Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Beginning to think about the Trinity

Why should anybody study the Trinity academically? Isn't the Trinity really just a particular belief that belongs to one particular religious group, namely Christians?

Well, I certainly understand that perspective. Indeed, for many people, the idea that God could be three and one just seems bogus and crazy (and I am very often one of those people). Who in their right mind would ever think: "Oh I know! Let's say that the most supreme being, if there is one, is really tri-personal! Yeah, that'll probably make sense."

But, for whatever reasons, the Trinity ended up as a fundamental piece of the West's intellectual history. More specifically, Christianity ended up as a fundamental piece of the West's intellectual history, and the Trinity ended up as a fundamental piece of Christian thought. Ergo, the Trinity ended up as a fundamental piece of the West's intellectual history. Boring as that may be, it is a fact.

So, whether we like it or not, if we want to understand western intellectual history, we should study the Trinity.

Given that, here's how one could look at it. Let's assume for the sake of the argument that God (if there is one . . . or three . . . or one-three . . . or whatever) --- let's assume that God is triune. Once we grant that for the sake of the argument, then the really interesting stuff shows up. For now we can look at all the different ways that clever people throughout history have tried to make sense of it.

Here's another way to think about it. Think of the Trinity as a little math or logic puzzle. Lots of clever people who like to solve problems are drawn to that sort of thing. So, lots of people throughout history have tried to solve the puzzle. We can study that; we can look at the various ingenious attempts to formulate a solution to the puzzle.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Grading philosophy

Some people have the impression that philosophy is just a matter of one’s own personal opinions, and so there really are no “right” or “wrong” answers. I do not share that view. I treat philosophical issues more like math problems, where there really are “right” and “wrong” answers.

That being said, philosophical problems are rarely as simple as “what is 2+2?” Philosophical problems are more like those complicated word problems we all did in school (“Frank travels north west at 40mph, Sally travels north east at 65mph, . . .”). Like complicated math problems, philosophical problems require that we work carefully and systematically through a number of interwoven steps.

Math teachers can grade word problems in (at least) two different ways. One way is simply to check if the student gets the right answer. After all, one might think, if the student gets the right answer, then surely they took all the right steps.

But that seems insufficient because it seems entirely possible for a student to take all the wrong steps, but yet by sheer accident end up with the right answer. For instance, a word problem might require that the student subtract 5 from 10 to get the right answer, but an erring student might add 2 and 3, giving her the "right" answer anyway.

Another, and probably better way to grade word problems is to look at the student’s reasoning process, i.e., to check whether the student tried to work carefully through the various steps that are required to get to the final answer. This makes it easier to detect students who simply misunderstand the whole thing altogether (or perhaps are just too lazy to put in the requisite time and effort), and it makes it easier to award points for those who may not end up with the right answer, but certainly were on the right track.

Surely we can grade philosophy like this, no? The problem is, I don't think my math teachers ever taught me how to solve word problems, and I don't think my philosophy teachers ever taught me how to work through problems either. Instead, I was given a bunch of incomprehensible pages to read and then write an essay or two (which were evaluated according to some criteria that I still don't think I understand).

Friday, May 13, 2011

Aquinas on Powers --- One Interpretation (3)

In the last post, I tried to buttress Aquinas's (alleged) argument that the soul and its powers cannot be one and the same because I always have a soul, whereas I do not always exercise my soul's powers (there are times when I sleep, for instance, when I do not think). I further pointed out in the last post that each of the soul's powers require different circumstances for their actualization, and that provides another reason to say that the soul's powers must be distinct from each other (and, consequently, from the soul itself).

Now, suppose that we grant this. Still we might wonder: what sorts of things are the soul’s powers? According to Aquinas, they are qualities of the soul, perhaps similar to the way that a pale skin color is a quality of Socrates.

Of course, to compare the soul’s powers to the color of Socrates’ skin might suggest that the soul’s powers can be gained and lost, just like the color of Socrates’ skin. After all, Socrates’ skin color can change --- as would happen, say, if he went to the beach and got a tan. So surely the soul’s powers can change too.

