The Adventure of Reason



HOW shall we explain the remarkable outburst of philosophy that began with Anselm, Roscelin, and Abélard, and culminated in Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas? As usual, many causes conspired. The Greek East had never surrendered its classical heritage; the ancient philosophers were studied in every century in Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria; men like Michael Psellus, Nicephorus Blemydes (1197?–1272), George Pachymeres (1242?–1310), and the Syrian Bar-Hebraeus (1226?–82) knew the works of Plato and Aristotle at first hand; and Greek teachers and manuscripts gradually entered the West. Even there some fragments of the Hellenic legacy had survived the barbarian storm; most of Aristotle’s Organon of logic remained; and of Plato the Menoand the Timaeus, whose vision of Er had colored Christian imaginations of hell. The successive waves of translations from the Arabic and the Greek in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries brought to the West the revelation and challenge of Greek and Moslem philosophies so different from the Christian that they threatened to sweep away the whole theology of Christendom unless Christianity could construct a counterphilosophy. But these influences would hardly have produced a Christian philosophy if the West had continued poor. What brought these factors to effect was the growth of wealth through the agricultural conquest of the Continent, the expansion of commerce and industry, the services and accumulations of finance. This economic revival collaborated with the liberation of the communes, the rise of the universities, the rebirth of Latin literature and Roman law, the codification of canon law, the glory of Gothic, the flowering of romance, the “gay science” of the troubadours, the awakening of science, and the resurrection of philosophy, to constitute the “Renaissance of the twelfth century.”

From wealth came leisure, study, schools; scholê at first meant leisure. A scholasticus was a director or professor of a school; the “Scholastic philosophy” was the philosophy taught in the medieval secondary schools or in the universities that for the most part grew out of them. The “Scholastic method” was the form of philosophical argument and exposition used in such schools. In the twelfth century, barring Abélard’s classes in or near Paris, Chartres was the most active and famous of these schools. There philosophy was combined with literature, and the graduates managed to write of abstruse problems with the clarity and grace that became an honorable tradition in France. Plato, who also had made philosophy intelligible, was a favorite there, and the quarrel between realists and nominalists was mediated by identifying the “real” universals with the Platonic Ideas, or creative archetypes, in the mind of God. Under Bernard of Chartres (c. 1117) and his brother Theodoric (c. 1140) the school of Chartres reached the height of its influence. Three of its graduates dominated the philosophical scene in Western Europe in the half century after Abélard: William of Conches, Gilbert de la Porrée, and John of Salisbury.

The widening of the Scholastic ken is startlingly revealed in William of Conches (1080?-1154). Here was a man who knew the works of Hippocrates, Lucretius, Hunain ibn Ishaq, Constantine the African, even Democritus.1 He was fascinated by the atomic theory; all the works of nature, he concluded, originate in combinations of atoms; and this is true even of the highest vital processes of the human body.2 The soul is a union of the vital principle of the individual with the cosmic soul or vital principle of the world.3Following Abélard into a dangerous mystery, William writes: “There is in the Godhead power, wisdom, and will, which the saints call three persons.”4 He takes with a large grain of allegory the story that Eve was created from Adam’s rib. He answers vigorously a certain Cornificius and other “Cornificians” who condemned science and philosophy on the ground that simple faith sufficed.

Because they know not the forces of nature, and in order that they may have comrades in their ignorance, they suffer not that others should search out anything, and would have us believe like rustics and ask no reason…. But we say that in all things a reason must be sought; if reason fails, we must confide the matter… to the Holy Ghost and faith….5 [They say] “We do not know how this is, but we know that God can do it.” You poor fools! God can make a cow out of a tree, but has He ever done so? Therefore show some reason why a thing is so, or cease to hold that it is so….6 Rejoicing not in the many but in the probity of the few, we toil for truth alone.7

This was too strong for the stomach of William of St. Thierry; the zealous monk who had set St. Bernard to hound Abélard hastened to denounce this new rationalist to the watchful abbot of Clairvaux. William of Conches retracted his heresies, agreed that Eve had been made from Adam’s rib,8 abandoned philosophy as an enterprise in which the profit was not commensurate with the risk, became tutor to Henry Plantagenet of England, and retired from history.

