Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Anselm and the Eleventh-century Context (Notes: 57)



We now jump 550 years to the year 1075 A.D.

Why are we skipping so far ahead? Is it because there is a dearth of interesting material to say about the period we are throwing out with the bathwater? Yes, actually! Honestly, people just stopped doing philosophy, for a while. One reason for why people stopped doing philosophy relates to the Germans; specifically, it is difficult to keep up a cultured intellectual life when one is constantly running from the Germanic barbarian tribes. Alas, proto-Germany is not treated well in history.

Another reason why philosophy ceased was because of Boethius’s educational system, something of oddly hostile to philosophy. Boethius’s system prized literature and history, to textual analysis of the bible (classical hermeneutics, in other words). Though not all philosophical work ceased—see the suspected Pantheist works of an Irish Monk named John Erigena in the court of Charlemagne, work over-all did take a dive. Supposedly, Erigena was stabbed to death by his students, frustrated as his roundabout teaching method; in whatever the case, though Erigena did not have a hefty influence on his contemporaries, he did have an influence on later philosophers—being able to read Greek helped in this and so he was able to translate numerous works from the Greek into Latin. Enter: pseudo-Dionysus the Ariopigit (did not spell that right).

The real Dionysus was one of St. Paul’s Athenian converts. Pseudo-Dionysus is the name given to the author of whomever it was who wrote down what the real Dionysus wanted to write. This pseudo author takes pains to make his writings seem authentic, referencing how he was taught by St. Paul himself and even addressing texts to St. Timothy, among others. Of course there was some doubt, at first, whether these works were authentic, but it wasn’t until the 15th century that these works were definitively rejected, their consistent references to mid-fifth century works dating them as too late to be genuine. But, during the middle ages, however, they were widely regarded as genuine (so the prankster got his way for a while).

Because these writings were written by someone who was taught by Paul himself, they were as good as scripture itself. But because they carried such authority weight, they caused some issues with Christian orthodoxy due to their dubious content.

But in the eleventh century, for no particular reason historians can concern, philosophy makes a comeback. The mode of operation in which philosophy makes a comeback is known as dialectic; the basic technique of the dialectician, is various forms of linguistic analysis, making distinctions to clarify the meaning of terms. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we do not know why, or how, dialectical philosophy was revived. We have some ideas, mind you, such as that in the 11th century the Germanic tribes finally settled down and a return of the intellectual life conducive to philosophy returned, though why it is dialectic in particular which returns—why people started seeing new things in old texts—that is a mystery (if you solve it, please write your doctoral dissertation on it). Point is, the dialectic is brought back, to the chagrin of later bourgeois thinkers.

What always happens when a new system is (re-)introduced, is a big debate on how far you can run with it in Christian thinking—how far can one go in using the dialectic in defending, propagating, and elucidating Christian doctrine. In the normal picture of this particular great debate, the debate on what one could do with the dialectic produced three main camps: one is the Rationalists—as typified by Beranger who subjected Christly texts to close scrutiny; this camp was unabashedly pro-dialectical. The second camps, which represents the anti-dialectical view, is the Obscurantists. In-between these two views were the Moderates, who held that when properly used, the dialectic was a decent tool in utilizing Christian doctrine. This is the standard picture.

Unfortunately, the reality is far more complicated than the standard picture would suggest.
Beranger was not a thronging Rationalist. He accepted Christian doctrine on the basis of authority, he merely used the dialectic to formulate those doctrine in intelligible ways and to argue against what he thought were unintelligible construal of doctrine. This is actually fairly close to what Lanfranc was arguing and so it seems that the two were talking past each other or deliberately misrepresenting one another. Damien, meanwhile, did not oppose the use of dialectic in principle and seems to actually have had little interest in dialectical thought; indeed, it may have been his general hostility to rationalist thought due to his fangled conservatism than anything else.

The dialectic, in Anselm’s context, can be used to (1) elucidate Christian doctrine, to explain what it means and guard against misinterpretation; (2) to defend Christian doctrine and challenges to the truth and intelligibly of Christian doctrine.