But Aquinas rejects this, insisting instead that although the soul’s powers are qualities of the soul, they cannot be gained and lost in the way that Socrates’ skin color can. On the contrary, the soul’s powers are not the sorts of features that can ‘come and go’. Rather, they are permanently attached, so to speak, to the soul itself (so long as the soul exists).

I should note that Aquinas does not, so far as I know, ever offer an argument for the claim that the soul’s powers are qualities. But he did make this claim more than once throughout the course of his career, so I think we can safely assume that Aquinas is firmly committed to the idea that every human soul is accompanied by a set of distinct powers (qualities) that are permanently attached to it (so long as that soul exists).

One could easily take these ideas from Aquinas and generalize them. That is, one could easily insist that any power must be distinct from its basis when the thing that has the power in question also has its basis for any period of time when that power is not exercised. So, that is one interpretation of Aquinas's theory of powers.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Aquinas on Powers - One Interpretation (2)

In the last post, I mentioned that part of me thinks Aquinas's arguments about powers really boil down to a simple argument from identity: if A and B are identical, then anything true of the one must be true of the other, but since this is not the case with my soul and its powers (I always have soul, for instance, but I am not always thinking), it follows that my powers that are based on my soul must be different from my soul itself.

But one could buttress this argument even further. For we might point out that one of the characteristics of powers is that they can only be exercised in particular circumstances. For instance, wine glasses can be broken when they are dropped on a hard floor (in a world consisting only of soft cushiony floors, wine glasses would not break when dropped). Wine glasses might also be broken when they are struck with a swinging baseball bat. And so on.

We might then point out that each power of my soul is no different. Each power of my soul requires a different set of circumstances for its exercise too. For example, compare my power of sight with my power to remember things I have already seen. According to Aquinas, both of these are powers of my soul. However, it would seem that the former power can only be exercised in one set of circumstances (I must have my eyes open, there must be sufficient light, and so forth), whereas the latter power requires an entirely different set of circumstances (e.g., that what I saw before was adequately stored in my memory banks, and so forth).

Consequently, we might make the following inference: since each power of my soul requires a different set of circumstances for its exercise, it follows that each power of my soul must be distinct from every other power of my soul, and from my soul itself. Otherwise, I could not exercise one of my soul’s powers without exercising all of them at the same time. So, one might say, surely it follows that my soul and each of its powers must be distinct from each other.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Aquinas on Powers - One interpretation (1)

Throughout his career, Aquinas maintained that a human soul cannot be identical to its powers. I have translated a number of his arguments for this view (see the previous three posts), but I'm not sure I understand any of those arguments.

Part of me thinks that much of Aquinas's reasoning here boils down to the following simple argument: although I always have a soul as long as I exist, my soul’s powers are exercised only some of the time. For instance, so long as I am alive, I have a soul, but there are times in my life when I do not think, when I do not love, and so on. Consequently, my soul cannot be identical to any of my powers to perform these operations.

This is, of course, a simple argument from identity. That is, if any A and B are identical, then anything true of the one must be true of the other. But since this is not the case with my soul and its powers (for I always have a soul as long as I exist, but I do not always exercise my soul’s powers), Aquinas concludes that they must not be identical. Whatever my soul is then, it must be distinct from my power to think, my power to love, and so on.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Translation: Aquinas on powers 3

Thomas Aquinas
Commentary on the Sentences
Book I, question 4, article 2

Are the powers of the mind its essence?

In response, it should be said that any proper and immediate effect must be proportionate to its cause. Whence, in all things in which the proximate source [principia] of its operation belongs in the genus of substance, its operation is its substance, and this is only true of God. For this reason, he alone does not act through the mediation of a power that differs from his substance. But for every other thing, its operation is an accident, and for this reason, the proximate source of its operation must be an accident too, just as we saw in bodies: the substantial form of fire [for instance] has no operation except through the mediation of its active and passive qualities, which are, as it were, forces or powers of it.

Similarly, I say that no operation comes forth from the mind, since it is a substance, except through the mediation of a power, nor does an operation come forth from a highly developed mental ability except through the mediation of a habit.

