The historian always oversimplifies, and hastily selects a manageable minority of facts and faces out of a crowd of souls and events whose multitudinous complexity he can never quite embrace or comprehend. We must not think of Scholasticism as an abstraction purged of a thousand individual peculiarities, but as a lazy name for the hundreds of conflicting philosophical and theological theories taught in the medieval schools from Anselm in the eleventh century to Occam in the fourteenth. The historian is miserably subject to the brevity of time and human patience, and must dishonor with a line men who were immortal for a day, but now lie hidden between the peaks of history.
One of the strangest figures of the many-sided thirteenth century was Ramon Lull—Raymond Lully (1232?—1315). Born in Palma of a wealthy Catalan family, he found his way to the court of James II at Barcelona, enjoyed a riotous youth, and slowly narrowed his amours to monogamy. Suddenly, at the age of thirty, he renounced the world, the flesh, and the Devil to devote his polymorphous energy to mysticism, occultism, philanthropy, evangelism, and the pursuit of martyrdom. He studied Arabic, founded a college of Arabic studies in Majorca, and petitioned the Council of Vienne (1311) to set up schools of Oriental languages and literature to prepare men for missionary work among Saracens and Jews. The Council established five such schools—at Rome, Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and Salamanca—with chairs of Hebrew, Chaldaic, and Arabic. Perhaps Lully learned Hebrew, for he became an intimate student of the Cabala.
His 150 works defy classification. In youth he founded Catalan literature with several volumes of love poetry. He composed in Arabic, and then translated into Catalan, his Libre de contemplado en Deu, or Book of Contemplation on God—no mere mystic revery but a million-word encyclopedia of theology (1272). Two years later, as if with another self, he wrote a manual of chivalric war—Libre del orde de cavalyeria; and almost at the same time a handbook of education—Liber doctrinae puerilis. He tried his hand at philosophical dialogue, and published three such works, presenting Moslem, Jewish, Greek Christian, Roman Christian, and Tatar points of view with astonishing tolerance, fairness, and kindliness. About 1283 he composed a long religious romance,Blanquerna, which patient experts have pronounced “one of the masterpieces of the Christian Middle Ages.”143 At Rome in 1295 he issued another encyclopedia, the Arbre de sciencia, or Tree of Science, stating 4000 questions in sixteen sciences, and giving confident replies. During a stay in Paris (1309–11) he fought the lingering Averroism there with some minor theological works, which he signed, with unwonted accuracy, Phantasticus. Throughout his long life he poured forth so many volumes on science and philosophy that even to list them would empty the pen.
Amid all these interests he was fascinated by an idea that has captured brilliant minds in our own time—that all the formulas and processes of logic could be reduced to mathematical or symbolical form. The ars magna, or “great art” of logic, said Raymond, consists in writing the basic concepts of human thought on movable squares, and then combining these in various positions not only to reduce all the ideas of philosophy to equations and diagrams, but to prove, by mathematical equivalence, the truths of Christianity. Raymond had the gentleness of some lunatics, and hoped to convert Mohammedans to Christianity by the persuasive manipulations of his ars. The Church applauded his confidence, but frowned upon his proposal to reduce all faith to reason, and to put the Trinity and the Incarnation into his logical machine.144
In 1292, resolved to balance the loss of Palestine to the Saracens by peaceably converting Moslem Africa, Raymond crossed to Tunis, and secretly organized there a tiny colony of Christians. In 1307, on one of his missionary trips to Tunisia, he was arrested and brought before the chief judge of Bougie. The judge arranged a public disputation between Raymond and some Moslem divines; Raymond, says his biographer, won the argument, and was thrown into jail. Some Christian merchants contrived his rescue, and brought him back to Europe. But in 1314, apparently longing for martyrdom, he crossed again to Bougie, preached Christianity openly, and was stoned to death by a Moslem mob (1315).
To pass from Raymond Lully to John Duns Scotus is like emerging from Carmen into the Well-Tempered Clavichord. John’s middle and last names came from his birth (1266?) at Duns in Berwickshire (?). He was sent at eleven to a Franciscan monastery at Dumfries; four years later he entered the Order. He studied at Oxford and Paris, and then taught at Oxford, Paris, and Cologne. Then, still a youth of forty-two, he died (1308), leaving behind him a multiplicity of writings, chiefly on metaphysics, distinguished by such obscurity and subtlety as would hardly appear again in philosophy before the coming of another Scot. And indeed the function of Duns Scotus was very much like that of Kant five centuries later—to argue that the doctrines of religion must be defended by their practical-moral necessity rather than their logical cogency. The Franciscans, willing to jettison philosophy to save Augustine from Dominican Thomas, made their young Doctor Sub-tilis their champion, and followed his lead, alive and dead, through generations of philosophical war.
