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The Birth of Scholasticism from a Series of Fortunate Mistakes

Stephen M. Metzger, in a brilliant and provocative piece, entitled “We Have Never Been Medieval,” rightly points to the unfulfilled promise of the Leonine program, which “held up the Middle Ages as its official response to the challenges and deficiencies of the modern world.”

He notes the central place of Saint Thomas Aquinas in that program, brought forth by Leo XIII in fitting medieval fashion as a sort of champion to combat modernity’s thinking and ills. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of that choice and the outcome of that program—there are many Catholic scholars who believe that the almost exclusive emphasis on the thought of Thomas Aquinas in our study of the Middle Ages has narrowed and arguably even stunted our understanding of the Catholic theological tradition—Metzger’s notion that there may not be such an antinomy after all between our medieval predecessors and ourselves merits serious consideration.

As a sort of sequel to that thought, it seems fitting to recall to mind a great medieval thinker who was, unlike Thomas, decidedly not a saint: Abelard.

His life, which he famously recounted in the letter styled as “The Story of My Misfortunes,” from his affair with his student, Heloise, to his career-long challenging of theological precedent and ecclesiastical authority, seems to blend the medieval (castration by the knight who was Heloise’s guardian, followed by condemnation not by one but two Church councils) with the modern (no one, not even the great Saint Bernard, would dare to argue in person with Abelard, who never failed to champion reason and its harmony with faith). Indeed, as the recently deceased French philosopher, historian of Arabic thought, and Abelard specialist, Jean Jolivet, reminded us, Abelard has been depicted variously as a villain, the enemy of Christian orthodoxy vanquished by Saint Bernard, or as a hero, the champion of academic freedom and free-thinking. As those competing characterizations would suggest, Abelard is not ordinarily grouped or associated with Thomas Aquinas. Those scholars and Churchmen favoring the one tend to disparage the other, and vice versa.

Yet, on closer inspection, they share a great deal in common, and it is precisely that intellectual common ground that not only presents us with a truer picture of teaching and learning in the High Middle Ages, but also provides a blueprint for an effective renewal of intellectual life within the Catholic Church and its scholastic institutions today.

Abelard is most famous as a thinker for claiming that the Trinity is knowable by reason without the aid of revelation. In his “The Story of My Misfortunes,” he tells of a showdown at the Council of Soissons (1121) between himself and Alberic of Rheims. Alberic was carrying Abelard’s own book, which was then on trial for doctrinal errors. He demanded to know on what authority Abelard based his denial that God had begotten himself—a theological dogma central to the Nicene Creed (“God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God . . . Begotten not Made”)—and one Alberic had himself taught confidently for years. To the great chagrin and embarrassment of Alberic and his followers, Abelard told Alberic simply to open the book, where he would find Saint Augustine’s definitive pronouncement, in the opening book of his magisterial De Trinitate, that nothing begets itself, not even God!

The Fathers of the Council of Soissons condemned Abelard, even though they would not take the risk of letting him speak and defend himself, but Abelard, undaunted, spent the next two decades teaching and defending at ever greater length and with ever-expanding lists of authorities his thesis that the Holy Trinity was knowable by natural reason alone. His teaching was condemned again, this time in 1141 by the Council of Sens, and on his way to Rome to appeal that decision he was saved from violent death by Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, who posted a monk on the road to look out for and bring the great Abelard into the monastery. He died peacefully in the same year.

In the standard telling of the story, Abelard was the equivalent of a medieval shooting star, a great light that appeared, dominated the intellectual firmament for a short time, and then disappeared. He was the greatest logician of his time (indeed one of the greatest of all time) but, so the story goes, when he died, logic declined, and the 12th century remained a humanist, as opposed to a scholastic, century. It turns out, however, that the standard story gets it wrong, for Peter Lombard’s lectures on Genesis and indeed on most of the Bible (long thought by scholars to be lost but recently found) show that the advance in logical theory that Abelard needed to save the creedal formula (and was trying to work out for his entire career) came into being shortly after his death. It was invented, in all likelihood, by one of his own students in the decade following his death.

Peter Lombard, a near contemporary of Abelard who was himself teaching for decades in the schools of Paris, did not have this logical tool early in his career, when he was first lecturing on the Bible and the Sentences, but he and his students certainly had it before his death in 1160. This invention of supposition theory, a logic based not on signification but on reference, was the single most important advance in logical theory during the Middle Ages. It is no exaggeration to say that it revolutionized medieval philosophy and theology. Indeed, the Lombard’s lectures on the Bible reveal that Abelard’s Trinitarian teaching spurred a Scholastic theological discussion of this section of the Creed that lasted for almost a century and a half, resolved finally and conclusively by Saints Bonaventure and Aquinas in the 1260’s.

The moral of the true story is that being wrong, in some cases, may be better than being right. Abelard, it turns out, failed, but brilliantly so. His failure was so brilliant that it spawned Scholasticism, not only the thought, but also, and even more importantly, the teaching and learning practices of radically-open intellectual inquiry. After Abelard, no theological master could rely simply on authority, however august. Peter Lombard not only responded constantly to the challenges posed by Abelard’s thought, he had to address the methodological challenges posed by Abelard’s career. The very method of question and answer, so long practiced by Abelard, became standard practice even in lectures on the Bible. It could even be argued that Abelard was the most faithful Augustinian of them all, since he insisted on going beyond faith and revelation to real understanding.

