Modern and Medieval Thought


To understand and assess rational thought and its importance to Christianity, medieval thinkers investigated the literature of Plato and Aristotle. The outcome of their discovery of ancient literature was rational ideas could explain certain aspects of Christianity, but rational ideas were not as significant as religious concepts. However, when theorist William of Ockham (14th century) identified religious and secular ideas as incompatible entities, he created a contentious view that appeared to differ from typical medieval intellectual thought. The controversy over the separation of religious and secular ideas, which many consider to be the first step toward modern Western thinking, continues to exist in Western society today.

Saint Anselm (1033 – 1109)

The theological framework of Saint Augustine (354-430 CE) shaped the Christian cornerstone of the Greco-Roman period in Europe. The religious and spiritual concepts Saint Augustine established fostered the fundamental teachings of theologians such as Italian-born archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Anselm. Because he adopted Saint Augustine’s spiritual perspective, Saint Anselm became an influential thinker in medieval Europe.

However, historians devalue his religious-centered ideas as typical medieval thinking. Saint Anselm promulgated the view that God’s power exists in the reality of all things instead of exclusively in the mind. According to the religious vision of Saint Anselm, if God existed purely in human thoughts God’s existence would have the limitation of human thoughts. Based on Saint Anselm’s beliefs, the sovereignty and existence of God has no limitations.

Medieval Thought

According to Western Civilization to 1789, the differences between a medieval and a modern thinker are the strategies for analyzing issues. For example, a modern thinker would have questioned Saint Anselm when he asserted God is real. A modern thinker uses the technique of questioning abstract concepts such as: “Does God exist?” A modern thinker believes Saint Anselm must authenticate God’s existence either through personal observation or through physical experience. The perspective of Western Civilization to 1789 indicates that Saint Anselm was a typical medieval thinker, and his use of Holy Scripture to substantiate God’s existence was an acceptable medieval approach to investigating reality.

Therefore, the medieval approach to verifying abstract ideas is an insufficient method for modern thinkers. According to the modern perception, the credibility of Holy Scripture fails to produce the necessary empirical evidence to prove the reality of God. Because the general presumption of modern thinkers underscores the concept that God’s existence is contingent upon personal experience or observation, the reality of God is in question among modern thinkers.

However, many non-Western theorists and others, similar to Saint Anselm, emphatically insist that God exists. God is real to many non-westerners. The acquisition of faith facilitates communication with God through perception and emotions, which are the human qualities that Plato devalued in his assessment of people who can access the highest level of knowledge. To Africans, Asians, and many others, God and spirituality are real, although organized religion is a human construction (Burns and Ralph 485). In respect to modern Western thought, the implication of a significant number of writers is people who believe in God based on Holy Scripture are, like Saint Anselm, medieval thinkers.

Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274)

As part of the educational development of privileged Europeans during the High Middle Ages (1000 – 1350), Thomas Aquinas is an intriguing example of thinkers of the period. His concepts about religion and rational thought affected the perception of medieval intellectualism. Similar to Saint Anselm, Aquinas advocated religious ideas, but he assessed secular perspectives and Christian concepts as equal, compatible opposites. According to Western Civilization to 1789, Aquinas promoted the idea that Aristotle’s philosophy (reason) and religion are inseparable entities; they are complimentary and in agreement with one another. In the estimation of Aquinas, God is the author of reason and religion. Therefore, because both views originate from God, they are valid and useful to each other.

Saint Anselm subordinated secular ideas to religious concepts, but Aquinas contrasted the religious-centered views of church officials with his philosophy of compatibility. Medieval religious leaders were against incorporating philosophy into religion in any form or fashion, which would have been similar to the “Hellenization of Christianity” that occurred during the Greco-Roman period. This phenomenon was an attempt by Greco-Roman theorists to use secular explanations as a way to validate Christianity.

Nevertheless, medieval conservatives, like religious conservatives of the Roman Empire, were naturally against non-traditional ideas about the value of religion in comparison to reason. The medieval conservatives believed, in contrast to Aquinas, that an interaction of philosophical and theological concepts would blemish the innocence of Christian doctrine. Although Aquinas receives credit for equating secular knowledge with religious concepts, many historians view him as a conventional medieval thinker. Because Aquinas never questioned the practicality of religious-centered views, writers categorize him as an intellectual who followed the standard ideas of his time.

