Some Characteristics of Medieval Thought


IN the earliest days of his upward evolution man was satisfied with
a very crude explanation of natural phenomena–that to which the name
"animism" has been given. In this stage of mental development all the
various forces of Nature are personified: the rushing torrent, the
devastating fire, the wind rustling the forest leaves–in the mind of
the animistic savage all these are personalities, spirits, like
himself, but animated by motives more or less antagonistic to him.

I suppose that no possible exception could be taken to the statement
that modern science renders animism impossible. But let us inquire in
exactly what sense this is true. It is not true that science robs
natural phenomena of their spiritual significance. The mistake is often
made of supposing that science explains, or endeavours to explain,
phenomena. But that is the business of philosophy. The task science
attempts is the simpler one of the correlation of natural phenomena,
and in this effort leaves the ultimate problems of metaphysics
untouched. A universe, however, whose phenomena are not only capable of
some degree of correlation, but present the extraordinary degree of
harmony and unity which science makes manifest in Nature, cannot be, as
in animism, the product of a vast number of incoordinated and
antagonistic wills, but must either be the product of one Will, or not
the product of will at all.

The latter alternative means that the Cosmos is inexplicable, which
not only man’s growing experience, but the fact that man and the
universe form essentially a unity, forbid us to believe. The term
"anthropomorphic" is too easily applied to philosophical systems, as if
it constituted a criticism of their validity. For if it be true, as all
must admit, that the unknown can only be explained in terms of the
known, then the universe must either be explained in terms of man–i.e.
in terms of will or desire–or remain incomprehensible. That is to say,
a philosophy must either be anthropomorphic, or no philosophy at all.

Thus a metaphysical scrutiny of the results of modern science leads
us to a belief in God. But man felt the need of unity, and crude
animism, though a step in the right direction, failed to satisfy his
thought, long before the days of modern science. The spirits of
animism, however, were not discarded, but were modified, co-ordinated,
and worked into a system as servants of the Most High. Polytheism may
mark a stage in this process; or, perhaps, it was a result of mental

What I may term systematised as distinguished from crude animism
persisted throughout the Middle Ages. The work of systematisation had
already been accomplished, to a large extent, by the Neo-Platonists and
whoever were responsible for the Kabala. It is true that these main
sources of magical or animistic philosophy remained hidden during the
greater part of the Middle Ages; but at about their close the youthful
and enthusiastic CORNELIUS AGRIPPA (1486-1535)  slaked his thirst
thereat and produced his own attempt at the systematisation of magical
belief in the famous Three Books of Occult Philosophy. But the waters
of magical philosophy reached the mediaeval mind through various
devious channels, traditional on the one hand and literary on the
other. And of the latter, the works of pseudo-DIONYSIUS,  whose
immense influence upon mediaeval thought has sometimes been neglected,
must certainly be noted.

The most obvious example of a mediaeval animistic belief is that in
"elementals" –the spirits which personify the primordial forces of
Nature, and are symbolised by the four elements, immanent in which they
were supposed to exist, and through which they were held to manifest
their powers. And astrology, it must be remembered, is essentially a
systematised Animism. The stars, to the ancients, were not material bodies like
the earth, but spiritual beings. PLATO (427-347 B.C.) speaks of them as
"gods". Mediaeval thought did not regard them in quite this way. But
for those who believed in astrology, and few, I think, did not, the
stars were still symbols of spiritual forces operative on man.
Evidences of the wide extent of astrological belief in those days are
abundant, many instances of which we shall doubtless encounter in our

It has been said that the theological and philosophical atmosphere
of the Middle Ages was "scholastic," not mystical. No doubt
"mysticism," as a mode of life aiming at the realisation of the
presence of God, is as distinct from scholasticism as empiricism is
from rationalism, or "tough-minded" philosophy (to use JAMES’ happy
phrase) is from "tender-minded". But no philosophy can be absolutely
and purely deductive. It must start from certain empirically determined
facts. A man might be an extreme empiricist in religion (i.e. a
mystic), and yet might attempt to deduce all other forms of knowledge
from the results of his religious experiences, never caring to gather
experience in any other realm. Hence the breach between mysticism and
scholasticism is not really so wide as may appear at first sight.
Indeed, scholasticism officially recognised three branches of theology,
of which the mystical was one. I think that mysticism and scholasticism
both had a profound influence on the mediaeval mind, sometimes acting
as opposing forces, sometimes operating harmoniously with one another.
As Professor WINDEL-BAND puts it: "We no longer onesidedly characterise
the philosophy of the middle ages as scholasticism, but rather place
mysticism beside it as of equal rank, and even as being the more
fruitful and promising movement."