But these powers flow from the essence of the mind itself, like certain perfections of the body's parts, the operation of which is effected through the mediation of the body (e.g., the senses, the imagination, and so on), and as certain things that exist in the mind itself, the operation of which does not need the body (e.g., the intellect, will, and other such things).

For this reason, I say that the mind's powers are accidents. They are not common accidents, which flow not from the principles of the species but rather from the principles of the individual. On the contrary, they are proper accidents, which follow from the species and have their origin from its principles. At the same time though, they belong to the integrity of the mind, insofar as the mind is a 'whole made up of powers' [a 'totum potentiale', as Boethius calls it], having a certain perfection of power, which is made up of diverse powers.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Translation: Aquinas on powers 2

Thomas Aquinas
Disputed Questions on the Mind
Article 12
Is the mind the same as its powers?

[Translation note: I translate 'anima' as 'mind', but by that, I do not mean to exclude animal minds. On the contrary, I mean to include both the sentient minds of animals, and the rational minds of humans.]

With regard to this question, it should be said that there are diverse opinions. Some say that the mind is [the same as] its powers, but others deny this, saying that the mind's powers are certain properties of it.

In order to understand the differences between these opinions, I should point out that a power is nothing other than the source [principia] of some operation, be it an operation that is done or an operation that is undergone. But the 'source' I am speaking of is not the agent or recipient [of the operation]. Rather, it is that by which the agent acts or that by which the recipient undergoes [the operation in question]. For just as the builder's skill is the power in the builder by which he builds, so also is the heat in a flame that by which the flame heats [other things], and dryness is the power in a log [by which it is combustible], for things are combustible insofar as they are dry.

Thus, those who postulate that the mind is [the same as] its powers understand this to mean that the very essence of the mind is the immediate source of all the operations of the mind, saying that a human understands through his or her mind, a human senses and [performs] other such operations [through their mind], and the mind is given diverse labels according to the diversity of these operations: [it is called] the 'sense' [or 'sentient power'] insofar as it is the source of sensation, [it is called] the 'intellect' [or 'intellective power'] insofar as it is the source of understanding, and so on for all the other [operations for which the mind is the source]. Whence, we label the heat in a flame as its power to heat, melt, and dry other things because it performs all of these things.

But this opinion cannot stand. First because everything that enacts anything --- and here I mean to refer to the thing which acts --- it does so only insofar as it is actual in the way [in which it acts]. For a flame heats not insofar as it is actually bright, but only insofar as it is hot, and hence every agent brings about something similar to itself. Whence, it is necessary that that by which something acts be considered as the source by which it acts, for it is necessary that each be in conformity. Thus, in book II of the Physics, it is said that the form and the generator are the same in species. Therefore, when that which acts does not pertain to the substantial being of the thing, it is impossible that the source by which it acts is something of the essence of the thing, and this is obvious for natural agents.

For when it comes to generation, a natural agent changes matter into form, and that happens because the matter is first disposed to that form, and eventually the form follows, according to which generation is the terminus of the alteration. It is necessary that, on the part of the agent, that which immediately acts is an accidental form corresponding to the disposition of the matter. But it is necessary that the accidental form acts in virtue of the substantial form, as an instrument of it, so to speak (otherwise, it would not induce a substantial form by acting).

On account of this, the only apparent source of action in the elements are their active and passive qualities, which nevertheless act in virtue of the substantial forms [of the elements]. Consequently, their actions are not directed only to accidental dispositions, but also to substantial forms. For in the making of artifacts, the activity of the instruments are directed at the form intended by the artist.

But if some agent were, by its action, to directly and immediately produce a substance (just as we say of God, who by creating produces the substances of things, and just as Avicenna says of the Agent Intellects, from whom (according to him) the substantial forms of inferior things flow), an agent of this sort would act through its essence, and in that case, its active power would not be distinct from its essence.

But regarding passive powers, it is obvious that a passive power for a substantial act belongs to the genus of substance, and a passive power for an accidental act belongs to the genus of accident --- by reduction (as a principle rather than as a complete species). For every genus is divided into potentiality and actuality. Whence, a human belongs to the genus of substance, and a human's potential whiteness belongs to the genus of quality.

