Thursday, October 30, 2008

What Plato Taught Medieval Theologians, and What He Can Teach Us

To understand the cosmological background to medieval theology, Philip Ball introduces the uniqueness of medieval thought. “In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a coherent vision of the world was dreamed in the West for the first time since the fall of Rome. That vision was expounded in different but related ways by Bernard, Thierry and the other schoolmen of Chartres, by Peter Abelard, and by the men who built the first Gothic cathedrals. ‘For the first time,’ says the historian Gordon Leff, ‘there was something like a universal awareness of logic and growing recognition that it has an importance in all thinking, including matters of faith.’”

This universal awareness of logic stemmed from the cosmological background inherited from Greek philosophy.

This awareness of logic was quite different from our contemporary understanding of logic. Medieval logic emphasised the ordering and hierarchy of things, which reflected the Greek cosmological background. Logic was seen to exist alongside grammar and rhetoric in a hierarchical order with logic preceding grammar preceding rhetoric.

Furthermore, L.E. Lyons underlines the importance of the cosmological background:” The world picture of medieval theologians was drawn more from Plato and Aristotle than from the bible, and because Greek thought was governed by cosmological considerations, so was that of the theologians. For both, the study of man was inseparable from that of the cosmos. So strongly were they bound together, that microcosm and macrocosm must be considered together was an indisputable axiom; such was the theme of Plato's Timaeus.” Logic as ordering of one’s thought process was inseparable from the ordering of the cosmos.

Why did Greek cosmology merge seamlessly with medieval theology?

Two characteristics allowed the incorporation of Greek cosmology into medieval theology: 1. Hierarchy, and 2. Relation of form to material. Philip Ball explains hierarchy; “The platonic cosmology provided Thierry with a physical description of the material world that he forged into an explanation of the biblical Creation. The medieval Platonists found in the Timaeus a universe that was consistent with their own sense of natural hierarchy, consisting of concentric spheres with earth (the mundane world) in the centre, surrounded by water, then air, and finally fire, which extends from the orbit of the moon to the firmament of the stars.”

The relation of form / deity to material within Greek cosmology was an adequate bedrock from which to approach material within medieval theology. To quote Philip Ball again, “As we’ve seen, Platonism had profoundly influenced Christian thought at least since Augustine’s time. But it was not until the flourishing of the Chartres cathedral school in the twelfth century that the ‘scientific’ passages of the Timaeus were given due consideration. These were virtually unique in ancient literature in discussing how the universe was built up from the elements and in presenting thereby a fundamental theory of the physical universe and its cosmogony.”

Greek cosmology provided the starting point from which medieval theology could approach the material realm without blaspheming or de-emphasising the importance of a universal Creator.
Furthermore, a rational and proportional understanding of material was developed. It did not exist outside of a deified cosmology, and yet did suggest a sophisticated understanding of the cosmos. This understanding would be found acceptable to contemporary standards.

For example: “These notions sometimes spawned surprisingly ‘modern’ ideas about gravity. John Scotus Eriugena, an avid Platonist himself, suggested that in effect the strength of gravity (that is, the heaviness of a body) varied according to its distance from the centre of the earth; Adelard of Bath asserted that a stone dropped into a hole passing through the earth would stop at the centre.”

The importance here is to see ratio and proportion taking prominence when approaching the material realm. The hierarchical and proportional structure of the cosmos was most emphasised within the medieval cosmology. It should not be surprising that this should yield “accurate” results when trying to understand the cosmos, and consequently architecture and construction.