Friday, February 08, 2013

The Middle Ages ... and Your Latest Laptop

Those rules of argument became increasingly complex. Many, after several centuries, now seem almost banal: it is perhaps a testimony to the effectiveness and importance of the foundations laid down in the twelfth century that stages in argumentative processes which then had to be carefully thought through and elucidated are now taken for granted, with stages in the process being skipped as not needing individual proof.... 
It was on these rules that twelfth-century thinkers like Abelard raised their logical and argumentative edifices, with ramifications way beyond the basics of logic. (It was, perhaps, on the basis of teaching such fundamentals that some of them also earned their livings.) The fluidity of the times and the constant flow of novelties meant that everything was always in flux: all resolutions became provisional, because the questions were constantly changing, and the resources available from which to construct a solution changed as well. This constant and continuing challenge to thought was important: it forced development, made old ideas constantly outdated. Abelard, although the most dynamic thinker of his time, was rapidly overtaken and outmoded. The progress of twelfth-century thought in some ways matches the current succession of computer generations. Individuals had immediate impact, but it was often transient, as new ideas came along to supplant them. Once supplanted, they were rarely recalled. 
R.N. Swanson, The Twelfth-Century Renaissance, pp. 110-111.

Now, there's no way to know for sure, eight centuries later, what St. Thomas Aquinas meant when he stopped working on his Summa, after reportedly experiencing a mystical vision, and declared that everything he had written amounted to only just so much straw.

But Swanson's passage makes me wonder whether (in addition to the sheer intellectual exhaustion at this stage of his short life) Aquinas wasn't acutely aware (as Abelard was not) of how quickly his own work might suffer the fate of Abelard's and others.

It didn't of course, at least in terms of its importance for the Catholic Church. But Swanson's passage does bring home a sense of how dynamic the 'flux' of that age was for those living in the center of it.