This was the system of schooling that ultimately produced Thomas Aquinas, whose views were also condemned twice, first in 1270 and again in 1277. Like Abelard, Thomas Aquinas died an apparent failure. He was severely criticized in the schools (Paris, Cambridge, Oxford, and elsewhere) by the greatest theologians (and bishops!) of the 1270’s, 80’s, and 90’s. Aquinas was not even the theologian of choice for most Dominicans during the remainder of the High Middle Ages. He nevertheless decisively changed the course of Catholic thought, just as Abelard had a century and a half earlier. For while most theologians disagreed with Thomas’s theological innovations, everyone took his theological principles and program into account. His thought became the essential starting point for Catholic theology.

Most Catholics today associate Thomas with Aristotle, but the fact is, as my colleague at the Catholic University of America Tim Noone routinely says, that he was much more like Plato, whose thinking became the basis for the Western philosophical tradition. Like Plato and Abelard, Thomas Aquinas was important not so much for his answers as for the questions his thought raised.

This account of the Scholastic Middle Ages does not look terribly different from our modern world and its schools and universities. It is a more accurate and authentic version of “being medieval” that modern Catholics can and should imitate: one radically open to reason, which fears nothing intellectually, that marries the Bible and logic, speculative thought to the pastoral and mystical, one whose heroes include sinners as well as saints.

Most importantly of all, here is a vision of being radically open to the intellectual diversity that ought to be prized and preserved in our Catholic institutions of higher learning. The Catholic thinkers and masters of the High Middle Ages knew what they did not know. They saw clearly where their own thought was deficient and looked to other civilizations, Hebrew and especially Islamic, for science superior to their own. Graduate students at Catholic University of America who take Thérèse Druart’s class on Islamic Philosophy are often shocked to learn how much Thomas owes to the Arabic philosopher Avicenna (Ibn Sina). In a very real sense his metaphysics are more Avicennean than Aristotelian.

This sort of source history is important to know, for instead of the conventional view of the Church’s intellectual tradition during the High Middle Ages as unified and insular, even triumphalistic—a false view that remains unfortunately common even in scholarly circles—the truth is quite literally the opposite.

The Catholic university in the High Middle Ages was instead a place of lively and vigorous debate and disagreement. It was, like Augustine’s famous characterization of the Church, big and messy: large and inclusive and open to truth wherever it found it. Franciscans disagreed with Franciscans and even agreed with Dominicans against Franciscans. So too Dominicans took the side of Franciscans against Dominicans. About the only thing that all theologians agreed upon, secular as well as religious, monastic as well as scholastic, was that the clergy from top to bottom stood in need of reform!

Whereas it is fashionable today in certain Catholic circles to want to restore a certain homogeneity of “Catholic thought,” we would be better off imitating our medieval forebears, or in Metzger’s words, “being medieval.” Neither Abelard nor Aquinas nor any of the theological masters of the medieval universities would have been daunted by intellectual diversity within Catholicism. Quite the contrary, they embraced it, for they shared the great Augustine’s confidence that Catholics and Catholicism had nothing to fear from intellectual inquiry of whatever kind. They were so confident in the truth of their Catholic faith that they engaged in sustained debate and were altogether comfortable with serious disagreements. The examples of Abelard and Aquinas show that such disagreements occasionally became so serious as to lead to official condemnations, but this is simply more proof that medievals took the truth of the faith, and the search for its true understanding, quite seriously. There is nothing wrong with condemning error that threatens Catholic dogma. What is, however, emphatically wrong is understanding the Catholic intellectual tradition so narrowly, or even worse, becoming so ignorant of our own tradition, that we fear, ignore, and misunderstand much that is authentically Catholic.

In the present age we suffer from a pervasive but altogether false understanding of the arc and history of Catholic thought during the High Middle Ages. Those of our contemporaries who promote an understanding according to which the thought of Thomas Aquinas represents a historical high point in Catholic theology and everything that follows constitutes a decline are actually profoundly ignorant of the historical reality during the High Middle Ages. In point of fact, the thought of Thomas Aquinas, in key places resting on problematic reasoning that was subjected to severe criticism by his successors in the schools, nevertheless made possible a new and steep ascent in Catholic thought.

Paradoxically, therefore, those who promote such historical mythology risk imposing upon Catholicism today the kind of anti-intellectualism commonly associated with the Middle Ages.

The idea of the Dark Ages, coined by those rhetorically-gifted rascals, the Humanists, has become proverbial. But anyone who knows even a little bit about the 12th century schools in Paris after Abelard’s appearance on the scene, or the universities that followed, has to reject any possible notion of medieval opposition to science or to truth in any form. Those schools and the universities and studia that succeeded them (Abelard founded at least three such schools himself) went after truth and science unflinchingly with a winning combination of confidence and humility. We Catholics in this contemporary world should do the same. Let us, therefore, by all means “be medieval” in this truer sense. Metzger is surely right that we have never yet gotten to know the real Middle Ages.

It would be well worth our while to do so.


The Unimaginable

Editorial Statement: During the month of June Church Life Journal will train its focus on defining the Catholic imagination by discussing how and why classics of art, literature, music, encounters with other traditions, and the liturgy transform us in a myriad of ways into more faithful members of the Mystical Body. 

Featured Image: Peter Lombard, Sententiae (The Sentences), Bibliotheque Municipale at Troyes MS900, fol. 1r, 1158; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

Mark J. Clark

Mark J. Clark, Ordinary Professor of Medieval Church History and Theology at the Catholic University of America, specializes in the history and development of the schools and thought during the High Middle Ages. He will spend the next six months in English libraries as a British Academy Visiting Fellow searching for and working with uncatalogued and unstudied manuscripts preserving the lectures of Peter Lombard, Stephen Langton, Saint Bonaventure, and other Scholastic luminaries.