Jacques Maritain Center

Dangers and Abuses of Scholasticism -- Abelard (1079-1142)

There are shades and shadows, as well as bright and beautiful colors, in every good painting. This chapter will show some of the shadows in the picture of Scholasticism. The zest for learning, the new spirit, the new impulse and enthusiasm for philosophical studies, which animated the scholars of the Middle Ages, became dangerous when they were not carefully directed and moderated by sound principles. Errors crept in where the truth was sought by men who were easily puffed up with vain knowledge, and forgot to keep their eyes fixed on the guiding-star of Divine revelation.

One-sided representations are never fair or satisfactory. On the other hand, as the shades and shadows in a painting set forth the beautiful and brighter coloring, so also the wanderings, the faults, and the strange theories of erring Scholastics, give greater prominence to the learning, piety, and enlightened faith of the orthodox scholars. It is necessary that scandals should come, and woe unto them by whom they are caused! -- but we know that God permits evils that greater good may be accomplished, and His power is so great, as St. Augustine remarks, that He can always direct evil results in such a manner that they will serve the accomplishment of some good purpose.

History not Feared. -- Catholics do not fear a full and complete account of the errors into which some Scholastics were led, because the history of those errors proves three things which they gladly record: (1) That there existed in those ages called "dark" a strong desire for learning and for the diffusion of knowledge; (2) that reason has limits beyond which it must not venture, and that pride dazzles and blinds the cultivated intellect which humility might have guided in the path of light and truth; (3) that Providence watches and rules over the Church for when errors appeared the champions of the Faith were multiplied; and such champions were they that impartial historians are unanimous in giving them the verdict of superiority over the brilliant but erring brethren whom they opposed.

Any good qualities or perfections, challenging our admiration, that appear in those who indulged in foolish subtleties or gave themselves up to sophistical and rationalistic tendencies which marked the rise of Scholasticism, are to be found in all their excellence and abundance in the more serious philosophers and theologians, the great Scholastics. They knew how to use the new system without being dazed and misled by foolish theories and dangerous opinions which tried to find shelter under the name of Philosophy.

The great Doctors of those days knew that malice and prejudice would misconstrue their opposition to error, claiming -- as the malicious of all times claim -- that they were opposing knowledge and science. Their task was difficult and delicate, but so well did they accomplish it that we do not fear to make known the misfortunes and calamities of Scholasticism as well as its triumphs, because this knowledge will certainly lead to the conclusion: The great Scholastics opposed error in every form, but they loved the truth, and their writings furnish a standing proof of the fact that faith does not prevent the free and full exercise of reason within the limits of its own territory. What those limits are we now know, or ought to know. The dividing lines were not so clearly marked in the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, and it is not surprising that some of the first travellers in the new fields went beyond the boundaries.

First Mistakes. -- The first mistakes of the Scholastics were innocent and harmless -- one might say, childish. Later errors were more serious, and endangered the faith, although, as we shall see, even in their strangest vagaries, they did not persistently and contumaciously defend errors after they were condemned, in which they differ essentially from out-and-out heretics.

The first Scholastics did not know for a long time what use should be made of the new branches of learning that were introduced into the schools, and they sought in learning amusement or pleasure rather than real advancement. In order to understand the condition of their minds it must be remembered that the influence of Charlemagne, and the patronage of all princes who desired to be considered wise and great, had created an extraordinary enthusiasm for learning.

The profession of Master was a title of admission to the courts of princes, and opened the gates to all honors and distinctions. Students, or scholars, were everywhere respected and were regarded as a privileged class. They were protected by special laws, and even the poorest peasants esteemed the honor of giving hospitality to poor students, journeying from the provinces to Paris, which soon became the great centre of learning.

