What--or who--ended the Middle Ages? My answer is: Thomas Aquinas, who introduced Aristotle, and thereby reason, into medieval culture. In the thirteenth century, for the first time in a millennium, Aquinas reasserted in the West the basic pagan approach. What--or who--ended the Middle Ages? My answer is: Thomas Aquinas, who introduced Aristotle, and thereby reason, into medieval culture. In the thirteenth century, for the first time in a millennium, Aquinas reasserted in the West the basic pagan approach. Reason, he said in opposition to Augustine, does not rest on faith; it is a self-contained, natural faculty, which works on sense experience. Its essential task is not to clarify revelation, but rather, as Aristotle had said, to gain knowledge of this world.
Rand’s admiration for the greatest philosopher of Catholic Christianity may seem odd at first glance. The saintly Aquinas, known for being “frequently abstracted and in ecstasy," devoted his life to rationalizing faith. What could Rand have possibly seen in Aquinas?
There are a number of reasons why Rand had to regard this intensely religious thinker as one of the few philosophers to have a positive impact on history. The Objectivist philosophy of history needed to explain how the Middle Ages ended. What accounts for the progress of European Civilization beginning with the Renaissance? Since Objectivism believes that only philosophy can determine history, there had to be a philosophical cause. The problem is, all the philosophers of the Middle Ages were Christians. Luckily Rand never paid much attention to details: only broad abstractions interested her. So using the cover of vague abstractions, she was able to declare Aquinas a champion of Aristotle, because Aquinas is broadly linked to the Stagyrite. “The prelude to the Renaissance was the return of Aristotle via Thomas Aquinas,” she wrote. [FTNI, 21] Problem solved: henceforth no need for any true believing Objectivist to go into the matter in any more detail.
But it is precisely in the details that the Objectivist view can be seen for what it is: namely, as bad all the way through—bad as philosophy, as biography, as history. If we were to take Peikoff’s account seriously, we would have to believe that human beings are too stupid to figure out how to make any progress in this world until some philosopher comes along and tells them that they can use “reason” to gain knowledge of this world. This view leads to some immense absurdities, including, most infamously, Rand’s preposterous panegyric of Aristotle:
If we consider the fact that to this day everything that makes us civilized beings, every rational value that we possess—including the birth of science, the creation of the United States, even the structure of our language—is the result of Aristotle’s influence, of the degree to which, explicitly or implicitly, men accept his epistemological principles, we would have to say: never have so many owed so much to one man. [FTNI, 20]
One has to be appalling ignorant of history (and linguistics and science) to give any credence to these this baseless patter. If Aristotle is responsible for “everything that makes us civilized,” does this mean that everyone who lived before Aristotle was uncivilized? If so, that would pretty much place Periclean Athens beyond the civilized pale. It is strange that Aristotle’s philosophy should have preceded “everything that makes us civilized beings.” Of this notion Rand gives us not a shred of evidence. Yet this is no coincidence, because no shreds of evidence exist. Rand is simply making things up in order to justify her belief that philosophy determines the course of history.
Implicit in Rand’s contention about Aristotle’s influence is the idea that thinking is something that has to be invented. Before Aristotle, no rational values were possible because people did not know how to think rationally. They needed Aristotle’s logic for that. Logic, then, is critical to human thought. People aren’t really civilized without it.
There are no compelling reasons to believe that Rand is right on this point. Logic may be critical in mathematics and in specialized scientific work; but in everyday life, its uses are limited. Human beings can get along without it, using, instead (as they always have) trial and error experimentation mixed with loose analogical reasoning and other informal (and often logically invalid) inferences. Aristotle’s contribution to human civilization, though significant, is not anywhere as momentous as Rand makes it out to be.
Aristotle’s formulation of logic, though important, is somewhat vitiated by a critical error he (or his followers) made in relation to it. Aristotle decided that logic was the model of how people should think. As late as the 19th century, J. S. Mill could declare that nearly all of our knowledge of science and human conduct “is amenable to the authority of logic.” Since Mill’s view, more or less accepted by Rand, is not true, any attempt to put it in practice will inevitably have unintended results. When people consciously try to follow the classical reason of Aristotle and his followers, instead of reaching truth, they merely wind up coming up with reasons for what they wanted to believe all along. In other words, Aristotelian reason, in practical terms, is little more than rationalization.
With this in mind, we can understand why Aquinas, the great rationalizer of medieval Christianity, was drawn to Aristotelian reason. Rationalization is what "reason" is all about. If you want to give a pseudo-scientific varnish to your pet ideas, you dip into the toolbox of reason and you can rationalize to your heart's content. If, on the other hand, you want to learn facts about the real world, you have to adopt a much more critical approach involving an exhaustive examination of the relevant evidence, experimentation, and criticism through peer review. The scientific method is not the equivalent of Aristotle’s “reason”; it is, in many respects, a rejection of such vapid scholasticism.
