Is Santorum the finest mind of the 13th century?

Apparently a reviewer of one of his books so called him that because he applies natural law theory to moral and political policy. I think he’s just warmed over neo-Thomism with a dash of Newman, no small thing in itself, so far as Catholic intellectualism goes, but since I haven’t read him, I can’t say much more. I note that no references are made to Aristotle, Thomas, or Newman in the book.

But I’d like to make a comment about this “thirteenth century” thing, as if the century was a period of benighted ignorance and prejudice. People often do not know that the 12th and 13th centuries were the first renaissance in the west after a period of relative intellectual stagnation. In the 12th century there was a flowering of science and political thought (in part due to the constant conflicts between various Norman Holy Roman Emperors and the Popes, which resulted in our distinction between secular or temporal power and sacred or spiritual power, which, incidentally, Santorum and the religious right in the US wishes to abolish). My favourite guy, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, was in this period, and was remarkably modern in a way that, say, Charlemagne was not.

But let us consider some of the minds of the thirteenth century (Fred was 12th).

There’s Aquinas, one of the clearest thinkers of all time, and the guy who made Aristotle the official philosophical source of western Christendom. More importantly, there was his teacher, Albertus Magnus, who wrote a 26 book study of animals, De Animalibus, in which he did considerable actual observation and even experiment (he debunked the barnacle goose myth by interbreeding male and female barnacle geese in the usual fashion). This is the beginnings of natural history.

Then there’s Roger Bacon, who also undertook empirical and even experimental investigations on magnetism (following de Marincourt and the otherwise unknown John of London, and later influencing William Gilbert in the 16th century), and his teacher Robert Grosseteste, who studied astronomy and optics. This is the beginnings of modern empirical science by experiment.

As to philosophical influence, this was the century of William of Ockham, he of the famous razor, whose nominalistic tendencies directly set off the styles of thought needed for science. It was the century of Ramon Llull, whose neo-Platonic musings set off the universal language project that led to, among other things, a fascination for ordering data carefully that also contributed to the scientific revolution of the 17th century. Others important thinkers of the time include Bonaventure, Petrus de Ibernia, and William of Auxerre, both of whom attempted a reconciliation of Aristotelian naturalism with Christian theology.

In such company, Santorum would not even rate a mention. He would be little more than a populariser of what the real thinkers were doing, and even then would be seen as a reactionary.

18 Comments

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18 Responses to Is Santorum the finest mind of the 13th century?

  1. I read an interesting essay by Czech philosopher Zdenek Neubauer that modern times has started in spiritual sense by Joachim de Fiore (1135-1202).
    Neubauer has reinterpreted Fiore’s teaching on Trinity.
    And according to Eric Voegelin:
    “In his trinitarian eschatology Joachim created the aggregate of symbols that govern the self-interpretation of modern political society to this day.” [7]

    http://www.lsu.edu/artsci/groups/voegelin/society/2009%20Papers/Matthias%20Riedl.shtml

  2. Ben Breuer

    Small correction: Fred did live a good (the better) part of his life in the 13th century. He died in 1250. Also, he and his dad would probably be the only ones one might consider Norman Holy Roman Emps, due to their acquisition (for Henry VI) and inheritance (for Fred) of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. And conflicts between the Emperors and the Roman Popes started with the Salic Emperors in the 11th century (Henry IV, particularly). The got acerbated in the early 1200s because the empire and hereditary lands of the Staufen emperors enclosed the Papal State.

  3. Jeb

    “He was a Norman, who were regarded by the rest of “civilised” Europe as barbarian war mongers. Nevertheless his court was educated and sophisticated.”

    I loved the article you sent me some years ago on Fred. I would nit pick on this point though. In Species you suggested Fred deviated from Norman tradition by installing a court that was culturally sophisticated.

    This is how the Normans worked. They had the most sophisticated military machine in Western Europe, which allowed for significant expansion and political successes in this period.

    To successfully hold territory they employed a different long term survival strategy, they disappeared.

    They integrated into the local cultures, which they controlled militarily. Courtly patronage of native arts and learning was central to that policy. Such adoption was key to this evolutionary strategy and long term survival and success.

    The conquest of Sicily is perhaps one important example of this Norman cultural strategy bearing fruit, particularly with regard to natural history and the sciences. As it brings the “Robber barons” of Western Europe into direct contact with Muslim learned tradition at court.

