scholasticism

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

scholasticism

scholasticism (skōlăs´tĬsĬzəm), philosophy and theology of Western Christendom in the Middle Ages. Virtually all medieval philosophers of any significance were theologians, and their philosophy is generally embodied in their theological writings. There were numerous scholastic philosophies in the Middle Ages, but basic to all scholastic thought was the conjunction of faith and reason. For the greatest of the scholastics, this meant the use of reason to deepen the understanding of what is believed on faith and ultimately to give a rational content to faith. It was in the course of applying reason to faith that medieval thinkers developed and taught important philosophical ideas not directly related to theology.

Influences on Scholasticism

The greatest of earlier Christian philosophers had been St. Augustine, who saw in Plato (or in Neoplatonism) a system congenial with Christianity. This influence combined with that of the Pseudo-Dionysius (see Dionysius the Areopagite, Saint) to color the speculations of Western thinkers with Neoplatonic ideas. Much knowledge of ancient philosophy came to the early scholastics through the writings of Boethius. John Scotus Erigena continued the tradition of Neoplatonism in the 9th cent., adding to it certain mystical notions of his own.

Early Scholasticism

The beginning of scholasticism can be identified in the methods used by civil and canon lawyers of the 11th and 12th cent. to reconcile seemingly contradictory statements. St. Anselm in the late 11th cent. took as his life's motto "fides quaerens intelligentiam" [faith seeking understanding], and sought to use reason to illuminate the content of belief. An example of this is his famous ontological proof of the existence of God, based on the assertion that the highest being of which our minds can conceive must exist in reality.

The most important philosophical problem in the 12th cent. was the question of the universal (see realism). Opposing both the extreme nominalism of Roscelin and the realism of William of Champeaux, Peter Abelard taught a moderate doctrine; he recognized the universal as a symbol to which human beings have attached a commonly agreed significance, based on the similarity they perceive in different objects. Abelard's emphasis on the powers of reason, which he exaggerated in his early years, led to his condemnation by Bernard of Clairvaux. John of Salisbury, an English scholar noted for his humanistic studies, was representative of the important work done at the noted school at Chartres.

Hugh of St. Victor, a German scholar and mystic, urged the study of every branch of learning. His treatise On Sacraments was the first summa, an important medieval literary genre. The summae were comprehensive, intricately arranged works on theology and philosophy; they were characterized by their wide scope and vast learning. The Book of Sentences, however, assembled by Peter Lombard in the early 12th cent., was to become the classical source book for medieval thinkers. It was a compilation of sources from the church fathers, especially St. Augustine, and in subsequent years virtually every great medieval thinker wrote a commentary on the Sentences.

The Golden Age

The 13th cent. is generally regarded as the golden age of medieval philosophy. It was marked by two important developments: the growth of universities, especially at Paris and Oxford (see colleges and universities), and the introduction of Aristotle into the West. Until then, only the early works of Aristotle had been known to Western scholars, and those in poor translations; between 1120 and 1220 virtually the whole body of Aristotle's work was rendered into Latin, mainly from Arabic translations. The impact on Western thinkers of this vast body of systematic thought and organized research and analysis was enormous. Also important was the influence of Avicenna and Averroës, the two Arabic commentators whose interpretations of Aristotle were translated as well.

The Univ. of Paris became a leading center for the study of Aristotle and attracted scholars from all over Europe; the Dominicans and Franciscans, popular new religious orders, played a leading role in the expansion of the universities and the development of scholasticism. It was in the universities that the two traditional forms of scholastic literature were developed: the question (a thesis that is posed and defended against objections) and the commentary. Although Aristotle's work was of central significance in the development of scholasticism, it did not make its way without difficulties. In 1210 and 1215 papal authority prohibited the teaching of some of Aristotle's works at the Univ. of Paris, although by 1240 the ban was no longer enforced.

The first Western Aristotelian was Albertus Magnus, who was an important student of the natural sciences as well. But the leading figure in the movement to "Christianize Aristotle" was St. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican and one of the greatest intellectual figures of the Middle Ages. He produced a vast body of philosophical work, which was remarkably precise, detailed, and organized. Denying any basic conflict between faith and reason, Aquinas sought to demonstrate that reason could lead man to many of the great spiritual truths and could help him to understand those truths that he accepted on faith. He combated secular interpretations of Aristotle, especially "Latin Averroism," the doctrines of Siger de Brabant. In particular, Aquinas attacked the Averroist teaching that denied the immortality of the individual soul.

Aquinas himself was vigorously opposed by the Franciscans, led by St. Bonaventure. Bonaventure, rooted in an older theological tradition, feared the excesses of reason in its contact with faith and almost succeeded in having Aquinas' teachings condemned at Paris. Another opponent of Aquinas was Duns Scotus, who developed a new scholastic synthesis. He argued that natural reason is limited in its ability to penetrate matters of faith, thus separating philosophy and theology.

Continuation of the Scholastic Tradition

William of Occam, another Franciscan, is generally regarded as the last of the great medieval philosophers. By firmly separating philosophy and theology and insisting that there is no rational ground for faith, he brought an end to that synthesis of faith and reason that characterized the greatest scholastic thought. After the 15th cent. the reputation of medieval philosophy declined. But the break between medieval philosophy and Renaissance thought was mainly in the area of metaphysics; scholastic tradition and methods continued to be followed in politics and law—in canon law, civil law, and common law and, later, in the development of international law.

In the late 15th cent. the Dominicans began a Thomistic revival; its brilliant leader was the reformer Cajetan. There was also a living Scotist tradition, and every Catholic university had Thomists and Scotists in its theological faculty. After the 18th cent. the secularization of the universities resulted in the suppression of the theological faculties, and the old tradition was broken. The Scotists always suffered from the very bad state of the text of Duns Scotus' works, and in the 20th cent. the Franciscan order undertook a complete and authoritative edition of them.

Neoscholasticism

Contemporary interest in scholasticism, particularly among the neoscholastics, began as a concerted effort toward the end of the 19th cent. at the Univ. of Louvain. Impetus was given to the movement by the papal encyclical of Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris (1879), which called upon Roman Catholics to renew the study of the scholastics, especially St. Thomas Aquinas. Neoscholastics are not unanimous in their approach, but do generally agree that their philosophical study must not proceed in a manner that is neglectful of their Christian faith. Among the foremost neoscholastics have been the Frenchmen Jacques Maritain and Étienne Gilson.

Bibliography

See E. Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1951, repr. 1963); J. Pieper, Scholasticism (tr. 1960, repr. 1964); J. R. Weinberg, A Short History of Medieval Philosophy (1964); J. Pelikan, The Growth of Medieval Theology (1978).

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