Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


Life. Nicholas of Autrecourt{1} illustrates by his career as well as by his doctrines the deplorable condition into which Ockamism and Averroism had plunged philosophical speculation about the middle of the fourteenth century. In 1340, while Nicholas was still a mere bachelor in theology at the University of Paris, he was cited, together with six other students of theology, to appear before Benedict XII to answer to the charge of disseminating erroneous doctrines.{2} Six years later he was condemned, and in 1347 he renounced his errors.


Hauréau and the editors of the Chartularium{3} publish a document in which is preserved a sample of the sophistical reasoning employed by Nicholas. The only principle which is immediately evident is the principle of contradiction. To this principle, therefore, every proposition must be reduced, in order that its truth may be demonstrated. Now, it is evident that an identical proposition, such as A = A, is the only proposition to which the principle of contradiction can be applied. It follows that identical propositions are the only propositions that can be proved to be true. The law of causality, the existence of the external world, the existence of the faculties of the soul cannot be demonstrated, because they cannot be reduced to the principle of contradiction.

Not content with these conclusions, which are virtually a profession of phenomenalism, Nicholas of Autrecourt goes so far as to call into question the principle of contradiction itself, thus ending in absolute scepticism:

Deus est, Deus non est, penitus idem significant, licet alio modo. . . Item dixi, in quadam disputatione, quod contradictoria ad invicem idem significant.{4}

He denies the existence of substantial changes, explaining that such changes take place by means of combinations of atoms (congregatio corporum athomalium naturalium).

In his theological doctrines Nicholas advocates the theologicat determinism (denial of free will on the part of God) which was formulated by Thomas Bradwardine in his celebrated treatise De Causa Dei contra Pelagium (1344).

Historical Position. The doctrine of theological determinism shows the influence of the ultra-realism of the Averroists, while the sophistical method employed by Nicholas of Autrecourt betrays the influence of the method, if not of the doctrines, of Ockam. These two factors, Averroism and Ockamism, brought about the degeneration of Scholasticism even before the dawn of the modern era and the appearance of the forces which caused the complete disintegration of the Scholastic system.

Retrospect. It is not necessary to point out the signs of decay and dissolution which mark the fourth period in the history of Scholasticism. The effort to simplify Scholastic philosophy was, no doubt, intended as a reform; it aimed at correcting an evil which really existed; the process, however, of pruning the superabundant growth of philosophy was carried to the extent of cutting out the very core of Scholasticism{5} Durandus, Aureolus, and Ockam, by setting aside as useless the most essential elements of Scholastic philosophy, did more harm to Scholasticism than even the Averroists had done. For it was Ockam and his followers who, by neglecting the serious study of the great masters of the school, contributed to bring about that profound ignorance of the real doctrines of Scholasticism which, at the opening of the new era, rendered impossible the alliance of the schoolmen with the advocates of the new science. The Averroists wrought, irreparable injury to Scholasticism both directly and indirectly: directly, by their doctrines of determinism and of the unity of the active intellect, as well as by their principle that what is true in theology may be false in philosophy; indirectly, by their peculiar method, which was known as ipsedixitism. The Averroists outdid the Thomists and Scotists in their reverence for the word of the master; they gloried in the title of "Aristotle's monkey," or " Averroes' monkey," and when the Renaissance came, and the antagonism between science and philosophy arose out of the misunderstandings of the philosophers and the scientists, the greatest source of misunderstanding was the failure of the scientists to distinguish between the method of the earlier schoolmen and that of the degenerate Scholastics, who had fallen into the ways of the Averroists, and had begun to test all truth by an appeal to the authority of a master.

Before we turn to the study of the modern era it is necessary to give here a general idea of the character of Scholastic philosophy.

Character of Scholastic Philosophy. Scholastic philosophy had its origin, as we have seen, in the foundation of the Carolingian schools, an event which was the beginning of an intellectual renaissance of Europe in no way inferior in importance to the humanistic renaissance of the fifteenth century. The philosophy of the schools resulted from the attempt to dispel the intellectual darkness of the age of barbarian rule, and throughout the course of its development it bore the mark of its origin. The schoolmen were the defenders of the rights of reason; and if mysticism retarded, and rationalism compromised, the Scholastic movement, the success of mysticism and rationalism was merely temporary. Abelard and Gilbert de la Porrée were succeeded by Alexander of Hales, Albert the Great, and St. Thomas of Aquin, who, while they avoided the errors into which their predecessors had fallen, adopted the idea of method for which their predecessors had contended, and succeeded in winning over even the most unyielding of the orthodox to a recognition of the just claims of human reason. The attitude of the great schoolmen towards the rights of reason appears most strikingly in the Scholastic use of dialectic as a means of arriving at a knowledge of natural truth and of obtaining a scientific, albeit an imperfect, grasp of the meaning of the mysteries of faith.

