Tag Archives: Thomas Aquinas

Debating how many angels could dance on a pinhead, a fallacious reading on medieval education. An argument for the soundness of medieval education.

What I want to argue for is the superiority of aspects of monastic led education to that of today. Not so long ago I saw a television programme about the fall of Constantinople. The presenter, a distinguished scholar claimed that while the city was under siege, the monks in the Hagia Sophia were so completely removed from the reality the awfulness of the siege, that they were distracted by discussions such as “how many angels could stand on pin head”. This calumny directed at monkish education was in fact black propaganda used by the protestant reformers to discredit Catholicism. These unworldly monks would in fact have been very engaged with the circumstances in which they found themselves, knowing that the gold in the Cathedral would make them a target for looters from the victorious besiegers.

This famous scholar was obviously ignorant of the achievements of these monks in mathematics, astronomy and the other sciences. Monks were capable of sophisticated mathematics, calculations would be made using their hands. Not just one to ten, but my giving particular fingers symbolic values or functions they could do advanced mathematics. One monk by observing the lengths of the shadows cast by sticks in the ground calculated the latitude of the Abbey in which he lived. One of the most spectacular medieval achievements was the clock of variable hours at St.Albans Abbey. One problem that bothered the monks was the timing of the prescribed services during the day. This was particularly hard as the days varied so in length. When should the Nones service be celebrated, when given the hours of daylight differed daily, what particular point in the day was midday? If the time of daylight was divided by 12, the difference between the shortest hours at mid winter and midsummer was seventeenth minutes. St.Albans’s answer was a clock of variable hours. This mechanical clock would adjust the length of the hours in the day according hours of daylight. The monks could through a reading the figures off this clock together with a sophisticated system of mathematics accurately calculate the time.

Having now demonstrated that monks and clerics could demonstrate a level of sophistication in their thinking similar to that of today’s scientists. I can now justify my contention about that education in the medieval university could in some respects be superior to that of today. I use my now own experience of university education as proof of my contention. When given an assignment by my tutor there would always be what appeared to be a vast number of books to read. Even selective readings of these texts, that is looking primarily for those phrases underlined by previous readers as significant to note, could be very time consuming. For me at least it was often a matter of quantity over quality. The more references and quotations that I could smuggle into my essay, the higher the grade. Then and now I thought there must be a better way. When I read that for clerics and monks there was one initial essential book to study. Whose study in depth was seen as the basis for a sound theological education, I could only reflect on what I saw as so many hours wasted in study. Paraphrasing an old English phrase, my study was of forests not trees. Incidentally the primary book or books were Peter Lombard’s ‘Four Books of Sentences’. Even today I cannot understand why it was thought necessary by my tutors thought it necessary for me to read every book or article written on a particular topic What benefit is there to be gained by having a wide and superficial knowledge of a subject, as opposed to a real understanding?

The medieval professors on holy days, celebrated them by having free and open discussions with their students. Often these discussions were recorded for prosperity. I have dipped into one such Thomas Aquinas’s “Quodlibetal Questions 1 and 2”. What impresses me is not just the sophistication of the students questions, but the replies given by Thomas Aquinas. He assumes that his students are capable of understanding the most difficult of his ideas. No concessions are made in his answers, he assumes that his students can follow the sophisticated train of his thoughts This experience I can contrast with that of my students peers. One internationally recognised philosopher was complained about by some of my fellow students as giving lectures too difficult to understand. Next year he was replaced by a colleague with a more straight forward exposition manner and who gave out student handouts. Perhaps the difference in the student responses is a matter of respect. Medieval students deferred more readily to authority. However given the frequency of town and gown riots, perhaps this was not the cause. Can I suggest an alternative, in the medieval university the emphasis was on understanding, not the accumulation of knowledge?. Over a period of six hundred years students and society’s expectations of what a degree course entails had changed dramatically.

