In the previous two articles, we saw how two competing, perhaps contradictory, inheritances from Plato were absorbed into Christian theology. There was, on the one hand, the conception of God as self-sufficient, immovable perfection, which rendered the existence of the world of experience superfluous, and, indeed, problematic. On the other hand, there was the conception of God as creative fecundity, which made the world of experience a logical necessity. On the first view, the world of sense experience was illusory and inferior; on the second, it was just as God intended it to be, and hence real and good. So one could get either an otherworldly, or a this-worldly, ethic out of Plato—and hence out of a Christian theology, which took on so much of Platonic thought—depending on what part of Plato’s doctrine one wanted to emphasize.
We also saw how the conquests of Alexander the Great, and then of the Romans, led to the creation of a bilingual Mediterranean Empire, speaking Latin in the West, and Greek in the East. This was very important for the historical development of Christian theology, for when the Roman Empire began to lose control of its Western provinces in the fifth century (to the Germans), and many of its Eastern provinces in the seventh (to the Muslims), the unity of Mediterranean civilization, which had been held together by Roman power, was lost. The Latin-speaking West lost contact with the Greek-speaking East for centuries, and with that loss of contact came a loss of knowledge about the classics of philosophy, such as the work of Plato and Aristotle. These had, after all, been originally written in Greek, and since fluency in Greek and knowledge of the Greek classics, was what, in the main, Roman education consisted of, the need of translation had never become apparent. So when the classics of Greek philosophy could have been translated, there seemed little need; but when the need became apparent, the opportunity was gone. As an aside, we should mention that in the sixth century, after the Goths had conquered Italy, the Roman philosopher Boethius, who recognized that the classical world was coming to an end, tried to carry out such a translation project. But he was accused of participating in a conspiracy against the King of the Goths and executed before his project could be undertaken. Thus, for centuries, Greek philosophy was known only through the work of those early Christian theologians who had written in Latin—especially Augustine, whose influence on the theology of Western Christian theology can hardly be overstated. (Eastern Christianity, based as it is on the Greek language, developed along very different lines, and has tended to hold Augustine in lower regard.)
In the twelfth century, the Crusades brought Western Europeans into contact with the Muslim world, thus also into contact with the classics of Greek philosophy, in Arabic translation. It was during this same period that the first universities were being founded in Western Europe—at Oxford, Cambridge, Bologna, Salamanca, Paris, and also in other places. After centuries of poverty and turmoil following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Western Europe was beginning to recover.
As this recovery got underway, the authority of the Catholic Church, which had been virtually the only institution holding Western Europe together during this period, came under increasing pressure. The political element of the struggle was largely over the appointment of bishops. Both kings and popes wanted to control these: kings because wealthy, powerful, and independent bishops posed a challenge to their sovereignty; popes because it was the bishops who were supposed to maintain the discipline of the clergy and the orthodoxy of belief within their districts. A pope who could not count on bishops following his orders would be in very much the same position as a modern ship captain who could not count on her officers to carry out her orders—one can have all the prestige and honors one likes, but if one can’t get one’s orders obeyed, it’s useless. So control over the appointment of bishops was important to both kings and popes, and a continual source of friction. Meanwhile, the establishment of universities created an intellectual elite operating parallel to, and potentially in competition with (as eventually happened), the bishops and theologians of the Catholic Church. These intellectuals could easily become caught up in political controversies, and used, in effect, as bargaining chips—if a pope or bishop wanted to discipline someone for spreading, as they saw it, subversive and false beliefs, they had to rely on the kings to do it, since they generally did not have a military or police force of their own. Conversely, if a king wanted to create problems for a pope or bishop, a renegade professor or cleric could be very useful for that purpose. After all, what is the authority of a pope or a bishop if no one believes in it? And why should they believe in it if they are presented with powerful arguments that undermine their authority? These, intellectuals could provide.
