Thomas Aquinas : The Scholastic Philosophy – Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages

Mohammed : Saracenic Conquests
Charlemagne : Revival of Western Empire
Hildebrand : The Papal Empire
Saint Bernard : Monastic Institutions
Saint Anselm : Mediaeval Theology
Thomas Aquinas : The Scholastic Philosophy
Thomas Becket : Prelatical Power
The Feudal System
The Crusades
William of Wykeham : Gothic Architecture
John Wyclif : Dawn of the Reformation

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages
John Lord

Topics Covered
Peter Abélard
Gives a new impulse to philosophy
Rationalistic tendency of his teachings
The hatreds he created
Peter Lombard
His “Book of Sentences”
Introduction of the writings of Aristotle into Europe
University of Paris
Character of the students
Their various studies
Aristotle’s logic used
The method of the Schoolmen
The Dominicans and Franciscans
Innocent III.
Thomas Aquinas
His early life and studies
Albertus Magnus
Aquinas’s first great work
Made Doctor of Theology
His “Summa Theologica”
Its vast learning
Parallel between Aquinas and Plato
Parallel between Plato and Aristotle
Influence of Scholasticism
Waste of intellectual life
Scholasticism attractive to the Middle Ages
To be admired like a cathedral

Thomas Aquinas : The Scholastic Philosophy

A.D. 1225(7)-1274.

We have seen how the cloister life of the Middle Ages developed meditative habits of mind, which were followed by a spirit of inquiry on deep theological questions. We have now to consider a great intellectual movement, stimulated by the effort to bring philosophy to the aid of theology, and thus more effectually to battle with insidious and rising heresies. The most illustrious representative of this movement was Thomas of Aquino, generally called Thomas Aquinas. With him we associate the Scholastic Philosophy, which, though barren in the results at which it aimed, led to a remarkable intellectual activity, and hence, indirectly, to the emancipation of the mind. It furnished teachers who prepared the way for the great lights of the Reformation.

Anselm had successfully battled with the rationalism of Roscelin, and also had furnished a new argument for the existence of God. He secured the triumph of Realism for a time and the apparent extinction of heresy. But a new impulse to thought was given, soon after his death, by a less profound but more popular and brilliant man, and, like him, a monk. This was the celebrated Peter Abélard, born in the year 1079, in Brittany, of noble parents, and a boy of remarkable precocity. He was a sort of knight-errant of philosophy, going from convent to convent and from school to school, disputing, while a mere youth, with learned teachers, wherever he could find them. Having vanquished the masters in the provincial schools, he turned his steps to Paris, at that time the intellectual centre of Europe. The university was not yet established, but the cathedral school of Notre Dame was presided over by William of Champeaux, who defended the Realism of Anselm.

To this famous cathedral school Abélard came as a pupil of the veteran dialectician at the age of twenty, and dared to dispute his doctrines. He soon set up as a teacher himself; but as Notre Dame was interdicted to him he retired to Melun, ten leagues from Paris, where enthusiastic pupils crowded to his lecture room, for he was witty, bold, sarcastic, acute, and eloquent. He afterwards removed to Paris, and so completely discomfited his old master that he retired from the field. Abélard then applied himself to the study of divinity, and attended the lectures of Anselm of Laon, who, though an old man, was treated by Abélard with great flippancy and arrogance. He then began to lecture on divinity as well as philosophy, with extraordinary éclat. Students flocked to his lecture room from all parts of Germany, Italy, France, and England. It is said that five thousand young men attended his lectures, among whom one hundred were destined to be prelates, including that brilliant and able Italian who afterwards reigned as Innocent III. It was about this time, 1117, when he was thirty-eight, that he encountered Héloïse,–a passage of his life which will be considered in a later volume of this work. His unfortunate love and his cruel misfortune led to a temporary seclusion in a convent, from which, however, he issued to lecture with renewed popularity in a desert place in Champagne, where he constructed a vast edifice and dedicated it to the Paraclete. It was here that his most brilliant days were spent. It is said that three thousand pupils followed him to this wilderness. He was doubtless the most brilliant and successful lecturer that the Middle Ages ever saw. He continued the controversy which was begun by Roscelin respecting universals, the reality of which he denied.

Abélard was not acquainted with the Greek, but in a Latin translation from the Arabic he had studied Aristotle, whom he regarded as the great master of dialectics, although not making use of his method, as did the great Scholastics of the succeeding century. Still, he was among the first to apply dialectics to theology. He maintained a certain independence of the patristic authority by his “Sic et Non,” in which treatise he makes the authorities neutralize each other by placing side by side contradictory assertions. He maintained that the natural propensity to evil, in consequence of the original transgression, is not in itself sin; that sin consists in consenting to evil. “It is not,” said he, “the temptation to lust that is sinful, but the acquiescence in the temptation;” hence, that virtue cannot be tested without temptations; consequently, that moral worth can only be truly estimated by God, to whom motives are known,–in short, that sin consists in the intention, and not in act. He admitted with Anselm that faith, in a certain sense, precedes knowledge, but insisted that one must know why and what he believes before his faith is established; hence, that faith works itself out of doubt by means of rational investigation.