What I am suggesting is that true education is something other than the accumulation of knowledge. There is a something that resides behind and above the accumulation of knowledge, a something that makes understanding possible. A something that I can describe as a sound method of thinking, a means correct thinking and speaking. A sound technique of analysis and comprehension, the ability to derive knowledge from whatever text of subject is studied.. Real education is something that as Plato might have said, which is not readily explainable, one not given to simple common place expression. It is something whose essence once experienced is never given up. Again I wish to give myself as an example. At university I was a hopeless student of philosophy, one of my lowest marks was awarded to me in my ethics paper. However in that final year of university, I glimpsed a something, which I cannot readily put into words, but which left me with a passion for a life long study of philosophy.

Reading Thomas Aquinas gives a better understanding of human society, than does a reading of the works of Friedrich Hayek

Just recently I have been reading and studying Thomist philosophy and works of other medieval Christian philosophers such as William of Ockham. The thinking and is usually regarded with contempt by contemporary philosophers. When I studied philosophy at university, the only philosophy of this period we studied was Augustine of Hippo and he was regarded with interest, because his work was a reworking of Plato’s philosophy. However what I discovered in these philosophers was a clarity of thought and elegance of writing lacking in so many contemporary thinkers. Anybody familiar with the writing of contemporary post modern philosophers will be perplexed by the obscurity of expression in their writing. They seem to believe that the difficulty one has in reading in there is a demonstration of their intelligence.

What particularly interested me was the question that these philosopher’s struggled to resolve, which was in God created the world, and he was a God of good intent, why did he allow evil to thrive in the world he created. There is a similar problem with contemporary economics. Nero-liberal economists have created there own best possible of world’s, the free market. They believe that the free market represents the epitome of collective human endeavour. The free market they believe possesses the mechanism to ensure the fairest distribution of wealth between members of society. When problems occur such as the lack of housing provision in the housing market, it is not the fault of builders or property developers, but some factor extraneous to the market. One favourite culprit is the local authorities who fail to release enough land for housing. Another is green belt regulation that also limits the amount of land available for housing. Never to blame are the suppliers of housing, they are the victims of foolish and vindictive governments.

What these economists are guilty of is dishonesty. They cannot admit to there being no fault with that creature of their imaginings, the free market. In fact in all economics textbooks,* there will be a section devoted to perfect competition. This is the idealised free market with all the imperfections of reality removed. Medieval Christian philosophers unlike free market economists face up to the problem of evil, in what should be the best of all possible worlds. Unlike contemporary economists they don’t blame some extraneous agency for failings within human society. As this was an age of belief they could easily have blamed all human failings on the devil. Instead face up to the problem as how a good God could allow evil to exist. They employ sophisticated logical reasoning to demonstrate that evil actions are a consequence of the choice made by human actors, nothing to do with God. It is in fact a turning away from God that leads to evil acts.*

This naivety has not always been a characteristic of economics teaching. When I started teaching economics in the 1970s, I taught my students both the failings and strengths of the free market. In particular how natural monopolies were unsuited to the free markets, as monopoly power of the suppliers would always enable them to exploit their customers. Monopolists because they lack any effective competition, maximise their profits by either charging exorbitant prices for their products and services, or by minimising costs by providing the minimum service possible. British rail companies do both, offering the customer a very poor deal.

There are many economists who have written about how it is possible to combat the abuses of the free market. The majority of them were writing in the 1940s and 50s. All these economists are hardly known by politicians today, in consequence a wealth of knowledge on how to manage the economy equitably in the interests of the majority has been lost. It’s a situation similar to that of the great Christian philosophers of the medieval period, apart from a small minority all knowledge of their works has been lost. If only our rulers would consult these ‘old’ books, they would find solutions to many of the problems that now bedevil our economy.

* Friedrich Hayek is the doyen of free market economists, who in his ‘The Road to Serfdom’ gives the best account of the virtues of the free market economy.

