkers whose training was legal rather than theological, society was a well- arranged whole, or organism, of which the individuals were parts or members. We have in the twelfth-century Policraticus of the English monk, John of Salisbury, a very complete statement of what came to be called the “organic theory” of society. According to John of Salisbury, the prince is the head of the body of the commonwealth, the senate (legislative body) the heart, judges and governors of provinces the eyes, ears, and tongue, officials and soldiers the hands, financial officers the stomach and intestines, and the husbandmen “correspond to the feet, which always cleave to the soil.” This figure of speech, or if you think it deserves a more ambitious name, this organic theory of state or society, is a great favorite with those who wish to oppose change. For obviously the foot does not try to become the brain, nor is the hand jealous of the eye; the whole body is at its best—its very parts are at their best—when each part does what nature meant it to do.
The field worker, the blacksmith, the merchant, the lawyer, the priest, and the king himself all have assigned to them a part of God’s work on earth. Medieval thought is insistent on the dignity and worth of all vocations, even the humblest; and of course even the humblest person on this earth could in the next world hope to enjoy a bliss as full and eternal as any king’s. You do not find the contempt for, or at least indifference toward, a class of belly-men you find in Plato Moreover, medieval political theory is by no means absolutist. One might assume that in an organized society as it appears in this body of thought there would be no means of resisting the acts of a superior. And certainly medieval thinkers were not democratic in the sense of believing that the people have a right to cashier their rulers. Jefferson’s famous statement that there ought be to a revolution every nineteen years or so would have shocked most of these thinkers—would indeed have been unintelligible to them. But they did not hold, as they might perhaps logically have held, that since God has arranged authority and dignity as it now is in this world, we should preserve the status quo.
Their way out of this dilemma was readily found. God has ordained an order of rank in this world, and has made the relation of superior-inferior one of the keystones of his work on earth. For this relation one of the characteristic medieval terms was doininium, first clearly used in this sense early in the fourteenth century by Egidius Romanus, an apologist for the papal power. If I am placed above you owe me service, and I have dolniniun over you. But I may abuse my doininiurn, may treat you as if you were a mere animal and not an immortal soul. In that case I do not exercise dominium (authority), but mere proprietas (possession, ownership). Dominium is the right, the decent human relation, pro prietas the wrong, the unbearable human relation. One may own a thing, but not a person. You must accept my domniniun, but YOU must reject my pro prietas, if its exercise outrages your moral sense. No man ought to be treated as a thing, an instrument, by another. Should the prince himself abuse the power he has from God, says John of Salisbury, he may justly be killed as a tyrant. His killer will simply be the agent of God, not really a responsible human being committing murder. John’s doctrine is a good concrete illustration of the fact that medieval thinkers did differ, did not in fact display that “unity” sometimes made a catch-word for the Middle Ages. His doctrine of tyrannicide was not orthodox.
In this stratified society where every man has his rightful place, every man received, at least in theory, his just economic due. Medieval economic notions have been greatly admired by modern intellectuals in revolt against what they regard as our crassly competitive business life. Work was to the medieval theorist wholly honorable, a part of God’s design for man. Work was not a way of advancing the worker in the social scale; above all, one did not work to “make money” in the modern sense. For making money in this sense could only come by cheating someone else, by taking more than one’s rightful share. A piece of work, say a pair of shoes made by a skilled craftsman, is not to be considered as a commodity on the open market, fetching what. the buyer will pay for it, sold at a high price if there is a scarcity of shoes at the moment, at a iow price—even at a loss—if there is a glut of shoes. The shoes are worth a fixed price, their “just price.” This just price includes the cost of the raw materials, the amount needed to sustain the worker at his usual standards of life while making the shoes (i.e., cost of labor), and a small item not so much of profit as of wages of management for the seller.
To ensure this economic justice, medieval society, especially in the later centuries, worked out an elaborate system of what we should now call controls. Merchants and artisans were both organized in trade associations called guilds. These guilds set prices and standards and controlled admission of new workers and masters into the trade. They did not exactly set a quota for each firm in the trade, nor did they “plan” production in the modern sense of the word. Obviously in a static society a given firm (master and workmen) did the amount of business it had been doing from time immemorial; custom set its quota. As for planning, that had been done a long time ago by God himself. Custom took the place of planning too in medieval society. These controls were reinforced by the regulations of local governments.