However, it is clear that the powers of the mind, be they active or passive, are not spoken of directly with respect either to something substantial or to something accidental. Similarly, a being that is actually intelligent or sentient is not actually intelligent or sentient in a substantial sense, but rather in an accidental sense, to which the intellect or sense are directed, and similarly, to be large or small, to which the power of growth is directed.

But generative or nutritive powers are directed towards producing or conserving a substance, though through changing matter. Whence, such actions, just like all the other actions of natural agents, come about by a substance through intermediate accidental principles. Whence, the powers of the mind are not [the same as] the very essence of the mind, but rather are properties of it.

Thereafter, it is apparent from this that from the diversity of the mind's actions that they belong to diverse genera, and they cannot be reduced to one immediate principle, for certain of them are actions and certain of them are passions, and other of them differ by further differences, which differences must be attributed to diverse principles.

And so, since the essence of the mind is a single principle, it cannot be the immediate principle of all of its actions. Rather, it must have many diverse powers that correspond to the diversity of its actions. For a power is said to be correlative to its act, whence according to the diversity of actions there must be a diversity of powers.

Hence, the Philosophy says in Ethics VI that when it comes to things that belong to the mind scientifically (i.e., when it comes to those features that we identify by our scientific investigations of the mind), those things belong to the mind necessarily, whereas the things that belong to the mind's ratiocinative features belong to it in a contingent way, and so these two classes of things must be reduced to diverse powers, for things that are necessary and things that are contingent differ in kind.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Translation: Aquinas on powers 1

Thomas Aquinas
Summa Theologiae
Part I, question 77, article 1
Is the mind the same as its power?

In response, it should be said that it is impossible for the essence of the mind to be its power, although some postulate this. For our present purposes, this can be shown in two ways.

First, since potentiality and actuality divide every genus of being, it is necessary that potentiality and actuality refer to the same genus. For this reason, if an act is not in the genus of substance, then the power which is spoken of with respect to that act cannot be in the genus of substance either. However, an operation of the mind is not in the genus of substance, with the sole exception of God, in whom his operation is his substance. Whence, the power of God, which is the source of his operation, is the divine essence itself. But this cannot be true of the mind, nor can it be true for any creature, as I said above when I discussed angels.

Second, that this is impossible for the mind is obvious. For the mind, in terms of its essence, is actual. Thus, if the essence of the mind itself were the immediate source of its operation, it would perform vital operations so long as it were actually existent, just as the mind is always living and actual [so long as it exists].

For insofar as it is a form, it is not an actuality that is ordered to the final act, but it is the ultimate terminus of generation. Whence, even when it exists, it is still in a state of potentiality with respect to some other actuality, and this belongs to it not in terms of its essence, i.e., insofar as it is a form, but rather in terms of its potentiality. In this way, then, the mind, insofar as it stands under its power, is said to be the 'first actuality', and it is ordered to its 'second actuality'.

However, one can easily see that everything which has a mind is not always actually performing its vital operations. Whence, even when the mind is defined as the actuality of a body that has the potential for life, nevertheless, that potentiality is not destroyed by the presence of the mind. It must be the case, then, that the essence of the mind is not the same as its power. For nothing is potential on account of its actuality, insofar as it is actual.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 9

I want to conclude this series of posts with one final consideration. In the 15th and especially in the 16th century, mind-body dualism begins to develop, and the interesting thing about that is this: mind-body dualism is defined in pretty much exactly the same way that Scotus defines angel and demon possession.

For instance, if you look at Rene Descartes, our minds are joined to our bodies in the sense that (a) they occupy the same region of space that our bodies occupy (I feel the air condition here, in this spot where I am standing, not over there in that corner where I am not standing), and (b) they make our bodies move as puppeteers. So according to mind-body dualism, our minds ‘possess’ our bodies in much the same way that Scotus thought angels and demons possess our bodies.

Scotus would likely have been appalled if he heard anyone suggest that our minds occupy our bodies in that way. For Scotus, angel and demon possession is a very weak kind of mind-body connection. At best, it can only simulate organic life --- the implication being that our minds must therefore be joined to our bodies in a much tighter, much more organic way.

