, , , , ,

Medieval Christian philosophy (or theology), often referred to as “scholasticism”, is often characterized as being about abstract questions with no relevance to anybody outside the scholastics’ own tradition. “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” is often taken as an example of their sort of irrelevant question, though as far as I know no medieval philosopher ever actually asked that question. People who characterize medieval Christian thought this way would likely also need to say the same about medieval Muslim and Jewish philosophy if they knew anything about it (which, typically, they don’t).

You will probably have guessed that I do not share this assessment of medieval thought. True, some of their questions presuppose so much that it is hard to imagine it relevant to those outside their tradition – such as the question of whether angels can occupy the same physical space, which they actually did ask. But every tradition depends on assumptions that others may not necessarily share – certainly including analytic philosophy, where so much ethical reflection depends on taken-for-granted “intuitions”. For these reasons I often refer to analytic philosophy as the scholasticism of the liberal tradition.

Yet analytic philosophy does ask questions that are relevant to those who do not share its assumptions, and the same is true of medieval thought – even on questions that might appear irrelevant at first glance. I note this point with reference to one medieval question in particular: the debate between intellectualism and voluntarism. Which is to say, whether God should be understood essentially as an intellect, or as a will.

For those who do not take God’s existence for granted, the question indeed sounds obscure and unimportant. But I want to show why the question actually matters. I will begin this week by pointing out how it affected other questions within medieval thought, and in future posts I intend to show how, in a modified form, it remains directly relevant to us today and informs our own questions.

The question of intellectualism and voluntarism spanned all the major traditions. The intellectualist side, that God is an intellect, was taken up by medieval Aristotelians whether Christian (Aquinas), Muslim (ibn Sīnā) or Jewish (Maimonides). The voluntarists who disputed it likewise included Christians like Ockham, Muslims like al-Ghazālī and Jews like ibn Gabirol. The debate was important to all of them. Why?

For those who do believe in God, the question helps one answer basic problems involved in the conception of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being. There is a certain paradox in the notion of omnipotence, expressed in the quip “Could God create a rock so big even he couldn’t lift it?” (A closely related formulation is: “Could God create a square circle?”) Because they hold God to be reason, intellectualists lean toward a No answer to such questions: Thomas Aquinas said that God’s omnipotence does not extend to doing things that are logically impossible. Voluntarists, by contrast, hold such an answer to limit God unnecessarily: God can do anything he wants, and if we don’t understand how that’s possible, that is because our rational understanding is deeply limited compared to God’s will.

But the importance of intellectualism and voluntarism extends far beyond God himself – for a conception of God always implies a conception of the world. Even belief in God’s nonexistence itself implies something about the way that we see the world. (Before Darwin’s theory came to explain the apparent design of the biological world, such an atheistic way of seeing the world was unscientific.) A while ago I noted MacIntyre’s point that for the Aristotelian intellectualist ibn Sīnā, “nature presents itself as radically incomplete, as requiring a ground beyond itself, if it is to be intelligible…” The design coming from God’s rational intellect allows us to explain the nature of the world.

As far as I can tell, however, this is not how the world would be seen by voluntarists like William of Ockham, or like ibn Sīnā’s foe al-Ghazālī. Ockham even limits the operation of his famous “razor”, the principle that one should keep one’s metaphysics simple, when it comes to God and miracles: “God does many things by means of more which He could have done by means of fewer, simply because He wishes it, and no other cause is to be sought. From the very fact that He wishes it, it is done suitably, and not in vain.” We can’t infer the nature of God from the world or vice versa; God could have, and might have, designed a completely irrational world just because he wanted to, and who are we to question him?

For similar reasons, voluntarists also have an easier time dealing with the problem of suffering. It doesn’t make sense that an all-good all-powerful God should let so many suffer, but it doesn’t have to make sense. God is a more fundamental category than goodness itself.

Finally, the way we understand God also seems to affect our understanding of the ultimate good that God promises to humans – a good that monotheists since at least Augustine have placed in an afterlife, having seen the suffering and wickedness found here on earth. What constitutes that posthumous reward for the virtuous that moderns have come to refer to as “heaven”? Aristotle thought that the life of the gods was an activity of pure contemplation, and his intellectualist followers like Aquinas thought that this would be where the human ultimate good would lie. In heaven we become more divine, more godlike – and for intellectualists that means being more contemplative. The voluntarists, or so suggests the IEP article on the subject, saw heaven instead as an activity, an activity of love: for to be divine is not merely to think but to act according to a loving will.

All this should begin to show, I hope, why the question of God as intellect or will made all the difference in the world to medieval Western philosophers. (Naturally, “Western philosophers” includes the Muslims.) If you are an Abrahamic monotheist, it should make a big difference to you too.

Moreover, I think it makes a difference even if you aren’t. The debates between the intellectualists and voluntarists, as far as I can tell, continue to extend into the “purely secular” debates of the modern West. They reverberate now even for those who would otherwise think the concept of God to be antiquated hogwash. But more on that in posts to come.