Reactions Against Mediaeval Aristotelianism


Both rationalism and empiricism react against scholasticism. This is true even though scholasticism holds sway in the universities right through this period. The focus of scholasticism is Aristotelean thought. This was heightened in the Renaissance, ironically, by the renewed interest in classical texts, and the adherence to them. So, while Aristotle was under some attack in the Renaissance, he was also taken even more seriously by many than in the high Middle Ages. The curriculum at most universities was thoroughly scholastic, and became more entrenched as time went on. So, the battlefield was set, between the classicists who wanted to revive and (to a certain extent) de-Christianize Aristotle, and the rationalists and empiricists, who wanted to radically revamp Aristotle's project.

Reaction #1: Renaissance Platonism

Pico represents one kind of reaction to Aristotle. As has been pointed out, he is not completely or stridently against Aristotle. In fact, he often speaks on the side of Aristotle. It should be recognized, though, that the Aristotle of the Middle Ages and the Aristotle of ancient times are very different to the Renaissance thinkers. In brief, the Aristotle of the Middle Ages had become sterile, and the worst of his thought was combined with the worst of Christianity. The revival, then, was not only of Plato, but also of an ancient Aristotle. In fact, like most thinkers before modern times, these two were seen as essentially the same anyway. So, Pico reacts to the mediaeval appropriation of Aristotle, by using later revisions of Plato.

The revisions of Plato started well back in ancient history. Philosophers speak of early, middle, and late Platonism, as well as the appropriations of Plato by Christianity and other religions. The important revision of Plato for our purposes happened in late Platonism, and was taken up by Christianity with a vengeance. It is the notion that the forms of Plato are actually ideas in the mind of God. Augustine picks this up from Plotinus and Proclus, and probably some others as well.

Why is this important? Because it bridges the gap between the abstract notion of knowledge that earlier Platonism might imply (although, if you read the Symposium, it is hard to come to that conclusion), and makes it very clear that knowledge and love are the same thing. To know ultimate things is just like loving someone. Knowing God is loving God. In fact, we end up with a kind of equation, called the "transcendentals":

Knowledge = God = One = Reality = Truth = The Good = Beauty

The problem for the thinkers of the Renaissance is a very familiar one to us, and to many in other ages who live with a long history. The Renaissance thinkers believed that all the life had gone out of philosophy, and out of our ability to represent and describe the world. For many, Aristotelianism had turned into a sterile exercise.

This is not to say that the teaching of Aristotle vanished in some ways, it never has. But by about the 14th century, the public perception of Aristotelian thinkers was that they were only concerned about "angels on the heads of pins" arguments. During the Renaissance the word "dunce" came into being. From where? From John Duns Scotus, or more accurately his followers. Duns Scotus was a philosopher adept at making fine distinctions, and his followers took this even further. Scotus' distinctions were usually brilliant; his followers distinctions were pedantic at best, and foggy at worst. They gained the reputation of being meaningless logic-choppers. A "dunce" is a follower of Duns Scotus.

So, what is the response to this? The Renaissance Platonists wanted to inject the humanity back into the abstract world. Platonism looked like a good way to do this.

Where do we see this in Pico? Consider his sense of hierarchy, and his use of the angels. They are straight from Plotinus (who considered himself as much of an Aristotelean as a Platonist, by the way).

There is a kind of irony, though. Note the title of this piece: Oration on the Dignity of Man. This is an oration. Plato hated orators. They were always the bad guys. Isocrates was the rhetorician, as was Gorgias. They were sophists, those who could make the worse seem to be the better. This is one of those conflicts of the period. At the same time as there was a revival of Plato, there was also a revival of the Roman skill of oration. What's the point?

Plato thought that knowledge came through dialectic the cooperative discussion that leads to a remembrance of the things we always knew. Words had to be transparent, if possible. Art led us away from the truth. And yet, art is central to the Renaissance. Oration is important. Pico at another time writes on the question of whether dialectic or rhetoric is preferable for the discovery of knowledge. He comes down on the side of dialectic, like a good Platonist. His adversary, one Barbaro, argues for rhetoric, but not very well. 75 years later, Philip Melanchthon, the great religious reformer and humanist, picks up the argument and defends rhetoric again.

Can there be truth in art? Or is it only in philosophy? This is one of the conflicts of the time. Both sides are defended.

