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Freedom of Inquiry and Other Medieval Notions


Austin Dacey

April 2, 2010

It was March, and the air at the University of Paris was restive. Spring was bringing a confrontation between the forces of tradition and the ideals of freedom that would have far-reaching consequences for life in the modern West ever after. But this was not the overcrowded suburban branch campus of Nanterre where on March 22, 1968, student protesters took over administration buildings, touching off waves of unrest that crested in the upheavals of May ’68. The year was 1277, and the revolutionaries were not the undergraduates but the faculty. The spokesman for the established order was not the Office of the Dean but the Bishop of Paris, Stephen Tempier.

In March 1277, Bishop Tempier promulgated a now-famous condemnation of 219 errors in theology and natural philosophy that he believed were being entertained and discussed by scholars of the university's faculty of arts. Among this syllabus of errors appeared the following propositions:

That there is no more excellent state than to study philosophy.

That the only wise men in the world are the philosophers.

That one should not hold anything unless it is self-evident or can be manifested by self-evident principles.

That man should not be content with authority to have certitude about any question.

That there is no rationally disputable question that the philosopher ought not to dispute and determine, because reasons are derived from things. It belongs to philosophy under one or another of its parts to consider all things.

That our intellect by its own natural power can attain to a knowledge of the first cause.

That we can know God by His essence in this mortal life.

The Condemnation of 1277 was intended to control discussion of theological matters being carried out by members of the faculty. The Bishop’s chief concern seems to have been that too many were choosing Aristotle over God. Above all, the Condemnation asserted God’s power to bring about anything he chooses, short of a logical contradiction. This absolute power appeared to be subverted by those who, under the sway of the philosopher, sought to explain the world as a system of natural causes and principles.i Under Tempier’s decree, they would now do so on pain of excommunication.

The point of revisiting these events is not to raise three cheers for the forbidden beliefs (although I must confess that as a philosopher, I find the first two extremely self-evident). The point is to uncover some unexpected answers to why the scientific revolution happened in Western Europe and not in Arabic-Islamic societies, where its preconditions had existed for centuries.

The Medieval Invention of Society

In the popular imagination—particularly among friends of Reason and Enlightenment—the story of the rise of science is the story of the monolith of Church power being shattered by individual heroes like Bruno and Galileo. In this narrative, the scientists are champions of personal freedom as much as the soixant huitards of Nanterre. Astronomy under Islam, meanwhile, remains medieval because Islam’s power remains totalitarian. While this telling of the story contains much truth that is by now familiar, it also obscures some truth that is counterintuitive and far less appreciated.

The thirteenth-century intellectual struggle at the University of Paris illuminates how Christianity had already helped to prepare the way (in many ways inadvertently) for free, naturalistic inquiry. This had less to do with Christian doctrine as such than with certain innovations in Church law developed in the preceding two centuries.

When we hear the story of 1277 today, we must not take for granted its most important fact: there was something to which the condemnation was addressed. The university was not an extension of Church hierarchy but rather an independent institution with its own identity, purpose, and structure.ii The punishments that the Bishop could bring to bear as disincentives to discourage heresy were not civil but religious. He could threaten errant scholastics with removing their rights to membership in the Body of Christ; he could not determine by ecclesiastical fiat the curriculum of the university or the membership of its faculty. But what is for us unremarkable was once unthinkable.

Paradoxically, the relative independence of the University of Paris, and countless institutions like it, was a result of an earlier assertion of Church authority now known as the papal revolution. Beginning in the middle of the eleventh century, the hierarchy struggled to free itself from interference by secular officials, from the local to the imperial level, who claimed jurisdiction over religious affairs. The key battle was over secular rulers’ claim to responsibility for the appointment or investiture of clergy like bishops and abbots, the so-called “investiture controversy.” It began in 1076 with Pope Gregory VII excommunicating a defiant Emperor Henry IV, who shot back that the pope had become a “false monk.” It ended with the Concordat of Worms of 1122, which liberated the Church from imperial control.

Masters of the Universitas

To explicate and legitimize the emerging political settlements, Christian monks wove together church law and European common law with the resources of the Roman legal tradition—by way of recently discovered manuscripts—to invent the novel system of canon law. In this system, the church would function as a distinct and legally autonomous collective entity with the right to own property, to assemble, to enact and judge its own statutes, and to engage in representative governance, both internal to itself and externally in the broader civil and political order—in a word, it would become a corporation. As Harold J. Berman contends in Law and Revolution, the papal revolution opened the door for the creation of similar entities in the secular world, making possible a new model of society as an aggregate of multiple collective agents, each with its own legal jurisdiction.iii

By at least 1215, the scholars at the University of Paris had established themselves as one such corporate body. Indeed, university comes from the Latin term for corporation, universitas. It was in virtue of the university’s independent institutional powers that fifty years later the faculty of arts could vote to enact a statute that made required reading of the natural works of Aristotle, the very books the good Bishop wished he could close but couldn’t.

The popular narrative is correct that the evolution of science depended on the emancipation of thought from Christian power. Yet this very emancipation depended on a structural transformation of European life set in motion by Christian power itself, as has been argued convincingly by the historian of science Toby E. Huff.iv And it is not individual freedom but corporate freedom that deserves the role of chief protagonist. As I will explore in my next column, the comparative failure of science under Islam is not explained by a lack of individualism but rather an excess of it, a failure to develop institutions that could serve as the home of independent inquiry.


iEdward Grant, “Science and Theology in the Middle Ages,” in David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, eds., God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986), 55.

iiToby E. Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 194.

iiiHarold J. Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983).

ivHuff, The Rise of Early Modern Science.

Austin Dacey

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Austin Dacey, Ph.D., is former director of Science and the Public, a program of the Center for Inquiry and State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of several articles and books, including The Secular Conscience. He holds a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy and has taught most recently at Polytechnic Institute of New York University.