This is precisely what happened in the case of William of Ockham, founder of the nominalist philosophy that would prove so damaging to Platonism, and, indeed, to as much Christian theology as had been based on it. But nominalism has also been very important to science, for reasons we will explore in future articles.
As Duke University historian Michael Allen Gillespie relates in his book The Theological Origins of Modernity, William of Ockham was both a leading intellectual of the fourteenth century and a Franciscan friar. At the time, the Franciscan order was internally divided by a dispute over property. The founder of their order, St. Francis, had despised money and possessions, and had forbidden, in the plainest and strictest language, his followers to have anything to do with either. They wandered from town to town, preaching and performing the rites of the Roman Catholic Church, and in return they accepted whatever hospitality or charity people wanted to give them. But they were absolutely forbidden to go looking for these things, or to horde them, on the theory that trusting in them tended to undermine one’s trust in God, and hence to evince a lack of faith. After all, Jesus had warned his followers to “take no thought for tomorrow,” since the same God that causes the lilies to grow, and the birds to be provided with their food, and who knows the number of the hairs on each person’s head, could be relied on to provide for those who followed him. And the belief grew up among certain Franciscans, called the “Spiritual” Franciscans, that Jesus and his followers had possessed nothing because that was the most sanctified kind of life possible.
But this is surely a very difficult kind of life to lead, and not all Franciscans were up to the challenge. A compromise—perhaps a little too clever—was worked out, whereby a Franciscan could use, in perpetuity, an object or property without actually owning it. So if a wealthy person wanted to help the Franciscans, and to do so in the most effectual and direct manner available to them, by donating their wealth, the Franciscans were formally forbidden to accept more than they could immediately use, or to store up possessions, since that would be “taking thought for tomorrow,” and would indicate a lack of trust in God’s providence. But they might accept, for instance, the use of a large property in which they could live in perpetuity. As long as they did not actually own the property they were not technically violating the rule of St. Francis, or “taking thought for tomorrow,” they were simply accepting the use of what someone else had freely offered to them.
So a controversy grew up within the Franciscan order as to whether this was really in keeping with what St. Francis had wanted. The bishops and popes of the Roman Catholic Church were not exactly indifferent to the outcome of this dispute—if the Spiritual Franciscans were right, and Jesus and his earliest followers had not owned any property, that would tend to put them in a bad light. After all, their authority was based on a claim called Apostolic Succession—the view that the bishops are the direct, lineal successors to the apostles, and thus speak and act with the same authority that the they did. But if Jesus and the apostles had not owned any property, then how were the bishops and popes of the Roman Catholic Church imitating them? They were not exactly living lives of poverty. They had palaces and huge estates, wore sumptuous clothing, had plenty of servants, and in short, lived like important people in the world. In their view, this was only fitting since they were in fact important people, indeed the most important people of all, since a king or a merchant can only help you in this life, but the pope and the bishops held the keys to the doors of eternity. If one takes seriously the thought that a person can be eternally saved or damned by a decree of the church leaders, then one will certainly have to regard them as very important people! So in their view, it was only natural for the leaders of the church to live like important people, and be surrounded by symbols of their status and dignity, such as property and servants and rich clothing. The Spiritual Franciscans were on a collision course with the pope and bishops of the Roman Catholic Church.
In order to defend their right to possess property, the popes and bishops drew on the philosophy of Aristotle, especially as it had been articulated by the Dominican Friar Thomas Aquinas a century earlier. When Greek learning had been recovered in the Latin West, there had been a tremendous vogue for Aristotle. The effort to systematize Aristotelian philosophy with Christian theology led to a movement called Scholasticism, which tried to show how reason and faith balanced and supported each other. According to Aristotle, and to his Scholastic interpreters, all things have natural ends, or purposes, that are inherent in their constitution. We can find out a great deal about these natural ends simply through the use of our reason. Aquinas certainly believed that revelation was important, but he also thought that unaided human reason could go a long way by itself. He believed in a both/and approach that harmonized the two. So, according to Aristotle, and the Scholastics, it is in the natural constitution or purpose of a human being to seek knowledge and to live in community, and we can know this simply by using our reason without any reference to revelation. Indeed revelation, rightly understood, will be seen to be in harmony with reason, they maintained.
