Transcript: 224. Kent Emery on Institutions of Learning

Kent Emery joins Peter to discuss the effects of monastic and university culture on medieval philosophy.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We're going to be talking about the institutions in which medieval philosophy was done. And the reason I wanted to talk to you about that, apart from the fact that you're an expert on it, is that it's always been something that strikes me about medieval philosophy. If you compare, say, Anselm, writing very early to someone writing much later like Occam, even though we consider them both to be medieval thinkers, they're really inhabiting very different social worlds and very different intellectual contexts. So really what I wanted to talk to you about is the shift from the earlier period to the later period and what makes the difference that makes for our understanding of these texts. So starting with the earlier period, what are the institutional contexts in which someone like Anselm would have been thinking about and writing about philosophy?

Kent Emery: Well, as I think you know, Peter, philosophy in the earlier Middle Ages, and let's say that's from the 9th through the 12th centuries, was taught in usually three kinds of schools, or the cathedral schools, and largely in the monasteries. And this was the context in which Anselm did his writing and his teaching of students. And one can see the effect of this in a certain curriculum that was developed within the monastic tradition, all oriented, of course, to the contemplative life and the worship of God. But the liberal arts, as defined and understood in late antiquity - that is the three trivial arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, or dialectic, and the quadrivial arts, the mathematical arts of music, geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy, were part of the normal pedagogy directed towards not only being able to read and understand the scriptures in light of these liberal arts, as Augustine had recommended many centuries before, but also as an instrument for the contemplation of God by the mind. Now if one sees what we call philosophy in Anselm, in fact it is the application, as specialists have shown to us, a very technical, both dialectical and grammatical instruments of analysis, a kind of speculative grammar which had developed out of Gratian and the study of grammar, first of all, as an instrument of knowing the Latin language for the reading of scripture, but also then to a certain conceptualization of linguistic problems. This is really what I think modern scholars - this use of these two liberal arts in particular, in an analysis about how we speak about God, and therefore in Anselm's understanding how we conceive God, really and truthfully. I think that this is what we would call philosophy in Anselm, of subordinate to the end of the monastic life and the monastic institutions that is ultimately the contemplation of God.

Peter Adamson: And you can actually see that to some extent even from the way that Anselm's works are framed because they're in dialogue or they're written for his monastic brothers.

Kent Emery: Yes, and these are the people who are addressing questions to him, as we know in the monologion and the proslogion. But this does not mean that he is not embarking here in an enterprise to see what the mind alone can conceive about the existence of God, and then after the existence of God, the properties and attributes of God. This is an exercise in which he is setting aside, for the moment, the information of the sacred scriptures.

Peter Adamson: So that was possible within a monastic setting? Just as much as later on in the universities.

Kent Emery: Yes, and in one of his treatises, as Anselm actually says, "let us set aside the beautiful concordances of scripture" and sort of, in a sense, come to the rational structure underneath those beautiful concordances. What were those concordances? They were the monastic and liturgical way of reading the scriptures whereby there was a perfect convenience and harmony between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Peter Adamson: Nonetheless, though, I would think there must be some way in which the monastic setting has an impact on the way that they do philosophy. I mean, beyond the fact that they would have been doing the liberal arts, that that was the way that monks were actually educated. So what effect does the goal of the monastic life have on the way that these earlier philosophers did philosophy, maybe as contrasted to the so-called scholastics who were working later on in a university context?

Kent Emery: Well, I don't want to bring up in too simple-minded a way that line "philosophy is a way of life," of Pierre Hadot. But if we look, for example, at Anselm's De Veritate, it's a very interesting treatise where he talks about truth on a different number of levels. There is, for example, a grammatical truth. There is a logical truth. Then we move on the truth of the correspondence between the minds and things, which modern people would call philosophy. And then the final and most important, the harmony or correspondence between life and doctrine and the divine exemplar. Here in the end, note that the life proves the doctrine, and the doctrine forms the life. So in one sense, it's highly contemplative, but in another sense, the aim of it is to form and shape a life in a moral and practical way.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, I was also struck when I was looking at Abelard's Ethics that he actually says that ethics is the whole purpose of doing philosophy. And so even someone who's renowned for his technical expertise, like Abelard, also thinks of the ultimate aim of philosophy as being, in some sense, the impact that it has on our life.

