Jacques Maritain Center

Common Characteristics of Scholasticism

DIFFERING much among themselves, and fighting one another vigorously, the Schoolmen still make one school of philosophy, and present a united front against adversaries, contemporary and subsequent. They are all orthodox, in the Roman Catholic sense; they are all dualist (not pantheist, idealist, or monist); they are all optimist (taking a cheerful view of the world and of the competency of human reason); they are all static, or feudal, believing in a fixed hierarchy of beings.

1. Orthodoxy. The Schoolmen were Churchmen, faithful to the Church they served. Their every page testifies to their zeal for orthodoxy. If some were less orthodox than others, they were also less scholastic. They speculated with considerable freedom, but always laboured to make out their speculations to be in harmony with the teachings of Mother Church, and really at heart desired that they should be so. It would not be fair to accuse any of them of heresy, even though it might appear that this or that utterance, pursued through all its consequences, should end in contradicting one or other of the dogmas of faith. The author had no mind to follow his statement so far, and would not have owned that it led so far. 'To no author should there be imputed an opinion false, or highly absurd, unless it be gathered expressly from his utterances, or follow evidently from his utterances.' These are the words of Scotus.

Still it would not be right to regard Scholastic Philosophy as a series of mere corollaries drawn from articles of faith, mere dictates of dogmatic theology. The subtlety and variety of Scholastic disputation suffices to set aside such a view. Schoolman differed from Schoolman; but men agreed in one common faith do not differ on conclusions following palpably and plainly therefrom, unless they be lamentably wanting in logic, which the Schoolmen were not. Only as trains get further from the starting-point do they lose sight of one another's courses, and the difference of the directions which they severally took from the first widens between them. Philosophy may, be applied to a dogma of faith; so was Scholasticism applied continually. As the application was pressed and followed on, the Schoolmen travelled wide of one another, nor did the Church intervene to bring them together, so long as the dogma from whence they started was not plainly denied. But philosophy, as such, is not founded upon dogma and revelation. It has its own principles, which are truths of intuitive reason; and it proceeds upon facts of experience. It is a different science from scholastic theology, nor is its whole domain contained within or circumscribed by theology. It does not stand to theology as the county of Rutland to the rest of England, contained within it and circumscribed by it. Nor are the frontiers of philosophy conterminous with theology throughout their whole extent. The frontiers of England are not wholly conterminous with those of Wales. All England does not consist of the Welsh Marches. There is much philosophy, many philosophical questions, having nothing to do with theology. To take an example from Scholasticism: its central tenet of the composition of all things out of matter and form has nothing to do with theology. The theory of matter and form is due to Aristotle -- clearly no Catholic. Many Catholic philosophers have rejected and do reject matter and form. It is an open issue in philosophy, independent of faith; and there are many such.

2. Dualism. All philosophers draw some distinction between the mind and the world which it cognises; also, if they be theists, between God and the world. But many, perhaps most modern philosophers, will not allow this distinction to be a clear and deep line of cleavage. They dream of God and the world, they dream of the subject perceiving and the object perceived, meeting in what they call 'a higher unity.' That is to say, modern philosophy is idealistic, monistic, pantheistic. Such, eminently, Scholasticism was not. The ninth century pantheist, John Scotus Eriugena, was no ancestor of the Scholastics. To every genuine Schoolman, God was 'high above all nations,' so high that the world in comparison with God cannot be said to be at all. In the sense in which God is, the world is not. The world has being, indeed, 'analogous' to the being of God, but infinitely inferior. The world then is no emanation from God, no necessary 'shadow' cast by Godhead and projected outside Itself: the world, so every Schoolman teaches, owes its origin to a free volition of God, put forth at the beginning of time, at a distance from the present, remote, but not infinite;* in other words, the world was created out of nothing, and owes its continued existence to the mere good pleasure of its Creator. As God is above the world, so the world is beyond and independent of the knowing mind of man. The most pronounced feature of all Scholastic treatises is their pronounced objectivity. The Scholastic mind was bent on being, not on forms of thought or constraining needs of believing. The difficulties raised by Berkeley, Hume, and Kant, were not difficulties to Albert or Thomas. He triumphed over them by refusing to entertain them. His metaphysics went with his psychology, the common psychology of human nature. Man invincibly believes that he sees a world which is no part of himself. That invincible belief was to the Schoolman an axiomatic truth. He never laboured to prove it: to him it was unprovable, because it was a primary datum of his nature, and there was no going beyond it. 'In the process of understanding, the intellectual impression received in the potential intellect is that whereby (quo) we understand, as the impression of colour in the eye is not that which (quod) is seen, but that whereby (quo) we see. On the other hand, that which (quod) is understood is the nature of things existing outside the soul, as also it is things existing outside the soul that are seen with the bodily sight: for to this end were arts and sciences invented, that things might be known in their natures' (Contra Gentiles, ii. 75). The distinction here drawn between quod and quo founds the standing reply of Scholasticism to Idealism. My consciousness is not the object but the instrument of my cognition.

3. Optimism. The Schoolman is a cheerful man: he has a serene confidence in two things; (1) the competence of the human mind to attain to truth with certitude; (2) the general goodness of Being, and of the tendencies of things. On the latter point, of course, he was buoyed up by his faith, that 'to them that love God, all things work together unto good.' He never asked himself whether life were worth living. With him it was an axiom that Being is good, omne ens est bonum; and Living Being still better, for there was more of Being in it. He was utterly estranged from that Asiatic philosophy which declares existence an evil, and the continuance of conscious life a punishment for past sin. He was equally opposed to Scepticism, and to that mild type of Scepticism, called Traditionalism, which, presupposing the incompetence of human reason, ascribes all human knowledge whatsoever of the things of God 'to the faith once given to the Saints of old.' The Schoolman venerated faith, but he maintained that there was also a natural, or rational, knowledge of God; and that sundry truths of religion could be established by philosophical argument. As Scholasticism tended to decay, the number of these truths, said to be philosophically demonstrable, was diminished, To Scotus they were fewer than to St. Thomas, and to Ockham fewer than to Scotus. 'There is, then, a twofold sort of truth in things divine for the wise man to study; one that can be attained by rational inquiry, another that transcends all the industry of reason. To the declaration of the first sort we must proceed by demonstrative reasons that are likely to convince the adversary. But because such reasons are not forthcoming for truth of the second sort, our aim ought not to be to convince the adversary by reasons, but to refute his reasonings against the truth, which we may hope to do, since natural reason cannot be contrary to the truth of faith. There are, however, some probable reasons available for the declaration of this truth, to the exercise and consolation of the faithful, but not to the convincing of opponents' (Contra Gentiles, i. 9).

4. Static. Modern philosophy is the philosophy of change, of phenomena, of perpetual flux. Scholasticism is the philosophy of permanent substantial being. Not that the Schoolmen ignored change, but by preference they rested upon complete existences and achieved results, e.g. a perfect morality and a full-grown society, not the development of either. Needless to say how little 'substance'enters into modern thought: it has become 'a bloodless category'; but it was a full, round, plump entity to the Schoolman. One word on Evolution. The Schoolman, with Aristotle, believed in abiogenesis, the development of maggots and reptiles and fish out of mud and decaying matter. They believed in the ontogenetic evolution of the human embryo from mere vegetative life to the life of a brute animal, and thence to the life of a rational being. 'The higher a form is in the scale of being,' writes St. Thomas (Contra Gentiles, ii. 89; Of God and His Creatures, p. 168), 'the more intermediate forms and intermediate generations must be passed through before that finally perfect form is reached. Therefore in the generation of animal and man, these having the most perfect form, there occur many intermediate forms and generations, and consequently destructions, because the generation of one is the destruction of another. The vegetative soul therefore, which is first in the embryo, while it lives the life of a plant, is destroyed, and there succeeds a more perfect soul, which is at once natural and sentient, and for that time the embryo lives the life of an animal; upon the destruction of this there ensues the rational soul, infused from without.' St. Thomas here teaches what is called ontogenetic evolution, the evolution of the individual perfect animal from a lower form. Of phylogenetic evolution, or the evolution of species, he seems never to have thought. Yet one who held abiogenesis, and, with the alchemists, the transmutation of metals, to say nothing of evolutionary potentialities (rationes seminales) in primordial matter, which St. Thomas indeed did not hold, but earlier Schoolmen did, such a one could have had no strong philosophical prejudice against the possibility of an evolution of species. St. Thomas, with Aristotle, points out a static series of gradations, or what has been termed 'evolution in co-existence' in the following passage: 'A wonderful chain of beings is revealed to our study. The lowest member of the higher genus is always found to border close upon the highest member of the lower genus. Thus some of the lowest members of the genus of animals attain to little beyond the life of plants; certain shell-fish, for example, have only the sense of touch, and are attached to the ground like plants. Hence Dionysius says: "Divine Wisdom has joined the ends of the hioher to the begin- nings of the lower"' (Contra Gentiles, ii. 68). He has in view the series: plant, animal, man, angel. But he did not derive plant, animal, and man from a common ancestor.

I may add two more marks of Scholasticism, marks, the exaggeration of which went to bring about its decay. It was legalist and it was a priorist. Law, even more than philosophy, was the favourite pursuit of the mediaeval scholar. A knowledge of the canon and civil law was the surest avenue to preferment and wealth. Hence arose a tendency to treat philosophy like law. Aristotle was cut up into texts, which were quoted like texts from the Pandects. A like use was made of the Fathers and Holy Scripture, and, as time went on, of the great Schoolmen who had been before. The danger of this practice was a neglect of context and spirit, and a losing sight of the intrinsic grounds of the argument. Scholasticism was also a priorist, making out what must be in the nature of things. Now it is easy to make out what must be, to our minds, so far as our knowledge goes and our hypothesis extends. The difficulty is in testing our hypothesis by experiment and observation, and widening our knowledge by research into actual facts, unfavourable as well as favourable to our preconceived theory. This rough and tough a posteriori work was not much to the taste of some of the Schoolmen, and their speculations suffered accordingly.

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