For Aristotle, property is good and reasonable; for Jesus, according to the Spiritual Franciscans, seeking it out shows a lack of faith.
Now, it certainly seems to be the case, if we just look around at society and use our unaided reason, that owning property is natural to human beings. We can’t live without shelter, clothing, food, and other things considered necessary, and it is normally thought very sensible to take precautions about that. So it is not exactly obvious that the teaching of Jesus, and of Aristotle, can be reconciled on this point. For Aristotle, property is good and reasonable; for Jesus, according to the Spiritual Franciscans, seeking it out shows a lack of faith. But, according to Aquinas, and to the Scholastic philosophy, when the teaching of Jesus is rightly understood it is seen to be fully in harmony with reason (which is to say, the teaching of Aristotle), so the pope and the bishops were not violating the teaching of Jesus by owning property, and since St. Francis was also a true disciple of Jesus, it further followed that the Spiritual Franciscans were misinterpreting both the Bible and the rule of their own order.
What to do? If this argument were left to stand, the position of the Spiritual Franciscans would be seen to be totally untenable. It was into this controversy that William of Ockham stepped. According to Ockham, the recovery of Greek learning had gone too far. In a sense, he revived Tertullian’s old question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” In other words, what does Greek philosophy have to do with an authentic Christian piety? Why should Christians care about what some misguided, pagan philosophers thought? In the Roman times, people like Augustine, who wanted a synthesis, had won the debate. Athens, they held, had a lot to do with Jerusalem because to be a Christian was to be interested in truth just as such, whatever the source. But William of Ockham was intent on reopening this debate.
Ockham argued that the problem with Aristotle’s philosophy was that it presupposed the real existence of universals. For instance, when Aristotle holds forth on the true nature of the human being, that to be a human is to be a “rational animal” or a “political animal” and so forth, he is assuming that the phrase “human being” refers to a real category of existence—something ontologically definite, and not restricted to the existence of any one particular human being. In modern, empirically minded philosophy, this is called the fallacy of essentialism. Aristotle, like Plato, thinks there is an essential nature to humanity, and that if we define it precisely, we can use logic to tease out the implications of that definition, and hence acquire certain knowledge about what it means to be a human.
What Darwin showed was that real existence belongs to particular organisms, not to categories of organisms, such as species.
It’s like extracting the Pythagorean theorem from the definition of a triangle. The theorem can be shown to be a necessary consequence of triangles just as such, but it takes work to get to it. Provided that we start with the true definition of a triangle, though, the Pythagorean theorem is certain, definite knowledge. From that point of view, the abstract nature of the knowledge claims involved are not a limitation, they are the point. Because abstractions are not subject to change, when properly understood they are the same for all observers at all times, but particular objects come into being and out of being, so definite knowledge about them is not obtainable. It is a matter of mere opinion, from their point of view. So there is an important inversion of values here—what is dismissed as metaphysical, speculative, or irrelevant from a modern, empirically minded point of view, is one of the best things about this type of knowledge, from the point of view of Platonic philosophy. That’s why Aristotle thought it was important to define what it meant to be a human. Once that definition was in place, other truths about human beings—such as their ethical duties—could be known on purely a priori grounds. It’s called a fallacy of essentialism today because most modern philosophers do not believe there is any such essential nature. What Darwin showed was that real existence belongs to particular organisms, not to categories of organisms, such as species. (More on this later.)
But centuries before Darwin, Ockham had already put one of the basic ideas into place. According to Ockham, universals have no real existence. What really exists is not “humanity,” in the abstract, but particular human beings. There is no such thing as an essential nature of a human being, and hence no possibility of extracting, from that nature, any definite propositions about the ethical obligations of human beings—whether or not, for instance, it is permitted to own property. If we want to discover the truth about the human relation to property, we need to consult the gospels on their own terms, not as refracted through the lens of pagan, Greek philosophy, according to Ockham.
