Psychology in the Middle Ages

The View of the Mind

Among those who write general histories of Western thought, there is a custom of reducing the works of Augustine to "neo-Platonism" and dismissing Thomas Aquinas as an "Aristotelian." The respect in which reductions of this sort are defensible is that which allows us to reduce all philosophy either to Platonism or Aristotelianism. It is true that Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) has been the intellectual voice of the Roman Church since the fifteenth century and it is also true that his two major works, the Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles, derive their inspiration from Aristotle. However derivation is not duplication. One could not reconstruct Thomistic thought merely from a knowledge of Aristotelian thought. The two philosophers undertook their works in vastly different intellectual climates, with vastly different orientations and with vastly different objectives. If we are to comprehend the Medieval view of psychological man, we must focus on thomism not because Thomas Aquinas was the only or even most influential figure to raise the important questions but because his were the only works that included all the perspectives prevailing in his age. And if we are to comprehend the portion of Thomism that is distinctly psychological, we must first appreciate the problems facing Thomas and his Church in the thirteenth century. It will not do to establish certain identities between Aristotle and Aquinas on the soul, on the senses, on justice, and so forth. The cave dweller, the Roman, the Vandal and the modern resident of Boston, all may be described as seeking "the good life," but they surely would define that life differently. To know only that all of them seek the god life is to know nearly nothing about them. Let us review briefly the problems confronting Aquinas regarding human psychology and then proceed to his essentially Aristotelian solutions.

  1. Can man know God? This is the central epistemological problem of the High Middle Ages. Peter Abelard, in his Sic et Non, had advanced some 158 theological questions answered in a contradictory way by Scripture and by the early Christian fathers. He was also one of several influential twelfth-century spokesman to reject the real existence of Universals and to adopt nominalism; that is, to assert that only individual entities are real and that so-called Universals are merely names (nomines) invented to create a general class. By the time of Aquinas' floruit, there was a creeping skepticism towards doctrine and a growing demand for rational as opposed to spiritual proof. Can man know God, then, was just the more relevant member of the larger question,Can man know anything?

  2. What is man's duty to God? This question assumes that the general epistemological question has been answered; that is, we know what a human being can know of God and God's will. Now what remains to be determined is man's obligations to self, to State, to his fellow man.

  3. What is sin? In the ninth century, the Church was so disorganized that the pope was unable to provide Charlemagne with an official liturgy for the celebration of the Mass. By the thirteenth century, intense efforts were directed at rendering Christian practices uniform. The Holy Roman Empire was indeed an empire, requiring laws, agreements and an understandable set of first principles. The historic ius civile, ius gentium and ius naturale were reactivated but had to be reconciled with a body of belief far more detailed than the belief existing at the time of Justianian. Secular and clerical powers were now so intermingled that the citizen-believer desperately needed guidance for a lawful and Christian life. The concept of sin had to be refined in such a way that all - kings, bishops and farmers alike - were aware of the specific obligations man had to his Creator.

  4. How is the will free? Scripture had granted freedom of the will while insisting that God caused all things. While Augustine made a solid attempt at the reconciliation of this apparent conflict, he did not go far enough for the more enlightened and critical citizens of the thirteenth century.

  5. What is the end of human life? Budding materialism had created the impression in many quarters that the soul might die with the body. Aquinas must fashion an explanation of the soul's mission and one which, at the same time, will not be caught in the logical traps set by Averroës and his Western disciples (e.g., Siger of Brabant). The Averroist position was pure Aristotelianism: the soul perishes with the body, since it is the soul that grants individual (personal) identity and since that which is individual is, necessarily, destructible. Only mind (nous) survives and this is the same in all people. Thus, personal survival is impossible.

The Problem of Knowledge

Maurice deWulf summarizes Scholastic Psychology aptly:

"According to the medieval classification of the sciences, psychology is merely a chapter of special physics, although the most important chapter; for man is a microcosm; he is central figure of the universe." (P. 125)

Until the thirteenth century, the Medieval view of human nature was essentially Augustian, which is to say Platonistic in its most defined features. The Holy Trinity served as a metaphor of human consciousness viewed, accordingly, as the trinity of sense, reason and intellect. Each of these faculties was able to provide knowledge of a certain sort, but only the last (nous: intellectus) could discern truth itself.

