The Middle Ages

Dr. C. George Boeree

In Georgian: შუა საუკუნეებში (translated by Ana Mirilashvili)

The Dark Ages

Sometime after the fall of Rome, we come to the Dark Ages.  Most of Europe was decentralized, rural, parochial.  Life was reduced to the “laws of nature:” The powerful ruled, while the powerless looked only to survive.  There was no sense of  history or progress.  Superstition and fatalism prevailed.  Belief in the imminent end of the world was common every century.  You can get a fair approximation to European life in dark and early middle ages by looking at some of the developing nations of the world, although you would have to take away all signs of  the past thousand years of technological development!

Alcuin (735-804) -- Charlemagne’s head scholar -- is one of the few names that come down to us from this period.  Other than his Christianity, a glimmer of his view of reality can be gleaned from this quote:  “What is man?  The slave of death, a passing wayfarer.  How is man placed?  Like a lantern in the wind.”

Nevertheless, Charlemagne (768-814) provided a political unity in the form of the Frankish Empire, and the Pope a religious unity, and a new era slowly began.  Eventually, the Church took over Europe, and the Pope replaced the emperor as the most important figure. By 1200, the Church would own a third of the land area of Europe!  The power of the church and its common creed meant enormous pressures to conform, backed up by fear of supernatural sanctions.  But on the positive side, the papacy helped establish stability and ultimately prosperity.

We now turn to what are called the Middle Ages, roughly the period from 1000 to 1400 ad.

The Universities

Universities developed out of monastery and cathedral schools -- really what we would call elementary schools, but attended by adolescents and taught by monks and priests.  The first was in Bologna, established in 1088 (see map below).

In  these schools and universities, students began (with the always-present threat of flogging!) with the trivium -- grammar (the art of reading and writing, focussing on the psalms, other parts of the Bible, and the Latin classics), rhetoric (what we would call speech), and logic.  Trivium, of course, is the origin of the word trivia -- the stuff beginners deal with!

Beyond that, they would study the quadrivium:  arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.  All together, these subjects make up the seven liberal arts.  Liberal referred to the free man, the man of some property, and liberal arts were in contrast to the practical arts of the working poor.

The problem of universals

The major philosophical issue of the time was the nature of universals. This concerns the meaning of a word.  What in the real world does a word refer to? This is easy with proper nouns (names): George, for example, refers to this person here, me myself.  But what about other, more general words?  What does cat refer to?  This was by no means a new issue, but the scholars of the middle ages began without the benefit of nice Greek sources!

St. Anselm of Canterbury(1033-1109) was a neoPlatonist, and he is best known for his efforts at coming up with a logical proof of God’s existence -- the famous ontological proof:  Since we can think of a perfect being, he must exist, since perfection implies existence.

In regards to the question of universals, he was a proponent of realism. This is not to be confused with the modern sense of realism as being in touch with reality.  Realism was Plato’s perspective:  There is a real universal or ideal (somewhere) to which a word refers.  This usually fits in well with Christianity.  If humanity is real beyond being just the collection of individual human beings, we can talk about a human nature, including, for example, the idea of original sin.  If there were no such thing as humanity, if each person were a law unto him or herself, then we could hardly lay the sins of Adam and Eve on anyone but Adam and Eve!

Likewise, if God is a real universal, then there is no logical incongruity about saying he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all at once.

Mind you, the argument isn’t without problems.  For example, the ultimate universal -- All -- is then logically greater than God, because All must include God and creation!  But Christianity says that God and creation are separate and fundamentally different.

Anselm’s motto was Augustine’s  “I believe in order that I may understand” (credo ut intelligam):  Faith is an absolute requirement, and is the standard for all thinking.  Truth is revealed by God, so submit yourself to the church.


Roscellinus of Amorica in Brittany (1050-1121) was the founder of nominalism, another approach to universals.  A universal, he said, is just a “flatus vocis” (a vocal sound -- i.e. a word).  Only individuals actually exist.  Words, and the ideas they represent, refer to nothing.  This is quite compatible with materialism and empiricism, but not, really, to Christianity.