The Trivium and the Quadrivium were still taught in the schools, but men were no longer content with the seven liberal arts; something more was required. The great Masters, such as Alcuin and Rabanus Maurus, began to write philosophical treatises, and in a short time both masters and pupils were fired with the ambition to become philosophers. This enthusiasm for philosophy continued to increase until it became a veritable craze, and a cry was raised against the new method by those who saw in it a disregard for the advice of St. Paul against "philosophy and vain deceit."[13] Their objections were not altogether groundless, because many scholars neglected the study of the Fathers and of the Sacred Scriptures to devote themselves to philosophy. The art of reasoning was regarded as the most important branch of learning; the most expert disputants were considered the greatest scholars, and woe be unto the reputation of the old professors, however learned and venerable they may have been, if they could not make a display of logic in proving the propositions which they advanced, and in answering objections.

Scholastic Subtleties. -- The Masters expounded their teachings in a series of propositions, which were spun out into useless and confusing distinctions and subdistinctions, and proved by a multiplicity of arguments which it was almost impossible to follow.

Sometimes, in order to give themselves an air of mystery and importance, they affected to imitate the epigrammatic style of Aristotle, and only the brighter students could detect the meaning of their words. There was the same multiplication of distinctions in proposing and answering objections, and the same studied obscurity of language, which was considered necessary in order to sharpen the wits of the students. "As two negatives are equal to an affirmative, professors were accustomed to introduce into their arguments such a number of negatives, that in order to reckon them up, and see in what sense their propositions were to be understood, the hearers had recourse to the device of dropping a bean at each negative, and reckoning up the sum total at the end of the lecture." [14] All this ingenuity -- logical pyrotechnics, it might be called -- was frequently wasted on questions that did not deserve the attention of serious men.

Following the example of their masters, the students devoted themselves to subtleties and distinctions, and to the discussion of silly questions, wrangling in the streets, and sometimes passing the whole day in arguments. One of the arguments was this: Whether a pig that is driven to market by a man is held by the man, or by the cord fastened round the pig's leg! Such foolish amusements furnished a pretext for the accusation that the Scholastics spent their time in debating such questions as this: Can ten thousand angels dance at once on the point of a needle? "Foolish, but not dangerous," would be the verdict of a judge, if a Scholastic addicted to such methods and practices were brought before him under a decree De lunatico inquirendo.

There was no danger to the faith from such foolish practices, but the system entailed a loss of valuable time, which might have been given to more profitable exercises; and it failed to accomplish the one purpose at which it aimed, viz., the training of the minds of scholars. It must not be considered an essential part of Scholasticism; it was an unprofitable amusement, in which the first Scholastics lost much valuable time, and it was severly condemned by the Scholastics.

St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that he wrote his "Summa Theologica" to be a manual suitable for students, "because," said he, "I have observed that beginners in this sacred science are very much impeded by the multiplication of useless questions, articles, and arguments."[15] After they had amused themselves for a time with the new weapon of attack and defence, men naturally turned to something more serious, and we might have had the perfection of the Scholastic system long before the middle of the thirteenth century, were it not that a few turbulent and unruly spirits appeared from time to time to delay the progress of true philosophical knowledge.

ABELARD. -- The most turbulent and unruly of all these disturbing spirits was the celebrated and unfortunate Peter Abelard. We must not attach too much importance to the influence of this man. He was undoubtedly a brilliant scholar, but he was not a deep thinker. He was a meteor that shone for a while and dazzled men by its brilliancy, but he was not a sun giving light and warmth to the world. There would never have been so much noise made about him were it not for two things: (1) The romance of his relations with Heloïse excited a volume of prurient curiosity and maudlin sentimentality which filled the world of literature with a number of silly and pernicious books which should never have been written; (2) he openly defended rationalistic principles, and thus has been regarded by modern Rationalists as the champion of free thought; and freedom is something that charms and blinds men, insomuch that many crimes have been committed under the cover of that name.

