Anselm of Canterbury. Thinking of
a Most Perfect Being or idea made it so,
his argument for God, the ontological
argument, employed by Avicenna before him.
Learning, literature and art suffered during the Germanic invasions that destroyed the western half of the Roman Empire. Literature also suffered from many Christians and ecclesiastics seeing books other than their Bible as heathen, pernicious or dangerous works of the devil. The only reading that the Church encouraged was the Bible – in keeping with Augustine’s insistence that only the scriptures contained an authoritative account of the world and its phenomena.
Under Church influence, many books were burned or not copied. The empire's great libraries were ruined. Of the works at the greatest of libraries, at Alexandria, only a small fraction survived. Works by the pagan historian Zosimus did. And so too did the encyclopedic work by Martianus Capella, The Seven Liberal Arts, a work on grammar, rhetoric, oratory, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. But there was little to stimulate a return to the disturbing philosophies of the ancient Greeks or the new thinking that would come centuries later. In Western Europe, Aristotle was gone from the minds of people considering the nature of things. The advances in medicine that had come with Hippocrates and then Galen in the second century waned. Among Christians disease was still regarded as punishment for sin, which demanded prayer and repentance. Christian hospitals remained, but vivisection was forbidden because the Church held the human body as sacred.
Judicial proceedings suffered from superstitions that prevailed among community leaders as well as common people. Trials were often judged by two or three commoners under a nobleman or his representative. Eyewitnesses testified, but attempts to determine a person's innocence or guilt were made through ordeals in which God was thought to assert his powers. This involved combat between two who had come to court as parties in conflict. Some who were on trial were thrown into water in the belief that floating to the surface was a sign of guilt (the purity of water rejecting the guilty) and sinking was a sign of innocence. Attempts were made to prove innocence or guilt also by having the accused walk on hot coals or by the accused putting his hand into boiling water, the court believing that if the hand healed properly it was a sign of God's favor and therefore innocence.
The Church let this means to justice be, and, holding to a literal interpretation of the Bible, the Church adopted the geography of a monk from Egypt: Cosmas. He looked to scripture in creating the layout of the earth. His treatise Topographia Christiana had the earth as flat with Jerusalem at its center and the Garden of Eden nearby, irrigated by the Four Rivers of Paradise.
More than a century after the monk Cosmas, around the year 700 in England, an Anglo-Saxon named Bede (pronounced Beda) was developing into a scholar. He was educated in monasteries and ordained as a priest in 703. He devoted his life to teaching theology, Hebrew, Greek and Latin and to writing. He wrote forty works – in Latin. These were biblical commentaries, homilies, treatises on grammar, math, science and theology. The most important of these was the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, completed in 731. He specified his sources, sought firsthand evidence, and quoted pertinent and available documents. "I would not," he wrote, "that my children should read a lie."
Bede wrote commentaries on the Book of Acts, on the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Luke. He wrote a work titled On The Reckoning of Time, which would be influential throughout the Middle Ages. It held to an ancient view of the cosmos and a view of the Earth as a sphere. Bede explained daylight in relation to the shape of Earth. He explained the changing appearance of the moon and tides in relation to the daily motion of the moon. Bede's influence extended to a new system of dating. It was Bede who started dating from Jesus Christ rather than from the times that kings ruled.
In the later 700s, across the English Channel, Charlemagne encouraged learning, which was a rise above the attitudes in Stone Age societies, when no one believed in change or progress. Literacy in Gaul had all but disappeared since the invasions by the Germans, and Charlemagne moved to correct this. He invited scholars from England and Ireland to teach. He founded a school for the nobles of his court, and he tried to learn to read.
One of the scholars he invited to his court was Alcuin, an Englishman from York. His scholarship included ponderings on theology and adherence to dogma. He was also interested in grammar. His one contribution was the invention of lower case letters.
Charlemagne had other challenges to which he applied himself. Exercising his belief in change, he standardized weights, measures, and coinage. He replaced amateurs representing their community in local courts with itinerant professional judges who had a better understanding of law. And Charlemagne reformed the clergy. To be ordained a priest one had to take an examination.
But Charlemagne was also stuck in some old thinking. If anyone "by his magic" caused the death of anyone, he had to do penance for seven years. Or if anyone "took away the mind" of someone "by the invocation of demons," he had to do penance for five years.
In the 800s there was the Irishman John Scotus, who knew the Greek language well, moved to France and translated some works into Latin, bringing to Western Europe the philosophy of Plotinus. John Scotus tortured his imagination and wrote a book On the Divisions of Nature, with thinking similar to Plotinus. He divided nature into four classes: (1) that which creates as in not created, in a word, God; (2) that which creates and is created, as with people; (3) that which is created but does not create; (4) that which neither creates nor is created. This last category is the end purpose of all things. He presented his ideas as a dialogue between master and pupil and had some influence on reviving an interest in metaphysics in Western Europe.
This was another step toward Europe's scholasticism, which, after a couple of centuries, came with a contribution by Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. Anselm was applying himself to reconciling his faith with the abstraction called logic. He held that believing in God on faith was not good enough, and in attempting to establish a basis for his belief in God with the tool of logic he described God in terms of hierarchy and idea. God, he said, was the being beyond which there was no greater being. God, he reasoned, was the greatest object of thought and there must be ranking of thoughts. The greatest of all thoughts must exist, therefore God exists.
Alcuin's invention of lower case letters would stick. Anselm's logic would not. His argument would be rejected by fellow theologians. But leaders of the Roman Catholic Church were to consider him in his totality, and they would make him a saint.
Copyright © 2009-2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.