Friday, April 01, 2022

The Prosaic, the Exotic, and the Logic of “Othering”: A Medieval Account of the Nature of Things

This post is part of the series Philosophy Otherwise.

"I am betting that here, in Thomas’ Liber de natura rerum, we witness a depth of expectation about the world that is operative in the scourge of colonialism and racism, marking the modern history and everyday life of European societies and the many colonies they founded. I am wondering whether it is a logic we should watch for in our subsequent examinations?"

Thomas of Cantimpré (c.1200–c.1270) wrote a sprawling encyclopedic work, the Liber de natura rerum, on what he called the nature of things. In it he surveyed the physical, plant, and animal life to be found below the circle of the moon. His approach was hermeneutical; he sought to understand the meaning of life and existence, both on and below the physical surface of things. For him, understanding involved penetrating distinctions. As our senses told us, “this” was not “that,” which allowed us to point at one thing as opposed to another. Moreover, each separate thing had a meaning to it that was both patent (available already to our physical senses) and hidden (demanding not merely conceptual thought, but insight into the moral horizon that contextualizes the whole nature of things, grounding their integrity, and setting them in relation to the Maker). Toward that end, Thomas relied on a variety of sources: works of geology that described the virtues as well as the appearance of minerals and gems; bestiaries and medical works that described animals and plants; and astronomical works that addressed the supra-lunary spheres (charting the influence of the moon, other planets, and the stars in the heavens on life and existence below). This conceptual work involved distinction-making followed by definition of the things so distinguished, whereby each thing could be understood as something internally one and at the same time other than everything else. 

In his view there was a logic to life and existence, a logic available to us human beings by which we could make our way sure-footedly in the world. It was a logic that traded upon differences, irreducible differences that nevertheless were brought together in one unity or another via a harmony or equilibrium by which opposites were forged into composites that were themselves opposites to other composites. These composites could continue to be harmonized into greater compositions until one arrived at the first opposition: that between the divine Creator and the Creator’s creation.

Thomas’ view was a very complex play of sameness and difference, of unity and diversity, opposition and composition, generation and corruption, all integrated via principles of harmony into an eye-popping weave of equilibria at ever so many levels and of ever so many sorts. Thomas’ way into this complexity, as said, was hermeneutical: the world was a text that could be read. Moreover, the meaning of the text was itself multiple: it could be read on a literal level, an allegorical level, a moral level, and a mystical or eschatological level, much like the Scriptures of the Christian Church of the day. The world-as-text could be preached, and indeed, Thomas (who was a member of the Order of Friars Preachers), wrote this encyclopedic work to help preachers find material for their sermons.

What makes this text interesting in the present context is the logic of the world as Thomas describes it. It is a two-term or binary logic of distinctions in which a world of primary differences is yet understood to be a world with an underlying unity by which different things are composed into equilibrial wholes by the power of harmonization—opposites brought into compositions holding the opposites together at least for a time. This simplest of patterns was reproduced fractal-like across the whole expanse of the world from the hidden subterranean realms below land and sea to the highest reaches of deep space. In short, the world was a union of opposites for Thomas. Each unity has an opposite that contrasts to it as its contrary.

Thomas' experienced world was the Northern and Western quadrants of the world as he knew it. The North and West then had the South and East as its opposite. Persons, states, animals, plants, and minerals were fairly pedestrian in the Northern and Western quadrants of his experience and he describes them as such. And that meant that these same things would be opposite in the Southern and Eastern quadrants of the world. They would be exotic, marvels with strange and unaccountable properties. They would look strange and act strange, and be redolent with occult features unheard-of in the parts of the world that Thomas knew, even if his world was full of miracles and wonders by our contemporary standards and expectations. The North and West was wet and cold. The South and East was hot and dry. Life in the North and West was hard, with most eking out a bare existence against the looming spectre of starvation and death. Life in the South and East was soft. Cities were made of gold; people from the highest to the lowest lived effortless lives of torpid ease. People in the North and West were fair skinned, people in the South and East were swarthy. People in the North and West were morally striving. People in the South and East were morally indolent. You get the picture.

There is a logic to the world that guides Thomas of Cantimpré’s pen. It is a logic that is far older than him, and would far outlive him. It can be seen in the ancient Greek travellers’ reports that so interested Heroditus and in the soldiers' reports that interested the later Roman historian Tacitus. It is the logic at work in the early modern travellers’ reports to the Far East that set the European imagination alight in the 16th through the 18th centuries that Donald Lasch chronicled in the multivolume Asia in the Making of Europe. These were of course the centuries when Europe and its offspring forged a colonial logic that had room for the institution of slavery ironically (or perhaps not) just when the natively [Western] European species of unfreedom were disappearing. 

I am betting that here, in Thomas’s Liber de natura rerum, we witness a depth of expectation about the world that is operative in the scourge of colonialism and racism, marking the modern history and everyday life of European societies and the many colonies they founded. I am wondering whether it is a logic we should watch for in our subsequent examinations? I am wondering if we should ask whether this logic is a peculiarly Western logic or whether it can be found at play in other civilizations of the globe? These are a few questions that thinking about Thomas of Cantimpré’s Liber de natura rerum for the first time in years has left me with. I think of them as interesting, even worthwhile, and so I leave them with you.

Bob Sweetman holds the H. Evan Runner Chair in the History of Philosophy at the Institute for Christian Studies. He is a trained medievalist specializing in Dominican thought (philosophical, theological, pastoral, mystical) in the thirteenth century. He is particularly interested in the interaction of these different discourses in the thought of Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, and others. He also is interested in the florescence of women’s contemplative thought and writing that Dominicans supported. He brings these interests and competencies into contact with the Reformational tradition of Christian thought by using them to examine D.H.Th. Vollenhoven’s “problem-historical” historiography of the history of philosophy.

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