Answering Life’s Questions

July 23, 2012—Philosophers have grappled with the same questions for centuries, and Rev. Mark Henninger, S.J., believes that looking at the past can give us a new understanding into life’s greatest inquiries.

Henninger came to Georgetown six years ago to serve as the Isabella A. and Henry D. Martin Chair of Medieval Philosophy and Politics and the director for the university’s Center for Medieval Philosophy. Edward Martin, an alumnus, endowed the chair and center so that a Jesuit could continue teaching and studying the field at Georgetown. Martin identified with medieval philosophy’s “political and social dimensions that stress the common good, justice, and taking care of the poor,” Henninger said. Collaborating with Associate Professor Neil Lewis and Research Associate Sandra Strachan-Vieira, Henninger believes that Georgetown—with its dedication to Catholic values and social justice—is a perfect place for the center’s work.

The center’s current project is focused on Robert Graystanes, a Benedictine monk who taught at Oxford in the early 14th century. Graystanes is unknown to many experts in the field, but Henninger believes scholars should look beyond the era’s most well-known philosophers. “There’s myriads of people that were really good at that time, and it’s a disservice to medieval philosophy to constantly concentrate on three or four well-known people,” he said.

Henninger is studying Graystanes’ commentary on the Sentences, the principal medieval theology text by Peter Lombard. Most theology lecturers wrote a commentary on the Sentences while teaching at Oxford. As Church authorities produced contradictory opinions on religious issues, philosophers began to analyze Christianity’s complex questions. Can you prove the existence of God? Where did evil come from? If God knows the future, is there free will? “[Medieval philosophers] started using logic and disputation to try to settle the truth of the questions given these conflicting opinions,” Henninger said.

In his commentary on the Sentences, Graystanes not only provides his own views on the religious and philosophical questions of the day, but he also includes the opinions of his colleagues at Oxford. “He’s kind of chatty,” Henninger laughed. Graystanes’s discussion of his colleagues sheds light on lesser-known philosophers and provides insight into the formative Oxford years of celebrated medieval thinkers such as William of Ockham. “This was really the beginning of the university system,” he said. “It’s a good window into the early 14th-century Oxford intellectual milieu.”

Henninger also finds a change in focus among these philosophers. “In the 14th century, they became more interested in the affections, the emotions, and the will. You see that in Graystanes,” he said. “They seemed to think that you couldn’t prove as much about religion as they thought in the 13th century. There’s a growing skepticism.” According to Henninger, who teaches philosophy of religion, these thinkers provide an interesting discussion on where reason ends and faith begins.

To publish Graystanes’ writings, Henninger, with his colleagues Robert Andrews and Jennifer Ottman, must first transcribe the manuscript’s abbreviated Latin—a writing system that scribes used to save parchment—into Latin, before translating the work into English. This year, Henninger will be on sabbatical at Campion Hall, the Jesuit residence at Oxford. He will be able to travel regularly to Westminster Abbey where Graystanes’ manuscript is archived.

“There are certain aspects that can only be detected by looking at the physical manuscripts, such as instances of palimpsests—where the original text has been erased and written over, but there remain traces of the first text—and writing in the margins outside the main text, which are hard to read but are often very helpful in understanding the text on the page,” he explained.

Through his work, Henninger illustrates how medieval philosophy still influences today’s conversations. He recently translated Fabrizio Amerini’s Thomas Aquinas on the Beginning and End of Human Life from the Italian for Harvard University Press. The book investigates all of Aquinas’ writings on human life. “Some Catholic thinkers today use Aquinas to get into the abortion debates,” he explained. “With the Aquinas book, you see there are reasonable ways to try to answer the question, ‘When does human life begin?’, and these may help us get beyond the polarizing debate today.”

By looking at the past, Henninger hopes we can find new insight into life’s most complex questions. “The way the ancient and medieval thinkers approached long-lasting philosophical questions is often different from today and that helps us to see the questions and answers differently.”

—Elizabeth Wilson