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Medieval Philosophy

Lesson Four: The Twelfth Century

It used to be said that the 12th century had the misfortune of being followed by the 13th century which all but eclipsed it. This is no longer the case and scholars have devoted deep and abiding attention to the 12th century. The term "renaissance" gets overworked by historians, but that there was a genuine rebirth of learning in the 12th century seems undeniable.

1. Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm is a man of the 11th century, but he lived into the next century and is a figure of such importance that it is fitting that we let him stand as a kind of port of entry to the 12th century.

Anselm was born in Aosta in 1033 where he was educated in the local monastery. After the death of his mother, Anselm knew a period of profound grief. In 1060 he became a monk at Bec in Normandy and came under the influence of the prior Lanfranc, who was in charge of educating young monks. Lanfranc would go on to become Archbishop of Canterbury: Anselm followed in Lanfranc's footsteps, first as prior at Bec, then as archbishop of Canterbury in 1093. He died in 1109.

For our purposes, Anselm is identical to his writings. At Bec, in middle life, he wrote a number of short treatises whose sophistication and subtlety continue to impress students of them. It is in some ways unfortunate that he has been all but identified with an argument on behalf of the existence of God that he fashioned in a work he called Proslogion. In it he begins with the Psalmist's remark that "The fool has said in his heart there is no God," and proceeds to spell out the implications of the verse. That one who denies God's existence is a fool implies that his denial is absurd. Anselm proceeds to show why this is the case. Anyone who knows what is meant by God is prevented by that fact alone from denying his existence. Why?

Anselm begins with preliminaries. When a carpenter is about to make a dog house he has in mind what he is going to do. Once he has done it, we distinguish the doghouse he had in mind from the doghouse in reality. The thought of a doghouse is not nothing, so give it a value of 1. The existent doghouse also gets a value of 1. The two together have greater value than one alone.

All right. By God we shall mean "that than which nothing greater can be thought." One refusing to admit the existence of God at least admits that this is what the term means. But, having admitted that, he cannot coherently deny that God exists. The thought in his mind, the definition of the term, gets the value of 1. If something in reality corresponded to that idea -- as the artifact corresponds to the artisan's idea -- the result would be something greater than the idea alone. But if God existed only in the mind and not in reality he would not be what we take the term to mean, namely, that than which nothing greater can be thought. If 'that than which nothing greater can be thought' had no existent counterpart it would not be 'that than which nothing greater can be thought' since adding existence would produce something greater, viz. Idea + existence.

That is the barebones statement of Anselm's argument in chapter 2 of the Proslogion. It is safe to say that there are few medieval texts that have drawn and continue to draw more attention that this one. Some dismiss it as based on a confusion of conception and judgment; others defend it by appeal to modal terms. Some say that it is philosophical, others say that it is not an effort to prove, but simply to explicate the faith of the author. Not only has this proposed proof eclipsed Anselm's other writings, it has thrown the work in which it occurs into shadow.

Anselm also wrote a Monologion, in which we find a more traditional effort to prove God's existence from his effect. He wrote a dialogue On truth and another on the Grammarian. He wrote on the fall of the devil, on free will, on why God became man. Good editions of the original texts as well as translations of the body of his work into modern languages have expanded Anselm's influence. One can lament his appointment to Canterbury since in that post he came into conflict with the king and spent much time in exile from his see. Anselm tried unsuccessfully to resign, but the pope refused his request.

2. Peter Abelard

Peter, like Anselm, spans the divide between the 11th and 12th century. He was born in Brittany in 1079 into a family that seemed to destine him for a military life, but from an early age he showed a predilection for the life of the mind. It may have been in 1094 that he studied with Roscelin and shortly thereafter with Thierry of Chartres. Then he arrived in Paris and studied with William of Champeaux. Soon he was quarreling with his master and rivaling him in his own classroom. Then he set up his own school, at Melun in 1104, then at Corbeil, closer to Paris, since he meant to attract students away from Parisian masters. Suddenly, in 1106, he fell ill and returned home. In 1108 he returned to Paris and the classroom of William of Champeaux, who was now teaching at the monastery of St. Victor, where he had become a monk and was teaching rhetoric. Soon Peter convinced William to change his views on the nature of universals and, with this triumph, set up his own school on Mount Ste.-Genevieve on the Left Bank. But soon his mother summoned him home. Peter's father had joined a religious order; his mother wished to become a nun, and she wanted Peter home before she took the big step. Peter returned to Paris in 1113, age thirty-four, and decided to take up the study of theology, so he went to Laon to study with Anselm [of Laon] and his brother Ralph. Almost immediately Peter fell into his old ways and was criticising his supposedly eminent professors. On a dare, he offered to interpret Ezechiel. By his own account, he was a great hit. Off he went to Paris then, taking the students with him. In Paris he had a chair at Notre Dame in theology. Everything was rosy, and then Peter fell in love with Heloise.

Her uncle Fulbert, a canon of Notre Dame, hired Abelard to tutor his niece in logic. Heloise was a very gifted young woman. To facilitate instruction, Abelard moved into the canon's house. His theology teaching suffered. He began to write poetry. Heloise became pregnant. Peter, while a cleric, was not a priest, and he wished to marry Heloise. She demurred for self-effacing reasons: marriage would have ended his teaching career. Finally she agreed to a clandestine marriage. But Fulbert got the news out; Peter took Heloise to a nunnery for safe-keeping. A furious Fulbert hired a gang to attack and emasculate the perfidious tutor.

