Jacques Maritain Center : A History of Western Philosophy Vol. II / by Ralph McInerny

Part III: The Twelfth Century



What links the twelfth century with Carolingian times is the survival of the monastic and cathedral schools which had been the objects of imperial concern. The cathedral school of Chartres is one of the most important centers of learning and inquiry, more so than the cathedral school of Paris. In Paris the monastery of St. Victor is the locus of continuing intellectual liveliness, with William of Champeaux and Hugh of St. Victor as outstanding instances of the type of men who taught there. Abelard is a moveable feast, teaching at Laon, Paris, and elsewhere, but, wherever, it is he who enhances the school rather than vice versa. There is a split in the monastic influence in the twelfth century. When we consider St. Victor and Cluny, the influence is a positive and fairly conservative one; when we consider Bernard of Clairvaux and the monastic reform with which he is associated, the monastery appears as an alternative to the learning of the schools.

The Eucharistic controversy of the eleventh century with its opposition between dialectician and nondialectician carries over into the twelfth. Berengar of Tours appeared to elevate reason above authority in discussing matters of faith; Roscelin, in discussing the Trinity from a logical point of view, arrived at tritheism. The question then arose as to whether heresy was a necessary product of applying logic to objects of faith or was simply an indication that a legitimate endeavor had gone astray. In the twelfth century men who are in most senses opponents grope toward a proper understanding of the relation between faith and reason. St. Anselm of Canterbury, who in the context of the century seems the least polemical of men, sums up what will be the shared attitude in a phrase: fides quaerens intellectum. The believer is a creature endowed with reason, and it is fitting and natural that he should meditate on what he believes in an effort to grasp its meaning. There is much room for diversity within the sense of the phrase. Is the meditation on what is believed to be understood as the spiritual life, a meditation on Scripture with the aid of the Fathers in order to incorporate its message into one's own life? Or is this meditation something more abstract, making an appeal to logic and philosophy generally? These two attitudes agree that faith is not a result of natural reasoning; it is that from which one begins, what is firmly held before, during and after the meditation. Bernard of Clairvaux represents the view that pagan philosophy not only has nothing to contribute to the Christian's effort, but is a temptation to pride and vanity. In varying ways, Hugh of St. Victor, Anselm of Canterbury, the men of Chartres, and, of course, Abelard will see philosophy as something of positive importance. Its importance is one more or less controlled by its relevance for understanding the faith. There are a number of logical writings which can be counted as purely philosophical, but by and large the writings of the men we have mentioned are theological in character. Actually, such a judgment cannot be made in terms of any clear-cut distinction between philosophy and theology operative in the twelfth century. That distinction, the distinction between knowledge of God attainable by natural reason, philosophical theology, and knowledge of God gained by faith, does not become truly effective before men of the West are confronted with the documents exhibiting philosophical theology as it was developed by the Greeks.

Much of the importance of Chartres lies in its Platonism, a Platonism revealed in the interest shown in the Timaeus. That dialogue, surely one of the most difficult of Plato's writings, conveys a picture of the universe that many of the teachers at Chartres tried to put into relation with the creation story of Genesis. As we examine their efforts, we can get some notion of the awakening that will follow the influx of Aristotle, his Neoplatonic commentators, Plotinus and Proclus, and the philosophy of Islamic thinkers. It is not easy to trace the introduction into the West of Islamic thought.

The points of contact are Southern Italy and Sicily, on the one hand, and Spain, on the other. Already with Gerbert there is the possibility of contact; Islamic medical writings are translated into Latin very early in Italy. It is held that we can see an acquaintance with Avicebron's Fons vitae in Gilbert of Ia Porrée's commentary on the De trinitate of Boethius. Peter the Venerable will be instrumental in having the Koran translated into Latin. But it is at Toledo that the work of translation is first systematically undertaken, and later at the court of Frederick II. Gundissalinus, who was connected with the translating effort in Spain, also tried to bring the new sources into contact with the traditional ones in the West, and in that he is truly a harbinger of the work of the thirteenth century.

From the middle of the twelfth century onward we are faced with the emerging situation that will define the thirteenth. The universities come into being at the end of the twelfth century, having their antecedents in the cathedral schools whose masters, at Paris, gain autonomy from the chancellor and form a guild which is self-governing. The new entities are not recognized or granted charters until the thirteenth century, but in many cases, notably that of Paris, they are already there to be recognized. The university, with its division into various faculties, the faculty of art and that of theology particularly, provides the scene for the effort to absorb the new sources which come from antiquity through Islam to the Latin West.

If the relation between faith and reason is the fundamental motif of medieval thought, the context within which the relation is discussed shifts and varies, so that although we seem to see the same questions asked over and over, the sense of the questions alters as new data are brought to bear on their discussion. The important variable for our purposes is the amount of weight that is attached to natural reason: Of what is unaided reason capable? The answer to that question is in large part controlled by the amount of Greek philosophy that is known. That is why there is such a decline in the quality of the discussion from Augustine and Boethius to Alcuin and Rhabanus Maurus; that is why Scotus Erigena looms so large in the Carolingian period -- his knowledge of Greek enables him to bring into play Pseudo-Dionysius and Gregory of Nyssa. What this means, of course, is further variations on a basically Platonic or Neoplatonic theme, and since this is the tenor of thought emanating from Augustine as well, it is possible to speak of the tradition in the West as a Platonic one. The employment of the Timaeus at Chartres in the twelfth century, while it introduces novelties, does not really disturb that tradition. The increase in knowledge of Aristotle's logical writings relates to the ongoing tradition, although it alters the emphasis in instruction in the trivium. A far more disturbing alteration of the discussion of faith and reason is due to the introduction into the West of Islamic and medieval Jewish attempts to reflect on objects of faith in the light of the philosophy of Aristotle. We will see in the next part that Islamic versions of Aristotle are in fact Neoplatonic, but together with these interpretations came what was being interpreted, the Metaphysics of Aristotle as well as his writings on physical nature. After that point, things would never be the same again: the relation of faith and reason would be discussed in terms of philosophy and theology understood in quite new ways.

The twelfth century, then, is a complex one. It seems a continuation of the Carolingian effort -- and it is -- yet the quality of discussion and the caliber of the men involved is so much higher that it seems discontinuous with what had gone before. But much more importantly, from roughly the middle of the century onward new factors begin to be introduced into the West, a whole new statement of the problem of faith and reason. Because these factors are not widely and fully known until the thirteenth century, the men of the twelfth suffer by comparison with those of the thirteenth. For the moment, however, we want to look at them in their own terms. When we do so, we find an impressive group of thinkers.

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