A forgotten gem.

“There is something curiously moving and impressive about the mediaeval schoolmen. From their cloistered retreats to which learning had been driven by the tumults of the Dark Ages, they emerge into the sunlight bustle of town and university, exuberant with vitality, filled with enormous and zestful intellectual appetite.”

Dorothy L. Sayers

I first came across the name of Canon D J B Hawkins when reading Antony Flew’s “ God and Philosophy” and formed the view from Flew’s treatment of his work that he was a philosopher  who had little to offer except an archaic Thomism. Gradually however I kept finding his book “A Sketch of Mediaeval Philosophy” ( London, 1946 )  listed in such places as the bibliography to Father Copleston’s  “Aquinas” ( where curiously the date of its publication is wrongly given ),  so I asked John Wyse Jackson of the Zozimus Bookshop ( among our links ) to find me a copy- which turns out to have been a wise decision. The book is a delight

Indeed I would go further.  It’s a classic. Canon Hawkins  turns out to have been a Catholic priest who ministered at Godalming in Surrey for many years. He never held any academic position, but wrote several works of philosophy from a position of moderate Thomism before his death in 1964  His “Sketch of Mediaeval Philosophy” was, however by far his most widely read book, and his only venture into the history of ideas. Perhaps because it was a one off it expresses the full fruits of engagement with his subject. Too often works of scholarship  are almost by implication the result of self-conscious research undertaken for the very purpose of writing the book in question. These have then a certain artificial feel about them. As a result one often gets the impression that the author knows about his subject ( or at least what his sources have told him about his subject ),  but that he does not truly KNOW his subject, in that he or she has not fully made the subject their own. This is precisely the sense that one DOES NOT get from Hawkins’ book.  Hawkins was obviously an enthusiast for his subject. Indeed, as I read,  I couldn’t help suspecting  that he can hardly have had time for anything else. I sensed indeed that his enthusiasm was such that his parishioners may have felt neglected. His final chapter includes a revealing cameo  in which he pictures himself turning over the pages of the more obscure late scholastics in the hope of finding yet more to read- for he must read everything else!

Hawkins though, was no mere antiquarian. He thought like a philosopher; that is to say he obviously kept turning over in his mind the issues raised by his reading.  For him there were as many questions as certainties in philosophy. And he relished this same tendency in the thinkers that he wrote about. For Hawkins the story begins with the tragic late Roman Boethius whose “Consolations of Philosophy” exerted an extraordinary influence in the Middle Ages,  and was indeed translated into English by  Chaucer among others.  Boethius was a late  Roman senator in the employment of a barbarian king. But he lost a court intrigue, and as a result was first imprisoned and then executed. It was while he was imprisoned, but probably before he knew what his ultimate fate would be, that he wrote his famous book. More recent scholars have wondered why it was that, if Boethius was really a Christian, that he should have taken so little comfort from his faith, as his book implies. The reason though is not far to seek. His book is about “The Consolations of Philosophy”, and not The Consolations of Faith. Boethius, in effect, does what it says on the tin.

A minor point, you may perhaps think. But this would not be a sound judgement. Boethius was an extremely influential figure who linked the ancient and mediaeval worlds. Consequently the distinction which he made between the realm of faith and reason was to become far more important than he can ever have imagined. This meant that there could be an active debate between the various different schools of philosophy within the context of the Christian faith. By our standards the church was authoritarian. But it was not totalitarian.

Hawkins grants quite freely that towards the end of the Middle Ages  there were thinkers who under the influence nominalism had abandoned Christianity and who merely pretended to believe for obvious pragmatic reasons  But these he insists were very much in a minority. For the vast bulk of thinkers during the middle ages Christianity was at the core of everything that they did. But their thinking was not restricted simply to reiterating the contents of their faith. Rather they wished to understand what they believed, and they used all the tools available to them to do so.  And in order to do this they explored widely and thought freely within the context of their Catholic faith. It was this openness to debate that lay behind the whole flowering of Christian thought in the Middle Ages.

While the revival of Thomism from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards was a development of great importance  (the full significance of which we may not yet have seen fully ), but it has had the disadvantage of  making it appear that the Middle Ages were philosophically  less divided, less rich and less interesting than was really the case. Aquinas was certainly the flag ship of the fleet. But he was not alone. Hawkins was an unapologetic Thomist. For him the writings of Thomas were a triumphant synthesis of Christian and Aristotelian thought, with an enduring relevance. But this did not prevent him from being able to present the other thinkers of the period in a vivid way. Indeed they come bouncing out of his pages like characters in a play.

