Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Shaky Foundations of Medieval Order

Everything about medieval/Elizabethan conceptions of the Great Chain of Being, humors, and other elements of the divine order they saw in the universe seems to me totally arbitrary and illogical. Partly, this is because medieval thinkers expected to find an order in everything that was simple, complete, and perfect. Without that perspective, I intuitively do not accept the idea, for example, that there should be some significant number of pure elements and that each should have a perfect analogue in the human body. However, even given that assumption, I can’t account for the various elements of the medieval worldview. If you expect grand simplicity, why does that automatically mean that everything has to be sorted according to wet, dry, cold, and hot? Why not, for example, use density and strength to classify them? Or why not scrap those classifications altogether, and say that the three elements are red, green, and blue, and everything is some combination thereof? In fact, given only that there is some grand, elegant plan to explain all reality, the only truly elegant solution seems to me to be some sort of monism--everything is one substance. I think that the problem with evaluating medieval thinkers this way, and the reason they came to the conclusions that they did, is that they were told to follow their antecedents (especially the bible, Aristotle, and Plato) unquestioningly and studiously. For example, in order to explain some part of Hell, Virgil urges Dante to remember Aristotle’s Poetics. In the medieval frame of reference, it seems like these texts took the place that physical data take among today’s scientists--everything is supposed to be framed around them; they are not questioned, but rather conformed to and modeled. This explains their arbitrary sense of order; it is simply a way of joining Platonic dualism (sublunary vs. superlunary), Aristotle (who formulated the four elements), and Christian theology while avoiding conflicts between them. The medieval thought is not arbitrary in its derivation, it is just built on foundations that seem, to the modern reader, to be questionable.

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