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Reason & Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages

Reason & Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages

Professor Thomas Williams Ph.D.
University of South Florida
Course No.  4636
Course No.  4636
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Are philosophy and religion—reason and faith—fundamentally at odds? From today's strict division between questions of logic and questions of belief, one might think so. But for 1,000 years during a pivotal era of Western thought, reason and faith went hand-in-hand in the search for answers to the most profound issues investigated by Christianity's most committed scholars:

  • Can God's existence and attributes be established by reason alone?
  • Are there Christian doctrines that are beyond the scope of logical demonstration?
  • How can Christian beliefs be defended against objections and made internally consistent?

These questions posed by the great philosophers of the Middle Ages bear no resemblance to the stereotypical medieval dispute about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin—a problem that apparently no one in the Middle Ages discussed. Instead, they are emblematic of an extraordinarily rich period of intellectual ferment, when the best minds of the age participated in a common struggle with transcendent questions, using reasoning in the service of faith.

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Are philosophy and religion—reason and faith—fundamentally at odds? From today's strict division between questions of logic and questions of belief, one might think so. But for 1,000 years during a pivotal era of Western thought, reason and faith went hand-in-hand in the search for answers to the most profound issues investigated by Christianity's most committed scholars:

  • Can God's existence and attributes be established by reason alone?
  • Are there Christian doctrines that are beyond the scope of logical demonstration?
  • How can Christian beliefs be defended against objections and made internally consistent?

These questions posed by the great philosophers of the Middle Ages bear no resemblance to the stereotypical medieval dispute about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin—a problem that apparently no one in the Middle Ages discussed. Instead, they are emblematic of an extraordinarily rich period of intellectual ferment, when the best minds of the age participated in a common struggle with transcendent questions, using reasoning in the service of faith.

From Augustine to Ockham

Reason and Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages examines this ambitious project. In 24 half-hour lectures, you will learn about the great Christian philosophers from Augustine to Ockham, following their efforts to illuminate the full scope of Christian doctrine using philosophical tools inherited, in large part, from the ancient Greeks. Far from being "Dark" Ages, this was an era when faith was not blind and reason was not godless, when the great philosophers and the great theologians were the very same people, and no one saw anything surprising about that.

Your teacher is Professor Thomas Williams, an award-winning educator and noted historian of medieval philosophy. Belying the image of the recondite medieval scholar, Professor Williams lectures with spontaneity, humor, enthusiasm, and warmth. He is especially well qualified to take you through the key texts of the period; he has published translations of several of them. Furthermore, he has made his own translations of all of the extracts used in the course, which include material that is not available elsewhere and is therefore left out of most introductory college courses on the subject.

Why Study Medieval Philosophy?

Today, medieval philosophy is an often-overlooked period between ancient philosophy and the Enlightenment. You will find it rewarding to explore for many excellent reasons:

  • A bridge between ancient and modern: The ideas of ancient thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle were rediscovered by medieval philosophers, who applied them to theological problems. Modern philosophy, in turn, began as a response to the medieval project.
  • Tools for understanding Christianity: Medieval philosophers probed deeply into the fundamental nature of Christian teachings. Perhaps no other thinkers worked so diligently to show how the Christian faith is consistent with what can be demonstrated by reason.
  • An intellectual challenge: What are the limits of reason? Medieval philosophers continually tested these boundaries, and by thinking critically about their arguments you can enhance the rigor of your own ideas.
  • A exemplar for philosophical inquiry: Whatever your own beliefs, engagement with the different styles of careful argument employed by medieval philosophers can inspire you in your own search for wisdom.

Professor Williams notes that medieval Christian philosophy was largely disengaged from the political and cultural currents of the time, so that these lectures necessarily concentrate almost exclusively on philosophy. Nonetheless, it is significant that so much intellectual energy went into addressing issues of faith. If you are interested in medieval history this course will serve as a fascinating philosophical backdrop to illuminate debates that occupied many of the greatest minds of the era.

Eight Extraordinary Philosophers

Who were these great minds? Among the philosophers you will encounter in this course, you focus on eight in detail:

  • Augustine of Hippo (354–430) was influenced by Plato's distinction between the intelligible realm, which is perfect and accessible only by the mind; and the sensible realm, which is imperfect and apprehensible by the senses. He argued that God's perfection and goodness is equally manifest in both spheres.
  • Boethius (c. 476–c. 526) wrote his influential The Consolation of Philosophy while in prison awaiting execution. In the book, philosophy is personified as a woman who shows how human freedom and moral responsibility are possible within God's providential governance of the universe.
  • Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) formed his views as a teacher of monks who wished to understand logically what they believed by faith. Anselm's most famous demonstration of a Christian truth is his "ontological argument" for God's existence, which holds that God is "that than which a greater cannot be thought."
  • Peter Abelard (1079–1142) acknowledged that God surpasses the power of human understanding, but he was not willing to make the incomprehensibility of God an excuse for obscurity or careless thinking. Some of his bold reformulations of Christian doctrine provoked ecclesiastical censure.

