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Initiation Into Philosophy
The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries
by Faguet, Émile


Decadence of Scholasticism. Forebodings of the Coming Era. Great Moralists. The Kabbala. Sorcery.
DECADENCE OF SCHOLASTICISM.--The fourteenth century dated the decadence of scholasticism, but saw little new. "Realism" was generally abandoned, and the field was swept by "nominalism," which was the theory that ideas only have existence in the brains which conceive them. Thus Durand de Saint-Pourçain remains famous for having said, "To exist is to be individually," which at that epoch was very audacious. William of Ockham repeated the phrase with emphasis; there is nothing real except the individual. That went so far as to cast suspicion on all metaphysics, and somewhat on theology. In fact, although a devout believer Ockham rejected theology, implored the Church not to be learned, because her science proved nothing, and to content herself with faith: "Science belongs to God, faith to men." But, or rather in addition, if the ministers of God were no longer imposing because of their ambitious science, it was necessary for them to regain their sway over souls by other and better means. It was incumbent on them to be saintly, to revert to the purity, the simplicity, and the divine childishness of the primitive Church; and here he was virtually a forerunner of the Reformation.

Ockham was indeed one of the auxiliaries of Philip the Fair in his struggle with the Holy See, suffered excommunication, and sought refuge with the Duke of Bavaria, the foe of the Pope.

BURIDAN: THE LIBERTY OF INDIFFERENCE.--Realists and nominalists continued their mutual strife, sometimes physically even, until the middle of the fifteenth century. But nominalism always gained ground, having among other celebrated champions, Peter d'Ailly and Buridan; the one succeeded in becoming Chancellor of the University of Paris, the other in becoming its Rector. Buridan has remained famous through his death and his donkey, both alike legendary. According to a ballad by Villon, Buridan having been too tenderly loved by Joan of Navarre, wife of Philip the Fair, was by his order "thrown in a sack into the Seine." By comparison of dates, the fact seems impossible. According to tradition, either in order to show the freedom of indifference, or that animals are mere machines, Buridan declared that an ass with two baskets full of corn placed one on each side of him and at equal distance from him, would never decide from which he should feed and would die of starvation. Nothing of the kind is to be found in his works, but he may have said so in a lecture and his pupils remembering it have handed it down as a proverb.

PETER D'AILLY; GERSON.--Peter d'Ailly, a highly important ecclesiastic, head of the College of Navarre, chevalier of the University of Paris, Cardinal, a leader in the discussions at the Councils at Pisa and Constance, a drastic reformer of the morals and customs of the Church, did not evince any marked originality as a philosopher, but maintained the already known doctrines of nominalism with extraordinary dialectical skill.

Among his pupils he numbered Gerson, who was also Chancellor of the University of Paris, another highly zealous and energetic reformer, a more avowed enemy of scholasticism and mysticism, of exaggerated austerity and astrology, eminently modern in the best sense of the word, whose political and religious enemies are his title of respect. He was the author of many small books devoted to the popularization of science, religion, and morality. To him was long attributed the Imitation of Jesus Christ which on the whole bears no resemblance to his writings, but which he might very well have written in old age in his retreat in the peaceful silence of the Celestines of Lyons.

THE KABBALA.--From the beginning of the fifteenth century the Renaissance was heralded by a revival of Platonism, both in philosophy and literature. But it was a Platonism strangely understood, a quaint medley of Pythagoreanism and Alexandrinism, the source of which is not very clear (the period not having been much studied). Then arose an incredible infatuation for the Kabbala--a doctrine which was for a long while the secret of the Jews, brooded over by them so to speak during the darkness of the Middle Ages, in which are to be found traces of the most sublime speculations and of the basest superstitions of antiquity. It contained a kind of pantheistic theology closely analogous to those of Porphyry and Iamblichus, as well as processes of magic mingled with astrology. The Kabbalists believe that the sage, who by his astrological knowledge is brought into relation with the celestial powers, can affect nature, alter the course of phenomena, and work miracles. The Kabbala forms part of the history of the marvelous and of occult science rather than of the history of philosophy. Nevertheless men of real learning were initiated and were infatuated, among them the marvelous Pico della Mirandola, Reuchlin, not less remarkable as humanist and Hebraist, who would have run grave risk at the hands of the Inquisition at Cologne if he had not been saved by Leo X. Cardan, a mathematician and physician, was one of the learned men of the day most impregnated with Kabbalism. He believed in a kind of infallibility of the inner sense, of the intuition, and regarded as futile all sciences that proceeded by slow rational operations. He believed himself a mage and magician. From vanity he spoke of himself in the highest terms and from cynicism in the lowest. Doubt has been cast on his sincerity and also on his sanity.

MAGIC.--There were also Paracelsus and Agrippa. Paracelsus, like Cardan, believed in an intense light infinitely superior to bestial reasoning and calls to mind certain philosophy of intuition of the present day. He too believed himself a magician and physician, and effected cures by the application of astrology to therapeutics. Agrippa did the same with yet stranger phantasies, passing from absolute scepticism through mysticism to magi and demonology; in his own time and in subsequent centuries enjoying the reputation of a devil incarnate as man.

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