The use of dialectic by the schoolmen was determined by the conditions in which Scholasticism developed. Until the end of the twelfth century the schoolmen's knowledge of Greek philosophy was virtually limited to an acquaintance with Aristotle's logical treatises. When, however, Aristotle's metaphysical and psychological works were introduced into Christian Europe, the schoolmen began to construct a system of speculation based on Aristotelian metaphysics and psychology. The problem of universals, which the preceding centuries had discdssed from the dialectician's point of view, was now successfully solved by the application of the principles of Aristotle's psychology. The notions of substance, person, nature, accident, mode, potency, and act were developed by the aid of Aristotle's metaphysical doctrines, and a theory of knowledge was formulated from his principles of epistemology. Still, the adoption of Aristotelianism as the basis of a system of speculative thought, and the application of Aristotelianism to a rational exposition of Christian dogma, must not be taken as the essential trait of Scholasticism. For Scholastic philosophy was eclectic in the truest sense of the word. While preserving a correct idea of systematic cohesiveness, it admitted elements of truth from whatever source they were derived, whether from Aristotle or from Plato, from the Stoics or from the Epicureans, from the writers of the Patristic age or from the Greek and Arabian commentators.

The trait which, even more than the use of dialectic or the adoption of Aristotelianism, characterized the philosophy of the schools, is the effort on the part of the schoolmen to unify philosophy and theology, to discover and demonstrate the harmony of natural truth with truth of the supernatural order. This is the thought which inspired the first speculative attempts of the schoolmen, and which, after having manifested itself in so widely different forms in the philosophy of Erigena, of Abelard, and of St. Anselm, was finally crystallized in the principles in which St. Thomas enunciated his definition of the relations between reason and faith. The day has long gone by when a historian could, without fear of contradiction and protest, represent Scholastic philosophy as the subjugation of reason to authority. It is now universally conceded that the phrase ancilla theologiae implied no servility on the part of philosophy, but rather the honorable service of carrying the torch by which the path of theology is lighted. Hauréau{6} declares that one has but to look at the vast number of volumes which the schoolmen wrote to realize how much value they attached to philosophy and how inexorably they felt the need of exercising their reason. Indeed, it is only the most superficial student of history who fails to recognize in the Middle Ages a period of immense intellectual activity, and the more the philosophy of that period is studied the deeper becomes the conviction that the schoolmen were far from failing to recognize the rights of human reason. If, then, Scholastic philosophy effected the most perfect conciliation of reason with faith, we must not take it for granted that the conciliation was brought about at the cost of the independence of philosophy. The schoolmen were as far removed from fideism as they were from rationalism. They attached independent value to philosophy as well as to theology, while they contended that philosophy and theology can never contradict each other. In this way -- and herein lies the philosophical significance of Scholastic philosophy -- the schoolmen established between the natural and the supernatural the relation which the Greeks had established between matter and spirit, the relation of distinction without opposition.

This doctrine of the continuity and independence of the natural with respect to the supernatural order of truth is the core of Scholasticism. It is by this that Scholasticism is distinguished from Greek philosophy, of which the chief defect, as well as the paramount merit, was its complete naturalness. It is by this, too, that Scholasticism is distinguished from the philosophy of the new era. Modern philosophy -- post-Reformation philosophy, as it may be called -- was born of the revolt of philosophy against theology, of reason against faith. It adopted at the very outset the Averroistic principle that what is true in theology may be false in philosophy, -- a principle diametrically opposed to the thought which inspired Scholasticism. Indeed, in the first great system which appeared in the modern era, not only is philosophy divorced from theology, but mind is placed in complete antithesis to matter; for in Descartes' philosophy, the spirit of disintegration, which characterizes the modern era, is subversive not only of the work of the schoolmen but also of the best achievements of Greek speculation. Scholasticism distinguishes without separating; modern philosophy either fails altogether to distinguish (fideism, monism), or distinguishes and separates (rationalism, Cartesian spiritualism).

It remains to point out the difference in character between Scholastic philosophy and the philosophy of the Patristic era. The Fathers, as well as the schoolmen, taught (as, indeed, all Christian philosophers must teach) that revelation cannot contradict reason, nor reason, revelation. But, although the Fathers employed reason in order to elucidate revelation, they did not carry the use of dialectic to the extent to which the schoolmen subsequently carried it: in ultimate resort, they insisted on the ascetico-religious rather than on the logical quality of mind as a condition requisite for the attainment of higher knowledge. Moreover, the Fathers were, with few exceptions, Platonists, while the schoolmen were practically all Aristotelians. Finally, while the Fathers, in conditions more or less unfavorable to constructive effort, effected a partial synthesis of the speculative elements of Christian thought, the schoolmen, in a rejuvenated and completely Christianized Europe, in an age in which every circumstance was favorable to synthetic speculation, completed the synthesis begun in the Patristic age, and developed a philosophy which is as different from the philosophy of the Patristic era as the Neo-Latin Europe of the thirteenth century is from the decadent Latin Europe of the fifth.

{1} Cf. De Wulf, op. cit., p. 377.

{2} Chartul., II, 505.

{3} Cf. op. cit., II, 576 ff.

{4} Op. cit., II, 578, 580.

{5} As a Certain John Letourneur (Joannes Versor, died 1480) quaintly says: "Quasi abusus rei tolli non posset nisi ipsa res e media removeretur, quasi infantem abluere mater nequiret nisi eumdem in flumen prorsus abjiceret," apud Hauréau, op. cit., II, 2, 491.

{6} Dict. des sciences phil., article, "Scolastique."

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