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Scholasticism under the influence of Aristotle – Philosophy of the Middle Ages. A short history of philosophy


Chap. IV. Scholasticism under the influence of Aristotle

The event which divides the history of Scholasticism into two periods was the introduction about the end of the twelfth century into the Christian schools, through the medium of Arabian commentators, of the writings of Aristotle. For generations Aristotle had been known in the Church in a fragmentary way, and his dialectic method obtained from the Logic was the approved instrument of Scholastic reasoning. But his more systematic works were unknown. With the rediscovery of his works as a whole, speculation received a new impulse, and the task of the later Schoolmen was to harmonize the teaching of "the philosopher," as he was called, with the doctrines of the Church.

(1) Alexander of Hales, who was trained in the cloister of Hales in Gloucestershire, studied in Oxford and Paris, styled "Doctor irrefragabilis," has the honour of being the first who became acquainted with the writings of Aristotle. The Emperor Frederick II had obtained Aristotle’s works from Constantinople and caused them to be translated into Latin.


  At first they were received by the Church with considerable suspicion. But eventually by the Pope’s approval—Gregory IX.—theologians were permitted to use the philosopher’s writings. The enthusiasm spread. Aristotle was considered to have exhausted the power of human reason in ascertaining truth, and his metaphysics, as well as his physics and psychology, were commented on and explained at all the centres of learning. (Hales d. 1245.)

(2) Albertus Magnus, so styled from the extent of his erudition, born 1193 in Lauingen on the Danube, is the most famous of the German Scholastics. He was a profound student of Aristotle, and has left a large number of writings, consisting chiefly of commentaries upon the Master. But it is said that he did not hesitate to modify the doctrines of "the philosopher" to meet the views of the Church. He was conscious of a distinction between natural and revealed religion, but it became the aim of his labours to minimize the difference and to harmonize philosophy and theology. He contended that what is known in philosophy by the natural light (lumine naturali) holds good also in theology. But he abandoned the position that the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation can be made rational. When the soul is confronted with contradictions, revelation gives the decision.

Revelation is above reason, but not contrary to reason.

(3) The same attitude toward natural and revealed truth was taken by Thomas Aquinas, the renowned pupil of Albert, and, like his master, a Dominican (1226-1274). He was one of the profoundest as well as one of the clearest of Scholastic writers. He brought his wonderful classical lore into the service of the Church and endeavoured to make Aristotle a chief pillar of Christian dogma. While agreeing in the main with Albert, he even goes further in limiting the exercise of philosophical insight and enlarging the domain of faith.

The distinction, overlooked by Anselm and the earlier Schoolmen, between philosophy and theology, is clearly maintained; and according to the fundamental thought of his system, he conceives their relation as a relation of the different steps of development by which the knowledge which a man acquires by natural faculties may be brought to full realization by the working of grace in revelation. His Summa Theologiae covers the entire field of ethics as well as of theology. The work purports to be a treatise on God, and it is divided into three parts. The first part treats of the nature of God—the Trinity and the relation of God to the world. The second deals with man or "the motion of the creature towards God"; and here he discusses sin, law, the virtues and the blessed life. The third part is occupied with the Person and Work of Christ, the Sacraments and the Last Things. Christ is the way to God; with God the theology of Aquinas begins and ends.

He contends for the need of Revelation to complete the powers of man, which are inadequate of themselves to discern the highest truths. He distinguishes two classes of truth. There are truths above reason, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation. There are also truths accessible to reason, as, for example, the truth that there is a God. But even the second class of truths needs the confirmation of Revelation, as such knowledge is obtainable only by the few.

Aquinas describes God as endowed with thought and will. With Aristotle he says he is Actus Purus, i.e. energy realized instead of being potential. Aquinas does not wholly reject the Ontological argument of Anselm, but relies for proof rather on the Cosmological argument, —the argument from design. But he holds that prior to all reasoning a knowledge of God is dimly inherent in all men.

In relation to the world, Aquinas holds that God is omnipresent. He is in all things, but not as part of their essence, but as an agent is present, in regard to the object on which he acts. Creation is an act of the divine will, and the preservation of the world is the continuous act of creation. But while God is the Creator of the world, and the determining energy in the human will, He is not the author of evil. Moral evil, he holds with Augustine, is purely negative, a thing which God permits and overrules for good, but does not will. In regard to original sin, and the transmission of evil, his views are essentially those of Augustine, while his theory of the Atonement agrees with that of Anselm, though he maintains that God was at liberty to grant pardon, had He so desired, without any satisfaction being rendered.

(4) Closely connected with, though differing in many points from Aquinas, is John Duns Scotus, called "Doctor Mirabilis." He lived nearly a generation later, and died in 1308. In him a return is made to Plato, and in his subtle hair-splitting dialectic he may be said to have begun the work of undermining Scholasticism. He still further enlarged the sphere of authority, and on many subjects closed all argument by referring them simply to the Will of God.

Aquinas and Scotus were the heads of two great conflicting schools, which were called after their founders, Thomists and Scotists

The great problem which was discussed by these two schools was the psychological question whether among the powers of the soul the higher dignity belongs to the will or to the intellect. The Thomists followed Aristotle, and claimed the place of honour for the intellect, while Duns Scotus and his adherents emphasized the superiority of the will. The intellect, the Thomists held, not only apprehends the idea of the good, but also in each individual case recognises what is good, and thereby determines the will. The will naturally strives for that which is known to be good, and it is, therefore, dependent upon the intellect. But, said their opponents, this theory of determinism takes from man all moral responsibility and deprives him of freedom of will. Responsibility can only be preserved if it is acknowledged that the intellect exercises no compulsion over the will. The intellect may indeed present various objects to the will, but the possibility of choice and power of action remain with the will. So far, indeed, from the will being determined by the intellect, Scotus and Occam maintain that the will determines the development of the intellectual activities.

The question which was at first a purely psychological one was lifted up into the realm of theology, and the problem came to be as to the relative rank of "will" and "intellect" in God. Thomas Aquinas, indeed, recognises the reality of the Divine Will, but he regards it as a necessary consequence of the Divine Intellect. God creates only what in His wisdom He knows to be good. Thus the Divine Will is bound and determined by the Divine Reason.

Duns Scotus and his followers, on the other hand, see in this view a limitation of omnipotence. God’s will must be sovereign without restriction.

God created the world solely from His own will. He might have created it in any form He chose, and in selecting this form He was unmoved and unconditioned by any cause outside of His own will.

The controversy was not only brought into the realms of theology and applied to questions as to the nature of God and the relations of nature and grace, but it came to its sharpest antithesis in the sphere of ethics, and especially in regard to the duty and destiny of man. On both sides the moral law was regarded as God’s command, but while the Thomists thought that God commands the good because it is good, the Scotists maintained that it is good only because God has willed it to be so, and has commanded it. And Occam went the length of saying that God might even have selected something else than the moral law as the duty of man. Hence with the Thomists duty or morals is a discipline whose principles may be perceived by "natural light." With the Scotists, on the contrary, Good cannot be the object of unaided knowledge, and can only be learned from Revelation.

Along with the two features of the Scholastic period, the ecclesiastical and the classical, the churchly and the intellectual, there was, we saw, a third,—the Mystical. While, in general, the aim of the Schoolmen was the reconciliation of reason and faith, the harmony of the dogmas of the Church with the tenets of philosophy, there was a parallel movement towards the exaltation of personal piety, which came into special prominence in the declining period of Scholasticism. Mysticism and Scholasticism were not wholly opposed. Among the greatest theological leaders many of them were mystics. Already in Bernard of Clairvaux we noted this tendency, to find in piety of life, in rapturous devotion and in self-surrender of the soul, the true aim of life, and the solution of all mysteries.

In the case of some of the Schoolmen, such as Hugo of St. Victor and Benaventura,—"Doctor Seraphicus,"— who in 1256 became the head of the Franciscan order, Mysticism was wrought into a theological system in which the end of knowledge and of life was conceived to be the direct communion with God.


 Francis of Assisi (b. 1182) and Dominic, the founders of the famous orders bearing their names, are the outstanding representatives of Mysticism in the thirteenth century. In both of these men the love of Christ was an absorbing passion; and while His divinity was dwelt upon almost to the exclusion of His humanity, the ideal of the Christian life was regarded as the rapt contemplation of the sufferings of Jesus and the literal reproduction of His life of poverty.

The German Mystics of the fourteenth century had little in common with the Scholastics, and were largely, as they have been happily called, "Reformers before the Reformation." For them doctrine was subsidiary to life, and the value of truth consisted in its power to stimulate personal piety. Among the most notable of the later mystics may be mentioned Master Eckhart, professor in Paris in 1300; John Tauler of Strassburg (1300-61); Henry Suso of Constance (1300-65); Thomas à Kempis (d 1471), the author of the Imitatio Christi and also of a work prized by Protestants, The German Theology. Many of these belonged to the Dominican order, and were men whose thoughts were deeply influenced by the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Eckhart, in his view of God, tended indeed to pantheism. Most of them, while exalting the life of contemplation and communion with God as the end of blessedness, did not disparage an active life of duty and charity.

For more than two hundred years Scholasticism was the mighty bulwark of the Roman hierarchy, but in the hands of William of Occam (1270-1349), a pupil of Duns Scotus, Scholastic philosophy assumed a form which led to its dissolution. By his trenchant demonstration of Nominalism, thought was emptied of its content, and Scholasticism ceased to have a raison d’etre. All our knowledge, said Occam, is only of phenomena. Individual things alone exist. Common names are but equivalent to algebraical signs. Logic applied to Christian truth leads to contradiction. The doctrines of our faith are revealed to us directly in Scripture, and are assured to us by the authority of the Church. Nothing more is to be said. There is no room for reason. William of Occam was practically the last of the Schoolmen.

As a phase of thought, Scholasticism was not without interest nor was it devoid of results. Though under the strict dominion of the Church and jealously watched, it provoked a spirit of inquiry and a love of truth. The discredit which the Humanists cast upon it applied chiefly to its later developments. Its weakness lay in its aim to reduce every subject to syllogistic form, and its attempt to reach conclusions on the profoundest mysteries of thought by the laws of formal logic. The arbitrary definitions and subtle distinctions, in which some of the Schoolmen delighted, caused the whole movement to degenerate through time into a meaningless jargon, void of all spiritual contents, from which the best spirits turned away in despair. At the same time, a system which produced such types of men as Thomas Aquinas on the one hand, and Dante on the other, is one which, in its far-reaching results, the history of philosophy cannot ignore.

Platonic influence – Philosophy of the Middle Ages                                           The period of the Renaissance