ND   JMC : History of Medieval Philosophy / by Maurice De Wulf

Chapter II.

Scholastic Philosophies.


365. Decadence of Scholastic Philosophy. -- The decay of scholasticism followed closely on its period of maturity. The causes that undermined its influence on the history of subsequent philosophical thought, corroded the great monument by a slow but steady and persistent process of disintegration. The succeeding generations were unequal to the task of preserving the work achieved by the master minds of the thirteenth century. Broadly speaking, we may attribute the decay of scholastic philosophy to three main groups of hostile influences: dearth of philosophers, relaxation of studies, and the steady inroads of antischolastic systems.

I. Under the head of dearth of scholastic philosophers we have to note a want of originality as a first symptom of exhaustion. From the beginning of the fourteenth century there was an enormous increase in the numbers of those who studied philosophy.{1} With the spread of the universities arose greater facilities for philosophical study (II.); whole orders of religious threw themselves into the thick of the controversies of the schools. But these legions of philosophers merely formed parties and followed catch-cries and shibboleths under the banner of some illustrious doctor or other, to whose great name they clung as a talisman of their school or section. Instead of trying to think for themselves, they aimed merely at producing commentaries on the thought of their predecessors. It was the epoch of compendiums; and it was also the epoch of apocryphal writings, for numbers of those compendiums, instead of being attributed to their compilers, were attributed by the latter to the illustrious doctors compiled.

As the schools multiplied, the great personalities grew rare. The thirteenth century was a century of personalities; the fourteenth and fifteenth are centuries of impersonal thought. With the exception of Terminism, we may say that the scholastics subsequent to the thirteenth century discovered no fresh or original line of speculation. There is, however, one special direction in which we do note a development. The thirteenth century had been timid and reserved on questions of social and political economy; but with the growth of commercial activity in the fourteenth, these came well to the front: numerous treatises were written on usury, annuities, coinage, exchange, etc.; and it was the terminists who generally led the way in all those discussions.{2}

In the second place, the doctrinal system of scholasticism, in its structure and arrangement of parts, was gradually modified. The new notions on systematization, broached by William of Ockam, were not in keeping with the scholastic synthesis, though they did not run directly counter to any of its great organic principles. They show a weakness of structure and a want of coherence and harmony in the whole. Then, too, the impassioned disputes between Terminism, Thomism and Scotism, had the effect of disturbing the general economy of scholasticism. And the same may be said of the absurd dialectical discussions that were allowed to monopolize attention, in certain of the schools, to the exclusion of all serious philosophical study. With the lapse of time we note a gradual vitiation of that doctrinal purity which had been the strength of thirteenth-century scholasticism.

In the third place, there was something even worse than unfortunate innovations, namely, culpable ignorance. William of Ockam, with his earlier disciples and opponents, knew the philosophical systems of the thirteenth century. But the generations that followed grew more and more ignorant even of the essentials of that scholasticism which they professed to follow or to refute. Among the numerous advocates of dangerous innovations in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, we meet with many mere youths who had evidently spared themselves the pains of prosecuting any deep or systematic course of philosophical study at any university centre. Nor do the university authorities seem to have taken any steps to arrest the growth of the evil (II.): with the result that in the next period scholasticism failed altogether from sheer ignorance of itself.

Fourthly, the scholastics of this period are accountable for admitting a decay in their language and methods. Their writings fall away more and more from the clear and simple language of the thirteenth century. Barbarisms, which had hitherto appeared but rarely, and for the most part only in the Arabic-Latin translations, spread very rapidly in the fourteenth century. Even the orthography of some of the masters displays an unpardonable ignorance of Latin.{3}

Terminism and Scotism are mainly responsible for this decay. And as defect of form begets confusion of thought, we observe a parallel decline of efficiency in didactic method. Under pretext of clearness, we are confronted with multitudes of distinctions and sub-distinctions and syllogisms and counter-syllogisms: a veritable parody of the procedure in honour among the great scholastics: a spectacle which Stöckl has described, in accurate if not very elegant language, as scholasticism suffocated by its own luxuriance.

Finally, those abuses of the scholastic philosophers were fostered by the gradual spread of an altogether excessive attention to dialectic, In the thirteenth-century scholasticism, logic occupied its rightful place. It was, both in theory and in practice, a discipline of the mind, a preparation for the study of physics, metaphysics and ethics (282). Once disturb this subordination, or suppress this dependence of formal logic on the other branches of philosophy, and the newly emancipated assistant will soon become a despot. And this is what happened at the close of the thirteenth century. The first symptoms of the intellectual malady are perceptible early in the fourteenth; and the disease slowly came to a head, until it utterly poisoned the writings of the subsequent period. We shall see later how the formalism of the Scotists and the terminism of the Ockamists fostered the evil. It was also propagated by the Summulae of Petrus Hispanus: for this treatise called forth quite a forest of commentaries which were in character both superficial and long-winded, worthy of sophists rather than philosophers.

