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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Lesson 2: The Medieval Era (250-1500)


When it comes to the History of Western Philosophy, that millennial stretch between the fall of the Roman Empire and the arrival of Christopher Columbus on the shores of the Bahamas is generally considered to be a bit of a backwater. That no single European philosopher earns more than a passing comment between Boethius's encounter with a consoling Lady Philosophy in 525 AD and St Anselm's argument over God's existence with The Fool in 1077 AD only adds to this perception. Throw in a some good old retroactive positioning of this period by 16th Century Renaissance Men and their 19th Century Revolutionary-minded brethren - it only becomes known as 'The Middle Ages' in 1580; the very name 'Medieval' is only coined in 1827 - and what we're left with is a bridge: a lackluster medium aevum between the gush-inducing 'Golden Era' of the Greeks and an Enlightenment-hungry Europe awakening to a New Day.

Of course, post-structuralist philosophy has taught us that it all happens on the bridge; in the interstices between places; in that beginning-less and ending-less always-in-the-middle zone. But it is doubtful that those in the know and with the power to name knew that as they looked back on the philosophy to emerge between St Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) and St Thomas of Aquinas (1225-1274 AD) and thought hmmmmm...Middle Ages? Or better still, Dark Ages? It is doubtful that they held out much hope for Philosophy at all in an era in which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul were just not up for debate; in which faith and reason were inextricably bound; in which the church ruled the roost and the chickens had better get into line or else - thwack! - coq-au-vin; in which Plato was the only Greek permitted into the Christian Philosophy think tank; in which the great library of Alexandria had been burned to the ground and its brilliant custodian - the philosopher, mathematician and astronomer Hypatia (370-415 AD) - had been dragged through the streets and dismembered limb by limb by an angry mob of monks; in which one third of the population of Europe had been wiped out not once but twice by pestilence - the onset of the Justinian Plague (541 AD) and an end in sight to the Black Death (1353 AD) providing scholars, incidentally, with yet two more points of reference with which to designate the Middle Ages; in which famine and holy crusades and witch hunts and endless other natural and man-made catastrophes conspired to wipe out the other two thirds still standing; in which it was a wretched time indeed, no matter how you chose to bookend it.

And yet. And yet. Women, for example, got a break or two during this period of evident physical hardship and apparent intellectual stagnation. Tough times meant that female members of a household had to participate in the family business. They also had opportunities to strike out on their own and learn a trade. Women took charge of the brewing of beer - a primary staple during the Middle Ages. They were the weavers, the spinners, the cheese-makers. They hunted, farmed and dabbled in the Arts. They also, at last, had at their disposal a bona fide alternative to marriage and reproduction. They could join one of the many convents that sprouted up during this period, and become educated in the process. In these women-only communities, an abbess was in charge. In fact, those women who opted for the monastic life were fairly autonomous: farming their own land, developing a range of self-sustaining cottage industries, evolving their own approach to worship, contemplation, and the doing of good works in the larger community.

Later, as that New Day dawned for Renaissance Man and the Middle Ages gave way to the Age of Enlightenment, the abbesses were forced to hand over the running of their convents to male bishops. Many of the theological ideas espoused by the nuns came under fire, especially their veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Seen by the official church fathers as suspicious, as cult-like, as verging on the mystical, as heretic even, the punishment meted out to those Orders that had organized themselves around this female element of the Church was brutal and barbaric. As for those women who weren't witch-hunted down for their beliefs - the beer-brewers, the cheese-makers, the weavers and the spinners - they too lost out to so-called 'progress'. The birth of guilds that accompanied this heady period of re-naissance might have meant better working conditions for the average man. However, only men could join the guilds, which meant that when those professions previously dominated by women were swept up into the guild system, it was bye-bye job for all those female entrepreneurs and workers. Education, too, become centralized and professionalized as the Middle Ages were winding up. The monastic schools, attended by both men and women, closed as a philosophical movement known as Scholasticism arrived on the scene, aligned itself with traditional Christian theology, and opened the first universities in Europe. As with the guilds, women were banned from these new centers of critical thought and higher learning. As Judy Chicago has observed, it is generally during those epochs where men take the greatest strides forward and gain the most in terms of individual freedoms that women, for their part, slip backwards.

But that is to jump ahead to the next salon. For the moment, we were dog-paddling our way across that philosophical backwater of a Medieval Era: perfecting our skills in the gentle art of deductive and inductive reasoning; pitting the over-riding preoccupation of a scattered band of Christian philosophers - How to prove, through rational argument, the existence of God - against our own conceptions of the key binary opposites underpinning their quest: Good versus Evil, Free Will versus Determinism, and Essence versus Existence.

We devoted some time to the Christian Platonism of that bad boy turned good, St Augustine of Hippo, who successfully wrote his way out of his wicked Manichean ways and his sordid sexual past when he penned his Confessions - earning himself a bishop-hood in the process.  Grappling with the burning issue that St Augustine set out to settle - the seeming irreconcilability of a God who is entirely good and all-powerful with the existence of evil in the world - we got good mileage out of his idea that evil is not a thing in itself but a deficiency or lack of something. We were impressed by our ability to link St Augustine's Evil as Lack argument back in 400 AD to the Woman as Lack argument that continues to preoccupy a number of feminist philosophers some 1700 years later. We were less impressed by St Augustine's take on women themselves - "God created woman to be in sex subjugated to the masculine sex, in the same way as the appetite which leads to action is subjected to the skill, mentally derived, of acting rightly" - though thankful to feminist philosophy historian Nancy Tuana for guiding us through the ins and outs of his, and other Medieval philosophers, Genesis-inspired misogyny.

Next, we turned our attention to the formerly fortunate Roman scholar and statesman Boethius (480-525 AD) - now languishing in prison, accused of a crime he had not committed; fretful about his impending execution, and wondering why Lady Luck had deserted him at THIS of all times. Not surprisingly, the questions going round and round in his head revolved around free will, or perhaps more accurately the seeming lack of it in a world where an all-seeing God already knows what is going to happen to us in the future. It is Lady Philosophy who suddenly appears in the corner of Boethius's prison cell to shed light on this conundrum, and it is with her help that he not only pens The Consolation of Philosophy, but accepts his fate with a knowing smile. God, of course, is shown to be a different kind of knower inhabiting a different kind of time configuration to that in which we humans live and eventually, come to know: an Eternal Present, his, where knowing what we don't yet know about the future in no way prevents us from exercising our free will as regards that future, not to mention enjoying the fruits of our reasoning mind on our way to the gallows.

Skipping forward 500 years, we spent the latter part of the evening with St Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD) - alternatively taking the role of the good saint and his designated fool as they engage in a somewhat convoluted argument designed to prove that God exists and that existence is superior to non-existence - and with St Thomas of Aquinas - striving, at last, to harmonize speculative philosophical reasoning (as epitomized in the writings of Aristotle, preserved by Persian scholars during the Dark Ages and recently arrived back in Europe via Spain) with the revelation-based certainty of Christian Theology. It was on that final conciliatory Thomist note - God exists!...But Philosophy can too! - though with a good deal of trepidation after encountering the rationally-minded Aquinas's casual disparaging of women - "When God created a helper for man, why on earth did he create a woman rather that a man?"- that we slugged back the rest of the mead, scoffed the last of the Lenten almonds, and headed out into the night. Yes, the Dark Ages were technically behind us. But as we continue our whirlwind tour of Western Philosophy, we were probably unanimous in feeling a little less than optimistic about the New Day dawning when we reconvene next month.