This is the tale that is told in The Story of my Calamities by Peter, and in Heloise's letters to him. The maimed Abelard became a monk at St. Denys near Paris around 1118, but soon became a critic of the monastery. Bernard of Clairvaux also was critical of St. Denys. In any case, students from Paris came to Abelard. He wrote his first theological work and found himself accused of heresy. He had no licence to teach theology; his book was burnt and after a time he was sent back to St. Denys. Eventually Abelard received permission to set up his own community, but students continued to seek him out. He was made abbot of St Gildas in 1125, but in 1132 he had to flee for his life. Thus it was that John of Salisbury heard Abelard lecture in 1136. Abelard had made a foe of Bernard of Clairvaux, and at the Council of Sens in 1140 he was again accused of heterodox views. He was condemned and excommunicated. He set off to Rome to appeal the sentence, but on his way he stopped at Cluny and was persuaded to stay. He died there on April 21, 1142.

For many Abelard's lurid life is a sufficient reason for interest in him. But he was a thinker of note, often facile and seemingly wanting to raise the ire of his listeners. We have his commentaries on logical works and his own Dialectica. In logic, Abelard is surprisingly old-fashioned, contenting himself with glossing the texts that had formed the basis of the trivium for centuries. Such occasional works as the Dialogue between a Philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian and his ethics Scito teipsum: Know thyself show a far more innovative Abelard. His Sic et non (Yes and no), a compilation of seemingly conflicting statements from Scripture and the Fathers as problems for the theologian, had an effect on the development of Scholastic theology.

In his Ethics, Abelard concentrates on the motivation of the act rather than its actual performance and consequences. Typically, he takes an important truth to an extreme where it ceases to be true. Since it is the intention to act that gives the act its moral character, Abelard held that the actual performance of the act was irrelevant to moral appraisal. He contrasts a man who intends to build houses for the poor with another who both intends to build and actually builds, and says there is no moral difference between them. The merit of Abelard's approach is that he guards against a completely extrinsic appraisal of action, with intention or motivation ignored. But in seeing the importance of intention Abelard overlooks the other "fonts of morality" (recently recalled by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor) that are also important for the moral appraisal of the act. Abelard was writing before the Ethics of Aristotle became known and, viewed in that perspective, the Scito teipsum is a remarkable work.

3. The School of Chartres

The cathedral school at Chartres was an important intellectual center in the 12th century. Its importance actually dates from Fulbert (c. 960-1028), who as bishop of Chartres brought to his own school what he had learned at Rheims. The cathedral school was meant to prepare young men for the clerical life and was not dedicated to the pursuit of culture as such, though secular learning was represented by the liberal arts. Bernard of Chartres, who died sometime before 1130, was written about by John of Salisbury, the perceptive English wandering scholar who left a circumstanced account of the schools he had visited on the continent. Bernard set forth four things as the object of philosophy: reading, doctrine, meditation and good works. There follows an interesting portrait of how the arts were taught. Bernard refers to Plato's Timaeus in speaking of the coming into being of things, thus alerting us to the fact that a partial Latin translation of that dialogue was in circulation. Platonism is said to characterize the school in the 12th century, derived from the Fathers, chiefly Augustine, Boethius, the Timaeus, and Macrobius' commentary on Cicero's Dream of Scipio. The spirit of the school can be sensed in Bernard's remark, reported by John of Salisbury, "We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants; we see more things and more distant things than did they, not because our sight is keener nor because we are taller than they, but because they lift us up and add their giant stature to our height." (Metalogicon, III, 4)

For others who figure in the school of Chartres, I refer you to Chapter IV of my history of medieval philosophy cited earlier.

4. Monastic Thought

The Victorines -- The Parisian monastery of St. Victor of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine, produced a series of remarkable thinkers during the twelfth century. Perhaps the most notable is Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141), who became head of the school in 1133. His Didascalicon is an introduction to the arts. He has a work on grammar, on the sacraments and various commentaries on Scripture and on Denys the Areopagite. The Didascalicon is noteworthy for its effort to put before the student a unified view of the intellectual effort. Learning relates to both the temporal and eternal, and philosophy is the comprehensive knowledge of both human and divine things. Thus he lists a companion series of mechanical arts to complement the liberal arts.

Richard of St. Victor, a Scot by birth, came to Paris around 1162 and became master of theology at St. Victor in 1162. His concern was the contemplative life.

Bernard of Clairvaux -- the great reformer of the monastic life exercized a wide influence on the church of the 12th century. He was born in 1090 and at the age of twenty-two entered the monastery of Citeaux where the Rule of St. Benedict was rigorously adhered to. It was characteristic of Bernard that when he sought monastic solitude he brought thirty-two others with him. He became abbot of Clairvaux at the age of twenty-five, and it was from this post that he exerted his influence far and wide. He had left the world, but he was constantly drawn into disputes. He preached the Second Crusade. He died in 1153 and was canonized twenty-one years later. His writing consists largely of sermons and letters; he also wrote on the degrees of humility, on loving God, on conversion, on meditation, and on the errors of Abelard.

Peter the Venerable (1092-1147) as abbot of Cluny welcomed Abelard into the community and after the death of the stormy petrel wrote of his edifying death at Cluny. He and Bernard had different views of the proper application of the Rule of St. Benedict. Peter visited Toledo and was instrumental in having the Koran translated into Latin. He then wrote a refutation of Islam.

William of St. Thierry (1080-1148) became a monk and then abbot of St. Thierry but eventually resigned to become a Cistercian. He had nothing but contempt for secular learning and considered it a waste of a monk's time to devote himself to it at all. He stressed love rather than knowledge. The point of life is union with God. He was a resolute opponent of Abelard whom he may have met when they were both students in Laon.

See Chapter VI of my history of medieval philosophy.

Writing Assignment. What are the major differences, and similarities, of Anselm, Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux. Maximum five pages.


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