The tendency of Abélard’s teachings was rationalistic, and therefore he arrayed against himself the great champion of orthodoxy in his day,–Saint Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, the most influential churchman of his age, and the most devout and lofty. His immense influence was based on his learning and sanctity; but he was dogmatic and intolerant. It is probable that the intellectual arrogance of Abélard, his flippancy and his sarcasms, offended more than the matter of his lectures. “It is not by industry,” said he, “that I have reached the heights of philosophy, but by force of genius.” He was more admired by young and worldly men than by old men. He was the admiration of women, for he was poet as well as philosopher. His love-songs were scattered over Europe. With a proud and aristocratic bearing, severe yet negligent dress, beautiful and noble figure, musical and electrical voice, added to the impression he made by his wit and dialectical power, no man ever commanded greater admiration from those who listened to him. But he excited envy as well as admiration, and was probably misrepresented by his opponents. Like all strong and original characters, he had bitter enemies as well as admiring friends; and these enemies exaggerated his failings and his heretical opinions. Therefore he was summoned before the Council of Soissons, and condemned to perpetual silence. From this he appealed to Rome, and Rome sided with his enemies. He found a retreat, after his condemnation, in the abbey of Cluny, and died in the arms of his friend Peter the Venerable, the most benignant ecclesiastic of the century, who venerated his genius and defended his orthodoxy, and whose influence procured him absolution from the Pope.

But whatever were the faults of Abélard; however selfish he was in his treatment of Héloïse, or proud and provoking to adversaries, or even heretical in many of his doctrines, especially in reference to faith, which he is accused of undermining, although he accepted in the main the received doctrines of the Church, certainly in his latter days, when he was broken and penitent (for no great man ever suffered more humiliating misfortunes),–one thing is clear, that he gave a stimulus to philosophical inquiries, and awakened a desire of knowledge, and gave dignity to human reason, beyond any man in the Middle Ages.

The dialectical and controversial spirit awakened by Abélard led to such a variety of opinions among the inquiring young men who assembled in Paris at the various schools, some of which were regarded as rationalistic in their tendency, or at least a departure from the patristic standard, that Peter Lombard, Bishop of Paris, collected in four books the various sayings of the Fathers concerning theological dogmas. He was also influenced to make this exposition by the “Sic et Non” of Abélard, which tended to unsettle belief. This famous manual, called the “Book of Sentences,” appeared about the middle of the twelfth century, and had an immense influence. It was the great text-book of the theological schools.

About the time this book appeared the works of Aristotle were introduced to the attention of students, translated into Latin from the Saracenic language. Aristotle had already been commented upon by Arabian scholars in Spain,–among whom Averroes, a physician and mathematician of Cordova, was the most distinguished,–who regarded the Greek philosopher as the founder of scientific knowledge. His works were translated from the Greek into the Arabic in the early part of the ninth century.

The introduction of Aristotle led to an extension of philosophical studies. From the time of Charlemagne only grammar and elementary logic and dogmatic theology had been taught, but Abélard introduced dialectics into theology. A more complete method was required than that which the existing schools furnished, and this was supplied by the dialectics of Aristotle. He became, therefore, at the close of the twelfth century, an acknowledged authority, and his method was adopted to support the dogmas of the Church.

Meanwhile the press of students at Paris, collected into various schools,–the chief of which were the theological school of Notre Dame, and the school of logic at Mount Geneviève, where Abélard had lectured,–demanded a new organization. The teachers and pupils of these schools then formed a corporation called a university (Universitas Magistrorum et Scholarium), under the control of the chancellor and chapter of Notre Dame, whose corporate existence was secured from Innocent III. a few years afterwards.

Thus arose the University of Paris at the close of the twelfth century, or about the beginning of the thirteenth, soon followed in different parts of Europe by other universities, the most distinguished of which were those of Oxford, Bologna, Padua, and Salamanca. But that of Paris took the lead, this city being the intellectual centre of Europe even at that early day. Thither flocked young men from Germany, England, and Italy, as well as from all parts of France, to the number of twenty-five or thirty thousand. These students were a motley crowd: some of them were half-starved youth, with tattered clothes, living in garrets and unhealthy cells; others again were rich and noble,–but all were eager for knowledge. They came to Paris as pilgrims flocked to Jerusalem, being drawn by the fame of the lecturers. The old sleepy schools of the convents were deserted, for who would go to Fulda or York or Citeaux, when such men as Abélard, Albert, and Victor were dazzling enthusiastic youth by their brilliant disputations? These young men also seem to have been noisy, turbulent, and dissipated for the most part, “filling the streets with their brawls and the taverns with the fumes of liquor. There was no such thing as discipline among them. They yelled and shouted and brandished daggers, fought the townspeople, and were free with their knocks and blows.” They were not all youth; many of them were men in middle life, with wives and children. At that time no one finished his education at twenty-one; some remained scholars until the age of thirty-five.