The romance of Abelard's career must be passed over in silence. It is best to cover that chapter of history with a dark veil of mourning, so that those who wish to look upon it may know that they are to read a tale of shame and sorrow, both of which were keenly felt by the central characters in the romantic story. Abelard could never have been a St. Thomas, because he had not the depth of thought, made still deeper by serious study which is necessarily required in a great philosopher or theologian. He might have been a Christian Cicero, had he given himself to literature and eloquence, for he was undoubtedly talented, eloquent, and skilled in the use of words, which he poured forth in a silver stream that charmed and delighted his hearers. Certainly he could have become a John of Salisbury, the friend of Thomas à Becket, who was considered the first scholar of his day, and who was a veritable "Junius" in the letters that he wrote against the logic-choppers, whom he designated "Cornificians," because their new methods caused a neglect of polite letters. But a career that might have been useful as it was brilliant, was marred by pride and luxury, which, according to his own confession, were Abelard's dominant faults even before he came to Paris.

Forerunners of Abelard. -- Before him, Scotus Erigena and Berengarius had been led into error by pride and ambition. Erigena, in his writings against Gotteschalk, became the forerunner of Calvinism by propounding his strange theories on Predestination. He was suspected, also, of denying the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist, a heresy which was openly taught by Berengarius, Archdeacon of Tours, who, jealous of the reputation of Lanfranc, and desiring to support his fallen credit, began to lecture on the Sacred Scripture, a subject which he had never studied. He explained the Scriptures, not according to the traditions of the Fathers, but after the whims of his own imagination, and soon fell into error with regard to infant baptism, marriage and the Eucharist.

In truth, Erigena and Berengarius were good dialecticians, but the shoemaker should stick to his last, and misfortune overtook these logicians when they began to dabble in theology, without any sufficient training in this branch of knowledge. Berengarius was merely an imitator of Erigena, and Erigena was the proto-parent of the Rationalistic spirit which found a champion in Abelard.

These three philosophers were so puffed up with vain knowledge and self-sufficiency that they thought themselves capable of understanding and explaining everything, and the attempt to explain everything is the distinguishing character of the Rationalism of the Middle Ages, of which Abelard was the principal type as well as the chief defender.

Abelard's Career. -- The meteoric career of this erratic genius extends from the latter half of the eleventh to the first half of the twelfth century (1079-1142). Born in 1079, at Palais, near Nantes, in Brittany, he had an exciting life from the time when he first attracted attention at Paris, by contradicting and refuting his professor, William of Champeaux, until his quiet death, full of repentance, in 1142. He himself has told us that the lack of courage led him to prefer the pursuit of learning to the profession of arms, and all things seemed to indicate that nature had destined him to be a scholar rather than a soldier. He was an apt pupil, quick, witty, attractive in his personal appearance, gentle and winning in his manners, and soon became a favorite with his professors and fellow- students. Not satisfied with the opportunities for learning offered in his own diocese, he came to Paris to hear the lectures of William of Champeaux, who was then teaching dialectics in that city. Abelard had manifested a decided liking for this branch of knowledge, and now he had the best opportunity the world could offer of perfecting himself in philosophy.

This was the turning-point in his career. Unfortunately for the young student his new surroundings were most favorable for nourishing the pride which was fast waxing strong in his bosom and which subsequently caused his downfall. Addiscentem oportet credere. One who is to learn from another must have humility, and he must have confidence in the ability of his master, on whose authority he accepts truths until he can investigate them for himself.

Attacks His Masters. -- Abelard was too proud to listen in humble silence, and to accept statements even on the authority of William of Champeaux, who was then at the height of his reputation. Whilst we condemn the pride of the disciple, we must admire his genius, for William was then propounding his own false theory -- exaggerated Realism -- on the nature of universal ideas. The master at first was amused and delighted with the subtle questions and objections proposed by his new pupil, but it soon became evident that Abelard aimed higher than the mere proposal of vexatious questions in the class-room. He intended to refute and confound his master. An easy undertaking, since he had merely to prove against William that universals are not actually inherent in the individuals of a class. William of Champeaux withdrew in confusion to the abbey of St. Victor, near Paris, and his successful rival founded a school of his own at Melun.