What does that tell us about the medieval imagination, or at least the scholastic imagination? Well, as a close reader of texts, I’m very cautious about generalizing from particular instances, so I want to be careful here. But it may be that the scholastics, at least in the early 14th century, saw themselves as organic unities, and therefore as much more a part of the organic world of plants and animals than the Modern world of Descartes. According to the Modern mind-body dualism, humans are much more removed from the organic world.

So what happened between the 14th century, the days of Scotus, and the 16th century, the days when mind-body dualism was on the rise?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 8

If you pick up a scholarly monograph that deals with the development of early modern witchcraft theory, you will most likely find a section titled something like ‘The Scholastic Origins’. And if you start to read that section, it will most likely begin by saying something like this: ‘Early modern witchcraft theorists derived many of their ideas from medieval scholastic writers, the most important of which is Thomas Aquinas’, and then the section will proceed to discuss of some of the ideas that Aquinas had about angels and demons.

Now, sometimes you find discussions of earlier scholastic writers, but nobody discusses scholastic writers who lived after Aquinas, and virtually everybody makes the assertion that Aquinas is the most important scholastic voice.

Well, as a historian of medieval thought, that gives me pause. For one thing, Aquinas lived in the middle of the 13th century, and witchcraft theory developed in the 15th century. So what happened in the 14th century? Why are we skipping a whole century here?

But I also wonder why all these historians think Aquinas is the most important voice. One would expect the historians of witchcraft theory to offer some sort of justification for this claim. But alas, you don’t find anything of the sort. In monograph after monograph, what you see is the mere assertion that Aquinas is the most important scholastic voice. Why is that?

Part of the problem, of course, derives from the fact that historians of witchcraft are not specialists in medieval scholasticism. That’s perfectly understandable. Historians are a variegated bunch: we all have our own specializations, and we can’t be experts in everything. So when witchcraft historians are researching their books, they have to go to the library, find the best scholarship on medieval scholasticism, and then rely on that.

Now, that would be a rather trivial point, if it weren’t for the fact that there is a problem with the scholarship on medieval scholasticism. All the best studies on scholasticism that we have today grew out of a movement that is often referred to as ‘neo-thomism’. (To call the whole movement ‘neo-thomist’ is actually a vast oversimplification, but for the lack of a better label, please allow it of me here for the sake of brevity and simplicity.)

Neo-thomism got a huge blast of wind in its sails back in 1879, when the head of the Catholic church at the time, pope Leo XIII, issued a papal bull which encouraged Catholic educational institutions and scholars to begin researching and teaching Thomas Aquinas fervently. As a consequence, a body of research on medieval thought, and especially on Thomas Aquinas, began to amass.

Much of this neo-thomist research, however, tells a very particular story about medieval scholasticism. According to the neo-thomists (not surprisingly), Thomas Aquinas is the high point, the crowning achievement, of the Middle Ages.

Unfortunately, this body of literature was propogated rather successfully, so any non-specialist who goes to the library to look for good scholarship on scholasticism --- someone like a historian of witchcraft, for example --- is going to find these neo-thomist studies. And then they’re going to repeat the neo-thomist story. And why shouldn’t they? They don’t know any better.

The problem is, the neo-thomist story is just plain false, or at least it is highly misleading. As far as I can tell, Aquinas is of secondary importance for medieval scholasticism. For example, if you read 14th century writers (especially Franciscans, not suprisingly), you find that Aquinas is often treated as the whipping boy: he was the George Bush of his day, so to speak; someone who was easy to make fun of.

So when we attempt to trace the development of witchcraft theory back to its scholastic roots, we need to be very cautious about assuming that Thomas Aquinas must be the ‘most important’ voice. Aquinas may have had some important things to say in the 13th century, but there were other voices, and besides, as I’ve already pointed out, witchcraft theory does not develop until the 15th century, and we can’t just skip a century.