Some of these students came to study medicine, others law, but more theology and philosophy. The headquarters of theology was the Sorbonne, opened in 1253,–a college founded by Robert Sorbon, chaplain of the king, whose aim was to bring together the students and professors, heretofore scattered throughout the city. The students of this college, which formed a part of the university, under the rule of the chancellor of Notre Dame, it would seem were more orderly and studious than the other students. They arose at five, assisted at Mass at six, studied till ten,–the dinner hour; from dinner till five they studied or attended lectures; then went to supper,–the principal meal; after which they discussed problems till nine or ten, when they went to bed. The students were divided into hospites and socii, the latter of whom carried on the administration. The lectures were given in a large hall, in the middle of which was the chair of the master or doctor, while immediately below him sat his assistant, the bachelor, who was going through his training for a professorship. The chair of theology was the most coveted honor of the university, and was reached only by a long course of study and searching examinations, to which no one could aspire but the most learned and gifted of the doctors. The students sat around on benches, or on the straw. There were no writing-desks. The teaching was oral, principally by questions and answers. Neither the master nor the bachelor used a book. No reading was allowed. The students rarely took notes or wrote in short-hand; they listened to the lectures and wrote them down afterwards, so far as their memory served them. The usual text-book was the “Book of Sentences,” by Peter Lombard. The bachelor, after having previously studied ten years, was obliged to go through a three years’ drill, and then submit to a public examination in presence of the whole university before he was thought fit to teach. He could not then receive his master’s badge until he had successfully maintained a public disputation on some thesis proposed; and even then he stood no chance of being elevated to a professor’s chair unless he had lectured for some time with great éclat Even Albertus Magnus, fresh with the laurels of Cologne, was compelled to go through a three years’ course as a sub-teacher at Paris before he received his doctor’s cap, and to lecture for some years more as master before his transcendent abilities were rewarded with a professorship. The dean of the faculty of theology was chosen by the suffrages of the doctors.

The Organum (philosophy of first principles) of Aristotle was first publicly taught in 1215. This was certainly in advance of the seven liberal arts which were studied in the old Cathedral schools,–grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (Trivium); and arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy (Quadrivium),–for only the elements of these were taught. But philosophy and theology, under the teaching of the Scholastic doctors (Doctores Scholastici), taxed severely the intellectual powers. When they introduced dialectics to support theology a more severe method was required. “The method consisted in connecting the doctrine to be expounded with a commentary on some work chosen for the purpose. The contents were divided and subdivided, until the several propositions of which it was composed were reached. Then these were interpreted, questions were raised in reference to them, and the grounds of affirming or denying were presented. Then the decision was announced, and in case this was affirmative, the grounds of the negative were confuted.”

Aristotle was made use of in order to reduce to scientific form a body of dogmatic teachings, or to introduce a logical arrangement. Platonism, embraced by the early Fathers, was a collection of abstractions and theories, but was deficient in method. It did not furnish the weapons to assail heresy with effect. But Aristotle was logical and precise and passionless. He examined the nature of language, and was clear and accurate in his definitions. His logic was studied with the sole view of learning to use polemical weapons. For this end the syllogism was introduced, which descends from the universal to the particular, by deduction,–connecting the general with the special by means of a middle term which is common to both. This mode of reasoning is opposite to the method by induction, which rises to the universal from a comparison of the single and particular, or, as applied in science, from a collection and collation of facts sufficient to form a certainty or high probability. A sound special deduction can be arrived at only by logical inference from true and certain general principles.

This is what Anselm essayed to do; but the Schoolmen who succeeded Abélard often drew dialectical inferences from what appeared to be true, while some of them were so sophistical as to argue from false premises. This syllogistic reasoning, in the hands of an acute dialectician, was very efficient in overthrowing an antagonist, or turning his position into absurdity, but not favorable for the discovery of truth, since it aimed no higher than the establishment of the particulars which were included in the doctrine assumed or deduced from it. It was reasoning in perpetual circles; it was full of quibbles and sophistries; it was ingenious, subtle, acute, very attractive to the minds of that age, and inexhaustible from divisions and subdivisions and endless ramifications. It made the contests of the schools a dialectical display of remarkable powers in which great interest was felt, yet but little knowledge was acquired. In one respect the Scholastic doctors rendered a service: they demolished all dreamy theories and poured contempt on mystical phrases. They insisted, like Socrates, on a definite meaning to words. If they were hair-splitting in their definitions and distinctions, they were at least clear and precise. Their method was scientific. Such terms and expressions as are frequently used by our modern transcendental philosophers would have been laughed to scorn by the Schoolmen. No system of philosophy can be built up when words have no definite meaning. This Socrates was the first to inculcate, and Aristotle followed in his steps.