Finally, medieval society had in theory no place for finance capitalism, had no fluid supply of money or credit from which the man who wished to expand his business could draw. Medieval theory—and here Aquinas is an especially clear and good source—regarded the taking of interest for money lent as getting something for nothing, as the exploiting by the lender of the temporary needs of the borrower. If I lend a sum for twelve months and get it back intact, I have neither gained nor lost. If I get back more than I lent, I am getting unearned income. True, if the borrower does not pay within the time agreed, I may claim a kind of indemnity, since my plans are disturbed. But this and a few similar adjustments do not amount to a recognition of the legitimacy of interest; and indeed in the Middle Ages what we call interest was regarded as mere usury. What the men of the Middle Ages refused to admit—and in a static and autarkic society this refusal is wholly natural—is that money lent to an enterpriser can be productively invested so that more economic goods exist at the end of the loan period than at the beginning. Even when such in>creased economic goods began to come in, even when the economy of the later Middle Ages became in fact dynamic, the medieval thinkers could not—certainly did not—see the change. We shall return to this distinction between dynamic and static, which is of major importance in understanding the medieval outlook in contrast with the modern.
Let us take one final illustration. We have already noted that in most early and simple societies the modern notion of making law, of passing statutes changing existing legal arrangements, does not exist. Indeed in such societies the term “arrangements” that we have just now used almost instinctively would seem highly inappropriate if applied to something so dignified and sanctified as the law. To the medieval mind, even to that of the lawyer, the law was not made but found. Law for common, everyday purposes indeed was what we should call custom. The way to find that was to inquire among the experienced and established men of a given locality, find out what had been done in a given respect from time immemorial. Customs might conflict in a given case, but due inquiry among the people most concerned would establish a weight of evidence for one solution or another of the case.
There was indeed something beyond custom, something beyond law in the sense of what people were used to doing. Medieval thought at its height provided a heavy reinforcement for that notion of a “law of nature” that we have seen emerging from the Graeco-Roman world, a notion never wholly lost even in the Dark Ages. The law of nature was to the medieval thinker something like God’s word translated into terms usable by ordinary men on earth. It was the norm, the ethical ideal, the “ought to be” discernible by men of good will thinking rightly. When men like Egidius Romanus and later the famous English radical Wyclifle made the distinction we have noted above between dominium and pro prietas, they would put dominium the full force of the law of nature. Pro prietas, exercised over a person, would be against the law of nature.
This law of nature is not a natural law as most modern scientists would interpret the term. Indeed, to the scientist used to definite operational tests for the validity of his distinctions, these traditional moral distinctions may seem vague and largely subjective, always open to dispute and misunderstanding. A thermometer, as well as common sense, can tell us when water becomes ice. But what instrument, what human faculty, can tell us clearly just when dominium becomes pro prictas? What possible reply is there to the assertion that one man’s dominium is another man’s pro prietas, or that dominzum is just a nice word for describing the same pheno-menon pro prietas describes unfavorably? Such difficulties over the apparent imprecision and variability of moral judgments were common enough among the Athenians of the days of Socrates, and they are once more common enough among us today. On the whole such difficulties did not disturb the medieval thinker, even were he as tough-minded as Abelard tried to be.
For the medieval thinker would answer that your thermometer, even your common sense, can decide only limited questions of material fact, but that by using our full human faculties as God intended we can answer with even more certainty the Big Questions of right and wrong. The whole resources of the human community are needed: the word of God as revealed in the Christian Church, the wisdom handed down to us by our ancestors, the skills and learning each of us has acquired in his calling, the common sense of the community, due weight always being given to those specially qualified by their position. We need all this to enable us to make, not perfect. but just and workable decisions. Satan is always at work on this earth, and the best of men can be tempted. But usually, if we go wrong as individuals or as a group, the fault is not in a lack of knowledge but in a lack of will. In general, medieval opinion would insist that even though your common-sense test, or your instrument, can give you a correct answer, you will not necessarily take the right action. No instrument (that is, no scientific knowledge) can protect men from what medieval men, in the Christian tradition, called sin. Protection from sin is afforded only by accepting the miraculous intercession of Christ, by being in the full social sense a member of the Christian Church. Such a member will know right from wrong, natural from unnatural by the fact of his membership.
Now behind all three of our concrete instances of medieval attitudes toward man in society—the notion of a stratified society in which each man plays the part God sent him to play, the concept of a just price and an economic order not dependent on the play of supply and demand, the concept of a natural law to he understood by natural reason, and regulating as well as explaining human relations on earth —behind all these ideas is the medieval idea of this world, this real world, as unchanging. Or, to put it negatively, these ideas fit in with the medieval idea of change as accidental, random, not what we call progress.