There are , it is true, moments when the pace slackens and one begins to feel that one is reading a telephone directory of minor figures. But these lapses are few. Hawkins has the knack of being able to catch the spirit of the people he writes about. He captures the tragedy of Boethius, the oddity of Duns Scotus,  the over-confidence of Anselm ( he thinks that the ontological argument was a bridge too far )- , the romance- and the seriousness-of Abelard, and , of course, the massive solidity of Aquinas.

For me though the central message Hawkins’ was that the greatest achievement of the mediaeval theological class was its right understanding of the importance of politics. This is of especial importance today, when on the one hand our voters fail to vote in record numbers, and yet on the other there seem to be innumerable fanatics on both left and right who can’t seem to think of anything else but politics. Mediaeval man knew much better than this. Politics was important. But it was not all-important. Man’s true home was elsewhere. Then the role of politics was circumscribed by the metaphysical and moral order within which humanity was located. In other words, just as Boethius attributed a sphere to philosophy and sphere to faith, so too the mediaeval consensus attributed a sphere to the church and a sphere to the state.

Although historians of ideas tend to think that the mediaeval dispute about universals was of the greater interest, the tussle over the respective rights of the church and the empire probably had more enduring institutional significance than the metaphysical argument. Few people in the Middle Ages would have taken an extreme view of the case. It was all a matter proportion, and of, as we would say today, where the line should be drawn. Put differently, the crucial point was that there were two legitimate spheres, the boundaries between which were the subject of discussion and of course compromise. This in turn had deep implications both for the Middle Ages themselves, and for their legacy to us. It is, for example, the existence of differing spheres in our culture today that makes it so difficult for followers of Islam to integrate successfully into our culture. Above all it explains both the origins of our freedoms and our need to defend them from those who would remove any spiritual considerations from our political order. No wonder Hawkins quotes Lord Acton as saying that Aquinas was the first Whig- ( unlike Dr. Johnson who said that  that honour belonged to the devil!)

While Hawkins is most immediately relevant when he is hinting at the political implications of the views he is describing, he is, to my mind, most disturbing when he describes the way in which the wisdom of the Middle Ages was first abandoned, and then simply forgotten. It is true that late scholasticism had become tired. Perhaps under the influence of the Black Death the confidence detected by Dorothy Sayers was replaced by what V.H.H. Green called ” a kind of wintry pessimism.” Moreover scholasticism became far too closely associated with the Ptolemaic view of the universe  which turned out to be wrong. Likewise its focus on metaphysics was in conflict with the greater emphasis on human nature- which was such a pronounced feature of both Reformation and Renaissance. Nevertheless the deep wisdom of the middle ages was not refuted. It was allowed, even encouraged, to die of neglect.  The enthusiasts for the new learning and the Reformers  each had their own strong motives for ignoring what had gone immediately before them. And neither showed any hesitation about the ethics or the wisdom of making fun of what they did not want to understand and had not much studied. Instead they imposed what amounted to a Philosophical Correctness on the culture of the West. Nor was the Enlightenment any better or more broad minded . So let us not then make a similar mistake: for as Hawkins concludes, “there is much more than the satisfaction of historical curiosity in making the acquaintance of Bonaventure and Duns Scotus and, above all, Thomas Aquinas.”

NOTES: Also to hand, acquired for me by John Wyse Jackson, is  S. J Curtis “A Short History of Western Philosophy in the Middle Ages” ( London, 1950 ), and it is from the Dorothy Sayers’ preface to this from which I have drawn the quotation which heads this piece.

The brief quote from V.H.H. Green comes from his “Renaissance and Reformation ” ( London, 1970 ) p.18  For the final paragraph I have raided Joseph Rickaby S.J. ” Scholasticism” ( London, 1908 ). Of the relationship between scholasticism and science he writes  “No one who has not read much of the Scholastic authors can conceive how far the Ptolemaic astronomy entered into their psychology, their metaphysics, and even their theology.” But he insists that “Certainly Scholasticism does not stand of fall with the Ptolemaic conception…One may remain a good Scholastic and abolish all that.” p. 66.

For an up to date account of Aquinas see Edward Feser, “Aquinas, a Beginner’s Guide” ( London, 2009 ) which contains a very full bibliography of the more recent literature. No one though even vaguely interested in the thought of the middle ages should ignore the work of  Etienne Gilson. I started with his “God and Philosophy” ( Yale, Mass. 1941 ) although it also deals with more recent thought.

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