Late Medieval Religion

There was once a certain knight, whose castle stood upon a highway and who mercilessly robbed passing travelers. Despite his conduct he nevertheless maintained his pious daily prayers to the Blessed Virgin. One day, when it was the turn of a certain holy monk to be stripped by this knight’s henchmen, the victim demanded a personal interview with his oppressor, saying he had certain secrets to communicate. Taken inside the castle he asked the knight to assemble his whole household, yet when the knight so obliged him the monk declared that one of its members had absented himself from the assembly. A check revealed that the missing member was a serving man who, when at last located and brought before the monk, proceeded to behave as one insane. Finally he admitted he was no real man but a demon in human guise, who for fourteen years had served the knight by special order of the Devil. The latter had commanded him to watch for the day when his master failed to salute the Virgin in prayer; whenever this fatal moment of neglect should occur, the demon servant would be free to kill the knight and drag his wicked soul to perdition. So far, though ignorant of his precarious situation, the knight had never allowed his devotions to lapse. Now learning the truth he was dully appalled and hurled himself in repentance at the feet of the monk, who commanded the demon to vanish and to trouble the Virgin’s devotees no more. With reverence and thanks the knight permitted his saintly deliverer to go free and thenceforth he changed his own life for the better.

-A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation, 25


God’s Word

MY God, my God, thou art a direct God, may I not say a literal God, a God that wouldst be understood literally and according to the plain sense of all that thou sayest? but thou art also (Lord, I intend it to thy glory, and let no profane misinterpreter abuse it to thy diminution), thou art a figurative, a metaphorical God too; a God in whose words there is such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors, such extensions, such spreadings, such curtains of allegories, such third heavens of hyperboles, so harmonious elocutions, so retired and so reserved expressions, so commanding persuasions, so persuading commandments, such sinews even in thy milk, and such things in thy words, as all profane authors seem of the seed of the serpent that creeps, thou art the Dove that flies. O, what words but thine can express the inexpressible texture and composition of thy word, in which to one man that argument that binds his faith to believe that to be the word of God, is the reverent simplicity of the word, and to another the majesty of the word; and in which two men equally pious may meet, and one wonder that all should not understand it, and the other as much that any man should.

-John Donne

Worth Noting

The Republic is the centre of a group of less technical works, intended, not primarily for students of philosophy, but for the educated public, who would certainly not read Parmenides and would find the Theaetetus and the Sophist intolerably difficult. These more popular writings would serve the double purpose of attracting students to the Academy and of making known to the Greek world the doctrine which, in common with most scholars, I hold to be characteristically Platonic. Its two pillars are the immortality and divinity of the rational soul, and the real existence of the objects of its knowledge—a world of intelligible ‘Forms’ separate from the things our senses perceive.

-Francis M. Cornford

It is worth noting that if you want to deal with Plato seriously, you have get to the deep end of the pool of his writings. Why should you listen to Francis Cornford on this? Because to this day some of his translations and forever his notes and observations are canonical to the study of Plato.

What you get from the popular writings of Plato is the basic theory. What you get from the more technical writings is the thorough argument. If you want to dismiss Plato, read no further than the popular words. If you want to understand and appreciate so that you may then properly evaluate Plato, you need to do the technical works.

Do you know that it cannot be said of Plato, as it can of most writers of antiquity, that any of his works have ever been lost? So there are no excuses.


Since the heavenly bodies are in constant motion, so far as we can judge, it may seem that if their substance remains, they will keep on moving also in the state of consummation. And, indeed, if motion were possessed by heavenly bodies for the same reason as that for which it is possessed by elements, such an assertion would be logical. Motion is found in heavy or light elements to promote the perfection they are to attain: by their natural motion they tend to the place that suits them, where they are in a better condition. Hence in the ultimate state of consummation each element and each part thereof will be in its own proper place.

But this cannot be maintained of the motion of heavenly bodies, for a heavenly body does not come to rest in any place it may occupy; as it travels naturally to any particular place, it no less naturally departs thence. Therefore heavenly bodies suffer no loss if they are deprived of motion, because motion is not found in them for their own perfection. Also, it would be ridiculous to contend that a heavenly body is moved in circles by its nature as an active principle, in the way that a light body is impelled upward by its nature. For, as is evident, nature tends invariably in the direction of unity; and therefore that which by its very concept opposes unity cannot be the ultimate goal of nature. But motion is opposed to unity, in the sense that what moves varies in its mode of being by the very fact that it is in motion. Therefore nature does not produce motion just for the sake of motion, but in causing motion has in view the terminus to be reached by motion.

For instance, a body that is naturally light seeks an elevated place in its ascent; and so of other bodies. Consequently, since the circular motion of a heavenly body does not tend to a definite position, we cannot say that the active principle of a heavenly body’s circular motion is nature, in the sense that nature is the principle of the motion of heavy and light bodies. Accordingly there is no reason why heavenly bodies should not come to rest, without any change in their nature, even though fire, if its nature is to remain constant, cannot cease from its restlessness as long as it exists outside its proper sphere. Nevertheless we say that the motion of a heavenly body is natural; but it is natural not by reason of an active principle of motion in it, but by reason of the mobile body itself that has an aptitude for such motion. We conclude, therefore, that motion is communicated to a heavenly body by some intellect.