* This brief summary does little justice to the thinking of Thomas Aquinas and the other medieval Christian philosophers. Perhaps the best explanation of the thinking of these philosophers, can be found in Etienne Gilson’s ‘The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy’

A Sceptical Economist’s understanding of War and War Making

The sudden rush of enthusiasm for war in Syria made me realise that there is no commentary on the economics of war and war making. What I don’t intend to do is repeat the moral and political arguments on the subject of war making, which others are better qualified to make. The question that I want to answer can economics justify war, is there an economic equivalent of the churches ‘just war’? (As defined by St.’s Augustine and Thomas Aquinas)

  
Image of  Syrian  War taken from  Geopoliticsmadesuper.com
The first thing to note is that there is a peculiarity embedded in the economics of war making. All war materials be they planes or tanks are built to be destroyed. Each item will be used repeatedly until it is either no longer fit for purpose or destroyed by enemy action. War weapons are a very poor investment one that adds little to the wealth of the community. This represents a problem for accountants and economists, how do you value an asset whose only purpose is to be destroyed? The simple answer is that these war weapons are valued according to their cost of production, they can add nothing to the future wealth of society.

There is another strange feature of war weapons that represent their paradoxical nature. They are designed not to be used, the best weapons are those which are an effective deterrent to war. One such weapon is the Trident nuclear weapons system, it works if it’s never used. The government’s of the sixty years have invested vast amounts of money into a product that has never been used. It cannot be stated often enough that the best weapons are those that are never used. This was a policy practised by the British Empire in the 19th century, it always had a fleet of warships that was at least twice the size of twice the size of its rivals. No rival power ever threatened the Empire, because it risked the annihilation of their navy. Trident as a weapon of mass destruction is unparalleled as a weapon of deterrence. Perhaps this is the only occasion in which vast amounts of resources and time is spent on a product that is intended never to be used.
Although military men might object, this is where marketing proves invaluable. It is very rare for these weapons to work as described. One version of the Trident missile was rumoured to be equipped with war heads that could malfunction when in action. There was the Lockheed Starfighter nicknamed the flying coffin because of the regularity with which it fell out of the sky. There are numerous other examples of under performing expensive weapons of war, but the military of both sides keep to the pretence that their weapon systems their super weapons work perfectly well. Given the success of the intelligence services of both sides in discovering the military secrets of their rivals, they must know about the underperformance of their rivals weapons systems but prefer to keep quiet. There is an omertà in the world’s military one that prevents them ever being honest about the poor performance of their weapons systems because that would undermine their credibility as masters of war.There are no marketing men in existence as effective as the generals when it comes to marketing a dud product. 
This is another strangeness of the war market, while military men claim to be men of action, they are more accurately termed men of inaction. The most successful ones never have to do the task for which they are paid. What the good general most wants to do is avoid action and the destruction of much of his military assets. A philosophy best demonstrated in medieval warfare. Then a battle would involve such huge loss of life, that each army would usually lose a third of their manpower in battle, more in the losing army. Therefore medieval monarchs tried to avoid open battle as it would leave their army so depleted that it would be unable to fight another war. When Henry V left France in 1405, the army that remained was so depleted that it was unfit for any further battle. Only the weakness of the French acing lost the Battle of Agincourt, kept this weakened army safe from attack and destruction.
