Return to The Middle Ages

It is often said as a critique of The Middle Ages that it’s philosophers and theologians were much too pedantic and unoriginal, that they were splitting straws instead of, say, planting new trees. And it is true as a fact: they really were putting a lot of importance on the logic and form of their thoughts and arguments. But how is this a thing to be criticized or mocked, except when taken so far that the form became more important than the idea — and it almost never were so, I really do not understand. Saying what you mean by certain less known words before you use them, or how exactly did you come to this and not that conclusion is often quite helpful to the reader, if your aim is to help him understand you better and not only displaying your knowledge and mastery of long and often obscure words. Perhaps it is not they who had too much rigor in such things, but we who now have too few of it.

In any case, the second part of the criticism concerns itself with their lack of originality. And that also might be true, at least in part, although some, like st. Thomas Aquinas, can hardly be accused of such a thing by anyone who has ever read a single paragraph of their work. Still, it is true that none of them started philosophizing from scratch. Rather, they built their theories on all that was considered good and true in those that came before them. Even so, criticising them for having done things in such a way only shows a somewhat concerning carelessness of ours, namely that we are confused about the purpose of doing philosophy in the first place. The purpose is, or at least ought to be, the discovery of truth. So if someone already uncovered a part of it before we joined the pursuit, trying to be original about it can mean only one of two things: either you can pursue the matter for a while and then agree with your predecessor, in which case you wasted your time and ended without being original at all, or you can after some time come to a conclusion different from that of the man before you, in which case you actually succeded in being original, only with a slight problem: by being original you also ended up being wrong.

Our confusion on this subject mostly stems from our love for originality, which is a rather modern fashion, and that is why we sometimes value it more than the old-fashioned love for truth. But even if we continue insisting on originality, the criticism of medievals still doesn’t really stand, despite what it may seem at first. Those who try the hardest to be original, setting aside old truths and ways in pursuit of the new, most often only succeed in repeating old errors in the very same ways. But those who care not for originality, who are humble enough to try to understand and accept other’s true conclusions and build upon them, those are the ones who in the end unintentionally discover something new.

The way to build on and expand the ideas of others is to put them to the test, to find what they’re based on and made of. It takes a quite bit of logic and rigor to properly do such an analysis, to really comprehend the depths of any set of ideas, and it also takes time. Therefore some less patient men might and sometimes do derogativelly call it “splitting the straws”, but they often forget that splitting straws, just like splitting atoms, is an excellent method for making novel discoveries. Or to put it in a different way, to plant a new apple tree you must first split an apple open to obtain its seeds. And medieval monks, to whom this critique is mostly directed, knew a lot more about agriculture than our modern intellectuals do today.

So then, if someone ever accuses you of being medieval in your philosophy or way of thinking, instead of feeling insulted for some reason, you might just as well thank him for the compliment.

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