A brief look at the History of Scholastic Philosophy


Formation of Scholasticism 7th - 12th Century


By Fr. Raymond Taouk



1) introduction


In the period of transition, with the death of St. Augustine (W 430), philosophy suffers in the West a collapse of four centuries. This is due to the aging Roman people, unable to produce metaphysical minds, due to the weakening from barbarian invasions which destroy the unity of civilisation. But soon the Law and the Latin culture is revived which will permeate the new nations. In the beginning, the first task was to salvage the classic and patristic wisdom, on the brink of perdition. Fortunately, Christians endowed with Roman education will become compilers (St. Isidore of Sevilla W 636; St. Bede W 735), or moralists (St. Greg. Gt W 604). They were as milestones placed by God to indicate the road which was to be followed to enter the paths of life, of light and of science. Yet, the two most important persons in philosophy were Dionysius Areopagite (East) and Boethius (West).


2) Dionysius the Areopagite


This unknown author of the Vth cent. is writing under the pseudonym of St. Dionysius converted by St. Paul, first bishop of Paris. He writes books of mystical theology on the Divine Names, the Mystical theology, the Celestial Hierarchy and the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. The author uses the Neo-Platonician philosophy to build a mystical theology truly Catholic. Accdg to him, God possesses the perfections of his creatures and He is the principle and end of all things.


3) boethius


Under the Ostrogoth Theodoric, Boethius represents the humanist and philosophical culture. He translated the Isagoge of Porphyry, the entire Logic of Aristotle. He wrote commentaries and original treatises : de Divisione, de Sta Trinitate; de Fide Catholica; de Consolatione Philosophiae. The early Middle Ages knew Aristotle only through his works. He also gave some famous scholastic definitions:

            - beatitudo : Status bonorum omnium congregatione perfectus.

            - aeternitas : interminabilis vitae tota simul et perfecta possessio.

            - persona : rationalis naturae individua substantia.



ii. the formation between arabs and jews


            Centuries were necessary to bring back the philosophical interest to Western minds after the Barbarian invasions. The Christian generations prepared this return, but exterior help came, esp. from the Arabs of the IX cent. who transmitted it to the 11th and 12th century. which saw the advent of commentaries and translations of Aristotle’s works.

            The Arabs are distinguished by their respect for Aristotle, but also :

- by their unconscious deformation of Peripatetism with Neoplatonistic theses. The original text of Ar. is obscure, and it has been augmented with apocryphal additions with a tendency to Plotinus’ philosophy.

- by the effort to reconcile the philosophy with the Coran, especially regards the creation of the world in time, Providence, predestination to heaven and hell which led to fatalism, whereas Aristotle defends the human liberty and the eternity of the world.


1.    Avicenna (980-1037)

·      Ibn Sina (Heb. Aven Sina) was Persian, gifted with encyclopedic memory already at age 18. He assimilated the Ar. doctrine and began writing at age 21.

·      Truth is one and the philo. science is one. He reconciles Plato and Ar., and both with the Coran.

·      The world comprises 3 orders : the earthly world with the h. soul at its peak; the celestial world with the first being caused at its peak; the supreme order, God. There are two principles, God as necessary being and the eternal matter not created by God. God cannot not create, and He engenders only one being, the first being caused, which produces in turn the first intellect and the material sphere, and this first int. produces the second, etc. He denies Providence.

·      Man

- is composed of body and soul.

- the agent intellect is neither the form of the body nor God either, but the int. of the superior sphere which illumines the h. soul. The agent int. is quasi the Platonic world of ideas.

- There are 5 degrees of int. (material, possible, in act, acquired and intuitive i.e. the holy spirit or active mysticism).


2.    Algazeli (1058-1111)

He is also Persian, and writes the ‘Ihya’, a treatise for the renovation of religious sciences, which remains the summa of the orthodox Mohammedanism. In philosophy he wrote the ‘Destruction of the philosophers’, directed agst Avicenna’s school. He is the defender of the orthodoxy of the Coran. So doing, he tends towards scepticism and voluntarism. His philo. is not the free servant but the servile slave of theology.


3.    Averroes (Ibn Rochd, 1126-1193)

·      Born in Cordoba (Spain), was a doctor and follows Avicenna as a commentator of Aristotle, with the Platonic influences common to all Arabs. To Avicenna he adds :

·      the question of the intellect. According to him, not only the agent int. but also the passive int. is unique for all men. This single intellect, motor of the lunar sphere, uses the images given by the sensitive souls and  produces the acquired intellect (of Avicenna), i.e. the impersonal reason participated by each personal being.

