Jacques Maritain Center

Causes of the Decay of Scholasticism

SCHOLASTICISM may be said to have decayed because it no longer attracted the best intellects of Europe. Men's thoughts came to be taken up with other things -- with wars and the new growth of nationalities, with the schism in the Papacy, with the great scourge known as the Black Death, with Greek art and literature, and that revival of Graeco-Roman tastes known as the Renaissance; with the theological questions raised by Luther and Calvin about faith and predestination and sacraments and papal power; and, when the strifes of the Reformation were more or less composed, with Baconian and Newtonian physics, finally, with the commercial interests awakened by the discovery of the New World. Again, though Scholasticism, i.e. Scholastic Philosophy, is not theology, yet it was ever the attendant (ancilla) of Catholic theology. The Schoolmen were practically all Churchmen; you never find a lay Doctor. Consequently, as the Catholic Church lost ground, Scholasticism lost also. All the manifold causes that led up to the Reformation were concurring causes likewise to the unmaking of Scholasticism.

These, however, are extrinsic causes. An intrinsic cause must be sought, and the question put: Was Scholasticism exhausted as a philosophy? Had it found out all that was to be found out by its methods and on its presuppositions? Any answer attempted to this question must be premature. An a priori answer will not do. The experiment is being tried with a new Scholasticism, and we must abide the result. Two remarks may be made meanwhile: one as regards the method of the ancient Scholasticism, the other as regards its presuppositions. In point of method the ancient Scholasticism lies open to the charge of having been overmuch a priori, over-neglectful of experiment, of research, of observation of nature at first hand, of linguistic studies, of history, of documentary evidence. As we have seen, Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon nobly rebut this charge. Still, a system, like a personal character, has the defects of its qualities; and if the Schoolmen excelled, as they undoubtedly did excel, in abstract reasoning, they must have been under the temptation to neglect a posteriori evidence. Theirs is not the only school that lies open to this charge. Who shall say that Neo-Kantism has not been overmuch a priori? Who shall deny that our German friends do at times evolve prodigies and portents out of their inner consciousness?

Then as to presuppositions. Some of the presuppositions of the ancient Scholasticism were indubitably false. We refer of course to ancient notions of physical science, and particularly of astronomy. No one who has not read much of Scholastic authors can conceive how far the Ptolemaic astronomy entered into their psychology, their metaphysics, and even their theology. Certainly Scholasticism does not stand or fall with the Ptolemaic conception of nine concentric crystal spheres, with the earth in the centre, one sphere carrying the moon, another the sun, five others a planet each, the eighth sphere all the fixed stars, while the ninth was the primum mobile imparting circular motion to all the rest.* One may remain a good Scholastic, and abolish all that. Even St. Thomas had his doubts, at least about the further developments of the plan -- the eccentrics and epicycles, invented to account for the retrograde motions of the planets. He writes of these contrivances: 'The suppositions that these astronomers have invented need not necessarily be true; for perhaps the phenomena of the stars are explicable on some other plan not yet discovered by men' (in Lib. ii. de Coelo, lect. 17). 'The reason alleged does not sufficiently prove the position; it only shows that when the position is assumed, the effects follow naturally. Thus in astronomy the system of eccentrics and epicycles is argued from the fact that the assumption enables us to explain the sensible phenomena of the motions of the heavenly bodies; this argument, however, falls short of a convincing proof, for possibly the phenomena might be explained on some other supposition' (Sum. Theol., i. q. 32, art. 1, ad. 2). St. Thomas, nevertheless, like the other Schoolmen, built upon the Ptolemaic astronomy a whole system of Providential government of the world. An angel by Divine command moved the outer sphere, the primum mobile; that moved the other spheres; and the spheres between them influenced (they did not altogether effect) all the changes that take place in the sublunary world, short of man, and many changes in the body of man himself. The Schoolmen refused to attribute all that goes on upon earth to the influence of the heavenly spheres: first, because they stood up for free will in man; secondly, because they saw (what not all philosophers have seen) that to deny all activity to material substances on earth, and reduce them to pure passivity, was tantamount to abolishing them out of existence; thirdly, because, holding the course of events in the sublunary world to be contingent and variable, they would not ascribe it to a necessary cause, such as they took the motion of the heavenly spheres to be.* Although for the accidents of his body, and his relations with material things, man came under the influence of the spheres, yet for his will and understanding he came under a peculiar Providence. His will was directly moved by God (Contra Gentiles, iii. 89). How St. Thomas understood this divine motion of the will became the theme of contention between Thomist and Molinist in the sixteenth century. St. Thomas curiously shrank from asserting a direct influence of God upon the understanding of man, apparently because he was reluctant to play into the hands of Avicenna and Averroes (Contra Gentiles, ii. 74, 76: Of God and His Creatures, pp. 142, 143, 148). St. Thomas therefore holds that our understanding learns of God through the angels. Thus elections and motions of wills are immediately disposed by God; human intellectual knowledge is guided by God through the intermediate agency of angels; while bodily things that serve man, whether within or without his body, are administered by God through the intermediation of angels and of the heavenly spheres' (Contra Gentiles, iii. 91).