Abelard's health becoming impaired, he retired for a time into Brittany, then returned to Paris, where he again placed himself under his old master. Again they quarreled, and Abelard reopened his school, which was in 1115 transferred to Mont Ste. Genevieve, near Paris, where his lectures were listened to by vast throngs of students who deserted the old master.

Up to this time Abelard could be reproached with nothing but pride and false philosophy. Authors do not agree in determining the name that should be given to his theory on the Universals. John of Salisbury wrote that he was a Nominalist, and this is not improbable, as his first master was Roscelin, founder of the Nominalists. Others assert, and their opinion is more commonly accepted, that he was the author of Conceptualism, which asserts that universal ideas are nothing more than conceptions of our mind, to which no objective realities correspond in the individuals. Such a proud spirit could not be content with philosophy alone, and when William of Champeaux was appointed bishop of Châlons, Abelard went to Laon, to hear the lectures of the celebrated Anselm of Laon.

Anselm of Laon. -- Anselm was a teacher of the old school. For forty years he had labored in the cause of education, and he was saluted as Doctor Doctorum -- the Doctor of Doctors -- but his methods did not please the brilliant and ambitious young philosopher.

Anselm was a quiet, one might say an easy-going professor, who was well acquainted with the doctrines of the Fathers and always walked in the beaten paths. We are told that he was stronger in exposition than in argument. "He could expound better than he could reply and he could state the doctrine of the Church more ably than he could defend it."[16] Who can picture to himself Abelard listening patiently to the lectures of the dear old professor, who did not care to give the new pupil occasion to display his knowledge of Logic and his power of debate? "His learning," wrote the dissatisfied disciple, "was nothing but foliage without fruit; long custom, rather than any real merit, had acquired him a name. If you consulted him on any difficulty, you came away just as wise as you went. There was nothing but abundance of fine words, without a grain of sense or reason."[17] Abelard made up his mind that no master could teach him, and boldly declared that no master was necessary, since any man of ordinary gifts, with the help of the Fathers, could understand the Scriptures.

Abelard Lectures on Theology. -- To make good his proud boast, he announced that, with only one day of preparation, he would explain the prophecy of Ezechiel. The admirers of Abelard were horrified: this was arrogance unheard of, for he had never followed a regular course of theology, and the system of graduation in the Middle Ages required all candidates to go through a long and severe course under an old and approved Doctor before they were authorized to teach. It was very unfortunate for Abelard that he succeeded so well in this rash undertaking. "My road is not the road of custom, but the road of genius," was his answer to those who tried to dissuade him; and his genius was so great that his explanations of the prophecies astonished his hearers, wit and fluency of language supplying the defect of theological learning.

He now became fully convinced that he could explain everything; and this conviction explains the errors into which he fell when he undertook to teach theology. Through the influence of Anselm's supporters he was compelled to discontinue the lectures on Ezechiel. Returning to Paris in 1114, he was appointed to the chair of the cloister of Notre Dame, which had become vacant by the promotion to the episcopate of William of Champeaux, and he began to lecture on dialectics and theology with such success that students flocked to him from all parts of the world. "From Rome, in spite of mountains and robbers," writes Cardinal Newman, "from England, in spite of the sea; from Flanders and Germany; from Normandy and the remote districts of France; from Angers and Poitiers; from Navarre by the Pyrenees, and from Spain, besides the students of Paris itself."[18]

"Not only the students, but the very inhabitants of Paris," writes Vaughan, "paid him a homage which almost amounted to a sort of worship. . . . He could not pass to and from his lecture-hall without attracting the gaze of the Parisians. The boys who thronged the streets, on his approach, with his fine figure, his beautiful countenance, and his distinguished air, respectfully made way for him, and for a moment arrested their boisteerous mirth to gaze in silence upon the most brilliant philosopher of the age. The inhabitants of the houses by which he passed left their occupations to watch him from their doors; and we are told that the women in the topmost stories of those lofty buildings would draw back the curtains of their windows, to catch a glimpse of the greatest of living orators -- the gay and handsome cavalier, as he swept by, surrounded by a swarm of his disciples, who were still under the spell of his spirit-stirring eloquence."[19] All those honors were showered on the brilliant young professor, who was consumed by pride and ambition.

His head was turned, and soon afterwards his heart was lost, when he was appointed to be the preceptor of Heloïse by her uncle, Canon Fulbert, who discovered, when it was too late, that the professor had abused the confidence reposed in him. After this disgraceful episode, which upset, and ever afterwards saddened the careers of the two guilty participants, Abelard entered the monastery of St. Denis as a monk, but he was not permitted to remain in solitude. Petitions were sent to him from the university students, requesting him to resume his lectures, and he returned to Paris.

Abelard Condemned. -- Not content with his fame as an orator and a philosopher, he was ambitious to be regarded as a theologian. His treatment of the mysteries of the faith was irreverent. The Scholastics were jealous of his success, and joined with the Mystics in complaining of his irreverence. His book, entitled "Introduction to Theology," which was in reality a treatise on the Trinity, was condemned by the Council of Soissons, in 1121, and the author was confined in a monastery to do penance, being first required to recite the Athanasian Creed and to burn the book with his own hand before the assembled Fathers. Crushed and disgusted with the world, he retired into a solitude near the city of Troyes, to which he gave the name of "The Paraclete," but he did not there find comfort or rest. His retreat was discovered, and crowds of students again flocked to him, building huts in the solitude, providing food for themselves and the master.

St. Bernard Appears. -- We find Abelard again teaching at Paris in 1136, but in the meantime a strong and zealous champion of the faith had appeared in St. Bernard, whose attention had been directed to the errors of Abelard by William of Thierry and St. Norbert. Bernard reminded him that he confounded the teachings of faith with the principles of philosophy, and accused him of false doctrine on the important questions of the Trinity, the Person of the Mediator, the Holy Ghost, the Sacraments, and man's common redemption.[20] Abelard requested the Archbishop of Sens to give him the privilege of publicly defending himself. The request was granted, and St. Bernard was chosen to defend the Faith. His humility made him reluctant to accept the challenge, and well might he have feared the conflict, for Abelard had many followers and sympathizers; he was eloquent of speech, able in debate, and capable of diverting the minds of men from the questions at issue by his powers of ridicule and satire.

The day was appointed for the Synod, which was held at Sens in 1140. St. Bernard, whose humility yielded to the entreaties of the archbishop, read a list of heresies taken from Abelard's theology, and then called upon him to defend the propositions, to amend them, or to deny them. "I will not answer the Cistercian," replied Abelard; "I appeal from the Council to the See of Rome." Rome approved the action of the Council, and the sentence imposing silence upon Abelard forever was confirmed by Innocent II. Turning back from Lyons when news of Rome's decision reached him, he was kindly received by Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, who reconciled him with St. Bernard, and obtained for him absolution from the Pope.

Repentance and Death. -- The proud spirit was finally subdued, and Abelard spent the remainder of his days in solitude and penance. He died an exemplary death, professing adherence to the orthodox faith, in the Priory of St. Marcellus, at Chalon-sur- Saône, on the 21st day of April, 1142, being sixty-three years of age.

Thus ended the career of one whose genius all must admire, whose misfortunes all deplore. He was a proud philosopher; he escapes the charge of heresy simply because he was not obstinate, always professing his willingness to submit to lawful authority, and he did submit in the end. Had he not been blinded by pride, his might have been an honored name in the annals of the Catholic Church.

Errors of Abelard. -- The principal errors which he defended were the following: (1) In philosophy he defended Conceptualism, which has been sufficiently explained, and Optimism, a theory which was afterwards adopted by Leibnitz. This system teaches that god, in creating, was bound to choose the best and most perfect; that God was not free in creating the world, and that it would be impossible to create a world more perfect than the present; (2) his greatest mistakes were made concerning the relation of philosophy to revelation. Being puffed up with vain knowledge he acknowledged no distinction between the truths of faith and truths manifested by the light of reason, and pretended that there was no mystery, even the Trinity, that could not be explained by reason. This is the fundamental and most important of all his errors; all others spring from this or cluster around it. Reason was the shrine at which he worshipped. He was profuse in his praises of philosophy and of the philosophers, especially of Plato and Aristotle, and when his proud spirit was finally subdued, he confessed with humility and deep regret that he had set more store on being a second Aristotle than on being a follower of Jesus Christ. From his exaggeration of the claims of reason arose that spirit of doubt and scepticism which pervades all his writings on subjects pertaining to the Faith. Not satisfied with proclaiming, like St. Paul, the necessity of rendering to God a "reasonable service,"[21] he pretended that a philosopher should begin by doubting all the truths of revelation, and maintained that faith proceeds from scientific investigation.

Faith rests on the authority of Almighty God; reason's duty consists in proving that God has spoken in revelations; whoever attempts to prove the mysteries of faith by reason will either reject revelation altogether, or will end by doubting all the truths of faith. This is what happened to Abelard. Attempting to prove all dogmatic truths by reason he did not, and could not, attain to absolute certainty, but only to probability, which led to doubt. In his work "Sic et non" (The Yes and No, or the Affirmative and the Negative), he took various propositions of faith and morals, and placed by the side of them the texts of Scripture and passages from the Fathers telling for and against each, and apparently contradictory of one another, without attempting to reconcile them.

It is easy enough to raise doubts and propose objections; it is easier to tear down than to build. Abelard had never studied theology; hence he was not capable of giving solid instruction in a scientific treatise on the mysteries of the faith; but he was brilliant and fluent, and he could propose doubts, without being able to offer a satisfactory solution. In this way he came to be regarded as the parent of a Scepticism which he never really intended to foster, and modern Sceptics and Rationalists have been too hasty in choosing him as their great champion.

Jutice to Abelard and the rights of truth, demand that we note a marked distinction between the rationalistic spirit of the Middle Ages and the Rationalism of later times. Abelard exaggerated the claims of reason, but he continued to believe in the mysteries of faith. Modern Rationalism says: "What cannot be understood must be rejected." Abelard said: "I believe in the mysteries, e.g., of the Trinity and of the Eucharist, but I believe also that I can explain them." Certainly there is a vast difference between saying: "I believe and I can explain," and "I will not believe because I cannot explain." Abelard did not intend in his "Sic et Non" to attack any dogma of the faith; his purpose was to excite rational doubts, which would in the end have resulted in a more intelligent faith; for "doubt leads to inquiry, and inquiry leads to the truth." Had he been trained in theology as he was skilled in logic he would have acquired fame as an expounder and defender of the faith that was in him. In other words, he was a misguided, proud philosopher, who attempted to explain the mysteries of faith by the light of reason and succeeded only in exciting doubts.

Good Resulting from Abelard's Career. -- We deplore his errors and his misfortunes, yet we recognize the fact that his stormy career had one beneficial effect on the theological studies of the Middle Ages. His criticisms caused the writers on theology to be more systematic in their expositions of Catholic truth, more careful and more patient in solving doubts and objections to the mysteries of faith. Opposition to Abelard's rationalistic spirit gave to the world the saintly mystics of the School of St. Victor. Seeing the errors into which Abelard was led by exaggerating the claims of reason, these mystics proclaimed that charity was more than mere learning, and the principle that animated them was expressed in the well-known saying of a well-known mystic of the fifteenth century: "It is better to feel compunction than to know its definition." On the other hand, the claims of reason were not to be neglected; they were recognized and applied to the science of the faith by the Scholastic writers of the thirteenth century, for whom Abelard and the Mystics prepared the way.

<< ======= >>