Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Culture of Discussion: Advocatus Diaboli, Quaestio Disputata, and Dialectics

Bust of Socrates
'In the Beginning'
Vatican Museum
(Image from Wikipedia)

Yesterday in a comment, I remarked that "the Medieval period sanctioned somewhat free discussion through the role of the Advocatus Diaboli," or "Devil's Advocate." Well, I was entirely wrong about that. The Advocatus Diaboli, or "Devil's Advocate," comes down to us from Renaissance times, as explained by the Catholic Encyclopedia:
A popular title given to one of the most important officers of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, established in 1587, by Sixtus V, to deal juridically with processes of beatification and canonization. His official title is Promoter of the Faith (Promotor Fidei). His duty requires him to prepare in writing all possible arguments, even at times seemingly slight, against the raising of any one to the honours of the altar. The interest and honour of the Church are concerned in preventing any one from receiving those honours whose death is not juridically proved to have been "precious in the sight of God" (see BEATIFICATION and CANONIZATION). Prospero Lamertini, afterwards Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58), was the Promoter of the Faith for twenty years, and had every opportunity to study the workings of the Church in this most important function; he was, therefore, peculiarly qualified to compose his monumental work "On the Beatification and Canonization of Saints," which contains the complete vindication of the rights of the Church in this matter, and sets forth historically its extreme care of the use of this right. No important act in the process of beatification or canonization is valid unless performed in the presence of the Promoter of the Faith formally recognized. His duty is to protest against the omission of the forms laid down, and to insist upon the consideration of any objection. The first formal mention of such an officer is found in the canonization of St. Lawrence Justinian under Leo X (1513-21). Urban VIII, in 1631, made his presence necessary, at least by deputy, for the validity of any act connected with the process of beatification or canonization. (Burtsell, Richard. "Advocatus Diaboli," The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907)
This entry is obviously dated, but I presume that it's correct about details prior to 1907. Sometime since 1907, however -- apparently during the tenure of Pope John Paul II -- the office of Advocatus Diaboli has been abolished. I learned this from Christopher Hitchens, who served in the role informally:
[Concerning the] "canonization" of "Mother" Teresa[,] . . . . I had been, as far as I know, the only witness called by the Vatican to give evidence against her . . . . The present pope, in his feverish campaign to make as many saints as possible, has abolished the traditional office of "Devil's Advocate," so I drew the job of representing the Evil One, as it were, pro bono. (Christopher Hitchens, "Less than Miraculous," Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 2, February/March 2004)
Not having been trained as a lawyer, however, Hitchens failed, for Mother Theresa has been beatified and will undoubtedly one day undergo canonization. At any rate, what I was actually thinking about in my reference to Advocatus Diaboli was the Scholastic Quaestio Disputata (and the related Quodlibet):
The method of scholasticism sought to understand the fundamental aspects of theology, philosophy, and law. Apparently contradictory viewpoints were offered in order to show how they possibly could be synthesized through reasonable interpretation. A problem would first be "exposed," and then it would be "disputed" in order to cause a new "discovery" in the mind of the person who was seeking new personal knowledge. Each text investigated had a commentary. The master helped the student to read the text in such a way that he could really understand what it was saying. This experience was to be much more than just memorative. There were yes-and-no positions to various texts, which sought to keep the student from merely memorizing the text. Abelard developed the yes-and-no method with great precision. The two most exciting types of disputations were the quaestio disputata, which was a disputed question, and the quodlibet, which was a very subtle form of disputed question that could be publicly disputed only by a truly great master, whereas the disputed questions could be talked about by lesser minds still growing in knowledge. (T. J. German, "Scholasticism," Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell, Baker Academic, 2001, 1066b-1067a)
Apparently, the Quaestio Disputata had it origins in Graeco-Roman dialectics, but went into decline in the West with the collapse of the Roman Empire in the sixth century and only began to revive again in the late 10th century. A good study of its revival and flourishing would seem to be Brian Lawn's The Rise and Decline of the Scholastic 'Quaestio Disputata': With Special Emphasis on Its Use in the Teaching of Medicine and Science (1993).

Western dialectics, of course, has its origin in the so-called Socratic Method, as explained by that wonderful source of accurate information, Wikipedia:
The Socratic method (or Method of Elenchus or Socratic Debate), named after the Classical Greek philosopher Socrates, is a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate rational thinking and to illuminate ideas. It is a dialectical method, often involving an oppositional discussion in which the defense of one point of view is pitted against the defense of another; one participant may lead another to contradict him or herself in some way, strengthening the inquirer's own point. ("Socratic Method," Wikipedia)
I don't generally quote Wikipedia, but the point is a simple one, anyway, about the origin of Western dialectics in the teaching style of Socrates. Plato recorded and developed the method, but Aristotle formalized it and had more influence on the Medieval revival of dialectics. Jean Leclercq tells us:
It is mostly in scholasticism that, under the influence of Aristotle's logic, . . . [monks] came to develop a speculative rhetoric . . . . In the schools, the genres never stop evolving and becoming diversified: the quaestio will give birth to the quaestio disputata, the quaestiuncula, the articulus, and the quodlibet. (Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and The Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, Fordham University Press, 1982, page 155)
I can't claim to know much about these developments, but I take it that all of them concern variously complex ways of formally raising and answering crucial questions and are thus part of the background to our modern-day method of Western study in academics, or at least in some academic disciplines.

All of the above -- let's label them Dialectics, Quaestio Disputata, and Advocatus Diaboli for the moment -- are related to our issue, "Culture of Discussion," but all three are somewhat limited. Socrates may have confronted fellow Athenians in tha agora and queried them on what they believed themselves to know, but the method was worked out by Plato and then Aristotle more in the context of an academic discussion than society at large. This is similarly the case with the Quaestio Disputata, albeit in an even more limited manner since the 'answers' were generally already known. As for the Advocatus Diaboli, I suppose that the devil's lawyer might raise questions that could actually derail a beatification or canonization -- an unexpected answer, one might say, but the role was played by a single individual in the limited circumstances of determining sainthood.

A true "culture of discussion," however, is larger than any of these, for we're concerned with more than a limited and walled-off, institutionalized setting. We mean discussion that is freer and that pervades a culture.

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