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Monday, January 14, 2019

On the Disparity Between Medieval and Ancient Philosophy

Philosophy seated between the seven liberal arts
Hortus deliciarum of Herrad von Landsberg (12th century)
Why is ancient philosophy better known than medieval philosophy? Is it because ancient philosophy has greater merit or has history been unjust to medieval philosophy? Some historians suggest that medieval philosophy has less merit because it has very little original thought in it. They hold that the medieval philosophers have merely helped themselves to carefully selected bits and pieces of philosophy to serve the purpose of their theology.

Norman Kretzmann and Eleonore Stump have a different point of view. In their Introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, they blame the renaissance humanists for the disparity between medieval and ancient philosophy. Here’s an excerpt:
The unwarranted disparity between medieval and ancient philosophy as regards not only their texts but also their apparent relevance to post-medieval philosophy has its historical roots in the achievements of the renaissance humanists. The intellectual gap between ancient and medieval philosophy seems to have been a natural consequence of the cataclysmic historical events associated with the barbarian invasions, the fall of Rome, and the rise of Christianity. But, more than a thousand years later, an even wider gap appeared between medieval and modern philosophy that can be attributed not to historical events on the grand scale but to the humanists' attitudes shaped by broad cultural considerations more than by specifically philosophical positions. The humanists extolled the ancients, naturally condemned the medieval scholastics against whom they were rebelling, and arrived on the European scene simultaneously with the development of printing, which gave their views an immediate and lasting influential advantage over those of their medieval predecessors. The humanists' views divided medieval from modern philosophy not only by rejecting scholasticism as literarily benighted and hence linguistically, educationally, and intellectually barbarous but also by portraying the philosophy of their own day as the first legitimate successor to the philosophy of antiquity, especially to that of Plato. Of course, many views promoted by the humanists have gone the way of their insistence that education consists almost entirely of the study of the Greek and Latin classics. The effect of their wholesale rejection of medieval philosophy on cultural grounds lasted longer partly because it was reinforced by the Protestant reformers' simultaneous and equally vehement rejection of medieval philosophy on the basis of its association with Catholicism, and partly because the rejection coincided with a growing disaffection toward traditional Christianity among many of the educated elite. 
It is certainly true that the popular philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries mention the medieval philosophers only to denigrate their thought. Modern philosophy owes lot of unacknowledged debt to the scholastics.

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