Pico gives us more evidences of Platonism:

"Who then will not look with awe upon this our chameleon, or who, at least, will look with greater admiration on any other being? This creature, man, whom Asclepius the Athenian, by reason of this very mutability, this nature capable of transforming itself, quite rightly said was symbolized in the mysteries by the figure of Proteus. This is the source of those metamorphoses, or transformations, so celebrated among the Hebrews and among the Pythagoreans; for even the esoteric theology of the Hebrews at times transforms the holy Enoch into that angel of divinity which is sometimes called malakh-ha-shekhinah and at other times transforms other personages into divinities of other names; while the Pythagoreans transform men guilty of crimes into brutes or even, if we are to believe Empedocles, into plants; and Mohammed, imitating them, was known frequently to say that the man who deserts the divine law becomes a brute. And he was right; for it is not the bark that makes the tree, but its insensitive and unresponsive nature; nor the hide which makes the beast of burden, but its brute and sensual soul; nor the orbicular form which makes the heavens, but their harmonious order. Finally, it is not freedom from a body, but its spiritual intelligence, which makes the angel. If you see a man dedicated to his stomach, crawling on the ground, you see a plant and not a man; or if you see a man bedazzled by the empty forms of the imagination, as by the wiles of Calypso, and through their alluring solicitations made a slave to his own senses, you see a brute and not a man. If, however, you see a philosopher, judging and distinguishing all things according to the rule of reason, him shall you hold in veneration, for he is a creature of heaven and not of earth; if, finally, a pure contemplator, unmindful of the body, wholly withdrawn into the inner chambers of the mind, here indeed is neither a creature of earth nor a heavenly creature, but some higher divinity, clothed in human flesh." (pp. 2-3)


This is revised Platonism. Intelligence is at the top of the ladder, or at least as high as we can get, and yet it is our "mutability" that makes us particularly great. Plato would have said that we have an essence, and essences cannot be mutable. They have to be eternal. If they change, they belong to the world of opinion and matter.

Here's another revised Platonic statement:

The Seraphim burns with the fire of charity; from the Cherubim flashes forth the splendor of intelligence; the Thrones stand firm with the firmness of justice. If, consequently, in the pursuit of the active life we govern inferior things by just criteria, we shall be established in the firm position of the Thrones. If, freeing ourselves from active care, we devote our time to contemplation, meditating upon the Creator in His work, and the work in its Creator, we shall be resplendent with the light of the Cherubim. If we burn with love for the Creator only, his consuming fire will quickly transform us into the flaming likeness of the Seraphim. Above the Throne, that is, above the just judge, God sits, judge of the ages. Above the Cherub, that is, the contemplative spirit, He spreads His wings, nourishing him, as it were, with an enveloping warmth. For the spirit of the Lord moves upon the waters, those waters which are above the heavens and which, according to Job, praise the Lord in pre-aurorial hymns. Whoever is a Seraph, that is a lover, is in God and God is in him; even, it may be said, God and he are one. Great is the power of the Thrones, which we attain by right judgement, highest of all the sublimity of the Seraphim which we attain by loving.

But how can anyone judge or love what he does not know? (pp. 3-4)


So, we have the hierarchy of angels here. It is worth noting that in this hierarchy, Aristotle is the lowest of the three of these. And, it is also worth noting that the usual Platonic top-of-the-hierarchy, love, is supplanted by intelligence. This is not only revised Platonism, it is revised neo-Platonism. Another example of this:

Nevertheless, O Fathers, we cannot fail to recall those three Delphic precepts which are so very necessary for everyone about to enter the most holy and august temple, not of the false, but of the true Apollo who illumines every soul as it enters this world. You will see that they exhort us to nothing else but to embrace with all our powers this tripartite philosophy which we are now discussing. As a matter of fact that aphorism: meden agan, this is: ``Nothing in excess,'' duly prescribes a measure and rule for all the virtues through the concept of the ``Mean'' of which moral philosophy treats. In like manner, that other aphorism gnothi seauton, that is, ``Know thyself,'' invites and exhorts us to the study of the whole nature of which the nature of man is the connecting link and the ``mixed potion''; for he who knows himself knows all things in himself, as Zoroaster first and after him Plato, in the Alcibiades, wrote. Finally, enlightened by this knowledge, through the aid of natural philosophy, being already close to God, employing the theological salutation ei, that is ``Thou art,'' we shall blissfully address the true Apollo on intimate terms. (p. 7)


Note the three proverbs: 1. Nothing in excess; 2. Know thyself; 3. Thou art. The first is justice, the second intelligence, and the third love. The first, as it turns out, is exactly Aristotle's injunction; the second, Socrates', and the third is the Biblical injunction of the love of God.

