ND   JMC : History of Medieval Philosophy / by Maurice De Wulf

469. The Attitude of the Aristotelians. -- The scholastics should at least have followed with attention the revolution in the physical sciences, pronounced judgment on the possibility or impossibility of adapting the new discoveries to scholasticism, and realized without delay -- when once convinced of the objectivity of the newly observed phenomena -- that the destruction of the scientific theories of the Middle Ages did not at all affect the great, organic doctrines of the traditional scholasticism. It is thus the princes of the thirteenth-century scholasticism would have acted, had they lived at this turning-point in the history of human knowledge. Well-known texts already quoted from St. Thomas (295), clearly prove that the Angelic Doctor did not accept all the scientific speculations of his time as established theses, but rather as hypotheses; and that he would not consider his metaphysics in any way compromised by abandoning those hypotheses. When he wrote the words "Forte secundum aliquem alium modum nondum ab hominibus comprehensum apparentia circa stellas salvantur,"{1} he would seem even to have had a presentiment of the blunders committed four centuries afterwards by his less competent followers, and to have censured those blunders beforehand.

The regrettable attitude taken up by the peripatetics of the seventeenth century was very remote from what the events of the time demanded. So far from welcoming a rapprochement between scholastic philosophy and the new scientific theories which were then attracting such universal attention, they shrank back panic-stricken from the spectacle of their out-of-date theories melting into myth and mist in the light of newly discovered but undeniable facts. It is said that Melanchthon and Cremonini refused to look at the heavens through a telescope. And Galileo speaks of Aristotelians "who, rather than change the heavens of Aristotle, will impudently persist in denying the heavens they see in Nature". No; they ignorantly regarded Aristotelianism as a monument from which a single stone could not be taken without causing the whole edifice to crumble into atoms. Hence the amazing obstinacy with which they sought to defend the discredited astronomy and physics of the thirteenth century, and the ludicrous figure they cut in their controversies with the Cartesians.

It was In the universities especially that these controversies raged. At Paris, where the statutes of 600 installed Aristotelianism as the official teaching, the Aristotelians appealed to authority to put a stop to the new theories. In 1624 the Faculty of Theology requested Parliament to forbid certain philosophico-scientific theses in which an arts student named John Bitaud attacked Aristotle. In 1671 the king himself interfered; and there was another appeal to Parliament to insist on the doctrines of Aristotle being accepted. Is it any wonder that such measures provoked satire, or that Boileau should have compiled his Request in Favour of Aristotle to Our Lords of Mount-Parnassus, with the burlesque decree of the latter in answer to the petition?{2}

At Louvain, where the encounter between Cartesianism and Aristotelianism provoked violent contests, the attitude of the Aristotelians was no less obstinate. The trial of Martin Van Velden, prosecuted for having proposed to discuss the system of Copernicus, is an example. Here is another fact: Antonius Goudin, O.P., of Limoges (1639-1695), whose Philosophia juxta inconcussa tutissimaque D. Thomae Dogmata{3} is consulted even at the present day, wrote therein that "the system of Copernicus cannot be admitted; it has been rightly rejected as temerarious because it makes the earth movable and displaces the centre of the universe".{4}

{1} Giles of Lessines makes somewhat similiar observations (De Unitate Formae, p. 93).

{2} The decree ordained "that the said Aristotle be always followed and taught by the said professors and regents of the said university, without their being obliged, however, to read or to know anything of his philosophy," referring them, for his doctrine, to their copy-books. Then, descending into detail, it went on to speak of heart, nerves, chyle, liver, blood, etc.; restored "the entitez, the identitez, the petreitez, the polycarpeitez and other Scotistic formulae to their former good fame and renown"; rekindled "the fire in the higher regions of the air, according to, and in pursuance of, descents made upon these places"; and relegated "the comets to the concave side of the moon with a strict injunction never again to venture forth to spy what was going on in the heavens" (quoted by FERET, L'Aristotélisme et le Cartésianisme, in the Ann. Phil. Chrét., 1903, pp. 16 and 17).

{3} French tr. by Th. Bourard (Paris, 1865).

{4} T. iii., p. 154.

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