Kent Emery: Yes, you may remember, I think it's in Book 7 of The City of God, that Augustine gives a fascinating doxography of Greek philosophy. And he makes this statement - it's about the ethical end of philosophy. He said that Socrates, whether it was because he noticed that the students of philosophy were either bored, or because they were impious in dealing into divine things, which were the things of nature, that Socrates was the first to orient philosophy to the question of the good and the way to live. Now, this didn't mean anti-intellectual, because then he builds on the tradition that the order of knowing depends upon the order of being. And the order of right living, the ultimate end, depends upon the right order of knowing. Therefore, you can bring in physics logic as the ground of ethics. I think this idea, yes, is really mainstream in Latin thought before Aristotle, and is influencing both monks like Anselm and Bernard of Clairvaux, and then someone who's really doing a kind of new thing, Peter Abelard. But that ideal is still there: That philosophy proves itself by issuing in a life that can be defined and represent some kind of virtue in relation to God and the soul.

Peter Adamson: So you just mentioned, you just said before Aristotle. So obviously we're well after Aristotle himself, but what you mean is the recovery of the full works of Aristotle around the late 12th, 13th century. And that's linked, in my mind at least, to the rise of the universities, which is something I've just covered in the last episode of the podcast. What difference did it make in terms of the kinds of topics that philosophers could consider or the way that they would write, that they were now working within a university context instead of a monastic context?

Kent Emery: Well, the story of the reception of Aristotle in the Latin West is an astonishing story, and I think it cannot be underestimated the shock that the recovery of a full encyclopedia, so comprehensive, without Christian revelation was to the thinkers of the time. It was a huge challenge. Here is a comprehensive explanation from the first cause on of the universe, of things visible and invisible, as the Catholic creed puts it. So the question is then, all of a sudden we have something which is quite different from what had developed as the Latin and Christian form of wisdom. And the question always is, what do we do with this? Well, the story of the both positive and negative attitudes towards Aristotle in later medieval thought of the 13th, 14th, and 15th century, is pretty well known and can be studied with each individual thinker. But I think the interesting thing is that through the late 12th century and into the early 13th century, and by the, let's say, second decade of the 13th century, for some reason, the curriculum of Aristotle became the foundation of the teaching of the liberal arts as it was taught in the university. And so to a very great extent, the students who went to the faculty of arts in the university - and I'm thinking here mainly of Paris, and to a lesser extent of Oxford, because there the order of studies was directed ultimately to theology, not medicine or laws, and some other universities. But nonetheless, this was the common curriculum. And the students would first of all have to master the Organon and the logical corpus of Aristotle. And then, for the most part, philosophy was understood very distinctly in the university by the masters in the faculty of arts as commenting on the various books of Aristotle. Natural philosophy in the Physics. This was crucial. The Metaphysics, and this presents a problem in regard to Christian theology, and the Ethics. These were the three major high points, shall we say, of the liberal arts curriculum. And in this sense, philosophy, understood as something different from Christian wisdom, is Aristotle.

Peter Adamson: And nonetheless, when we think of some of the great works of philosophy from the 13th century, we think of works that are theological works, like obviously the Summa of Thomas Aquinas. So is there a difference between the sorts of writings or arguments that one would produce as a master of arts from what would be going on in the theology faculty?

Kent Emery: Yes, this is very distinct. In fact, the masters of arts were, in a sense, had to, as a discipline, develop a kind of historicized mind and a kind of modal mind. That is, they had to, in a way, bracket out certain kinds of information from theology in order to be able to expound the text of Aristotle, as he meant. To theologize in the arts faculty was sort of beyond the limits of, was unacceptable within, the formal limits of the pedagogy in the arts faculty. But it was also true that one should not philosophize too much in the theology faculty. So in the theology faculty, as you know, and that's where most of the famous thinkers of the later Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, Henry of Ghent, were professors in the theology faculty when they were in the university. And there, all of a sudden, the duty is to expound the revelation and to expound the holy, the sacred scriptures. And they taught most of their courses on the scriptures. Now, of course, having been through a training in the arts, that is, in the in the corpus of Aristotle, naturally they would bring these conceptual ideas and instruments of thinking into their thinking about the datum or the data of Christian revelation. And so modern scholars who, in a sense, want to find a distinct philosophy from theology in the Middle Ages have the habit of going to - and in a way it's perfectly legitimate - of going to these big theological works like the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas or the Ordinazio of John Duns Scotus or the Quadlibetal Questions of Henry of Ghent and trying to extract from them concepts which we define as philosophical and not theological. But this would not have been understood well by either the masters in the faculty of arts, or the masters in the faculty of theology in the university.

