Mediaeval Philosophy I: Take Home Exam[1][2]

1. Boethian Rhapsody

For Boethius, all men try to achieve happiness but some, by their ignorance, are moving away from happiness in their attempts. Their ignorance prevents them from achieving happiness, for they mistakenly believe that good fortune or transitory goods can achieve happiness. One's own self is the most precious thing to oneself and is the only source of perfect happiness. [II, pr.4]

If happiness were based on good fortune, then no one would be completely happy, as they would always choose to their condition. Anxiety would necessarily be a part of this conception of happiness as complete happiness can never be achieved and never permanently kept. No one would be satisfied with their lot as each find something lacking which gives them pain. Happiness is a supreme good that we are always striving for, and nothing that that can be lost can be a supreme good. Since good fortune can be easily lost, good fortune cannot bring about supreme happiness. Furthermore, since the soul is immortal, happiness cannot be satisfied by something that ends in death. [II,pr4]

Seeking transitory goods such as riches, honor, power, fame, and bodily pleasure (at best) cannot guarantee happiness [IIIpr3-7, respectively]. Riches cannot guarantee it as Boethius' zero-sum economics has any accumulation of wealth necessarily taking it from another. Honor cannot guarantee it as honors make us indebted to others. Power cannot guarantee it as your subjects may revolt. Fame cannot guarantee it as fame based on false opinion is disgraceful and fame based on true opinion is unneeded. Pleasure cannot guarantee it as that would entail that beasts, who are devoted to pleasure, were the happy ones. [IIIpr8]

The state of happiness is the perfect state in which all goods are possessed and when this state is achieved, it relieves us of any further desires. Boethius equates happiness and the good in the sense that perfect happiness is the achievement of the good. Ignorance leads people to try to achieve the false (i.e., transitory) goods, but these false goods are desired insofar as we believe that they will lead to the true goods of a high standard of living, honor, power, fame, and joy—which is what we really desire. Happiness is achieved when the true goods are achieved. [IIIpr2] Happiness is, then, self-sufficiency.

The perfection of perfect happiness implies that happiness is simple, that is, a unity. Achieving happiness, that is, self-sufficiency necessarily leads to other goods. Happiness is also power, fame, reverence, and joy: these are all different names for the same substance. Although power, fame, reverence and joy should not be sought in themselves, they are achieved in happiness. Only the whole should be sought, as trying to seek the parts of a unity is (at best) futile. [IIIpr9]

Boethius' Platonism implies that the imperfection of some people's happiness implies a perfect thing of the same kind. Boethius' Christian form of Platonism has this perfection as God, which means that the perfect happiness is God. Since nothing can be thought of better than God, He must the greatest good. Since the good has already been equated with happiness, God is perfect happiness. Furthermore, everyone who is happy is a god by participation and one become happy by participating in God. [IIIpr10] Since the good is the same as happiness, people become happy by being good. [IVpr3]

One becomes happy by participating in God and being good.

5. Anselm and The Lost Island Argument

If Anselm can define God to be that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought and prove that He exists by that definition, then what is to stop someone from using a similar form to define Y as that-than-which-a-greater-X-cannot-be-thought? If there can be a greatest thing that necessarily exists, then why can there not be a greatest elk, book, fig tree, or island that necessarily exists? If we can do this, then Anselm's argument proves too much—there is a perfect existing everything that exists necessarily.

Gaunilo asks this question for the example of "the lost island." Defining the lost island as that-than-which-a-greater-island-cannot-be-thought should that not only does the island exists, but it exists necessarily.

Anselm's sarcastic reply to Gaunilo was that the two arguments are not parallel. Anselm's definition does not constrain perfection to be a perfection of a certain kind. That is, he does not say that God is "that than which a greater being cannot be thought." As a greater thing can be thought of than an island, one cannot talk of the perfection of something that is not great. A misery that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought is still not great.

The introduction of the constraint also alters the structure in the sense that Anselm's definition speaks of something than which nothing conceivable is greater, yet the lost island argument is speaking of something than which no great actually existing island is greater. The domain has changed from that which can be thought to actual things.

On the other hand, if we use the Boethian belief that it follows that there necessarily is a perfection of the same kind for every existing imperfect thing of a kind[3], then the existence of any island will show that there must be a perfect island. However, this perfect island is not an island in the ocean, it is instead a Platonic Form existing in the mind of God. God's existence is different as it needs to be more than existing within God.

The lost island argument is then of a different form to Anselm's ontological argument.

8. Abelard's solution to the problem of universals

Abelard is a conceptualist[4]. That is he is a strict nominalist in the predicational (i.e., Aristotelian) sense and a realist in the Boethian sense.

In Aristotelian predicational realism, there are real, non-linguistic things that are predicable of many, whereas for Abelard the universality of universal terms can be ascribed only to words and not to things [23]. Only words are predicated of many.

Since there are no universal things, universal terms have nothing to name, although the terms have significance. It is what the terms signify that makes Abelard a Boethian realist. There is a common cause, a natural kind, in things that we have no direct access to, but are directly aware of. This common cause is not a `thing' (res).

Abelard does not say that Socrates and Plato are alike in have the essence of a man, as a man is a thing. Instead, they are alike in being a man (hominem esse). Being a man is not a thing, but a fictive thing (res ficta), that is, purely an intentional object. This res ficta is what the mind forms when the confronted with (the result of) status, such that Socrates and Plato agree in the status of man. This status is not an entity but is nonetheless real. Since neither a res ficta nor status are things, they themselves are not universals as they cannot be predicated of many. Since the status is real, Abelard's theory is realist in the Boethian sense.

The subject of a concept is the res (i.e., the true substance) when one currently perceives the particular being understood. The subject of a concept is a res ficta when the subject is absent, whether it is common or particular one. Both a common and particular subject can be represented by a single picture, and are conceived either in common/particular as they are painted. A picture can be painted in common although it is proper of none of them. [40]

These concepts or images are not of the status of things, but the concepts are concepts of the status of things. If our ideas were the status of things, then we would have access to divine ideas. This is a break from the Platonic tradition, which for this theory would have direct access to the status of things. Although we do not have direct access to them, we are directly aware of them by perception. We are aware of the status, although as we have to go through intermediaries to get to them we can only directly be aware of them and cannot grasp them wholesale.

Abelard's predicational nominalism does not imply a subjectivism concerning universals, for there is a real basis for universal terms. The basis is the entities that are not things, but are intentional objects of natural kinds.

[1] This essay was originally written for an undergraduate class in mediaeval philosophy. I like to thank Jenny Ashworth for her comments on the earlier draft.

[2] Besides our text Hyman and Walsh's Philosophy in the Middle Ages. (2nd edition, 1973, Indianapolis: Hackett), Paul Vincent Spade's A Survey of Mediaeval Philosophy (Version 2, 1985, hard copy), Spade's Five Texts on the Mediaeval Problem of Universals (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), Jasper Hopkins's "Anselm" in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 1998), and Richard Green's translation of the Consolation of Philosophy (New York: Bobbs-Merrill) were consulted.

[3] Consolation of Philosophy. III pr. 10.

[4] This term may be misleading as concept is usually used to differentiate from imagery ideas.