World's Great Philosophers:
The Early Greeks
Socrates And Plato
Epicurus, Zeno, Pyrrho
Read More Articles About: World's Great Philosophers
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
All that is left of Scholasticism is the names of a few men who were the redoubtable knights of the terrible war of words that raged in Europe from the Eleventh to the Fourteenth Century. Fortunately for the reader of this work it so happens that the three most eminent leaders in Scholastic philosophy present the most interesting material for biography among the large number of doctors who engaged in the "great dispute." These three are Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus. In the lives of most of the philosophers we have been considering it has been difficult to separate, when they are treated biographically as they are here, what they thought from what they did. With the most famous of the Scholastics the case is different. The life of Abelard and in some degree the life of Aquinas, are romantic to a degree that invites the pen of the novelist rather than that of the historian.
Even if it were desirable here to describe the philosophy of the schools in any adequate manner, the task a task indeed would be quite impossible. It will be sufficient, therefore, to sketch in the most rapid way the bare outlines of the supremely involved and interminable doctrines, the body of which is known as Scholasticism. This would be, in a way, necessary as an introduction to the biographies of the three great men already indicated.
To Scholasticism there is no definite beginning or end. The schools founded by Charlemagne found the movement well on its way, and with these schools came the rapid rise and development of Scholastic thought. If the Scholastic period is said to have begun in the Ninth Century and ended in the Fifteenth, a fair estimate of the length of its life will have been made. Its influence extended here and there down to the Seventeenth Century, but the thought of the schoolmen may be said to have totally disappeared as an intellectual power with the rise of science and the application of the New Method.
Today Scholasticism is regarded as a curiosity of philosophical history. Perhaps no man living has mastered it, and those who have attempted the work have had, perforce, to relinquish it because of its magnitude. The student of philosophy who is wise will be content with such expositions of Scholasticism as he can procure at second hand. The writings of the two leading disputationists, Thomas and Duns, alone aggregate nearly fifty tremendous folio volumes, the mere aspect of any one of which is enough to dampen the enthusiasm of any but the most recklessly courageous. Many scholars who have found the meta-physics of the ancient and the modern philosophers easy of understanding have surrendered to the obscurity, or the inanity, whichever it may be, of the Scholastics. It is possible, however, to present here the principal point in dispute, and to describe roughly some of the speculations of the schoolmen.
When the Scholastics speculated, Theology dominated thought. The church was supreme in Europe and the philosophers were all of them divines. They accepted without question the dogmas of the Christian religion as it was then taught from Rome, and in no way sought to conflict with what they unqualifiedly adhered to as absolute truth.
But without the domain of Theology there were many questions upon which it was perfectly lawful for men to exercise the intellect, and these matters were the subject of much of the speculation of the schoolmen. But this was not all. Medioeval metaphysics partakes more of the character of theology than of philosophy. The schoolmen were all theologians, and while they were free to philosophize to the extent of their desire concerning non-theological matters, they even sought to treat of all questions from the theological point of view. They adopted the Aristotelian logic, but they concerned them-selves not at all, or only in the most unconcerned of ways, with problems that fascinated the Greek master.
For them nature had little or no interest. The great panorama of the visible world with its myriad mysteries offering themselves for attack; processes of organic growth and development; the causes of birth and death among men and animals; the origin and beginning of the universe, if it had any; the phenomena of the rise and fall of nations and races; the causes of religious heterogeneity; the origin of government and political authority; the inequality of classes and castes; the shape of the solar system and the distance of the stars; changes of the seasons, and the mystery of lightning-flash and thunder-bolt; the superiority of man over other living creatures; the amazing intricacies of organic structure; the fall of rain, hail, and snow; the river flowing to the sea and the passing cloud; the budding of a rose or the habits of the bee; the mountain range and the sea; fire, water, earth, air all these things were pre-accounted for and explained to the mind of the Scholastic. Why speculate or inquire into matters which were already settled and established?
The Scholastic had other affairs to look after. Theology had already irrevocably decided the origin and purpose of all things. Scholasticism gave itself up to another dispute. After centuries of thought it had defined the question at issue. That question, reappearing under a new name, was only, after all, the old point of departure between Plato and Aristotle. The dispute between the two leading schools, of the middle ages has been called Nominalism vs. Realism, or Universals vs. Particulars. The question was, Are Ideas copies of Things or are Things copies of Ideas? Plato, it will be remembered, taught that Color existed per se, independent quite of particular reds, greens, 'Or blues inherent in different objects. Aristotle taught that Plato's independent existence of Color was only an imaginary existence; that there could be no color apart from a thing colored; that Man did not exist except in the sense of the totality of individual men; that there could be no Virtue without something or. some person that was virtuous.
The Realists were those who held to the Platonic teaching. They believed, or contended, that Virtue, Color, Truth, were Realities abiding in themselves as entities apart from things or persons partaking of their nature. The Nominalists held to the Aristotelian teaching. They contended that Virtue, Color, Truth, were mere names by which the qualities of the virtues, the chromatic, or the truthful were generalized. That there should be any dispute about such a question, as we have already seen, seems absurd. Yet it is a fact that 'the Scholastics wrangled and warred over it until they reached a point little short of frenzy. For a time the Realists triumphed, but in the end the Nominalists appeared to have won the battle, not improbably because their opponents were the first to grow weary from pure disputation.
Such was the grand dispute. But incidentally the Scholastics disputed about everything else which the dogmas of the church had not lifted from the possibility of discussion. The traditional example of the learned doctors debating by the hour as to the precise number of angels who could stand on the point of a needle is not in the slightest an exaggerated statement of the facts. The Scholastics wrangled about everything to which philosophers nowadays pay no attention whatever, and wholly slighted those matters that are now considered the most important pabulum of thought. Their collected works would fill a library. Those parts of their doctrines that are intelligible are of a nature such as has been just described. Their mighty quarrels about the definitions of microscopically small minutia are often totally with-out meaning or of any value whatever. The doctors were very learned indeed; but they were learned only in meta-physics, and the most erudite of them all did not know as much truth about nature as a first year academic knows now. On the other hand, the most erudite savant of to-day would be an ignoramus if judged by the standard of the Middle Ages.
All writers, or almost all, have ridiculed the Scholastics, and perhaps unjustly. The same kind of ridicule has been applied and is now applied to students of special sciences who split hairs after their own fashion. The peculiar vulnerability of the schoolmen lies in their endless and purposeless disputations about insignificant and chiefly imaginary differences. They hurled logomachy at logomachy; emitted words as hail; fought like sparrows over a hay seed, and with as deafening a loquacity; produced thousands of volumes of arguments ; wrought themselves into an extasis of dialectics and then lay down and died without having added one jot to human knowledge.
But, as Lewes remarks, beneath all this verbosity were the deepest problems of ontology, and the Scholastics, if they did nothing else, kept alive the sparks of intellect that were soon to blossom into flame. That they did not permit themselves to soar into the clear blue of speculation was because they sought to conform themselves to accepted dogma. To-day the most eminent of Christian thinkers do not hesitate to give free rein to speculation based on the truths established by science. The church of the middle ages encouraged philosophy as the handmaid of religion. The church, fashioning herself to the times, now declares that the new handmaid of Religion is Science.
Of the Scholastics the one man whose name is most widely known to-day was Abelard. His fame rests not so much upon his teachings or his originality, of which he had little, as upon the romance of his life. With that fame is ever entwined the name of Heloise, the brilliant woman who loved him and was beloved again. Alexander Pope, the poet, has done more than any other one man to popularize the name and story of Abelard. The poetic beauty of Pope's epistle, "Eloisa to Abelard," is not mar-red by whatever historical inaccuracies that may have crept into the text. Hallam, the historian, charges Pope with grave injustice to Heloise by "putting into her mouth the sentiments of a coarse and abandoned woman," but the condemnation of the critic has not detracted from the great beauty of the poem.
Peter Abelard was the son of a noble family of Brittany, and was born at Nantes in 1079. At that time the King of France was Philip I. The life and wrtings of Abelard have been the subject of considerable labor on the part of the French authors Cousin, Remusat, and Guizot.
