Jacques Maritain Center : Aristotle and the Christian Church



FROM the Arabian schools the Peripatetic infection spread to Christian schools and Christian cloisters. Raymond, Archbishop of Toledo and High Chancellor of Castile, established an academy for the translation of the Arabian commentators. "Each day," says Hauréau, "increased the number of books received by the School of Paris from the Academy of Toledo; each day revealed some new science."{1} Translations, both of Aristotle and his commentators, were made from the Arabic into a jargon almost unintelligible and frequently misleading. The translator, in his haste to supply the eager demand; stopped not to enlighten himself upon the meaning of special words and even whole phrases, but transcribed the Arabic terms instead of their Latin equivalents.{2} The doctrine that Averroë s gave out as coming from Aristotle, bore to the real doctrine of the Stagyrite as much resemblance as the Alhambra bore to the Parthenon. Nor need this surprise. Hard indeed would it be to preserve unchanged doctrine first passing out of the original Greek through the phrasings of a Syrian mind; thence transferred to the phrasings of an Arabian mind; thence again put into the phrasings of a Western mind in such Latin terms as it might command. Harder still would it be for an Arabian commentator, with his peculiar bias of mind, to grasp all the delicate shades of meaning, difference, and distinction, in which the acute Greek intellect was so much at home, especially after those shades had been travestied in so many renderings.{3} In spite of these difficulties, students and masters blindly accepted and drank in with equal avidity the true and the false. They became intoxicated with the new doctrines. They grew bold, troublesome, and violently disputatious. "Their tongues," in the expressive words of John of Salisbury, "have become torches of war."{4} It is the spirit of rationalism that, from various sources, without collusion, each independently of the other, is inundating the University of Paris. There are strange words heard from the teacher's chair. There are mysterious whisperings carried on behind many a barred door and in many a secret corner, of wonderful social and religious changes about to take place; of the inadequacy and inefficiency of the old order; of the inauguration of a new order and a new gospel. It is written and repeated in the name of a saintly monk that "towards the year 1200 of the Incarnation of Our Lord, the spirit of life having gone out of the two Testaments, the Eternal Gospel was born."{5} Amaury of Bennes (d. 1207) broaches a most un-Christian doctrine. He teaches a threefold incarnation: that of the Father in Abraham; that of the Son in Jesus Christ; that of the Holy Ghost in the chosen spirits of the day. He gathers around him disciples who possess a body of secret doctrines and practices. Believing themselves the incarnation of the Holy Ghost, they fancy themselves above sin and regard every passion as lawful.{6} Sometimes the spirit of unbelief breaks loose and is heard aloud; as when Simon of Tournay, after a powerful discourse that had made a strong impression, exclaimed in the pride of his heart, that greatly as he had exalted and confirmed the law of Christ, he could be still more effective in destroying it, if he so minded.{7} David of Dinant finds in the pseudo-Aristotle and his Arabian commentators a scientific basis upon which to ground doctrines that embody this rationalistic spirit. "All things are one, for whatever is, is God:" so speaks, in the rashness of youth, his disciple Bernard the Sub-Deacon.{8} Another says: "Hitherto the Son operated; but henceforth to the end of the world it is the Holy Ghost who shall operate."{9} These were among the fundamental doctrines of the new sect. The bishops of France became alarmed at the ravages it was making among their flocks. Not only had it taken possession of the novelty-seeking student; it was found that learned clerics and venerable priests were ardent propagators of the new doctrine. Practical and wealthy men of business, like the goldsmith William D'Aire, were among the most active workers in its behalf. In 1209 the Provincial Council of Paris condemned the teachings of Amaury and David, and with them the Aristotelian books on which their doctrines were supposed to be based; it forbade in the University all further reading of the Natural Philosophy and commentaries thereon, in private as well as in public.{10}

