Part 6

The Schoolmen and the Averroists

by Leibniz
  1. The question of the conformity of faith with reason has always been a great problem.

In the primitive Church, the ablest Christian authors adapted themselves to the ideas of the Platonists, which were:

  • the most acceptable to them
  • the most generally in favour at that time.

Little by little Aristotle took the place of Plato, when:

  • the taste for systems began to prevail,
  • theology itself became more systematic, owing to the decisions of the General Councils, which provided precise and positive formularies.

St. Augustine, Boethius and Cassiodorus in the West, and St. John of Damascus in the East contributed most towards reducing theology to scientific form, not to mention Bede, Alcuin, St. Anselm and some other theologians versed in philosophy.

Finally came the Schoolmen.

The leisure of the cloisters allowed speculation. This was assisted by Aristotle’s philosophy translated from Arabic.

This led to the mixing of theology and philosophy wherein most of the questions arose from the trouble that was taken to reconcile faith with reason.

But this was not fully successful because:

  • theology had been much corrupted by the unhappiness of the times, by ignorance and obstinacy.
  • philosophy had its own very great faults
    • It found itself burdened with those of theology

The incomparable Grotius was the gold hidden under the rubbish of the monks’ barbarous Latin.

I have therefore oft-times wished that a man of talent, whose office had necessitated his learning the language of the Schoolmen, had chosen to extract thence whatever is of worth, and that another Petau or Thomasius had done in respect of the Schoolmen what these two learned men have done in respect of the Fathers.

It would be a very curious work, and very important for ecclesiastical history, and it would continue the History of Dogmas up to the time of the Revival of Letters (owing to which the aspect of things has changed) and even beyond that point. For sundry dogmas, such as those of physical predetermination, of mediate knowledge, philosophical sin, objective precisions, and many other dogmas in speculative theology and even in the practical theology of cases of conscience, came into currency even after the Council of Trent.

  1. The great schism in the West still endures.

Before that schism, there was a sect of philosophers in Italy which disputed this conformity of faith with reason which I maintain.

They were dubbed ‘Averroists’ – adherents of a famous Arab author Averroes. .

  • He was called the Commentator by pre-eminence
  • Of all Arabs, he penetrated furthest into Aristotle’s meaning.

He extended what Greek expositors had already taught.

He maintained that according to Aristotle, and even according to reason (and at that time the two were considered almost identical) there was no case for the immortality of the soul.

Aristotle says that the human kind is eternal. Therefore, if individual souls die not, one must resort to the metempsychosis rejected by Aristotle.

Or, if there are always new souls, one must admit the infinity of these souls existing from all eternity. But actual infinity is impossible, according to the doctrine of the same Aristotle.

Therefore, it is a necessary conclusion that the souls, that is, the forms of organic bodies, must perish with the bodies, or at least this must happen to the passive understanding that belongs to each one individually.

Thus, there will only remain the active understanding common to all men, which according to Aristotle comes from outside, and which must work wheresoever the organs are suitably disposed; even as the wind produces a kind of music when it is blown into properly adjusted organ pipes.

  1. Nothing could have been weaker than this would-be proof.

It is not true that Aristotle refuted metempsychosis, or that he proved the eternity of the human kind.

After all, it is quite untrue that an actual infinity is impossible. Yet this proof passed as irresistible amongst Aristotelians, and induced in them the belief that there was a certain sublunary intelligence and that our active intellect was produced by participation in it.

But others who adhered less to Aristotle went so far as to advocate a universal soul forming the ocean of all individual souls, and believed this universal soul alone capable of subsisting, whilst individual souls are born and die.

According to this opinion the souls of animals are born by being separated like drops from their ocean, when they find a body which they can animate; and they die by being reunited to the ocean of souls when the body is destroyed, as streams are lost in the sea. Many even went so far as to believe that God is that universal soul, although others thought that this soul was subordinate and created. This bad doctrine is very ancient and apt to dazzle the common herd. It is expressed in these beautiful lines of Vergil (Aen., VI, v. 724):

Principio coelum ac terram camposque liquentes,

Lucentemque globum Lunae Titaniaque astra,

Spiritus intus alit, totamque infusa per artus

Mens agitat molem, et magno se corpore miscet.

Inde hominum pecudumque genus vitaeque volantum.


And again elsewhere (Georg., IV, v. 221):

Deum namque ire per omnes

Terrasque tractusque maris caelumque profundum:

Hinc pecudes, armenta, viros, genus omne ferarum,

Quemque sibi tenues nascentem arcessere vitas.

Scilicet huc reddi deinde ac resoluta referri.


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