From these three authorities the various biographies that have been written of the philosopher have been made up. As a youth Abelard gave promise of greatness, or at least of distinction. He was ardent in his studies, courteous in manner, and noble in bearing as in birth. The attractions of his person, the striking beauty of his features, and the melody of his voice made him conspicuous among his fellows. In Abelard's time the schools were already flourishing, and almost as a mere boy he was sent to Paris to attend the lectures of William of Champeaux, whose school drew pupils from all parts of Europe. Abelard was not long winning the esteem of master and pupils, and was soon making his influence felt in Paris. The acquisition of fame then was far easier than now. All that was needed to make one's self a center of attraction was a little eloquence, quickness of wit, and some deviation from current doctrines. Abelard possessed all of these qualifications in a marked degree. William was arch-deacon of Paris and the head of the Parisian School, with-al, an important personage. The new pupil was a mere youth, but a nobleman, handsome in appearance, quick witted, precociously mature in mind, and possessed of a courage that feared nothing. Now, the deacon was a Realist, and Abelard fretted and chafed listening to his expositions. Statements from the chair were challenged fearlessly by the youth from Brittany, and in these disputes between master and pupil the dialectics of the former was often put to rout by the logic of the latter.
This violent dissenting from the teachings of the school was the cause of much trouble in the breast of the professor. Abelard championed doctrines which had been only recently the cause of severe censure from Rome and had almost resulted in the excommunication of Roscellinus. William warned Abelard of the dangerous ground he was treading upon and defined some of the opinions of the young logician as heretical. At the end of two years Abelard left Paris and opened a school of metaphysics at Melun and afterward at Corbeil. For a time after this he traveled, and when he returned to Paris t was not as a pupil seeking light, but as an acknowledged master. On the occasion of this visit to the capital Abelard met his former professor in a public debate with such force that William was obliged to recast his philosophy and admit the fallacy of his logic. This victory gave Abelard tremendous prestige, and he at once took his place at the head of the French philosophers. As a lecturer no one approached him. His musical voice alone was enough to attract listeners. But added to this was a happy faculty of speaking to the point and making himself understood. Abandoning the method of dry discussion he interspersed illustration, quotation, and anecdote with such charm and pertinence as drew all classes of persons to his discourses.
After conquering all the heights of philosophy, Abelard now turned his attention to theology, and his treatment of this subject was as refreshingly novel as had been his way of philosophizing. He scorned precedents of exegesis and cut out new paths for himself which fascinated the throng but which vinegared the brows of the old men who trod the beaten way of thought. This was especially true of Anselm of Canterbury, a theologian of the old, dry school, who could not put up with young Abelard's bold playing with fire; an aversion only strengthened by the young man's personal attractions, and especially by the tremendous success he was having with his new theology.
This was the period of Abelard's glory. He was at the acme of his career. At forty he had accomplished all that his ambition had hoped to achieve by old age. He had now but to enjoy the spoils of his intellectual con-quests. The church lay before him with its lofty rewards for learning and piety, and Abelard had not yet entered holy orders. This was the situation when the young philosopher and divine met Heloise, and straightway his philosophy and theology tumbled about his head. Realism and Nominalism, theology and metaphysics evaporated be-fore the light of the loved one's eyes.
Abelard at this time was about forty. Some of his critics blame him for having at that age fallen in love. But if it is remembered that the philosopher's youth had been given to study, with never a thought of woman, that his contemplative mind had never felt the shock of sex, and that he had never known the impulse of that most tremendous force that is at the bottom of the maintenance of all life, the love of Abelard for Heloise will be clear. The love of the sexes is the most important matter, next to nutrition, with which man has to do. It is only the fool who underestimates its gravity. It is not for all his philosophy or his theology or his erudition or his eloquence that the world is interested in Abelard. The world remembers his philosophy because he loved Heloise and because Heloise loved him. Who knows what he taught? Who does not know how he suffered?
When Abelard met Heloise she was under twenty. Her beauty is said to have been little short of perfection. In family she was the equal of the theologian. The niece of a well-known ecclesiastic, her education was regarded with the utmost care. She was' possessed of extraordinary genius, and the charm of her person was excelled if anything by the brilliancy of her mental attainments. She was deeply versed in the subjects with which Abelard was most concerned; was acquainted with Abelard's own thought and teaching, and, added to all this, was a true and fervent piety that regarded life and human conduct in their most serious aspect. To use a somewhat common phrase, yet one under which lies much sober truth, Heloise and Abelard were "made for each other."
The inevitable happened, of course. Love conquered, and Heloise and Abelard were married. The marriage was secret, and to this fact is due much of the aspersion which has been cast upon the characters of the philosopher and his lady. Color was given to these stories by the subsequent act of Heloise, who denied on her oath that Abelard was her husband. This complete and womanlike sacrifice of self was made to remove from Abelard's path the one obstacle that would stand in the way of his ecclesiastical preferment.
It is possible that much of the sympathy that has been poured out upon these two lovers has been wasted. There was no reason why they should not have remained united, and there is no doubt they would have done so had they not both prized the monastic above the marital life. It was common for man and wife to separate and devote themselves to religion. The sentiments which Pope expresses for Heloise in his famous epistle are, it must be borne in mind, the sentiments of Heloise as filtered through the imagination of a poet under twenty. Heloise retired to a convent and Abelard continued to philosophize and preach. The affair with Heloise did not injure him in his career, whereas his marriage with her, had t been admitted, might have been the end of his greatness and perhaps his loss to fame.
Abelard rose to great importance as a theologian. According to Guizot, one pope, nineteen cardinals, and fifty bishops and archbishops were trained in his school, to say nothing of the brilliant scholars with whom the Princes of the church had more than once to reckon. But his early tendency to independent thinking brought upon him the condemnation of the church. In 1121 he was condemned for heresy and ordered to burn a book he had just published. It was charged that the doctrines in this treatise were counter to the dogma of the trinity. In 1122 he retired to Troyes, where he built his celebrated oratory of the Paraclete. He was again disturbed by threats of persecution, and three years later he 'returned to his home in Brittany, where he accepted the position of Abbot of St. Gildas, tendered him by the Duke of the province. Meanwhile, he presented the Paraclete to Heloise, who became its abbess. There she died. The year 1136 finds Abelard again in Paris, the object of bitter persecution. In 1140 he was condemned to confinement for life, but was pardoned by the Pope. He died in I 142.
Thomas Aquinas, or Thomas of Aquin, is the ideal of the churchman and one of the most illustrious of the Scholastics. Fortunately for his ecclesiastical status, his temptations came early in life, and his middle age was so taken up with his studies and his monastic surroundings that he was entirely free from the allurements that beset Abelard in the beautiful mind and person of his Heloise.
As Abelard was the greatest philosopher and theologian of his age, so was Thomas the greatest of his own. His family were the distinguished, noble, and powerful Aquins. He was born about the year 1225, and was the youngest of a large number of children. His father, Rodolf, sent the future doctor to the Monte Cassino monastery at the tender age of five. For six years young Thomas was trained by the monks in this institution, and at the end of that time he was transferred to the new and famous university founded by Frederick II at Naples. There he studied under influences the most religious until he was seventeen. At this age Thomas had made up his mind that he would join the order of the Dominicans, and it was this decision that brought him the first of his troubles. His ecclesiastical aspirations were most bitterly opposed by his family. When Thomas made known his intentions of becoming a monk the Aquins laid plans to spirt him away, but the Dominicans were before them. Thomas was being conducted to France when his two brothers succeeded in taking him a prisoner and in bringing him home safely to the castle of his father.
Now, these brothers were older and far more worldly than the collegian. They were soldiers who had small taste for books or metaphysics and they endeavored by every wile to wean the youth from his devotions and meditations. In this they were ably aided by their mother and by their sisters. Thomas was made a prisoner in the Aquin hold and given to understand that he could never have his liberty until he could decide to give up his dreams of a religious life and conform himself to the military traditions of his noble family. But these simple gentle-men found in their boy brother a determination more fixed than their own, and a will which neither cajolery nor threat could weaken or break down.
Finding force met with force of a stronger kind, the brothers sought to ruin the youth's ambition by a trick as contemptible as it was unsuccessful. They procured the assistance of a beautiful woman who made herself a tool in their hands and abetted them in their efforts to turn Thomas aside from his resolve. Through what torture the simple-minded boy passed while he was beset by this peculiar device may be known by the nearly tragic ending which came of it. It is said that the future "angel of the schools" was never so sorely tried before or after that crisis. It was he himself who afterward confessed that he was about to sacrifice his career in philosophy and the church when the strength came to him to rebel. Bidding his temptress to leave his presence at once, the young Aquin seized a blazing brand from the hearth and turned upon the assailant of his moral integrity with fire in both hand and eye. The rapid exit of the lady from the chamber possibly saved her from being burned to a cinder and spared the boy of strong purpose the solution of future problems of this kind.
