JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias


Side by side with these streams of song flowed other and more serious currents of thought. At the very time that bards were embodying the traditions of nations into poetic cycles, and jongleurs were singing them to the accompaniment of harp or viol before the people assembled in the market-place, or in baronial hall before the household of the castle near by, Anselm was anticipating the philosophic problems of Descartes in his Proslogium; Bernard in honied words was singing the sweetness of the Holy Name of Jesus, and in homily and sermon building up the edifice of Christian doctrine and Christian practice, and the Hugos of St Victor's were inditing their beautiful works on the spiritual life.

But that which occupied the mediaeval mind in an especial manner was philosophy. It was particularly studied as the handmaid of the all-absorbing idea of the age -- Religion. It is a mistake to consider Scholasticism as a tissue of hair-splittings. Nominalism and Realism had more than words at their foundation. They involved doctrines. The people were aware of their importance; for we read that Roscelin, the champion of Nominalism, was compelled to retract his errors to preserve himself from their fury.{1} Religion was their passion, and anything bearing on religion they took interest in. Had these disputes been idle subtleties, as represented by modern philosophers, they would not have created the commotions they did.{2}

But Scholasticism, from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, was only fragmentary. There was mingled with it a strange jargon of Arabic, Judaic, and Grecian philosophy; and while it was dwindling to nothingness in the hands of the orthodox by their vain disputations, the scoffers at Christianity were weaving out of it a network of objections in which to ensnare the unwary. A master-mind was needed to sift the grain from the chaff and gather in the whole in one grand system with a bearing and significancy that should place it beyond cavil. That master-mind appeared in the person of St. Thomas Aquinas. He brings to his task a genius labor-loving, well trained in all the learning of the age, intimate with the Scriptures, versed in the early Fathers, and complete master of the subject-matter he undertakes to arrange and systematize.{3} He is an independent thinker, but he is no innovator. He accepts what the learning of the age provides for him, and makes the best of it. He finds Aristotle in possession, and he builds upon him. How magnificently, is known only to him who has pondered over the Summa, and realized the depth of thought, clearness of arrangement, and brilliant conceptions of which it is the embodiment.{4} And not the least source of amazement is the decision with which the almost inspired author touches upon questions that are at present agitating men's minds, but which were then mere germs in the womb of thought.{5}

The Scholastic philosophy is said to be dead. It is dead only to those who refuse to study it and to recognize its vitality. It still lives in theology and in the dogmatic teachings of Catholicity. When we speak of the matter and form of the sacraments, and define the soul as "the form of the body," we are using language intelligible only in the light of the Aristotelian method. The two fundamental doctrines of Scholasticism are, the principle of matter and form, and the maxim, "there is nothing in the intellect which is not first in the senses." This latter principle must not be confounded with Sensism, for the Scholastics imposed a different meaning upon it. By it they wished to express the fact that sensation awakens the dormant faculties and trains the intellect, and that through the senses we have all our knowledge of external objects. They also admitted first principles or axioms -- self-evident truths -- independent of all external objects, and thus drew a broad line of distinction between themselves and the Sensists.

It is fashionable for a certain class of scientists to sneer at what they consider the stupidity of those who would earnestly discuss the doctrine of "matter and form," as well as at the simplicity of the Church that would impose upon modern intelligences dogmas framed on that doctrine. They call it a thing obsolete. Now, as the doctrine was originally one of physics, let us examine it in the light of the last word of physical science.

With Aristotle, matter is not an aggregate of atoms; it is by itself a mere potentiality -- a principle of all bodies -- which, combined with form, gives them actuality.{6} Modern science teaches, with Boscovitch and Leibnitz, that all matter consists of indivisible and inextended atoms, endowed with forces that are attractive and repulsive, according to the distances at which they act;{7} that is, that matter is nothing without force. Thus, both Scholastic and modern scientist are agreed that matter by itself is not a reality, and that it is determined by something distinct. "It is manifest," says St. Thomas, "that every actual existence has some form, and thus its matter is determined by its form."{8} And Faraday is with him. He says: "We know matter only by its forces."{9} Evidently, the "force" of one is the "form" of the other. Now, we are convinced beyond a shadow of doubt that -- except as regards purely spiritual forms, as the soul -- modern science, when it understands itself, and Scholastic philosophy are in harmony.

The primary idea of the Scholastic "form" is activity. It determines the species and the kingdoms in Nature -- now arranging the crystalline structure, now appearing as the vital principle in vegetable matter, now as the soul of brutes, everywhere an energizing activity. This view coincides with Grove's definition of force. He calls it "that active principle inseparable from matter, which is supposed to induce its various changes."{10} To illustrate: Oxygen and hydrogen combine in certain proportions and produce an entirely new substance, water. In Scholastic phraseology there is here a new activity, that is, the form of water. But modern science also recognizes a new chemical force, acting in the combining of the elements so as to produce water. This force was not created; it was simply revived, having been dormant in the elements, and awaiting the occasion of their union. Neither does the Scholastic philosopher conceive the form to have been created; it was potentially in the matter; "for matter," according to St. Thomas, "before receiving its form is capable of receiving many forms;"{11} that is, they exist in it potentially. Even when the form passes away, it is not said to be annihilated; it is only re-immersed in its subject, just as it is the general opinion of advanced scientists that no force is destroyed, that it is simply changed to some other, as chemical force to heat force, and that its sum is a constant quantity.{12} Thus we find the Aristotelian "form" and the modern "force" convertible. Therefore Dr. Mayer has actually defined forces as forms. "They are," he says, "different forms under which one and the same object makes its appearance."{13} Here is an act of reparation, complete as it is deserving, paid to the injured genius of Scholasticism by modern science, unintentional though it be.

For centuries, the mediaeval intelligence revolved upon the hinges of these two principles, and it seemed as though in them it had found its limit. It is the general history of thought. The popular mind is slow in realizing an idea. It were therefore unphilosophic to blame any one period for that which is a law of all periods. We are told of each of God's works that after it had been created, "He saw that it was good." The reptile was good as well as the bird of the air; the blade of grass as well as the light that gave it beauty. He despised nothing that came forth at His creative words. The human intellect is also His creature. He determined its laws of operation. They are not, therefore, to be depreciated. Neither is Scholasticism, one of their most glorious products, to be despised. It is good. It has its own functions. It is a link in the evolution of thought. It built up Christian theology on a scientific basis; it fixed the precision of terms; it imposed this precision on the new languages that were then about to become the vehicles of national literatures. It is good, that period of syllogizing. It held the influx of materialism at bay; it carefully watched over the sacred fires burning at the shrine of learning, until in the march of society greater facilities were brought within the reach of men to satisfy their eagerness to know. It is good, that intellectual bridge between the ancient and the modern world. The shade of Vergil walks across it, and leaves his mantle of inspiration to Dante.

Dante is the poet of Scholasticism. In his sublime allegory -- La Divina Commedia -- he has caught up and crystallized the spirit of the Middle Ages. Their philosophy, their politics, their religion, their aspirations are immortalized in its amber pages. He is the poet of Catholicity. The elevation of his genius places him above all parties. A fierce, unyielding Ghibelline, he reproves both Guelf and Ghibelline.{14} An enemy of the Temporal Power, he speaks of it with respect and veneration.{15} Though he uses the myths of antiquity, still their subordination to the eminently Christian spirit of his poem, and especially the mystical flights of the Paradiso, show how Christianity was becoming more and more part and parcel of the mediaeval intelligence. His lines, written with unparalleled vigor and terseness, bear profound significancy. If Shakespeare is the poet of humanity, Dante is the poet of thought {16}

{1} "Le chanoine de Compiègne, mandé au concile de Soissons (1092), y rétracta ses erreurs, pour se soustraire à la fureur du peuple." -- BARBE, Cours de Philosophie, p. 655.

{2} It is a mistake to assert, as Mr. Mill does, that the Church imposed Realism "as a religious duty in the Middle Ages." When William of Champeaux asserted that humanity was the essence of each human individual, the Church did not impose it "as a religious duty in the Middle Ages." And Gilbert de Ia Porée, though a realist, was condemned.

{3} "Thomas," says Leo XIII., "gathered together their doctrines like the scattered limbs of a body, and moulded them into a whole. He arranged them in so wonderful an order, and increased them with such great additions, that rightly and deservedly he is reckoned a singular safeguard and glory of the Catholic Church. His intellect was docile and suhtle; his memory was ready and tenacious; his life was most holy; and he loved the truth alone. Greatly enriched as he was with the science of God and the science of man, he is likened to the sun; for he warmed the whole earth with the fire of his holiness, and filled the whole earth with the splendor of his teaching. There is no part of philosophy which he did not handle with acuteness and solidity. He wrote ahout the laws of reasoning; ahout God and incorporeal substances; ahout man and other things of sense; and about human acts and their principIes. What is more, he wrote on these subjects in such a way, that in him not one of the following perfections is wanting: A full selection of subjects; a heautiful arrangement of their divisions the best method of treating them; certainty of principles; strength of argument; perspicuity and propriety in language; and the power of explaining deep mysteries.

Beside these questions and the like, the Angelic Doctor, in his speculations, drew certain philosophical conclusions as to the reasons and principles of created things. These conclusions have the very widest reach, and contain, as it were, in their bosom the seeds of truth well-nigh infinite in number. These have to be unfolded with most abundant fruits in their own time by the teachers who come after him. As he used his method of philosophizing not only in teaching the truth, but also in refuting error, he has gained this prerogative for himself, -- with his own hand he vanquished all errors of ancient times; and still he supplies an armory of weapons, which brings us certain victory in the conflict with falsehoods ever springing up in the course of years. Moreover, carefully distinguishing reason from faith, as is right, and yet joining them together in a harmony of friendship, he so guarded the rights of each, and so watched over the dignity of each, that, as far as man is concerned, reason can now hardly rise higher than she rose, borne up in the flight of Thomas; and faith can hardly gain more helps and greater helps from reason than those which Thomas gave her. -- Encyl. AEterni Patris. 1879.

{4} "The master work of St. Thomas is the famous summation, Summa Theologiae, which is one of the greatest monuments of the human mind in the Middle Ages, and comprehends, with metaphysics, an entire system of morality, and even of politics; and that kind of politics, too, which is not at all servile." -- COUSIN, Hist. Mod. Phil., tr. by O. W. Wight.

{5} e. g. Prima Pars., quaests. xlv., lxvii. art. iv. ; quaests. lxxi., lxxii., art. i. on Creation amd Genesis of the Species. Also Prima Pars., quaest xviii., arts, ii., iii., and iv., on Life.

{6} Naturalis Auscultationis, lib. i., cap. ix., 5; Metaphysicorum, lib. vii. cap. vi. 8.

{7} Bartlett, Analytical Mechanics, p. 17. Leibnitz, De primae philosophiae emendatione et notione substantiae -- Opera, t. v., pp. 9, 375.

{8} "Manifestum est quod omne existens in actu habet aliquam forman, et sic materia ejus est determinata per formam." Summa, p. I, quaest. vii., art. ii.

{9} The Conservation of Physical Force.

{10} Correlation of Physical Forces, p. 19. -- ED YOUMANS.

{11} "Materia quidem per formam, inquantum materia, antequam recipiat formam est in potentia ad multas Summa, p. I, qu. 7, art i.

{12} This implies no sanction of the materialistic doctrine of the eternity of matter and of force. Each is a product of the creative act.

{13} The Mechanical Equivalent of Heat, YOUMAN'S ED., p. 346.

{14} Si che'è forte a veder qual piu si falli. -- Par., vi. 102. So that 'tis hard to see who most offends. -- Cary.

{15} Thus he says that Rome and the Roman empire

Fur stabilite per lo loco Santo
U siede il successor del maggior Piero. Inf., ii. 23-4.

Established were to be the Holy Place,
Where sits enthroned great Peter's princely race.

{16} In Thought and Culture, (chap. v.) the reader will find treated at greater length the spiritual sense and the central idea of the Divina Commedia.

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