Gilbert de la Porrée (1070–1154) managed the dangerous business more successfully. He studied and taught at Chartres and Paris, became Bishop of Poitiers, and wrote a Liber sex principiorium, or Book of Six Principles, which remained for many centuries a standard text in logic. But his Commentary on Boethius suggested that the nature of God was so far beyond human understanding that all statements about it must be taken as mere analogies, and so stressed the unity of God as to make the Trinity seem but a figure of speech.9 In 1148, though he was now seventy-two, he was charged with heresy by St. Bernard; he stood trial at Auxerre, baffled his opponents with subtle distinctions, and went home uncondemned. A year later he was tried again, consented to burn certain passages torn from his books, but again returned a free man to his diocese. When it was suggested that he should discuss his views with Bernard he refused, saying that the saint was too inexpert a theologian to understand him.10 Gilbert, said John of Salisbury, “was so ripe in liberal culture as to be surpassed by no one.”11

John might have spoken so for himself, since of all the Scholastic philosophers he possessed the widest culture, the most urbane spirit, the most elegant pen. Born at Salisbury about 1117, he studied under Abélard at Mont Ste.-Geneviève, under William of Conches at Chartres, under Gilbert de la Porrée at Paris. In 1149 he returned to England, and served as secretary to two archbishops of Canterbury, Theobald and Thomas à Becket. He undertook for them various diplomatic missions, visited Italy six times, and stayed at the papal court eight years. He shared Becket’s exile in France, and saw him killed in his cathedral. He became bishop of Chartres in 1176, and died in 1180. It was a full and varied career, in which John learned to check logic with life, and to take metaphysics with the modesty of an atom judging the cosmos. Revisiting the schools in his later years, he was amused to find them still debating nominalism vs. realism.

One never gets away from this question. The world has grown old discussing it, and it has taken more time than the Caesars consumed in conquering and governing the world…. From whatever point a discussion starts, it is always led back and attached to that. It is the madness of Rufus about Naevia: “He thinks of nothing else, talks of nothing else; and if Naevia did not exist, Rufus would be dumb.”12

John himself settled the question simply: the universal is a mental concept conveniently uniting the common qualities of individual beings; John, rather than Abélard, proposed “conceptualism.”

In the best Latin since Alcuin’s letters, he composed a history of Greek and Roman philosophy—an astonishing evidence of the widening medieval horizon; a Metalogicon which lightened logic with autobiography; and a Polycraticus (1159) whimsically subtitled De nugis curialium et vestigiis philosophorum—“On the Follies of Courtiers and the Vestiges of Philosophers.” This is the first important essay in political philosophy in the literature of Christendom. It exposes the errors and vices of contemporarygovernments, delineates an ideal state, and describes the ideal man. “Today,” he consoles us, “everything is bought openly, unless this is prevented by the modesty of the seller. The unclean fire of avarice threatens even the sacred altars…. Not even the legates of the Apostolic See keep their hands pure from gifts, but at times rage through the provinces in bacchanalian frenzy.”13 If we may believe his account (already quoted), he told Pope Hadrian IV that the Church shared liberally in the corruption of the times; to which the Pope in effect replied that men will be men however gowned. And John adds, wisely: “In every office of God’s household [the Church], while some fall behind, others are added to do their work. Among deacons, archdeacons, bishops, and legates I have seen some who labored with such earnestness in the harvest of the Lord that from the merits of their faith and virtue it could be seen that the vineyard of the Father had been rightly placed under their care.”14 Civil government, he thinks, is far more corrupt than the clergy; and it is good that the Church, for the protection of the people, should exercise a moral jurisdiction over all the kings and states of the earth.15 The most famous passages in the Polycraticus concern tyrannicide:

If princes have departed little by little from the true way, even so it is not well to overthrow them utterly at once, but rather to rebuke injustice with patient reproof until finally it becomes obvious that they are obstinate in their evil-doing…. But if the power of the ruler opposes the divine commandments, and wishes to make me share in its war against God, then with unrestrained voice I answer that God must be preferred before any man on earth…. To kill a tyrant is not merely lawful, but right and just.16

This was an unusually excitable outburst for John, and in a later passage of the same volume he added, “provided that the slayer is not bound by fealty to the tyrant.”17 It was a saving clause, for every ruler exacted an oath of fealty from his subjects. In the fifteenth century Jean Petit defended the assassination of Louis of Orléans by quoting the Polycraticus; but the Council of Constance condemned Petit on the ground that even the king may not condemn an accused person without summons and trial.

We “moderns” cannot always agree with the moderni to whom John belonged in the twelfth century; he talks now and then what seems to us to be nonsense; but even his nonsense is couched in a style of such tolerance and grace as we shall hardly find again before Erasmus. John too was a humanist, loving life more than eternity, loving beauty and kindness more than the dogmas of any faith, and quoting the ancient classics with more relish than the sacred page. He made a long list of dubitabilia—“things about which a wise man may doubt”—and included the nature and origin of the soul, the creation of the world, the relation of God’s foresight to man’s free will. But he was too clever to commit himself to heresy. He moved among the controversies of his time with diplomatic immunity and charm. He thought of philosophy not as a form of war but as a balm of peace: philosophia moderatrix omnium—philosophy was to be a moderating influence in all things; and “he who has by philosophy reached caritas, a charitable kindliness, has attained to philosophy’s true end.”18

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