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How Aristotle Won the West

In the Middle Ages he was revered as “the Philosopher.” His thought fascinated professors and students at the University of Paris and other schools in Europe. With all the passion that the medievals put into the search for truth, they debated endlessly about what this pagan philosopher could say to the Christian world. Today, the works of Aristotle may not stir such burning arguments, but the story of how an ancient Greek thinker came to influence the development of Catholic theology is an engaging chronicle of intrigues, disputes, and controversies.

The story starts in the Middle East. Christians in Syria knew Aristotle’s writings and passed them on to the Islamic Arab world, beginning in the eighth century. The Arabs produced two outstanding commentators on Aristotle, Avicenna and Averroes. But their task didn’t come easily. Avicenna confessed that he read the Metaphysics forty times without understanding it! After he had memorized the text, one day he g.asped its meaning in a flash of insight. To celebrate, he hosted a banquet and gave presents to the poor. Another noted commentator on Aristotle was the Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides, who, like Averroes, was born in Cordoba, Spain. Moses’ most famous work was The Guide for the Perplexed, which he wrote because he was worried that science and philosophy were making people lose faith in God.

News of this intellectual ferment began to filter from Spain into Paris. The new ideas floating up from the South generated much excitement among the philosophy professors. Until then, the Greek philosopher Plato had most influenced Christian thought. The Fathers of the Church, especially Augustine, had been affected by Platonic ideas. Aristotle was largely unknown, except for his works on logic, which the philosopher Boethius had translated in the early fifth century. Now, Aristotle’s works coming into the West quickly turned from a trickle into a flood: the Physics, Metaphysics, Ethics, Politics, to mention just a few. 

These books had been translated into Latin from Arabic, which in turn had been translated from Syrian, and some of these may have first been translated from Persian. So the Latin versions were two or three times removed from the original Greek. Besides that, the Islamic commentators, especially Averroes, had interpreted some things in Aristotle in a way that made his teaching seem incompatible with Christian faith. So arguments broke out about Aristotle. How could a pagan philosopher teach Christians anything?

The dispute flared around such questions as the immortality of the soul, the creation of the world, and the nature of the mind. According to Averroes, Aristotle’s philosophy denied personal immortality, contradicting Christian teaching on the afterlife. Besides that, Averroes’s assertion that the world was eternal seemed to deny that God had created it. Another problem concerned the idea of a universal mind. Averroes held that there is only one mind, in which individuals participate, since they do not have their own personal minds. This contradicted Christian teaching about the soul, with its faculties of mind and will.

In response to this, some ecclesiastical warnings were issued, prohibiting study of the works of Aristotle. In his book Scholasticism, author Josef Pieper wrote: “Between 1210 and 1263 there was a long succession of ecclesiastical admonitions, restrictions, and bans directed against public lectures in universities on Aristotle.” In 1231 Pope Gregory IX established a commission to examine the works of Aristotle and indicate what was acceptable in his teaching and what wasn’t. But this work never got very far.

Two camps were beginning to form. On one side were those who enthusiastically accepted the works of Aristotle, even in those things that seemed to go against Catholic teaching. At the University of Paris, Siger of Brabant led this group. Later, they would be called the Latin Averroists because of their reliance on Averroes. On the other side were the more cautious scholars, who thought Aristotelianism was fundamentally incompatible with Christian faith. They favored instead the Augustinian tradition which drew on Plato. Bonaventure was in this group, although he too used some elements of Aristotle’s thought. Things might have dragged on like this, with the two sides battling each other, if it weren’t for the genius of one man—Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas towered over everyone, literally as well as figuratively. His height and large build made him seem like a giant, but his quiet and amiable disposition made others feel at ease. Thomas never spoke about himself in his writings, but we can glean from them that he must have been a balanced, sociable person. As he wrote in the Summa Theologica (II-II, q. 168, a. 4), “It is against reason to be burdensome to others, showing no amusement and acting as a wet blanket. Those without a sense of fun . . . are called grumpy and rude.” As a young man he had joined the fledgling Dominican Order. Dominic had wanted his friars to study theology so as to preach more effectively. The Dominicans noticed Thomas’s quick mind and sent him on to higher studies. In 1252 Thomas began to teach theology at the University of Paris. It was largely due to his genius that the Church was able to draw what was good from Aristotle and incorporate it into Christian philosophy.

