Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Start of Scholasticism

The ancient roots of Scholasticism were Aristotle and Augustine. Centuries after both of them were dead, the philosophers of the Middle Ages created the logical style of analysis which we call Scholasticism, and which formed the foundation for modern physics, mathematics, and chemistry. Scholasticism was characterized by rational debate, in which various viewpoints were examined carefully. As a movement, it reached its high point by around 1250 AD, and was on its way out by the 1400's. It lay dormant during the Renaissance era, when there was neither interest in logical debate, nor openness to competing viewpoints. Scholasticism was re-incarnated as modern philosophy in the disputes between Descartes and John Locke, and in the innovations of Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle.

But can we say that Augustine himself was a Scholastic? Usually he is identified as a "root" of Scholasticism, as one who laid the foundation for it, but not as a Scholastic proper.

Augustine was a scholastic in the sense he reconciled human reason with Christian faith. Scholasticism was actually a popular movement in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, gaining most of its momentum before and after the Crusades and bringing the reading of Greek, and the study of Aristotelian reasoning into Western Europe. The classics of Greece and Rome were never fully lost: from 476 AD onward, there was a continuous reading and study of the great Latin and Greek authors. The claim that the classical heritage was lost to Europe during the "dark ages" is both false and widely-accepted. Famous scholastics from that era like Pierre Abelard, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas owe a great deal to Augustine. Augustine understood that Christianity was the same kind of truth that Plato and Aristotle discussed. That being the case, then all Christian concepts could be understood using reason, with the exception of God. To Augustine, God was beyond reason, and works in ways humans cannot understand. By showing that reason is a basis to understanding Christianity, Roman scholars could identify with the religion in a deeper manner. It made sense. He said, in one of his sermons, that “If you cannot understand, believe so you can understand.” In essence, he’s saying that faith is a precursor to knowledge. They are not contradictory. After all, you can't know anything unless you believe it. In fact, he believed that faith cleared the mind of confusion. “The skeptic concentrates on the weak points in human knowledge. The man of faith looks and see that there are points of strength also.” In his book City of God, he talks about how reason is a clear characteristic of God’s city. By espousing scholastic ideas, he made Christianity appealing to an even wider group of skeptics. However, this viewpoint of faith and reason will be subject to various interpretations during the middle ages: the Scholastics will present competing theories to explain how faith and reason work together.

In any case, Augustine, although he probably shouldn't be labeled a Scholastic in the technical sense of the word, clearly contains the main currents of Scholastic thought, if in embryonic form.

Architecture and Philosophy

In a strange and difficult-to-describe way, there is a connection between architecture and philosophy: between conversation about life after death and the shape of a stained-glass window; between the logical analysis of time and the curve of a stone arch. It is no mere coincidence that, for example, the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was also an architect. "The disposition of Gothic sculpture," write Ann Mitchell,

is more controlled, since it is confined to the important unites of the building, the load-bearing capitals (in England, the keystones), and finally the facade and portals.


The organized nature of Gothic sculpture corresponds to the mathematical elegance of the philosophical books being written at the same time:

The logical quality is particularly apparent in the cathedrals of the Ile de France whose basis of design shows striking parallels with the forms of the current philosophical system known as Scholasticism. Its major work, the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, is another of the encyclopedic series of this period. Erwin Panofsky in his Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism has defined the system's three requirements. First, a presentation of the totality of knowledge (theological, moral, natural, and historical). This we have seen in the sculpture of the facades of the cathedrals. Secondly, an arrangement of this knowledge according to a uniform system of division and subdivision. This is best illustrated by the uniformity in design of a sector of the apse, the whole apse, and the choir. And thirdly, these divisions, though related to the whole, should be quite distinct; for example, the cross-section of a pier should explain the whole structure of the church. From the last quarter of the thirteenth century to the end of the middle ages, Scholasticism was beginning to be replaced by other systems and no longer had the same influence; nor was its effect felt so strongly outside the Ile de France.


The emphasis on reason during the era of Scholasticism and Gothic architecture made it an era which gave birth to the concepts which eventually became modern physics, chemistry, and mathematics.

From Plato to Jesus

One of Augustine's claims to fame is that he presented the internal logic of Christianity to Rome's educated classes, who had previously dismissed the new faith as superstition. How did he get them to see the step-by-step rationality of this concept of God, which was new to Rome, but had a long heritage in the Ancient Near East? Augustine understood that the Roman reader could not penetrate the Hebraic style of the New Testament: Jesus was a Rabbi, who presented his ideas in a typically Jewish fashion. The New Testament was a book written by Jews, for Jews, about Jews - and Roman readers were used to Greek philosophy and Latin poetry, which have very different internal logical structures. Augustine repackaged the concepts of Jesus into the language and style of Classical philosophy, and this made them accessible to the Roman reader.