With the Crusades arose a new spirit, which gave an impulse to philosophy as well as to art and enterprise. “The primum mobile of the new system was Motion, in distinction from the Rest which marked the old monastic retreats.” An immense enthusiasm for knowledge had been kindled by Abélard, which was further intensified by the Scholastic doctors of the thirteenth century, especially such of them as belonged to the Dominican and Franciscan friars.

These celebrated Orders arose at a great crisis in the Papal history, when rival popes aspired to the throne of Saint Peter, when the Church was rent with divisions, when princes were contending for the right of investiture, and when heretical opinions were defended by men of genius. At this crisis a great Pope was called to the government of the Church,–Innocent III., under whose able rule the papal power culminated. He belonged to an illustrious Roman family, and received an unusual education, being versed in theology, philosophy, and canon law. His name was Lothario, of the family of the Conti; he was nephew of a pope, and counted three cardinals among his relatives. At the age of twenty-one, about the year 1181, he was one of the canons of Saint Peter’s Church; at twenty-four he was sent by the Pope on important missions. In 1188 he was created cardinal by his uncle, Clement III.; and in 1198 he was elected Pope, at the age of thirty-eight, when the Crusades were at their height, when the south of France was agitated by the opinions of the Albigenses, and the provinces on the Rhine by those of the Waldenses. It was a turbulent age, full of tumults, insurrections, wars, and theological dissensions. The old Benedictine monks had lost their influence, and were disgraced by idleness and gluttony, while the secular clergy were ignorant and worldly. Innocent cast his eagle eye into all the abuses which disgraced the age and Church, and made fearless war upon those princes who usurped his prerogatives. He excommunicated princes, humbled the Emperor of Germany and the King of England, put kingdoms under interdict, exempted abbots from the jurisdiction of bishops, punished heretics, formed crusades, laid down new canons, regulated taxes, and directed all ecclesiastical movements. His activity was ceaseless, and his ambition was boundless. He instituted important changes, and added new orders of monks to the Church. It was this Pope who instituted auricular confession, and laid the foundation of a more dreadful spiritual despotism in the form of inquisitions.

Yet while he ruled tyrannically, his private life was above reproach. His habits were simple and his tastes were cultivated. He was charitable and kind to the poor and unfortunate. He spent his enormous revenues in building churches, endowing hospitals, and rewarding learned men; and otherwise showed himself the friend of scholars, and the patron of benevolent movements. He was a reformer of abuses, publishing the most severe acts against venality, and deciding quarrels on principles of justice. He had no dramatic conflicts like Hildebrand, for his authority was established. As the supreme guardian of the interests of the Church he seldom made demands which he had not the power to enforce. John of England attempted resistance, but was compelled to submit. Innocent even gave the archbishopric of Canterbury to one of his cardinals, Stephen Langton, against the wishes of a Norman king. He took away the wife of Philip Augustus; he nominated an emperor to the throne of Constantine; he compelled France to make war on England, and incited the barons to rebellion against John. Ten years’ civil war in Germany was the fruit of his astute policy, and the only great failure of his administration was that he could not exempt Italy from the dominion of the Emperors of Germany, thus giving rise to the two great political parties of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries,–the Guelphs and Ghibellines.

To cement his vast spiritual power he encouraged what doubtless seemed even to him a great fanaticism, but which he found could be turned to his advantage,–that of the Mendicant Friars, established by Saint Francis of Assisi, and Saint Dominic of the great family of the Guzmans in Spain. These men made substantially the same offers to the Pope that Ignatius Loyola did in after times,–to go where they were sent as teachers, preachers, and missionaries without condition or reward. They renounced riches, professed absolute poverty, and wandered from village to city barefooted, and subsisting entirely on alms as beggars. The Dominican friar in his black habit, and the Franciscan in his gray, became the ablest and most effective preachers of the thirteenth century. The Dominicans confined their teachings to the upper classes, and became their favorite confessors. They were the most learned men of the thirteenth century, and also the most reproachless in morals. The Franciscans were itinerary preachers to the common people, and created among them the same religious revival that the Methodists did later in England under the guidance of Wesley. The founder of the Franciscans was a man who seemed to be “inebriated with love,” so unquenchable was his charity, rapt his devotions, and supernal his sympathy. He found his way to Rome in the year 1215, and in twenty-two years after his death there were nine thousand religious houses of his Order. In a century from his death the friars numbered one hundred and fifty thousand. The increase of the Dominicans was not so rapid, but more illustrious men belonged to this institution. It is affirmed that it produced seventy cardinals, four hundred and sixty bishops, and four popes.