    This mix of military, political and cultural success creates a group of learned and highly confident individuals with everything to play for.

    Norman cultural strategy and the translation movement in the English education system with a flow of knowledge through Sicily creates a distinct cultural environment that allows knowledge to flower among a politically successful administrative class.

    But I think the cultural strategy the Normans adopt to ensure genetic successes rather than cultural survival is a vital factor in this narrative.

    • Jeb

      Its a rather different cultural strategy than those used by the storm troopers of modern science armed with the sword of truth and shield of righteousness. The storm troopers of Medieval Europe were sophisticated and successful in this regard and were not limited to the stick, stick and more stick, school of thought which would have resulted in short term gain long term extinction.

      If the Normans had adopted such modern cultural strategies things would have turned out rather differently much to the detriment of knowledge.

  4. One small correction, Roger Bacon is no longer considered to have been a student of Robert Grosseteste although he was obviously strongly influenced by his works.

  5. Jeb

    Reading this made me think (always a rare thing) in relation to a post Bill Benzon made drawing attention to a recent article which seemed to imply that science and the humanities should keep a respectful distance from each other and maintain distinct differences.

    I don’t see the issue. I don’t find it interesting asking questions of individual thinkers or texts, partly because I am not qualified to deal with such questions. I am not interested in asking were the answers and questions that occur in this period right or wrong from a science or philosophical perspective or viewing the period as developing through the advance of rational ideas.

    I like asking wider questions how did such creatures and the infrastructure need to support such creatures as a Grosseteste or an Ockham come to exist at this period? How are texts moving across cultures, what are the routes and cultural twists and turns in the path they are taking and what else is moving and developing with them? Why do such things become of value at this period and not before?

    But I am more than aware that asking such questions can only provide partial answers. Pulling up the drawbridge and suggesting that history is only to be understood from one perspective or another seems to me a crazy idea.

    Arguments need to be messy with a wide range of perspectives. Thinkers do over inflect evidence in debate when blood runs hot and the desire to win rather than understand takes over.

    But I think people should be grown up enough to understand the issues and deal with them.

    I don’t want to reside in some stone keep having to sally forth every once in a while to vanquish some imaginary monster when internal cultural anxiety rates grow too high and some imaginary sense of self appears threatened.

    Its a high energy activity and complete waste of time.

  6. Pingback: Rick Santorum and the 13th Century - Forbes

  7. Jocelyn Stoller

    Other minds to add:
    13th century French scientist Pierre Pelerin de Maricourt not only conducted early experiments on magnetism, described the properties of magnets and laws of attraction and repulsion, conceived of a universal astrolabe and a pivoting compass, but also laid out a treatise on the fundamental laws of magnetism that serves as a model of inductive reasoning.

    Also, William of Moerbeke (c. 1215 – 1286) faithfully translated the works of Aristotle, including Politics (and several original texts that have since been lost) directly from Greek into Latin, as well as the works of Archimedes and other mathematicians. According to Wikipedia, his translation of Theological Elements by Proclus (1268), was “one of the fundamental sources of the revived Neo-Platonic philosophical currents of the 13th century.”

  8. Jocelyn Stoller

    Sorry, I see you already had listed de Maricourt, but spelled it “Marincourt”.

  9. jeb

    I like Gerald de Barri but many don’t. He is an utter carcrash of thought and contradiction but his uses are wide ranging. His education, relationship with Hereford and the translation school are interesting. He is pleasingly messy to deal with.

    He is also rather appealing on a personal level. Its unusual to get a glimpse of individuals at this period. Gerald’s work always screams of Gerald’s, very powerful personality. His contrary nature is rather amusing and he is very much a product of his time at a particularly interesting period.

    He is an interesting subject to dissolve into a wider context.

  10. Monica

    You left a very important event of the 12th and 13th Centuries that I think is what the reviewer of Santorum’s book was referring to: the inquisition. That is the kind of mind Santorum has: like Torquemada.

  11. Torquemada is fifteenth century, after the Renaissance. And even had he been 12th or 13th C, the argument is like this:

    “Fred has a fine twentieth century mind”

    “Oh, you mean he’s as bad as Hitler?”

