A Philosophical History of Psychology, Cognition, and Consciousness: Andronicus, Alexander, and Boethius.

Professor Brett claims that at least insofar as Science and Psychology are concerned, between the deaths of St Augustine in 430 and St Thomas of Aquinas in 12 74, there was very little meaningful activity to speak of. This may not be an accurate historical description of the activity of this period given the fact that there is an argument to be made for at least one meaningful and major shift in Philosophical thinking, namely that from Neo-Platonism to Neo-Aristotelianism. This shift had implications for the domain of Philosophical Psychology and the concepts of the Will, Cognition, and Consciousness. In defense of Brett, it should, however, be remembered that he wrote his work in the 1920s and that the significance of Aristotle’s Philosophy was still in the process of being fully appreciated. After a decline from the halcyon days when men spoke of “The Master of those that know”, “The Teacher of all our teachers” and simply “The Philosopher”, (with a little help from Kantian and Wittgensteinian Philosophy)we may only today be in the process of restoring Aristotle’s reputation to its rightful place in the realm of Philosophy.

We shall however follow Brett in his classification of this period as “The Age of Reinterpretation”:

“A great deal happened between the death of St Augustine and the death of St Thomas, but it cannot be seriously maintained that much happened which was of any great importance to the history of Science in general or Psychology in particular. The papacy emerged as a temporal power and heralded an age of politicians, administrators, and systematisers. The spirit of Gregory entered into the thought as well as into the action of the Church. Occasionally, as in the case of a St Francis or an Abelard, the spirit of adventure or of criticism returned to challenge the institutions and learning now hallowed by tradition. But in the main, it was an age of reinterpretation, adaptation, and endless wrangling over minor questions.”

As was pointed out in line with previous comments and objections relating to Brett’s underestimation of the importance of Aristotelian thinking, this was certainly an age of reinterpretation of Aristotle and his significance for thought not just in the arena of Philosophy but also in the realms of culture and education. Brett also, however, makes an interesting observation in relation to a shift that seems to be occurring from the authority of critical discussion of a canon of individual thinkers to the authority of schools and institutions. This, if true, amounts to a significant reinterpretation of the concept of authority which may in its turn partly explain many anomalies in the development of Philosophical Thought.

At the beginning of this period extending from the death of Augustine when the Vandals were besieging the gates of Hippo, an Ecclesiastical Council had been called by Emperor Theodosius 2nd because a conflict of interpretation of the Bible had arisen between the patriarchates of Constantinople and Alexandria, two of the Cosmopolitan centres of the World at the time. The dispute was over whether Mary, the putative mother of Jesus, was a human being with human nature and if so how such a being could have conceived of a divine being like Jesus: the so-called issue of divine incarnation. This issue, having arisen in the context of dualistic assumptions was unsurprisingly resolved Neo-Platonically by insisting that Christ was a Being that must have possessed two natures, an earthly human nature, and divine god-like nature. This satisfied the delegates from Constantinople but not those from Alexandria who were hoping for another decision. A second Council meeting was convened and in this, it was decreed that a Being can only have one nature: the so-called doctrine of monophysitism. This, of course, was motivated by underlying Aristotelian concerns which saw the contradiction lurking in the decision from the first Council and it signified an interesting challenge to the prevailing Neo-Platonism of the time. This phenomenon was probably not assessed in these terms because it also signified a deeper conflict, from the Christian point of view, between pagan philosophy and Christianity. To the extent that Aristotle was recognized as lying behind this, it was due to the fact that his work had always been regarded more skeptically than that of Plato’s because of his naturalistic commitment to monism and the sources of life. This particular drama was merely the continuation of another drama played out during the lifetime of St Augustine when another conflict between Aristotelianism and Christianity had arisen when a Welsh Ecclesiastic named by the Romans Pelagius shockingly questioned the doctrine of Original Sin. Pelagius proposed theprinciple that there is a sense in which one must choose to be sinful: a notion that is more in accordance with the contrary assumption(to that of Original sin) that human nature is essentially Good. This view spread like wildfire and was especially embraced by Eastern Theologians. St Augustine did his best to limit the influence of this position by declaring it heretical. This position was not, however, formally ratified by the Church until the Council of Orange in 529 long after his death but just a short time after Justinian became emperor and began to deal with the “threat” of pagan Philosophy to the Christian faith. These two “incidents” testify to the growing influence of Aristotelian Philosophy. This, in spite of the difficulties both religious and linguistic of translating his works accurately into Latin.