It, too, is not without problems:  If words are nothing but air, then reason (and philosophy), which is the manipulation of these words, is nothing but blowing air (as many students in fact believe). That includes, of course, the reasoning it took to come to the nominalist conclusion!

Regarding the church,  nominalism means that the church is nothing but the people that compose it, and religion is just what individuals think. And, if God is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, then we can't be monotheists.


Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was a student of both Anselm and Roscillinus.  A brilliant thinker and speaker and a canon (priest) of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, he became a popular teacher at the University of Paris.

In 1117, he (now 38) met a sixteen year old girl named Heloise.  An orphan, she was being raised by her uncle Fulbert.  She was particularly intelligent, as well as beautiful, and so her uncle asked Abelard if he would tutor her in exchange for room and board.  Abelard himself commented that this was like entrusting a lamb to a wolf!

His teaching suffered a bit.  He was more likely to compose love poems than lectures!  But Heloise became pregnant and had a son they named Astrolabe (after an instrument for measuring the position of the stars!).  Her uncle was furious, but Abelard promised to marry Heloise, if Fulbert would keep the marriage a secret.  The only way he could become a priest while married would be for her to become a nun, which was unacceptable to either of them.  She was willing to be his mistress, but he convinced her to marry him in secret.

Well, Uncle Fulbert remained upset by all this, and eventually sent some men to teach Abelard a lesson:  They cut off his genitals!  The people of Paris (being French, even in the Middle Ages) had complete sympathy with their hero Abelard, but Abelard himself was mortified.  Heloise became a nun, and Abelard a monk in order to pay for their sins. They exchanged letters for many years, and her first to him can be seen by clicking here.

Abelard was, however, persuaded to continue teaching and writing.  Arguing, among other things, that the trinity referred not to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but to God’s power, wisdom, and love, he began to  irritate some of the people with power in the church. The Pope issued an order condemning Abelard to perpetual silence and confinement to a monastery (the usual for heresy at this time).  On his way to Rome to defend himself, he died at 63.  Heloise convinced his Abbot to bury him at her convent, and twelve years later, she died and was buried next to him.

Abelard invented “sic et non” -- yes and no, pros and cons -- in a book by the same name.  "Sic et non" is a Socratic method that lays the arguments of two opposing points of view side by side for comparison.  Abelard is very much the rationalist, and he made his motto “I understand in order to believe” (intelligo ut credam).  He believed that the truth of faith and reason must still agree, as did all his teachers, but reason has precedence.  It is faith that has to adapt, i.e. the church must re-evaluate the meaning of its teachings when they fail to measure up to reason.

For Abelard, ethics is a matter of conduct inspired by a good heart, good will, good intentions.  If you have a good conscience, you can do no wrong (sin).  You can only be mistaken. He had said, for example, that when Romans killed Christians (including Christ himself), they were only acting according to their conscience, and therefore were not guilty of sin!

He is best known, however, for conceptualism, his attempt to synthesize nominalism and realism.  Although the thing and its name have a reality of their own, universals exist in the mind as ideas, he said, which refer to groups of things and are represented by words. The mind creates abstractions out of real things by detecting similarities, so the meaning of the word cat is the mental abstraction we created by looking at individual cats and noting that they all have four legs, fur, pointy ears, two eyes with funny pupils, meow, etc. etc.  This is still an important perspective in modern cognitive psychology.

This answer to the question of universals is, as you might have guessed by now, still not without problems.  Notice that we are assuming that we can use words like legs, ears, eyes.... But what do they refer to?  They can only refer to the mental abstractions we make of individual legs, ears, eyes....  So how do you tell you are looking at a leg?  Well, it's a mental abstraction we make out of flesh with a hip joint, a knee, and a foot at the end.  So what is a knee?  Well, it's....  At what point do we reach a unique thing?

[Personally, I believe that these abstractions or characteristics are based on errors, that is, when individual things are easily mistaken for each other!]