Plato continued to be the dominant influence on medieval philosophers until the 13th century, when the translation of most of Aristotle's works into Latin offered a powerful and controversial tool for systematizing Christian thought. The second half of this course examines philosophers engaging with this new trend.

  • Bonaventure (1217–74) was willing to borrow Aristotle's teachings when he found them useful, as in his account of theoretical knowledge; but he rejected Aristotle's view that the world has always existed and argued passionately against what he took to be excessive enthusiasm for Aristotle.
  • Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) used the works of Aristotle as his primary philosophical inspiration, developing arguments for the existence of God as well as an account of the powers and limits of human reason in knowing God. After Aquinas's death, some of his views were officially proscribed by the Condemnation of 1277.
  • John Duns Scotus (1265/66–1308) began from roughly the same theory of knowledge as Aquinas but ended up with a radically different account of religious language. He was known as the "Subtle Doctor" for his ingenious arguments. His surname, Duns, is the origin of our word "dunce"—a slur on the ineptness of his imitators.
  • William of Ockham (c. 1288–1347) made famous the principle now called "Ockham's razor," which gives preference to simplicity in explanations. His tenacity in using this principle led to a breakdown in the harmonious relationship between theology and philosophy envisioned by both Aquinas and Scotus.

By the end of Ockham's life Aristotelianism was losing ground rapidly. Within a generation, a new Renaissance version of Platonism was widespread and thriving. Thus a philosophical era that began with Augustine's adoption of a Platonic worldview closed, a thousand years later, with the revival of a very similar outlook.

Faith Seeking Understanding

The golden age of philosophers pursuing both reason and faith may be long past, but their mission continues to inspire thoughtful people today—not least Professor Williams.

In the first lecture he notes: "I got interested in philosophy as a teenager because of religious questions—questions about how to make sense of the things I believed, how to defend them, how to understand them, and how to make them square with other things I knew, or thought I knew. And I quickly became attracted to medieval philosophers precisely because their questions were my questions. Their project, like mine, was one of faith seeking understanding; and they carried out that project with a rigor, an intensity, and—I think—a success that is unmatched in the history of philosophy."