Neo-Platonism had managed to subsist side by side with Christian dogma because of a shared belief in a dualistic metaphysics. Plato’s Philosophy, however also shared with Aristotle a belief in human reason and the “form of the Good” which Religion was skeptical of. Plato, however, did not, as did Aristotle, believe in the essential mortality of the soul. Aristotle’s denial of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul in the name of the principle of life which claimed that life was a journey towards its own extinction probably marginalized his role in the theological/philosophical debate about many metaphysical, ethical, political and psychological issues. Up to and perhaps including the time of Boethius, Greek texts could be read in the original but that skill was on the wane as Latin became the language of communication and academic discourse. After the death of Boethius Greek texts, with the possible exception of Plato’s Timaeus and Aristotle’s Organon( The Posterior Analytics was probably not included). Although the Latin language was almost universal in the West we should remember that St Augustine died in 430 at a time when the Vandals were besieging Hippo just 20 years after the Visigoths had sacked Rome. The fall of the Roman Empire was approaching and there was no sign of the advancement of the cause of the City of God.

Boethius was born a few years after the fall of the Western Empire. Many historians regard this event as the beginning of the so-called “Middle Ages” for which the reasons given range from the influence of Christianity on the Roma Psyche to the pressure of the influence of the Barbarians(Vandals, Goths, German tribes etc) from the North and West. Without wishing to deny the importance of these psychological and external influences, we are suggesting a third factor, a real causal role for the influence of Ideas, a factor that both Plato and Aristotle would agree with. Gibbon, the historian, pointed to the declining of moral virtue among the Romans and this is undoubtedly a correct observation but it is a phenomenon which in its turn must have a cause. The cause in question could hardly be Christianity as such(the so-called “turn the other cheek mentality”). Perhaps a more fitting causal candidate would be an assumption or assumptions of Christianity such as the dualistic theory of the Good, invoking as it does the view of man as a “fallen being” more inclined to sin than to virtue, living in a Manichaean world where evil is a real presence. In relation to such a state of affairs, the Platonic and Aristotelian explanations would merely refer to the absence of the Good. St Augustine, we should remember embraced a Manichaean division of the city into earthly and divine elements and this pagan form of dualism was still a major cultural influence during his time. Recall again the fact that the Vandals were poised for attack outside the gates of Hippo while St Augustine was writing his work “The City of God”. It is tempting to speculate on whether the work is pointing a finger at the weaknesses of a dualistic account of the Good. Later Philosophers like Kant would in such a discussion emphasize the logical nature of “ought-statements”, emphasize that is, the logical nature of an ought statement which is temporally oriented to the future and to the changes in the world to be brought about in the future in accordance with both an idea of the good and a good intention: making the suggestion the good is somehow concretely real in the present situation contentious, to say the least, (Evil similarly becomes an abstraction, but a negation of this abstract “Good”). Much human discourse is, of course, naturally directed to this future state of affairs and the relation of our ideas to what we intend to bring about. What this discussion draws attention to is the possible claim that a dualistic account of the Good might have played a part in the so-called “moral decay” of the Roman spirit Gibbon claims to have observed (Whether this dualism is Christian or pagan(Manichaeism)). This might have been a defendable state of affairs had there not existed a monistic/holistic theory of the Good such as that presented by Aristotle. In this context, we are reminded of Heidegger’s observations on the nature of the Latin language, namely that it is not an academic language like Greek. It is rather, Heidegger insists, a language of imperialism and conquest. The most magnificent image of the above two discussion points is the image of the Roman God, Janus who, we recall has two faces oriented in different directions. Hannah Arendt in her work “Between the Past and the Future”characterizes the spirit of Janus correctly in terms of the synthesis of the view of the past(the backward historical glance) and the future(the forward-looking eschatological glance). In her work on St Augustine, however, she chooses to focus upon the backward-looking historical glance which seeks after the origins and beginnings of things rather than the forward-looking ends toward which much of our discourse and many of our actions point. She points to the mental faculty of the memory and claims that it is associated with the search for explanatory origins which Romans, in contradistinction to Plato and Aristotle, believed had a first beginning in time. Aristotle’s commentary on such a state of affairs would reject the ideas of beginnings and endings of time and see the face staring backwards as rather staring into the eternity of elapsed time. The Romans given their history(and their language) would see the face oriented toward the future as concerned with the future of the next battle(Janus means “gateway” and was therefore placed at the city gate through which the troops marched off to war and through which they returned in victory and defeat). Obviously, the wished for victory was not in accordance with the “turn the other cheek mentality” of the Christians. Neither is it in accordance with the Aristotelian forms of future-oriented teleological explanation relating to eudaimonia, or the flourishing life.

Janus, of course, is an excellent image of dualism and its application to the life-world and time of man and perhaps there is a synthesis of the future and the past that can be made sense of in the Aristotelian theory of time and its relation to the life-world of man, the rational animal capable of discourse. Insofar, however, as the Roman interpretation of the image of Janus is concerned, there is no categorical form of rationality to be used to ensure the outcome of a war and furthermore where war is the preferred form of life for a nation, only superstition can regulate the activity. This superstition was reflected even in the rituals adopted for leaving and returning to the city and these rituals were attributed to the fantasied desires of Janus.

An Aristotelian interpretation of this image would also refer to time but not in terms of dualism. For Aristotle Time is the measure or number of motion in terms of before and after. The faces, that is, refer to the demarcated aspects of the passing of time into the before and after. It is only, Aristotle argues when two different nows have been demarcated that conscious awareness of the passing of time occurs. Time is that which exists between the nows, just as the infinite continuum of a line is formed by the demarcation of the points forming the beginning and end of the line: here the length of the line is analogous to the duration of time between the “nows” that have been pronounced. The external world is also required in order to assist in the measurement of all the activities in the life-world, for example, the regular motion of the earth turning on its axis or the regularity of the orbit of the earth around the sun. On this interpretation, the two faces exist in the present( in the middle of the line or a distinct point somewhere on the line). Obviously, not any kind of motion will do since regularity requires repetition which in turn suggested to Aristotle that circular motion was the best standard of measurement. He assumes that this form of motion has always been present and will always be present and therefore belongs to those things in the universe which are permanent and eternal. In terms of our historical awareness, say of the fall of Rome, the Aristotelian account, would maintain that the number of times the earth has revolved around the sun would measure the time elapsed between then and now. There is an argument that circular motion cannot be truly infinite because that would require that each part of space traversed would have to be different from any other that had been traversed but this is probably not the kind of perfection imagined by Aristotle which requires the circumscription of the regular motion in a relatively proximate space: any other notion of an infinite linear motion would not meet the criterion of “regulating” our experience. This line of reasoning entails that there cannot be, as the Roman conception of time and history would appear to require, a firstorigin in time which is not itself “in time”: anything in time requires a “before and an after” as well as a spatially circumscribable motion in space. An absolute beginning in time would suggest that the analogy we proposed earlier, namely that of a linear infinite continuum, is the real measure of time, which also conceivably could come to an end in the future. Is it toward this end in the future that one of Janus’s faces is oriented towards? This spatialization of time has also left its trace in our modern world with the replacement of Aristotelian circular clock faces by digital clocks where the recurrence of the same numbers denotes the circularity of the regularity of time.

Needless to say, there was no Greek equivalent for Janus in their house of divinities. For Aristotle, the future-oriented face would have symbolized a very peaceful gaze searching for eudaimonia, or the flourishing life and given that he regarded a flourishing city-state as necessary for actualizing this potential for man, perhaps the gaze is also searching more objectively for this future city-state. Aristotle distinguishes himself from Plato in this conception of a perfect state. Plato we know, at least in his Republic, required the presence of warriors, to keep order and to fight wars whereas Aristotle would have argued that a flourishing city would be one which best met the reasonable needs of the citizens and used their powers of reason and creativity to best effect for the common good.

If we now turn our gaze forward toward St Thomas and the Arab interpretations of Aristotle, what do we see? This is what Brett sees:

“Scholasticism has become a byword to designate quibbling over the details of a system whose basic assumptions are never seriously challenged. Gone was the bold speculation of the Greeks: gone, too, was the intense concern over ways of living which characterised the philosophy of the Stoics, Epicureans, and early Christians. For the schoolmen or the Arabs wisdom lay in the past: Aristotle was the great philosopher. Averroes and Aquinas disagreed on many points but their disagreements were mainly concerned with the correct interpretation of Aristotle. The task of the thinker resembled that of the administrator. Ideas, such as the hierarchy of Church officials, had to be welded together into a secure and final system that would resist strains from within and corruption from without. Everything had to be sifted, cross-examined and put in its appropriate place. Patient logic was applied to all the details: only the basic assumptions were logically unassailable because divinely revealed.”

