Medieval Relativisms by John Marenbon

In a commencement speech at Dickinson College yesterday that focused on the virtues of free speech and free inquiry, Ian McEwan referenced the golden age of the pagan philosophers. But from the turn of the fifth century to the beginning of the eighteenth, Christian intellectuals were as fascinated as they were perplexed by the “Problem of Paganism,” or how to reconcile the fact that the great thinkers of antiquity, whose ideas formed the cornerstones of Greek and Roman civilization, were also pagans and, according to Christian teachings, damned. John Marenbon, author of the new book Pagans and Philosophers, has written a post explaining that relativism (the idea that there can be no objective right or wrong), is hardly a post-modern idea, but one that emerged in medieval times as a response to this tension.

Medieval Relativisms
By John Marenbon

Pagans and Philosophers jacketRelativism is often thought to be a characteristically modern, or even post-modern, idea. Those who have looked more deeply add that there was an important strand of relativism in ancient philosophy and they point (perhaps wrongly) to Montaigne’s remark, made late in the sixteenth century, that ‘we have no criterion of truth or reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the country where we are’ as signalling a revival of relativist thinking. But the Middle Ages are regarded as a time of uniformity, when a monolithic Christianity dominated the lives and thoughts of everyone, from scholars to peasants – a culture without room for relativism. This stereotype is wrong. Medieval culture was not monolithic, because it was riven by a central tension. As medieval Christian thinkers knew, their civilization was based on the pagan culture of Greece and Rome. Pagan philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, were their intellectual guides, and figures from antiquity, such as the sternly upright Cato or Regulus, the general who kept the promise he had given to his enemies even at the cost of his life, were widely cited as moral exemplars. Yet, supposedly, Christian truth had replaced pagan ignorance, and without the guidance and grace provided for Christians alone, it was impossible to live a morally virtuous life. One approach to removing this tension was to argue that the pagans in question were not really pagans at all. Another approach, though, was to develop some variety of limited relativism.

One example of limited relativism is the view proposed by Boethius of Dacia, a Master in the University of Paris in the 1260s. Boethius was an Arts Master: his job was to teach a curriculum based on Aristotle. Boethius was impressed by Aristotelian science and wanted to remain true to it even on those points where it goes against Christian teaching. For example, Christians believe that the universe had a beginning, when God created it, but Aristotle thought that the universe was eternal – every change is preceded by another change, and so on, for ever. In Boethius’s view, the Christian view contradicts the very principles of Aristotelian natural science, and so an Arts Master like himself is required to declare ‘The world has no beginning’. But how can he do so, if he is also a Christian? Boethius solves the problem by relativizing what thinkers say within a particular discipline to the principles of that discipline. When the Arts Master, in the course of teaching natural science, says ‘The world has no beginning’, his sentence means: ‘The world has no beginning according to the principles of natural science’ – a statement which is consistent with declaring that, according to Christian belief the world did have a beginning. Relativizing strategies were also used by theologians such as Henry of Ghent, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham to explain how some pagans can have even heroic virtue and yet be without the sort of virtue which good Christians alone can have.

These and other medieval relativisms were limited, in the sense that one reference frame, that of Christianity, was always acknowledged to be the superior one. But Boethius’s relativism allowed pragmatically a space for people to develop a purely rational scientific world-view in its own terms, and that of the theologians allowed them to praise and respect figures like Cato and Regulus, leaving aside the question of whether or not they are in Hell. Contemporary relativists often advocate an unlimited version of relativism, in which no reference frame is considered superior to another. But there are grave difficulties in making such relativism coherent. The less ambitious medieval approach might be the most sensible one.

John Marenbon is a senior research fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, honorary professor of medieval philosophy at Cambridge, and a fellow of the British Academy. He is the author and editor of many books, including Abelard in Four Dimensions, The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy, The Cambridge Companion to Boethius, and Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction.