Academic journal article PSYART

Henry of Ghent and the Power of Inspiration. A Chapter in Neoplatonism

Academic journal article PSYART

Henry of Ghent and the Power of Inspiration. A Chapter in Neoplatonism

Article excerpt


Theologians of the thirteenth century were the heirs of two completely opposite philosophical traditions. By that time, most of the works of Aristotle, which had been lost for centuries, had been rediscovered. They had gained wide popularity amongst scholars and were considered the auctoritates (authoritative texts) on epistemology. From Aristotle the theologians inherited the assumption that at birth the human mind is a blank slate (tabula rasa). The source of all knowledge is sensory experience, and the intellect has the potency to organise this material in such a way that it can be transformed into the subject matter of knowledge. The latter will only be accomplished once we have managed to uncover the universal principles that underlie the singular experiences. The Aristotelian epistemology boils down to the notion that knowledge is not about individual instances as such, but about universals. For instance, knowledge is not about individual trees, but instead comprises the universal principles that govern the existence of the tree in general. So knowledge is gathered by carefully considering the individual instances, and by subsequently abstracting from them their universal features.

Now the starting point of the Aristotelian epistemology (the tabula rasa) is completely at odds with that of the Platonic tradition. Plato, as we know, assumed that the world that surrounds us is only a reflection of a true reality that lies beyond the domain of our experiences. Knowledge, that is to say the understanding of what is stable, true and eternal, cannot by definition be acquired through sensory experience, but is only achieved if we turn away from the world as perceived by the senses.

The Platonic take on the acquisition of knowledge found its way into the philosophy of Augustine (354-430 C.E.), who modified it, however, to suit his Christian world view. It is specifically Augustine's focus on the inner light, his theory of illumination, that sets him apart from Plato. Augustine distinguishes between different ways of seeing, viz. the kind of vision directed at objects in the outside world on the one hand, and the 'seeing' of what is beyond that world on the other. The kinds of 'objects' that fall in this latter category, for Augustine, include the principles of mathematics and moral truths. We cannot 'see' these objects without any help though. What makes these kinds of objects 'visible' to us, in Augustine's view, is the inner light, which has a divine origin, but is seated in the (human) soul.[1]

It is this kind of seeing, and Augustine's clues as to how the human soul can connect with what is beyond our intellectual understanding, that found their way into the theology and epistemology of the theologian Henry of Ghent (1217(?)-1293)[2] - a contemporary of the more widely known Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Henry has leftus with an extensive list of works. They include collections of so-called quodlibetal questions (Quodlibeta), i.e., discussions of all kinds of subjects of interest to medieval scholars, and the Summa quaestionum ordinariarum, a list of questions that were debated in the classroom, which were subsequently written down by the teacher (magister) and then later on edited and distributed by the university. These two works were most probably compiled in parallel during Henry's teaching career at the University of Paris.[3]

Scattered throughout his works, we find Henry remarking on the ways in which the human soul can connect to the divine. This particular feature of his philosophy is especially interesting to look at, because while he usually follows a rational path to discuss what is essentially beyond the boundaries of our human cognitive abilities, his works also offer some interesting clues about a non-discursive passage to the unknown. From a contemporary, depth-psychological perspective, these remarks can be interpreted as his way of introducing the unconscious processes that are vital when it comes to our contact with the depths of our souls (which in the Middle Ages were projected upon a transcendent reality outside). …

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