Medieval Thought

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the May 1999, A.S. XXXIV issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

When I first wrote this essay, the theme was the differences between how modern and medieval man thought. It was rejected for being too abstract and academic, and would I please rewrite it. As I searched for examples, it dawned on me that the dichotomy was not as clean as I originally thought. A better description would be that today there are two ways of thinking about things. And which one is used depends roughly on one's profession. Those involved in the fields of religion and politics use the older rhetoric form of thinking that dominated the Middle Ages. While those more involved with science and technology use the syllogism methods of Aristotle, which became prominent during the Renaissance. This observation throws an interesting light on the difficulties of decision making in today's society. But that is a different essay for a different forum. So I recast this essay to highlight the differences between these two forms of thinking to better illuminate how people would act during the medieval period. The reason I wrote such a long lead-in to this article is to illustrate that having one's ideas challenged can lead to new insights, and how subtle one's biases can rear up and distort observations.

I'll start by characterizing our current way of thinking. It can be broadly classified as logical, or more specifically Aristotelian. What this means that people start with a set of assumptions or premises then through a series of if-then rules deduce a conclusion. Disagreement results from either a misuse of a rule, or the use of a faulty premise. This is so ingrained in us, that we normally are not even aware of doing it. When a child asks a series of why questions, he is simply trying to work his way back through the inference chain to some premise he can accept.

On the other hand, the medieval man thought in terms of grammar and rhetoric. Arguments were won by the elegance and style of the supporting speech more then the content. The standard by which these speeches were judged were the writings of the Roman and Greek authors that survived the collapse of the Roman Empire. Particularly the early church fathers. The central tenet of rhetoric is that truth is intuitively known and needs only the proper use of language to present it. There is nothing to be discovered. This type of thinking can be found among the Christian fundamentalists for whom all moral truths can be found in the Bible, and that the answer to any moral question can be found with the proper set of verses properly elucidated.

Now an objection could be raised here that since most of the population being illiterate, and such texts being rare, that this could only be true for the isolated intellectuals. But these intellectuals were housed in the church, and the church was everywhere. One of the church's long standing efforts was to have school in every parish, so to teach the populace the faith. And while this was incompletely carried out, it provided a link between the intellectuals of the day and the general population.

An argument based on rhetoric is a series of images building to some emotional climax. The winner is the one who generated the most satisfying climax. These images come in two forms. For the general populace the preferred form was the metaphoric allegory. Ideas are given in the form of stereotypical archetypes. In present day, politics use such images like the Cadillac driving welfare queen, jackbooted government agents, or the shining city on the hill. In a more scholarly forum, these images involved invoking past authorities, the more ancient and more illustrious the better. Much like modern politicians invoking past presidents, with Ragen the latest addition to the pantheon, and Washington carrying the most weight.

To the medieval mind, the past was prologue to the present. When face with a given problem, the medieval man would search for a similar problem in the past and repeat the solutions. Much like the many politicians advocating a return to past practices, particularly those of the 1950's. Change was feared not because it was different, but because it invalidated past authorities. This is in essence the crime of Copernicus and Galileo. Privately, the papal officials were willing to concede that they were right. But they were unwilling to admit it publicly least it arouse doubts about other authorities. Having just overcome the challenge posed by Aristotle, they did not wish to quickly deal with challenges posed by the new sciences.

In the first half of the Middle Ages, progress was slow in incremental. Old methods were modified just enough to keep them working as circumstances slowly evolved. A prime example is the flying buttresses of the cathedrals. The concept of the Gothic cathedral as first given form by Abbot Sugar in the first half of the 12th century has its origins in fifth century mysticism. But it nevertheless put new demands on construction techniques with its demand of high thin walls. Such walls are unable to resist the outward forces caused by the roof and so require external support. As these support walls became massive enough to support the roof, they began to restrict the light that is the essence of the Gothic cathedral, they were replaced by arches. And as the walls rose ever higher arches were added on top of arches. And if it fell down, the weak spot was found, reinforced, and the structure rebuilt. And the new design was repeated at the next cathedral.

But no cathedral was engineered. No one set about to analyze the stresses to learn what needed to be strong, and what could be weak. The master mason simply copied he previous cathedral, scaled to the desires of his patron, keeping those places strong the previous experience showed needed to be strong. That something needed to be stronger will only be revealed when it started to fail.

It is not that the average person could not foresee events, or create a plan to achieve some goal, but since their worldview was of a static universe, they looked to the past for the best way of doing things. Their attitude was why re-invent the wheel. The ancients had done it all, and did it better. An understandable attitude given the state of things say around 800 AD. The Aristotelian revelation was not the mechanics of logical construction, that was never lost, but the mechanics for how to conceptually organize the universe.

While Aristotle wrote his works around 350 BC, most of his work was lost to Europe till around 1150 when it was re-introduced from Muslim sources. The discovery of Aristotle generated a new intellectual movement call Scholasticism, which focused on using this new way of thinking on the questions of the day. The reason why much of the output of Scholasticism seems dry and boring to us is that they spend much time explaining what seems intuitive obvious, and belaboring numerous points. The reason is that they did not grow up learning to think in Aristotelian terms, so these points were not intuitively obvious. And these methodical marches through the arguments were done to avoid mistakes using these unfamiliar techniques, much the same way a student first learning algebra writes down every step while working an algebra problem

The crucial difference is that the Aristotelians could break the universe up into manageable bits, while the older thinkers saw a seamless whole. By taking it at a piece at a time, and differentiating between what is central and what is not, allowed the Aristotelians to make sense of the chaos of the everyday world. And from that understanding comes the confidence to use logic to march into the unknown frontiers of knowledge. No longer constrained by the examples of the past, the way to the future lay open.

By the Renaissance, the break between the two modes of thought was nearly complete. The new Humanist thinkers derided the Scholastics as boring pedants arguing over such meaningless trivia as dancing angels on pin heads. The Renaissance writings are still accessible to us because we can follow their arguments because they argued like us. While the medieval texts have become obscure and unfathomable.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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