Peter Adamson: Because in their minds, philosophy was done in the arts and theology was done in theology.

Kent Emery: That's right. And so we can see some of the same matters treated in the great theological works. But if we have an attention to formal causality, what difference does that make when we're asking questions which also pertain to physics but we're asking them under the rubric of a theology which already affirms belief, for example, in the creation of the universe? Or a theology that presumes a kind of crazy change that can take place in the transubstantiation of the sacrament of the altar, but which according to Aristotle's physics could not take place at all?

Peter Adamson: Okay. So it seems like one difference you've sketched there then is a pretty basic one, which is that early on they would cut their teeth on the liberal arts and then as you were describing in Anselm, they would sort of reach back into their earlier education when they were trying to understand God and the way to live and so on. Whereas these scholastic figures, since they cut their teeth on Aristotle, they were reaching back to the Organon, the Physics, even when they did theology. So one difference is just that they've had a different education in the universities than they could have had in the ninth or the tenth centuries. Is there any other difference though between the theology or the philosophical theology that could have been produced by an earlier thinker like Anselm or Abelard and what could be produced by the scholastics in a university setting?

Kent Emery: Well, let me put this in something you personally will understand very well. The metaphysics of Aristotle is also first philosophy and it is also theology. Now all of a sudden you have a theology of the Greeks, of the philosophers, of the pagans, and a revelation of the Christians. I haven't used the word theology - although that becomes the word in the 13th century. But let me go back to the 12th century when Abelard started composing treatises called "Theologia Christiana." Bernard of Clairvaux from the monastery said this was an absolute atrocity. No one, no Christian should use the term theology. The reason is is that theology was associated with the demonology of the late anti-platonic philosophers who are treated by Augustine in the city of God, and it had all the resonances of paganism and demonology. And so interestingly enough, Bernard of Clairvaux says, 'no what we do is Philosophia Christiana,' Christian wisdom, love of wisdom. Well this totally confuses for example our use of the terms theology and philosophy used institutionally to distinguish a theology department from a philosophy department. How could this be done in just 50  years or 100 years? Could this whole turnaround and all of a sudden what Aristotle does is strictly philosophy and what goes on with Christian wisdom is now properly designated as theology? This kind of change is prompted by the accomplishment of Aristotle. The other question which you say too - we talked about how philosophy had to issue from a way of life within the monastery. In the structure is that one's teaching novices to grow into the monastic life which is a way of perfection, and so on. Now you have the Aristotelian corpus, that's a pagan corpus. To what degree could a Christian man of the 13th century be an Aristotelian in any kind of internalization? So this enters what we would call a kind of certain objective approach to philosophy.

Peter Adamson: So like when you're a university student you're not there to study there to learn what kind of person to be. You're just there to learn your Aristotle and move on to some other field of study later.

Kent Emery: Yes, and in a way in which anybody who studies the Platonic tradition will understand, and then you can think in the Christian terms of Augustine's De Magistro, in the monastery the whole pedagogy is a very personal thing where the master must know the soul and the disposition of the soul of his student. Where all of a sudden in the university lecture room now you're broadcasting doctrine to a bunch of people whom you may not know personally as well. Yes, you can acquire friendships with them as students and professors always do. But you have no particular spiritual authority over the students as would be the case in the monastery. A very interesting question in the Summa of Henry of Ghent where he asks if it is possible for a monk to teach "this science," 'this science' meaning scholastic science, which is closely related to the topic, is it possible to teach this science - that is scholastic theology - in a state of mortal sin?

Peter Adamson: So in other words, if the teacher has a sinful soul, can they still teach theology to the students?

