April 13

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The Two Truths of the Middle Ages

“I am the way and the truth and the life.” – Jesus

“And yet it moves.” – Galileo

A CRASH COURSE IN WESTERN PHILOSOPHY: LESSON 2

During the trial of Jesus it is said that if Jesus had  only been willing to deny that he was the king of the Jews his life would have been spared. He refused and was punished by the painful death of crucifixion.

During his famous 16th century trial the scientist Galileo Galilei opted  to withdraw his declaration that the Earth revolved around the Sun in order to avoid punishment. He is famed to have muttered under his breath as he left the trial, “And yet it moves.”

Why was Jesus compelled to stand for what he considered the truth even when faced with his own death, while Galileo was content to deny his truth? It is not necessarily because one man had more integrity than the other. It was because they were both operating from a different understanding of truth, and both of those ways of seeing truth are part of the canon of Western Philosophy and part of the way you and I experience truth today.

Part of the good news that Jesus and his apostles were spreading was that the kingdom of Heaven was here. It was a doctrine of Heaven on Earth in which Heaven was not only some transcendent realm of perfection that we only achieve in the afterlife. Heaven is here, or at least can be, if we stand for it. To stand for the truth of heaven on Earth we have to live in accordance with that possibility.

From this point of view what happens here on Earth matters. How we are and what we do becomes the truth. Truth is not an inherent quality of things; truth is a stand that must be taken. Because Jesus was acting in accordance with this understanding of truth he could not deny the accusations against him.

Galileo, on the other hand, was a pioneer of science and science was heavily influenced by the Greek philosophical tradition. In the Greek tradition, as we saw in our last lesson, truth exists in an ideal realm beyond this world.

From this vantage point there is no reason to take a stand for truth here on Earth because what is true will be true whether we stand for it, or not. Truth is not a stand that we take; it is a fact that exists completely independent of what we do. This conception of truth left Galileo morally free to deny his earlier statements and save his life.

These two conceptions of truth are part of the way you and I think because they are part of our philosophical heritage. We talk about ‘being true’ to our word. We also talk about certain things being ‘true’ whether we believe them or not. In the first case truth is a stand that we take, in the second it is a fact that exists independent of us.

After the fall of Rome the Western World fell into what is called the Middle Ages.  During that time there was wide spread war, brutality, poverty and a general lose of culture and education. The two major intellectual influences on those times were the Christian Church and certain Greek writings, especially those of Aristotle.

The intellect of this dark period eventually culminated in a worldview that combined Christian Doctrine and Greek thought into what is now known as the Medieval Synthesis. This philosophical construction held the Western World together during its bleakest period, but was eventually overthrown by the Scientific Revolution of the Age of Enlightenment.  Our next Lesson will tell the story of how we traveled from the Middle Ages to The Enlightenment.