Aristotle Changed the Way Europe Thought

Michelangelo, Plato, Aristotle, detail from “School of Athens”


 A few weeks ago I became totally absorbed in a book about medieval scholasticism. Before you stop reading, hear me out. Richard Rubenstein Aristotle’s Children is a compelling drama about how a set of ideas can remake the world: Europe’s rediscovery of Aristotle in the 12th and 13th centuries dramatically changed the political, social, and religious landscape and even today continues to have an impact.

The book is also giving me a better understanding of the intersection of reason, religion, science, and magic as they surface in works that I teach, such as Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Shakespeare’s Tempest, and John Donne’s poetry.

Aristotle’s systematic description of, well, everything was vital in the explosion of learning in medieval Europe. Nothing escapes Aristotle’s categorizing, from politics to literature to psychology to friendship to the soul. Rubinstein says that our beliefs about the medieval church’s relationship with science and reason have to be radically rethought once we examine how its leading thinkers responded to Aristotle:

The historical materials [about Aristotle’s reception] seemed to contradict much of what I had been taught to believe about the emergence of the modern world from medieval backwardness. I knew—or thought I knew—that the High Middle Ages in Europe was an era of passionate religious faith and the bloody Crusades, inquisitorial terror, and fierce doctrinal dogmatism. I knew—or thought I knew—that Aristotle was the Father of Science, a thinker who believed that human reason, not tradition, revelation, or sentiment, could uncover objective truths about the universe. Naturally, in bringing these volatile extremes together, I expected an explosion. The Aristotelian Revolution would no doubt be a drama like Galileo versus the Inquisition or Charles Darwin versus the Creationists: an earlier version of the modern morality play in which brave Reason suffers at the hands of villainous Superstition before triumphing in the sunny dawn of Science.

Wrong! The story I found myself telling was far more complex and interesting than this stock scenario. Yes, scientific thinking in the West did begin in the intellectual explosion that followed the rediscovery of Aristotle’s writings. But European Christians did not split into “rationalist” and “fundamentalist” camps, as I had expected. In a way that violated all my modernist preconceptions, the leading force for transformative change in Western thinking turned out to be the leadership of the Catholic Church—the very same leadership that was also conducting anti-Muslim Crusades and burning Christian heretics.

Rather than choose between the new learning and the old religion, the popes and scholars of the high Middle Ages tried to modernize the Church by reconciling faith and reason. This Herculean task generated one of the richest, most searching debates in Western history—a battle of innovative thinkers whose discussions ranged over a vast spectrum of disputed issues, from the nature of scientific knowledge and the basic structures of mind and matter to the hope of immortality, the problem of evil, the sources of moral value, and the basic criteria for living a good life.

Rubinstein admits that the relationship was an uneasy one. That uneasy relationship, however, proved to be productive rather than otherwise. Instability itself acted as a spur to innovation:

The great changes in European society that were intensifying people’s this-worldly interests and inclining them to value the pleasures of life on earth brought the two worldviews closer together. But instead of fusing, or one perspective eliminating the other, they existed from the twelfth century onward in a state of creative tension. Close enough to permit each worldview to “read” the other with understanding and to accept some of its ideas, they were far enough apart to generate continual dialogue and self-reflection. The Aristotelian tendency was always to emphasize the autonomy of nature and human history, while the Christian tendency was to insist on God’s personality and providential activity in the world. But both tendencies were present in the minds of the same individuals—men like Bonaventure and Aquinas, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, Jean Buridan and Nicole Oresme. The great scholastics did not see this as an either/or choice. Their passionate preference was for both/and.

Christian thinkers of the medieval renaissance could not rest content with the idea either that the world was a puppet show with God pulling the strings or that it was a godless machine. Nor could they accept the choice between a human nature totally depraved and entirely dependent upon God’s arbitrary will or one totally free and self-determining.

Rubinstein talks about how, in early Christianity, Plato was the more influential philosopher, with Aristotle all but forgotten. St. Augustine, distraught over the fall of Rome, was drawn to Plato’s vision that our reality is just a shadow of a world of ideal forms, which for Augustine was “the city of God.” Augustine wasn’t interested in Aristotle’s meticulous exploration of the empirical world.

Jewish and Islamic scholars, however, kept Aristotle alive, and his writings hit Europe with seismic force in the 12th century. Rubinstein provides a fascinating explanation for why certain eras prefer Plato and others Aristotle:

In Aristotelian epochs, economic growth, political expansion, and cultural optimism color the intellectual atmosphere. People feel connected to each other and to the natural world. Confident that they can direct their emotions instead of being dominated by them, they are generally comfortable with their humanity. Proud of their ability to understand how things work, they believe that they can make use of nature and improve society. The natural world seems to them vast and harmonious, populated by highly individualized people and things, but integrated, purposeful, and beautiful. Aristotelian thinkers know that they will die as all nature’s creatures do, but the environment that nurtures them seems immortal, and this gives meaning to their lives. Curiosity and sociability are their characteristic virtues, egoism and complacency their more common vices.

Platonic eras, by contrast, are filled with discomfort and longing. The source of this discomfort is a sense of contradiction dramatized by personal and social conflicts that seem all but unresolvable. Society is fractured, its potential integrity disrupted by violent strife, and this brokenness is mirrored in the souls of individuals. People feel divided against themselves—not ruled by reason but driven by uncontrollable instincts and desires. The universe as a whole may not be evil, but it is far from what it should be—far, indeed, from what, in some other dimension, it truly is. Latter-day Platonists are haunted by a sense that the world people call real is, at least in part, illusory…and this is also the source of their longing. They believe that a better and truer self, society, and universe await them on the other side of some necessary transformation. Earthly life is therefore a pilgrimage, a stern quest whose pursuit generates the virtues of selflessness, endurance, and imagination. The characteristic Neoplatonic vices (the dark side of its virtues) are self-hatred, intolerance, and fanaticism.

While Rubinstein talks about eras, his contrast also suggests different psychological types. In terms of our current political battles, Obama followers sound more like Aristotelians, Trump followers—certainly those of his Christian supporters who reject science and focus on life after death—more like Platonists. Or Augustinians, if you prefer.

In his conclusion Rubinstein notes that both science and religion suffered when the Aristotelian era came to an end. He doesn’t say exactly when this occurred, but by the 17th and 18th centuries religion and science, faith and reason, were starting to go their own ways. Life was diminished as a result:

Science, deprived of its connection with religious faith, has become increasingly technical and “value-free,” while religious commitments, cut loose from their naturalistic moorings, seem increasingly a matter of arbitrary “instincts” or tastes. Worse yet, with global economic and military power concentrating at an unprecedented rate in the hands of a few powerful elites, both faith and reason tend to become tools in the hands of raw, self-aggrandizing power.

I won’t go into detail how my new understanding of these intellectual currents and tensions help me make sense of the works I teach. Suffice it to say that the way that magic and science are mixed up together in Doctor Faustus; the ambiguous status of the wizard figure in The Tempest (does Shakespeare approve of Prospero being a wizard or is he glad to see him drown his book?); and Donne sliding easily between the physical and the metaphysical worlds; make more sense to me now. I’ve taught these tensions but didn’t fully appreciate how the authors reflected their times rather than representing radical departures.

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