European Philosophy – Ockham

Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274 CE) was born in the family castle of Roccasecca, between Rome and Naples, minor nobles of the house of the Counts of Aquino.  European castles are based on Persian questles, quite literally in Iberia, and Italians got castles from Persian and Islamic lands, the same place they got much of their Neo-Platonism and the latest in Aristotelian logic, particularly the commentaries and studies of Avicenna and Averroes, which Aquinas was more influential than any at popularizing in Europe and the Catholic Church.  Here to the left is Gozzoli’s classic painting of Aquinas of 1471, between Aristotle on the inferior left, Plato on the superior right side, and Averroes lying at his feet, as if the Islamic enemy of Christianity has been defeated.

At six years old, Thomas, the youngest son of nobles, was given as an offering to the Church, specifically the Benedictines, and even more specifically the Abbey of Monte Cassino, which isn’t anywhere near Vegas, such that their youngest son would one day be a powerful abbot, which would have made Aquinas the Abbot of Monte Cassino, somewhat like the famous Count of Cristo Mountain.  Unfortunately for his folks, Aquinas wasn’t interested in worldly power, but rather ideal universals found in philosophy, theology and logic, which likely made his family name far more famous than his family had hoped for.

Aquinas was taught to read and write in Latin, particularly to read the Latin author Augustine, the original Christian Neo-Platonist, like al-Kindi was for Islamic philosophy.  Like al-Farabi and Avicenna, Augustine was a committed Neo-Platonist and quite committed to the logic of Aristotle’s Organon, but unlike Farabi, Avicenna and Islamic philosophy, Augustine followed Averroes, and Europe followed Augustine.  Greek and Arabic philosophy were catching on in Palermo, Salerno and Naples, separate city-state principalities of Italy that were not united, such that Renaissance “Italians” would have identified with their state, not Italy as a whole, with continuous warfare between the states and their alliances and intermarriages with other European powers.  Aquinas was sent to Naples, in 1239 at the age of 14 to study Aristotle, Averroes, and probably Maimonides, though antisemitism Aquinas shared with the Church and Naples was quite quiet about that.

Aquinas met and became a Dominican to further his studies, but his parents, who weren’t happy about Aquinas majoring in theology and philosophy, had him kidnapped and imprisoned in the family castle for over a year.  One questionable story says that his family locked him in a prison tower with a prostitute hoping to discourage him from studying philosophy, logic and theology, but Aquinas drove her away with a flaming log from the fire, and then collapsed, after which two angels girdled him with a cord that removed all sexual temptation from him, which the angels told him no man can obtain except by God’s grace, not man’s own efforts. I’m impressed he could wield a flaming log with such chaste hands.  Over a hundred years before, the logician Abelard of Paris was castrated for getting his student and boss’ daughter Heloise pregnant and shipping her off to a convent for safekeeping, which is somewhat the opposite of Aquinas’ problem.  Both spurned sex for logic, though unintentionally on Abilard’s part, as well as the rest of him.

Aquinas’ family finally saw the scholastic light and sent him to Paris to study with Albert the Great, who gave him Pseudo-Dionysius, Fake Dennis, to study.  The Neo-Platonist Dionysius argued that the mind works dialectically, positively and negatively through belief and doubt, to come to a greater vision of the angelic and demonic forces of the cosmos, both psychology and angelology.  Aquinas earned his masters in theology in 1256, the year after the Pope lifted the prohibition on teaching and studying Aristotle in Paris which many Parisians were doing anyways through the Arabic works and translations into Latin.  In Aquinas’ early Paris writings, which show more influence by Avicenna, he argued for Catholic theological doctrines such as the trinity in terms of Aristotelian and Islamic logic. He wrote commentaries on the Bible, Boethius, and Lombard, taught students in the morning and debated scholars in front of students in the afternoon, for three hours a day, about truth, knowledge and theology.

