Jacques Maritain Center

The Rise of Scholasticism -- St. Anselm (1034-1109)

Much attention has been given, especially in recent times, to questions relating to evolution. This is a very broad subject, including in its various aspects many theories and discussions concerning the origin and development of all forms of created being and life. Naturally inquisitive and studious, man attempts to explain the nature of all things that come under his observation, and becomes deeply interested in the study of their origin and development, whether the subject of his investigation be the oak springing from the acorn, the visible world created by Almighty God, or the human soul, created also by God, and gradually developing its faculties until man reaches the highest perfection attainable world.

Some persons think that the most important study in evolution is offered by the visible world in which we live. The story of the Creation comes to us in an inspired book, commanding all the attention and respect due to any book of which God is the author. But, were it possible to abstract from the fact that faith and revelation are necessarily involved when we consider the origin and evolution of the universe, it is certain that more attention should be given to the history of the mind than to the history of the material beings of our visible world.

In the history of minds there is no chapter more interesting or more instructive than that which deals with the progress of men in the knowledge of philosophy during the Middle Ages, from the beginning of the ninth to the end of the thirteenth century. Those centuries are so little known, and have been so grossly misrepresented, that many men, even amongst those who consider themselves educated and fair-minded, are not prepared to hear that the Middle Ages can be considered as model or ideal in any respect whatsoever. Nevertheless, it can be boldly asserted and proved that the centuries, which too often have been called "dark," were the ages in which men reached the summit of mental progress and intellectual perfection. In the experimental sciences, and in all that pertains to material progress, the twentieth century surpasses the thirteenth, which may be called the banner century of the Middle Ages; but when this concession has been made, we may ask: In what else can our times claim superiority? In faith and spirituality, in literature and architecture, in philosophy and theology, our days will suffer very much in the comparison. And it must be borne in mind that the branches in which the Middle Ages excelled are the very branches which constitute, or presuppose, the cultivation and development of all that is highest and noblest in man's nature.

Have men been so blinded by prejudice that they lose sight of the superiority of mind over matter? It is scarcely credible that intelligent men are willing to assert that the remarkable engineering feats, the elegant trains lighted by electricity, the automobiles and airships of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are sufficient indications of progress and perfection to settle the question of superiority. The men of the thirteenth century deserve more credit for one beautiful Gothic cathedral than we are entitled to claim for all our automobiles and airships, and when we consider the development of man's mind and his progress in the art of knowing, any candid observer must admit that we have much to learn from the much-abused Middle Ages. The experimental sciences will be more fully considered in a subsequent chapter (Ch. III).

SCHOLASTICISM. -- The study of Scholastic philosophy and the use of philosophical knowledge in explaining and defending the truths of faith are distinguishing features of the Middle Ages. So well did the philosophers and theologians of those times understand the true relations of faith and reason that their principles were solemnly adopted and proclaimed in our own times, viz., the Vatican Council. Rome was not built in a day; the philosophical systems of the schoolmen were not built in a day. There were years of investigation, doubt and dispute before their systems were formulated. We can trace the rise and progress and the perfection of Scholasticism. We begin the study of the subject by considering all that is brought to mind by the name of St. Anselm, who is usually styled the "Father of Scholasticism" in the Western Church.

What Scholasticism is not. -- Scholasticism has been misunderstood and misrepresented more than any other feature of life in the Middle Ages. To this very day there are many for whom the word is synonymous with subtlety and logic-chopping. That there have been abuses of Scholasticism, and that these abuses furnished pretexts for rejecting the system, is freely admitted. The existence and causes of those abuses will be considered in subsequent chapter. Nevertheless, here, as elsewhere, we should apply the principle that what is good should not be condemned or rejected because it has been abused.

He is a poor student of history and philosophy who thinks that subtlety is the quintessence, or even a necessary element or property, of Scholastic philosophy. Many of its terms are not readily understood by the ordinary student and they cannot lay claim to elegance in latinity. But, is it not true that medicine, jurisprudence, chemistry, botany, biology, and other sciences employ technical terms that are not understood by the uninitiated? We do not on that account reject those sciences. Why should we apply a different rule to Scholastic philosophy, especially since we are not prepared to offer a suitable substitute for the teaching and terminology of the Schoolmen? Correct the abuses; suppress idle discussions; banish confusing subtleties; but retain what is good in Scholasticism, for it is of great value. Scholasticism, in the first place, represents the highest form of intellectual activity and intellectual perfection; in the second place, for those who are Christians, it is of the utmost importance in explaining and defending the mysteries of faith.

What is Philosophy? -- Philosophy is the love, desire, and pursuit of wisdom. Taken in its broadest sence it includes the knowledge of all things in as far as they can be known by the light of reason: "Rerum divinarum et humanarum causarumque quibus hae res continentur scientia";[1] the knowledge of human and divine things and of the causes by which they are related to each other. Philosophy, in a restricted sense, is "the knowledge of things in their highest and most universal causes, so far as such knowledge is attainable by the natural light of reason."[2] Ordinary scientific knowledge is satisfied when it assigns the immediate or proximate causes of things that come under our observation; wisdom, or philosophy, refers those same things to their still higher and more universal causes; that is, it seeks to understand and explain them in their essence, as it is absolutely and must be. Philosophy seeks to explain the intrinsic nature of things and their relation to more universal truths."[3] It is, to make use of a common expression, the knowledge which consists in "going to the bottom of things," penetrating into the deepest recesses of their being, and assigning the very last and highest, and deepest reasons for all that is asserted concerning the object of the investigation.

Philosophy as a special science, and, as it is taught nowadays, is taken in a much more restricted sense. It is not the knowledge of all things, but the knowledge of certain higher things, higher truths, in as far as they can be known by the light of natural reason.

This special science has six parts: Logic, which treats of the laws of right reasoning; Ontology, or Metaphysics, which has for its object the essential predicates of all things, and deals with truths which are strictly and absolutely universal; Cosmology, which treats of the visible world; Anthropology, which treats of man, especially of the soul. Natural Theology, which treats of God; Ethics, or Moral Theology, which treats of moral good and the rules of conduct.

Physics, which for many centuries was considered a part of general philosophy, is now a special treatise on matter and material bodies and their phenomena.

Periods in History of Philosophy. -- In the history of philosophy various stages or periods are distinguished. (A) The period of ancient philosophy, the philosophy of the Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans down to the time of Christ. (B) Then came the philosophy of the Fathers of the Church, which was gradually developed into (C) the Scholastic system. (D) The decline of Scholasticism, and the philosophy of the Renaissance. Finally (E), we have modern philosophy, i.e., the philosophy of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

(A) -- The first period -- the time before Christ -- was a period of effort and struggle. Great and noble were the efforts of pagan philosophers to arrive at the knowledge of the truth; great were Cicero and Seneca, great were Plato and Aristotle; but reason without revelation, in the state of fallen nature, never had and cannot have a perfect knowledge of truths even of the natural order. In his Encyclical "AEterni Patris," on the restoration of philosophical studies, Leo XIII says: "Even those who were considered the wisest of ancient philosophers, but who had not the gift of faith, erred most grievously in many things. They often taught, along with many truths, things false and absurd, and very many that were doubtful and uncertain respecting the nature of God, the first origin of things, the government of the world, the divine knowledge of futurity, the cause and origin of evil, man's last end and eternal happiness; respecting virtues and vices, and many other subjects a true and certain knowledge of which is of the utmost importance to the human race.

(B) -- With the introduction and spread of Christianity came Christian Philosophy, which is represented in the first ages of the Church by the Apologists and the Fathers. Christian Philosophy is nothing more than reason used in the service of faith and revelation. The Fathers, guided by St. Paul,[4] cautioned the followers of Christ against philosophy and vain deceit according to the traditions of men, but they did not condemn sound philosophy and the right use of reason, "by which," St. Augustine says, "wholesome faith is begotten, nourished, defended, and strengthened."[5]

In the first eight centuries of the Christian era we have the names of such philosophical writers as Dionysius the Areopagite, first century; St. Justin, Athenagoras, St. Irenaeus, second century; Tertullian, clement of Alexandria, Origen, third century; St. Augustine, fourth century; Boethius, Isidore of Seville, Cassiodorus, sixth century; Venerable Bede and St. John Damascene, eighth century. This brings us down to the period of Scholastic philosophy. St. John Damascene is called the "Father of Scholasticism" in the Eastern church, as St. Anselm is in the Western Church, because they were the first notable, orthodox writers who applied the principles of Aristotle's Logic and Metaphysics to the study of Theology.[6]

(C) -- Etymologically and historically Scholastic Philosophy is simply the philosophy which was taught in the schools, in the time of Charlemagne, and afterwards, whether they were the schools properly so called, opened at the courts, at the episcopal sees, and in the monasteries, or the episcopal seminaries and the universities. All knowledge acquired in those days was called scholastic, and Scholastic philosophy was simply that method of philosophizing and of teaching philosophy which was adopted in the schools because it was well adapted to their needs.

Charlemagne was a great patron of learning, and it is to the schools and masters of his time that we trace the beginnings of Scholasticism. Venerable Bede and St. John Damascene, who lived in the eighth century, may be regarded as the last representatives of Patristic philosophy, and St. John is the connecting link between the Fathers and the Scholastics.

Great things in this world usually have modest beginnings, and Scholasticism, which has exercised such a remarkable influence on the theology and history of the church, is not an exception to the rule. The ninth century marks the beginning of Scholasticism; and the first Scholastics were men who did not devote themselves exclusively, or principally, to the study of philosophy. Alcuin, Rabanus Maurus, Scotus Erigena, and Remigius of Auxerre were rather the great schoolmasters of their times; and a schoolmaster in those days was supposed to he skilled in all branches of learning, literature, history, and the Sacred Scriptures being the favorite studies.

In the schools the pupils were instructed in the seven liberal arts, under the name of the Trivium, embracing grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the Quadrivium, which included arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.

Remigius of Auxerre was the first to teach logic in the schools of Paris. Alcuin, and his disciple, Rabanus Maurus, who were the greatest scholars of their age, wrote treatises on philosophy and commentaries on some of the works of Aristotle. Then began that extraordinary zeal for learning and eagerness for the study of philosophy and theology which was continued in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, culminating in the glories of the university of Paris and the great Scholastic doctors of the thirteenth century, Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, Albertus Magnus, and St. Thomas of Aquin. Whoever reads the history of those times will find it impossible to understand how anything but ignorance and prejudice could account for the assertion that the Church is the enemy of science and learning.

All parts of the picture are not equally bright and attractive. There was the barrenness of the tenth century, called by Baronius "the iron age." There were the strange theories and errors of Gotteschalk, Scotus Erigena, and Abelard, and the almost endless disputes on the Universals. All this is freely admitted, but in this very excitement, in these errors, and in the struggles for sound doctrine, we find proofs of that intellectual activity which characterizes the ninth, eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, and which finally gave to the world those intellectual giants of the thirteenth century, whose greatness has never been called in question, and who remain to this day unsurpassed in the extent, accuracy, and solidity of their learning.

The human mind was developing its latent energies; men applied themselves with avidity to the solution of all problems that could be proposed; reason was exercised, cultivated and puffed up; sound philosophy was needed to determine the limits of reason, and to point out the true relations of faith and reason.

In the very beginning of the Scholastic movement philosophy was called upon to serve as the handmaid of religion. Alcuin in the Council of Aix-la-Chapelle (799), used his knowledge philosophy to refute the error of the Adoptionists, who, by stating that Christ was the adopted son of God, revived the error of the Nestorians. Adoption, he argued, is predicated of a person; if Christ is the adopted son of God, then there is in Christ a human personality as well as the divine personality; and this is the heresy of Nestorius.

Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims, was not so happy in choosing Scotus Erigena to oppose the teachings of Gotteschalk, the ex monk of Fulda, who had broached opinions on the subject of predestination which were afterwards openly professed by the Jansenists and the Calvinists; for Erigena proved to be a poor champion of the faith. In his work on Predestination he favored the errors which he had been asked to refute, and sowed the seeds of Rationalism by asserting the supremacy of reason over authority in matters of faith. In his philosophical treatise, "De Natura Rerum," he fell into Pantheism, representing the Creator and the creature as essentially one and the same. Thus in the very beginning we find that mixture of good and evil, that use and abuse of philosophy and reason, that conflict of faith and human pride, which darkened many pages of the Church's history, and furnished a pretext for many harsh things that have been said and written against the Scholastics. Men sometimes seem to forget that all good things can be abused. It is not surprising that, in the first burst of enthusiasm and success, philosophers should have been carried away on the wings of pride, and should have attempted to attain by reason to the knowledge of secrets which God alone can reveal.

Before condemning Erigena and Abelard, of whom more will be said hereafter, before passing too severe a judgment on those who made mistakes nine hundred years ago, when the scientific study of philosophy was in its infancy, it would be well to cast a glance over the history of more recent times, and to remember how many erroneous opinions concerning the true relations of faith and reason have been proposed, professed, and condemned in later days, e.g., in the latter half of the last century. Some of the early Scholastics erred, but their errors were at once detected and condemned; sound reason and orthodoxy always found champions to defend their claims.