If we want to get a clear picture of how witchcraft theory actually developed, we need to take a fresh look at its scholastic roots, and in particular, we need to look at what happened in the 14th century. That’s the real story that needs to be told.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 7

In the last post, I pointed out that for Scotus, when an angel or a demon possesses a physical body, it can only move the parts of that body. It cannot cause that body to perform any of its basic biological functions (nutrition, growth, and reproduction). This does not mean, however, that a possessing angel or demon cannot simulate these basic biological functions, and there are some wonderful passages where Scotus describes how this could be done.

For instance, a possessing demon could make a body appear to consume and process food. The demon could make the hand put the food in the mouth, then make the jaws grind up the food, and then make the tongue and mouth send the food down the throat into the stomach. And then, Scotus explains, the demon could excrete those tiny bits of food through gaseous excretions.

Similarly, Scotus explains that a possessing body could take the food that it makes its possessed body eat, and then add that material to the body, thereby making it appear to onlookers that the body is growing.

But perhaps the most interesting biological function here is reproduction. According to Scotus, since a possessing angel or demon can do nothing more than make a body move, it obviously cannot make the body of, say, a human male produce semen. But the angel can pull of a sneaky trick to bring about reproduction.

A possessing spirit can make the body that it possesses appear to be a woman, and it can then use that female body to seduce a man. When that man deposits his semen in the female body (traditionally called a succubi), the spirit can preserve that semen within its body (though many medieval thinkers were careful to point out that the demon would have to keep its semen deposit warm, for without its vital heat, the semen would become inefficacious --- I guess they didn’t know about the possibilities of freezing sperm in those days). Then, once the spirit has a warm semen deposit trapped within its body, it can then transform its body into a man (traditionally called an incubi). As a man, it can seduce a woman, at which point it can deposit the preserved semen into her. She might then become pregnant, and viola! The possessing spirit has brought about reproduction.

So, even though Scotus maintains that angels and demons can be nothing more than puppeteers of the bodies they possess, Scotus takes the time to point out that, with a little bit of ingenuity, angels and demons can certainly generate rather life-like behavior in the bodies that they possess. Still, even though a possessed body might appear to behave in rather life-like ways, Scotus insists that the real mechanics of this comes down to nothing more than occupying the same space as, and being the puppeteer of, a physical body.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 6

According to Scotus, an angel or a demon must do two things if it wants to possess a physical body. First, it must occupy the same region of space as that body, and second, it must take control of that body and become the mover or puppeteer.

But what exactly does it mean for an angel or a demon to be the ‘puppeteer’ of a physical body? How far does the control of the possessing angel or demon extend? Scotus puts this in rather stark terms. The question that Scotus asks is this: supposing that an angel or a demon possesses a material body, can that angel or demon cause that body to perform its basic biological functions? In other words, does angelic or demonic possession merely amount to pulling strings and making the limbs of an organic body move? Or does it extend far enough that it involves regulating that body’s internal biological functions?

For medieval thinkers like Scotus, there are three basic biological functions that living organisms perform. The first is what they call ‘nutrition’. This is essentially the process whereby a living organism takes in and processes nutrients. As Scotus and his colleagues see it, when living organisms eat food, their bodies break down the food, and then they convert it into organic tissue. That tissue then gets added to their bodies, and that’s how organisms replenish the tissue that has been used or lost. This is the basic mechanism of sustenance. If you don’t eat, you whither and die. In order to say alive, you must eat enough food to replace the tissue that your body uses or loses.

The second biological function that living organisms perform is growth. As living organisms go about their lives, they of course grow larger, and the medievals understood this to be a function of nutrition. Provided that we eat more food than our bodies burn, our bodies grow larger.

The third biological function that all living organisms perform is reproduction. Some organisms reproduce asexually, others reproduce sexually, but all living organisms reproduce. Roses beget roses, oak trees beget oak trees, dogs beget dogs, and humans beget humans.

So those are the three basic biological functions that living organisms perform. All living organisms take in and process nutrients, all living organisms grow, and all living organisms reproduce. The question, then, is whether a possessing angel or demon can cause the body it possesses to perform any of these biological functions.

Scotus says no. According to Scotus, the only thing that a possessing angel or a demon can do to the body it possesses is cause it to move, or rather, more precisely, it can cause the various parts of that body to move. Possessing angels and demons are, for Scotus, mere puppeteers, quite literally.