The Moslems

The Near-Eastern and North African remnants of the Roman Empire fell as far as any other parts.  Mohammed (570-632) brought Islam -- "Surrender" -- into the world, and it spread like wildfire, both by sword and by persuasion.  So, with Islam and reunification under a series of Arab caliphates, the dark of the dark ages lifted a bit earlier there.  In Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, even Seville in newly-conquered Spain, scholars turned to the ancient Greeks and began again to reason and observe.  The security, stability, wealth, and relative tolerance of their society inspired them to produce literature, including philosophy, that by the millennium, nearly equalled that of ancient Greece.

Avicenna of Baghdad (Ibn Sina, 980-1037) was one of these great thinkers.  Thoroughly familiar with Aristotle, he was nonetheless a neo-Platonist and a gnostic, as it seems all Moslem philosophers must be in order to remain Moslem.  Generally, he felt that reason and faith could not conflict, as the Christian thinkers had concluded as well.  But he hints at heresy by suggesting that such items of faith as the physical paradise after death that Mohammed promised his followers, were necessary in order to win over the masses, but are just stories to the mature believer.

Averroes of Cordova (Ibn Rushd, 1126-1198) is the greatest of the Islamic philosophers.  He began as a lawyer, and was chief justice of Seville and later of Cordova.  He was also a physician, and served as the court physician in Marrakesh. He was the first to recognize that if a person survived smallpox, they would be immune thereafter.  He described for the first time the purpose of the retina.  He wrote an encyclopedia of medicine used in both Moslem and Christian universities.

Averroes begins, of course, with God.  God is what sustains reality.  God is the order of the universe.  But, he says, creation is just a myth.  The universe has always existed, and will always exist.

The human mind has two aspects.  There is a passive intellect, which is composed of the potential for thought and carries the details that make one personality different from another, both physically and psychologically.  It is a part of the body and dies with it.  And there is an active intellect, which energizes the passive intellect.  It is actually the same in each person, is the only part of us that survives death, and is, in fact, God.

But Islam’s openness to philosophy was not to last.  The Emir of Baghdad ordered Averroes’ books burned, and his example was followed by other leaders all the way back to Averroes’ homeland of Spain.  The world of Islam had achieved what the Christian world failed to achieve:  complete domination by religion.

By means of Moslem Spain and Sicily, Avicenna and Averroes and others would come to inspire, in turn, the Christian scholars of the new universities of Europe.  These scholars would consume the writings of Greek, Jewish, and Arabic scholars.

St. Thomas

In the late Middle Ages (the 1200s), Aristotle excited a lot of thought in the monks and scholars of the universities.  These neo-Aristotelians were called schoolmen, or scholastics.  By studying Aristotle and his Arab and Jewish commentators, they learned to think more logically, but their goals were still essentialy theological.

The scholastic par excellence was St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274).

Of German stock, he was the son of the Count of Aquino, a town between Rome and Naples.  He went to the University of Naples, where there was great interest in Arab and Jewish philosophers -- and, of course, Aristotle.  He became a monk of the Dominican order and went to Paris to study.

His mother was so upset by this turn of events that she sent his brothers to kidnap him and bring him home.  (Contrary to what we might assume, families were seldom happy when sons or daughters went off to become monks or nuns.  They often grieved for them as if they had died!)  He escaped and continued his studies in Paris and elsewhere.

He was known to be a very pious and modest man, with no ambitions for church promotions -- unlike the ambitious Abelard!  He wrote a great deal, but is best known for the Summa Theologiae, usually just called the Summa, a work of 21 volumes in which he uses Abelard's Sic et Non method to reconcile Aristotle and Christianity.

Thomas believed that the soul is the form of the body, as Aristotle said, and gives it life and energy.  But the soul and the body are totally linked together.  This flies in the face of the Platonic and neo-Platonic ideas of the church fathers, and irritated the mystical Franciscan monks most of all.

Thomas added that the soul without the body would have no personality, because individuality comes from matter, not spirit, which represents the universal in us.  For this reason, resurrection of the body is crucial to the idea of personal immortality.  Averroes’ idea that only an impersonal soul survives death was, in other words, quite wrong.

Thomas saw five faculties of the soul:

1.  The vegetative faculty, which is involved in food, drink, sex, and growth.
2.  The sensitive faculty, i.e. our senses, plus the common sense that binds sensations together.
3.  The locomotor faculty, which permits movement.
4.  The appetitive faculty, which consists of our desire and will.
5.  The intellectual faculty, i.e. thought, reason.
For St. Thomas, reason or intellect is man’s greatest treasure, that which raises him above the animals. In keeping with conceptualism, he felt it was the intellect that abstracts the idea (form or universal) from its individual appearance, so that, even though day-to-day experience can tell us about the particulars of reality, only reason or intellect can lead us to universal laws of the physical, or the human, world.

Ultimately, we do need direct, intuitive knowledge of God. Reason depends on sensory experience, and sensory experience is of matter, not spirit.  So reason, like all things human, is imperfect, and cannot comprehend the perfection that is God.  Faith is our ultimate refuge.  Nevertheless, he insisted, faith and reason do not conflict, since God would not have made a world that did not ultimately match up with revealed truth.

In spite of his obvious brilliance, St. Thomas (like all philosophers in all ages) was a man of his time.  For example, he was as chauvinistic as any of his predecessors regarding women:  He considered women inferior by nature (and God’s design), and saw them as a serious threat to the moral progress of men.  He also devoted a significant portion of the Summa to angels and demons, which he thought of as every bit as real as anything else.  Among other things, he believed that the angels moved the planets, that they had no bodies, that they moved instantaneously, and that each person had his or her very own guardian angel.

His ideas threatened many in the church, most especially the Franciscans.  His works emphasized reason too much and faith too little.  He put too much stock in pagans like Aristotle and Averroes.  And he taught that the soul and the body were unified!  After his death (at the age of 49), the Franciscans convinced the Pope to condemn him and his writings.  But the Dominicans rallied to his defense, and in 1323 Thomas was canonized.

(In 1879, Pope Leo XIII made Thomism the official philosophy of the Catholic church.  It is, with Marxism, positivism, and existentialism, one of the four most influential philosophies of the 20th century).

The Beginning of the End of the Middle Ages

The Franciscans, as I said, were the primary critics of St Thomas. Roger Bacon (1214-1294), a Franciscan monk and scientist, pointed out that reason does actually need experience in order to have something to reason about -- a hint of modern empiricism in the Middle Ages!

But St. Thomas’ severest critic was John Duns Scotus (1265-1308), a Franciscan monk and professor at Oxford, Paris, and Cologne.  He believed that the authority of the church was everything.  The will is supreme and intellect is subordinate to it. Although a conceptualist (like Thomas), of the thing, the idea, and the name, he felt that it was the individual thing that was the most real.  His student William would take that and run with it.

William of Occam in England (1280-1347) was another Franciscan monk. Like Roger Bacon, he believed that, without sensory contact with things, the universal is inconceivable. In fact, he said universals are only names we give groups of things -- a return to the nominalism of Roscellinus.

William is best known for the principle that is named for him: Occam’s razor. “Don’t multiply causes unnecessarily.” usually interpreted to mean that the simplest explanation is the best.  Over time, this came to mean “if you don’t need a supernatural explanation, don’t use it!”

The result of William's thinking is skepticism:  Without universals, there are no generalizations, categories, classifications, theories, laws of nature, etc.  All we can have is an accumulation of facts about individual entities. We will see this again in the philosophy of David Hume.

William of Occam, although he was a devout Christian, is often considered the turning point from the religious worldview of the Middle Ages to the scientific worldview of the Renaissance and the Modern era.

You could say that philosophy rested a while around this time, not for a lack of ideas, but because of over a hundred years of Troubles.  There was a great famine in Europe from 1315 to 1317.  The economy spiralled downward and the banks collapsed in the  first few decades of the 1300s. The Hundred Years War began in 1337 and lasted about 120 years (despite the name).  The Black Death, a plague carried by the fleas on rats, came from the Near East and killed over one third of the population between 1347 and 1352.  Peasant revolts in England, France, and elsewhere were cruelly suppressed between 1378 and 1382.  The Church was split between two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon, between 1378 and 1417.

But these events, horrible as they were, turned out to be temporary setbacks, and an even greater explosion of intellectual activity was about to begin!

© Copyright 2000 by C. George Boeree