It seems true to say that most Americans believe in some form of progress, and that no medieval person believed, or could believe, in progress in anything like this sense. This does not, of course, mean that we and they had wholly different attitudes in daily life to any sort of change. A medieval lover deserted by his beloved felt much as a modern lover so deserted would feel. Medieval workmen, as we shall see, actually improved their tools, indulged in that very modern form of change known as invention. Some medieval merchants made money, some of it by methods not worlds apart from those of today. In the spotted reality of the last few medieval centuries, corruption, competition, rapid social change were so visible that even the theorist saw them. Wycliffe and many another rebel were fully aware that theirs was a changing society. Yet they thought of their society as having lapsed from what God and natural law intended, not as a society on the way to new ideals emerging from and in turn influencing new actual conditions.
The world-view (to translate the ponderous hut useful German Weltanschaztung) even of the late medieval intellectual is very different, then, from that of the modern intellectual, just because the one assumes that the universe is at bottom static, the other that the universe is at bottom dynamic. The one assumes that laws for right human action have been, so to speak, designed for all time by God in heaven, and that those laws are clear to the good Christian; the other assumes that laws for right human action are in fact worked out in the very process of living, fighting, loving, planning, earning money, that no one can be sure of them in advance, that new ones are constantly being created in the course of human life. Since human beings do not live in neatly polar climates of opinion, the medieval man mixed with his static view much practical adaptability to change; and the modern man, however inconsistently, does for the most part believe in some absolutes above the process of evolutionary change—or at the very least, that evolutionary change is somehow purposeful. But in many fields of human activity the mental attitudes of medieval and modern men work out clearly in different behavior.
The medieval man, puzzled, tends to resolve this problem by an appeal to authority, the best or the natural authority in which he has been trained to place faith— Aristotle if he is a Schoolman, the customary law of the land if he is a lawyer, his father’s farming practices if he is a farmer; and—this is very important—he tends to believe that no perfectly satisfactory solution of his problem is actually available, tends to feel that he cannot be much better off until he goes to heaven. The modern man, puzzled, tends at least to consult several different authorities and compare them before making up his own mind, and if he is well trained in some disciplines of scientific or practical character, he may try to experiment, to make tentative essays in new directions suggested by his appeal to different authorities and to his own particular experiences; and he tends to feel that if he goes about it the right way, he can in fact solve his difficulty. The right way for the medieval man already exists, and has at most to be found; the right way for the modern man may have to be made, created.
In spite of these contrasting attitudes, there is much in medieval social and political thought that has proved basic to our own. True, you will not find the like of systematic material progress or evolution in medieval thought, and YOU will not find much emphasis on competition, individualism, or, indeed, on organized planning. You will not find an atmosphere of “bigger and better,” nor will you find discussion of the “democratic way of life.” Medieval theory, as we have noted, emphasizes obedience, status, custom, fixed class structure, authority. But medieval social relations were not as stable and fixed in fact as in theory. From some of the actual conflicts of medieval life came the material changes, the progress, that helped break down medieval attitudes; and there also came, even at the height of the Middle Ages, ideas (or sentiments) that are with difficulty reconcilable with the principles of authority, obedience, an unchanging order of rank. To the first sort of change we shall come in the next chapter. The second sort of change is by no means independent of the first, but it depends also on conflicts long antedating the kind of economic conflict that ushered in modern times.
Briefly and over simply, the point can be made as follows: A relatively rigid, authoritarian, unchanging society among human beings needs a final sovereign authority whose decisions really are final. As long as Sparta was such a society, for instance, the decisions of the elders were unanimous and accepted. In the eastern part of the old Roman Empire the emperor, and his Russian successor the tsar, were such final authorities, able to dictate their will even to the Church. Hence the somewhat heavy term “caesaropapism” for the absolutism of the Eastern heirs of Caesar. But the slightest acquaintance with the political history of the West during the medieval period makes it clear that in the West there was never that unquestioning acceptance of a single and final authority which is essential for the >kind of society many Western thinkers thought they had—or better, were about to have. At the very highest level, the popes and the emperors each claimed supreme authority in the West. Able and lucky emperors had tastes of such authority, which was perhaps most nearly attained in fact by Pope Innocent III in the early thirteenth century. Each side had its triumphs in the long struggle. Both sides had very able theorist, and indeed almost all medieval thinkers sooner or later took sides in the dispute. Dante, for instance, spent a great deal of energy on a long political pamphlet, De Monarchza, in which he urges the world rule of the emperor as a solution for the evils brought on by the wars of his time. Papal supremacy had its defenders, among them Egidius Romanus. Thomas Aquinas concluded that the pope had “an indirect rather than a direct authority temporal matters,” another example of his bent toward moderation. A great deal of what the specialist finds fascinating speculation went into this struggle of pope and emperor. But one obvious upshot was that by the later Middle Ages the extreme claims of each were discredited. It is not merely that in the strife of propaganda—for such it was—the imperialists insulted the papalists and the papalists the imperialists, and that, again as is usual with propaganda, the insults stuck more firmly than the praise of their own side. It is also that each side had to find a backing for its claim to authority, and that some of the backing came to be quite modern. Marsiglio of Padua, the fourteenth-century author of Defensor Pacis, an imperialist tractate, found the only true source of authority in a commonwealth to be the ttniversitas civiurn, the whole body of the citizens. Marsiglio was no doubt carried away by his enthusiasm, and probably did not mean to be as modern as some of his commentators have made him out to be. He still uses medieval terms, and the constitutionalism, the notions of popular sovereignty, attributed to him are a long way from our notion of counting heads to determine political decisions. But Marsiglio did in all earnestness mean what a great many other medieval thinkers, even those on the papal side, meant: No man’s place in the order of rank, even if he is at the top of it, is such that what he commands must always and unquestioningly be accepted and acted on by those of lower rank.