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.)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 4

Duns Scotus had quite a lot to say about angels and demons, but let me focus on one particular issue: how do angels and demons possess material bodies?

According to Scotus, there are two things a demon or angel must do in order to possess a material body. First, it must become the mover of a body: it must take control of the body in such a way that it moves it about. Second, it must occupy the same region of space occupied by the body it controls.

Scotus claims that an angel or a demon must do both of these in order to possess a material body. An angel or demon cannot do just one of them. To see why this is so, consider cases where an angel or demon does only one of them.

Suppose, for instance, that a demon is traveling through the room at this very moment, and along the way, it happens to pass through my body. At the moment that it passes through my body, it would occupy the very same region of space that I do, but that doesn’t mean it possesses my body. In order to posses my body, the demon cannot just occupy the same region of space. It must also take control of my body as a puppeteer.

At the same time, though, simply taking control of my body as a puppeteer is not sufficient for demon possession either. Suppose that a conniving demon is sitting over there in the corner, all the way across the room, and suppose next that it exercises its powers and makes my arm suddenly move upwards. Scotus would say that doesn’t count as demon possession either. My arm would certainly be under the influence of the demon in the corner, but I would not be possessed.

So in order to possess a material body, angels and demons must do both of the things I’ve mentioned: they must take control of the body as the mover or puppeteer, and they must occupy the same reason of space. As Scotus sees it, those conditions are each necessary and jointly sufficient for angel/demon possession of a material body.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 3

When historians talk about scholasticism, they have something fairly precise in mind. The hallmark of scholasticism is a method of problem-solving that was taught in medieval universities. It is essentially a method whereby one tries to resolve a problem with the use of semantic and logical analysis.

So, for example, if you were a student at a medieval university, a typical lecture might begin with the professor asking a yes/no question. For instance: is it permissible to lie? That is, are there any cases when it is okay to lie, or is lying always wrong? Students were then expected to come up with an answer through the use of semantic and logical analysis.

Semantic analysis, because students were expected to distinguish between various meanings of the words being used. E.g., ‘lying’ could mean X, it could mean Y, and so on. Logical analysis, because students were expected to figure out what would logically follow from any given hypothesis. E.g., if ‘lying’ means X, then one set of consequences would logically follow, but if ‘lying’ means Y, then another set of consequences would logically follow.

That’s the scholastic method, and as I said, it was taught in the university classrooms. Virtually every problem was approached in this way.

Now, angels and demons were apparently discussed quite a lot in medieval university classrooms. If you were a student at a medieval university, chances are that you would study angels and demons at some point in your university career, and you would study angels and demons quite intensively.

Fortunately for us, university students were very good note-takers. They had a system of short-hand that allowed them to transcribe lectures pretty much word-for-word.

Also, medieval students had extend breaks just like students do today, so they would go home, trade notes, and talk over all these ideas with their friends.

For instance, if you were an Italian studying at Oxford, you might go home for summer break and exchange lecture notes with all your friends (who might be studying at Paris, Bologna, and so on). Then the next year, you would go back to your university, with your friends’ lecture notes, and you would exchange those lecture notes with your friends at Oxford. Those lecture notes would get spread around, and they would undoubtedly end up in the hands of your Professor, who would make a copy for himself. Your Professor would then discuss the ideas he had learned from Paris or Bologna in his own lectures.

Many of these lectures notes have survived, and that is immensely useful for the historian of medieval thought. And indeed, if we restrict ourselves just to the notion of angels and demons, we have a huge body of material, consisting of lecture transcripts (many of which have been edited by the Professors themselves) which record practically all of the theories about angels and demons that were discussed in the university classroom.

All of this material offers us a convenient lense through we can start to get at the role that angels and demons might have played in the medieval imagination. Of course, we need to be clear: this material represents the thoughts of the educated; quite literally, it represents the thoughts of medieval people who were either attending, or were teaching in, a medieval university. So we need to be aware of that before we try to make any inferences about what the ‘common folk’ might have thought about angels. But nonetheless, all this scholastic material is a piece of the larger puzzle, and if we want to understand the role of religious belief in the medieval imagination as a whole, we need to account for each piece of the puzzle.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 2

In the 13th and 14th centuries, the scholastics did not speculate about angels and demons in a vacuum. Their ideas are part of a much broader cultural context. Indeed, it seems to me that at that time, ideas about angels and demons permeate practically every sector of medieval society. To make this point, let me list just a few examples.