Having been introduced to Aristotle’s works during his early studies in Naples, Thomas developed such great esteem for the Greek that he always referred to him as “the Philosopher.” He was already familiar with Aristotle’s work by the time he got to Paris. Once there, he became aware of the controversy brewing and studied more deeply so as to see where the truth was. Besides lecturing at the university, he began writing commentaries on the works of Aristotle. Not knowing Greek, Thomas had to use Latin translations, but he was able to use newer translations which were done directly from the Greek into Latin. A fellow Dominican, William of Moerbeke, had begun these translations at the request of Pope Urban IV.

Thomas did not fall into either of the two opposing camps, though he was often attacked by both sides. He was intrigued by Aristotle’s ideas and saw how many of them could be used in developing a Christian philosophy, but neither did he take Aristotle’s side so completely that he failed to see the inadequacies of his thought. Thomas did not slavishly follow the Greek, but used him as a basis for developing his own synthesis of philosophy. In a highly original way, he used elements from Aristotle’s teaching to illuminate Christian theology.

Thomas examined Aristotle’s thought closely and distinguished it from the errors of the Arabian commentators. In a little work titled On the Eternity of the World Against Murmurers, he reaffirmed that Christian faith teaches the world is not eternal. He showed that even if it were, as Aristotle thought, that would not do away with the need for a Creator. The world still would have to be created because it does not contain within itself sufficient reason for its own existence. He wrote: “The whole question, therefore, boils down to this: Are the ideas ‘entirely creaturely’ and ‘without a beginning in duration’ mutually exclusive or not?” In this way Thomas clarified one of the key objections to Aristotle.

His work cleared the way for a better understanding and use of Aristotle’s teachings, yet the controversy still raged. In 1277, three years after Thomas died, the bishop of Paris, Stephen Tempier, condemned certain propositions then being taught. This was directed against the Latin Averroists, but it also included some ideas drawn from Thomas. As it turned out, the bishop had acted rather hastily, and in the end Thomas was vindicated.

Thomas was canonized in 1323, and the Dominican defenders of his teaching assured a victory for the cause of Christian Aristotelianism. This movement became known as Scholasticism. It continued to exert great influence up to the time of the Renaissance and Reformation, when a reaction against Aristotle set in throughout Europe. From the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries, the humanist and scientific movements left Aristotelianism aside in favor of newer approaches to thought. Still, Aristotle never completely lost influence, for some scholars continued to study him. As the New Catholic Encyclopedia notes, “as late as 1624, the French Parlement threatened with death all who taught anything contrary to his doctrine.”

Aristotle was studied especially in Catholic circles. Around the time of the Council of Trent, the study of philosophy based on Thomas (known as Thomism) was renewed along with its basis in Aristotle. This began in Italy and flourished in Portugal and Spain, notably at the Dominican school at Salamanca. In 1879 Pope Leo XIII again encouraged the study of Thomism in the encyclical Aeterni Patris. This helped spur the Neo-Scholasticism that developed in the twentieth century with such philosophers as Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. Although interest in Thomas and Aristotle declined after the Vatican Council, in recent years it has picked up again. For example, a renewal of moral theology is being carried out by thinkers such as Germain Grisez and John Finnis, who have not only gone back to what Thomas and Aristotle said about natural law, but are developing it further in a modern perspective. 

From his small school in Athens, Aristotle never could have foreseen the impact his thought was to have on Western civilization. Through the propagating influence of Thomas, he “won the West,” not with armies clashing in battle but with the most powerful force known to history: ideas.

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