How to Begin to Study Medieval Philosophy

"How to Begin to Study Medieval Philosophy," The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: An Introduction to the Thought of Leo Strauss, Thomas L. Pangle, ed., University of Chicago Press, 1989. Complete, unedited version published as "How to Study Medieval Philosophy," Interpretation, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Spring 1996).


The attempt to understand a philosopher of the past better than he understood himself presupposes that the interpreter considers his insight superior to the insight of the old author.  Kant made this quite clear when suggesting that one can understand a philosopher better than he understood himself.  The average historian is much too modest a fellow to raise such an enormous claim in so many words.  But he is in danger of doing so without noticing it.  He will not claim that his personal insight is superior to that of, e.g., Maimonides.  But only with difficulty can he avoid claiming that the collective insight available today is superior to the collective insight available in the twelfth century.  There is more than one historian who in interpreting, say, Maimonides tries to assess the contribution of Maimonides.  His contribution to what?  To the treasure of knowledge and insight which has been accumulated throughout the ages.  That treasure appears to be greater today than it was, say, in the year of Maimonides’ death.  This means that when speaking of Maimonides’ “contribution” the historian has in mind the contribution of Maimonides to the treasure of knowledge or insight as it is available today.  Hence, he interprets Maimonides’ thought in terms of the thought of the present day.  His tacit assumption is that the history of thought is, generally speaking, a progress, and that therefore the philosophic thought of the twentieth century is superior to, or nearer the truth than, the philosophic thought of the twelfth century.  I contend that this assumption is irreconcilable with true historical understanding.  It necessarily leads to the attempt to understand the thought of the past better than it understood itself, and not as it understood itself.  For it is evident that our understanding of the past will tend to be more adequate, the more we are interested in the past; but we cannot be seriously interest, i.e., passionately interested, in the past, if we know beforehand that the present is, in the most important respect, superior to the past.

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