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L'errore di Aristotele. La polemica contro l'eternita del mondo nel XIII secolo (review)
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Reviewed by
Luca Bianchi. L'errore di Aristotele. La polemica contro l'eternita del mondo nel XIII secolo. Pubblicazioni della Facolta di Lettere e Filosofia dell'universita di Milano, 104. Sezione a cura del dipartimento di Filosofia, 2. Florence: La Nuova Italia Editrice, 1984. Pp. xviii + 210. Paper, L 17,000.

Although in the thirteenth century the works of Aristotle were widely received as a godsend (perhaps even literally) for the education of Christendom, they presented many problems arising from the fact, which was even more obvious than in the case of Plato, that Aristotle had not been a Christian, and held some opinions that were in direct conflict with Christian teaching. One such was his view that, rather than having [End Page 291] been created a finite number of years ago, the world had always existed. Discussion of this apparently simple issue rumbled on throughout the thirteenth century, with a crescendo leading up to 1277 when occurred the Bishop of Paris's condemnation of 219 propositions, and the flight from France of the "radical Aristotelians" (often called "Averroists") Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia. During the controversy a bewildering variety of opinions was thrown up, and this, together with the partialities of subsequent historians, has produced much historiographical confusion. In this welcome, carefully researched and lucidly presented volume Luca Bianchi paints a picture, which, although subtly toned, seems to make a great deal of sense.

No one in the controversy publicly maintained the eternity of the world, but instead the general view was that Aristotle's arguments had been insufficient, and that the world had been created with (not in) time as a result of an eternal ordering of temporal matters. Bianchi also plausibly denies that such figures as Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia were closet Aristotelians. They may have assigned a greater degree of probability than many to Aristotle's reasonings, but they certainly did not regard them as demonstrative, and freely acceded to the truth of the doctrine of creation. The doctrine of the double truth, by which a proposition may be both true in philosophy and false in theology is to be regarded more as a bogeyman, produced by the conservative opposition from a perverted reading of their views.

If there was unanimity that the world was not eternal and that Aristotle had failed to show that it was, there was great divergence as to whether human reason could show that it was of only a finite age. Probably the majority view was that it could, but against this were firmly aligned both the radical Aristotelians and Thomas Aquinas and his followers. Thomas argued against Bonaventura that being created from nothing (ex nihilo) did not imply being created after nothing (post nihilum), and that the eternal existence of the world could be quite compatible with its creation by God. Those trying rationally to establish that the world had not always existed made much use of arguments arising from paradoxes of the infinite, but, as has so often been the case, failed to convince their opponents that such highflown speculations could provide clinching demonstrations of the actual nature of things.

Bianchi is concerned to question the conventional picture in which Aquinas is seen as treading a via media between the conservative theologians on the one hand and the radical Aristotelians on the other. In his more nuanced contrast, Thomas's philosophical agnosticism on the question is a sign of a new form of theology in which indemonstrable truths of faith are assumed as principles. The radicals on the other hand had their main concern in safeguarding the autonomy of philosophy (and the Arts Faculty) from the intrusion of theological arguments. Faith and reason operated at different levels with different types of discourse. The former may have the better claim to truth, but this did not justify it interfering with the latter. Indignantly opposed to both these camps were the conservatives, such as Bonaventura and Templet, who were scared lest such rationalism should confuse the troops, and who held the all too human, if unphilosophical, view that arguments leading to accepted truths should not be subjected to the same radical questioning as...