St. Thomas Aquinas in the School of Albertus Magnus After the painting by H. Lerolle

It was in the palmy days of these celebrated monks, before corruption had set in, that the Dominican Order was recruited with one of the most extraordinary men of the Middle Ages. This man was Saint Thomas, born 1225 or 1227, son of a Count of Aquino in the kingdom of Naples, known in history as Thomas Aquinas, “the most successful organizer of knowledge,” says Archbishop Trench, “the world has known since Aristotle.” He was called “the angelical doctor,” exciting the enthusiasm of his age for his learning and piety and genius alike. He was a prodigy and a marvel of dialectical skill, and Catholic writers have exhausted language to find expressions for their admiration. Their Lives of him are an unbounded panegyric for the sweetness of his temper, his wonderful self-control, his lofty devotion to study, his indifference to praises and rewards, his spiritual devotion, his loyalty to the Church, his marvellous acuteness of intellect, his industry, and his unparalleled logical victories. When he was five years of age his father, a noble of very high rank, sent him to Monte Cassino with the hope that he would become a Benedictine monk, and ultimately abbot of that famous monastery, with the control of its vast revenues and patronage. Here he remained seven years, until the convent was taken and sacked by the soldiers of the Emperor Frederic in his war with the Pope. The young Aquino returned to his father’s castle, and was then sent to Naples to be educated at the university, living in a Benedictine abbey, and not in lodgings like other students. The Dominicans and Franciscans held chairs in the university, one of which was filled with a man of great ability, whose preaching and teaching had such great influence on the youthful Thomas that he resolved to join the Order, and at the age of seventeen became a Dominican friar, to the disappointment of his family. His mother Theodora went to Naples to extricate him from the hands of the Dominicans, who secretly hurried him off to Rome and immured him in their convent, from which he was rescued by violence. But the youth persisted in his intentions against the most passionate entreaties of his mother, made his escape, and was carried back to Naples. The Pope, at the solicitation of his family, offered to make him Abbot of Monte Cassino, but he remained a poor Dominican. His superior, seeing his remarkable talents, sent him to Cologne to attend the lectures of Albertus Magnus, then the most able expounder of the Scholastic Philosophy, and the oracle of the universities, who continued his lectures after he was made a bishop, and even until he was eighty-five. When Albertus was transferred from Cologne to Paris, where the Dominicans held two chairs of theology, Thomas followed him, and soon after was made bachelor. Again was Albert sent back to Cologne, and Thomas was made his assistant professor. He at once attracted attention, was ordained priest, and became as famous for his sermons as for his lectures. After four years at Cologne Thomas was ordered back to Paris, travelling on foot, and begging his way, yet stopping to preach in the large cities. He was still magister and Albert professor, but had greatly distinguished himself by his lectures.

Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas, From the painting by Francesco Zurbaran in Museum, Seville

Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas, From the painting by Francesco Zurbaran in Museum, Seville

His appearance at this time was marked. His body was tall and massive, but spare and lean from fasting and labor. His eyes were bright, but their expression was most modest. His face was oblong, his complexion sallow; his forehead depressed, his head large, his person erect.

His first great work was a commentary of about twelve hundred pages on the “Book of Sentences,” in the Parma edition, which was received with great admiration for its logical precision, and its opposition to the rationalistic tendencies of the times. In it are discussed all the great theological questions treated by Saint Augustine,–God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, grace, predestination, faith, free-will, Providence, and the like,–blended with metaphysical discussions on the soul, the existence of evil, the nature of angels, and other subjects which interested the Middle Ages. Such was his fame and dialectical skill that he was taken away from his teachings and sent to Rome to defend his Order and the cause of orthodoxy against the slanders of William of Saint Amour, an aristocratic doctor, who hated the Mendicant Friars and their wandering and begging habits. William had written a book called “Perils,” in which he exposed the dangers to be apprehended from the new order of monks, in which he proved himself a true prophet, for ultimately the Mendicant Friars became subjects of ridicule and reproach. But the Pope came to the rescue of his best supporters.

On the return of Thomas to Paris he was made doctor of theology, at the same time with Bonaventura the Franciscan, called “the seraphic doctor,” between whom and Thomas were intimate ties of friendship. He had now reached the highest honor that the university could bestow, which was conferred with such extraordinary ceremony that it would seem to have been a great event in Paris at that time.