The heavenly spheres have melted into thin air, tooether with all scholastic speculations founded upon them. Concerning angels, every one conversant with the writings of the Schoolmen is aware how large a proportion of their pages is filled with discussion of these pure immaterial 'forms.' The fountainheads of such discussion were (a) Scripture, (b) Neo-Platonism, (c) the human intellect taken as a basis for a priori speculation what a pure intellect must be. All the Schoolmen much insisted on the distinction between intellect and sense. Pure sensation made the brute, pure intellect the angel, and man was the link between. Modern thought attends curiously to the brute creation, and to the physiology of the human body; it believes in experimental psychology; it never attempts to contemplate intellect apart from brain and nerves. On grounds of pure reason, it asks, what have we that can be called knowledge even of the very existence of angels? The angels have taken flight from Catholic schools of philosophy; the rustle of their wings is caught by the theologian's ear alone. Whether philosophy has lost by their departure, it is not for these pages to say. St. Thomas would have counted it a loss. The angels entered essentially into his scheme of the cosmos, and were indispensable transmitters of thought to human kind. 'Our intellectual knowledge,' he says, 'must be regulated by the knowledge of the angels' (Contra Gentiles, iii. 91). Modern Psychology is serenely oblivious of the fact. Catholics, no doubt, still believe in angels, dread the evil ones (devils), and pray to the good ones who now see the face of God. Catholics also believe that good angels are often the vehicles through which 'actual grace,' that is, warnings and impulses in order to salvation, descends from God to men. But that man owes his ordinary knowledge of matheniatics, chemistry, sanitation, railway management, to any action whatever of angelic intelligence upon his mind -- is there any man living who thinks so? If all that St. Thomas meant was that we should try to penetrate beyond the surface evidence of the senses, that is what every scientific man endeavours to do in his view of nature -- to see e.g. in a bar of iron what a pure intelligence would see there, that is the effort of science. But St. Thomas meant more than that (cf. Of God and His Creatures, p. 252), and some are beginning, to suspect that he is right. One word on the process of formation of universal concepts, as laid down by the Schoolmen. The impression made on the sense by the sensible object is universalised by the 'active intellect,' or, if you will, by the activity of the intellect. So universalised, it is received in the 'potential intellect,' or in the potentiality of the intellect. Thus universalised and received, it is called species intelligibilis impressa. There can be no species impressa except in presence of the object. But, further, the mind recognises, and as it were confirms, and stores up even away from its object, the species. So recognised and adopted, the species, or impression, becomes what is called species intelligibilis expressa, or verbum mentale (the mind's word). By the verbum mentale the mind says to itself of the species, 'that's it.' See for further elucidation Dr.Maher's Psychology, ed. 4, pp. 306-313; Of God and His Creatures, pp. 38, 122. This theory is too purely Psychical to be affected by physical science.

The Scholastics of the seventeenth century, unfortunately, refused to reconsider anything. They saw no possibility of any accommodation of the Scholastic philosophy and the new physical theories that were riveting the attention of the world. They were too timid to declare, what to us is a truism, that metaphysics and psychology have absolutely nothing to do with astronomy. Their schools had flourished, they considered, under planetary influences, and under planetary influences they should remain. The adventurous comet of 1618, is Boileau sarcastically wrote, was to be recalled within the concavity of the moon, and forbidden to go spying out the mysteries of the higher heavens. Very other was the attitude of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas and Friar Bacon to the physical science of their day. Poor science it was, no doubt, but they took care to have the best of it, the most recent, what was then the most assured. And they took, care not to lean too much upon the uncertainties of physics, as is proved by the fact that their metaphysical system can be detached from the Aristotelian physics with which it was so closely interlinked. The possibility of this separation the seventeenth-century Schoolmen did not discern; they loathed the new learning, and their old learning became a byword of contempt. How many educated men still derive their notion of a Doctor of Scholastic Philosophy from Molière!

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