In his new book, historian Tom Holland explores Christianity’s enduring impact on the Western world. Ranging from the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC to the Beatles, Dominion asks just what made the ancient sect so revolutionary and disruptive. In the extract below, Holland looks at medieval Christian translations of Aristotle
In 1085, Toledo, the ancient capital of the Visigothic monarchy and a celebrated centre of learning, had fallen to the king of Castile, the greatest of the various Spanish realms. Within only a few decades, a vast realm of translators had been assembled by the city’s archbishop: Muslims, Jews, monks from Cluny. They had much to keep them busy. As well as texts by Muslim and Jewish scholars, Toledo had a treasure trove of Greek classics, works by ancient mathematicians, doctors, philosophers. These, although long available in Arabic translation, had been lost to the Latin West for many centuries. One author in particular was the focus of Christian obsession. ‘Only two books by Aristotle are still known to the use of the Latins.’ So Abelard, shortly before 1120, had lamented. Within a decade, his complaint was out of date. Iacopo, a Venetian cleric long resident in Constantinople, had embarked on an astonishing labour that would see, by the time of his death in 1147, various works by Aristotle translated directly from Greek. To this stream of translation the efforts of the school in Toledo had soon added a flood. By 1200, almost all of Aristotle’s known works were available in Latin. University teachers committed to the proposition that God’s creation was governed by rules, and that reason might enable mortals to comprehend them, fell on the writings of antiquity’s most renowned philosopher with a mixture of avidity and relief. That an authority such as Aristotle had been given voice again promised to set their own investigations into the functioning of the universe on a more rigorous footing than ever before. Paris in particular had fast become a hotbed of Aristotelian study. This sense of excitement generated by its schools had attracted students from across Christendom. Among them had been two future popes: Innocent III and Gregory IX.
Yet the resurrection of a sage who had lived long before Christ, nor had any familiarity with scripture, presented challenges as well as opportunities. If numerous aspects of his teaching – the fixity of species, or the unchanging motion of sun, and moon, and stars as they revolved around the earth – could readily be integrated into the fabric of Christian teaching, then others were more problematic. The very notion of a rationally ordered cosmos, so appealing to natural philosophers, continued to unsettle many in the Church. Aristotle’s insistence that there had been no creation, that the universe had always existed and always would, was a particularly glaring contradiction of Christian scripture. How, then, when crusaders were struggling to cleanse southern France of heresy, could students in the kingdom’s capital possible be permitted to study such a noxious doctrine? Anxieties in Paris were heightened by the discovery in 1210 of various heretics whose reading of Aristotle had led them to believe that there was no life after death. The reaction of the city’s bishop was swift. Ten of the heretics were burned at the stake. Various commentaries on Aristotle were burned as well. Aristotle’s own books on natural philosophy were formally proscribed. ‘They are not to be read Paris either publicly or in private’.
But the ban failed to hold. In 1231, Gregory IX. Issued a decree that guaranteed the university effective independence fro the interference of bishops, and by 1255 all of Aristotle’s texts were back on the curriculum. The people best qualified to learn from them, it turned out, were not heretics, but inquisitors. The days of annihilating entire towns on the grounds that God would know his own were over. The responsibility for rooting out heresy had now been entrusted to friars. Taking the lead was an order that had been established by papa decree back in 1216, to provide the Church with a shock force of intellectuals. Its founder, a Spaniard by the name of Dominic, had touted were the good men were to be found, matching them in all their austerities, and harrying them in debate. In 1207, two years before the annihilation of Béziers, he had met with a good man just north of the city, and argued publicly with him for over a week. To friars schooled in this tradition of militant preaching, Aristotle had come as a godsend. The obligation of the Dominicans was to question, to investigate, to evaluate evidence. Who better to serve as a model for this approach than history’s most famous philosopher?
Extract from Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind by Tom Holland (Little, Brown, £25). Buy a copy here.
Tom Holland will be speaking about his new book at the Idler Dinner on 14 January. Find out more here.