·      The theory of the three orders, i.e. the existence of three types of truths completely hermetic and open to contradiction. These are the truths for the people, for the theologian and for the philosopher.[1]



4.    Avicebron

·      In his Fons Vitae, Avicebron (Ibn-Geribol from Malaga and Zaragoza W1070) says that God is inaccessible.

·      He teaches a generalised hylomorphism.All things proceed from God by successive emanations

1) the Cosmic Spirit or universe (made of universal matter and form);

1)     the angels (which add the composition of spiritual matter and form);

3) bodies (which add the corruptible matter and form).


5.    Maimonides

·      Rabbi Moses (1135-1204) writes the Guide of the Doubting for the confirmation of persecuted Jews whose faith was shaken by the rationalistic difficulties with the Bible. It is a Summa of Jewish theology made for expert theologians.

·      There is always agreement betw. faith and philosophy. In case of conflict, the Bible should be interpreted allegorically.

·      The work’s originality consists in the value of the divine attributes. Maimonides reacts against the anthropomorphist materialists but he terminates in agnostic relativism. Since we can name God only by His created effect, he says that the perfections have a sense which is a) relative (God is alive because He is cause of all life), b) negative (God is not temporal), but he denies the positive sense (eg. that God is good as man is good although in a different degree).



iv. the first scholastics (7th - 8th  century) J-Scot Erigen


1.    In General. By creating numerous schools, Charlemagne produced the Carolingian Renaissance which, although strictly not philosophical, makes a compilation and sows the seeds for the proper resurgence of philosophy. John Scotus Erigena (IX cent.) is the first great philosopher. Later will come the dispute over the universals, which gathers distinct schools of philo. (Chartres, St. Victor) and various teachers called independent scholastics (Abelard, William of Champeaux). St. Anselm of Canterbury will be the greatest philosopher of his cent. (11th Century).


2.    Scotus Eriugena. Scotus Eriugena of Ireland (or Scotland, 810-877), traduced the works of Pseudo-Dionysius and wrote De Divisione naturae. He explains creatures which he calls natures, ie. being in general, and, like the Platonists, he begins a priori by affirming the existence of God.


3.    He distinguishes 4 types of natures :

·      natura increata creans, God in Himself, of a transcendent and impenetrable nature. Of Him we can say nothing positively except by way of metaphor.

·      natura creata creans. God creates Himself, ie. exteriorises Himself in an ideal world, reflection of His perfection. This in Cath. theology will be the Word.

·      natura creata non creans. The things are necessary theophanies, the diminished emanations of God, the acts by which God creates Himself in the world. It savours pantheism but Eriugena denies such a position : ‘aliud est ipsa (natura divina) quia superessentialis, et aliud quod in se creat.’

·      natura nec creata nec creans. It is the creation returning to God, with no activity but as term and perfection of the entire universe.


4.    Human knowledge. This knowledge is the image of the divine evolution and admits of 4 degrees:

·      intellectus (highest direct intuition of God = ecstasy).

·      ratio (exteriorisation of self by means of an idea about the Logos, essentially intuitive).

·      sensus interior (which knows the universal essences in matter).

·      sensus exterior (which knows the exterior qualities).


5.    His errors. He professes more than one error because of his diffuse pantheism[2] :

·      the exaggerated realism (there is only one substance under corruptible existences),

·      the absolute ontologism,

·      the occasionalism of the material substances at least, ‘magis fiunt quam faciunt’,

·      the heterodox mysticism which professes the substantial union of the soul with God.



v. the problem of universals (11th - 12th Century)



            Historically, the question was raised by Porphyry in his Isagoge, translated by Boethius. He is asking whether the genera and species are subsistent in nature or consist in pure thoughts. If they are subsistent, a) are they corporal or incorporeal?; b) do they exist separately from the sensible objects? At bottom, the question is to find the correspondence between the abstract concepts and the real things which they designate. In theory, there are 4 possible solutions :

·      Exaggerated Realism. It denies the concrete object while it affirms that the universal is real and exists in a separate world or in God (the Platonic subsistent Idea).

·      Nominalism. It denies the spiritual idea, and the only thing which is common between the diverse beings having the same universal term is the term itself. The universal is the singular thing signified, nothing more.

·      Conceptualism. Ideas are given a priori without correspondence with the concrete object.

·      Moderate Realism. The nature of the universal is found in a concrete way in matter (theory of individuation by matter), but its mode of existence is universal in the concept (theory of abstraction from matter). Both theories are dependent on the theory of hylomorphism (all material beings are composed of form and matter).