His fame chiefly rests on the ablest treatise written in the Middle Ages,–the “Summa Theologica,”–in which all the great questions in theology and philosophy are minutely discussed, in the most exhaustive manner. He took the side of the Realists, his object being to uphold Saint Augustine. He was more a Platonist in his spirit than an Aristotelian, although he was indebted to Aristotle for his method. He appealed to both reason and authority. He presented the Christian religion in a scientific form. His book is an assimilation of all that is precious in the thinking of the Church. If he learned many things at Paris, Cologne, and Naples, he was also educated by Chrysostom, by Augustine, and Ambrose. “It is impossible,” says Cardinal Newman, and no authority is higher than his, “to read the Catena of Saint Thomas without being struck by the masterly skill with which he put it together. A learning of the highest kind,–not mere literary book knowledge which may have supplied the place of indexes and tables in ages destitute of these helps, and when they had to be read in unarranged and fragmentary manuscripts, but a thorough acquaintance with the whole range of ecclesiastical antiquity, so as to be able to bring the substance of all that had been written on any point to bear upon the text which involved it,–a familiarity with the style of each writer so as to compress in a few words the pith of the whole page, and a power of clear and orderly arrangement in this mass of knowledge, are qualities which make this Catena nearly perfect as an interpretation of Patristic literature.” Dr. Vaughan, in eulogistic language, says: “The ‘Summa Theologica’ may be likened to one of the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages, infinite in detail but massive in the grouping of pillars and arches, forming a complete unity that must have taxed the brain of the architect to its greatest extent. But greater as work of intellect is this digest of all theological richness for one thousand years, in which the thread of discourse is never lost sight of, but winds through a labyrinth of important discussions and digressions, all bearing on the fundamental truths which Paul declared and Augustine systematized.”

This treatise would seem to be a thesaurus of both Patristic and Mediaeval learning; not a dictionary of knowledge, but a system of truth severely elaborated in every part,–a work to be studied by the Mediaeval students as Calvin’s “Institutes” were by the scholars of the Reformation, and not far different in its scope and end; for the Patristic, the Mediaeval, and the Protestant divines did not materially differ in reference to the fundamental truths pertaining to God, the Incarnation, and Redemption. The Catholic and Protestant divines differ chiefly on the ideas pertaining to government and ecclesiastical institutions, and the various inventions of the Middle Ages to uphold the authority of the Church, not on dogmas strictly theological. A student in theology could even in our times sit at the feet of Thomas Aquinas, as he could at the feet of Augustine or Calvin; except that in the theology which Thomas Aquinas commented upon there is a cumbrous method, borrowed from Aristotle, which introduced infinite distinctions and questions and definitions and deductions and ramifications which have no charm to men who have other things to occupy their minds than Scholastic subtilties, acute and logical as they may be. Thomas Aquinas was raised to combat, with the weapons most esteemed in his day, the various forms of Rationalism, Pantheism, and Mysticism which then existed, and were included in the Nominalism of his antagonists. And as long as universities are centres of inquiry the same errors, under other names, will have to be combated, but probably not with the same methods which marked the teachings of the “angelical doctor.” In demolishing errors and systematizing truth he was the greatest benefactor to the cause of “orthodoxy” that appeared in Europe for several centuries, admired for his genius as much as Spencer and other great lights of science are in our day, but standing preeminent and lofty over all, like a beacon light to give both guidance and warning to inquiring minds in every part of Christendom. Nor could popes and sovereigns render too great honor to such a prodigy of genius. They offered him the abbacy of Monte Cassino and the archbishopric of Naples, but he preferred the life of a quiet student, finding in knowledge and study, for their own sake, the highest reward, and pursuing his labors without the impedimenta of those high positions which involve ceremonies and cares and pomps, yet which most ambitious men love better than freedom, placidity, and intellectual repose. He lived not in a palace, as he might have lived, surrounded with flatterers, luxuries, and dignities, but in a cell, wearing his simple black gown, and walking barefooted wherever he went, begging his daily bread according to the rules of his Order. His black gown was not an academic badge, but the Dominican dress. His only badge of distinction was the doctors’ cap.

Dr. Vaughan, in his heavy and unartistic life of Thomas Aquinas, has drawn a striking resemblance between Plato and the Mediaeval doctor: “Both,” he says, “were nobly born, both were grave from youth, both loved truth with an intensity of devotion. If Plato was instructed by Socrates, Aquinas was taught by Albertus Magnus; if Plato travelled into Italy, Greece, and Egypt, Aquinas went to Cologne, Naples, Bologna, and Rome; if Plato was famous for his erudition, Aquinas was no less noted for his universal knowledge. Both were naturally meek and gentle; both led lives of retirement and contemplation; both loved solitude; both were celebrated for self-control; both were brave; both held their pupils spell-bound by their brilliant mental gifts; both passed their time in lecturing to the schools (what the Pythagoreans were to Plato, the Benedictines were to the angelical); both shrank from the display of self; both were great dialecticians; both reposed on eternal ideas; both were oracles to their generation.” But if Aquinas had the soul of Plato, he also had the scholastic gifts of Aristotle, to whom the Church is indebted for method and nomenclature as it was to Plato for synthesis and that exalted Realism which went hand in hand with Christianity. How far he was indebted to Plato it is difficult to say. He certainly had not studied his dialectics through translations or in the original, but had probably imbibed the spirit of this great philosopher through Saint Augustine and other orthodox Fathers who were his admirers.