However, since an intellect does not impart movement except in view of some end, we must inquire what is the end of the motion of heavenly bodies. The motion itself cannot be said to be this end. For motion is the way leading to perfection, and so does not verify the concept of end, but rather pertains to that which is tending toward an end. Likewise we cannot maintain that a succession of locations is the term of the movement of a heavenly body, as though a heavenly body moved for the purpose of actually occupying every position for which it has a potency; this would entail endless wandering, and what is endless contradicts the notion of end.

We ought to think of the end of the heaven’s motion somewhat as follows. Any body set in motion by an intellect is evidently an instrument of the latter. But the end of an instrument’s motion is a form conceived by the principal agent, a form that is reduced to act by the motion of the instrument. The form conceived by the divine intellect, to be realized by the motion of the heavens, is the perfection of things. as achieved by way of generation and corruption. But the ultimate end of generation and corruption is the noblest of all forms, the human soul; and the soul’s ultimate end is eternal life, as we said above. Accordingly the ultimate end of the movement of the heavens is the multiplication of men, who are to be brought into being for eternal life.

Such a multitude cannot be infinite; the intention to be realized by any intellect comes to rest in something definite. Consequently, once the number of men who are to be brought into being for eternal life is filled out, and they are actually established in the possession of eternal life, the movement of the heavens will cease, just as the motion of any instrument ceases after a project has been carried through to completion. And when the movement of the heavens ceases, all movement in lower bodies will cease by way of consequence, excepting only the movement that will be in men as flowing from their souls. And thus the entire material universe will have a different arrangement and form, in accordance with the truth proclaimed in 1 Corinthians 7:31: “The shape of this world passes away.”

Thomas Aquinas, Compendium Theologiae, 171

A Pregnant Paragraph

The late Scholastics lost faith in the intelligibility of reality because they relinquished the metaphysical unities. For them reality was held to consist of unrelated particulars. Church and state are not antecedent entities but simply contractual associations. The church then becomes a voluntary society, the state a compact, and marriage simply a contract. Here is the philosophy of individualism undercutting the great unities well in advance of the Reformation. Certain theological dogmas also were undercut, for if reality consists of unrelated individuals, then the three persons of the Trinity must be three gods. Nevertheless the doctrine of the Trinity was retained on the ground that what is true for philosophy need not be true for theology. But in that case theology, with no philosophical undergirding, can rest only on authority. The tendency of the papacy to make more pretentious claims as its power waned was also paralleled by the recourse in theology to authority when the grip on truth was relaxed.

-Roland Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, 15-6

The Words of a Master

You may not have come to this blog in search of the words of a master, but you have on this occasion found them.

How does a Master of historians speak?

We have the right and duty to communicate our findings and to express our views as best we can. We should not advertise them beyond their merit, or bully our critics, but patiently await the verdict of our successors. We have no power over the future. Our hopes may be deluded, and the fruits of our labor rejected or forgotten. We should like to believe that the past and present will always contribute to the future and be encompassed in it, and also that what is past has a life in itself and a potential future. This is a faith which we cannot prove, though it may sustain us. We can only know and do what is given to us, and we must leave the outcome to the natural and human forces that govern the world and that we hope may be guided in the end by a higher law and providence.

-Paul Oskar Kristeller, Renaissance Thought, 13-4

Reason and What You Know

He turned to Reason and spoke.
“You can tell me, lady. Is there such a place as the Island in the West, or is it only a feeling of my own mind?”
“I cannot tell you,” said she, “because you do not know.”
“But you know.”
“But I can tell you only what you know. I can bring things out of the dark part of your mind into the light part of it. But now you ask me what is not even in the dark part of your mind.”

-C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, Book IV, Chapter 2 

So how do you know? 

I think the answer is that you have to believe. And if you believe something that is true, you can then use reason to clarify it. At that point you see how it corresponds to other things, you tease out implications, you understand it better. If, on the other hand, you believe something that is false, then reason will not work to clarify but to dissolve and undermine that belief. You cannot prove what you believe, but you can defend it, if it is true. And you can prove things only when reasoning with the other person about shared beliefs. 

Anybody can know who can believe something true, however that thing is perceived. And I don’t think anyone can have entirely false beliefs since that is to believe nothing. Hellenic civilization believed the world is good, that there is a cosmic order, that there is a realm of permanent things to which human kind has access. Who cares that they were pagans, these things are true. It does not mean they believed everything that is true or had everything that is true. Of course they believed many false things, and they even recognized it. Reason enters in when you can recognize the need to question what you believe. Anyway, to the extent that they believed anything true, they were able to use reason to make it clear.