John Scotus Eriugena, in the ninth century, could offer a more of less complete system of psychological philosophy by combining Platonic idealism with the tenets of Christian faith. In the De Divisione Naturae (a work that is astonishing given the sorry intellectual climate surrounding its authorship), he reaffirms the Platonic distinction between attribute (accidens) and essence (substantia, or less formally, essentia) and argues that the senses can apprehend only the former. That is, the senses as material agencies can be affected only by the material aspects of the world. These, being of an ephemeral and crude sort, have little direct connection with the ultimate and sublime reality of God. However, the gift of reason (logos: ratio) allows the perceiver to assimilate these crude physical facts in such a way as to appreciate the suprafactual order and design of the universe. Even this higher sensibility, however, is limited because the order so disclosed is only an order among things; it is an sundering of effects but not an awareness of their true, nonphysical causes. It is only when the passive senses and the active reason deposit their contents into that spiritual realm of intellect that the fundamental truth of nature can be discerned. Since these truths are above and before things, since that are, alas, ideas, then that which discovers them must, itself be immaterial. Man himself

"is a kind of intellectual idea held eternally in the mind of God." (Book 4, Ch. 7)

A distinguishing feature of the philosophical revival that took place in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is the rejection of such extreme idealism. John Scotus Eriugena rejected the facts of sensation as truths and thereby spoke in defense of an idealism that could never advance beyond the point at which Plato left it. The Scholastic philosophers, though never abandoning the spirit of idealism, were willing to deal with the perceptible realities of nature as facts and as facts that expressed truths. We discover this willingness in St. Anselm's Dialogus de Veritate, which credits the senses with an accurate reflection of facts while considering the "interior sense" for deceiving itself by creating false opinions about sensation. Truth for Anselm is finally the right perceived by the mind alone but, in this act of creative perception, the mind makes use of the accurate neutrality of the senses. It is this line of reasoning that led Anselm to his famous Ontological Argument for the existence of God. While we need not analyze this argument - a complex and vexing one - we must note its psychological orientation.

Anselm advanced the theory that what the mind is capable of entertaining is, by that fact, real. In order for the mind to be impressed with an idea, it must enjoy a faculty that is compatible with that which might impress it. For example, if we are able to see color, it is not only because there is color but because nature has equipped the human faculties to be responsive to this feature of the world. A faculty does not exist for which there is no natural agency. Now, the mind, as an enlarged faculty, is able to comprehend "that than which there can be nothing greater" and this, finally, is God. Since we are able to comprehend the possibility of that "than which there can be nothing greater," that possibility is a reality.

Anselm's argument is neither trivial nor "subjective" as the latter term is currently employed. God's existence is not based simply on the fact that someone might conceive of it. Nor does the argument require, as some have suspected, that an island "than which none can be greater" exists because we conceive of one. First, there cannot be an island of which none can be greater because such an island would be the universe or would be infinite and, therefore, would not be an island. We can, according to the argument, have the conception only if the capacity for the conception were imposed upon our understanding and to be imposed, an agency commensurate with the conception itself must exist. This, at least, is the first step in approaching the subtle complexity of Anselm's argument.

Anselm was not proposing to replace faith with reason, nor was he suggesting that God's existence in any way depended on the idea man has of it. He was not advancing a Platonic idealism either. Instead, and with the influence of a great and revered teacher, he was permitting faith to rest upon a rational foundation such that "mind" and "spirit" need not battle any longer. It remained only for Peter Lombard's best-selling Four Books of Sentences to persuade the Medieval faithful that God is known in his works, known through an intellect informed by perception. With this final spadework accomplished - a synthesis of thought stretching back to Plato and Aristotle and, along the way, including Augustine, Boethius, John Scotus, Anselm, Peter Lombard - a synthesis that is Scholasticism. Although the ideas and theories comprising Scholastic thought are varied in both tone and origin, the synthesis itself can be attributed t two men, Albertus Magnus and his pupil, Thomas Aquinas. It is the latter's writings that present the Scholastic approach, indeed the Scholastic "solution," to the problem of knowledge. We may summarize this solution as follows:

  1. Consistent with Aristotle, Scholastic psychology distinguishes between the factual knowledge of the senses, a knowledge that even the sensitive faculty of animals can possess, and the knowledge of principles that only reason can embrace. Thus, although experience can inform about things, it cannot provide us with a knowledge of laws. Put in another and more classical way, experience is and must be of particulars only, whereas reason comprehends the universals. It is from the particulars of sense that reason abstracts the universals. It is from the particulars of sense that reason abstracts the universals. Reason is a faculty of the soul. In fact, the soul is an intellectual principle. Over and against Aristotle, the Scholastics reject the corruptibility of the soul.

