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Who Is Afraid of the Medieval Mind?

Who Is Afraid of the Medieval Mind?


The new year has begun, students are returning to school, and my task is to reach out to them at Vancouver Island University. I pray that this ministry will be fruitful. It will not be easy, though. I have yet to get to know the place, and as a first step, I signed up for a course as an auditing student. This should give me a feel for its community of students, staff, and faculty. There was much to chose from, but in the end, I picked something rather predictable: medieval philosophy.

Still Arguing about Galileo

The first class brought back many memories. For some reason, the students wanted to talk about the Church’s treatment of Galileo as an argument in defense of the term “dark ages” for the period that we were about to study. And it made no difference that this affair was not in the middle ages. The large body of scholarship studying the complex philosophical and historical context of the affair made no difference, either. The affair is just such a powerful symbol for the perception of a fundamental conflict: a static medieval past that ought to be left behind now that it was replaced by a dynamic modernity. I should not have been surprised. In the first year of my own studies after joining the Franciscans, I wrote a philosophy term paper on the topic of the Galileo affair. My professor considered the paper a disappointment. It wasn’t all bad, but when I look back now, I realize how much I had to learn.

I think that this course might be a fascinating ride. I am pretty sure that when it’s over, the students will look very differently at the middle ages and its principal intellectuals.


Stained glass window, Chartres Cathedral

Getting to Know Medieval Thought

My own first encounter with medieval philosophy was not a happy one. I had been asked to read Maritain’s “Introduction to Philosophy,” which is really an introduction to the thought of Thomas Aquinas. I got so frustrated by its convoluted and abstract reasoning that was, as far as I could tell, completely detached from a modern understanding of nature, that I ended up throwing the book against the wall (it was a paperback, so at least the wall suffered no harm). Afterwards, I begged my philosophy professor to give me something else to read. He kindly agreed, explaining to me that inducing book-throwing angry despair was not one of his teaching goals, and he suggested that I should read Norris Clarke’s “The One and the Many.” This is also an introduction to the thought of Thomas Aquinas, but in a very different way: the paradigm for being is the human person so that from there we can work our way into the understanding of the rest of the world.

The Human Person as the Key to Understanding

At another discussion, earlier in the week and during an informal discussion with religious studies scholars at the University of Victoria, I had argued the following: reality is fundamentally personal, in the sense that the being of persons constitutes reality. The context was philosophy of time, and I will have to come back to this in another blog. However, there seems to be a constant in what I learn about philosophy: it is only by beginning with the human person that we can reach understanding.

Norris Clarke’s book was an eye-opener, and it may have been the first book about philosophy that I actually understood (and I have never since thrown any book against a wall).

There must be a reason why the apparently simple insight by Norris Clarke needed to be shown to me before I could understand medieval philosophy. A medieval thinker might have asked “where else would you start?”, if not with your own experience of life as a person among other persons. Much is taken for granted by medieval thinkers that we seem to have lost, as it does not fit into a reductionist view of the world. This may be the reason why people can love medieval philosophy and conclude that medieval philosophy is actually more interesting and more sophisticated than modern philosophy. I do not go quite so far, and I still prefer contemporary philosophy, but it has to be the kind of contemporary philosophy that tries to integrate rather than dismiss the accomplishments of antiquity and middle ages.

What is There to Learn from the Medieval Mind

The principal lesson is that a very great deal can be learned about the world before one does any of the scientific work that seeks to understand the mechanistic relationship between the parts that give rise to the whole. The medieval scholars teach us that the world is fundamentally open to human reason, and this sets the stage for the subsequent scientific understanding of nature that is the accomplishment of our age. It teaches us that all of human knowledge can be integrated in wisdom, as long as we remember what comes first in our understanding.

I look forward to the classes yet to come, and maybe when the course is over, we will revisit what can be learned from the Galileo affair. The injustice done to him needs to be recognized, but beyond this, we can also see what he and his accusers had in common: a desire for a comprehensive understanding that integrated faith and science. This was probably the reason why for Galileo, the most important thing was not to win the battle but to remain in communion with his fellow believers. For this, and for many other reasons, Galileo remains one of my heroes, and this takes nothing away from my appreciation of the accomplishments of the medieval thinkers who preceded him.

One Such Scholar: St. Anthony of Padua

St. Anthony of Padua, by El Greco

He is the first of the medieval scholars of the Franciscan tradition. “I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers providing that, as is contained in the Rule, you ‘do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’ during study of this kind.” With these words, St. Francis of Assisi gave him permission to teach what he had learned.

My grandmother always lighted a candle under his statue in church whenever one of her grandchildren had to sit for an exam in school or university. It seems to have worked. All of us completed our studies and put them to good use, I think. She knew much that I have yet to learn. Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon her.