A general feature of histories of medieval philosophy is that they abruptly stop around or after the 14th century. Other histories highly praise Aquinas, raising him to a height synonymous with the ending of medieval philosophy, while deriding Occam’s skepticism. Both of these explanations are, however, simplistic; professor Williams, then, would like to in this last lecture talk of a more complicated explanation as the focus is shifted from one project to another.
Why did Aristotle lose prominence in the West? Even in the heyday of Aristotelian thought, there was much dispute about how much, if any, of Aristotle’s philosophy, was compatible with Christianity. Perhaps none so more than his theory of the Natures. The problem here was that it seemed to put a cap on God’s omnipotence (God, for example, cannot make fire cold or a lion with rational thought). This was what the Condemnation of 1277 took aim at in an effort to restore God’s power to its rightful philosophical place. Though the effects of the condemnation were gradual, the condemnation did, effectively, rule out a dialog between Reason and Faith with its privileging of Faith over Reason.
Faith-oriented thinkers, then, began to mount increasingly hostile attacks on Aristotelian concepts. Thinkers began to find fault with every little issue. Primarily the idea of a causal proof and non-contradiction is heavily critiqued. It follows, then, that with the decline of Aristotle also comes the loss of the impetus for rational investigation of religious ideas.
At the same time, the rejection of Aristotelian belief comes with a resurgence in a mystical Platonism. This is where such works like On Learned Ignorance emerge where God becomes incomprehensible once more as we use Reason to try and make sense of the non-reasoned aspects of the world. This is the “direct intuition of the truth” or “intelligence”. This is where God’s unity of opposites transcends rational, human, investigation.
Not everyone rejected Aristotelianism, however. Probing this area reveals another thread in the break-up of medieval philosophy. After Occam’s contributions, the project of Faith seeking understanding seemed shaky at best. Later Aristotelians, then, began to focus more and more on narrow technical questions. Logic became a central occupation in the 14th and 15th centuries. Such is the time of logic puzzles and rigid applications of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations to logical proofs. Unfortunately, the sum of this was, at best, little applicable to religious matters, or only on a tangential basis.
But Logic was not the only new-ish philosophy which began to take center stage in the 14th century and divert attention away from the political project of faith seeking understanding. Political Philosophy around this time began to blossom. Before, the papacy was able to interfere with religious matters often and sometimes even secular matters with a fair degree of success. Later in the medieval period, though, as kings raised large enough standing armies and imposed effective means of social control, this control was diminished and means of political persuasion became prized, so, political philosophy emerges as a new preoccupation among thinkers. If one was to search for a clear path from the medieval period into the modern world, then political philosophy would be a better candidate than religious philosophy.
Does this project, then, of faith seeking understanding still have relevance today? Williams believes that it does but that nostalgia for some great figure—Scotus for him—doesn’t do much good. Rather, those interested in recovering the medieval project would have to recover the presuppositions that allowed the project to flourish in the first place, that philosophy can be used in a variety of ways to defend and elucidate Christian beliefs; that Reason is not inherently Godless and that Faith is not inherently irrational. Returning to these basic principles would not return us to a golden age because of the vast cultural differences that exist. But, it would inspire a true heir.