What we today refer to as "science" used to be known as "natural philosophy." This change in name is significant for many reasons, but most important of all is the removal of the word "philosophy." While we tend to think of "science" as an objective field of study, our intellectual forefathers knew better. They understood that any work in, or investigation of, the natural world was initiated and depended upon the first principles—the worldview—of the investigator. In other words, the battle in the laboratory has little to do with "facts," but everything to do with ideas. The conflict between Plato and Aristotle has been going on for more than 2000 years and shows no signs of being resolved any time soon.
In today's excerpt from The History of Christian Thought, we read of the continuing struggle of the church to reconcile the physical/spiritual dilemma (click here for an introduction to this topic). Historically, the church has tended to come down on one side or the other of this divide, but it is not this simple. In His infinite wisdom, God chose to not only create a physical world, He chose to inhabit it as a Man. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ shows the love that God has for His creation. John 3:16 reminds us that God so loved "the world," not just the people in it. God is a spirit, but He also became flesh. "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10).
THE REDISCOVERY OF ARISTOTLE
Tertullian looked forward to watching him burn on Judgment Day. Gregory of Nyssa called him an evil genius. Yet by a millennium later, Aristotle had been elevated by the church to a position of supreme authority, a pagan saint equal to the Fathers themselves. How did this remarkable change of fortune come about?
The story begins in A.D. 529, when the Byzantine emperor Justinian ordered the closing of the philosophical schools. Philosophers who were unwilling to turn their attentions to Orthodox doctrine fled to the Middle East. There they continued the philosophical practices of late antiquity, which essentially consisted of translating and commenting on the works of great philosophers of the past. These included Aristotle, the pupil of Plato, who had lived in the 4th century B.C. and acted (without much success) as tutor to the famous general Alexander the Great. Aristotle had always had his followers throughout late antiquity, but they were not as prominent as those of Plato or the Stoics—and the Christians had never liked them. Now, in the 6th century, a strong Aristotelian tradition arose.
In the West, meanwhile, Aristotle was almost forgotten. His works on logic survived and were studied, but everything else was lost. He fared better in Byzantium, where he continued to be studied. But Orthodox scholars, coming from the Neoplatonic worldview of Psuedo-Dionysius, had little love for the more arid Aristotle, who lacked the religious sensibility of Plato and his successors.
As the Muslim empire swept across the Middle East, the Aristotelian schools they found there prospered. Islam was developing a lively philosophical tradition around such pivotal figures as Ibn Sina—known to the West as Avicenna—an encyclopedic thinker of the early 11th century who occupied a rather similar place in Muslim thought to that of his contemporary Anselm in Christianity. Muslim philosophers began to incorporate Aristotle's ideas into their theology, creating a powerful Aristotelian Islam, rather like the Platonic Christianity of the church fathers. The most important figure in this development was Ibn Rushd, or Averroes, a Spanish philosopher of the late 12th century. Averroes was a thoroughgoing rationalist who seemed to think philosophy a more certain means than religion of acquiring truth. He even distinguished between religious truth and philosophical truth and did not seem very bothered if they contradicted each other. So something can be religiously true but philosophically false, and vice versa.
Through the work of Averroes and other Spanish Muslims, the Christian West eventually rediscovered Aristotle. In the 12th and 13th centuries Latin translations of his works appeared, made from the Greek and Arabic versions preserved by the Muslims and also from those of Byzantine scholars who visited the West. These works, and the ideas they contained, were something of a shock to medieval Christendom. The notion of scientific inquiry had largely vansihed in the West; it was generally accepted that all questions about life and the world could be answered by the church. Philosophy was simply a logical tool for sifting the doctrines laid down by great saints of the past. Aristotle showed that a totally different approach was possible. He speculated about the world and its causes without reference to divine revelation. He went out and actually looked at the world and wrote down what he saw. He was a practical scientist as well as a theoretical thinker, and this must have been enormously exciting to people who until then had spent most of their time poring over volumes of Augustine.
At the same time Aristotle represented a challenge to Christianity, which was still deeply influenced by Platonic ways of thinking. Plato had taught that the visible world is not the real world; it is simply a pale reflection of a higher spiritual reality. He urged his followers to look away from the particular toward the universal, for particular things are just images of the eternal, universal forms. Aristotle, by contrast, was interested in the material world. He believed that physical objects are really real, not shadows of something unseen, and he tried to explain them in physical terms—by reference to what they are made of, what shape they are, what caused them to exist and so on. Since everything is caused by something else, Aristotle postulated that there must be a final cause, an "unmoved Mover," responsible for all movement and life in the universe. This is his rather impersonal conception of God. So where Plato thought of the divine in a religious way, as the realm to which the human soul must rise, Aristotle thought of it in a scientific way, as the explanation for the world we see around us.
Theologians disagreed over how to approach the new philosophy. Some condemned Aristotle, since some of his ideas conflicted with Christian doctrine. The prime example was his claim that the world had no beginning, which contradicted the doctrine of creation. In 1215 Aristotle's scientific works were banned at the University of Paris—although his logical works were compulsory texts. Attempts were made to impose the ban elsewhere too. But other theologians enthusiastically defended Aristotle without reservation, some appealing to Averroes's idea of double truth to claim that it is a religious truth that the world is created and at the same time a philosophical truth that it is not.
Other theologians, unhappy with this kind of doublethink, sought various kinds of middle ways. Bonaventure represents one approach. He was critical of Aristotle but was prepared to use his ideas cautiously where they seemed helpful. But ultimately the most fruitful approach was that pioneered by Albert the Great and perfected by Thomas Aquinas. For these thinkers Aristotle was the supreme secular authority. They refer to him simply as "the Philosopher," as if none other existed. Where he contradicts Christian revelation, they accept that he is wrong, for no secular authority can be infallible. But for the most part, and in all purely philosophical or scientific matters, Aristotle is the authority.
This attitude was highly controversial in Aquinas's lifetime. However, after his death and canonization the rapid acceptance of Aristotle by everyone else was almost inevitable. Ironically, the exaggerated reverence for his ideas meant that there was little creative philosophy of the kind that Aristotle himself had done. It would be two centuries before the Renaissance would pull Aristotle off his medieval pedestal, as thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and Rene Descartes redirected the course of philosophy and scientists like Galileo demolished his physics.
(Excerpt from Jonathan Hill, The History of Christian Thought (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003), 150-153.)
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