It was this incident that determined the life of the philosopher. As the woman fled from him Thomas let the brand fall upon the floor. There its blackened edges left a mark in the form of a cross. The Scholastic fell upon his knees above this sign and with sobs and tears renewed the vows of chastity he had taken not long before with his friends, the Dominicans. The persistence of the boy won over the heart of his mother. From that time his way was easy. Indeed, he had little need for care in this respect, for the King, having learned the story of his persecutions, came to his aid with an order for his liberation. Freed from duress, Thomas, under the patronage of Frederick, was sent to Cologne, where his education was assigned to the most powerful and most famous of the Dominicans, Albert. He was an indefatigable worker and thinker, and was not to be drawn into the idle discussions of his fellow novices. The nobility of his birth counted for. little in the monastery which, like modern universities, was a democracy in all save intellect.
D'Aquin was of huge stature and powerful physique. He might have felled any of his detractors with a blow of his fist as easily as he might have leveled any of them with the power of his intellect. He paid small heed to their talk, however, and was silent even to the exasperation of the masters themselves. These physical and mental characteristics won for him the name of "the Dumb Ox of Sicily." His fellows abandoned the use of it, how-ever, when they carne to measure their puny brains with the mighty cerebrum of the Aquin.
Thomas was not long in winning a conspicuous place among the metaphysicians and the theologians. He was ordained to the priesthood at the age of twenty-eight, and forthwith began to lecture. The sageness of the youthful ecclesiastic was made a matter of comment, and even papal attention was drawn to him before he had reached the age of forty. Urban called him to Rome and utilized him for lecturing in many parts of Italy. Urban's successor, the fourth of the Clements, designed to confer still higher honor on the pious Dominican and tendered him the bishopric of Naples, but Thomas had no political aspirations, preferring to devote his entire time to thought and teaching. For the same reason he rejected other offers of ecclesiastical honor and emolument, and remained the simple, untitled friar. He died at the early age of forty-eight, the most illustrious of contemporary Scholastics.
In many respects "the Angelic Doctor" was a remark-able man. The profundity of his intellect was marvelous even for a schoolman. His writings are voluminous. How he managed to produce such a quantity of literature during his short life is inconceivable. One edition of his works which was printed at Paris in 1636 numbers twenty-three volumes in huge folio, and a Venetian edition of a later date has twenty-eight volumes. Other editions were published at Rome (157o), Venice (1593), and at Antwerp (1612). Many complete sets of some of these editions have found their way into the most remote parts of the world, and are occasionally offered for sale by auction even in American cities in the present day. They are sometimes sold for the ridicuously low price of a dollar a volume, which is an infallible indication of how little men are at present interested in the thought of that master whose words were once hung upon by admiring thousands in mediaeval Europe. A copy of the Antwerp edition should have special value owing to a complete biography of the author contained in it.
After his death the fame of Aquinas grew rapidly. Stories of miraculous occurrences that preceded and accompanied his passing were spread everywhere by admiring pupils. The body was claimed by several contending cities, but found its final resting place in the Dominican church at Toulouse.
With the single exception of Abelard, Aquinas is the most celebrated philosopher of the middle ages. He was the greatest exponent of the syllogistic system of reasoning, and carried it to the longest and finest extreme possible. Frequently his logic becomes so involved as to be hopelessly obscure. All the results of his philosophy are totally valueless inasmuch as he started from false premises. If there is any system that justly and truly can be called a logomachy that system belongs to Aquinas. He carried the Aristotelian method of reasoning to its utmost limit and, in the opinion of some, beyond it. He was mainly a Realist; that is to say, he held, for the most part, that mere abstractions were entities of themselves ; but he was not a consistent Realist, for he admitted that some abstractions were only names after all.
