Reason & Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages

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

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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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Your professor

Thomas Williams

About Your Professor

Thomas Williams, Ph.D.
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...
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Reason & Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 89.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Philosophy in the Middle Ages was illuminating.... I had previously done some courses in St Thomas, and read some Augustine, but had minimal exposure to Anselm, Boethius and others. This course offered a broad scope, showed how the various figures related to one another, and was quite engaging. Keeping my interest while discussing philosophy can be a challenge, but the presenter succeeded.
Date published: 2018-02-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A great course, a brilliant lecturer Thank you very much for a wonderful course, Dr. Williams. But, as with any other deep material, listen to it more than once.
Date published: 2018-01-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clear and enlightening A fantastic introduction to the Christian philosophers of the medieval period, and a remedy for the silly claim which says religion and reason are at odds. As a philosophy student, this has deepened my knowledge, and as a Christian, it has deepened my faith. And, I've got a stack of Cornell-style notes to refer to for next term.
Date published: 2017-12-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A new middle age was open for me Reason & Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages is a amazing course. My view on medieval thought changed completely. I thought that Aquinas was the the only thinker worth reading. Now I've bought the Consolation of Boetius and Saint Anselm is next. I strongly recommend it.
Date published: 2017-09-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from For the serious student of Medieval thought I am a fairly serious student of theology, and I have also studied the Middle Ages (including several Great Courses on the topic), but philosophy has never been a keen interest of mine. I decided to take this course (audio version, which is sufficient) since I recognized most of the names in the lecture titles, and I thought it would be interesting to examine theology from the philosophy side. The course was enlightening, but it is definitely not for the casual listener. Unless you have a solid background in either philosophy or theology, I think you will be “at sea” in this course. My place for listening to TGC is at the gym, and I had to give a LOT of attention to these lectures in order to keep my mind from wandering. I would probably recommend listening while looking at the study notes, which wasn’t an option for me. Be prepared for some serious thinking!
Date published: 2017-07-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from clearly explained complexity Professor Williams clearly explains intricate concepts. He follows the progression of Middle-Age thoughts about faith and reason, putting them in context of the times, and talking a little about how those thoughts are viewed today. Included in the context given for important ideas are influences on the individual thinker, both from previous thoughts and current life circumstances. An early quote summarizes a key point: "The great medieval Christian thinkers would all have been bewildered by the idea, widespread in contemporary culture, that faith and reason are fundamentally at odds." While this course can't be characterized as life-changing for me, I recommend the course to all with even a passing interest in the topic.
Date published: 2017-06-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from How philosophy and theology differ and complement Part 1 of the course is excellent with Augustine, Anselm and Boethius very tightly explained. Anselm and Boethius were new to me. Part 2, after Aristotle, Bonaventure and Aquinas became very distracting in discussing Scotus and Ockham but that is indicative of that era. I listened to this on a car trip so got to hear it in 5 days; I will look forward to hearing it again, perhaps starting with the later chapters and then going back to the first.
Date published: 2017-06-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good range of theories, all fairly handled. Examines the bases of and disagreements among the beliefs within the early Christian sects, tracing the origins to ancient schools of philosophy. Whether one's orientation is theological or philosophical, both are covered and their mutual impact evaluated. This was an era when almost all Western philosophy occurred within a religious context (Christian, Judaic or Islamic) and this course covers 1/3 of that well.
Date published: 2017-04-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from By far the best course I have listened to so far!! The lecturer knows his topic and knows how to explain it. If you are looking for a great philosophy course that is outside of the standard Greek ones, this is it!!!
Date published: 2017-03-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well organized and presented While an introductory survey in philosophy can really only skim the surface, the professor here manages to pack in a lot of stuff. Even if you should pursue this further on your own, you will at least have a good general grasp of the kind of questions these thinkers were asking. The professor's voice was quite pleasant to listen to and the pacing was good. There was a nice balance between focusing on the major figures like Augustine, Aquinas, and Scotus and bringing in their historical and intellectual background. I am hopeful that GC will eventually do courses on some of these individual thinkers, and Prof. Williams would be a good choice to do so.
Date published: 2016-10-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great purchase. I love the content of this course. Dr. Robinson is an excellent lecturer. His knowledge and background of and in the subject matter are obvious. I would to take more courses from him.
Date published: 2016-09-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good presentation with great content Simple, well oriented, worth. Repeated listening will reinforce Had bought an audio version More of Christian orientation.