  2. Animals, which lack the intellectual principle, survive by instinctual patterns of responding. Man, through reason, apprehends universals, and this allows him to fashion an infinite variety of solutions to his problems. He is neither limited in his judgments nor driven to accept nature instinctively. Against Plato, the Scholastic system requires not only the true an factual status of sensations but also the need for a physiological (material) mechanism) by which the senses inform the intellect. On the occasion of physical death, the nutritive and sensitive faculties of the soul cease - for these required a body for their expression - but the will and the intellect survive.

  3. There is an agent-intellect (agens intelectus) that abstracts the form of a thing from its appearance. The senses can embrace only the attributes, but the intellect can discern the form. Now this is not a Platonic process; that is, the form is not surely the idea by which the thing comes about. Rather, the form is the matter as a principle, but the senses can respond only to the matter and not to the principle. Thus we do not "know" to what the senses respond. Knowledge is an abstraction based on principles of matter, but the principles themselves are of course immaterial. The psychology of knowledge, then, is a cognitive psychology, not an empirical psychology. For Aristotle, the agens intellectus was a kind of light, an interior light, that illuminated particulars in such a way as to allow reason to discover their principle. For Aquinas, this interior light is God. The abstractions made possible by this Light are not (Platonically) removed from the world of matter (though they themselves are not material) but reveal a nonsensory aspect of matter. We can be sure these features or principles are inherent in things or else we could not derive the abstractions from the evidence of sense: Abstrahentium non est mendacium - The Abstraction is no lie! The connection between matter and principle or object and form is discovered, not invented by the mind.

  4. Human knowledge, in human earthly life, is imperfect and this is because human reason is imperfectly equipped to grasp the divine essence. Faith has been made available to men so that the imperfections of reason will not cause them to stray from God. However, faith and reason do not conflict and cannot conflict, since both seek the same truths:

    "Science and faith cannot be in the same subject and about the same object; but what is an object of science for one can be an object of faith for another." (Summa Theologica, Question 2, Article 4)

    Note, than, that Scholastic rationalism is of a limited sort. Reason can bring man only so far in his search for truth. Indeed, even with the aid of faith, the rational mind cannot know all in this life. Not only are all men limited as a genus, but not every individual enjoys the same rational faculty as every other individual. All men possess the agent-intellect but not necessarily in the same degree. There will, therefore, be differences in achievement and comprehension. Moreover, since reason's operations are performed on the data of experience, those who experiences are limited (such as children) or distorted (as in the case of the sick) will have an impoverished intellect. During earthly life, which finds the soul united with the body, "it is impossible for our intellect to understand anything actually, except by turning to phantasms (Question 84, Article 7)." These "phantasms" are the images that perception makes of objects. The child, the delirious, the enfeebled, all fail to record reality aptly and thus fail to understand. But even for them, there is an afterlife in which the soul no longer requires the senses, and truth no longer must be abstracted from sensible things.

  5. Because of the foregoing, differences among men as regards their capacity for knowledge lead inescapably to governance by some and servility by others. Before the sin of Adam, man lived in a state of innocence. Even in this state, some would lead and other follow but only by common consent; in the state of innocence, slavery is repugnant. However, ours is no longer a state of innocence. Through original sin and weakness of the will, man fails in his duty either by failing to perceive duty or by failing to act once he has perceived. In either case, the sin is a departure from the rule of reason. It is the rule of reason that establishes the eternal law in man's mind. As one may know of the sun through its rays, so, with respect to eternal law, "every rational creature knows it according to some reflection, greater or less (Question 93, Article 2)" Those privileged to know it clearly must lead those who are less fortunate. The will of the Prince is indeed the law of the land, but only insofar as the Prince discharges the responsibilities for which his office was created.

Both Berenger and Ken Kofman have replied to this and offer excellent ideas on its application to Ars Magica.


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Last modified: Sun Dec 27, 1998 / Jeremiah Genest