ND   JMC : History of Medieval Philosophy / by Maurice De Wulf

111. Correct View. Scholastic Philosophy forms one Group among many Medieval Systems. -- (1) Disadvantages of identifying scholastic with medieval philosophy. -- The first is that of applying the same name to things that are different and opposite. Whithersoever we turn in medieval philosophy we find the doctrinal horizon expanding and varying. Western philosophy branches into many systems. From the ninth century onward a well-defined pantheism, arising out of the Neo-Platonic, is seen in conflict with numerous more or less developed forms of Aristotelian individualism. The thirteenth century marks the commencement of a long drawn-out struggle between the Averroïst system, with its vehement defenders, and the great body of doctrine to which Albertus Magnus, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus have attached their names. The farther we advance from the thirteenth century the greater was the ferment of ideas -- until the coalition of all the Renaissance forces delivered a final assault on the philosophy that had been dominant for centuries.

Nor is this all. For, side by side with Western philosophy there developed, down through the Middle Ages, other and independent lines of thought: the Byzantine philosophy on the one side, the Eastern philosophies on the other. These were important currents and all of them gave birth to many systems, each with a well-marked individuality of its own. All those various medieval efforts at philosophical synthesis stand apart from one another, irreconcilable. Even though some particular theories may be found common to two or more of the various groups, still these theories will always be found to have got special and characteristic colourings in each group, and to be more or less modified by the contexts of which they form a part.

Therefore, from the doctrinal point of view -- which is the only one that regards philosophy for its philosophical content -- it is quite impossible to find in those heterogeneous systems of the Western, Eastern and Byzantine Middle Ages any kindred characteristics, any common spirit or genius that would allow us to call them all alike by the common name "scholastic".{1}

The title "scholastic" is, moreover, by universal agreement, applied first of all to certain exceptionally great and noted philosophers -- Anselm of Canterbury, Alexander of Hales, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus -- those precisely whose giant figures alone emerge like so many lofty pinnacles from out the thick mist that darkens the Middle Ages. Can we, then, to-day, when we know the struggles in which these men were engaged, apply their family name to those who made war upon them, -- or to philosophers of other climes, men of whose very existence they were often unaware?

But if we restrict the term scholastic philosophy to one group of medieval systems, those inconveniences will disappear. Names are conventional substitutes for things. When the thing indicated by the name is simple and unique, the name is intelligible to all and easily fulfils its function of substitute. But when the apparent simplicity is found to conceal a real complexity, language must both grow and grow accurate. The terminology of the biologist will become richer according as the microscope reveals new and strange constituents in a living cell where the latter was heretofore believed to have been homogeneous. The historian of medieval philosophy feels the same necessity. When he gives distinct names to distinct systems he is merely obeying the law that governs the development of all scientific vocabulary.

Besides, when we come to determine which of the medieval systems s best entitled to be called scholastic we shall find that the choice we have made is most in keeping with the language of tradition. There is no question of changing the latter but only of making it clearer.{2} Ceteris paribus, those who have been for centuries, and are still at the present day, commonly designated as the princes of scholasticism, have obviously the prior right to the title they have always borne in the past. And, last though not least, our solution of this problem of historical terminology will emphasize several leading facts of history, facts which may be summed up in the following propositions: There exists a definite, specific philosophy which was taught in common by a group of the leading Western philosophers of the Middle Ages. This common synthesis does not sterilize originality of thought in its various propounders. It occupies the leading place among medieval systems, and it rightly claims the name of scholastic philosophy.

(2) There exists a philosophy which was taught in common by a group of the leading Western Philosophers of the Middle Ages, among whom the names of Anselm of Canterbury, Alexander of Hales, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus and William of Ockam are perhaps the most widely known. These men present close family likenesses: they all subscribe to a large number of fundamental theories, the very theories, in fact, which determine the whole structure of a philosophical system because they deal with the great leading problems which every philosophy has to face.