Reaction #2: Renaissance Marginal Science

This stuff about texts is a good place to make a transition, because it sets up one of the basic characteristics of Renaissance science. We sometimes think that Renaissance science is driven by the move to rationalism (Descartes) and empiricism (Francis Bacon). But people were still struggling with the nature of truth in the world. This notion of the "book of the world" started in the Middle Ages, but it took on real significance in the Platonism, Christianity, and humanism of the Renaissance.

I think it was the revival of Platonism that made most of the Renaissance science possible. However, that science took many different forms. Mysticism, alchemy, witchcraft, astrology, and other "marginal" sciences were very popular, often practiced along with what we would now consider more true science. Newton dabbled in alchemy. Paracelsus did chemistry as well as alchemy.

Why did people not go straight to modern empiricist science upon rejecting Aristotle? There is at least one good reason: knowledge in general, and science in particular, is the search for general or universal statements we can make about the world. This is still true -- we look for laws. A scientist could not operate without these generalizations.

But after more or less abandoning Aristotle, there was another step to make. It was difficult to give up the notion that there were universals. Aristotle thought there were; so did Plato. A universal is something that applies to every instance within a species. Scientists now look for generalizations. This is a statement extracted from observing particulars. It is a statement that has, at best, only a high degree of probability. It is not certain. Universals, on the other hand, are certain.

In the marginal Renaissance scientists, this move was difficult to make. After all, if the book of the world was written by a creator, it must be consistent. Even if it is not the result of a creator, there must be something that makes everything the way it is.

A popular answer in the Renaissance was a kind of pantheism. You could posit a spirit that flowed through everything (neo-Platonism served very nicely here), and that spirit made everything the way it is. Science, then, would be knowledge of that spirit and its operation in nature. That is why alchemy and the like were so important. They were all predicated on the assumption that nature was spiritually connected, and true knowledge came from knowing that spirit. This was not just a religious exercise, though, because the spirit was only known through its physical manifestations. This resulted in a great deal of discussion of macrocosms and microcosms. Our connection to the universe was one in which we mirrored the spiritual world in our natural bodies. <see microcosm overhead>

It resulted in a doctrine of natural kinds. This is not really new -- it was a hallmark of science right from Greek times. The spirit enables a horse to be a horse, a dog to be a dog. The variations in individuals is due to their material form, but their characteristics must all be the same as they all participate in the same universal. This notion is questioned repeatedly in empirical science, and is finally destroyed by Darwin.

But the questioning of this idea of universals produces a problem of epistemology. If things are not static kinds, differing only in accidentals, that means there is no object of knowledge. What is it that we know about horses, if there is no HORSE? Not much, it seems. As Parmenides pointed out, you can't know something if it keeps changing on you.

So, if we were to move beyond Renaissance magic, we will have to answer that epistemological (and, for that matter, metaphysical) question.

So, why did Renaissance magic die out? Partly because rationalist and empiricist science showed they were able to manipulate the world. But, ironically, there was also a textual reason. Much Renaissance magic was tied to Hermes Trismegistus, a magician people like Bruno believed was an ancient Egyptian mage. It was part of the Renaissance predilection for ancient texts. But in 1614, Isaac Casaubon definitively proved that Hermes dated from the Christian era. Fascination with Hermes collapsed almost immediately; the spell was lifted, and people started thinking of nature as operating under its own power. Apart from people like Spinoza, the nature philosophy of the Renaissance remained dead until the 19th century in Germany, with Romanticism and idealism.

Reaction #3: Rationalism

The rationalist reaction (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz) is to accept parts of Aristotle's plan, but to reject most of it. They accepted, for instance, that knowledge must be well-structured. However, it must also be unified. It is not fragmented.

The preoccupation for the rationalists is to come to certainty. This is why they are so interested in mathematics. Mathematics is a science of certainty. This is a Platonic concern; Aristotle was never very concerned with mathematics.

There is also a commitment to necessitarianism, the view that "If P, then necessarily P". You could, in principle, explain all the causes that brought P about, without relying on inbred forms or final causes. This comes from a split between body and mind, and the resulting materialism of the natural world. The natural world is completely mechanical, and therefore subject to natural laws.

