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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Isaac Disraeli on the Barrenness of Divinity

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

***

"The scholastic questions were called Questiones Quodlibeticce; and they were generally so ridiculous that we have retained the word Quodlibet in our vernacular style, to express anything ridiculously subtile; something which comes at length to be distinguished into nothingness,

"With all the rash dexterity of wit."

The history of the scholastic philosophy furnishes an instructive theme; it enters into the history of the human mind, and fills a niche in our literary annals. The works of the scholastics, with the debates of these Quodlibetarians, at once show the greatness and the littleness of the human intellect ; for though they often degenerate into incredible absurdities, those who have examined the works of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus have confessed their admiration of the Herculean texture of brain which they exhausted in demolishing their aerial fabrics...

The christian doctrines in the primitive ages of the gospel were adapted to the simple comprehension of the multitude; metaphysical subtilties were not even employed by the Fathers, of whom several are eloquent... the Arabians became the only learned people... The Arabian genius was fond of abstruse studies; it was highly metaphysical and mathematical, for the fine arts their religion did not permit them to cultivate; and the first knowledge which modern Europe obtained of Euclid and Aristotle was through the medium of Latin translations of Arabic versions. The Christians in the west received their first lessons from the Arabians in the east; and Aristotle, with his Arabic commentaries, was enthroned in the schools of Christendom.

Then burst into birth, from the dark cave of metaphysics, a numerous and ugly spawn of monstrous sects; unnatural children of the same foul mother, who never met but for mutual destruction. Religion became what is called the study of Theology ; and they all attempted to reduce the worship of God into a system ! and the creed into a thesis! Every point relating to Teligion was debated through an endless chain of infinite questions, incomprehensible distinctions, with differences mediate and immediate, the concrete and the abstract, a perpetual civil war carried on against common sense in all the Aristotelian severity...

Peter Lombard['s] successors were not satisfied to be mere commentators on these "sentences," which they now only made use of as a row of pegs to hang on their fine-spun metaphysical cobwebs. They at length collected all these quodlibetical questions into enormous volumes, under the terrifying form, for those who have seen them, of Summaries of Divinity! They contrived, by their chimerical speculations, to question the plainest truths; to wrest the simple meaning of the Holy Scriptures, and give some appearance of truth to the most ridiculous and monstrous opinions...

Of the scholastic divines, the most illustrious was Saint THOMAS AQUINAS, styled the Angelical Doctor. Seventeen folio volumes not only testify his industry but even his genius. He was a great man, busied all his life with making the charades of metaphysics...

The scholastic tree is covered with prodigal foliage, but is barren of fruit; and when the scholastics employed themselves in solving the deepest mysteries, their philosophy became nothing more than an instrument in the hands of the Roman Pontiff. Aquinas has composed 358 articles on angels...

The reader desirous of being merry with Aquinas's angels may find them in Martinus Scriblerus, in Ch. VII. who inquires if angels pass from one extreme to another without going through the middle ? And if angels know things more clearly in a morning ? How many angels can dance on the point of a very fine needle, without jostling one another ?

All the questions in Aquinas are answered with a subtlety of distinction more difficult to comprehend and remember than many problems in Euclid; and perhaps a few of the best might still be selected for youth as curious exercises of the understanding. However, a great part of these peculiar productions are loaded with the most trifling, irreverent, and even scandalous discussions. Even Aquinas could gravely debate, Whether Christ was not an hermaphrodite ? Whether there are excrements in Paradise ? Whether the pious at the resurrection will rise with their bowels ? Others again debated—Whether the angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary in the shape of a serpent, of a dove, of a man, or of a woman ? Did he seem to be young or old ? In what dress was he ? Was his garment white or of two colours ? Was his linen clean or foul ? Did he appear in the morning, noon, or evening ? What was the colour of the Virgin Mary's hair? Was she acquainted with the mechanic and liberal arts ? Had she a thorough knowledge of the Book of Sentences, and all it contains ? that is, Peter Lombard's compilation from the works of the Fathers, written 1200 years after her death.—But these are only trifling matters: they also agitated, Whether when during her conception the Virgin was seated, Christ too was seated; and whether when she lay down, Christ also lay down ? The following question was a favourite topic for discussion, and the acutest logicians never resolved it: " When a hog is carried to market with a rope tied about his neck, which is held at the other end by a man, whether is the hog carried to market by the rope or the man?" ...

Lord Lyttleton, in his Life of Henry II., laments the unhappy effects of the scholastic philosophy on the progress of the human mind. The minds of men were turned from classical studies to the subtilties of school divinity, which Borne encouraged, as more profitable for the maintenance of her doctrines. It was a great misfortune to religion and to learning, that men of such acute understandings as Abelard and Lombard, who might have done much to reform the errors of the church, and to restore science in Europe, should have depraved both, by applying their admirable parts to weave those cobwebs of sophistry, and to confound the clear simplicity of evangelical truths, by a false philosophy and a captious logic."

--- QUODLIBETS, OR SCHOLASTIC DISQUISITIONS in Curiosities of literature, Volume 1 / Isaac Disraeli
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