And the system of which we speak is not the work of any one day, or of any one man. It was not born of the genius of an Albertus Magnus or of a Thomas Aquinas: centuries were needed to build up the vast body of doctrine known as scholasticism. It is a family inheritance which was slowly amassed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, which was consolidated in the thirteenth, and which was wasted and squandered little by little from the end of the fourteenth. It was defended against invaders who would fain demolish it and build upon its ruins. Wars were waged around it; and the defence of it, energetic and triumphant in its golden age, feeble and unsuccessful in the age of its decay, will explain how men like Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and Duns Scotus, while plunged in endless controversies with one another about particular questions, went ever hand in hand when there was question of protecting their essential and common convictions from the attacks of common enemies. The ultimate reason for the existence of such a common intellectual patrimony -- not only in the domain of philosophy, but also in theology, science and art -- lies in this characteristic medieval conviction: that truth is not a personal acquisition discovered by each individual for himself, but a great treasure which is handed down and increased from generation to generation.

(3) The unity of scholastic philosophy does not involve sterility of thought among its various representatives. -- A monument in ideas, scholasticism is comparable with those monuments of stone erected during the same centuries, and of which men of many generations were the architects and builders. The comparison is a suggestive one: for the corporations in charge of these edifices left the stonecutters a free hand to follow out each his own artistic inspiration in executing the designs entrusted to him. It was thus that the men of the Middle Ages succeeded in giving a unity of plan to their cathedrals, while inviting even the lowliest of their artisans to contribute something original to the vast design.

So, in scholastic philosophy, all were agreed on the organic and essential questions, on a doctrinal minimum which differentiates the scholastic from every other system. But though this fundamental unity had its influence on the solutions proposed for special questions, it proved no bar to diversities of opinion and divergencies of interpretation: and hence the distinction between the individual systems of an Alexander of Hales, a Bonaventure, a Thomas Aquinas, a Duns Scotus, a William of Ockam. The common scholasticism, as we purpose to outline it, is the product of abstraction; the living reality was always this or that individual's system, worked out in all its details. So too, while Gothic Cathedral is a notion that applies equally to the churches of Amiens, Beauvais, Paris, etc., every real Gothic cathedral is, needless to say, a definite, individual building.

We see, then, how scholasticism may mean, according to the point of view from which we regard it, either one (abstract) system or a group of (concrete) systems closely related with one another. Like the various members of a single family, each of the scholastics reveals his own individuality, and some among them are far superior to others.

(4) This common scholasticism was the dominating system in the Western World. -- It claims the allegiance of all the greatest names. It likewise boasts of having the vast majority of followers; for, prior to the twelfth century most philosophers were contributing in one way or another to its construction, and subsequent to the thirteenth it was advocated by hundreds of distinguished teachers who published and perpetuated its leading solutions.

(5) There existed down through the Middle Ages non-scholastic (or a-scholastic) systems, that is to say, philosophies whose fundamental principles were other than those of scholasticism.{3} The appellation is a relative one. In fact, the philosophies opposed to scholasticism -- the two principal being Eriugenian pantheism and Latin Averroïsm -- are of very secondary importance when we compare their influence, their merit and the number of their adherents with those of the great system they endeavoured to supplant. From another point of view those systems are anti-scholastic, for, existing side by side with the scholastic systems, they came into unavoidable conflict with the latter. Needless to say, the non-scholastic systems deserve the same attention from the historian as the scholastic: their study is of the highest utility for a proper and adequate presentation of the whole mentality of the period.

Hence we conclude: the name scholastic philosophy will be used with advantage to indicate, not all the philosophies of the Middle Ages, but one definite system, and that the most widespread in the whole intellectual history of the Western Middle Ages. Scholasticism is the philosophy par excellence, but not the only philosophy, of the Middle Ages.

{1} It only leads to confusion to describe all the conflicting Eastern, Western and Byzantine philosophies of the Middle Ages as "scholastic". In order to find a basis for such a classification one is obliged to import extra-doctrinal, i.e., non-philosophical considerations of a vague and general kind, -- marks which might perhaps suffice to indicate a civilization, but which are too wide to serve as the real and intrinsic definition of a philosophy.

{2} We entirely endorse these apt observations of ROUSSELOT, l'Intellectualisme de S. Thomas (Paris, 1908), p. ix.: "The fact is that the current usage, deceived by superficial analogies, has included incompatible elements under one and the same term and carried this contradiction into the very concept for which the term is made to stand".

{3} See 206, note.

<< ======= >>