II. A relaxation of studies set in both in the religious orders and at the universities. The religious orders were still, as in the past, the principal nurseries of science. But love of study declined as discipline grew lax.{4} Among the legions of those monastic masters, fond of easy work and ready results, we might count on our fingers all who, by personal and persevering efforts, raised themselves out of the rut of an all-pervading mediocrity.

The University of Paris fell away rapidly from its early splendour: and scholasticism, which had flourished in it, was dragged down with its decline. Degraded by intrigues of all sorts, the Faculty of Theology ignored all the requirements of the academic statutes; through favour, or even through bribery, the "actus scholastici" became little better than formalities, the course of study was shortened and the standard of examination lowered. The majority of masters in theology began to be attracted not so much by a thirst for knowledge as for snug ecclesiastical benefices. The Arts Faculty drifted down the same easy incline. The study of the arts being a necessary introduction to theology, it was obviously the interest of ambitious place-hunters and money-grabbers to curtail the arts course as much as possible. Hence university chairs were filled by beardless youths whose ignorance was surpassed only by the amazing audacity of their teaching. Categorias, Perihermeneias, in cujus scriptura summus Aristoteles calamum in corde tinxisse confingitur, infantili balbutie resonant impuberes et imberbes.{5}

Other causes also contributed to the decline of the University. Not to mention the wars with the Flemish and English and the terrible plague of the middle of the fourteenth century, Paris had in time to cope with the competition of the newer universities.{6} Whereas in the thirteenth century the Universities of Paris, Oxford and Cambridge alone could confer the mastership in theology, in the fourteenth other "studia generalia" obtained, or even usurped, the power of conferring theological degrees;{7} and the fewer students these new centres had to commence with. the easier they made the conditions for promotion to degrees, in order to attract greater numbers of students. The multiplication of such independent universities thinned the enormous current of which Paris had long held the monopoly.{8} But all those influences unfortunately tended to lower more and more the standard of theological -- and consequently of philosophical -- studies.

III. Finally, the inroads of anti-scholastic systems hastened the downfall of scholasticism. The controversies of the thirteenth century had strengthened scholasticism: it emerged from all of them victorious. Those of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries weakened it: its adversaries gained confidence and prepared the way for the coalition which was to attack and overthrow the traditional philosophy in the following period.

{1} In 1406, the Arts Faculty at Paris numbered 1,000 magistri and 10,000 members (supposita) altogether (Chartul., t. iii., p. 604).

{2} BRANTS, op. cit., pp. 14 sqq.

{3} Chartul., t. iii., Introd., p. xi. During the last quarter of the fourteenth century there was a reaction at Paris. Some distinguished scholars -- NICHOLAS POILLEVILLAIN (de Clamengis), JOHN OF MONTERUIL (de Monsterolio), PETER D'AILLV, JOHN GERSON and JOHN COURTECUISSE (Breviscoxae) -- made a vigorous effort to purify scientific Latin. Unfortunately their influence was short-lived (ibid.).

{4} Chartul., ii., p. xi.

{5} RICARDUS DE BURY, Philobiblon, anno 1344, c. g, p. 87 (edit. 1888), quoted in the Chartul., ii., p. viii.

{6} Chartul., ii., p. xii.

{7} We may mention Toulouse, Pisa, Prague, Florence. See table of universities anterior to the fifteenth century in DENIFLE'S Die Universitaten des Mittelalters bis 1400. ln the fifteenth century other universities sprang up in France itself, for example, at Dol (1421), Poitiers (1431), Caen (1432), Bordeaux (1440) (Chartul., iv., p. viii). Louvain University was founded in 1425.

{8} Paris University sank rapidly during the period of the Great Schism, though at no time of its history did it enjoy such extensive prestige, or boast so much of its greatness. The Sorbonne and Navarre colleges alone made efforts to emulate the glorious past. The trouble was largely due to the departure of many of the best masters for other universities, which profited by their renown. Thus Henry of Hesse went to Vienna and Marsilius of Inghen to Heidelberg (Chartul., iii., pp. xiv and xv). During the first half of the fifteenth century the University retained its political influence in France. Finally Charles VI. took away its independence, and, in 1446, made it subject to Parliament. The rules of the Faculties were reformed, in 1425, by Cardinal Estontevilla.

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