    • Monica

      Yes, Torquemada was 15th Century, but he exemplifies the Inquisition, the Catholic church’s response to anyone who didn’t agree with its edicts,w which started in the 12th century and continued for hundreds of years. Santorum wants states to be able to outlaw contraception (not just abortion) because he is a ‘good’ Catholic and does not think anyone else has a right to different beliefs. I understand you wan to point out that the 13th Century wasn’t bad, but let’s be clear on what Santorum stands for and why that reviewer said what he did:

      “Writing at the New York Review of Books today (in a post that deserves a full read), Garry Wills offers what should be the final word on Santorum’s backward-facing faithiness:

      “Rick Santorum is a nice smiley fanatic. He does not believe in evolution or global warming or women in the workplace. He equates gay sex with bestiality (Rick “Man on Dog” Santorum). He equates contraception with the guillotine. Only a brain-dead party could think him a worthy presidential candidate. Yet he is praised by television pundits, night and day, for being “sincere” and “standing by what he believes.” He is the principled alternative to the evil Moderation of Mitt Romney and the evil Evil of Newt Gingrich. He is presented as a model Catholic. Torquemada was, in that sense, a model Catholic.”
      http://www.religiondispatches.org/dispatches/guest_bloggers/5704/on_rick_santorum%27s_piety%3A_%22torquemada_was,_in_that_sense,_a_model_catholic%22/

      • Then surely it would be best to say Santorum is among the finest minds of the Counter-reformation or the Catholic Inquisition, which would be true. To slander entire cultures and centuries is to overlook our heritage, and the meme that the medieval era was a time of unenlightenement is a mistake.

        Discovering the first renaissance (one wag suggested to me it was the “naissance”, but that surely has to go to the classical era of Greece and Rome) teaches us that cultural progress is neither monotonous nor inevitable. What is gained can be lost when reactionaries get the upper hand, and we are losing the benefits of the Enlightenment and Renaissance now; I can only hope we don’t end up with another Reformation and Thirty Years War…

  12. Aaron Clausen

    Discovering the first renaissance (one wag suggested to me it was the “naissance”, but that surely has to go to the classical era of Greece and Rome) teaches us that cultural progress is neither monotonous nor inevitable. What is gained can be lost when reactionaries get the upper hand, and we are losing the benefits of the Enlightenment and Renaissance now; I can only hope we don’t end up with another Reformation and Thirty Years War…

    The one thing that Classical Greece and Rome should teach us it that a civilization, even a high one, can destroy itself, or at least heavily damage itself by overreaching. The Athenian Republic, which really does stand out as one of the great pinnacles of human thought, allowed its less worthy imperialistic tendencies to put in on a collision course with Sparta, and after the catastrophes of the Peloponnesian War never again rose to the heights it had once known. As for Rome, well, it should stand in history as a lesson that keeping a vast military infrastructure afloat undermines both an economy and politics.

    • If Thucydides reports the funeral oration faithfully, Pericles was of the opinion that imperial ambitions had a lot to do with the enormous creativity of the Athenians. It certainly explains how they paid for all that cultural profusion. A golden age without hubris and villainy? That would be a first.

  13. Jeb

    A golden age without hubris and villainy? That would be a first.

    Certainly when pious wishes move to become those of political administrators two methods do seem to recur repeatedly as they are highly effective over the long term. You simply down grade peoples legal status ensuring long term economic decline. Christianity did it in my neck of the woods going for educators and entertainers. Anglo Saxons managed a whole scale cultural and language shift doing so, as did the Scots. Iran is presently engaged in it at the moment with some of its religious and ethnic minorities. When you look at the way beliefs operate at a local level, inclusion bringing a range of social benefits and advantages/ exclusion non-membership disadvantage.

    Cultural hero’s need villains. Winners need losers. If you allow or maintain to much contact with the evil enemy and begin to view them as just human beings such projects can start to go seriously wrong. It is important to maintain that the methods used are necessary and honorable.

  14. Jeb

    I find what concerns me is working out if the narrative pattern is all bad or reflects some truth.

    The quest always starts with social disorder the dragon is identified and the hero sets out to find magical items, wonderful technologies, a human or animal helper in order to slay the beast and bring peace and contentment back to sleepy hollow. The journey and truths found on the way being the important part. Its a pervasive pattern.

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