1) the realists


1.    William of Champeaux (1070-1120)

·      The Realists of the beginning the M-Ages are considered to hold the ancient doctrine. De Champeaux is known by the objections of his pupil Abelard.

·      the theory of identity (humanity is one in all men, individuals are distinguished only by their accidents). The problem with this theory is ‘flagellato Socrate, flagellatur quaelibet substantia, quod est inconveniens’.

·      the theory of indifference : he distinguishes the proper and personal from what is common and indifferent to each one (the universal, ie. the genus and species).

·      Obscure points :

·      the fact that the proper of man is something accidental, and if so, logical or metaphysical accident?

·      Is this unity of the universal purely ideal or does it have a foundation in reality?


2.    School of Chartres (12 Century) Gilbert de la Porrée (1076-1154), Thierry de Chartres (W 1155)


To resolve the opposition between the concrete and the universal, they use 2 platonic theories:

·      the individuality is explained by matter

·      the universality is explained by the exemplary idea, immutable and eternal.

·      G. Porrée is exaggerated in multiplying the real distinctions according to the divers ideas (the individuality and the humanity are distinct in Peter; so are unity and truth in Peter, the divinity in God[3]).


3.    The Pantheists

       David de Dinant distinguishes a reality which is one and immutable from the changing multiplicity which is mere appearance. Thus, he admits only 3 realities : matter, intellect and God. But these three must be identical because there is no difference between them, difference taken in the logical sense of added perfection which supposes a composition. And if not distinct, then they are identical.[4]



2) The EXAGGERATED non-realists


1.    Nominalist, Roscelin (1050-1120)

He denies that the universals, which are abstract general natures, could be realised as such. The universals are not things. He affirm that the object of logic is the oral universal : ‘universale est vox, flatus vocis’. Logic is grammar. However, he says nothing of the universal in the intellect. He applies his system to the Holy Trinity, and falls in to Tritheism.


2.    Abelard, moderate realist (1079-1142)

·      He refutes the realism of de Champeaux by showing the existence of individuals, and Roscelin with his ‘sententia vocum’ by showing the ex. of a universal concept (verbum) signified by the concrete word (vox).

·      In logic, he gives the solution of moderate realism by affirming that the universal idea (verbum) expresses a common reality which is the nature present in concrete individual beings, once it has been abstracted from its individuating characters. This is the definitive solution of moderate realism ‘ab individuis universale abstrahitur’.

·      In Critique, the universal does not deform reality, which would bring about its ruin. ‘Intellectus per abstractionem divisim attendit, non divisa; alioquin cassus esset’.

·      in psychology, he distinguishes the formal object of the intellect from that of the senses. He affirms that the data of int. knowledge is drawn from experience.

·      he applies the dialectic method of ‘sic et non’ to theology for the first time. He conceives the project of a systematic exposition of Revelation, which is based on the principle that faith and reason, although essentially distinct lights, are complementary to produce the sc. of theology.


3) st. anselm (1033-1109)


1.    Life. St. Anselm is found in the midst of the quarrel on the Universals, but he deserves a special mention bec. he is the first author to give a complete system of thought and to bring about important progress to philosophical speculation. Born in Aosta (Piedmont), he goes to France and then to England as Archb. of Canterbury (1093-1109) where he will fight for the liberty of the Church against William II and Henry Beauclaire.


2.    Fundamental theory

·      Credo ut intelligam. In reaction to the dialectics who reject the solutions of dogma before the tribunal of the nominalistic and sophistic dialectic, and against the pure theologians who reject any philosophical reflection, St. Anselm affirms that faith is the source, the foundation and the guide of the science both philosophical and theological. Following St. Augustine, one reaches the truth by faith, originating from God. Faith gives the matter of the philosophical study, reason defends it and explains it against the opponents.

·      Yet, he runs the danger, by not distinguishing the two formal objects, of exaggerating the role of reason (he gives ‘demonstrations’ of the dogma), or of minimising it (rational knowledge begins with faith).

3.    Psychology

·      Human soul. Without knowing the psych. of Ar., he has a very Aristotelian vision of the h. soul: ‘homo est substantia animata sensibilis seu animal et ex necessitate rationis’. But he is undecided as to the origin of the soul (tradutianism or creationism). The soul is spiritual and immortal because it is made to see God who is eternal.

·      The truth is ‘rectitudo sola mente perceptibilis’. It is relative to God. Therefore we search in the exemplary ideas the light which gives knowl. to the mind. But the senses do also participate in the formation of ideas from God because the mental word is born from the memory.

·      The problem of universals is resolved in the school of realism (absolute).

