Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 5

In the last point, I pointed out that according to Scotus, in order for an angel or demon to possess a physical body, it must both occupy the same region of space, and it must take control of the body as the puppeteer (the mover).

But one might wonder: why should it matter where the demon happens to reside? Be it all the way across the room, or here in the spot where I am now standing, the fact of the matter is, the demon still controls my body. And wouldn’t that mean that I am ‘possessed’ by the demon in the relevant sense?

Scotus says no, and the reason is this: Scotus’s angelology was heavily influenced by the Persian thinker known to the Latins as Avicenna. Avicenna was a physician, a scientist, and a philosopher who lived from 980 to 1037.

Sometimes my students are surprised to discover that someone like Scotus was reading a Persian, but we shouldn’t think that the medieval world was ignorant of other cultures around it, especially when it comes to the Arabic culture around it. Far from it. In fact, one of medieval Europe’s most famous Holy Roman Emperors, Frederick II, was actually fluent in Arabic, and he was so fascinated by Arabic culture that he brought renowned scholars into his court to translate Arabic writings into Latin.

One of the Arabic authors that Frederick had translated was Avicenna, and it is hard to underestimate just how important Avicenna was in medieval Europe. Indeed, one of Avicenna’s books that was translated into Latin was known as the Canon of Medicine, and it served as the standard textbook for European medicine all the way up through the 17th century.

But even apart from Avicenna’s influence on European medicine, some of his other works that were translated into Latin made massive contributions in other arenas as well, and one of those arenas was cosmology.

Now, Avicenna was a good Aristotelian. He didn’t agree with everything that Aristotle said, but he did agree with a lot of it. In terms of cosmology, Aristotle adopted Ptolemy’s ideas about the universe. As is well known, Ptolemy’s system was geocentric: the earth (rather than the sun) sits at the center of the universe, while the moon, sun, planets, and stars rotate around the earth.

Aristotle, however, believed that all motion requires explanation. If you see a stone rolling past you, something must have put it in motion. The same goes for the heavens. We can see that the sun, moon, planets, and stars are moving around the earth, so something must be moving them. We cannot see anything else, though, so Aristotle inferred that the motion of any given heavenly object must be caused by something that is impercetible, some sort of immaterial being up there in outer space --- some sort of spirit.

Of course, Aristotle recognized that various celestial bodies move in different ways. The sun has one orbit, the moon has another, Saturn has another, and so on. Thus, Aristotle concluded that each celestial body that moves in a unique orbit must have its own spirit that moves it in that orbit. And depending on how you calculate it, says Aristotle, that means that there must be either 47 or 55 extraterrestrial spirits up there in outer space, each of which moves a particular celestial body around the earth. So, there is one spirit who moves the moon, another spirit who moves the sun, another who moves Saturn, and so on (or, to be more accurate, these spirits move large concentric spheres in which the sun, moon, planets and so on are embedded).

Avicenna accepts much of this Ptolemaic-Aristotelian picture, but Avicenna was a good Muslim, and so he believed in angels. Avicenna naturally goes on to identify the angels of his faith with Aristotle’s extraterrestrial spirits. Those spirits who according to Aristotle move the sun, moon, planets, and stars --- those are the angels of which the Quran speaks.

Back to Scotus. Like anyone of his day who went through so many years in the University system, Scotus of course fervently read both Aristotle and Avicenna. But Scotus was a good Christian, so he believed in angels just as Avicenna did. It should come as no surprise, then, to find that Scotus follows Avicenna in identifying the angels spoken of in the Bible with the extraterrestrial spirits spoken of by Aristotle. So like Avicenna, Scotus believes that the angels of his faith are moving the sun, moon, planets, and stars around the earth.

Given that, it should be clear by now why Scotus thinks angel and demon possession cannot amount to mere puppeteering. For Scotus sees demons as a particular kind of angel: they are fallen angels, but they are angels nonetheless. Angels, however, move celestial objects like the sun and moon, so angels are the puppeteers of the heavens, even though they do not possess the heavens.

That is why Scotus says that angel and demon possession involves more than mere puppeteering. It is the influence of the Muslim Avicenna that drives Scotus to this point. To be possessed by a demon or an angel means not just that you are being moved by that demon or angel. It means also that the demon occupies the same region of space as your body.

(Exactly how angels and demons ‘occupy a region of space’ is a tricky point, but let’s pretend for now that Scotus has a coherent account.)

No comments: