Over on Farmer's Pence blog there is a great new post on Plato and Aristotle that reminded me of a review I wrote two years ago for a book called Aristotle's Children. The book is well worth the read, but if you'd like to learn more, here's a reposting of my old review:
At the start of the Protestant Reformation, an argument was made against the Catholic Church that it blindly adopted the philosophy of the Greek pagan Aristotle and subverted the faith of the Apostles with the ancient beliefs of polytheistic, idolatrous heathen. What’s more, Catholics had taken centuries to show how faith and reason were not opposed to each other – but for Martin Luther, who kicked off Protestantism, reason was “the devil’s whore.” Moreover, in the classical Protestant view, humanity was so corrupted by sin that not only could no man trust his reason with certainty, he could neither do any objectively good deed whatsoever.
But while Protestant anthropology may be a better topic for a different post, it must be said that Aristotle was as much a controversial figure in the Catholic Church as the Church herself became for Protestants – at least according to Aristotle’s Children by Richard E. Rubenstein. Rubenstein, a George Mason University public affairs professor, paints an epic picture of the loss and subsequent rediscovery of Aristotle and his philosophy. The story of Aristotle’s incorporation into Catholic thought and medieval scholasticism is one of intrigue, infighting, but most of all, synthesis with the Gospel.
Synthesizing classical philosophy with Christianity might seem like a tricky task, but the job is made tremendously easier by the fact that Aristotle and Plato wrote hundreds of years before Christ. As medieval Christians (and Christians of the modern era) argued, these writers simply did not have Christianity before them to work from and they did what they could given what they had. Reason alone can figure out an awful lot, but where reason falls short, faith stands strong.
As Rubenstein points out, synthesizing classical philosophy with Christianity had been going on since the early days of the Church. St. Augustine, perhaps the greatest of the late patristic writers, is known for his Christianization of Plato during the 5th century. Sadly, Aristotle’s works were not taken up as closely as Plato. This was, for one reason, because of how his philosophy conflicted with the calamitous events of the fall of the Roman Empire. Plato’s philosophy spoke in a way that treated this world as temporary and imperfect – and only another almost heavenly reality is where perfection is found forever. In other words, it fit well with the persecutions that had befallen Christians in the past and fit just as well in the face of Rome’s destruction; in other words: don’t worry about this world, think about the next.
Aristotle, on the other hand, pointed out the harmony in this world and how everything can find an order and a purpose in the way things are. There is beauty, goodness, and truth to be found in this life as well. His view painted a much prettier picture of reality’s self-congruence and our ability to enjoy discovering its secrets - or put another way, he exemplified the fact that God created a "good" world. Aristotle, like Plato, believed in a God who gave the universe its start and fundamental meaning – but many of his other views seemed quite controversial. It was in part because of this, coupled with St. Augustine’s triumphant use of Plato, that Aristotle’s works fell to the wayside for over half a millennia.
What I particularly enjoyed about Rubenstein’s book was that it captured the events which led Christians, Jews, and Muslims to translate and distribute the works of Aristotle – and then captured the shockwave of Europe’s dealing with the philosopher’s thoughts. More importantly, Rubenstein looks at the rise of the university system established by the Catholic Church and how Aristotle was so influential in helping some of the greatest theologians of history better articulate the Faith using reason. When Cathar heretics used Aristotle to back up their claims (e.g. that there are two gods), the pope made the controversial decision to allow Catholic monks and university teachers to pick up Aristotle and show how his ideas were not contradictory to the Faith - and help quench the layman's thirst for a deeper understanding of Christian doctrine. In this way, and in many others, Aristotle helped shape the future of Church history as well as western civilization in the Middle Ages.
Without giving too much more away, Aristotle was heavily studied during the 12th-13th centuries as Europe was blossoming religiously, politically, and economically – but he began to be abandoned once more with the darker 14th century and beyond as Europe fell into the horrors of the Hundred Years’ War, the Black Death, the Avignon Papacy, and the Great Western Schism. This was only further deepened by the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation and another century of religious wars.
It was also during this time that faith became more and more divorced from reason. Reason (reduced to a materialist-atheist scientism) took over the public sphere while faith became a private matter to be kept out of society and public policy. Though so many people think of the Middle Ages as nothing more than a theocracy, the beauty of medieval Catholic scholasticism was that it kept faith and reason in dialogue with each other. This dialogue was never a fusion of the two as one or identical, but rather as a means of finding deeper truths about God, humanity, and the world around us.
Today we are left with a schizophrenic worldview that must be reconciled once again.
Rubenstein argues that the present age of globalization may be a good time to rediscover Aristotle and do just this. Aristotle’s “ideas have always seemed most relevant to those inhabiting an age of expanding trade, increasing intercultural connections, and rising expectations for human development. The Aristotelian project, which seemed irrelevant in an age of political and religious fragmentation, may serve in the next phase of human history as an inspirer of creative, integrative thought.”