An extract on scholasticism from Dave’s article ‘Enlightenment Roots – Introduction’.
“From the fourteenth century to the end of the seventeenth century the system of thought that dominated European schools and universities was known as ‘Aristotelian scholasticism’, or just ‘scholasticism’. In the thirteenth century, St Thomas Aquinas (1225 to 1274) and his followers demonstrated that it was possible to combine Christian theology and Greek philosophy, primarily Aristotelian, to create a coherent intellectual framework with which to make sense of the universe, including the mysteries and truths of Christianity. One of the key features of this framework was the Aristotelian system of causality, an essential tool in the investigation of the nature of the world. Aristotle was one of a number of thinkers to tackle the issue of causes with their ultimate aim being to understand why things came to be. This system was also known as the doctrine of the four causes:
- The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
- The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
- The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
- The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools.
(Stanford Enyclopedia of Philosophy)
“Part of the value of this four-part system of causality was that it allowed Christian theologians to demarcate different existences and forms and thereby produce a scale of perfections otherwise known as a Great Chain of Being. At the top, in the heavens, is God, who is perfect, along with all other unchangeable beings. Below is the Earth and that which is changeable. The more qualities any substance possesses that are also possessed by God, such as love, spirit, wisdom or immutability, the higher up it will be on the Great Chain of Being.
There is an essential hierarchy of ‘souls’ governing ‘substantial forms’. God is incorporeal and pure actuality. Angels are incorporeal and pure intellect but unlike God they are imperfect. Man has a reasoning soul and a corporeal body: he is endowed with free will to choose between good and evil. Animals have an animal soul and physical senses. They have neither reason nor freedom of the will. Plants have a vegetative soul and undergo purposeful growth. They have no reproduction, no learning, and no choice. Stones are wholly body and lack soul and its behaviours.
(Alan Kors ‘The Birth of the Modern Mind’)
“A distinction was also made between ‘essence’ and ‘existence’ which was the basis for all things. ‘Essence’ was a thing’s potentiality, its nature, a fixed and timeless possibility of existence. Without an essence, an object could not have any identity or form (hence the formal cause). ‘Existence’ was the material substantiation of that essence. This did not mean all objects of a particular essence were identical in every detail but rather that they were of a characteristic type, e.g., a horse, a man, a table. The only being whose existence was its essence, its pure actuality, was God. It was also God that determined the final cause, or the purpose, of all things, the study of which was known as the science of teleology. Without a final cause, without a divinely ordained purpose, nothing would exist. Without purpose, there could not be an efficient cause. The efficient cause necessary to actualise a form, i.e., to bring an object into existence, would have no goal, no reason to be. As the understanding of the purpose of things gave an insight into understanding God’s intentions, the science of teleology became one of the great projects of pre-Enlightenment scholars.
“Central to scholasticism was the disputatio, a method of assessing knowledge and resolving contradictions. Typically, a master would choose the Bible (the supernatural authority) or some other ancient text, for example a text authored by Aristotle, Saint Augustine or Cicero (natural authorities that had stood the test of time), which would serve as the starting point for a subject of investigation. Contradictions within or between texts would be used to generate two opposing arguments. The ultimate aim was to reconcile these arguments using deductive reasoning and demonstrate how, in fact, the texts were in agreement. The correctness of these ancient authorities was deemed to be settled and unquestionable. Direct experience of nature was not used as the basis for systematic investigation (i.e., science as we know it today) but simply as a source of illustration to demonstrate the knowledge and truths revealed by authority or logical deduction from that authority.”
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