Firstly, Aristotle’s Philosophy does not encourage a preference for forms of explanation rooted in the past unless the circumstances require that kind of explanation. (He was probably the first Philosopher to refuse the power of tradition and systematically submit his predecessor’s thoughts to a regime of criticism). The circumstances would refer to firstly, the kinds of change involved(substantial, qualitative, quantitative, locomotion), seondly, the principles of change, namely that there is something or state the change is from and something or state a change is towards and finally something which endures through the process of change. Wisdom, for Aristotle, was connected to the kind of explanation one gives to questions that are being asked about phenomena. If for example, one is asked to explain an action that no one understands, for example, if one is asked to explain why one gave all one’s money to charity and gives an explanation in terms of the needs of others being greater than one’s own, then the needs of others being met are obviously something that lies in the future and not in the past and the above is a typical example of a teleological explanation. Oracles often made prophecies that involved teleological explanations, e.g. “nothing too much” and this was picked up in the Aristotelian account of virtue in terms of the golden mean. Virtues obviously contain teleological components or as Kant would claim they involve “ought statements”. Wisdom, for Aristotle, did not necessarily lie in the past. Indeed given his account of time the past only acquired significance once an “after” has been designated, Brett’s designation of the reason why Aristotle was gaining in importance in this era may have been insufficient. Aristotle’s Philosophy was a principle-based philosophy. It was never systematic in the sense construed by Brett in the quote above. If Aristotle’s Philosophy was systematic it was not the system of an administrator. The relation of principles to each other do not resemble the relation of a hierarchy of officials. Aristotle’s ideas had logical relationships to each other and to the extent that scholastic philosophy paid attention to this logic against the background of his hylemorphic theory is the extent to which they too could be regarded as Aristotelians. Revelationwould, for Aristotle, not be a supernatural phenomenon beyond what it meant to say or think that one’s processes of inductive observation and deductive reasoning led to an “understanding” of what one was thinking about. Introducing the idea of divine understanding in these contexts would for Aristotle merely obscure what is being understood from a human point of view(the point of view of a rational animal capable of discourse).

One can, of course, wonder how Aristotle’s Philosophy managed to survive the onslaughts of Christian disdain for over a thousand years up until the time of St Thomas of Aquinas. Part of the answer lies in the continuous activities of the Peripatetic school in the Lyceum until it was closed by Justinian in 529 and part of the answer may lie in the translations and commentaries of two leading Aristotelian scholars, Alexander of Aphrodisias(the last of the major figures of the Peripatetic school) and Boethius(the last of the Roman Greek-speaking scholars). It should be bourne in mind, however, that Peripatetic scholars since the time of Andronicus of Rhodes were forced to engage dialectically with Stoic, Epicurean, Neoplatonic and Christian scholars. The reactions and interactions between these streams of scholarship were not easy to map. There was obviously a close relation between Aristotle’s ethical/political writings and the Practical Philosophy of the Stoics but there was considerable disagreement over the compatibility of Stoic determinism and Aristotelian Metaphysics. This disagreement centred upon the significance of the role of Stoical “assent” and whether it was “determined causally” or rather a self-centred free and new beginning implied by the Aristotelian principle of life. Aristotle, as we know, claimed that the principle of life resides in the “form” of a living body that possesses a number of potential and currently active powers, some of which he regarded as “mental”. He would not have denied that physical insults such as a spear in the heart or in the brain would suffice for the principle to cease to function permanently and thereby he agreed that there would be what he called material and efficient causes responsible for mental activities such as “assent” or “acting virtuously”. This admission, however, he would have regarded as compatible with an insistence that the better explanations of mental powers and activities would involve what he called formal and final causes that would invoke nonphysical variables.

Some commentators claim that the scholastic tradition of “interpreting” the works of Aristotle began with Andronicus of Rhodes who used the sound exegetical principle of explaining Aristotle with reference to Aristotle’s own principles rather than those of Neoplatonism or Christianity. Andronicus used this strategyto distinguish Aristotle’s works from those of his pupils and also to place the works in a pedagogical order that is still used in collections of Aristotle’s works today. Alexander of Aphrodisias was the last of the Peripatetic scholarchs to continue using the above exegetical principle as a counterweight to the weight of Roman Culture and the Universal ambition of the Latin language (both of which appeared to favour the dualism of Neoplatonism and Christianity over the categorical and logical monism of Aristotle). Alexander’s commentaries and general writings contributed to the role of Aristotelianism in what we are referring to as the “Age of Reinterpretation”. His writings were translated into Latin and therefore engaged with the prevalent Neoplatonic Christian, Stoic, and Epicurean texts. Many of his commentaries are now lost but his best-known commentaries on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, the Soul, Sense Perception, Prior Analytics, Topics, and Meteorology have survived.