Although both Plato and Aristotle accepted “universals” as the foundation of scientific inquiry, the former arrived at them by consciousness, and the other by reasoning. The spirit of the two great masters of thought was as essentially different as their habits and lives. Plato believed that God governed the world; Aristotle believed that it was governed by chance. The former maintained that mind is divine and eternal; the latter that it is a form of the body, and consequently mortal. Plato thought that the source of happiness was in virtue and resemblance to God; while Aristotle placed it in riches and outward prosperity. Plato believed in prayer; but Aristotle thought that God would not hear or answer it, and therefore that it was useless. Plato believed in happiness after death; while Aristotle supposed that death ended all pleasure. Plato lived in the world of abstract ideas; Aristotle in the realm of sense and observation. The one was religious; the other secular and worldly. With both the passion for knowledge was boundless, but they differed in their conceptions of knowledge; the one basing it on eternal ideas and the deductions to be drawn from them, and the other on physical science,–the phenomena of Nature,–those things which are cognizable by the senses. The spiritual life of Plato was “a longing after love and of eternal ideas, by the contemplation of which the soul sustains itself and becomes participant in immortality.” The life of Aristotle was not spiritual, but intellectual. He was an incarnation of mere intellect, the architect of a great temple of knowledge, which received the name of Organum, or the philosophy of first principles.

Thomas Aquinas, we may see from what has been said, was both Platonic and Aristotelian. He resembled Plato in his deep and pious meditations on the eternal realities of the spiritual world, while in the severity of his logic he resembled Aristotle, from whom he learned precision of language, lucidity of statement, and a syllogistic mode of argument well calculated to confirm what was already known, but not to make attainments in new fields of thought or knowledge. If he was gentle and loving and pious like Plato, he was also as calm and passionless as Aristotle.

This great man died at the age of forty-eight, in the year 1274, a few years after Saint Louis, before his sum of theology was completed. He died prematurely, exhausted by his intense studies; leaving, however, treatises which filled seventeen printed folio volumes,–one of the most voluminous writers of the world. His fame was prodigious, both as a dialectician and a saint, and he was in due time canonized as one of the great pillars of the Church, ranking after Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great,–the standard authority for centuries of the Catholic theology.

The Scholastic Philosophy, which culminated in Thomas Aquinas, maintained its position in the universities of Europe until the Reformation, but declined in earnestness. It descended to the discussion of unimportant and often frivolous questions. Even the “angelical doctor” is quoted as discussing the absurd question as to how many angels could dance together on the point of a needle. The play of words became interminable. Things were lost sight of in a barbarous jargon about questions which have no interest to humanity, and which are utterly unintelligible. At the best, logical processes can add nothing to the ideas from which they start. When these ideas are lofty, discussion upon them elevates the mind and doubtless strengthens its powers. But when the subjects themselves are frivolous, the logical tournaments in their defence degrade the intellect and narrow it. Nothing destroys intellectual dignity more effectually than the waste of energies in the defence of what is of no practical utility, and which cannot be applied to the acquisition of solid knowledge. Hence the Scholastic Philosophy did not advance knowledge, since it did not seek the acquisition of new truths, but only the establishment of the old. Its utility consisted in training the human mind to logical reasonings. It exercised the intellect and strengthened it, as gymnastics do the body, without enlarging it. It was nothing but barren dialectics,–“dry bones,” a perpetual fencing. The soul cries out for bread; the Scholastics gave it a stone.

We are amazed that intellectual giants, equal to the old Greeks in acuteness and logical powers, could waste their time on the frivolous questions and dialectical subtilties to which they devoted their mighty powers. However interesting to them, nothing is drier and duller to us, nothing more barren and unsatisfying, than their logical sports. Their treatises are like trees with endless branches, each leading to new ramifications, with no central point in view, and hence never finished, and which might be carried on ad infinitum. To attempt to read their disquisitions is like walking in labyrinths of ever-opening intricacies. By such a method no ultimate truth could be arrived at, beyond what was assumed. There is now and then a man who professes to have derived light and wisdom from those dialectical displays, since they were doubtless marvels of logical precision and clearness of statement. But in a practical point of view those “masterpieces of logic” are utterly useless to most modern inquirers. These are interesting only as they exhibit the waste of gigantic energies; they do not even have the merit of illustrative rhetoric or eloquence. The earlier monks were devout and spiritual, and we can still read their lofty meditations with profit, since they elevate the soul and make it pant for the beatitudes of spiritual communion with God. But the writings of the Scholastic doctors are cold, calm, passionless, and purely intellectual,–logical without being edifying. We turn from them, however acute and able, with blended disappointment and despair. They are fig-trees, bearing nothing but leaves, such as our Lord did curse. The distinctions are simply metaphysical, and not moral.

