Part three

The Late Medieval Attack on Analogical Thought:
Undoing Substantial Connection


[p. 51 -- continued]

Thus the papal interpretation of the two swords is rejected as inconsistent with Christ's other teachings (II, xxviii, 24). But Marsilius can in this case only combat allegory with allegory. For the papal analogy he substitutes another, more congenial, reading--St. Ambrose's--that the two swords are really the Old and New Testaments (ibid.).

More scrupulous in method is Marsilius' treatment of claims to power based on philosophical arguments, and these he combats with the weapons of experience, dialectics, and logic. The principle of unity of rule was often used by the papalists to support their claim that, just as there is one ruler of the cosmos, so must there be only one supreme ruler (the Pope) of the Church or of any social group. Marsilius shoots this down with the concise observation that

Even if we grant the analogy with regard to the similarity or proportion which it initially assumes, yet to the added assertion, that the primary ruler or government is one, we can reply that this is true by human establishment, and not by any ordainment or decree made immediately by God or divine law.

(II, xxviii, 14)

Thus, the formal similarity is granted but the causal nexus is denied, and with it the whole coercive intention of the analogy.

Finally. Marsilius treats the central papal argument that "as the body is to the soul, so is the ruler of the body to the ruler of the soul." Again it will be futile to look for an examination of the epistemological basis of such an argument, but Marsilius does provide a very careful analysis of the argument itself. As Jean had done, he first replaces Augustinian dualism with the Aristotelian notion of soul as the body's principle of motion, change and appetite. In this way, soul and body are not subject to two separate types of government, but temporal government itself may properly be said to concern itself with the soul. The argument is rejected next on the evidence of simple experience and observation:

For between the soul and the body, and again between the rational and the irrational faculties, there are many differences which do not exist between those persons who are teachers or caretakers of the one and those who are teachers or caretakers of the other. For the rational faculty, in the image of the Trinity, composes syllogisms, while the irrational does not; but there is no such difference between the teachers or caretakers of these respective faculties; and so on with the rest.

(II, xxx, I)

If experts in more perfect disciplines were to exercise temporal power over experts in less perfect disciplines, then mathematicians would rule over phy-

[p. 52]

sicians, "and very many would be the manifest evils which would follow from this" (ibid.). The argument is extended into dialectic, for the judge of spiritual things judges differently than does the judge of temporal matters, and the papal claim to universal judgement "is fallacious because of the equivocal use of the word Ĺjudge'."

On logical grounds too the soul / body analogy is refuted:

And when it is assumed in the minor premise that the body is subordinate to the soul ... then, even if we unqualifiedly grant that the body is subordinate with respect to perfection, it does not follow that the body is subordinate with respect to jurisdiction: for to argue in this way would he to draw an invalid inference.


Marsilius provides many more arguments to the same effect, for this and other papalist analogies; but they do not, I think, add a great deal more to our understanding of his method than those already cited.

Unlike Marsilius, William of Ockham treats analogy with terse impatience. True to the principle of "Ockham's razor," he provides the minimum sufficient refutation, usually the tellingly simple refutation from experience. The papal arguments are taken up in Ockham's tract Octo Quaestiones de Potestate Papae (c. 1340)29 Biblical exegesis is discussed in terms similar to those of Jean Quidort: "sensus mysticus"--in this case of the two swords--is to be avoided unless absolutely necessary, and is acceptable only when supported by other Scriptural authority (Q. II, cap. xiii). Typical "comparationes" of papal to imperial power (e.g., father / son, teacher / pupil, gold / lead, sun / moon) are summarily dismissed on the ground that the emperor bears no such relation to any man on the basis of physical power, but only of spiritual power, in which he is admittedly subject to the Pope (II, xiv). The important analogy to soul and body is also treated with disappointing brevity: Ockham simply asserts that in actual fact the rational or spiritual power does not always control the physical: there are several physical operations not under rational control (I, xiv). It is not, therefore, in his political works that Ockham investigates the fundamental assumptions of analogical thought. That task is accomplished in his logic, to which we must now turn.

IV. Analogy and Experience.

During the early fourteenth century, advances in scientific theory had furnished the means of criticizing traditional cosmology, and political necessity had been the motive for the revision of traditional political theory. Neither among the scientists nor among the political theorists have we found any systematic critique of the general epistemological basis of analogy. The work of the English Franciscan William of Ockham (1290-1349) provides that critique. Ockham's importance in the history of philosophy has never been disputed, though the nature of his contribution has been variously estimated. Though in his own day Ockham was known by the titles "Invincible Doctor" and "Venerable Inceptor," his reputation had degenerated by

29Ed. 3. G. Sikes, in Guillelmi de Ockham Opera Politico (Manchester, 1940), vol. 1.