Aquinas wrote many commentaries on Aristotle, like Farabi, Avicenna and Averroes before him, which would make him an excellent commentator, regardless of what the Pope, il Papa, the Big Potato or ‘Tater, would say.  In 1265 Aquinas was sent to Rome to found a special school and teach much as he liked for the Dominican Order.  Aquinas is still the crown jewel of the Dominicans and Catholic philosophy, second only to Augustine himself, whom Aquinas quotes more than anyone.  Aquinas completed his Summa Theologiae, his theological masterwork, which is heavily Neo-Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, and Averroist, but is read by traditional Catholic theologians as completing and establishing the teachings of the early Christian Church Fathers, who were also quite Platonic.

Central to Aquinas’ theology is the Aristotelian concept of subalternation.  If we know something that is completely true or not true, all or none on the top of the Square of Opposition, we necessarily know something else is true, what is directly beneath what we know on the square, such that if All A is B, then we also know Some A is B, and if we know No A is B, then we also know Some A is not B.  This is often completely useless in daily life, as we certainly know that some elephants are nice if we are certain that all of them are, and certainly know that some reptiles don’t brush their teeth if none of them do, and this goes without saying.  In context, if I know All A are B and tell you Some A are B, I could even be accused of lying, of not telling the full truth, even if according to Aristotle what we said is necessarily and entirely true, in the context of abstract Aristotelian logic and the Square of Opposition.

But subalternation, which is, strangely, true in a way we can understand, that if we get all of something we certainly get each and every some of it, was very useful for Aristotle and Aquinas, as intelligence itself and the order of things comes downward from above, the higher mind, so we, some and some mortal beings, can participate in degree with the higher mind, the thoughts and vision of God, which Aquinas the Catholic argued is by God’s grace and not the glory of man, in spite of the splendor of the Church.  Humanity is thus subaltern to God, some and some not to the big All, somewhat of God but also fallen man, cursed by the acts of Adam and Eve.

This use of logic would surprise many Aristotelian-minded scholars who identify Greek thought with modernity and secularization, just as it surprised Aquinas’ fellow theologians who accused him of Aristotelian heresy.  While Aquinas followed Averroes more than most, he also accused others of following Averroes rather than Aristotle and the Catholic Church. He also, in spite of being the primary Christian Aristotelian, sides with Plato and Neo-Platonists against Aristotle and the Peripatetics in many places, particularly where Plato suggests the One is beyond any particular substance.

Aquinas, like the Muslim commentators he read, focused on the logic, metaphysics, psychology and ethics of Plato and Aristotle that they had at the time.  Much like Islamic philosophers, Aquinas argued that the soul is the source of the body, the immaterial the true essence and nature of the physical, even though Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover was quite physical.  While Aristotle clearly argues that greater substances are above, Aquinas, like Avicenna and Averroes, argues there are potencies which are superior to substance and the material, which Plato doesn’t technically say.  In the Renaissance painting by the Catholic Raphael The School of Athens, Plato points upward to the heavens above, and Aristotle points down to the world below, so Raphael, like Aquinas but not Aristotle, thought Plato was arguing for the immaterial above.

Aquinas argues similarly that speculative reasoning and practical reasoning, the mental abstractions and physical practices of thinking, are different, the same powers in us but employed in different ways.  Speculative reason grasps truth in itself, for Aquinas the four perfect forms of Aristotle’s syllogisms, while practical reasoning grasps things for other ends. Elizabeth Anscombe, one of Wittgenstein’s most prized students, the one he trusted to edit his most important thoughts as what we now call the Philosophical Investigations, used the metaphor of someone shopping who is followed by a detective, both who keep lists, the shopper of what to buy and the detective of what mistakes the shopper makes, such as buying the wrong kind of butter.  The shopper is judged on what mistakes are made on the list and made in what is bought and brought home, but the detective, more abstract than practical, is judged only on mistakes in the list, nothing else, like speculative reason is only concerned with truth, like concern with mistakes themselves rather than bringing home the butter.  Wittgenstein wrote in the Philosophical Investigations that we strangely say meaning is a mental act, but we would not say rising butter prices are an act of butter, but rather a relationship in the situation as a whole.

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