In all that he thought Aquinas was more the theologian than the philosopher. In him philosophy and theology were thoroughly mixed, wedded, and united. His teachings were never once questioned by the orthodox. He stands supreme as the exemplar of all that the Scholastics and Scholasticism were able to do and to be. He was the most earnest, the most sincere, the most pious and the most reverent man of all the schools. He did not once, even for a moment, turn his face from the altar of his unbounded adoration. The promise and potentiality of his boyhood flowered into unassailable perfection in his manhood.
But the life of Aquinas was limited to the purest intellectuality. He is not the human, warm, impulsive, loving, picturesque creature that Abelard was. The story of his living did never will never make men and women weep, or cause human hearts to throb as does that of Abelard's. Aquinas is the Doctor the learned one with his folio black tomes and his logomachic system. Abelard is the man, heretical, adventurous, love-lorn.
The great work of Aquinas, the title of which is almost as famous as himself, is Summa Theologiae, the Sum of Theology. He was the greatest of the Summists. In this work he treats of God, going into the most elaborate descriptions of how the Deity conducts the universe, what He is, what are His attributes and the manner and nature of the divine will. Angels and devils are here described with a precision that seems to argue special information or inspiration on the part of the author. Another section of the Summa treats of man and his relations to the Deity, involving the whole question of morality. The Summa also treats of the sacraments. The work is de-signed to be a complete treatise and presentation of theology as it was orthodox in the middle ages, and is valuable, historically, on that account if on no other.
From Thomas we may now turn to his great opponent, Duns Scotus. Duns, like Aquinas, was a Realist, but he was an absolute Realist. He differed from Aquinas in theology. England, Ireland, and Scotland all claim him as their own. He was doubtless born in one of these three countries, and about the year 1265. He is remembered for his theology rather than for his philosophy. In 1301 he went to Paris as the chairman of the school of theology in that city and there routed the Dominicans in the great tourney of mind between the two parties on the question of the immaculate conception of Mary. It is said that the great theologian from the islands refuted above two hundred objections of the Dominicans to the doctrine of the immaculate conception and reinforced his own position by innumerable arguments in support of it.
The reader must not mistake the nature of the Scotists' leading doctrine. The ignorance displayed on this point by men of otherwise remarkable learning is amazing, e. g., Professor Draper. Many Latin Christians are themselves likewise uninformed. The immaculate conception, now one of the dogmas of the Roman church, defined by the late Pius IX, involves the freedom of the soul of the Virgin from the taint of original sin. The dogma or Duns', famous contention, has nothing whatever to do with the birth of the Savior. Simply stated, the immaculate (spot-less) conception means that Mary was born without the stain of sin upon her soul, the one exception among all the children of Adam and Eve. The conception and birth of Jesus is the miraculous conception, not the immaculate.
Such, then, was the service done theology by the celebrated Duns who, after nearly 600 years, was vindicated by a council of the church. In philosophy Duns resembled Al Gazali. He held that nothing was knowable, not even the existence of God, for which there were no proofs what-ever, because we do not know God as He exists. He scouts the proof offered by Anselm of Canterbury, who used much the same logic as did Paley some centuries after-ward; that is, the necessity of there being some cause for Existence the so-called ontological proof. Duns dogmatized about the Deity with as much confidence as did Aquinas, to whom he was so unalterably opposed that the terms "Scotist" and "Thomist" were used commonly to mean opposite and antithetical. He taught that Aquinas was wrong in holding the will to be an instrument of the understanding, and there he was a predestinarian. He taught that the church was the fens et principium of all authority, and that were it not for the authority of the church the Scriptures need not be credible, or, rather, that the inerrancy of the Scriptures was established by the authority of the church. Duns died at the age of forty-three in Cologne, whither he had gone to engage in a public dispute. He was unquestionably the ablest and most talented dialectician of his time. The subtlety of his logic vanquished all who contested with him. It was this keenness of intellect and depth of resource that won him the title of the "Subtle Doctor" with which he was dubbed after his noted victory over the Dominicans.
An eminent pupil of Duns was William Occam, an English Franciscan friar who, however, opposed his master in that he rejected the prevailing doctrine of Realism and revived the tenet of Nominalism, which survived no little persecution. The dispute was swept away by the Reformation. Science was meanwhile preparing its lamp before which were to flee the terrors of Scholasticism and the vain glory of the schools.