Why the whole force of an awakening age should have been devoted to such subtilties and barren discussion it is difficult to see, unless they were found useful in supporting a theology made up of metaphysical deductions rather than an interpretation of the meaning of Scripture texts. But there was then no knowledge of Greek or Hebrew; there was no exegetical research; there was no science and no real learning. There was nothing but theology, with the exception of Lives of the Saints. The horizon of human inquiries was extremely narrow. But when the minds of very intellectual men were directed to one particular field, it would be natural to expect something remarkable and marvellously elaborate of its kind. Such was the Scholastic Philosophy. As a mere exhibition of dialectical acumen, minute distinctions, and logical precision in the use of words, it was wonderful. The intricacy and detail and ramifications of this system were an intellectual feat which astonishes us, yet which does not instruct us, certainly outside of a metaphysical divinity which had more charm to the men of the Middle Ages than it can have to us, even in a theological school where dogmatic divinity is made the most important study. The day will soon come when the principal chair in the theological school will be for the explanation of the Scripture texts on which dogmas are based; and for this, great learning and scholarship will be indispensable. To me it is surprising that metaphysics have so long retained their hold on the minds of Protestant divines. Nothing is more unsatisfactory, and to many more repulsive, than metaphysical divinity. It is a perversion of the spirit of Christian teachings. “What says our Lord?” should be the great inquiry in our schools of theology; not, What deductions can be drawn from them by a process of ingenious reasoning which often, without reference to other important truths, lands one in absurdities, or at least in one-sided systems?

But the metaphysical divinity of the Schoolmen had great attractions to the students of the Middle Ages. And there must have been something in it which we do not appreciate, or it would not have maintained itself in the schools for three hundred years. Perhaps it was what those ages needed,–the discipline through which the mind must go before it could be prepared for the scientific investigations of our own times. In an important sense the Scholastic doctors were the teachers of Luther and Bacon. Certainly their unsatisfactory science was one of the marked developments of the civilization of Europe, through which the Gothic nations must need pass. It has been the fashion to ridicule it and depreciate it in our modern times, especially among Protestants, who have ridiculed and slandered the papal power and all the institutions of the Middle Ages. Yet scholars might as well ridicule the text-books they were required to study fifty years ago, because they are not up to our times. We should not disdain the early steps by which future progress is made easy. We cannot despise men who gave up their lives to the contemplation of subjects which demand the highest tension of the intellectual faculties, even if these exercises were barren of utilitarian results. Some future age may be surprised at the comparative unimportance of questions which interest this generation. The Scholastic Philosophy cannot indeed be utilized by us in the pursuit of scientific knowledge; nor (to recur to Vaughan’s simile for the great work of Aquinas) can a mediaeval cathedral be utilized for purposes of oratory or business. But the cathedral is nevertheless a grand monument, suggesting lofty sentiments, which it would be senseless and ruthless barbarism to destroy or allow to fall into decay, but which should rather be preserved as a precious memento of what is most poetic and attractive in the Middle Ages. When any modern philosopher shall rear so gigantic and symmetrical a monument of logical disquisitions as the “Summa Theologica” is said to be by the most competent authorities, then the sneers of a Macaulay or a Lewes will be entitled to more consideration. It is said that a new edition of this great Mediaeval work is about to be published under the direct auspices of the Pope, as the best and most comprehensive system of Christian theology ever written by man.


Dr. Vaughan’s Life of Thomas Aquinas; Histoire de la Vie et des Écrits de St. Thomas d’Aquin, par l’Abbé Bareille; Lacordaire’s Life of Saint Dominic; Dr. Hampden’s Life of Thomas Aquinas; article on Thomas Aquinas, in London Quarterly, July, 1881; Summa Theologica; Neander, Milman, Fleury, Dupin, and Ecclesiastical Histories generally; Biographic Universelle; Werner’s Leben des Heiligen Thomas von Aquino; Trench’s Lectures on Mediaeval History; Ueberweg & Rousselot’s History of Philosophy. Dr. Hampden’s article, in the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, on Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastic Philosophy, is regarded by Hallam as the ablest view of this subject which has appeared in English.

Thomas Becket : Prelatical Power

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages