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Background for Ars Magica sagas

The Early Thirteenth Century

What happened to Aristotelian/Arabic epistemology when it came into the Latin West? At first, it was the neo-Platonic version via Alfarabi and Avicenna that was most influential. Averroes was translated and circulated somewhat later, and took longer to be assimilated, since it did not fit so well with the standard Augustinian complex of doctrines.

Dominic Gundissalinus (accent on the penultimate syllable, rhymes with "Don't come between us."): Late-twelfth century translator of the Toledo group. He also wrote some works on his own. He was strongly influenced by Boethius' Theological Tractates, as well as by the texts he himself was translating - especially by Avencibrol's (Ibn Gabirol's) Fons vitae ("Fountain of Life"). Basically, he accepted universal hylomorphism and the plurality of forms, from Avencibrol. He also accepted Avicenna's and Alfarabi's account of so called Aristotelian epistemology. But, of course, he had to get rid of their neo-Platonic intermediaries between God (the One) and the sublunary world. Gundissalinus therefore argues against the Avicennian dictum: From the One inasmuch as it is One, there proceeds only what is One. Gundissalinus argues that this would be no "procession" or production at all. If the direct product of the One's emanation is so one, simple and unique, it differs in no respect from the One itself, and so just is the One itself, and there has not really been any production after all. Gundissalinus argues that, quite the contrary, if the One is going to produce anything at all, it has to produce a plurality. He works it out as follows. The direct products of God's creation are universal matter and universal form. From these everything else is constituted. Note how we are suddenly in the framework of Avencibrol. Since Gundissalinus denied the Avicennian hierarchy of intelligences, he identified the agent intellect with God. We are right back with Augustinian illumination, and right back to Alexander of Aphrodisias. (Gundissalinus perhaps knew of Alexander's work, but he was writing in the immediate context of Avicenna.) Gundissalinus, unlike Alexander, wants the material intellect to be immortal. This kind of doctrine was also held by William of Auvergne (c. 1180-1249), Archbishop of Paris. William is an important but little studied figure in the early-thirteenth century.

Albert the Great (1206-1280). One of the first Dominican philosophers. (The Dominican order was founded in the thirteenth century.) Albert was one of the teachers of Thomas Aquinas. By this time Averroism was beginning to influence people. Latin philosophers were growing more and more able to distinguish authentic Aristotelianism from the neo-Platonic accretions with which it was delivered to them. Albert agrees with Averroes, against Avicenna and Alfarabi, on the relation of the agent to the possible or material intellect. The agent intellect is not a warehouse of forms. It has no forms of its own. Both the agent and the possible intellects are independent of matter. But, unlike Averroes' doctrine, both are inside the soul - faculties of the soul - and are accordingly "multiplied according to the number of individuals". Each person has his own agent intellect and his own possible intellect. The agent intellect is a kind of natural light. This natural light of the agent intellect illuminates the phantasms, abstracts the universal from them, and implants it in the possible intellect. It is a natural faculty in the sense that it is part of the nature of the soul to do this. Yet Albert thinks it is insufficient to do this all by itself. It needs some additional help - a kind of super-natural assistance, a kind of grace. This was a common view, namely, that even with the human agent intellect, there is also needed a kind of Augustinian illumination by God as, so to speak, a "super-agent intellect".

Some people later on - for example, Peter of Spain, who wrote a very influential textbook of logic, and who later became Pope John XXI and was Pope during the Condemnation of 1277 - will adopt a view roughly like Albert's, adding that it is only the human agent intellect that is immortal, not the passive intellect. Roger Bacon (ca. 1214-ca. 1292) also held a view like Peter's. Peter of Spain departed from the "Standard Albertine" view also to the extent that the separated agent intellect was not God. He was more Avicennian about it.

Aquinas and Duns Scotus later on will argue that the individual human agent intellect is sufficient to explain all the knowledge we ever get anyway. There is no need, they think, to appeal to any kind of supernatural assistance. This doctrine can be found as early as John de la Rochelle (d. 1245).

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Last modified: Sun Dec 27, 1998 / Jeremiah Genest