Summing up two dozen or so lectures can be a hard thing to do. But, not this time around; Thomas Williams’s Great Courses Series Reason and Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages is a concise and learned introduction to the great religious theorizers of medievalism. In fact, I will take it a step further and say that this series was probably my favorite series yet.
Of my previous notes, they were all over rather mundane subjects—King Arthur, the Early Middle Ages, the minutia of Chaucer and so on. Courses which were fascinating in their own right, but already had some headway in my imagination due to television and other media. Reason and Faith, however, was a subject completely new to me.
History and Literary History is fine, but philosophy and theology were an area not previously familiar. As a child, I could turn on the history channel and find a special about the Roman Empire and its “complicated” relationships with Barbarian tribes. Then, I could go anywhere and find a spin on the Arthurian legend. As an intellectually maturing mind, it was rather easy to locate simple introductions to medieval literary minds. But, with something like religion, where would one even begin if they were tired of straight history?
That was part of my own challenge. I wasn’t reared in a religious household growing up and I am not religious or spiritual myself, so being that as well as someone new to philosophy, where was I to begin? Needless to say, having experience with other Teaching Company products and enjoying them a great deal, I jumped at the opportunity to expand my horizon with Williams’s lectures. Thought it took a long while to get through them all due to my other academic obligations and numerous side-projects (9+ months), I am better for it.
Tracing all the way from the early middle ages (collapse of the Roman Empire) to the to the start of the 14th century, Williams carefully presents the key figures of pagan and then Christian philosophy in the light as the medievals would have known them. If you have ever wondered about Saint Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or even the deeper ramifications of Ockham’s Razor, then this is the place to start.
In each lecture, Williams presents a core idea of a philosopher’s theory. Then, over the next thirty-odd minutes, he meticulously demonstrates the concept with such detail that even neophytes like myself can grasp the idea. This is how it is over the two-dozen lectures. Although it can sometimes be intellectually draining keeping up with the protracted mental threads, it is vastly rewarding.
During my time going through the lectures and notating them, I would routinely find myself feeling tired but also intellectually stimulated while reading. I would even sometimes say to myself, “maybe I too should study medieval theology!” Even though that last bit is unlikely to happen, I think it demonstrates well the effectiveness of the series. The fact that I can feel inspired by grasping the intricacy of the concepts at play should be a flag of wonder for those searching for a robust crash course on medieval philosophy.
Of all the Great Courses I have notated up to this point, I can safely say that Reason and Faith is my favorite. Not only is it the most densely packed series in terms of the number of note pages (60 in Word as a size 11 single-spaced font), but it was also the most interesting; Reason and Faith filled in a black hole on a key zone for my study and has been valuable in more ways than one; I have found this series handy not merely for independent study but for my classes as well. Just a couple of terms ago, I found myself relying on some of my early notes from this series while taking a class on John Milton. So, the notes have life and I cannot recommend this lecture series enough if you need some voids filled with knowledge.
Reason and Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages
Price: varies by format. See below.
(The cheapest price is to become an Audible member and buy the audiobook version; that could be obtained for as little as $15 any time of the year, thirty-something if you’re already a member and lack the credits. As for the most expensive option, it would be to buy straight from the Teaching Company the “Full Course” which includes a book and a DVD for around $250; Audible usually have sales several times a year, so if you have your heart set on the complete bundle, then wait until one of those sales if you don’t want to spend an arm and a leg.)