This decree is of primary importance. Paris was then, and continued to be for centuries afterwards, the great intellectual centre of Europe. The University shared with the Empire and the Papacy the controlling influence over the civilization of the West. "The University of Paris," says Mr. Bass Mullinger, "throughout the thirteenth century, well-nigh monopolized the interest of the learned in Europe. Thither thought and speculation appeared irresistibly attracted; it was there that the new orders fought the decisive battle for place and power; that new forms of scepticism rose in rapid succession, and heresies of varying moment riveted the watchful eye of Rome; that anarchy most often triumphed, and flagrant vices most prevailed; and it was from this seething centre that those influences went forth which predominated in the contemporary history of Oxford and Cambridge."{11} The decree emphasizes the beginning of a long struggle for existence, upon which Aristotle is now entering, at the threshold of the most active and the most momentous period in the whole history of mediaeval thought. In considering the attitude of the Church towards the Stagyrite in the varying phases of his fortune during the following two centuries, we find ourselves constructing one of the most delicate and critical chapters in the annals of the human intellect. It is a subject that has been ill-understood. Enemies of the Church have misrepresented her action in the matter; her friends have indulged in lame excuses and abject apologies for which she has neither recognition nor thanks. A simple statement of facts from documents which it is our privilege to use, will show that both aspersion and apology are uncalled for.

The Aristotelian books condemned by the Provincial Council of 1209, may have been, and in all probability were, distorted editions and epitomes of the Stagyrite, rendered and compiled from Arabian sources. We can safely say that none others could have been in general use so early in the century.{12} Moreover, the same spurious works that we have seen influence the Arabian philosophy, were at this period in circulation among the Schoolmen, and in the name of Aristotle introduced Neo-Platonic principles.{13} These also contributed to throw the philosopher in bad odour. However, the decree seems soon to have practically fallen into disuse. This may easily be accounted for.

The beginning of the thirteenth century was a critical period in the history of the University of Paris. The relations between the ecclesiastical authorities on the one hand, and on the other, between the masters and students, were straining more and more to their utmost tension. Out of the frequent quarrels of those days grew the organic constitutional existence of the University as a body. Pope Innocent III. (d. 1216) had made his studies in Paris. He realized all the wants of the University; he took the deepest interest in its affairs; by gradually strengthening the hands of masters and students, whilst weakening those of the Chancellor, he inaugurated the work of organization that was completed under Gregory IX. Indeed, the University had grown far and away beyond the controlling power of any one man, however competent.{14} In such a state of affairs it was difficult to enforce any decree. Then again, in the rivalry of schools and masters is to be found another reason why the decree was at most only partially obeyed. Aristotle may not be taught in public under the shadow of Notre Dame; but who can account for the Rue de Fouarre and its dependent schools? Confusion prevailed; the conscientious were scandalized; the less scrupulous defied authority and read Aristotle sometimes openly, more frequently in secret. Innocent III., in 1215, enjoins upon Robert of Courçon, Papal Legate to Paris, to use his utmost endeavour to give better direction to studies in the University, and to remove those occasions of scandal and of error, which are no less pernicious to religion than to science. Robert takes into his counsel many good and learned men. Again do they find that Aristotle is not only read, but that he is made the source whence flow the errors then rife. Again do they condemn his Physics; also his Metaphysics, and all compendiums of them. But the statute of Robert permits the Dialectics, both ancient and new, the Ethics, and four books of the Topics.{15}

The statute removes the forbidden books from the lecture-hall; but the forbidden books are neither neglected nor forgotten. They are again quietly resumed. The intellectual craving of the day for Aristotle -- especially for the prohibited books -- will be satisfied with no other food. Doctrinal innovations begin to multiply. Masters quarrel with masters, and in their war of words descend to the greatest puerilities. Philip de Grève, a stern and able chancellor of the University at this time, exclaims:{16} "We have made children of ourselves. . . . We have made of ourselves a laughing-stock to laymen. . . . Master is pitted against master, each gnawing away at the other."{17} And in a sermon preached about 1225, he thus alludes to the influx of rationalism that threatens to overwhelm all study "The torrents have destroyed nearly all our city; pouring themselves out upon the great sea of doctrine, they have disturbed its waves, hitherto so pure and calm. But as it is wisdom to retreat before the army of death in order to save life, so should we act in these times; it is our only plan to take shelter from the torrent and await its passing over. Though violent and rapid, its waters are only transitory."{18} The Chancellor is bearing witness, in his official capacity, to the power and influence of the innovators. With increasing numbers they grow bolder. No longer confining themselves to the theses which they were engaged to teach or defend, they attack the doctrines, the dogmas. the sacraments, and the mysteries of the Church. There is no subject too sacred for them. The highest and most mysterious truths of religion they attempt to bring within the grasp of their limited understanding. This state of affairs is brought to the notice of the Holy See.

