Friday, October 14, 2016

Friday BookReview: "Aristotle's Children"

[first published November 11, 2011]

"St. Thomas called art 'reason in making.' This is a very cold and very beautiful definition, and if it is unpopular today, this is because reason has lost ground among us. As grace and nature have been separated, so imagination and reason have been separated, and this always means an end to art. The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees. For him, to be reasonable is to find, in the object, in the situation, in the sequence, the spirit which makes it itself. This is not an easy or simple thing to do. It is to intrude upon the timeless, and that is only done by the violence of a single-minded respect for the truth."
                                                          (Flannery O'Connor)

For the tale of the great Sundering, grab a copy of Richard Rubenstein's 2003 book, Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages.

Aristotle's writings had been lost to the West for almost a thousand years. How did medieval universities and the leading churchmen react to their re-discovery in the 12th century? To Rubenstein's surprise, it turns out they "tried to modernize the Church by reconciling faith and reason" -- refusing to settle, as we moderns have, for a "split between the cultures of the heart and the head."

There will always be tension between reason and faith, but history shows us it can be a creative tension. Today's world of 'value-free' science and 'reason-free' religion is a house dangerously divided.

It is high time to restore the Aristotelian consensus. Faith and reason were not implacable enemies in the medieval era, and they need not be in our day.

There is no justification for the modern world settling for "a coldly objectivist science and a passionately subjectivist religion."

Professor Rubenstein writes of the malign influence of William of Ockham with his philosophy of Nominalism. It's a shame that someone such as Peter Kreeft hasn't written a book on the English Franciscan who died in the mid-14th century during the Black Death -- and of the deep influence he had on the thought of the Reformation. (Luther was trained at the University of Erfurt in nominalist theology.)

Who does Rubenstein say were the two leading Aristotle-haters of the early modern period? Martin Luther ("no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle") and Thomas Hobbes (contra Aristotle's notion that politics is a branch of ethics, he asserted that the law of the state is the law). Rubenstein calls Hobbes "the most brilliant spokesman of the new ruling class," those elites who wanted to be free of all restraints on their power -- thus they wanted no truck with the ideas of Aristotle or Aquinas about reason and morality. Hobbes carried the new day with his glorification of will and power.


"Medieval students did not have to agree with him on every point -- in fact, on some points, Christians were expected to disagree -- but for four centuries, one could not begin a discussion of metaphysics, natural science, logic, theology, ethics, aesthetics, or politics without referring to Aristotle's views and dealing respectfully with them."

Catholic publisher Mark Brumley has written:
"The irony is profound. The Reformation sought to recover 'genuine Christianity' by hacking through what it regarded as the vast overgrowth of medieval theology. Yet to do so, the Reformers wielded swords forged in the fires of the worst of medieval theology – the decadent scholasticism of Nominalism."

UPDATE -- From another review of Professor Rubenstein's book:

"For, unlike those 17th-century Inquisitors who forced Galileo to recant, 12th-century Archbishop Raymund I of Toledo was one of the unrecognized heroes of Western culture, who 'did more than any man to make the treasures of Greek philosophy and science available to the Latin world... and opened the door to advanced Arab and Jewish ideas,' Rubenstein writes. Establishing a translation center in Toledo, he recruited 'the best scholars available... whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, Latin, Greek, or Slav.' "

Toledo is less than 50 miles from Madrid. It was the first great city of Al-Andalus (Islamic Iberia) to be conquered by a Christian kingdom:
"When Castilian king Alfonso IV conquered the city in 1085, he found out that there were plenty of original works in the libraries of Toledo, including the remaining works from the library of the caliph of Cordoba, which had managed to gather up to 400,000 volumes."

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