·      Liberty = power of conserving the rectitude of the will, presupposes int. and will. Human liberty is reconciled with div. foreknowledge in that God does not change the nature of the known object.


4.    Theodicy

·      Existence.

a) He uses the Platonic-Augustinian proof of the participated distinct perfection by diverse beings which presupposes a source of perfection.

b) He is famous for his a priori ontological argument :

m. I conceive God as the greatest being existing re et ratione.

M. But, unless He existed in re, God could not be the greatest conceivable being (I could conceive a being existing only in the mind). C. ‘God’ exists re.

·      Relation God-world. By His participated exemplary ideas, God extends His perfection over beings. This participation is a creation. This creation is also a conservation, bec. the world always depends on God to subsist.

·      The nature of God. He is simple, immutable, perfect, everywhere and eternal.


5.    Conclusion : St. Anselm did not produce a complete synthesis, but he is the precursor of the great theologians of the 13th century by using both reason and faith.


The Culmination of Scholasticism in the 13th Century.


I. introduction


The XIIIth century is one of the greatest of history. The century of St. Louis and St. Thomas Aquinas, which saw the rise of the cathedral of Cologne and of the Summa theologica, the Divine Comedy and other creations. It is the culmination of Scholasticism. This is due to 3 factors : the creation of the universities, the founding of the mendicant Orders and the translations of Aristotle.


1.    The medieval university is neither a State nor a Church institution. It is the creation of the medieval Christianity, born of the social life itself, of the many corporative realities, e.g. the ‘university of students and masters’ rises from diverse sections of society and Church. Although preceded by the foundation of Bologna, the university of Paris is the first to collect all the branches of learning, especially philosophy. Two principles dominate its organisation, liberty and internationalism. Whoever had passed his exams could teach right away; the students could choose whoever they wanted as a teacher as long as they preserved the same teacher. In a time when the students converged towards theology and most of them would become priests, such a university would become either a source of heresy or of Christian truth for the entire world. It is in Paris that would take place the dramatic shock provoked by the meeting of the Christian culture with Aristotelianism (cf. # 3 below).


2.    The mendicant Orders -of Dominicans and Franciscans- who obtained their chairs in Paris gave splendour to theology and philosophy. Specifically, the Dominicans teach the ‘studium solemne’ of S. Scripture and theology, which requested a philosophical formation. Their teaching was open to the public. In Paris, they settled in Rue St. Jacques. The other Orders were also represented : Franciscans, Cistercians, Augustinians, Carmelites, and even the secular priests had their own Colleges, esp. R. Sorbon, chaplain of St. Louis who founded his own College in 1253.


3.    The arrival of the translation of major works of Aristotle until its final reception dominate the 13th century. This occurred in four phases :


·      The first conquests from 1200 to 1230, during which period some begin to use Aristotle, with the result of falling into pantheistic doctrines. The teaching of the natural philosophy of Aristotle becomes prohibited, although neither his Logic nor his Ethics were ever forbidden.

·      1230-1260. The debate has subsided. Gregory IX maintains the prohibitions only ‘quousque examinati fuerint et ab omni erroris suspicione purgati’. Roger Bacon teaches all the works of Aristotle in 1245 in Paris in the same way as it is done in Oxford.


·      1260-1277. Great struggles between those who admit the entire Aristotelianism, those who reject it totally and those who assimilate it. The latter are the most lucid, being respectful of tradition but independent. Their aim was to assimilate the power of the Aristotelian truth to put it to the service of the Catholic doctrine so that theology would reign. STAq. had the genius of taking hold of the entire Corpus Aristotelicum, of thinking it over and correcting its defects by the principles of the same Aristotle.


·      1277---. The hostility of the Augustinian theologians terminates with the great condemnation of 1277 which involves STAq. as well as the heterodox Aristotelianism of the Averroists. But, despite the condemnations, Thomism follows its triumphal march. At last, two opposite philosophies see the light : the Thomist and the Augustinian philosophy. The Augustinian philosophy will organise its common theses into a coherent synthesis, ‘Neoaugustinian’, Scotism. The heterodox Aristotelianism will end up in the XIVth cent. Averroism in Padua.


Ii. the aristotelian precursors of St. thomas aquinas


1.    The first commentators

·      The first commentators of Ar. join new theories with the traditional theories of St. Augustine and the Neoplatonician sources of Plotinus and others, as well as the Judaic and Arabic influences. All this produces an Aristotelian Neoplatonising eclecticism. St. Albert and St. Thomas will follow their effort of assimilating the thought of Ar. into the Christian framework.

·      Doctrine.