Alchemy, with its four Aristotelian or scholastic elements and its
three mystical principles–sulphur, mercury, salt,–must be cited as
the outstanding product of the combined influence of mysticism and
scholasticism: of mysticism, which postulated the unity of the Cosmos,
and hence taught that evervthing natural is the expressive image and
type of some supernatural reality; of scholasticism, which taught men
to rely upon deduction and to restrict expermentation to the smallest
possible limits.

The mind naturally proceeds from the known, or from what is supposed
to be known, to the unknown. Indeed, as I have already indicated, it
must so proceed if truth is to be gained. Now what did the men of the
Middle Ages regard as filling into the category of the known? Why,
surely, the truths of revealed religion, whether accepted upon
authority or upon the evidence of their own experience. The realm of
spiritual and moral reality: there, they felt, they were on firm
ground. Nature was a realm unknown; but they had analogy to guide, or,
rather, misguide them. Nevertheless if, as we know, it misguided, this
was not, I think, because the mystical doctrine of the correspondence
between the spiritual and the natural is unsound, but because these
ancient seekers into Nature’s secrets knew so little, and so frequently
misapplied what they did know. So alchemical philosophy arose and became systematised, with its wonderful
endeavour to perfect the base metals by the Philosopher’s Stone–the
concentrated Essence of Nature,–as man’s soul is perfected through the
life-giving power Of JESUS CHRIST.

I want, in conclusion to these brief introductory remarks, to say a
few words concerning phallicism in connection with my topic. For some
"tender-minded " [1] and, to my thought, obscure, reason the subject is
tabooed. Even the British Museum does not include works on phallicism
in its catalogue, and special permission has to be obtained to consult
them. Yet the subject is of vast importance as concerns the origin and
development of religion and philosophy, and the extent of phallic
worship may be gathered from the widespread occurrence of obelisks and
similar objects amongst ancient relics. Our own maypole dances may be
instanced as one survival of the ancient worship of the male generative

What could be more easy to understand than that, when man first
questioned as to the creation of the earth, he should suppose it to
have been generated by some process analogous to that which he saw held
in the case of man? How else could he account for its origin, if
knowledge must proceed from the known to the unknown? No one questions
at all that the worship of the human generative organs as symbols of
the dual generative principle of Nature degenerated into orgies of the
most frightful character, but the view of Nature which thus degenerated is not, I think, an altogether unsound one, and very interesting remnants of it are to be found in mediaeval philosophy.

These remnants are very marked in alchemy. The metals, as I have
suggested, are there regarded as types of man; hence they are produced
from seed, through the combination of male and female
principles–mercury and sulphur, which on the spiritual plane are
intelligence and love. The same is true of that Stone which is perfect
Man. As BERNARD Of TREVISAN (1406-1490) wrote in the fifteenth century:
"This Stone then is compounded of a Body and Spirit, or of a volatile
and fixed Substance, and that is therefore done, because nothing in the
World can be generated and brought to light without these two
Substances, to wit, a Male and Female: From whence it appeareth, that
although these two Substances are not of one and the same species, yet
one Stone doth thence arise, and although they appear and are said to
be two Substances, yet in truth it is but one, to wit, Argent-vive."[1]
No doubt this sounds fantastic; but with all their seeming intellectual
follies these old thinkers were no fools. The fact of sex is the most
fundamental fact of the universe, and is a spiritual and physical as
well as a physiological fact. I shall deal with the subject as concerns
the speculations of the alchemists in some detail in a later excursion. Ideas expressed by Stanley Redgrove


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