In particular, Augustine was able to make a close link between Platonism and Christianity. He found they had similar themes, like dualism, the theory of the soul, and anti-materialism. The Neo-Platonists, sometimes just called the Platonists, were a group of intellectuals in the 4th and 5th century who studied the works of Plato and believed themselves to be his intellectual heirs. To clearly make that tie between what they were doing and what Christianity was all about was one of the greatest accomplishments of Augustine. “As a Christian, he is sure that he will never depart from the authority of Christ; as a Platonist he is confident that reason will find in Platonism what agrees with Christianity,” writes Peter Brown. Plato believed that the world is broken in the physical and metaphysical realms. The physical realm could not to be trusted. The metaphysical realm contained the ideas of truth and beauty. It was full of goodness. It was a realm that’s beyond physical, so it denied materialism. Augustine saw a very similar link between the metaphysical realm and heaven.

Coming to America

The greatness of America, in innovative science and technology, or in expanding democratic freedoms to include more and more people, arises from its roots. What we call "American" ideals are actually European concepts: the dignity of every human life, freedom of expression, offering equal opportunity - such notions were brought to this continent by Swedes, Norwegians, Poles, Danes, Czechs, Swiss, Austrians, and others. How did this flow of people arrive in America, and why? Thomas Sowell, one of the first African-Americans to earn a doctorate from Harvard, writes:

Later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the currents of the French Revolution, the conquests of Napoleon, and the Restoration of autocratic rule by the Congress of Vienna after Waterloo all profoundly affected German emigration. About half the overseas German emigrants of the post-Waterloo era went to South America, but from 1830 until World War I, most German overseas emigration was to the United States - as high as 90 percent or more in some years.


This wealth of intellectual creativity - inventors working on everything from telescopes to rockets, from pharmaceuticals to metallurgy - came to America looking for a safe environment in which to work, when their homelands became turbulent, oppressed, or overtaxed:

The rise of liberal and radical opposition to German autocracy led to the abortive Revolution of 1848, after which many fled to escape persecution, or in despair of achieving greater freedom, or simply to find greater social and economic opportunity elsewhere. Nearly a million Germans moved to the United States during the decade of the 1850's.


The timing was crucial - these newcomers would tip the scales in favor of Abraham Lincoln's abolitionist Republican party, and boldly promote the Republican agenda of ending slavery.

The presence of German settlements facilitated the movement of more Germans to the same country, and indeed often to the same region or city. But this depended on the good or bad experiences of earlier emigrants. The South American experience of early German emigrants provided warnings to others in Germany to change their destinations.


Just as harsh conditions dampened the early enthusiasm for moving to South America (who really wants to live in the Amazon rain forest?), the outbreak of the Civil War temporary reduced emigration to the United States for several years.

There were reductions of immigration to the United States associated with the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War in Europe, and especially World War I. But in between, German immigration to America was massive. During the decade of the 1880's, about a million and a half Germans moved to the United States.


Again, note the timing - from Europe came the impetus, for example, to allow women to vote. Expanding notions of liberty were the heritage of the great philosophers and cultures, brought to America by these millions.

In the twentieth century, there were usually more immigrants to Germany than emigrants from Germany. Even after the Nazi regime came to power in 1933, repatriated Germans exceeded those leaving. Those leaving, however, included some of the leading German intellectuals and scientists - including a German Jew who would later give the United States the decisive military weapon of World War II, Albert Einstein, a pacifist who ushered in the nuclear age.


America benefited by welcoming some of the greatest minds - the spoils, plunder, and loot which the victors took from World War II were not in the form of jewels and gold, but in the form of intellectual leadership.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Augustine and the Search for Truth

Human being habitually search for truth, and this essential feature creates the possibility for cross-cultural communication. Specifically, Augustine was able to show his Roman readers that they what they valued in Greek philosophy was the same quest for ultimate realities that we find in Augustine's explanation of theology.

Augustine found some key links between the ideas of classical thinkers and Christianity. “Augustine sought to carve out a space for Christianity that was both dignified and classical on the one hand and unyielding on the other.” And both he and the classical philosophers were on a quest for truth. By seeking truth through both philosophy and religion, he appealed to a whole new group of individuals. Christianity was completely foreign to many Romans. They could not relate to the concept of Jesus as savior, the trinity, or ideas of Original Sin. To make Christianity more comfortable for the Romans, there needed to be some commonalities to their previous culture. Augustine provided this link. He was able to show the Romans, through his dynamic sermons, teaching and writing that the two cultures were not so different. Albert Outler, a historian, wrote, “He is misunderstood, however, unless his reader realizes that, in his own eyes, Augustine saw himself as an heir to the tradition of classical culture, as one vitally concerned to appropriate its values and to measure its claims by the norm of Christian truth,” By connecting his Roman culture to classical culture and Christianity, Augustine was doing something that previous Christian thinkers were unable to do. “Augustine deserves to be known on his native ground as a late Latin author whose Christian faith transvalued the classical tradition which formed the nucleus of his culture.” And by doing this, he made Christianity more comfortable to the Romans, especially the intellectuals.