William of Ockham (1285 – 1349)

In contrast, historians trace the origins of modern thought to William of Ockham. According to Marvin Perry, Ockham was “…a forerunner of the modern mentality”. In the estimation of many contemporary historians, Ockham stands at a distance from Aquinas and other medieval intellectuals as an intense, innovative thinker. According to Ockham, reason and religion are definitely separate, incompatible concerns. Ockham’s separation of rational thought and spiritual ideas designate him the predecessor of a major characteristic of Western thought.

The Aquinas/Ockham dichotomy is a significant development in Western culture because it stimulated discussion and forced people to consider diverse philosophical perspectives. Ockham was a conservative thinker who upheld the Church’s viewpoint that Christianity is in direct opposition to philosophy. The notion that seems to impress historians about Ockham’s philosophical position, though, is his emphasis on complete and total separation of secular thought from faith-based ideas. Ockham assigned a subordinate status to religion in association with reason, which contradicted traditional medieval thought. Historians interpret Ockham’s ideas as the beginnings of modern thinking.

Modern Thought

To demonstrate the reverberations of Ockham’s ideas, Perry illuminates the definition of modern thought. In his estimation, observation, experimentation, and systematic, methodical studies to discover reality has forced religious concepts and Christianity outside the circle of human activity in the West. One captivating aspect about the modern/medieval thought issue is the indication that modern thinkers, meaning Western thinkers, must elevate secular thought above everything else. Ockham initiated the Western intellectual trend of separating secular and religious ideas.

However, because religious concepts are marginal in the context of human affairs in the Western world, science is in the mainstream. The process of marginalizing spirituality is an indication that many western intellectuals may experience problems identifying religious ideas they cannot rationalize, because their world view leads them to believe such concepts are irrational. The other point implied in the modern/medieval discussion is medieval thinkers never attempted to interpret the world without using religious explanations.

Modern Versus Medieval Thought

What about Aquinas’ assertion that secular thought and religious teachings are compatible? Because Aquinas did not demote religion and spirituality, modern theorists would certainly argue that Aquinas was a purely medieval thinker. Although the perception is Aquinas exemplifies medieval thinking, it is evident he studied among the Moors who had invaded and controlled Spain in 711 CE. The Moors also controlled Sicily, parts of Italy, and Crete. Not only did the Moors build prestigious colleges and universities in Spain that pervaded all of Europe, but also, according to Pimienta-Bey, Aquinas studied extensively under the Moors.

In the Moor-dominated schools in Europe, everyone studied religion along with science, philosophy, math, and grammar, among other subjects. Secular thought and religious teachings were complimentary instead of oppositional as William of Ockham espoused, “the forerunner to Western modern thought.” Moorish academic influences on Aquinas are evident by the level of comfort he displayed with synthesizing religious and secular concepts.

During the High Middle Ages, the church dominated the sparse educational system in Europe. The curricula of medieval educational institutions featured religious instruction and manuscript replication. Therefore, in the case of Aquinas, he either acquired his education from schools that carried the curricula of the Moors or he received tutelage from Moorish scholars. However, he did not acquire his reason/religion compatibility ideas from any church dominated schools.

Education For Aquinas

For historians to affirm William of Ockham’s separation of secular ideas from religious thought as the start of modern thinking may be a misrepresentation of the intellectual influences in medieval Europe. Although Ockham was passionate about isolating religious thought, it is unreasonable to refer to Aquinas as a medieval thinker because he studied under the Moorish scholars who were not medieval theorists. The Moors, armed with the knowledge of the ancient world, professed spiritual and secular ideas were complimentary. The great scholars of Timbuktoo in West Africa during the glorious period of Ancient Ghana (300 – 1240 CE) instructed their students, which included the Moors, to “Believe in God and science”.

Ghanaian scholars taught these concepts while Europe had no educational institutions during the early medieval period. The Ghanaian scholars taught that no differences exist between God and science. Thomas Aquinas learned these principles through his interactions with the Moors, but many historians refer to Aquinas as a medieval thinker. Nonetheless, the influences of a high-achievement society inspired his complimentary ideas about theology and philosophy.

What is modern about emphasizing secular thought? The Western scientificic method of investigation does not capture all of reality, which is probably the supposition a so-called modern thinker would use to argue against one who observes the world through religion and spirituality. Conceivably, modern thinking means Europeans have developed a different way of conceptualizing the world. Explaining the world exclusively through rational thought is one perspective, and it is different from examining the world through both religious and secular thought as the Moors did. Perhaps the rationalization and secularization of Western society is not so much a feature of modern thinking as it is a unique characteristic of European cultural and ideological development.