This is not St. Thomas Aquinas.

Those of you who have not been raised in the Christian tradition, especially that of mainstream Catholicism, may find Palmer's discussion of the medieval world view generally credible. However, many will find it rather puzzling if not offensively negative. What is going on here?

Part of what is going on is what I think is a brilliant decision by Palmer to present medieval philosophy — including its philosophy of human nature — as a semiotic system. The fact that he is writing as an "outsider" may have something to do with this decision, since insiders (in any system or world view) tend to use symbols rather than focus on them. That is, they tend not to appreciate that the symbols they are most comfortable with are only symbols rather than reality itself. Indeed, the best statement in the whole chapter seems to me to be Palmer's observation that "for the philosophers of the Middle Ages, human reason, too, is a sign of God's existence" (p. 103). Actually, for the medievals everything  was a sign, and indeed not just a static sign but a dynamic, affect-laden sacrament. This point has been made very nicely by Professor Forrest Baird, in a short passage that I hope you will look at since it also reflects much of my own understanding of what the philosophers of the middle ages were up to.

This is St. Thomas Aquinas.
  Another part of what is going on in this chapter is, I think, considerably less brilliant. In fact, I think Palmer is dead wrong in his characterization of the medieval view as a kind of intellectual terrorism. True, there were plenty of gargoyles and other weird images around — e.g., the tympanum featured in The Name of the Rose or the sketch on p. 112 — but there were also plenty of glorious images too, such as the lovely paintings and carvings, illuminated manuscripts, and of course the great Gothic cathedrals of Chartres and Notre Dame de Paris. I happen to be a longtime fan of Irwin Panofsky's little book Gothlc Architecture and Scholasticism, which argues that the grand upward sweep of the cathedrals reflects the God-oriented intellectual sweep of medieval thought (medieval philosophers were called "scholastics" because they divided into various schools of thought, whose differences don't concern us here).

To be fair to Palmer, he does try to do justice to the bright side of this period, and doesn't make the common mistake of regarding it as unrelieved ignorance and misery. Toward the end of the chapter he admits that "many find a kind of beauty in the medieval prescription" (p. 112), though it is clear that he is not one of those people. I think each of you will have a slightly different view of the Middle Ages. One source of difference is that you each have different points of access to the period (some of you are history buffs, some are religously oriented, and perhaps some are so disconnected from the whole period that the very term "middle ages" sounds like the time when your parents went through their midlife crises). Another source of difference, though, is your own very personal and profound conception of the God-human relationship (or non-relationship). No one is asking you to change religions, but please do not underestimate the force that religious assumptions have on philosophical reasoning.



There are many wonderful web sites for Gothic art and architecture. Relish their images as you work through this chapter.

Have you taken the assessment quiz for this chapter?