Jeffrey Fisher

title.none: Haren, Medieval Thought

identifier.other: baj9928.9505.002 95.05.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jeffrey Fisher, Yale University.

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Haren, Michael. Medieval Thought: The Western Intellectual Tradition from Antiquity to the Thirteenth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. Pp. ix + 315. $60 (hb) $19.95 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0802028683.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.05.02

Haren, Michael. Medieval Thought: The Western Intellectual Tradition from Antiquity to the Thirteenth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. Pp. ix + 315. $60 (hb) $19.95 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0802028683.

Reviewed by:

Jeffrey Fisher
Yale University.

John J. Contreni, in a brief notice on the first edition of this book, compares it favorably to David Knowles's well-worn Evolution of Medieval Thought. The comparison is apt, and the present volume improves what was already a lucid and judicious survey. I should think it will be some time before this book is surpassed as a foundational introduction to medieval thought in the context of classical philosophy.

The author describes the subject of the book as "the continuing vitality of an aspect of classical culture in the medieval world" (p.1). Chronologically, he considers the period from Plato, primarily as antecedent to Aristotle, through the retrieval of Aristotle in the West up to the Paris condemnations of 1277, by which time, as the author says, "Greek philosophy held no more shocks" (p. 210). There are good reasons for setting such boundaries, not the least of which is the coherence of the resulting account, which is finally about the continuity and discontinuity of medieval thought with Aristotle in particular and Greek philosophy in general. Innovations are clearly marked off while the author conveys to the reader a real sense of the ways in which medieval thinkers grappled with their traditions, Greek, Jewish, Latin-Christian and Muslim, and their continuing need to place themselves in relation to those traditions, needs which are not reducible simply to external dogmatic considerations.

The book falls into three sections. In the first, the author provides summary expositions of Plato, Aristotle and Neoplatonism, the foundation on which the rest of his treatment builds. The author's gentle emphasis on Aristotle's hylomorphism, which has psychological, epistemological and metaphysical ramifications, serves him well, as it allows him to discuss a number of problems and controversies in a unified way. The sketch of Neoplatonism is brief, but sufficient to the task both in light of the definition of the topic, as well as a somewhat fuller elaboration in the following chapter.

The second section, consisting of three chapters, concerns primarily Europe without Aristotle, or at least, Aristotle as anything other than a logician. These include, first, a chapter on Augustine, Boethius and Eriugena, which constitutes the author's sustained treatment of Neoplatonism. The pseudo-Dionysius is a notable casualty of the delineation of subject matter, being relegated to a subsection of the exposition of Eriugena. This is peculiar, particularly in the context of the author's remark that Eriugena's "influence when viewed in longer perspective was much less than he deserved" (p. 81). This is almost certainly true, and yet, in this situation, should not perhaps Eriugena be a subsection of an exposition of pseudo-Dionysius? This question aside, the author's handling of the material in this section is typically clear and concise, even with thorny questions, as for example Augustine's views on predestination.

A chapter on the central Middle Ages focuses on the question of logic and theology, especially Anselm and Abelard, but also covers the Victorine synthesis and the Platonic cosmologies of the early twelfth century. Especially appreciated is the author's insistence that "the separation of the purely philosophical or logical content of such writing [sc.dialectical-theological treatises] results in an artificial construct" (p. 84).

A chapter on "New Sources and New Institutions" addresses the Islamic and Jewish assimilations and transmission of Aristotle, as well as the formation of the university. Such "new source" chapters in surveys of this kind are notoriously difficult and generally riddled with obscurity or oversimplifications. Here again, the author retains his focus and continues to discuss these figures closely in terms of the classical, especially Aristotelian, themes outlined in the first chapter. The result is a somewhat narrow but clear and cogent account of Muslim and Jewish thinkers prominent in the West. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the new universities. The comparison of the Paris and Bologna models is instructive in several respects, not the least of which being that they share certain concerns of autonomy, not only of the university with respect to secular and ecclesiastical authority, but also of constituent elements of the university with respect to each other. I would hazard that most medievalists, not to mention non-medievalists, are unaware or have forgotten that the student guilds at the universities in Bologna and Padua "acted as communal bargaining groups both with the masters, over fees and the general regulation of the academic life, and with the commune" (p.139). Clearly, one cannot attribute any particular political stance to the author in this regard, as he frames his treatment in terms of the "nature of the 'university' as at once a monopolistic professional association and an organisation for the protection of its members" (p.138). Nevertheless, I suspect that many of his readers will find his narrative, as he says, "startling" (Ibid).

The exposition culminates in the third section, three chapters on the assimilation of the recovered Aristotle into western Christian thought. The first, "Aristotelian Philosophy in the University - The First Phase of Assimilation," relates the story of translation and early condemnations and bans of Aristotle. Again, the account is notable for the concise balance between brevity on the one hand and clarity and coverage on the other. The author distinguishes between two "phases" in the absorption of Aristotle, the earlier "logical" phase and the subsequent "philosophical" phase. While this conceptualization is useful, it should be noted that it has the effect of muting the impact of the New Logic, a number of previously unavailable logical treatises by Aristotle, in the middle of the twelfth century. Thus, the logical phase having been considered, according to the author's scheme, in chapters two and three, this chapter opens examination of the second stage with brief looks at Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon and William of Auxerre. The author's discussion of sources for Grosseteste's light-metaphysics is laudably judicious, but I find it peculiar again that pseudo-Dionysius is left out of the account, particularly considering Grosseteste's own translation of and commentary on the Dionysian corpus.

The following chapter proceeds to succinct coverage of Bonaventure, Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas. The author's objective is to discuss the actual synthesis of Aristotle with Christian theology according to the premier examples, in contrast to the more eclectic approaches in the preceding chapter and the radical Aristotelianism touched on at the end of the present chapter. The author handles especially well Bonaventure's ambivalence toward Aristotle and the historiographical development of "radical Aristotelianism" out of the misnomer "Latin Averroism." The final short chapter on the 1277 condemnations at Paris serves as an excellent conclusion, balancing the importance of the condemnations against the possibility of their exaggeration by scholars.

Most noteworthy in the new edition is the supplement of an updated bibliography along with an epilogue reviewing the most important contributions since the publication of the first edition. This is a valuable resource for newcomer and specialist alike. The author makes good use of the opportunity to revise and update his remarks, notably with respect to the availability of a certain text of Averroes early in the thirteenth century. On the other hand, the author devotes too much space for my tastes to a minute discussion of the chronology of Robert Grosseteste's career, framed in response to the challenging book by Sir Richard Southern. This seemed to me to be more appropriate to another forum. However, such a discussion, notably different from the rest of the monograph, can be put to good use in the classroom as an example of the difficulties attendant upon medieval history, viz. the kinds of evidence and reasoning involved. In any case, the epilogue and bibliography contribute substantially to the usefulness of the volume as a whole.