So what, then, are the universals of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy? In Ockham’s view, they are simply names. There is no such thing as the “form” of the triangle, there are only particular instances of particular, triangle-like things. The concept of the triangle is not inherent in the things themselves, or in some shadowy other world beyond time and space, but simply in human minds that observe similarities between objects and derive from those similarities certain general, abstract concepts. But the concepts are in human minds, not out there somehow, according to Ockham. So Ockham’s philosophy is really a complete inversion of Plato’s, at least on this point. Plato held that human beings who were ignorant of the forms were like people chained to a wall in a cave, mistaking the shadows that they saw moving across the walls for the real objects themselves. Only the philosopher can ascend from the mere appearance of things—their continual coming into being and going out of it, as it appears to the senses—to their true reality, the abstract forms perceived through reason. But if Ockham had a cave, it would be closer to the truth to say that Plato’s forms are the shadows, and the world of sense experience the reality. Since the time of Ockham, the philosophical world has been divided into at least two camps on this question. Realists hold that concepts like triangle or humanity (or whatever particular inventory they decide on) have a real existence. But nominalists hold that these concepts are mere names, hence they can only be said to exist in a nominal sense.
If Jesus had wanted his followers to live without property and the pope was trying to prevent the Spiritual Franciscans from following that command, then what could the pope be but a representative, not of God, but of the Adversary?
This was a potentially devastating riposte to the Aristotelian-Scholastic view, and with it, to much of the authority of the bishops and popes of the Roman Catholic Church. This was an entirely intended aspect of Ockham’s philosophy—“a feature, not a bug,” as the saying goes—for Ockham had come to regard the pope himself as a heretic. After all, if Jesus had wanted his followers to live without property and the pope was trying to prevent the Spiritual Franciscans from following that command—and doing so for reasons that, eternity notwithstanding, appeared to have everything to do with his own comfort and privilege—then what could the pope be but a representative, not of God, but of the Adversary? So Ockham denounced the pope for a heretic, was excommunicated in his turn, and fled Avignon (a town in Southern France that was serving as the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church at the time) to seek refuge with the Holy Roman (that is, the German) Emperor, Louis IV. The emperors were involved in a long-running dispute with the popes at that time, for the reasons alluded to earlier, so they were prepared to shelter William of Ockham, and make good use of his talents. He spent the rest of his life writing political tracts, supporting Louis IV in his dispute with the popes.
Ockham both won and lost the argument. On the one hand, the center of gravity in modern philosophy is definitely on the side of nominalism, and it has been very influential in the sciences as well. It is more or less taken for granted in the sciences that the abstract objects of Plato’s philosophy do not really exist, but only, at least as far as scientific research is concerned, the empirically available world that he considered illusory and deceptive. So there has been a huge swing of opinion here, from the time of Ockham to our own. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church has come down firmly on the side of Aristotelian realism. Needless to say, it does not help a philosopher’s credibility with pope and bishops to denounce them for heretics and to die excommunicate and unrepentant. Thomas Aquinas is a Doctor of the Church—a high and exceedingly rare honor, in Catholic thought—partly as a result of the Catholic Church’s commitment to Aristotelian realism as against Ockham’s nominalism. Further, the position of the Spiritual Franciscans, on whose behalf Ockham argued, was denounced as heretical by the popes. Sadly, some were even burnt at the stake.
There will be much more to say about Ockham in future articles, as well as Michael Allen Gillespie’s book, the Theological Origins of Modernity, which argues that not even half the story of Ockham’s influence has previously been told. What we can see from this part, however, is that an important element of both modern philosophy and science emerged from an obscure dispute within the medieval Franciscan order, which, not for the first time in the history of philosophy, took on a life all its own.
This essay is part of a series; the previous essay can be found here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.