Along with this comes the cosmological view of "corpuscularanism" -- the view that the natural world is made up of little corpuscles (atoms) that collide with each other or combine to form things. This is completely material.

Essentially, then, the modernism of the rationalists was one which said that everything can be know, and reduced to formal structures. Furthermore, everything is in principle predictable. You see the definition of modernism I talked about earlier coming up here.

Reaction #4: Renaissance Empiricism

I distinguish between the Renaissance (16th-17th century) version of empiricism, and the later 18th century version of empiricism. The earlier empiricism is that of Francis Bacon, Galileo, Copernicus, and parts of Newton; the later, that of the French philosophes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. It is as much a social/cultural distinction as a philosophical one, but there are some grounds for making the philosophical distinction as well. For instance, the earlier empiricism did not have the entrenched mechanistic determinism that the later empiricism did. It did not have the same hostility to rationalism.

The empiricist reaction is in some ways similar to the rationalist reaction. There is, for instance, a rejection of a reliance on authority. The Royal Society (1660) had a motto: Nullius in Verba -- From the words of no one. In other words, they would take no one's word for it, they would investigate for themselves. [By the way, notice that today scientists are the new gurus. People do not investigate for themselves, but take the word of someone else who has investigated. We are back to the days of authority].

This investigative trend was unknown in Aristotle. Something was knowledge if it fit into the system, not if it was discovered in the world. This shift, for both rationalism and empiricism, is mirrored by Luther's "Sola Scriptura". The believer did not have to rely on the word of Rome to understand the Bible; everyone could do it for him- or herself.

There is a rejection of scientia, therefore. At this time, the term used was "natural philosophy". It was not the investigation of forms or structures, but of objects.

So, the reactions seem to be similar. However, there are important contrasts between rationalists and empiricists. Rationalists are set on finding certainty, while empiricists are content with probability. For a rationalist, true knowledge is innate and in the mind, and sensory "knowledge" is a pale copy. For an empiricist, empirical knowledge is reliable, while mental reflection is one step removed.

Reaction #5: Reformation

There are many aspects of the Reformation we could talk about here. Much has been written on the political issues, the social mileau, and so forth. I would like to start, though, with the issue of the interpretation of the Bible. It provides a good microcosm for examining the shift that happens during this time.

In the Reformation, the move in interpretation was toward only the literal. If you institute a system of the priesthood of all believers, and "Sola Scriptura", you need some way of preventing a free-for-all. The Protestant reformers didn't want Biblical relativism any more than the Catholic church. So, the various structures of meaning receded, and the literal meaning became most important.

However, we must understand what "literal" means. It amounts to "what is obvious to the inner self". It was not that just anyone could understand; conversion was a prerequisite. This is Luther's Augustinian heritage. (It is important to recognize that Luther himself, even in his rebellion against mediaeval forms of religion, drew heavily on Augustine, Meister Eckhart, Duns Scotus, and other important mediaeval thinkers. The Reformation could not have happened without the Middle Ages.)

And yet, there is a specific Reformation hermeneutic that heralds the modern study of hermeneutics. In the middle ages, the Bible that was studies was the Glossa Ordinaria, in which each verse was surrounded by the notes and commentaries handed down from the Church Fathers. When Martin Luther began teaching in the winter semester of 1513-1514, he had the university printer produce an edition of the Psalms with wide margins and lots of white space. The idea was that they could put in Luther's own commentary, and maybe even their own.

Luther wiped the Sacred page clean. Modernity was located in the new white space and the margins. Interpretation was restarted. He takes seriously Augustine's distinction between the spirit and the letter of the text. For Augustine, the plain sense of the text was the spiritual sense. It had to come before the reading of the word. Understanding presupposes conversion.

Now, this does not mean literalism in a naive sense. The Bible is often literally figurative in its language. The point is that the text is part of the spirit. The text is not an object of interpretation, but a component of it.

The shift from the middle ages attitude comes in the idea that the Scriptures come to us in a kind of mystical fashion. This, of course, cannot be tested (as Erasmus points out), but that fact is not enough to reject this type of hermeneutic.

This is not the study of scripture in a rationalist manner (as Spinoza thought). One cannot be "objective" toward Scripture. This makes the text into a dead object. You would end up with a collection of trivial facts, unrelated to the life of the reader. The text cannot be mastered, in this rationalist sense.