This Duns was one of the keenest minds in medieval history. Having studied mathematics and other sciences, and feeling the influence of Grosseteste and Roger Bacon at Oxford, he formed a severe notion of what constituted proof; and applying that test to the philosophy of Thomas, he ended, almost in its honeymoon, the rash marriage of theology with philosophy. Despite his clear understanding of the inductive method, Duns argued —precisely contrary to Francis Bacon—that all inductive or a posteriori proof—from effect to cause—is uncertain; that the only real proof is deductive and a priori—to show that certain effects must follow from the essential nature of the cause. For example, to prove the existence of God, we must first study metaphysics—i.e., study “being as being,” and by strict logic arrive at the essential qualities of the world. In the realm of essences there must be one which is the source of all the rest, the Primus; this First Being is God. Duns agrees with Thomas that God is Actus Purus, but he interprets the phrase not as Pure Actuality but as Pure Activity. God is primarily will rather than intellect. He is the cause of all causes, and is eternal. But that is all that we can know of Him by reason. That He is a God of Mercy, that He is Three in One, that He created the world in time, that He watches over all by Providence—these and practically all the doctrines of the Christian faith are credibilia; they should be believed on the authority of the Scriptures and the Church, but they cannot be demonstrated by reason. Indeed, the moment we begin to reason about God we run into baffling contradictions (the Kantian “antinomies of pure reason”). If God is omnipotent He is the cause of all defects, including all evil; and secondary causes, including the human will, are illusory. In view of these ruinous conclusions, and because of the necessity of religious belief for our moral life (Kant’s “practical reason”), it is wiser to abandon the Thomistic attempt to prove theology by philosophy, and to accept the dogmas of the faith on the authority of the Bible and the Church.145 We cannot know God, but we can love Him, and that is better than knowing.146
In psychology Duns is a “realist” after his own subtle fashion: universals are objectively real in the sense that those identical features, which the mind abstracts from similar objects to form a general idea, must be in the objects, else how could we perceive and abstract them? He agrees with Thomas that all natural knowledge is derived from sensation. For the rest he differs from him all along the psychologic line. The principle of individuation is not matter but form, and form only in the strict sense of thisness (haecceitas)—the peculiar qualities and distinguishing marks of the individual person or thing. The faculties of the soul are not distinct from one another, nor from the soul itself. The basic faculty of the soul is not understanding but will; it is the will that determines to what sensations or purposes the intellect is to attend; only the will (voluntas), not the judgment (arbitrium), is free. Thomas’ argument that our hunger for continuance and for perfect happiness proves the immortality of the soul proves too much, for it could be applied to any beast in the field. We cannot prove personal immortality; we must simply believe.147
As the Franciscans had claimed to see in Thomas the victory of Aristotle over the Gospels, so the Dominicans might have seen in Duns the triumph of Arabic over Christian philosophy: his metaphysic is Avicenna’s, his cosmology is Ibn Gabirol’s. But the tragic and basic fact in Scotus is his abandonment of the attempt to prove the basic Christian doctrines by reason. His followers carried the matter further, and removed one after another of the articles of faith from the sphere of reason, and so multiplied his distinctions and subtleties that in England a “Dunsman” came to mean a hairsplitting fool, a dull sophist, a dunce. Those who had learned to love philosophy refused to be subordinated to theologians who rejected philosophy; the two studies quarreled and parted; and the rejection of reason by faith issued in the rejection of faith by reason. So ended, for the Age of Faith, the brave adventure.
Scholasticism was a Greek tragedy, whose nemesis lurked in its essence. The attempt to establish the faith by reason implicitly acknowledged the authority of reason; the admission, by Duns Scotus and others, that the faith could not be established by reason shattered Scholasticism, and so weakened the faith that in the fourteenth century revolt broke out all along the doctrinal and ecclesiastical line. Aristotle’s philosophy was a Greek gift to Latin Christendom, a Trojan horse concealing a thousand hostile elements. These seeds of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were not only “the revenge of paganism” over Christianity, they were also the unwitting revenge of Islam; invaded in Palestine, and driven from nearly all of Spain, the Moslems transmitted their science and philosophy to Western Europe, and it proved to be a disintegrating force; it was Avicenna and Averroës, as well as Aristotle, who infected Christianity with the germs of rationalism.
But no perspective can dim the splendor of the Scholastic enterprise. It was an undertaking as bold and rash as youth, and had youth’s faults of over-confidence and love of argument; it was the voice of a new adolescent Europe that had rediscovered the exciting game of reason. Despite heresy-hunting councils and inquisitors, Scholasticism enjoyed and displayed, during the two centuries of its exaltation, a freedom of inquiry, thought, and teaching hardly surpassed in the universities of Europe today. With the help of the jurists of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it sharpened the Western mind by forging the tools and terms of logic, and by such subtle reasoning as nothing in pagan philosophy could excel. Certainly this facility in argument ran to excess, and generated the disputatious verbosity and “scholastic” hairsplitting against which not only Roger and Francis Bacon, but the Middle Ages themselves, rebelled.* Yet the good of the inheritance far outweighed the bad. “Logic, ethics, and metaphysics,” said Condorcet, “owe to Scholasticism a precision unknown to the ancients themselves”; and “it is to the Schoolmen,” said Sir William Hamilton, “that the vulgar languages are indebted for what precision and analytical subtlety they possess.”149 The peculiar quality of the French mind—its love of logic, its clarity, its finesse—was in large measure formed by the heyday of logic in the schools of medieval France.150
Scholasticism, which in the seventeenth century was to be an obstacle to the development of the European mind, was in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a revolutionary advance, or restoration, in human thought. “Modern” thought begins with the rationalism of Abélard, reaches its first peak in the clarity and enterprise of Thomas Aquinas, sustains a passing defeat in Duns Scotus, rises again with Occam, captures the papacy in Leo X, captures Christianity in Erasmus, laughs in Rabelais, smiles in Montaigne, runs riot in Voltaire, triumphs sardonically in Hume, and mourns its victory in Anatole France. It was the medieval dash into reason that founded that brilliant and reckless dynasty.