Date published: 2016-07-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent, Excellent Course While the course does not quite reach the level of "that of which no greater can be conceived" (to paraphrase Anselm's philosophic definition of God discussed in the course), it certainly ranks as one of the very best I have enjoyed from Great Courses. The lectures are well-organized and clear, essentials for a course that digs deeply into a profound philosophic and theological topic: the interplay and relationship between careful human reasoning and revealed knowledge of God. The professor provides insightful commentaries on a range of major figures in the history of religion and philosophy, from Augustine to Ockham. I most appreciated the lectures on Aquinas. That material was new to me, but I now have a clear understanding of what Aquinas accomplished (ca. 1300, no less) in bringing the newly rediscovered works of Aristotle into harmony with his Christian faith. The vigor and rigor that these thinkers brought to their philosophical inquiries was most impressive. In many ways it seems their searches for theological and metaphysical truth were forerunners of what we think of today as the scientific method. That is, what can't be proved or shown by sound argument must be rejected or corrected.
Date published: 2016-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An extraordinary class Over the years, I have listened to many of The Great Courses. I was always happy (sometimes more, sometimes less). But this class, by far, is the best I have taken. Often, in other courses, lectures are a bit watered down (which I do not mind much, since I listen to them during my daily commute). But Thomas Williams delivers a challenging, rigorous senior level undergrad course (I am a tenured senior faculty at a very well-known private university, but in another field). I truly recommend this class.
Date published: 2016-04-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Masterful Treatment of Middle Ages Philosophy To get the full benefit of this splendid course, I strongly recommend that the audio listener set the playback speed to 0.8x. Professor Williams is a consummately careful speaker. Every word he utters is delivered with a thoughtful precision that is utterly spell-binding and mesmerizing. I can only say that this is like sampling the finest wine, but that comparison does not do this astonishingly profound course justice. Imagine instead coming to the startling realization that pagan Platonism was the bedrock out of which the greatest early Christian philosophies developed, and that the marriage between these two great traditions was to redound to the benefit of Christianity for centuries to come. The depth and perceptiveness of Professor Williams' analysis is such that I came away from each lecture with a new-found admiration for the Greek-Christian matrix out of which western civilization developed. I strongly recommend this course, with the reservation that the listener take Professor Daileader's three courses on the Middle Ages before taking this course. Any course that Professor Williams does for Great Courses will certainly be a must-have for me.
Date published: 2016-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Reason and Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages I thank the other five star reviewers for their lovely reviews of this course so that I, a time pressed guy, can keep my comments to a few sentences. I loved this course. As a political science undergrad with a liking of political philosophy, I found this course to provide me with a bedrock understanding in those elements of political philosophy that eluded me because I lacked reading in Middle Ages philosophy. Professor William was a joy to listen to. He is certainly erudite, eloquent and never seems to lose interest in speaking about his subject. This is the best course that I've bought from the Teaching Company.
Date published: 2016-01-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Medieval Philosophy: Reason After the Fall The project of FAITH SEEKING UNDERSTANDING is an existential quest for a natural theology of God within the limits of human reason itself (philosophy). This discipline is distinct from revealed theology which is supported by sacred scripture and the patristic tradition (revelation). Professor Thomas Williams in his lectures on Reason and Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages portrays how faith and reason were the yin and yang of medieval philosophy 500 A.D. -- 1500 A.D. and not the adversary disciplines encountered in later thought. There was both consensus and conflicts among and between the natural theologians and philosophers, who were at times the very same scholars, but no denial about faith seeking understanding. We have left the metaphysical naturalism of antiquity but not pagan thought where it supports the super-sensible metaphysics of MEDIEVAL CHRISTIANITY. Throughout the EARLY (5th – 10th), HIGH (10th – 13th), and LATE (13th – 15th) MIDDLE AGES you encounter: major scholars (Augustine – Boethius; Anselm – Aquinas; Duns Scotus – Ockham), philosophies (Neo-Platonism, Aristotelian, Christian, Humanism), literary masterpieces (City of God, The Consolations of Philosophy, Summa Theologiae), logical issues (religious language and meaning), rise of the university (Paris), new mendicant orders (Franciscan -- Dominican), scholastic methodology (question – disputation), the re-discovery of Aristotle’s texts and its radical implications for Christian beliefs (condemnation of 1277), perennial problems (universal -- nominal cognition), rise in skepticism (limits of natural reason), change in project from faith and reason toward church politics (state – church), narrower technical and logical issues (freedom – determinism), and early natural science (secular -- sacred). Associated with these societal changes are a RENAISSANCE Platonism of spirit in the arts and sciences and a REFORMATION Protestant spirit in church politics, practices, and beliefs. We are now at the early modern period. The professor invites his listeners to a 1000 year CONVERSATION of faith seeking understanding, introduces you to the major philosophers and theologians, and accompanies you in and through this renaissance and high debate concerning man’s search for the ABSOLUTE. More than informational, this lecture series is TRANSFORMATIONAL in the intellectual and affective sense of the term. I entered the medieval soul’s journey into God while participating in these lectures. As Dante was accompanied by Virgil, I was enlightened by Professor Williams throughout this journey. Thanks to the professor and the Teaching Company for the TRANSCENDENTAL knowledge and experience of natural theology in faith seeking understanding. *** Very Highly Recommended ***
Date published: 2015-12-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Wonderful, but not for all Other reviewers have said the same and much more eloquently so I won't go on too long, but this course is wonderful if not likely to be enjoyable for a complete philosophy newbie. I was a Philosophy major in college (not as long ago for me as for the average Great Courses customer base) and my main focus was the Neoplatonists and Medieval church fathers; I then went on to a postgrad and career in something else and so bought this course as a refresher for a subject I really love. However, even given my familiarity with the subject matter I found it a little difficult to follow sometimes on the audio-only version (I tend to listen to history-related courses while doing housework or walking) unless I was 100% focused and probably holding a pen. So I would definitely recommend this course if you're interested in the subject matter (keeping in mind the caveats described by other reviewers - this is pretty niche), but be prepared to modify your GC listening style to really get full value. Thank you!
Date published: 2015-10-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from one of the great courses I just finished the audio streaming version of this course, and really liked it. I expect to hear it again. The professor has an excellent speaking voice, completely clear. This is one of the courses where I suspect the audio only is pretty much as good as the video version. One thing that I did not expect is that the course of philosophy is a drama, with a beginning, middle, and ending. (Plus a five hundred year intermission.) The following is not a criticism, just a comment: discussions of universals emphasized adjectives like color rather than relationships like next or invariance. It seems to this non-philosophy major that relationships make stronger universals that adjectives. In conclusion: wonderful course, better than I expected.
Date published: 2015-08-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Surprisingly Good! AUDIO: CDs I am somewhat familiar with medieval philosophy, having taken a university course years ago. I would not normally be that interested in revisiting the subject, except for having re-read Richard Weaver’s classic ‘Ideas Have Consequences’ (University of Chicago, 1948). Weaver traces many problems of modernity to the triumph of William of Ockham’s 13th Century nominalism (the denial of universals) over the then prevailing attempts to reconcile faith and reason. This TC course served as a great refresher on the period and fleshed out what I had learned from other TC courses treating such figures as St. Augustine, Boethius, St. Anselm, Peter Abelard, St. Thomas Aquinas, and John Duns Scotus. Professor Williams is an excellent lecturer, with a fine and clear delivery. He makes what might be dull or complicated matters easily intelligible with apt examples and wonderful analogies. He follows a chronological course, beginning with St. Augustine and deals not only with the thought of successive figures but also the historical context. The story is fascinating in so many ways, the most interesting being Professor Williams’ treatment of the 13th Century Aristotelian revolution. Aquinas necessarily takes center stage for five lectures, but is followed by Professor Williams’ favorite, Duns Scotus, who differs with Aquinas’ on many important issues, notably on divine and human freedom. This sets matters up for the challenge posed by William of Ockham’s nominalism. Professor Williams makes a good case that Ockham’s nominalism does not necessarily lead to skepticism, as it clearly did not for Ockham himself: “…Ockham was convinced that the world is intelligible, and he was not inclined to skepticism – except for his skepticism about the prospects of natural theology” (Course Guidebook, Page 87). Following on this, Professor Williams deals not only with the waning of Medieval Aristotelianism and the development of a “new Renaissance version of Platonism” (Page 92), but also the split between theology and philosophy (which came to focus on logic and political philosophy). In addition to Professor Williams’ fine lectures, the 122 page course guidebook is quite good, providing ample lecture notes, map, timeline, glossary, biographical sketches, and annotated bibliography. I am glad I finally listened to this course!