On occasions military men forget the first rule of war, that is not making war. The most recent example was the war on Iraq. There were a number of senior officials and generals in the Pentagon who were eager to test their new weapons of war in combat. War technology was so far advanced in America that these men were eager to test their weapons in combat. While there were other reasons for the Iraq war, the American military and Pentagon officials were desperate for an opportunity to play with their new weapons. When it came to war, American technology was so superior that the war was over in a matter of weeks. However it later turned out that victory was due less to superior weapons technology and more to old fashioned bribery. The Americans had paid the generals of the elite Republican Guard not to fight. The chaos that has been Iraq since 2003 demonstrates why it is foolish to regard the military option as the first and best option. When leaving the Oval Office in 1961 President Eisenhower warned of the danger posed by the ‘military industrial complex’ a danger shown by the Iraq war when the arms salesman were able to push America into a costly and pointless war.
This leads to the first rule of the economics of war, never engage in a war unless the enemy poses an existential threat as the destruction of resources and human life is so that war can never be justified for any other reason. As a British citizen the war against Hitler can be justified as it presented an existential threat to the UK, the wars in the Falklands, Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be justified.
History provides examples of why war is such a bad investment, it is their huge cost. Recently I read a history of Edward I. He was a successful war leader constantly beating his Welsh and Scottish adversaries, yet time and time again his campaigns ground to a halt when he ran out of money. What usually happened was the foot soldiers who made up the majority of the army would desert when the campaign was well under way and approaching a successful conclusion, because they had not been paid. All medieval monarchs were in debt to their bankers, because of the huge sums they had borrowed to fight wars. Today it’s little different money borrowed to finance the campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria will be paid by our grandchildren. When I was a student in the 1960s, I was told that the country was still paying for the Crimean War, a war that was fought in the 1850s. War is a fantastically expensive enterprise for which their is little return. 
As a sceptical economist I doubt the value of making huge investments in products that either will never be used or if used destroyed in combat. If I heard the new correctly our government is preparing to invest in a fleet of new fighter planes the F35 at a cost of £100 million a plane. I cannot as an economist see the utility or purpose of investing £10 billion in a product that only has one purpose which is to be destroyed. The cost of the new Trident missile system is estimated at £100 billion or just less than 10% of our annual national income. Why I don’t dispute the value of deterrence in an irrational world I do wonder if it needs to cost so much. Is their an inverse logic that applies to military thinking, which simply stated means the more that is paid for war weapons the more utility and value they possess regardless of their effectiveness? It is often said of the British military that they want gold plated weapons systems. The British and European government’s spent billions developing a warplane that had such poor flying characteristics that it was nicknamed the ‘flying sow’.
There can only be one somewhat nonsensical conclusion, the government has to invest in a product they never intend to use or hope never to use. The investment in military hardware must be sufficient to deter possible aggressors yet never be such as to bankrupt the economy. Perhaps the ideal situation occurred during the Cold War when both the USA and the Soviet Union invested billions in a weapon they never wanted to use, that is the nuclear deterrent. However peace was maintained only at the price of mutually assured destruction (MAD). This however was far from ideal as in the case of the Iraq war warriors, if one group of leaders thought they possessed an advantage over the others, they could be tempted to use their weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps the only solution is for the leaders of the most technologically advanced nation to limit their military superiority over others so no future leaders are tempted to use those weapons in a pre-emotive strike. 