Boethius continued the Peripatetic tradition of writing commentaries on the works of Aristotle, in particular on Aristotle’s “Organon”. He is not mentioned by Brett in his work but he deserves mention for four reasons. Firstly, he was, as we mentioned previously, the last of the Greek-speaking scholarchs in the Roman World. Secondly, because of his commentaries. Thirdly because of his Socratic fate- protesting his innocence throughout his imprisonment and up to his execution. Fourthly because of the work he was writing whilst awaiting execution: “The Consolation of Philosophy”. Bertrand Russell in his work “The History of Western Philosophy” classifies this work as Neoplatonic and this may be questionable. The work unquestionably has an air of a Platonic dialogue about it but here are definite Stoical ethical themes and there are even suggestions of Aristotelian themes relating to the theoretical and practical divisions of Philosophy. This latter suggestion is even today the subject of controversial debates.

The Consolations of Philosophy begins with Boethius sitting in his prison in Pavia, regretting his misfortune after having been elevated to one of the highest administrative positions in the government of Theodoric. A Lady representing Philosophy visits the prisoner. She is wearing a tattered and worn garment with the representation of a ladder bearing greek lettering upon the top and bottom of the ladder: on the top is the Greek Theta(standing for theoretical divisions of philosophy), on the bottom is the Greek letter P(standing for the Practical divisions of Philosophy). She is the bearer of some philosophical works and she casts aside the books of Poetry on his bedside table. Boethius is manifestly by turns depressed and indignant. In response to this, she presents arguments illustrating the illusory values of material fortune and compares fickle fortune to divine providence which lies behind the mystery of the spiritual and ethical government of the world. She conceives of herself as bringing medicine to the sick spirit of Boethius: “The times call for healing rather than Lamentations”(H R James translation).

This is reminiscent of Plato’s Symposium in which Socrates in one of his speeches evokes the memory of one of his teachers, the Lady Philosopher, Diotima, who he represents as giving him a philosophy lesson in relation to the concept of Love and the Being Eros who has been conceived of as a God. She reminds Socrates of the parentage of Eros, namely a poverty-stricken mother and a resourceful father and she also claims that this is not the circumstances of a divine being. indeed she pictures Eros as padding about our cities barefooted in the search for spiritual sustenance of various forms. The moral of her tale is also significantly related to the origin of the word Philosophy(lover of wisdom). Much time has elapsed between the two works and between the lives of Socrates and Boethius and the lessons learned from the two Ladies appear to differ. Socrates learned to love Philosophy whilst Boethius learns instead to be consoled to his fate. Of course, Boethius, having served as a minister in Theorodic the Goth’s government, would have knowledge of his king’s paranoia and the kind of death that awaited those who aroused his wrath. There would be no sipping from a cup of poison and gentle slipping away from the world for him. His was to be a Gothic death at the hands of a sovereign who believed that Jesus did not have a divine nature. Boethius was subsequently regarded by many Christians as a martyr and was venerated as St Severinus. He left little of ecclesiastical value behind him but his commentaries on Aristotle earned him the title of the first of the scholastic Philosophers. His final work “The Consolations of Philosophy” was popular for centuries.

The schools of Athens and Alexandria were still active at the time of the death of Boethius. Two or three years after his death the Emperor Justinian came to power and the Schools in Athens were closed in 529 probably because of the conflict of pagan doctrines with Christian dogma. In the following 270 years, the Roman Empire continued to diminish in territory and power but dualistic views of Christ and the Soul still overshadowed the hylemorphic monism of Aristotle. Indeed, even the doctrine of Christ possessing a single will was condemned by a Council under the influence of Maxim the Confessor in 649 AD in Rome and again at a Council held in Constantinople in 681.

Life and Society outside of the Roman Empire were also changing. the prophet Muhammad died in 633 and a wave of conquest swept over the world that included the capture of Carthage as well as the defeat of the Gothic Christians. Charlemagne managed in 768 to drive the Muslims back to the Pyrenees and expanded the Roman Empire into a Holy Roman Empire embracing all the Christians of Continental Western Europe. He established a school for scholars where Alcuin of York is supposed to have resurrected the writings of Aristotle in Latin, though in the context of the Christian scriptures.



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Michael R D James

Michael R D James

Author of “The World Explored, the World Suffered: The Exeter Lectures”(2017) and “A Philosophical History of Psychology, Cognition, and Consciousness”(2019).