Date published: 2015-08-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Superior Series of Lectures This series of lectures is especially remarkable for its coherence and clarity. Dr. Williams wisely chose to focus on a single but central aspect of the medieval philosophical project, the relationship between faith and reason, saving him from the inevitable failure of trying to be encyclopedic. This allowed him to trace the development of medieval philosophy and natural theology through men of very different dispositions, training, and thinking. The lectures recapitulated the intellectual history of the period without straying far from this central theme. Another reviewer called the professor pedantic, and this leaves me baffled. If the reviewer had any idea of the complexity and subtlety of medieval philosophy, he would recognize that Dr. Williams has brought it down to the level that any incoming college freshman could appreciate, but simultaneously demonstrated insights from which anyone who has studied these subjects in more depth (I have) can benefit. I honestly had low expectations from the lectures, expecting a run-of-the-mill exercise in "he said this; he said that." Unfortunately, I began with his treatment of Abelard, which, to my mind, turned out to be the weakest of the lectures. (I do not feel that he by any stretch demonstrated his contention that Abelard had produced an objective theory of redemption.) But everything else was marvelous, admirable in its clarity, and always pertinent to his main theme. Dr. Williams is a clear speaker; he does not waste words or repeat endlessly the same thought, but connects them in a logical manner. Those who consider him pedantic would do well to watch the lectures again. The subject is difficult, and not everyone is prepared to understand.
Date published: 2015-01-18
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Quality Scholariship but Pendantic Presentation I love this material but had a little trouble staying engaged with the speaker. When one is watching a lecture style course at home, the speaker really needs to keep the listener involved and excited to hear the material and looking forward to what is coming. This speaker didn't accomplish that very well. He obviously has the knowledge and love of the subject, but his presentation wasn't very dynamic. Perhaps that was because I tend to watch these courses in one day or several "classes" in one sitting. That wasn't possible with this course as I couldn't stay engaged for more than one chapter at a time.
Date published: 2014-11-25
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Worthwhile It's not particularly easy to make this subject interesting, but this course does it. Not spellbinding, but that would be too much to expect. Anyone interested in philosophy should try it.
Date published: 2014-10-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Reason & Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages Excellent, Excellent,Excellent,Excellent, Excellent,Excellent
Date published: 2014-10-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-10-02
Rated 2 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-10-01
Rated 3 out of 5 by from i was lost much of the time this is one of the hardest reviews for me to write -- and my scoring is harsher than I mean it to be. I am NOT a philosopher - nor that steeped in religious thought, but I am fascinated by those thinkers that have had such a profound impact on our daily lives --- many of us "know" these thinkers names, while we may not "know" them So I was looking forward to this course. yet -- there were some lectures, I could not get through fast enough. I found this course TOO ethereal -- too abstract -- to challenging; I was unable to listen to these lectures without "working". I needed the book in hand, to pre-read the material, to listen to the lecture (at 2 times speed), to then reread the book and THEN listen to the lecture at normal speed now a second time It was "WORK" is that good ??? or bad??? or is it a reflection of the subject matter and not a negative reflection of the course itself . . . or is it a reflection of MY basic lack of understanding. I think that Professor William's presentation was excellent; in fact, if his presentation was not so easy to listen to, I would have given up Of the 17 Teaching Company's "Philosophy and Intellectual History" courses I have listened to, this felt more like a slog through a required college course, rather than a much anticipated elective In the end, I found the course guide to be the fascinating part of the series.
Date published: 2014-08-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Top Flight introduction Thomas Williams provides an excellent introduction to philosophy in the Middle Ages focusing on the relationship between faith and reason. In 24 lectures, he blasts through 1,000 years of philosophy, hitting the high points, to be sure, but also giving enough meat that you will be left with lots to chew on. Williams focuses on only a couple points for each philosopher, providing first a sympathetic treatment and then offering contrary arguments. His own sympathies lie with Duns Scotus, but he is no uncritical cheerleader for the 14th century Franciscan. Nor does he get bogged down in the intricacies of this notoriously difficult philosopher. Williams also gives Thomas Aquinas his due, which is more than many would give Thomas in our age. Williams is humorous, brilliant, engaging and provocative. His explanations and delivery are both clear as a bell. Most will leave this course with more analytical tools, more understanding and more questions than they had at the beginning. My only regret is that The Teaching Company has not signed up Williams to offer other sets of lectures.
Date published: 2014-07-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2013-11-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great philosophy course This is a surprisingly great course. The surprise factor for me was the realization that philosophy didn't die in the Middle ages; on the contrary, it produced some of the greatest and bravest minds that didn't hesitate to try and understand their faith through reason. I would like to emphasize that although the questions examined are questions of the christian faith, being a christian is not a prerequisite for this course; it is really a walk through the philosophical method as it applies to theological issues. Not being a christian myself, I went along for the ride the way someone learns, say, physics using the universe as the field for application. Amazing clarity of the material presentation (and these are some very deep philosophical arguments). Highly recommended.
Date published: 2013-02-18
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