Kent Emery: Truthfully, and the question is truthfully. After long and complicated arguments, Henry says yes, you could. In fact, you could have an atheist teaching.

Peter Adamson: Really?

Kent Emery: Yes, on the grounds if you were doing it as starting out with a set of contingent presuppositions and then working out the validity of inferences from them, and the student may not know that the person is a non-believer or that he's leading a egregious sexual life outside the classroom. But nonetheless, if what the person formally and objectively is saying is in accordance with Catholic doctrine, well then it can be of value to the students.

Peter Adamson: It seems like that must be connected to the fact that so many of the intellectual authorities in the 13th century onwards are not just pagan but also Muslim, even Jewish. So they are referring to Avicenna, and Averroes, and Maimonides, and they don't mind the fact that they're not Christians as long as they're getting the arguments right. Is that basically the case?

Kent Emery: Well, I could give you something I think you would like very well. You just jogged it into my memory now. My great subject of my study, Denis the Carthusian, to whom I've dedicated much of my intellectual life, in the 15th century, a monk, a Carthusian monk for goodness sake, but at the same time a master of arts from the University of Cologne before he went into the monastery. And he had a particular fondness for Avicenna. And so in one case he is defending some position, a metaphysical position, I can't remember exactly now what it is, of Avicenna. And then he says something which Remy Bragg in Paris told me was quite astonishing because most medieval Latins would not have had this. Denis says: "and so Avicenna was a heretic in his own sect, and rightly so, because it is the duty of philosophy in every age to expose the falsehood of false religions."

Peter Adamson: So he says basically that Avicenna unwittingly exposed the falsehood of Islam? And he's giving them that as a compliment.

Kent Emery: And so we go back to the late antique view of Porphyry and so on, whereby philosophy does subordinate the myths and corrects the error of the religion. Now, needless to say, then the question becomes for a person like Denis, okay, so what differentiates the Christian revelation, which must subordinate philosophy to its ends, whereas we can praise someone like Avicenna, and presumably of Averroes in certain respects, because they were not taken in by the deceptive and false religion of Islam. An interesting concept, it seems to me.

Peter Adamson: So going back to the 13th century, I guess one other thing that happens there is that it gives the opportunity for people who wouldn't have been to universities or maybe couldn't go to universities, like women, the opportunity to engage in this philosophical tradition as well, which is one striking thing about the Middle Ages, which I've been pointing out in these podcasts, is that more so than in late antiquity, you have female authors that we actually have texts from who are saying philosophically interesting things and taking part in the history of philosophy.

Kent Emery: Yes, this is true. Now, of course, we have some really exceptional people in the 12th century who are benefiting, like Hildegarde of Bingen and so on, who are benefiting from this monastic curriculum. Clearly, these educated women were receiving the same kind of liberal arts, mainly in the verbal arts of exposition, grammar, in that sense, exegesis, grammar in terms of a more speculative analysis and so on. But I think in the later Middle Ages, it's interesting to know that this pedagogy of mystical theology would have been one typical to women, and there was a whole sort of constituted authoritative library on this - and it would include many writings of Augustine and some interesting, what we would call philosophic writings, De Veritate, for example. And it would include the Dionysian Corpus in Latin. Then we would have a lot of selected writings of the fathers, for example, Gregory the Great on Job and on Ezekiel. This would be part of this library. Many things of Bernard of Clairvaux, and then all of a sudden, all the treatises in mystical theology, which ultimately, even if they're quite different, they're all emanating from the tradition of pseudo-Dionysius, and a lot of late medieval authors, for example, Jean Gerson, and of course, the writers, interestingly enough, really important here, writers from the 12th centur Abby of Saint Victor, Hugh and Richard of Saint Victor. And this whole tradition of theology and the philosophy that's implicit or explicit in this tradition - which is far more Platonic than the Aristotelian base for scholastic theology, was continuing in full stream. And by the end of the Middle Ages, even by the 15th century, in some ways is what's new in the Middle Ages in comparison to the schools. By this time, the schools, which are in many sense becoming narrower and narrower, are becoming more and narrower and repeating themselves as Scotists, Thomists, Albertists, and so on. 


Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.