Here’s how Medieval Christians twisted Aristotle’s philosophy so they could justify persecuting ‘witches’
The rediscovery of Aristotle’s tomb has aroused interest in the Greek philosopher, who studied at the feet of Plato (who was the student of Socrates) and who was hired by Philip of Macedonia to be tutor to his son, Alexander. The young Alexander became Alexander the Great, who conquered much of the known world before dying at the age of 32 after supposedly drinking white hellebore-laced wine.
Aristotle wrote on a variety of topics that ranged from perfect government (Nixon, that enemy of good government, thought Aristotle was a “homo,” and had helped destroy Greek civilization) to his theories of comedy. Umberto Eco, who gave us the template for understanding Donald Trump as fascist politician, used Aristotle’s lost writings about comedy as the basis for the best-selling novel The Name of the Rose. Aristotle’s political science argued that the purpose of the city-state was to make it possible for each citizen to live a good life, although he did not necessarily think that democracy was the best means for achieving that end.
While political scientists often credit Aristotle with laying the philosophical groundwork for the promotion of the political health of the many rather than the selfish benefit of a single ruler as the basis for good government, it is not often discussed how the application of Aristotle’s philosophy was complicit in the deaths of thousands of women and men persecuted for witchcraft in early modern Europe. But it was Aristotle’s metaphysics that led theologians to develop a philosophical explanation of evil that would become the basis for the accusation of witchcraft.
Aristotle’s work disappeared from the west for a number of centuries. Prior to their rediscovery in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, University of Paris professors such as Peter Abelard continued the tradition of questioning the nature of “reality” versus the idea that there was a greater reality that was invisible to the human eye. If you remember your undergraduate philosophy course, much of the philosophy that guided Catholic theology, from Augustine onward, was based upon Plato’s metaphysics, which spoke of “forms” that were the one true version of the physical representations that we see in everyday life. Using Plato’s idea of forms, theologians came to understand “magic,” which was the ability to manipulate reality without divine aid, as being a manipulation of forms that could be conducted through the knowledge of the skilled practitioner.
Aristotle’s writings had a major impact on the way that some of the Church’s “big” thinkers–such as Thomas Aquinas– thought about the nature of reality. Aristotle had insisted that everything that happened in the world could be traced back to a first cause. In other words, everything that happened had a material cause. The Church embraced it because it enabled its thinkers to prove the existence of God, who was the “First Mover” of all that happened in the universe.
Theologians wanted to prove the existence of God using logic and reason. While the Reformation was a rejection of logical reasons for the existence of God–God’s existence had to be believed through faith, not reason–the Scholastic philosophy that came to prominence in Twelfth-century Paris found much of its raison d’etre in showing how reason could demonstrate that God had to exist. The problem for the Scholastics was the same problem that had plagued Christianity. Namely, theodicy. The problem at the heart of theodicy is explaining how evil can exist.
The conundrum is this: If God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, then how is it that evil occurs in the world? How can a good God permit evil? And, as a further part of the understanding of how magic exists, this same question of God’s presence was applied. The same Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 that ruled that Jews must wear “distinguishing signs” on their clothing, was the same council that declared that during the Mass, the priest “transubstantiated” the bread and wine into the real body and blood of Christ. He was able to do that because of the permission of God. When the priest uttered the words, “hoc est enim corpus meum” the transformation took place. The Mass was delivered in Latin to an audience who did not speak the language. The expression “hocus pocus,” which is associated with making something magical happen, is the bastardization of those words.
If God permitted the priest to magically change the bread and wine, who then allowed the magicians (who were often suspected of poisoning kings) to operate? Who was it who told women that they flew in their dreams with Diana, breaking into other women’s houses in order to shame those women for not keeping a clean home? And more importantly, perhaps, who was responsible for the horrifying rates of infant mortality? How could a good God allow one-in-four babies to die before the age of one, and then take another large percentage before they reached adolescence? And what of the women who died in childbirth? Who was responsible for all of these various levels of evil?
In order to lay the blame for evil on an entity other than God, theories of Satan were promoted in which evil was his realm. God had given Satan permission to test human beings’ faith by offering humans power. The beginning of the persecution of people for magic and witchcraft came about when it was determined that the material first cause of the witch’s power had to be from the devil. And how did the witch come by these powers? (While in certain countries, approximately 80 percent of those accused were women, in other countries, such as Iceland, the majority of accused witches were men.) Theologians and witch hunters produced witch manuals that were written to expose the prevalence of witches, and they went into pornographic detail about the creation of the “diabolical pact.” The pact guaranteed the devil’s power to the witch in exchange for paying homage to Satan and becoming his servant. In books such as the Malleus Maleficarum written by the two Dominican inquisitors, Kramer and Sprenger, or in treatises by French jurists such as Pierre de L’Ancre, such as his Tableau de l’inconstance des mauvais anges and demons, the witches’ sabbath and consummation of the diabolical pact included:
“To dance indecently; eat excessively; make love diabolically; commit atrocious acts of sodomy; blaspheme scandalously; avenge themselves insidiously; run after all horrible, dirty, and crudely unnatural desires; keep toads, vipers, lizards, and all sorts of poison as precious things; love passionately a stinking goat; caress him lovingly; associate with and mate with him in a disgusting and scabrous fashion—are these not the uncontrolled characteristics of an unparalleled lightness of being and of an execrable inconstancy that can be expiated only through the divine fire that justice placed in Hell?”
In the Malleus, the inquisitors were obsessed with the “glamour,” the ability of witches to convince men that their penises had disappeared. In one anecdote, they report that a witness claimed to have seen an entire nest of detached penises, which were being fed with kernels of grain by the witch who had hidden the nest high in a tree. The witness had asked this woman to give him his penis back, and, he reported, when he had climbed the tree to recover his member, the witch had stopped him from grabbing the biggest penis, telling him that that one belonged to the local priest. Apparently, Kramer and Sprenger missed the humor in the joke, because they recorded this testimony as fact.
Witchcraft accusations were so hard to defend oneself against because torture was permitted in pursuit of “the truth.” Witches were figments of theological imaginations. Men and women confessed to witchcraft to escape the misery of torture, and as part of their confessions, were forced to name the names of neighbors that they had seen at witches’ sabbaths. As a consequence, a “witch panic” could lead to a large number of deaths, all based on the confessions of people who had been broken by torture.
Aristotle is not responsible for how his philosophy was distorted in order to justify the killing of suspected witches. But it is interesting to note how, despite fundamentalist claims to the contrary, the meaning of words do change over time. Aristotle, who died three centuries before the birth of Jesus, was used by Christians to justify policies of persecution and provide scapegoats to blame for the high death rates from childbirth and from disease, and the damage done to crops by natural disasters.
An introductory explanation of Plato’s forms:
A beginner’s guide to Aristotle’s theories of “material causes.”