SAINT ANSELM. -- The great champion of sound philosophy and of orthodoxy in those days was the pious and learned St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. Born in the year 1034, at Aosta, in Piedmont, he came to France, studied for three years in Burgundy, and in 1059, when he was twenty-five years of age, entered the famous school of Bec, in Normandy, which was the most celebrated school of the eleventh century. Three years later he became prior, and in 1078 was made abbot of the monastery, succeeding his countryman, Lanfranc of Pavia, who had been made archbishop of Canterbury. Lanfranc died in 1089, and four years later Anselm was appointed to the see of Canterbury, where he died in 1109.

Anselm represents all that is best in the first period of Scholasticism. The extent of his learning has never been called in question; his judgment was enlightened and sound; and, at a time when even the learned might have been confused by the multiplication of strange theories occasioned by the efforts of scholars to cultivate all branches of learning, he was the champion of truth and orthodoxy. Loyal to the faith, he made due allowance for the claims of reason, and held that it was a "sacred duty to reduce the truths of faith to scientific form, the neglect of which would expose Christians to the opprobrium of heing inferior to the pagans." This is the underlying principle of his "Prosologium," which has been called Fides quaerens intellectum, or, the truths of faith scientifically explained and developed.

Arguments to Prove the Existence of God. -- It was in this work that he proposed his celebrated argument to prove the existence of God. This argument was afterwards proposed, though in a modified form, by Descartes, in the seventeenth century, and it is still a subject of controversy among writers on philosophy. The famous argument is as follows: Every man has an idea of God; even atheists, who deny the existence of God, must admit that they have mental conceptions of such a Being. Now, what is the idea of God? It is the idea of a being greater than which nothing can be conceived. But such a being necessarily exists outside of the mind; because, if it exists only in the mind, we could think of something greater, namely, of this same being as existing outside of the mind. Therefore, that Being greater than which nothing can be conceived necessarily exists.

This argument was at once assailed by Gaunilo, a monk of Marmoutiers, on the ground that it was not lawful to conclude from a mental conception to an objective reality. St. Thomas Aquinas,[7] without mentioning St. Anselm's name, rejects his argument, because in it there is a transition from the ideal to the real, from the subjective to the objective. What is conceived may exist, but the fact that we conceive it does not prove that it does exist. In other words, the conclusion of the argument should be: Therefore, when we think of the Infinite we must think of It as existing. From this, however, it does not follow that the Infinite does exist, unless you begin with the supposition that there exists outside the mind something greater than which nothing can be conceived; and, if you do this, you are guilty of a petitio principii, because you begin by presupposing the thing to be proved. This has been the general verdict concerning St. Anselm's argument, although there have been in every century some who maintained, and there are still many who maintain, that it is a valid proof. The necessity of repelling Kant's attacks against all metaphysical ideas caused men to consider more attentively the objective character of our mental conceptions, and it cannot be affirmed with absolute certainty that there is no possibility of making the argument valid by justifying the apparent transition from the ideal to the real.

However this may be, St. Anselm's title to fame and to our gratitude is not based on this argument alone. He rendered signal services to the cause of truth by determining the place which reason should occupy in investigating the truths of faith. These services mark an epoch, and bring out the most important features of the first period of Scholasticism.

First, he was called upon to refute the Nominalism of Roscelin (1009), which Anselm called a dialectical heresy, and which became an error in faith when Roscelin applied his theory to the mystery of the Trinity. Since he did not admit the existence of an idea common to many individuals, saying that universals were mere sounds of the voice -- flatus vocis -- Roscelin denied that there was one divine nature common to the three Persons of the Trinity. From this it followed that there were three Gods -- three substances (tres res) -- each possessing divine nature. In this we see how easily mistakes which at first seem to be merely philosophical errors can be applied to the doctrines of faith.

Disputes about Universals. -- Apart from this relation to faith, it must not be supposed for an instant that the dispute about the nature of universal ideas involved nothing more than a quibble about words. "The principles involved lie at the very foundation of human science, inasmuch as on its issue depends the possibility or impossibility of any demonstration whatsoever within the scope of knowledge accessible to man." The truth of this remark, made by Alzog in his "Church History,"[8] is borne out by the history of philosophy. Idealism, Scepticism, modern Pantheism, Traditionalism, and Ontologism can all be traced to false conception about universals. Without entering deeply into this question, the dispute and the different opinions may be summed up as follows:

By the senses we perceive particular objects, such as John Smith, that tree, that horse, etc.; and the ideas, or representations of such objects in our minds are particular ideas. Besides these particular ideas, we have in our intellect ideas of something which is common to many individuals whereby they may be classed together, as when we speak of men, trees, etc. Individual beings are the direct objects of our senses; the universals are the direct objects of the intellect. We see, e.g., the individual men, trees, horses, etc., and the intellect forms the abstract idea of man, substance, life, cause, effect, roundness, whiteness, and the like.

Nominalists. -- The Nominalists say there are no such ideas, and the distinctions just enumerated are mere sounds of the voice, corresponding to no external reality.

Conceptualists. -- The Conceptualists found it easy to refute them, saying with truth: Words mean nothing unless they signify a conception of the mind; hence the universal ideas exist as concepts by which the mind represents to itself all the individuals of a class, collectively and individually, but there is nothing in the individuals corresponding to the universal idea in the mind.

Realists. -- The Realists say: Our conceptions would be false if there were not in the things represented something corresponding to the representation in the mind; hence humanity, and the nature of a tree, and whiteness, etc., really exist in individual men, trees, and white objects.

William of Champeaux. -- William of Champeaux and his followers carried this conclusion too far, and held that the universals were the only realities; hence the universals actually exist in the individuals, which are only appearances or modifications of the universals.

The true opinion, defended by St. Anselm and adopted by all the great Scholastics, is a happy medium between Conceptualism and the exaggerated Realism of William of Champeaux. There is something in the individuals corresponding to the universal ideas in the mind; the universals are real, otherwise they could not be predicated of the individuals; it would not be true to say, e.g., Peter is a man, since the equivalent of that proposition is this: Peter has in him that which is represented in my mind by the concept of human nature. But, in the individuals, that nature is particular and incommunicable; in the mind, it is abstract and universal.[9] Hence the representation of a universal is not a mere thought of the mind, but the representation of a truth and of a reality; because a tree, e.g., has in it the nature of a tree, which nature is represented in my mind as abstract and universal -- common to all trees. The question is fundamental in Metaphysics.

Kant. -- Kant, who attacked Metaphysics in the eighteenth century, began by denying the objective reality of metaphysical concepts, and he thereby became the parent of a school of subjectivists, idealists, and sceptics, whose false theories affected, and still affect, all systems of philosophy that abandoned the teachings and the methods of the Scholastics.

Traditionalism and Ontologism. -- Traditionalism and Ontologism would never have been accepted if some writers had not been too timid to assert boldly that there is a reality corresponding to our metaphysical or universal ideas.

St. Anselm's Works. -- St. Anselm's best known works are his "Monologium" (Soliloquy) and the "Prosologium" (Continuation of Meditations). In these works he carefully distinguished faith from reason, and became a living and influential opponent of the rationalistic tendencies which had been excited by the writings of Scotus Erigena. He did more. In the two works just mentioned, and in his treatises on the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Procession of the Holy Ghost, on the Sin of Satan, on Original Sin, and "De Conceptu Virginali," he laid the foundations of scientific theology.

"Hitherto," writes Mother Drane, "ecclesiastical writers had, for the most part, been content to gather up and reproduce the traditionary wisdom of the Fathers; but now, when those traditions had become firmly established, a scientific superstructure was to be raised on that broad foundation, and the theology of the Church was to be built up into a compact and well-ordered system. This was the work of the scholostic theologians, of whom St. Anselm may be considered the first."[10]

To appreciate fully the services that he rendered, it must be borne in mind that he was a pioneer in the field in which he labored. Philosophy had been cultivated in Greece and Rome. The Christian Apologists had used reason, had used it well, in defence of their faith. The Fathers of the Church were not strangers to the learning and literature of their times; they were fearless giants, ready at all times to compete with the most powerful adversaries of Christianity. But the defence and explanation of Christian truths had not attained the perfection of a compact and well-ordered system. Many timid souls feared to use what was good in the works of the pagan philosophers. The schoolmaster, however, was abroad in the land: scholars would be misled if their studies were not properly directed; there was need of a saint and scholar who could direct philosophical studies with the assurance that the use of reason would not be detrimental to the Christian faith. This St. Anselm did by his character and career, as well as by his writings, which inaugurated, in the Western Church, the systematic explanation and defence of Christian doctrine. He was a pioneer in determining the true relations between faith and reason, showing that one could be at the same time a great philosopher and a good Christian. Later we shall see how St. Thomas perfected the system which St. Anselm built upon the works of St. Augustine, Boethius and the early Christian Apologists.[11]

The work begun by St. Anselm was continued by Peter Lombard, Albertus Magnus, Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas of Aquin, to whom the world is indebted for those celebrated Summae,[12] or Manuals of Theology, which served as the models of all subsequent theological treatises.

To St. Anselm is due the honor of inaugurating this important scientific movement, and for this reason he has been called the "Father of the Scholastics."

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