Of all the figures discussed, though, none of them delve into the limits of human reason and power in having to do with God and the Christian faith. For that, we have to turn to Anselm.

Anselm was born in Northern Italy in 1033. His mother died when he was in his early twenties and he appeared to be closer to her than his father; after her death, relations with his father started to sour. In 1056, being unable to please his father, Anselm left home. He wandered through Northern Italy and then into France, likely sampling the independent, entrepreneurial teacher-scholars who were available in that time and place. In 1059, at 26 years old, Anselm arrived at the Abbey of Beck. This abbey is under the control of Lanfranc and is the to-go place for people interested in studying the dialectic. So we have a Benediction monastic school in direct contrast to the sort of ideas Anselm tried out earlier with the independent scholars. This is a new kind of monastic school, however; it is not the old fashioned literary and historical education, but the cutting edge dialectical education. 

Furthermore, at this school, they took external pupils, so they were not just interested in training new monks but in teaching the kids of the nobility as well. So it is really the Harvard of Northern France.
When Anselm enrolls in the school, it is of little doubt that it is not because of the pious lifestyle, but rather, of the school itself and of Lanfranc. But once enrolled, Anselm falls in love with the monastic lifestyle, digging up some of those positive feelings he had about the pious life that he had in his youth. In short order, he becomes elected as abbot when Lanfranc is elected as an Abbey elsewhere. The works talked about in these lectures were written while Anselm was abbot at Beck and before he become abbot.

So, we have someone drawn to the monastic life for intellectual reasons, but who is, nonetheless, dedicated to the monastic life and was trained by someone who is famous for the view that, when used right, the dialectic can be legitimate. Anselm is teaching monks but moreover, he is having discussing about why the things that he reads make sense; at this abbey, it is not simply rote memorization, but logical argument and proto-deconstruction. This is the context in which Anselm is developing his views. One will not understand Anselm, subsequently, is one views his writings as for typically imagined atheists, as none exist at this school. These are intellectually committed people and will, in 1075, ask of Anselm, to put his teaching into writing form: what the monks ask if for a way to demonstrate what they believe without presupposing belief, without having recourse to the Bible or to St. Augustine. The work which resulted from this request was the Monologian (or, the Monologue). 

In the first chapter, he makes a controversial statement in saying that as long as a person is moderately intelligent, he should be able to convince himself of the necessity of God assuming he has the patience. He sent this book to Lanfranc—eager to demonstrate his commitment to the sort of logical thinking that Lanfranc had taught him—he, of course, was both disappointed and scandalized at the work. He wanted to know where was the scripture, where was the quotations from Augustine. But, and here is the interesting thing to professor Williams, not only did Anselm not make a single change to the text, but he never again submitted anything to Lanfranc’s approval. Anselm believed that he could offer compelling proofs, via dialectical logic, to the Christian doctrine of Incarnation and Redemption. This is what he calls the ‘Reason of Faith’, where Christian doctrine forms a rational and complete system, something which derives from God (Supreme Reason); Reason, therefore is necessary for determining the content of authoritative texts. Without reason, we do not even know what certain texts say or claim. This is not to say that Anselm is a Rationalist, as he was a firm believer and held that in order for Reason to not go astray, developed the ideas of Humility, Obedience, and Spiritual Discipline. Humility helps since it assists us in recognizing the lowliness of our own minds and the loftiness of God’s Truth; Obedience helps since in obedience we accept the teachings of a church and in doing so we have a goal in which all of our effort must aim, a goal which keeps reason rom jumping the tracks in pursuit of some other goal; spiritual discipline, meanwhile, is required in order to help clear the mind of bodily imaginations so that we can discern those things which ought to be contemplated by reason itself.

How can Anselm have it both ways? How can he say that one does not need to read and interpret Christian doctrine in order to come to God while at the same time saying that God is right and the Christian way it right? It comes from the spiritual discipline leading the person to God’s truth, but that Truth is a rational experience, one which comes as a result of obedience and eventually humility. Since God is supreme reason, he can be conveyed to anyone who has reason and dedicates him or herself to understanding reason.

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