Thursday, February 22, 2007

"Literary Forms of Medieval Philosophy"

I found this article, Literary Forms of Medieval Philosophy, at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

While modern philosophy very often is unreadable, Medieval philosophy has its own problems due to the large number of literary forms in which it is written, including Allegory, Axiom, Commentary, Dialogue, Disputation, Meditation, Soliloquy, Sentences, Sophismata, Insolubilia, Obligationes, and the Summa.

Classically, there were three ways of knowing, which include authority, reason, and experience. The article describes authority:
If there is one formal characteristic found in medieval philosophical texts of every relevant period and among all the religious affiliations of its practitioners, it is the citation of authoritative texts, whether scripture, Plato, Aristotle, or other revered teachers. To contemporary readers, such references seem to show a slavish deference to authority and lack of autonomy or originality in the writer. The explanation is of course a good deal more complex than that...
Medieval philosophy often tried very hard to harmonize varying authorities. They did this because the
...basic assumption is that these authorities are all seeking and attempting to express part of a single truth.
This is wildly at odds with modern philosophy, which agrees with Pilate in asking "What is truth?" They assume that people are vile and power hungry and therefore must not be trusted. The Medievals were far more generous, assuming that ancient philosophers were sincere in attempting to find the truth. Clearly, the modern method leads to ideologies and factionalism, while the Medieval method leads to a more universal understanding.

A common literary form used in the Middle Ages was allegory. This way of teaching spiritual truth via everyday stories is the method Christ used when he spoke in parables. Aesop's Fables are allegorical stories that teach moral truths.
The models for allegorical writings and allegorizing of traditional texts (allegoresis) come to the Middle Ages mostly through Neoplatonic sources. Neoplatonic writers developed allegorical readings of both Plato and classical literature, finding in these diverse texts the same spiritual journey from this world to the next. They also composed their own allegories on similar themes. The underlying presupposition of allegory is that things can come to stand for something else, an assumption based on the relationship of material things to the One from which they have emanated. Because things come from the One, they are fragmentary reflections of the fullness of that goodness. Philo brings this technique to the reading of Hebrew scripture, thus influencing Augustine's development of allegorical readings of scripture.
The use of the term 'allegory' here seems to be broader than how we normally use the word:
What is remarkable about these works is the combination of allegory with science and philosophy. These writers do not think of the mythic and the scientific as opposing discourses. Rather the creation of new myths is associated with the work of creation, linking the work of God as artifex with that of the composer of allegory. Science and allegory are also linked by the activity of de-allegorization, the process of extracting the abstract and philosophical message hidden in the allegory.
This type of writing was revived in 20th century English literature most famously by G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Their use of the term 'myth' does not mean a made-up fantastic story, but rather an artistic retelling of great truth in a form that is both symbolic and realistic.
The controversial and difficult question is why these medieval thinkers chose the allegorical form.
The controversy only started in the modern period, however. Ancient and Medieval writers
...cite the need to provide access through the senses to a non-sensible reality and the need to use obvious metaphors so that their language will not be taken for a literally true representation of the divine. In the secondary literature, the most common reason given for the allegorical form is that the allegory is an heuristic device that makes the difficult and abstract message easier to understand. On this view, the allegorical form can be stripped away without changing the meaning of the text.
After the end of the Middle Ages, and during the Reformation, reason and faith were divorced, leading to our current religion versus science debates. Also during this time, reason itself was sundered, leading to separation between scientific, materialistic rationality and intuitive thinking: modern science and occult esotericism developed at precisely the same time in history. This led in the Modern period to the novel esoteric interpretation of allegory, which includes the extremes of occult magic and elitist political opinion.
On this view, most famously propounded by Leo Strauss and his followers, writers fearing persecution and misinterpretation decided to "hide" their true views behind the façade of allegory, in order to protect both themselves and their message...

In practice, this means taking small inconsistencies and other discrepancies in the text as indicative of a deeper or hidden view, looking for the author's "real" views in the mouths of characters in a dialogue or allegory who are otherwise presented unfavorably, etc.
Leo Strauss is most known for being the major inspiration for the Neo-Conservative movement, which is often accused of having hidden motives. Also, this interpretation of allegory is widely used to argue that various theologians were actually secret arch-heretics, and is often found in modern occult and secularist writings.

Medieval literature has a richness, beauty, and clarity, lacking in modern realistic writing, that ought to be more often imitated.

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