The Chair of Peter was at this time occupied by a man venerable in years -- he was then over eighty -- but with the wisdom and ripe experience of old age he combined a vigour and an activity rarely to be surpassed in youth. He was the patron of learning and the friend of learned men. He was alive to all the wants of the age. He knew the worth of Aristotle; but he must keep intact the Faith. He must compel speculation to remain upon her own domain. Accordingly, in 1228 Gregory IX. addresses a brief to the Faculty of Theology, rebuking the audacity of those professors who dare to introduce into matters of Faith the opinions of philosophers, especially of naturalists, and who, abandoning the safe doctrines of the Fathers of the Church, endeavour to explain revealed truths by the false and worldly science of those authors. He deplores the evils that have already resulted, and forebodes worse, from this bold manner of treating sacred sciences. He exhorts them no longer to obscure the purity of theology with those opinions, no longer to infect and corrupt the word of God.{19} No name is mentioned in this brief. None was needed. Aristotle was the naturalist who was intruding upon the domain of Faith -- Aristotle and his commentators. So was it taken in Paris; but was it so understood in Rome? We think not. We think that Gregory knew the character of the corrupted or suppositious texts then, in use. Might it not be that he had learned to distinguish between these and the real Aristotle from his brilliant friend Michael Scott? At this very time Michael was translating Aristotle. It is only the previous year that Gregory, in a letter to Stephen Langton, mentions him in the highest terms as a beloved son who from boyhood up had been ardently devoted to letters and science, who was already well versed in the Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew languages, and who still sought to continue to build upon the foundations laid.{20} In all probability Michael Scott was at that very time in Rome.

Seldom was the University in such commotion as at this period. The masters and the ecclesiastical authorities -- the Bishop, the Chapter and the Chancellor -- quarrel over rights and privileges. The schools suffer. The mediation of the Pope is invoked by the masters against the Chancellor and the Bishop. At the same time Aristotle continues to press for recognition. Neither masters nor students are satisfied. If the religious teaching orders are to hold their own in the schools, they must be able to reply at least to the objections drawn from the condemned books and prepare their pupils to refute them. If. they cannot teach Aristotle as they now possess him, why not prepare an expurgated text? This is the next suggestion that we find hinted at. It comes to us through Pope Gregory IX. In a Bull hearing date of April 13, 1231, after pronouncing upon the recent issues between the authorities and the masters and students, he once more forbids the condemned books to be read; but he adds the limiting clause that the prohibition shall last only till the books shall have been examined and purged of every suspicion of error.{21} Nor does he delay long before appointing a commission to examine and correct them. He has no difficulty in finding competent men.

There is William of Auxerre, the Archdeacon of Beauvais. His commentaries on the Book of Sentences, show him to be a profound theologian, an acute philosopher, and saturated with Aristotle. He has left an indelible impress upon Catholic theology. In his work is first found fully stated the Aristotelian doctrine of Matter and Form as applied to the sacraments of the Church.{22} The Pontiff learned to appreciate his wisdom and intellectual capacity when, in 1229, William accompanied his bishop to Rome. And, therefore, His Holiness some time previously invited him with others to discuss the educational reforms so urgently called for in the University of Paris.{23} William at this time held a chair in the University. Whilst in Rome, calumnies had been spread abroad concerning him, in consequence of which the Chancellor and ecclesiastical authorities were disposed to deprive him of his chair; so His Holiness wrote to the King, beseeching him to restore William and another{24} to their positions; this he backed up with a missive in almost similar words commending them to the Queen, and begging her to use her influence in their behalf.{25} No stronger proof than this can we have of the esteem in which Gregory held William of Auxerre. Accordingly, William heads the names of the commission.

Next comes Simon of Authie. He is Canon of Amiens, with a chair also in the University.{26} A notice of him, recently discovered, speaks of him as a very learned man.{27} The Pontiff on account of his impartial spirit, appoints him with others to inquire into the disturbance between Town and Gown, in the quarter of St. Marcellas, in which several students were killed.{28} Again, we find him commissioned to procure the restoration of some professors to their chairs.{29} Next to the name of Simon is that of Stephen of Provins. He also in an especial degree holds the confidence and esteem of the Holy Father. He is not only learned, but evidently a man of prudence and tact; for we find the Pope, some years later, assigning to him the delicate mission of settling a long-standing and widely known dispute between a bishop and a monastery.{30} He is also to be remembered as a friend and patron of Michael Scott, and sufficiently an admirer of Aristotle to enable Michael to dedicate to him one of his translations.{31}

Such are the men into whose hands Gregory places the prohibited books for examination. He empowers them, in a brief, bearing date of April 20, 1231, to examine the books with all due attention and rigour, and scrupulously to retrench every error calculated to scandalize or in the least offend the readers of them, in order that the said books, without delay and without danger, may be restored to their places in the course of study.{32} Three days later, Gregory still further shows his good will towards the students of Aristotle: he writes to the Abbé of St. Victor's and the Prior of the Dominicans, empowering them to absolve both masters and students from all censures that they might have incurred in reading the prohibited books.{33} Nor is this all. In May 5, of the same year, His Holiness commissions Simon of Authie and the Dean of Soissons to make every effort to restore peace in the University, and order L in the studies so long disturbed.{34} A new spirit is breathed into the University. Du Boulay writes: "In the year 1231, the Muses, after two years of banishment, begin to flourish once more in Paris, and study and discipline are being restored."{35} The struggle is over. The crisis has passed. Aristotle is fully recognized. Michael Scott may now put forth his translations of the Stagyrite. And in fact, it is precisely about this time, Roger Bacon tells us, that Michael Scott appears upon the scene, bringing with him especially the treatise on Physics with the commentaries thereon; and from this time forth Aristotle is held in high esteem by the Latins.{36} It would seem as though the venerable Pontiff, with his far-reaching wisdom, had seen through the vista of the ages the extent of Aristotle's growing influence, and had resolved to crown his long and glorious career with this act of restoring his philosophy to its proper place. Now that Aristotle is enthroned, a new impetus is given to the study of his writings.

{1} Histoire de la Philosophie Scholastique, tom. ii. p. 62.

{2} Here is a specimen from the Poetics by Hermann: "Inuarikin terra alkanarnihy, stediei et baraki et castrem munitum destendedya descenderunt adenkirati ubi descendit super eos aqua Euphratis veniens de Euetin." And yet Hermann's translations were widely read. See Renan, Averroës et l'Averroisme, p. 215.

{3} Renan says of the Commentaries of Averroës "The printed editions of his works are a Latin translation of a Hebrew translation of a commentary made upon an Arabic translation of a Syriac translation of a Greek text " (Averroës et l'Averroisme, p. 52).

{4} Epist., 60.

{5} Liber Introductorius, a book made up of extracts attributed to Joachim of Calabria. Quoted by J. V. Le Clerc in Histoire Litteraire de la France, tom. xxiv. p. 2 13. Renan attributes its compilation to the Franciscan, Gerard, of Borgo San-Donnino. See Revue des Deux Mondes, tom. 64, p. 111, 1866.

{6} See an account of them by Caesar of Heisterbach, Illustrium Miraculorum et Historiarum Mirabilium, lib. v. cap. xxii. pp. 291-294. Amaury drew largely upon Scotus Erigena for his tenets,

{7} Matthew of Paris, Chronica Majora, p. 477, Rolls Series, Ad. An., 1201. Thomas of Cantapré attributes the famous blasphemy of "the three Impostors" to Simon of Tournay.

