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Aristotelianism

Medieval Latin Aristotelianism

The works of Aristotle were made available in the Latin West in three clearly distinguishable stages. The first stage opened in the sixth century with Boethius's (c. 480–c. 524) translations of Aristotle's treatises on logic, along with some notions transmitted by Cicero (106–43 B.C.E.). Such works had but little effect upon the monastic life of the early Middle Ages. The second stage began in the twelfth century with the gradual translation of the entire corpus of Aristotle's works. Working in the tradition of the concordia discordantium (reconciliation of disagreements), Scholastic teachers made the epoch-making decision not to try to separate—as the Byzantines and Muslims before them had done—their own religious disciplines from the profane sciences inherited from the ancients. They attempted rather to situate theological teaching within the Aristotelian classification of the sciences. The masters were guided at first by Boethius and then by Euclid. In his De hebdomadibus (Concerning the weekly conferences), Boethius described the organization of scientific knowledge much as Aristotle had done, and early authors sought to develop a general theory of scientific method from it. Gilbert de La Porrée (1076–1154) maintained, for example, that first principles can be established for all the liberal arts and in the same way for theology itself. Nicholas of Amiens (fl. c. 1190) in his Ars fidei catholicae (Art of the Catholic faith) attempted to present theological doctrine in accordance with Euclid's geometrical model.

The condemnation in 1210 and 1215 of Aristotle's libri naturales (books of natural philosophy) at Paris was followed by an intense effort to axiomatize the quadrivial sciences. The attempt was most successful in the science of optics, a science subalternate to geometry. But the philosophers also turned their attention to Aristotle's theory of science. Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175–1253) commented on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics, explaining that "science" means true and certain knowledge derived by syllogistic demonstration from first principles. Accordingly, the theologians undertook to transform their discipline into an Aristotelian science. In his Summa aurea (Golden compendium), William of Auxerre (c. 1150–1231) proposed taking the articles of faith as the principles of theological demonstration, on the basis of which Catholic theology could be presented as a structured body of strictly demonstrated conclusions. This lead was followed in particular by the Dominican theologians of the early part of the century.

By about 1230 the Latins had at their disposal the complete body of Aristotelian teaching together with Averroës's commentaries. The Aristotelian paradigm for science was established institutionally in the year 1255, when Aristotle's works were prescribed for the lectures in the Paris arts faculty. Working within this paradigm, the Latins made, in the course of the next two centuries, enormous progress not only in mathematics and the physical sciences, but also in the Aristotelian practical philosophy, following new translations of the Ethics and Politics. Albert the Great (c. 1200–1280) was among the first to turn his attention to the complete Aristotelian encyclopedia. His paraphrases of all of the fundamental works in Aristotle's encyclopedia prepared the way for the vast commentatory literature through which the Middle Ages assimilated Aristotelian science.

The Aristotelian paradigm was also taken up by the theologians, most prominently by Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). At this period the theologians were faced with the same problem as that which confronted the masters of arts—the systematic presentation of a body of traditional knowledge. In Thomas's view, theology should present the teaching of Scripture and the church fathers deductively, taking its departure from the indemonstrable, but to the Christian evident, articles of faith. Thomas sought to establish a concord between Aristotle's conclusions and revealed doctrine. While Christian doctrines could not be proved, their acceptance was thought to be able to be shown at least reasonable because congruent with basic philosophical conclusions that Aristotle was thought to have demonstrated.

Anomalies in this paradigm appeared even in the thirteenth century. About the year 1250, as Averroës's real position on the immortality of the human soul became known, the Latins came increasingly to distinguish between the teaching of Aristotle and that of Averroës. But in the year 1277 the bishop of Paris condemned 219 propositions—of which the majority represented Aristotelian positions—because they entailed consequences contrary to revealed doctrine. In the light of the condemnation, John Duns Scotus (1266?–1308) proposed a new conception of the theoretical sciences. His claim that the first object of the intellect is not sensible reality, but, rather, being as such, made it possible to study corporeal reality in a metaphysical way in contradistinction to the corporeal reality studied by the Aristotelian physics. The fact that many of Aristotle's doctrines were in apparent conflict with Christian teaching helped the philosophers to adjust the metaphysical assumptions that lay behind many of his positions, especially in astronomy. Aided by the Aristotelian idea that the individual sciences are autonomous in their own realm, philosophers like John Buridan (c. 1295–c. 1358) were able to develop theories in physics that were independent of Aristotle's treatment, while mathematicians like Nicole d'Oresme (c. 1325–1382) turned to areas that Aristotle had neglected.

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