1- Tendency to fuse philosophy and theology. Hence the priority given to love in order to obtain science, the hallmark of a voluntarist mysticism. Beatitude is formally an act of the will.

2- The primacy of loving over knowing is the prerequisite for saving h. liberty and for the free creative act of God. They defend the need of a creation in time bec. eternal creation is absurd.

3- Prime Matter is an incomplete act. It corresponds to matter endowed with the seminal reasons, active principles of its evolution. This matter is not essentially material, because it is act. It can be spiritual : this is the theory of generalised hylomorphism, taken from the Fons Vitae of Avicebron.

4- From this comes the possibility for the h. soul to remain individual without the body. It is joined to a body already endowed with another substantial form. This is the theory of the plurality of substantial forms.

5- The plurality of substantial forms explains the diversity of operations. The accidents are useless as well as their distinction from substance.


·      William of Auvergne (1180-1249) wrote his ‘Magisterium divinale’. He taught in Paris but his works do not have the didactic or scholastic character. They are works of conversation. He is a man of transition, of the ancient formation and mentality. He is the first among the great theologians to tackle the cultural world. He maintains the points of doctrine seen above, except the hylomorphism of angels and h. souls. In psychology, although he admits the Aristotelian division of the faculties, he follows St. Aug. in showing that the int. has no need of the senses to know the essences of things. As for the knowl. of the eternal things, the int. is passive with respect to God from Whom it receives the divine illumination, which gives the first science and source of the first principles and of all science. This divine action renders the agent intellect of Ar. useless.


·      Alexander of Hales (1180-1245) was the first Franciscan as titular of a chair in the university of Paris. His main work is the Summa universae theologiae. In it, he defends the hylomorphic composition of all creatures (including angels and h. souls, who have an incorruptible and immutable spiritual matter). In psychology, he fuses Aristotle and St. Augustine by adopting the theory of abstraction to know the corporal things, but there is need of a divine illumination for the object of the superior reasons, which are the eternal reasons (ie. spiritual beings and God).


2.    St. Albert the Great

·      St. Albert (1206-1280) was born in Bavaria, taught at the College St. Jacques in Paris (1240-1248) at a time when the Ar. philosophy was interpreted by Averroes, in a way intransigent and opposed to the Christian conception of the world. Yet, he wanted to make use of the new doctrines. His work was a complete system of real philosophy, based on principles and authorities distinct from those used by the theologians. He produced the first separate philosophy. The Dominicans used the antiaverroist polemic to combat error and to defend the orthodoxy of their own doctrinal achievement, which was to use the principles of Ar. himself and to discover the authentic aristotelianism. St. Albert wrote the greatest work ever to have seen the day and, in philosophy, he gives commentaries on almost all the Aristotelian books.

·      His work is historic in that :

1- He showed the way and joined all the materials to integrate aristotelianism into the Christian thought for its own use.

2- He became aware that the revealed mysteries are strictly not demonstrable.

3- The argument of authority of the H. Fathers in philosophy or physics cannot be preferred to Ar. or to other philosophers.

4- He admitted the initial aristotelian empiricism necessary to all scientific knowledge. He affirms that the soul is the only form of the human composite.

5- In the principles, he is openly Aristotelian. In Metaphysics, he admits the distinctions of potency and act, matter and form, substance and accidents, the theory of the Pure Act infinite. He admits the moderate realism in Logic (and explains the 3 aspects of the universal).

6- His scientific influence was greater than his defence and use of Aristotle. It gave him his fame of ‘Great’. R. Bacon had to recognise his authority in matter of natural science.

7- He was the master of St. Thomas, whom he encouraged. Thomism = perfection of his work.

·      Negative points : In the applications, he remains hesitant. He follows the Augustinian solutions incompatible with the pure Peripatetism.

1- He admits the seminal reasons which are a denial of pure potency (Materia I of Ar.).

2- The h. soul does not inform directly the body by its essence (he does not know whether the soul constitutes the corporeity of the body).

3- Liberty is a property of the will but he follows also Avicenna who says that it is the property of the acquired intellect, and he leaves the question open without harmonising the two points.

4- At some point in time, he accepts as valid the Anselmic proof of God’s existence.



[1] It will become famous in the Middle Ages as the theory of the two truths, as expounded by Siger de Brabant.

[2] His work will be condemned by Honorius III in 1225. Through him, the knowledge of Platonism will be preserved and he will be often quoted by the great posterior philosophers of the Middle Ages.

[3] In His De Deo Trino, STAq. refutes the ‘Quaternity’ of G. Porrée.

[4] STAq. says about him : ‘Stultissime posuit Deum esse materiam primam.’