{8} Omnia unum, quia quicquid est, est Deus (Acts of 2220.) Given in Martene and Durand, Thesaurus Novus Anecdotorum, tom. iv. col. 263. There is nothing in the genuine works of Aristotle to justify this pantheistic position. Everywhere in his writings is the distinction clearly drawn between God and Nature.

{9} "Filius usque nunc operatus est, sed Spiritus Sanctus ex hoc nunc usque ad mundi consummationem inchoat operari" (ibid., col. 164).

{10} "Quaternuli magistri David de Dinant, infra natale Episcopo Parisiensi afferantur at comburantur, nec libri Aristotelis de naturali philosophia, nec commenta legantur Parisius publicè vel secreto" (Thesaurus Novus Anecdotorum, tom. iv. col. 166). The Acts of the Council of 1209 are not given in full in Labbé or in Hardouin, but they are to he found in the Thesaurus of Martene and Durand, loc. cit.

{11} University of Cambridge from the earliest Times to 1535, p. 132.

{12} This is the opinion of Am. Jourdain (Recherches Critiques sur les Traductions d'Aristote, chap. v. pp. 187-196). Renan is of the same opinion : "Ce qui reste indubitable, c'est que le concile de 1209 frappa l'Aristote arabe, traduit de l'arabe, expliqué par des Arabes" (Averroës et l'Averroisme, p. 221). Hauréau, on the contrary, thinks the texts might have been genuine translations directly from the Greek (Histoire de la Philosophie Scholastique, tom. ii. pp. 100-105). Roger Bacon says expressly that the causes of the censure were false doctrines "and many passages erroneously translated." See Emile Charles, Roger Bacon, p. 422; see also ibid., p. 324.

{13} See an analysis both of the Theologia, of which we have already spoken, and the De Causis, in Vacherot, Histoire Critique de l'Ecole d'Alexandrie, tom. iii. chap. ii. pp. 85-100. The book De Mundo is also of the same apocryphal character. It is, by the consensus of critics, attributed to Apuleius (114-190). See J. Barthélemy St. Hilaire, Méteorologie d'Aristote, Dissert., p. xlii.

{14} See The English Historical Review, Oct., 1886, Art., "The Origines of the University of Paris," by the Rev. H. Rashdell, pp. 664-667. About 1240 the University seems to have attained full organization.

{15} Launoy, De Var. Arist. Fortuna, p. 69.

{16} In 1219, in a difficulty between himself and the Masters, he excommunicated them and imprisoned some, in the absence of the bishop, who was at the time in the Holy Land (Du Boulay, Hist. Univ. Parisiensis, tom. iii. p. 93 seq.).

{17} The whole passage is too characteristic and too vivid to be omitted. "Pueri facti sumus, qui nihil aliud facimus nisi pugnam gallorum. Unde rediculum facti sumus laicorum. Gallus insurgit contra gallum et cristatur contra eum, et sibi commanducant cristas, et effundunt viscera, et sese cruentant: sic hodie magister contra magistrum et sese ad invicem corrodunt" (Sermo in Domin. prima in Adv. Domini, Notices et Extraits des Manuscrits, tom. xxi. 2ième partie, p. 193).

{18} Notices des MSS., pp. 189, 190.

{19} Raynaud, Ad. Annalles Baronii, tom. i. § xxx.-xxxi. pp. 615, 616. Lucae, 1747.

