Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Impact of Aristotle’s Works on Medieval Philosophy

Frederick Copleston
The following lines are borrowed from the Volume III of Frederick Copleston’s celebrated eleven volume work on history of western philosophy, A History of Philosophy:
“The assertion that the most important philosophical event in mediaeval philosophy was the discovery by the Christian West of the more or less complete works of Aristotle is an assertion which could, I think, be defended. When the work of the translators of the twelfth century and of the early part of the thirteenth made the thought of Aristotle available to the Christian thinkers of western Europe, they were faced for the first time with what seemed to them a complete and inclusive rational system of philosophy which owed nothing either to Jewish or to Christian revelation, since it was the work of a Greek philosopher. They were forced, therefore, to adopt some attitude towards it: they could not simply ignore it. Some of the attitudes adopted, varying from hostility, greater or less, to enthusiastic and rather uncritical acclamation, we have seen in the preceding volume. St. Thomas Aquinas's attitude was one of critical acceptance: he attempted to reconcile Aristotelianism and Christianity, not simply, of course, in order to avert the dangerous influence of a pagan thinker or to render him innocuous by utilizing him for 'apologetic' purposes, but also because he sincerely believed that the Aristotelian philosophy was, in the main, true. Had he not believed this, he would not have adopted philosophical positions which, in the eyes of many contemporaries, appeared novel and suspicious. But the point I want to make at the moment is this, that in adopting a definite attitude towards Aristotelianism a thirteenth- century thinker was, to all intents and purposes, adopting an attitude towards philosophy. The significance of this fact has not always been realized by historians. Looking on mediaeval philosophers, especially those of the thirteenth century, as slavish adherents of Aristotle, they have not seen that Aristotelianism really meant, at that time, philosophy itself. Distinctions had already been drawn, it is true, between theology and philosophy; but it was the full appearance of Aristotelianism on the scene which showed the mediaevals the power and scope, as it were, of philosophy. Philosophy, under the guise of Aristotelianism, presented itself to their gaze as something which was not merely theoretically but also in historical fact independent of theology. This being so, to adopt an attitude towards Aristotelianism was, in effect, to adopt an attitude, not simply towards Aristotle as distinguished, for example, from Plato (of whom the mediaevals really did not know very much), but rather towards philosophy considered as an autonomous discipline. If we regard in this light the different attitudes adopted towards Aristotle in the thirteenth century, one obtains a profounder understanding of the significance of those differences.” 
A History of Philosophy, Volume III, Ockham to Suarez by Frederick Copleston

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