When I talk about angels and demons in the Middle Ages, one of the first things that comes to mind for a lot of people is the artwork. Medieval paintings are well known for their depictions of angels and demons (and this imagery of course survived well through the Renaissance). The outside of medieval cathedrals are covered with sculptures of angels and demons. And of course, there’s the literary work as well. Dante’s Divine Comedy features angels and demons quite prominently.

But we also find stories of angels and demons in medieval writings that are not as stylized as Dante’s Divine Comedy. For instance, medieval training manuals for young monks often have entire chapters filled with stories of angels and demons. One of my favorite such examples is a story of a demon who, taking the form of beautiful young woman, managed to lure a college student out into the forest, where she quickly whisked him away to hell. The student’s Professor then had to go to great lengths to convince the demon to return the student. Apparently this want meant as a warning for young monks about the dangers of following young women off into the forest (they might be demons).

Angels and demons also show up in law codes --- and not just ecclestiastical law, but also in civil/secular law. In the 13th and 14th centuries, there were ways to sue your neighbor for associating with angels or demons (Scotus is quite famous for his view about how to counter (police?) the spells of such meddling neighbors).

And, of course, I should mention the visions of the mystics. Throughout the writings of Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Sienna, and other 13th and 14th century mystics, we find page after page of encounters with angels and demons.

Finally, angels and demons were discussed within the context of scholasticism. In the next post, I’ll say a little more about what scholasticism is.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 1

By some estimates, over 100,000 people were killed during the witch hunts that occurred in continental Europe, England, and America. The witch craze began in the 15th century, and at that time, the notion of the ‘witch’ appeared with a rather precise definition.

Basically, witches were thought to be people (some men, but mostly women) who made the following sort of pact with a demon: in exchange for the witch’s soul, that demon would go and do all sorts of bad things to other people on the witch’s behalf. That’s how witches were thought to be able to cast spells on their neighbors. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t the witch who had the power to, say, make all your crops wither, make all your sheep sick, make you impotent, and so on. It was their demon who did all that.

Witches were also thought to do other things. For example, it was believed that they flew around on brooms, and that image has of course survived all the way up to our own day. (I should note that brooms became the witch’s flying stick of choice only in the 15th century. Before that, the preference was for the shovel.) Witches were also thought to gather together in local and regional meetings where they would have sex with demons, or even with Satan himself.

How do we know all this? Early modern witchcraft manuals. To cite the most famous: in 1486, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger published a book under the Latin title Malleus Malificarum, and that translates roughly as The Hammer of Witches. This was an early modern witchcraft manual --- not a manual for witches, but rather a manual for witch hunters. Indeed, in the Malleus Malificarum, the authors try to explain exactly what witches are; they try to explain how witches get their powers; they try to enumerate the various activities that witches get up to in the wee hours of the night; and they try to explain how one should go about investigating witches (via torture).

Now, if you sit down and read the Malleus Malificarum, you can’t help but notice how often the authors refer to ideas from earlier scholastic thinkers, e.g., people like Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus. This, of course, has not escaped the historian’s watchful gaze. Historians readily acknowledge that 15th and 16th century witchcraft theory has its origins in medieval scholasticism. Unfortunately though, historians have done a rather poor job of identifying and analyzing these scholastic origins.

Because the concept of the witch wasn’t really invented until the 15th century, you won’t find such clearly defined conceptions of witches in medieval scholastic writings. But what you do find are discussions about how angels and demons can interact with the physical world, and that’s the material that 15th and 16th century witchcraft theorists drew upon.

So, the origins of witchcraft theory should be traced back to scholastic discussions of angels and demons, and especially scholastic discussions about how angels and demons can interact with the physical world. In the following series of posts, I want to explore this in a little more detail.