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Faith Seeking Understanding
    The great medieval Christian thinkers would have been bewildered by today's idea that faith and reason are fundamentally at odds. Although their outlooks varied widely, they agreed that philosophical reasoning could and should be used to defend and elucidate the doctrines of the Christian faith. x
  • 2
    Augustine's Platonic Background
    Augustine found Platonism compelling and adopted much of it, while seeing that Christian belief required him to modify it in several ways. The doctrine of the Incarnation in particular challenges Platonism's negative view of the body and the material world, in contrast with the perfect realm of the mind. x
  • 3
    Augustine on Authority, Reason, and Truth
    Augustine argued that the search for truth must begin with the acceptance of authority. Historical claims must be accepted or rejected on the basis of authoritative testimony. Christianity involves such historical claims, and Augustine sought to show that it is reasonable to accept the testimony on which Christianity rests. x
  • 4
    Augustine on the Origin of Evil
    According to Augustine, because God is good, everything he creates is good; and because God is creator, nothing exists that he does not create. The origin of evil is therefore perplexing. Part of Augustine's solution was to argue that evil, in itself, is not anything. It is a mere privation: a lack of measure, form, or order. x
  • 5
    Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy
    Awaiting execution, Boethius wrote one of the most beloved books of the Middle Ages, The Consolation of Philosophy. Why does he seek comfort in philosophy and not in scripture? His inability to see the universe as a rationally coherent system called for the therapy of reason, as manifested in philosophy. x
  • 6
    Boethius on Foreknowledge and Freedom
    The Consolation of Philosophydiscusses the problem of divine foreknowledge and human freedom. If God's foreknowledge is infallible, our actions are necessary. Boethius used the doctrine of divine eternity to show how our actions are not necessary in any sense that threatens freedom or moral responsibility. x
  • 7
    Anselm and the 11th-Century Context
    Anselm helped revive the technique of philosophical argument known as dialectic, applying it systematically to theological discussions. The doctrines of the Christian faith are, to Anselm, intrinsically rational because they concern the nature and activity of God, who is himself supreme reason. x
  • 8
    Anselm's Proof That God Exists
    Anselm asserted that we can prove God's existence and attributes by exploring the idea of God as "that than which a greater cannot be thought." A monk named Gaun­ilo countered that Anselm's argument—now known as the "ontological argument"—also proved the existence of the greatest conceivable island, which is nonsense. x
  • 9
    Anselm on the Divine Attributes
    The ontological argument establishes so many different divine attributes that it is difficult to see how one and the same being can possess all of them at once. Anselm resolved this problem by using dialectic to analyze each case, such as the apparent conflict between God's mercy and his justice. x
  • 10
    Anselm on Freedom and the Fall
    If everything we have is received from God, then God deserves all the praise for our good works and all the blame for our evil deeds. In a move typical of medieval philosophers, Anselm simplifies this problem by looking at the case of angels. God gave all the angels the will to persevere in justice, but the evil angels abandoned that will. x
  • 11
    Abelard on Understanding the Trinity
    Famously scandalous in his personal life, Abelard courted controversy in philosophy and theology as well. He gave a brilliant analysis of the Trinity in three treatises: the first was condemned and burned; the second was left unfinished; the third was also condemned, ending Abelard's teaching career. x
  • 12
    Abelard on Understanding Redemption
    Abelard's theory of the Atonement shows the complexities of his engagement with both authority and reason. According to Abelard, the death of Christ delivers us from the punishment for the sin of our first parents, thereby inspiring our gratitude and enabling us to serve God out of love rather than out of fear. x
  • 13
    The Rediscovery of Aristotle
    The recovery of most of Aristotle's works by the middle of the 13th century coincided with the rise of the universities. Aristotle's thought was attractive because it was wide-ranging, systematic, and rigorously argued; it seemed dangerous because many of its teachings contradicted Christian doctrine. x
  • 14
    Bonaventure on the Mind's Journey into God
    Bonaventure's account of the mind's journey to God takes a critical approach to Aristotle. In his account of creation, Bonaventure rejects the Aristotelian doctrine that the world has always existed; but in his account of theoretical knowledge, he tries to synthesize the Aristotelian and Augustinian views. x
  • 15
    Aquinas on What Reason Can and Cannot Do
    Regarded as one of the three luminaries of medieval philosophy's golden age (together with Scotus and Ockham), Aquinas followed Aristotle in contending that all knowledge derives from sense experience. Thus humans can know only those facts about God that are evident from reflection upon sense experience. x
  • 16
    Aquinas's Proof of an Unmoved Mover
    In his five proofs for the existence of God, Aquinas first answers objections that the existence of God cannot be proved, using the scholastic method to examine the two sides of the question. Then he proceeds to the five proofs, the first of which argues that there must be an initial, unmoved mover: God. x
  • 17
    Aquinas on How to Talk about God
    How can the words we use for ordinary objects be meaningful when applied to God? Aquinas answered that created things resemble their Creator; we can therefore use the language of ordinary experience to speak meaningfully about God, although our words cannot have exactly the same meanings in both spheres. x
  • 18
    Aquinas on Human Nature
    Aristotle's view that the soul is the form of the body implies that when a human organism ceases to live, the soul ceases to exist. But Aquinas argued that we can prove philosophically that the soul survives bodily death. The resurrection of the body, however, is a mystery of faith that cannot be proved by reason. x
  • 19
    Aquinas on Natural and Supernatural Virtues
    For Aquinas, natural happiness sets the standards of natural law, and natural virtues dispose us to attain such happiness. But in addition there must be supernatural virtues that dispose us to attain supernatural happiness. Natural virtues are attained by moral development; supernatural virtues are acquired by divine gift. x
  • 20
    Scotus on God's Freedom and Ours
    Even during his life, the adjective "subtle" had come to be associated with Scotus's thought, which is ingenious, difficult, and inventively defended. As a Franciscan, he regarded the will as a power higher than the intellect, and he followed this emphasis in his account of both divine and human freedom. x
  • 21
    Scotus on Saying Exactly What God Is
    Scotus went much further than Aquinas in rejecting the approach to discourse about God that emphasizes what God is not. Scotus argued that it is possible by natural means (i.e., without supernatural help) for the human intellect in this present life to acquire a concept in which God, and God alone, is grasped. x
  • 22
    What Ockham's Razor Leaves Behind
    Ockham employed the principle that has come to be called "Ockham's razor" in reducing the basic categories in the Aristotelian inventory. He also argued against the reality of universals—entities like "whiteness" that exist beyond the whiteness of a particular piece of paper, snowdrift, and so on. x
  • 23
    Ockham on the Prospects for Knowing God
    Ockham rejected the idea that Christian theology is an intellectual enterprise that aspires to the same standards as pagan philosophy. Although he agreed with Aquinas and Scotus that reason needs to be supplemented and repaired by faith, he was deeply skeptical about the prospects for proving that God exists or showing that the mysteries of faith are consonant with reason. x
  • 24
    The 14th Century and Beyond
    By the 14th century the loss of confidence in Aristotelian philosophy had led some philosophers to conclude that the domain of Christian faith and the domain of philosophical reasoning have no overlap. With the dawn of the Renaissance, Aristotelianism was rapidly losing ground to a new, more mystical version of Pla­ton­ism. x