Augustine enabled Roman readers to see that what they found in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle was linked to what they found in the New Testament: the human mind exercising its rational powers to explore meaning and existence.

Playing Defense

Although Karl Martell (also “Martel”), called “Charles the Hammer” (born 686, died 741) was Mayor of the Palace (“major domo”) of the kingdoms of the Franks, he is remembered for winning the Battle of Tours in 732, which saved Europe from the Emirate of Cordoba's expansion beyond the Iberian Peninsula. Martel's Frankish army defeated an Islamic army, which had crushed all resistance before it. The Muslims had previously invaded Gaul and had been stopped in their northward sweep at the Battle of Toulouse (721).

The Battle of Tours earned Charles the cognomen “Martel” for his victory. Many historians believe that had he failed at Tours, Islam would probably have overrun Gaul, and perhaps the remainder of Europe.

The Battle of Tours probably took place somewhere between Tours and Poitiers. The Frankish army, under Charles Martel, consisted of veteran infantry, somewhere between 15,000 and 75,000 men. Responding to the Muslim invasion, the Franks had avoided the old Roman roads, hoping to take the invaders by surprise. From the Muslim accounts of the battle, the Muslims were indeed taken by surprise to find a large force opposing their expected sack of Tours, and they waited for six days, scouting the enemy. On the seventh day, the Muslim army, consisting of between 60,000 and 400,000 horsemen attacked. The Franks defeated the Islamic army and the emir was killed. While Western accounts are sketchy, Arab accounts are fairly detailed that the Franks formed a large square and fought a brilliant defensive battle. The Muslims were not ready for such a struggle, and should have abandoned the loot that hindered them, but instead trusted their horsemen, who had never failed them. Indeed, it was thought impossible for infantry of that age to withstand armored mounted warriors. Martel managed to inspire his men to stand firm against a force that must have seemed invincible to them, huge mailed horsemen, who in addition probably badly outnumbered the Franks. But bickering between the Islamic generals caused the Muslims to abandon the battlefield, leaving Martel a unique place in history as the savior of Europe, and the only man to ever manage such a victory between such disparate forces. Martel's Franks, virtually all infantry without armor, managed to withstand mailed horsemen, without the aid of bows or firearms, a feat of arms unheard of in medieval history.

Although it took another two generations for the Franks to drive all the Muslim attackers out of Gaul and across the Pyrenees, Charles Martel's halt of the invasion of French soil turned the tide of Islamic advances, and the unification of the Frankish kingdoms under Martel, his son Pippin the Younger (also known as “Pepin the Short”), and his grandson Karl the Great (“Charlemagne”) prevented the Islamic armies from expanding over the Pyrenees.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fueling the Growth of Christianity

Before Augustine, Christianity had appealed mainly to the lower classes, even women and slaves, with a promise of eternal life and equality, at least at the spiritual level. But Christianity was not popular with the elite and educated classes in Rome. Many powerful Romans believed it a religion of pacifists and the weak. James J. O’Donnell, a modern Augustinian scholar, wrote, “But in the fourth and fifth centuries, Christianity was far from certain to survive and thrive.” Moreover, Christianity had failed to appeal to the Roman intellect: it was Hebrew wisdom, which was a different style of thought, even when translated into Greek and Latin. Augustine was the philosopher that bridges this gap. But why was Augustine able to make Christianity acceptable to the educated classes of Roman society? He did so because he was able to use classical philosophy to express Christian theology, thereby expressing Christian doctrine with clear thought, passionate discourse, and succinct logic. When the Hebrew concepts were rephrased in terms of classical philosophy, the Roman aristocracy understood them, and the numbers of highly-educated Romans converting to the new faith increased. Although controversial, he was enormously influential and brought unity to the church. He showed that Christianity met the moral and intellectual needs of well-educated Romans who were both socially and politically powerful, and in doing so, helped to make the religion popular among Romans of all social classes.

Augustine - the Basics

St. Augustine was an extraordinary philosopher, teacher and bishop born in Northern Africa in 354 AD. His home of Thagaste, a city 200 miles from the coast of the Mediterranean, was firmly within the borders of Rome’s vast empire. This area was rich in ethnic and religious diversity, and for many centuries, it thrived. But by the mid-fourth century, the Roman Empire, including the area around Thagaste, was in decline. There were significant economic and social problems, intensified by a military that no longer could manage all of its borders. W. Wylie Spencer, a historian, said, “Augustine lives his life through, thinks his thoughts, and writes his philosophy in the midst of the most turbulent epoch of change to be found anywhere in the ages between the Greek illumination and the modern rebirth of philosophy.” During this era of constant change, Christianity was gaining momentum. Christianity had become a legal religion in 313 with Constantine’s Edict of Toleration, but it wasn’t until 378 that Christianity was made the official state religion of the Roman Empire.