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the seventeenth century to that of a sophistical malcontent. In Fuller's Worthies, the life of Ockham ends with these words:

For his soul of opposition it will serve to close his epitaph, what was made on a great paradox-monger, possessed with a like contradicting spirit:

Sed iam est mortuus, ut apparet,
Quod si viveret, id negaret.

Despite Dr. Fuller's sniping, the nominalist30 attack on traditional thought is more than an exercise in logic. It offers, and comes from, a radically new approach to reality, an approach which has its parallel in the other disciplines already discussed, and in literature as well.

We have already documented the analogical basis of neo-Platonic Christian thought. As Eliade points out, the tribal society sees its planting, harvesting and love-making as versions of the archetypal creation. In a more sophisticated form of the same impulse, the person who experiences limitations on his freedom may construct a universal scheme of predestination in order to account for the human condition as he perceives it. For Ockham, such an effort to organize experience in abstract patterns would be logically impermissible (however necessary it might be emotionally). From the nominalist point of view, the condition of being free or unfree, for example, corresponds to no actual entity: "freedom" or "slavery." "Freedom," like "whiteness," "beauty," "justice" or "mankind" is a "universal." It is not a real thing in any sense; it has no objective existence outside the mind and no psychological existence in the mind. It is not the same thing as an idea, for an idea is the image of something, while the universal is not the image of any thing. The universal

has only a logical being in the soul and is a sort of fiction existing in the logical realm.... In the same way, propositions, syllogisms, and such other things as philosophy treats, have no psychological being, but have a logical being only: so their being is their being understood.31

Another form of universal is the relation-concept: similarity, difference, paternity, causality, etc. These relation-concepts also have no being, but are only an act of the intellect. Like other universals, the relation-concept is a kind of shorthand, a convenient way of expressing several separate perceptions at once. We may say that an egg is white, and we may say that paper is

30It is not agreed by Ockham scholars whether the philosopher ought to be called nominalist, conceptualist or terminist; see. e.g., M. C. Menges, The Concept of Univocity ... (St. Bonaventure, N.Y., 1952), and P. Boehner, "The Realistic Conceptualism of William Ockham," Traditio, IV (1946) and reprinted in Collected Articles on Ockham (St. Bonaventure, 1958). However, Tornay's defense of the term nominalist seems valid to me: Stephen Chak Tornay, Ockham: Studies and Selections (LaSalle, Pa., 1938), pp. 1-28.

31Sent. I, dist. 2, q. 8f, in Tornay, p. 132. Ockham's notion of the universal evolved over a period of several years, though this development does not seem to have entailed any major alteration in his thought. The development of Ockham's universals theory is discussed in P. Boehner, Ockham, Philosophical Writings (London, 1957), p. xxix and in Armand A. Maurer, Medieval Philosophy (New York, 1969), p. 281.

[p. 54]

white; or we may say, using a relational concept, that the egg is similar in color to paper:

Just so, the concept "every" is relational in the soul. And although without this concept every man is capable of laughter, still we can only express this through a relational concept.32

So, then, many abstract concepts which we use for the sake of convenience are neither provable nor logically necessary to account for the facts. Such concepts are, strictly speaking, dispensable ("Ockham's razor").33

Especially in a Christian society, such a theory of universals and relations has enormous implications. One might ask how, if the abstract class "mankind" has no real existence, mankind can be said to have sinned in Adam or to be redeemed in Christ. If there are no real abstract essences, in what sense can bread and wine be said to "be" the body and blood of Christ? How can Christ be considered both man and god at once, or god to have three distinct essences in one?34

What relevance to poetry has the attack on analogical thought--especially to the poetry of a man like Chaucer, who knew little, if anything, of the work of the scholars I have mentioned in this paper? Despite the lack of direct influence, the questions that scholars were asking during the fourteenth century were not unlike the questions that laymen were asking at the same time. What impelled laymen was not logic or science or the struggle for political power, but simply experience and observation; and the historical experience of the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was such as to undercut the authority of certain institutions and values that had once been regarded as unimpeachable. The historical events which had most effect on the experience of the ordinary man were the failure of the crusade movement and its degeneration into a purely political tool; internal dissension in the Church, which culminated in the Great Schism of 1378 and generated the

32Sent. I, dist. xxx, q. I; in Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh, eds., Philosophy in the Middle Ages (New York, 1967), p. 641.

33This is perhaps a too-simple way of stating the principle of "Ockham's razor," which was not in any case original with Ockham. For a more detailed discussion of the formulation, meaning and application of the principle, see Bochner, p. xx and Maurer, p. 284.

34Such questions as these were anticipated by Ockham, and against them he could make no other defense than pure faith. In Sent. I, xxx, 1 (Whether a relation is a thing distinct from absolutes), Ockham says of the mystery of the trinity: "One who wishes to be supported only by the reason possible to him and who did not wish to accept any authority whatsoever would say that it is impossible for three persons distinct in reality to he one supremely simple thing. Likewise such a one would say that God is not man. . . ." (Walsh, p. 635; and see p. 637). For Ockham, of course, the truth of Christian doctrine was necessary and inevitable, while that of natural reason was contingent, hence of an inferior order. Even Ockham's own fideism does not, however, suffice to resolve the problems raised by his logic. Despite its sincerity, it served as a means of avoiding the direct confrontation of faith and reason, as it had similarly served such thirteenth-century philosophers as Siger de Brahant and Boetius of Dacia.

The problem of "humanity" is treated in the Summa Totius Logicae; see especially Ockham's demonstration that the proposition "Humanity is in Socrates" is false (Boehner, pp. 76-79). On shared essence, Summa I, xv (Boehner, pp. 35-37).

[p. 55]

heresies of Wyclif and Hus; the plague that Šperiodically swept Europe after 1348; and numerous rebellions such as those of the Jacquerie in France (1357) and of English peasants and artisans in 1381.

What would these events mean to a moderately well-educated middle-class person of the fourteenth century? The evidence, drawn from sermons, anecdotes, university disputations and vernacular poetry, suggests that such a person could not avoid noticing that the feudal social order was being called into question by those who formed its very base. Nor could he help observing that the sacred notion of retributive justice did not operate with the Black Death: many good men died, many evil men survived, and neither virtue nor prayer was efficacious. The military failure of the Crusades had done much to undermine the earlier medieval conviction--so confidently expressed in the Chanson de Roland--that "God is on our side." And with the perversion of crusade rhetoric and ideals to political ends, it became painfully obvious that the interests served were no longer spiritual, if they ever had been. The same conclusion must have been obvious when all Europe was treated during several decades to the spectacle of two opposing popes, each claiming ultimate authority.

For these reasons the fourteenth century was a period of unusual complexity: unusual in that so many institutions and assumptions were challenged simultaneously. It is precisely this sense of the ambiguity or complexity of life that allegory is not suited to convey. I want now to return to the question of allegory and to consider it in the light of the nominalist critique of analogical thought.

The writing of allegory requires that qualities be abstracted from the entities which display them in real life, and that these qualities be granted an independent literary existence. Our own perceptions and experiences are not, of course, fragmented in this way, and if we assent to the literary portrayal of Lust or Humility it is because we know people who are lustful or humble. The advantage of such fragmentation is that it allows us at our leisure to examine and analyze certain phenomena, to isolate certain elements of experience, to judge. A modern philosopher, Ernst Cassirer, notes this phenomenon when he writes:

The dividing lines which the symbolism of language and the abstract concept introduce into reality may seem necessary and inevitable: however they arc necessary not from the standpoint of pure knowledge hut from the standpoint of action. Man can act upon the world only by breaking it into pieces--by dissecting it into separate spheres of action and objects of action.35

Allegory, like Ockham's relation-concept, helps us to communicate and in turn to act: allegory is well-suited, therefore, to didactic purposes. In fact, the allegorical persona is usually a personified universal, and the nominalist might argue (much as I have argued in the first part of this paper) that the allegorical persona corresponds to nothing knowable; he might inquire, as Ockham did,36 how we can recognize any similitude unless first we know the reality it resembles.

35The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (New Haven, 1953-57), vol. III, p. 36.

36Sent. II, 15, T. In Maurer, p. 284.

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Naturally, a writer will not approach this problem as the professional philosopher does. Instead, he will think of its esthetic manifestations: does a particular mode render his experience and his meaning as fully as he would like? The limitation of allegory becomes apparent, I suggest, when the experiences and attitudes to be portrayed pass a certain degree of complexity. I do not mean complexity of plot, which may certainly exist in allegory, but rather the complexity or simultaneity of motive and implication which exists at any given point in the story: a vertical, not a horizontal, complexity. Allegory simplifies experience by systematizing it. If one wishes to know why a lady is receptive, then it is merely tautological to say, as the Roman de la Rose says, "Because she is under the influence of Belacueil." if one wants to be sober, it is pointless to reply, as the Psychomachia does, "Sobriety always conquers Luxury." Our sense of choice and possibility is more complex than that, and so, I think, was Chaucer's. The ambivalence of human will is his constant theme.

The nominalist theory of will expresses the same consciousness. Ockham considered will to dominate other mental powers, including intellect: we do not learn to will, but will to learn; we understand only when we wish to do so. Because will is not subordinate to other mental operations, the human soul does not necessarily desire what is good for it, as Aquinas and others had taught. It is ambivalent, and Ockham denies that everything has a natural inclination toward its own perfection.

The will may like happiness and not like it; may desire happiness and may not. This is evident from the fact that many believers, with faith in future life, just as well as unbelievers without faith in any future life, have killed themselves with the full use of their reason; have thrown thensselves into the arms of death; even these have not wanted to exist.... Some of the faithful are convinced that they cannot attain happiness without a good life, and still they do not cultivate a good and saintly life. Therefore they do not desire happiness efficiently, and, consequently, with the same reason, they may not want it.37

As for being influenced by God's intention, "There is no proof that whatever God intends is done by God, or is done by somebody else."38 The will, then, is entirely free from internal and external compulsion.

If the writer should interest himself in the infinite and infinitely subtle behavorial possibilities that free will implies, then he will not, I think, be drawn to allegory. Allegory cannot do justice to the capricious aspect of personality, for the composite allegorical personality is circumscribed from the beginning by the self-evident functions of its parts. In The Allegory of Love, Lewis notes a similarity between the so-called heroine of the Roman de la Rose, and Chaucer's Criseyde. "We see," Lewis goes on,

how little the allegorical form hampers the novelist in Guillaume by the fact that when we have finished his poem we have an intimate knowledge of his heroine, though his heroine as such has never appeared.29

37Sent. 1, 2, IX.

38Sent 1, 46. 2; in Tornay, p. 179.

39Lewis, p. 135.

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With this I disagree: surely Guillaum's heroine and Chaucer's Criseyde are more profitably contrasted. We know no one in the fragmented manner that we know Guillaume's heroine. Criseyde's hesitations and impulses are not separated and named, nor do we know her precise will--"entente" and "entencioun" are the words Chaucer constantly uses in the poem, not only about Criseyde but about Troilus arid Pandarus also. That obscurity makes Criseyde more "real" than the composite non-entity of the Roman, for the mystery of will, which allegory dispels by fragmentation, is what we know in reality.

For the nominalist, not only human will but God's will too is perfectly free. God's actions cannot be constrained by what he has already done, or by what he has promised to do. Since God is not bound by any principle or precedent, he could theoretically will other worlds like ours, or the reversal of present moral values, or the opposite of present physical laws.40 This vision of a pervasively contingent universe is one of the most important contributions of nominalist theory, for it points to a radical revision of traditional relations between man and the world, man and God.

Ockham was fully aware of these implications. Summarizing arguments against himself. Ockham notes that his opponents will say that those who deny the reality of relations "undo the substantial connection of the universe."41 Ockham's opponents would have been correct in saying so, for although much more was to happen before that process was complete, it was precisely the undoing of substantial connection that was at issue in nominalist theory. It was the undoing of connections metaphysical, scientific and literary that John Donne was to regret in the "First Anniversary," where, mourning the death of a young woman, he wrote:

What Artist now dares boast that he can bring
Heaven hither, or constellate any thing,
So as the influence of those starres may bee
Imprison'd in a Herbe, or Charme or Tree,
And doe by touch, all which those stars could do?
The art is lost, and correspondence too.
For heaven gives little, and the earthe takes lesse,
And man least knows their trade and purposes.
If this commerce twixt heaven and earth were not
Embarr'd, and all this traffique quite forgot,

40In Sent. II, 12, for example, speaking of sins of commission, Ockham writes that "the created will is not alone the efficient cause of that act, but God himself, who causes immediately every act.... And so He is the positive cause of deformity in such an act, just as of the substance itself of the act.... And if you say that God would then sin in causing such a deformed act . . . I reply that God is under obligation to no one; and hence He is neither bound to cause that act, nor the opposite act, nor not to cause it" (Walsh, p. 651). Likewise Jean Buridan, Questions on Aristotle's Physics, II, i (Walsh, p. 704); and Nicholas Autrecourt (d. after 1350), letters to Bernard of Arezzo, trans. Ernest Moody and printed in Herman Shapiro, Medieval Philosophy (New York, 1964). Both Buridan and Nicholas argue against total skepticism, claiming that even in a contingent universe we can know some truths, even if those truths are limited to "the common course of nature." I don't think that this argument diminishes the impact of their vision of ultimate contingency.

41Sent. I, 30, i (Walsh, p. 636).

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She, for whose losse we have lamented thus,
Would work more fully, and pow'rfully on us....

(II. 391-402)

In sketching some attitudes typical of fourteenth-century learned discourse, I have suggested that the importance of the logic, science and political theory of the period was its variegated attack on analogical thought. In this tendency I believe Chaucer participated, turning intuitively from allegory to other modes in order to express his vision of a complex and contingent world.

End of part three

Click here for part one

Click here for part two

Source: Chaos and Form: History and Literature; Ideas and Relationships; Essays selected and edited with an introd. by Kenneth McRobbie (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972); pp. 37-58.

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