The first thing to note is that there is a peculiarity embedded in the economics of war making. All war materials be they planes or tanks are built to be destroyed. Each item will be used repeatedly until it is either no longer fit for purpose or destroyed by enemy action. War weapons are a very poor investment one that adds little to the wealth of the community. This represents a problem for accountants and economists, how do you value an asset whose only purpose is to be destroyed? The simple answer is that these war weapons are valued according to their cost of production, they can add nothing to the future wealth of society.

There is another strange feature of war weapons that represent their paradoxical nature. They are designed not to be used, the best weapons are those which are an effective deterrent to war. One such weapon is the Trident nuclear weapons system, it works if it’s never used. The government’s of the sixty years have invested vast amounts of money into a product that has never been used. It cannot be stated often enough that the best weapons are those that are never used. This was a policy practised by the British Empire in the 19th century, it always had a fleet of warships that was at least twice the size of twice the size of its rivals. No rival power ever threatened the Empire, because it risked the annihilation of their navy. Trident as a weapon of mass destruction is unparalleled as a weapon of deterrence. Perhaps this is the only occasion in which vast amounts of resources and time is spent on a product that is intended never to be used.
Although military men might object, this is where marketing proves invaluable. It is very rare for these weapons to work as described. One version of the Trident missile was rumoured to be equipped with war heads that could malfunction when in action. There was the Lockheed Starfighter nicknamed the flying coffin because of the regularity with which it fell out of the sky. There are numerous other examples of under performing expensive weapons of war, but the military of both sides keep to the pretence that their weapon systems their super weapons work perfectly well. Given the success of the intelligence services of both sides in discovering the military secrets of their rivals, they must know about the underperformance of their rivals weapons systems but prefer to keep quiet. There is an omertà in the world’s military one that prevents them ever being honest about the poor performance of their weapons systems because that would undermine their credibility as masters of war.There are no marketing men in existence as effective as the generals when it comes to marketing a dud product. 
This is another strangeness of the war market, while military men claim to be men of action, they are more accurately termed men of inaction. The most successful ones never have to do the task for which they are paid. What the good general most wants to do is avoid action and the destruction of much of his military assets. A philosophy best demonstrated in medieval warfare. Then a battle would involve such huge loss of life, that each army would usually lose a third of their manpower in battle, more in the losing army. Therefore medieval monarchs tried to avoid open battle as it would leave their army so depleted that it would be unable to fight another war. When Henry V left France in 1405, the army that remained was so depleted that it was unfit for any further battle. Only the weakness of the French acing lost the Battle of Agincourt, kept this weakened army safe from attack and destruction.
On occasions military men forget the first rule of war, that is not making war. The most recent example was the war on Iraq. There were a number of senior officials and generals in the Pentagon who were eager to test their new weapons of war in combat. War technology was so far advanced in America that these men were eager to test their weapons in combat. While there were other reasons for the Iraq war, the American military and Pentagon officials were desperate for an opportunity to play with their new weapons. When it came to war, American technology was so superior that the war was over in a matter of weeks. However it later turned out that victory was due less to superior weapons technology and more to old fashioned bribery. The Americans had paid the generals of the elite Republican Guard not to fight. The chaos that has been Iraq since 2003 demonstrates why it is foolish to regard the military option as the first and best option. When leaving the Oval Office in 1961 President Eisenhower warned of the danger posed by the ‘military industrial complex’ a danger shown by the Iraq war when the arms salesman were able to push America into a costly and pointless war.
This leads to the first rule of the economics of war, never engage in a war unless the enemy poses an existential threat as the destruction of resources and human life is so that war can never be justified for any other reason. As a British citizen the war against Hitler can be justified as it presented an existential threat to the UK, the wars in the Falklands, Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be justified.
History provides examples of why war is such a bad investment, it is their huge cost. Recently I read a history of Edward I. He was a successful war leader constantly beating his Welsh and Scottish adversaries, yet time and time again his campaigns ground to a halt when he ran out of money. What usually happened was the foot soldiers who made up the majority of the army would desert when the campaign was well under way and approaching a successful conclusion, because they had not been paid. All medieval monarchs were in debt to their bankers, because of the huge sums they had borrowed to fight wars. Today it’s little different money borrowed to finance the campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria will be paid by our grandchildren. When I was a student in the 1960s, I was told that the country was still paying for the Crimean War, a war that was fought in the 1850s. War is a fantastically expensive enterprise for which their is little return. 
As a sceptical economist I doubt the value of making huge investments in products that either will never be used or if used destroyed in combat. If I heard the new correctly our government is preparing to invest in a fleet of new fighter planes the F35 at a cost of £100 million a plane. I cannot as an economist see the utility or purpose of investing £10 billion in a product that only has one purpose which is to be destroyed. The cost of the new Trident missile system is estimated at £100 billion or just less than 10% of our annual national income. Why I don’t dispute the value of deterrence in an irrational world I do wonder if it needs to cost so much. Is their an inverse logic that applies to military thinking, which simply stated means the more that is paid for war weapons the more utility and value they possess regardless of their effectiveness? Is price becoming the new deterrent? It is often said of the British military that they want gold plated weapons systems. The British and European government’s spent billions developing a warplane that had such poor flying characteristics that it was nicknamed the ‘flying sow’.
There can only be one somewhat nonsensical conclusion, the government has to invest in a product they never intend to use or hope never to use. The investment in military hardware must be sufficient to deter possible aggressors yet never be such as to bankrupt the country.Perhaps the ideal situation occurred during the Cold War when both the USA and the Soviet Union invested billions in a weapon they never wanted to use, that is the nuclear deterrent. However peace was maintained only at the price of mutually assured destruction (MAD). This however was far from ideal as in the case of the Iraq war warriors, if one group of leaders thought they possessed an advantage over the others, they could be tempted to use their weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps the only solution is for the leaders of the most technologically advanced nation to limit their military superiority over others so no future leaders are tempted to use those weapons in a pre-emotive strike.