Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


Mysticism may mean a tendency of the mind towards the supernatural, or it may mean a science growing out of such a tendency, -- a body of doctrine having for its object to determine the mode or manner in which the soul of man is directly united with God in contemplation and love. Mysticism, as a tendency, was a characteristic of Neo-Platonism; it reappeared in the philosophy of the Gnostics and in that of Erigena. In fact, wherever philosophy tended toward pantheism it tended towards mysticism. Thus we find the mystic spirit in the pantheistic systems with which the history of the philosophy of the twelfth century closes. Mysticism, as a science, does not appear in systematized form until the first part of the twelfth century, although the principles of orthodox mysticism are contained in the ascetic and exegetical treatises of the Fathers. When, as we have seen, William of Champeaux left Paris (i io8), he retired to the abbey of St. Victor and there continued to teach. It was out of this teaching that the mystic movement grew, which during the remainder of the century flourished at that abbey and with which are associated the Victorines, -- Hugh, Walter, and Richard. The condemnation of Abelard and the suspicion of heterodoxy incurred by Gilbert strengthened the cause of the mystics, who, from the outset, were opposed to dialectic.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Doctor Mellifluus (1091-1153), although he belonged to no school of philosophy, lent all the weight of his authority to the cause of mysticism. He was himself an exponent of the principles of mystic theology, teaching that profane science is not to be studied except in so far as it may contribute to the cultivation of the spiritual life. The end and aim of life should be to attain by means of the twelve stages or degrees of humility a contemplative love of God.{2}


Life. Hugh of St. Victor was born at Hartingam in Saxony. From 1125 until his death in 1141 he taught at the abbey of St. Victor. He is regarded as the founder of the Victorine school.

Sources. The mystical works of Hugh include De Arca Noe Morali, De Arca Noe Mystica, De Vanitate Mundi, De Arrha Animae, De Amore Sponsi ad Sponsam. These are published by Migne, Patr. Lat., Vols. CLXXV-CLXXVII. A special work dealing with the philosophy of the Victorines is Mignon's Origines de la scolastique, etc. (Paris, 1895).


Hugh taught that the contemplation of invisible essences and causes is the true complement of philosophy. "Sapientes hujus mundi propterea stulti facti sunt quia soli naturali documento incedentes, exemplaria gratiae non habuerunt."{3} Reason cannot penetrate to the truths of the natural order unless aided by God: "Ratio per se non sufficit, nisi a Deo adjuta fuerit." All knowledge is but the preliminary to the mystic life which leads to God. In this mystic life we must distinguish the preparative stage in which the soul engages in soliloquy, etc., thought (cogitatio), by which the soul seeks God in the material world, meditation (meditatio), by which the soul seeks God in the interior of the soul itself, and contemplation (contemplatio), by which the soul is united immediately with God in supernatural intuition.{4}

Richard of St. Victor, who succeeded Hugh as prior of St. Victor, taught from 1162 to 1173. Under his influence the mystic movement took up a position of more determined hostility to secular learning. The knowledge, Richard declared, of which profane philosophy boasts is nothing but error and vanity: "Suspecta est mihi omnis veritas quam non confirmat Scripturae auctoritas."{5} He observes with pleasure, "Multi qui prius fabricabant in officina Aristotelis . . . discunt cudere in officina Salvatoris."

It was, however, Walter of St. Victor, successor of Richard, who carried the mystic disapproval of secular learning to the extent of characterizing dialectic as "the devil's art." He wrote a work entitled In Quatuor Labyrinthos Franciae, in which Abelard, Peter of Lombardy, Peter of Poitiers, and Gilbert de la Porrée (the "four labyrinths") were denounced as heretics because they had treated with "Scholastic levity" the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation. To the same school belonged Achard and Godfrey of St. Victor.

Historical Position. The mystic school is justly considered to be a reaction against the rationalism of Berengar, Roscelin, and Abelard. The Victorines were at first willing to assign to human reason its legitimate scope in philosophy and theology; later, however, they made common cause with the Cornificians and opposed all profane learning, thus running counter to the Scholastic movement. Among those whom they condemned for using dialectical reasoning was Peter of Lombardy, the intellectual precursor of the greatest of the schoolmen of the Golden Age of Scholasticism.

Mysticism has, nevertheless, a recognized place in the history of the Scholastic movement it represents an important phase of the Neo-Latin civilization of which Scholasticism is a product. To the Credo ut intelligam and the Intelligo ut credam, the mystics added a third principle, Amo ut intelligam, -- a principle which should not be neglected in a complete synthesis of the spiritual and emotional elements of human life, especially if human life be viewed, as it was viewed in the Middle Ages, in relation to the other world as well as to this.

Mysticism was necessarily imaginative rather than rational. The Neo-Platonic concept of the world harmonized the elements of mysticism better than the Aristotelian concept could have done. It is these elements -- imaginativeness and Neo-Platonism -- that determine the tendency of mysticism towards pantheism.

{1} Cf. De Wulf, op. cit., p. 217; Revue d'histoire et littérature religieuses Nov.-Déc., 1902, p. 536.

{2} On St. Bernard, cf. Vacandard, Vie de S. Bernard (Paris, 1895), and Storrs, Bernard of Clairvaux (New York, 1892). His works are published by Migne, Patr. Lat., Vols. CLXXXII-CLXXXV.

{3} Quoted by González, op. cit., II, 162. González, however, as Mignon (op. cit., I, 63) has shown, bases his study of Hugh's mysticism on a work falsely attributed to the founder of the Victorine school.

{4} De Modo Dicendi et Meditandi, Cap. 8.

{5} De Praeparatione ad Contemplandum, Cap. 81.

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