chapter  16
25 Pages

The Medieval World View

Plato (d. 347 BC) is the main western source for what Arthur Lovejoy calls ‘otherworldliness’ in western philosophy and religion (1942:35), that is the belief that human beings should strive to divest themselves of the visible, material world, in order to attain the invisible, eternal world. Their striving was directed towards their source, the Supreme Being (or the Idea of Good), which was perfection. The Supreme Being completed its perfection by its production of other beings, so that every conceivable being was realised. If it had not engendered other beings, ‘it would lack a positive element in its perfection’. While Plato’s pupil, Aristotle (d. 322 BC), did not find it necessary to postulate a theory of creation based upon the fecundity of God, he did nevertheless provide a hierarchical classification of beings, a graded scale rising from minerals eventually to humans, with each level containing both the elements of those that were below it and a distinctive feature of its own. In the medieval view, although human beings had only a pale semblance of the intelligence possessed by the angels, they were distinguished by their faculty of reason; equally they were connected to the animals beneath them in the hierarchy by their possession of senses. If the connecting link with rationality were to be in some way interrupted, then a possible consequence might be insanity, which was sometimes seen as the explanation of seemingly irrational acts like murder or suicide (Babcock and Krey 1941:2:386; Scott 2001:5:1343).