Tag: Middle Ages

Pulling Thomas Aquinas Kicking and Screaming into the Twentieth Century

Josef Pieper’s views during the neo-Thomistic movement.

empty street in old town
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There are some authors who make you think, “I could read this guy, and just this guy, for the rest of my life. He’d bring me to greater and greater levels of wisdom and understanding.”

For me, the German philosopher Josef Pieper (1904–1997) is such a writer. He wrote in the Scholastic vein and was squarely within the Catholic neo-Thomistic movement of the mid-twentieth century.

A modernist might think, “How can a person steeped in Thomas Aquinas be relevant? Aquinas lived in the thirteenth-century, which was at least 50 years before Netflix.”

Pieper wrote for that kind of person.

Pieper, like Aquinas, was concerned about the truth: statements that correspond as closely as possible to reality. Truth is relevant to every age, including the modern one, contrary claims of our postmodernist friends notwithstanding. 

Granted, it’s necessary for the reader to take those truths and apply them to her life, to put them into the current cultural milieu. That’s not always easy, but the truths themselves are always relevant.

Fortunately, Pieper himself often put those truths into a modern context for his readers.

In his late twenties, he was fascinated by social problems and began to pursue studies in law and sociology, but it was the era of Nazi Germany. Such studies were, ahem, frowned upon.

So in 1934, he returned to his pursuit of Thomistic philosophy, but with the goal to make it comprehensible (relevant) to the modern person and social problems. 

Thick little books.” That’s how Hans Urs von Balthasar described Pieper’s works.

You can’t get through a Pieper book quickly any more than you can fly through poetry, or run through an art museum, or gulp fine wine. All such things are possible, … Read the rest

Listening to Podcasts at Oxford in 1374 and Kansas in 1974

Why do we love those conversational podcasts?

If you were a student at a medieval university, you listened to lectures.

And listened and listened and listened to lectures, often more than ten hours a day.

But they weren’t like lectures at today’s universities, where hundreds of students sit in a hall and listen to a professor deliver a monologue.

The medieval morning lectures were like that, but come afternoon, the lectures morphed into dialogue. The professor would assert a position, a graduate assistant would field questions or objections posed by undergraduates, and discussion ensued. At the end, the professor would summarize that afternoon’s conversation.

It was the “Scholastic disputation.”

Each session was meant to unfold knowledge gradually, as informed and inquisitive minds rubbed against one another, sharpening each other in the process, like knives rubbing against a whetstone.

Kansas: Early 1970s

The disputation, like everything else Scholastic, evaporated over the centuries and gave way to the mass lecture hall, with one professor doing all the talking.

In the 1970s, three professors at the University of Kansas brought back the disputation.

The three professors were John Senior, Frank Nelick, and Dennis Quinn, and they led the Integrated Humanities Program, a program dedicated to the wild notion of restoring a sense of beauty and poetic knowledge in its students.

The Program had a lot of facets (e.g., waltzes, star-gazing, great books), but its centerpiece may have been conversations among the three professors with the students watching.

The following description of these highly-popular sessions is taken from Fr. Francis Bethel’s John Senior and the Restoration of Realism.

The 80-minute classes were neither planned nor rehearsed. They weren’t even mentally prepared beforehand. Said Quinn in an interview:

We didn’t plan the lectures. We had lunch together before class started and on the way

Read the rest

Let’s Celebrate St. Albert

(Although, to be honest, I can’t hear the name “Albert” without thinking about “Fat Albert.”)

November 15th: Feast Day of St. Albert.

I’ve often wondered whether St. Albert was sad when his greatest student, St. Thomas Aquinas, died before him. Together, I think they capture both the true greatness and a kernel of greatness in the Catholic Middle Ages:

True Greatness: Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy is fundamentally the work of an integrated whole, both in the man and a society that allowed such a man to flourish.

Kernel of Greatness: St. Albert’s science heralded the coming of the modern age and its love of science. Despite modern science’s immense and tragic shortcomings, its jaw-dropping accomplishments can’t be denied. Its accomplishments are owed to a medieval culture that respected science, as evidenced in St. Albert.

Mental Floss just uploaded a video that debunks myths about the Middle Ages.

Much of it sucks: it starts with the canard that everyone in the Middle Ages thought the world was flat. It includes the Orient and indigenous cultures in America. The “Middle Ages” is a European historical reference point, but political correctness requires a reference to the rest of the world. It also celebrates Islam a bit.

But it has some redeeming characteristics. It acknowledges the Middle Ages’ great learning, its establishment of universities, and its interest in the outside (non-European world). … Read the rest

Twelve Aquinas Aphorisms

Simple observations from the medieval poster boy will give you new perspectives

The famous historian Will Durant ranked Thomas Aquinas as the fourth greatest thinker of all time.

When I saw that, I was shocked. Aquinas is the Catholic thinker extraordinaire. He is a canonized saint. His nickname is “The Angelic Doctor.”

Durant wasn’t impressed by such things, to say the least.

An Aside: Will Durant

A quick detour about Will Durant might be helpful to explain why it’s significant that he respected Aquinas so much.

Durant is best known for his monumental 11-volume The Story of Civilization, but he first made his name with the publication of The Story of Philosophy, which became an unlikely bestseller, selling 2,000,000 copies in the 1920s.

The book doesn’t have much Aquinas, and that’s an understatement. Its chapters jump from Aristotle (d. 322 BCE) to Francis Bacon (d. 1626 CE). The 2,000 years in-between receive only nine pages (out of 540). Thinkers like Epictetus, Augustine, Boethius, and Aquinas are mentioned only once or not at all.

It’s not surprising. Most of those missed years are conventionally known as the “Middle Ages” and they were in thorough disrepute during much of the twentieth century. If you told someone in the 1920s that you were studying the Middle Ages, she would’ve looked at you like someone would look at you today if you told her you’re studying VHS tapes.

Durant was raised Catholic. As a teenager, he planned on becoming a priest and enrolled at the Seton Hall University seminary in 1909. He spent a lot of time at the seminary library, diving into the likes of Darwin and Huxley, and lost his faith. Like many youngsters who lose their naïve faith, he embraced radical politics and atheism, turning against Catholicism.

So when … Read the rest