Pope Clement VI, in the mid-fourteenth century at his coronation feast, threw quite a party:
…three thousand guests joined the new pontiff in consuming 1,023 sheep, 118 head of cattle, 101 calves, 914 kids, 60 pigs, 10,471 hens, 1,440 geese, 300 pike, 46,856 cheeses, 50,000 tarts, and 200 casks of wine.
I can’t do the math on all of this, but if the tarts or cheeses are considered as representative of the gluttony, that would be about 17 of each per person.
Papal supremacy may once have rescued [Western Christendom] from the proprietary system, but now, three centuries later, the system of papal supremacy on which the reformation had depended itself cried out for reformation.
The solution would come to be known as conciliarism, holding that supreme authority rested with an ecumenical council apart from, or even against, the pope. Strickland describes that, instead of building this on the model of first millennium Christendom, it was built on Aristotelianism. But he isn’t really right on this point – and he basically says so himself, later in the text.
But before coming to this, we are now at a point in the history near to the fall of Constantinople. In 1439 (and despite being deposed by bishops in Basel), Pope Eugene IV convened a council in Florence with the intent of establishing reunion with the Eastern Church. It seems to me relevant that the relative political and military situations in East and West would play as big or bigger a role in the possibility of a united Christendom as any theological issues.
In the West, a division of faith and reason was taking hold. Strickland offers that it found its completion in William of Occam, in the fourteenth century. Occam would champion what came to be known as nominalism:
It represented for the West a radical reassessment of knowledge, beginning with theology.
Occam considered things in their individuality – there was no category of “cats,” there were individual cats. This was contrary to Aquinas, who saw “cats” as a universal. Universals were abstractions:
Nominalism, from the Latin word for “name” (nomen), thus rejected universals and claimed that only particulars have any reality. And once it did, the entire edifice of Western theology began to crumble.
Consider this: Strickland seems to be implying that there was something in Aquinas that comported with Eastern theology and understanding, and it was only through the shift from universalism to nominalism that this changed.
This fits with my understanding of some of the current movements. There is a growing interest in Orthodox religious practice, as there is in Aristotelian-Thomistic thought – all at the same time that the meaning crisis has overflowed the riverbanks and poured over western man. There is a search for universals – necessary to make sense of the world, as, absent these, we are overwhelmed with particulars and are stuck dealing with every interaction anew.
Of course, universals can lead to discrimination. But is this really a problem. Must I consider the individuality of every bear I encounter in the wild before deciding if that particular bear represents a threat to me? There really is no way to navigate life without such universal abstractions – yet, always, with the possibility (and necessity) of coming to understand the individual when such doors open.
Returning to Strickland:
For according to nominalism, God could not be known, either through the mystical Eastern sense of theoria or the rationalistic Western sense of cognition. …the God of [Occam’s] belief was utterly transcendent and unknowable to human reason.
God created a covenant that an individual could choose to enter into, but the moral laws of this covenant were purely arbitrary. God ordained that men avoid committing murder, but according to Occam He could have just as easily ordained the opposite.
From universals, we can derive laws that make sense – that fit to some objective values; nominalism allows for laws to be whatever the lawmaker wishes. Murder can be legal or illegal – and we see examples of each every day.
Salvation was also completely arbitrary…which leads too far into a far too difficult discussion about grace, faith, and works (and election) – much too complicated and nuanced for this blog.
In any case, here we again see a real connection between Eastern thought and Thomas – and Strickland recognizes that nominalism is a radical departure from what came before. Universals (including a universal human nature), an ordered universe, a God that can be known. All necessary foundations of natural law, but – it seems to me, at least – tainted in the Eastern Church by some unfortunate connection of scholastic thought on this topic by the work of Occam and the nominalists.
I am struck, once again, with the connections between Thomistic and Eastern thought. I am further struck that these connections are not well-recognized by either Strickland or those engaged in the current conversation regarding the crisis of meaning in the West.
Natural law. This is the aim of the search. Yet few of the participants in the discussion seem to recognize it – or, in fact, turn away from what is, in fact, a faulty understanding of it.