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Thomas Williams
Ph.D. Thomas Williams
University of South Florida
Dr. Thomas Williams is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of South Florida. He earned his B.A. in Philosophy from Vanderbilt University and his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame. Professor Williams's research interests are in medieval philosophy, theology, and the philosophy of religion, with a focus on Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Duns Scotus. Before joining the faculty at the University of South Florida, he taught at Creighton University and the University of Iowa, where he received a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Teaching Award in 2005. Professor Williams was the Alvin Plantinga Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame from 2005 to 2006. He is the coauthor of Anselm, a volume in the Great Medieval Thinkers series from Oxford University Press, and the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas: Disputed Questions on the Virtues. His translations include Augustine's On Free Choice of the Will and Anselm: Basic Writings. Professor Williams also has contributed essays to many publications including Modern Theology, Philosophy and Literature, and Faith and Philosophy. He serves on the editorial board of Studies in the History of Ethics.
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Reviews

Rated 4.7 out of 5 by 57 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Outstanding; Narrow, yet Deep; Perhaps Not for All This is a superb course, beautifully taught, on a profound yet narrow topic which will be of interest to many, but likely not all. It covers the great Christian philosophers of "faith seeking understanding" of the European middle ages. If that is an area in which you have an interest, you have a treat in store. It is *not* only for believing Christians, however. Non-believers or those of other faiths may also greatly appreciate the course. For me, it might be described as a window into the adolescence of Western thought, when brilliant minds exercised their developing powers of reason - but with little solid grounding for their musings, they inevitably built castles in the air. I would be tempted to subtitle the course "understanding seeking a proper object to understand." It took the likes of Bacon, Galileo, and Newton to develop these intellectual tools into effective instruments, but it might be argued that these earlier men of faith made possible the great leaps forward of the scientific age. The course is focused, however, on the attempts of medieval Christian believers to work out a rational understanding of Christian belief, from its metaphysics and ethics to the mysteries of the trinity and the incarnation. I found this material inherently fascinating - but many may not, regardless of your personal beliefs. From a modern perspective, many of the arguments may appear prima facie silly and profoundly absurd. Yet the passion, commitment, and brilliance of those who devoted their lives to this work must be recognized and admired. Professor Williams is superb - knowledgeable, eloquent, and as clear as I imagine possible in explicating views which are often murky and ambiguous as well as complex. He is a pleasure to listen to, thorough and organized, as well as careful to note when interpretations vary and when he is giving his own views. It is not hidden that he is a believing Catholic who takes his subject seriously and personally, but this does not in any way bias or detract from his presentation of the ideas. The Course Guidebook is quite well done, although it could have been more detailed; a timeline and glossary are thankfully provided. Visuals include many written outlines of the points being covered, which are quite helpful and much appreciated. So - an excellent course in every respect, for any with an interest in medieval Christian theology and philosophy, or the development of Western thought. November 30, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Reason & Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages Excellent, Excellent,Excellent,Excellent, Excellent,Excellent October 8, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent Course I can confirm the positive reviews below and add that this course is a great balance if you plan on taking later courses in modern philosophy by such professors as Cahoone and Kors which I would recommend. Both those courses begin by setting up the reaction against Medieval Scholasticism. But this course will give you a sense of the richness and depth of the key medieval philosophers from Augustine through Ockham. October 2, 2014
Rated 2 out of 5 by Medieval Orthodox Catholic Theology It is a stretch to call it a "philosophy" course. It is virtually solely about Catholic theologians and only softly critical of their hair splitting (failed) attempts to uphold the basic tenets of their faith. In fact, the word "faith" all but summed up their key message -- "Just believe and don't ask hard questions." Professor Williams repeatedly noted that all of them depicted "God" as a hazy, eternal, everywhere, all-knowing spirit with "no parts", yet constantly referred to God in every lecture as a "he". It didn't seem to dawn on professor Williams that to be a "he" is to have parts. Put another way, why isn't Christianity's God really an "It"? Might it be that Christians are stuck with a male god and all that goes with his/its story because ancient scriptures got it wrong from the get-go? Yada, yada. Professor Williams's lectures didn't deliver. October 1, 2014
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