The feudal relation itself, by which throughout the nobility men were bound together as lord and vassal, is an admirable example of medieval insistence that its order of rank is not one of mere might. The term “vassal” has cheapened with time, and insofar as it survives at all today it comes near suggesting involuntary servitude. Mor
period of chaos and personal tyranny. Actually only gentlemen could be vassals to a lord. The relation was marked by elaborate ceremonies at its beginning (homage) and was always regarded as a mutual relation of give and take, indeed, as a contractual relation. The vassal owed the lord certain services; the lord owed the vassal the great service of protection. The elaborate way of life known as chivalry, which gradually developed in this feudal class, is one of the most insistent of all human codes on the personal dignity and standing of each of its initiates.
Not even here was the theory identical with the practice; and the practice had much to do with the emergence of modern from medieval society. In theory the feudal relation was a fixed order of rank, as in an army, from the lowest knight to the emperor (or was it the pope?). If the count was vassal to the duke, and the duke to the king, then each owed services and was owed them in a neat, pre-arranged way. The trouble was that the count might acquire lands bearing feudal obligations to another duke, or directly to the king, or even to someone below himself in rank. There might be disputes, and in the confusion of feudal ties a vassal might find himself—in spite of theory—fighting against his lord. In short, though feudalism might have hardened into a fixed caste society, it did not do so because its members were rarely contented with, and sometimes not at all sure of, their place in the order of rank. That place, ultimately, in the medieval mind, depended on right, not might. And though right here as elsewhere in the Middle Ages was most easily and frequently interpreted as custom, “the way things have always been,” there remained always the final bottoming of right on God’s will expressed in the law of nature.
We come again to the great medieval generalization of the natural order, the law of nature, which is on earth the nearest we can come to God’s law. This characteristic Western doctrine is an always available argument in favor of change, if necessary of revolutionary change. For it sets up clearly, as we have already noted, the notion of a better order, yet an order which, since it is “natural,” is obviously attainable, not an other-worldly ideal. When, as in the eighteenth century, many men’s notions of what is natural are quite radically different from those of their social and political superiors, you have a revolutionary situation. When, as briefly in the thirteenth century, there is at least general agreement among educated men on what is natural, you have a relatively stable society. But in the later Middle Ages, as growing class antagonisms were accentuated by wars, plagues, and other disorders of a time of troubles, the concept of natural law came to be an inspiration to rebellion against authorities who were not achieving the order—the justice—for which natural law strives. The fifteenth century has, in spite of the obvious differences of vocabulary and, to some extent, habits of mind, much in common with the eighteenth.
Yet even in its earlier years, even at its height, the Middle Ages was not the impossible combination of chaos and disorder in fact practice] and of unity in ideals it sometimes appears to be in American textbooks. And very definitely, the Middle Ages in the West was no time for absolutism. In medieval theory, only God was absolute; the men through whom he worked on earth were no more than his agents, and as men could be judged by other men if they went against God’s law—and nature’s. In medieval Western practice, division of authority between lay and spiritual powers, the conflicting claims of thousands of feudal lords, and the universal appeal to custom as authority made established absolute rule quite impossible. The roots of modern Western democracy lie in the Middle Ages, whereas it was not until the first few centuries of the modern period that the doctrine of absolutism gained prominence.
IDEAS and MEN
*THE STORY OF WESTERN THOUGHT
TEXT EDITION. By: Crane Brinton (pgs. 175-213)
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