What the Scholastics Were Thinking

Josef Pieper’s Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy (1960) is a brisk and brilliant study of Scholastic thought from the time of Boethius in the sixth century to its decline under William of Ockham in the fourteenth. So how does one define this intellectual epoch?

Broadly speaking, the Middle Ages assumed the truth of revelation (unlike the pagan thinkers) yet it adopted a more “rationalistic” methodology than ancient Christians such as Augustine. Scholasticism derived its name from the “schoolmen.” During the Dark Ages these men were initially more preoccupied with intellectual conservation than speculative originality. They spent a lot of time on outlines or summaries of important ideas. Eventually, however, a truly vibrant and self-sustaining European culture emerged from the ruins of the old Mediterranean polities, and philosophy would strike out in new and creative directions.

Starting with Boethius was the attitude that certain premises could be proven apart from theological considerations. In that respect philosophy reasserted itself as a legitimate discipline in its own right. This is a point that Étienne Gilson makes repeatedly, and which Pieper endorses. Theology set the tone for the intellectual life of the period. Nor was this, as the author points out, a bad thing. Yet it would be a mistake to force philosophy to merely become its “handmaid.”

A final important factor in Scholasticism was the the rediscovery of Aristotle through Arabic texts.  Aristotle’s more empirical approach contrasted with the “idealism” of neo-Platonism (which was also closely allied to earlier Christian metaphysics). Concerning this growth of rationality or realism, Pieper explains that

Truth is the self-manifestation and state of evidence of real things. Consequently, truth is something secondary, following from something else. Truth does not exist for itself alone. Primary and precedent to it are existing things, the real. Knowledge of truth, therefore, aims ultimately not at “truth” but, strictly speaking, at gaining sight of reality.

For this reason, Thomas Aquinas would argue against theologians like the Franciscan John Peckham who thought it necessary to understand only the part of creation “relevant to faith.” By contrast, the Thomistic view was that

No one is competent to determine what natural things are important or unimportant for theology to know; the “benefit” the theologian may derive from investigation of the real world cannot be measured in advance…. Finally, moreover, the study of created things must be praised for its own sake, since these things are works of God.

Of course all of this must be seen against the synthesis of fides at ratio (faith and reason) striven for by the best Scholastics. Men like Thomas Aquinas were not “rationalists” in the Enlightenment sense, though the seeds of modern secularism were already being planted by his opponent Siger of Brabant. Scholasticism sought to take human reason to its highest limit; but a limit was acknowledged. That is where faith and the extremely influential mysticism of the Pseudo-Dionysius acted as an important check on intellectual hubris.

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