If we consult the facts, rather than merely our “reason,” what, then, do we discover about the ending of the Middle Ages? Well, it certainly wasn’t ended by Aquinas: that much is clear. Outside of the fairly closed world of scholars, no one knew anything about Aquinas. Keep in mind: Aquinas lived before the age of the printing press, when books were scarce and few could read. The ending of the Middle Ages, far from having obscure intellectual causes, came about initially through the diminishment of feudal anarchy. The ninth and tenth centuries had been eras of extreme social disorganization—mostly brought about, not by the influence of Augustine or the Catholic Church, but by the terribly excursions of fierce barbarians from the north and east.
Europe [in the tenth century] ceased to be overrun by ruthless hordes [testified historian Henri Pirenne]. She recovered confidence in the future, and, with that confidence, courage and ambition. The date of the renewal of a cooperative activity on the part of the people might well be ascribed to the tenth century. At that date, likewise, social authorities began once more to acquit themselves in the role which it was their place to play… The prime need of that era, hardly rising above anarchy, was the need of peace, the most fundamental and most essential of all needs of society.
The first Truce of God was proclaimed in 989. Private wars, the greatest of the plagues that harassed those troubled times, were energetically combated by the territorial counts in France and by the prelates of the imperial Church in Germany….
[The eleventh century] is characterized, in contrast with the preceding one, by a recrudescence of activity so marked that it could pass for the vigorous and joyful awakening of a society long oppressed by a nightmare of anguish. In every demesne was to be seen the same burst of energy and, for that matter, optimism. The Church, revivified by the Clunisian reform, undertook to purify herself of the abuses which had crept into her discipline and to shake off the bondage in which the emperors held her.
It was the development of capitalistic, market-based institutions that, ultimately, ended the Middle Ages. In the eleventh century, the birth rate went up appreciably, providing Western Europe with plenty of cheap labor. With the greater social stability brought about by the pacification (via conversion to Christianity) of the barbarian invaders, enterprising men could now begin the slow process of developing a mercantile system. By the beginning of the twelfth century, the growing prosperity of merchant colonies enabled them to build ramparts of stone, flanked by towers, adding greater protection against attack. Cities capable of defense were critical to Europe’s growing merchant class, since the rights of trade must everywhere be defended with force. Medieval cities provided the seed bed for the birth and growth of modern capitalism.
The early developments of medieval trade and the resurgence of Western Europe occurred well before the birth of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. Indeed, Aquinas came along at the high tide of the Middle Age renaissance. Societal decadence, culminating in the black plague of the fourteenth century, when a third of Europe’s population perished within a few years time, coincided with the life of Aquinas. The Renaissance of the 15th century was merely the third in a series of upswings that Western Europe experienced after the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire (the others being the Carolingian Renaissance of the eighth century and Renaissance of the Middle Ages). The first two post-Empire renaissances had nothing to do with Thomas Aquinas, since they occurred before he was born. Nor was Aquinas the “bridge” to the final renaissance. Indeed, this last renaissance, which ushers in the modern world, involved elements that sharply conflicted with Aquinas, such as a renewed interest in Plato and the emergence non-Aristotelian empirical and mechanistic epistemological paradigms in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Christian church played a much larger role in the development of Western Civilization than Aquinas or his scholastic philosophy ever did. Critical to the revival of the West was the conversion of the fierce Scandinavian and Slavic barbarians to Christianity. No civilization was possible until this happened. Also critical was the church’s role as a unifying force. Governments in the Middle Ages were weak. Internecine warfare was tearing society apart. What was needed was a unifying force to keep infighting to a minimum. The church, by making use of crusades against Islam, managed to direct the energies of the warlike barons that ruled Europe against foreign targets, instead of against each other (and against the emerging merchant cities).
Whatever role ideas played in the course of European history, their affect is always greatly influenced by the development of institutions that are not the product of human design. Capitalism is not caused by the application of philosophical, political, or economic ideas. The Middle Ages were not economically or politically sophisticated enough to understand the workings of a complex free market, or to develop them a theory that would allow them to create a capitalist system. Such an understanding would only begin to develop in the 18th century. As a matter of fact, the nascent capitalism of the Middle Ages had to develop in the teeth of several ideas that went against its fundamental grain, such as notions concerning rank and birth, the honor codes of the feudal barons, and deep-rooted prejudices against usury (prejudices, I might add, shared by Aquinas and his philosophical idol, Aristotle).