Friday, November 14, 2014

Three Medieval Philosophers Show Up at Class...What do we talk about?

Last term my medieval philosophy professor gave us the option of answering a very creative question on the exam. Please find my answer below. I received an A for my efforts.

6.2. If, per impossibile, St. Bonaventure and any two other Latin thirteenth century philosophers of your acquaintance were able to return for a philosophical conversation with our class, what topic, according to your imaginative construction, would we and they discuss and how would the conversation develop? Feel free to select any of the authors whose writings we have studied in the course, e.g., Alexander of Hales, Richard Rufus, or Robert Grossteste, but also consider including one of the following: St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Siger of Brabant, or William of Auvergne. You may use either an essay or dialogue format in answering this question.

So Bonaventure and Albert unexpectedly arrive with Thomas chowing down on a double beacon cheeseburger from Five Guys. Of course, only three students and our professor can speak to our distinguished guests, because only the four of us can speak Latin. Nevertheless, after Bonaventure, Thomas, and Albert are brought up to speed on modernity and Thomas has finished his introduction to the delights of contemporary cuisine, their words can be accurately rendered in English like this:

Bonaventure just begins to shake his head. “I knew this would happen! Under the influence of the Muslims, the integral Aristotelians, earlier called the Straussians, took over, but what is worse their descendants do not see any positive value in religion at all! Although Averroes thought that the philosopher strictly speaking did not need any form of revealed religion, he at least admitted that religion was absolutely essential for most people. Now people act like they don’t need it at all! And all because the hyper-Aristotelians won!”

Albert and Thomas then contemplate the matter and after some thoughtful reflection discuss how the loss of illuminationism and the rediscovery of Aristotle have enabled an unbelievable amount of natural philosophy or “science.” Albert especially is crazy interested in cellular biology and is eager to look into microscopes. Once he and Thomas are finished learning Arabic and Greek well enough to read through the whole philosophic corpus, in due time they would like to turn their attention to biology and physics.

When physics comes up, the conversation then turns to astronomy. Because he rejected Ptolemy’s astronomy which was proven to be significantly more correct than Aristotle’s, Aquinas develops some heartburn from that burger. All three are utterly shocked to find out that what they knew as the cosmos is really just one tiny solar system among many. And the sun is just another star! At the mention of the Big Bang, Aquinas and Bonaventure argue about whether God could have created a beginningless universe. “I KNEW IT HAD TO HAVE A BEGINNING!” Bonaventure screams, but then Albert and Aquinas point out that the Big Bang may in fact have not been the beginning absolutely speaking, merely a critical juncture that is not fully understood. But when the loss of Aristotle’s celestial spheres sinks in with all their perfection and order, the three philosophers get just a slight sense of how incredibly small and unimportant modern man feels. Indeed, a universe of this magnitude may just make the Incarnation significantly more difficult to believe.

To abstain from controversy for a while, things turn to other contemporary developments. Because all three are ordained priests, they are surprised that our liturgies are so short and that priests actually want to face the people at Mass. They also dislike contemporary church “music.” Given the monastic and clerical origins of the university, all three are also stunned that married laymen without aristocratic parentage are allowed to study philosophy and theology. After the class explains that this is now ok, Albert says, “But surely the marital act even in wedlock must impede the right use of the intellect in the highest sciences?” After Albert expresses incomprehension at the thought that marital relations might be compatible with the most exalted forms of human knowing and at the thought that men might actually be able to learn something profitably from women, Bonaventure and Thomas express satisfaction that humans bathe more often than we used to and consequently do not stink like barn animals. This, they say, is a real improvement in civilization. 

Returning to philosophy, Aquinas expresses regret that he so badly misunderstood Aristotle as to attribute to him a doctrine of the immortality of the soul. “If only I had been able to read Aristotle in Greek! But then again, I’m more culpable than that. Robert Grosseteste himself warned us about making Aristotle a Catholic!” Albert for his part wants to read some Meister Eckhart. Bonaventure and Albert are also glad to be relieved of the duties of serving as church administrators for awhile. They had not fully realized all that Aquinas had been able to accomplish for philosophy and theology by refusing to become a bishop.

After listening to their remarks about nearly everything, the class is stunned. The Thomists of the strict observance are astounded when Thomas expresses dismay and chastises them for only wanting to study him and Aristotle. Plus, he disagrees with some of the syntheses they have put together of his own works. For penance, he demands that they memorize the whole Vulgate psalter and read the Platonic corpus in Greek. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An A for effort - a D for actual content (or accurate content).