{20} Novisti siquidem quod dilectus filius magister Michael Scottis a puero inardescens amore scientiae litteralis, postpositis omnibus, illam studio continuato quaesivit et in fundamento artium gloriosas superedificans facultates decora se structura munivit, nec contentus littera tantum erudiri latina, et in ea melius formaretur, hebraïcae ac arabicae insudavit laudabiliter et profecit et sic doctus in singulis grata diversarum varietate nitescit (Bulletin des Comités Historiques, 1849-50, tom. ii. p. 255). The letter bears the date of April 28, 1227. It is written in order to remind the Archbishop of Canterbury that the proceeds of a certain benefice within his jurisdiction were reserved for Michael Scott by Honorius III., and that Gregory desires them to be continued in the same channel. "Thus," remarks the editor of this important letter, "in Scotch legend Michael Scott is the companion of demons; in history he is a client of the Pope," and, we may add, the beneficiary of another. It is difficult to reconstruct the life of Michael Scott. Bron about 1190; as early as 1217 he began putting out translations of the Arabian commentators; about this time he passed over from Toledo to the court of Frederick; his sojourn there was not more than ten years; in all probability he was in Rome about 1227; he afterwards resided and taught in Paris; about 1230 he began to issue translations of Aristotle -- one is dedicated to Gregory's friend Stephen of Provins; another MS. of his bears date of 1241. Some censure passed upon his writings by Albert the Great, and some praise and some abuse from Roger Bacon; this is all that is authentic of Michael Scott. Even this much escaped the notice of the writer of the very indefinite article on him in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

{21} Launoy, De Var. Arist. Fortuna, p. 59; Du Boulay, Hist. Univ. Par., tom. iii. p. 140.

{22} Juenin, Commentarius de Sacramentis, Dissert i. cap. ii. p. 6, Venetiis, 1761. See Catholic Dictionary, by Addis and Arno]d, Art. "Sacraments;" also Wetzer and Welte, Kirkchen-Lexikon, on the same subject.

{23} "Caeterum cum iidem Magistri pro Reformatione studii ad Sedem Apostolicam personaliter laborantes bonorem Regis et Regni tractarent" (Extract from letter to King Louis IX. apud Du Boulay, Inst. Univ. Par., tom. iii. p. 145).

{24} Geoffrey of Poictiers.

{25} Both letters are to be found in Du Boulay, Hist. Univ. Par., tom. iii. p. 145.

{26} Du Boulay erroneously makes him one of the Canons of Paris.

{27} Discovered at Amiens by Dom Grenier, and published by M. Paulin Paris. It reads thus "Mense novembris, obiit magister Simon de Alteia, vir litteratissimus, hujus ecclesiae canonicus" (Notices et Extraits des MSS., tom. xxi. 2ième partie, p. 222).

{28} The letter bears date of April 19, 1231. It is to be found in Du Boulay, tom. iii. p. 144.

{29} Ibid., p. 146.

{30} The bishop was of Tournay and the monastery was of St. Pierre-du-Gand. The letter is dated December 15, 1234. See Notices des MSS., loc. cit.

{31} The translation is of the book De Coelo et Mundo. The dedication runs as follows: -- "Tibi Stephane de Pruvino, hoc opus, quod ego Michael Scotus dedi latinitati ex dictis Aristotelis, specialiter commendo" (Jourdain, Recherches Critiques sur les Traductions d'Aristote, p. 127).

{32} This important document was the missing link in the chain of evidence the absence of which has led to so much confusion among the historians of this period of thought. It proves that the Church brought the remedy herself, and encouraged the study of Aristotle, instead of being silently overborne by the strong current in his favour, as is generally represented. Tiraboschi thinks the prohibition was confined to the University of Paris (Storia della Letteratura Italiana, tom. iv. p. 174). Talamo discusses the issue, but is not aware of the existence of this document (L'Aristotelismo della Scolastica nella Storia della Filosofia, 1873). Emile Charles, in his able study upon Roger Bacon, also discusses the question, but does not use this document. We give the full text in an Appendix.

{33} Du Boulay, tom. iii. p. 144.

{34} Ibid., p. 146.

{35} Ibid., p. 140.

{36} "Tempore Michael Scoti, qui annis Domini 1230 transactus apparuit, deferens librorum Aristotelis partes aliquas de naturalibus et mathematicis, cum expositoribus sapientibus, magnificata est philosophia Aristotelis apud Latinos" (Opus Majus, pp. 36, 37).

<< ======= >>