Unlike many other schools of thought, scholasticism was not a system of ideas that proposed a particular set of conclusions, but rather a method of critical thought. Rationalism regarded reason as the chief source and test of knowledge. Existentialism believed that philosophy begins with the thinking, acting, feeling and living human person.
The scholastics, however, did not propound an overarching new idea. They already had one: the teaching of the Christian faith as understood in Western, medieval Europe. Their school of thinking employed a critical approach as a method by which to articulate, justify and defend the beliefs that all Christians purportedly held as incontestable.
This school of thought emerged in an increasingly pluralistic context. Europe faced the revived ideas of pagan antiquity in Aristotle and his contemporaries, the newer ideas of Islam and the puzzlingly challenging persistence of those of the Chosen People who chose not to acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah. Yet oddly enough, thinkers associated with what Western Christian Europeans considered alien ideas were also scholastics of a sort within their own societies and traditions, working in Hebrew and Arabic instead of Latin.
Many of Aristotle’s writings that fell into Islamic hands were translated into Arabic between the 9th and 12th centuries by philosophers such as Al-Kindi of the Baghdad Caliphate, Al-Farabi of central Asia, Avicenna of Persia and Averroes of the Cordoba Caliphate in Spain. The Jewish and Islamic scholars of Moorish Spain, notably Rabbi Maimonides and his Masoretic school, reexamined the biblical and rabbinical teachings in a world of increasingly variegated beliefs. The Jewish and Islamic scholastics worked in a way similar to the Christian scholars, whom they viewed as disputants and in error, much as the Christians regarded them.
The Christian scholastics typically examined existing works from a renowned scholar (an auctor) alongside source documents including Church council and papal documents as well as other related materials—for example, discussions of the Bible’s apparent contradictions by scholars both ancient and contemporary. They then gathered all arguments concerning each point in contention and attempted to view them from all sides with an open mind.
Once the sources and points of disagreement were laid out dialectically, two sides of an argument would be reconciled so that they would be found to be in agreement and avoid contradictions. This often required the study of words and their meanings and logical analysis to show that there were no contradictions, that they were a matter of subjective reading or that one idea was true, proving the opposite false.
The scholastic movement developed slowly from the ruins of the western Roman Empire, its beginning traceable to the establishment of the Franco-Germanic kingdom that in the year 800 was dubbed the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne (ca. 742-814), its first head, crowned by the pope. Charlemagne, a Germanic warrior whose four wives and six concubines gave him at least 18 known children, was neither a saint nor a scholar, but he was an orderly man who recognized the benefit of leading a society that took advantage of what learning was to be had.
Advised by Peter of Pisa (744-799), an Italian grammarian, deacon and poet, and Alcuin of York (735-804), an English scholar, monkish deacon, poet and teacher, Charlemagne attracted scholars from England and Ireland and by decree established schools in every abbey in his empire. These schools, from which the name scholasticism is derived, became centers of medieval learning.
Thanks to scholars such as Johannes Scotus Eriugena (815–877), among the leading Irish intellectuals of the time, Western Europe regained knowledge of ancient Greek, which had vanished in the West except in the remote monasteries of Ireland. Through their teaching and translations of many works into Latin, suddenly the Christian scholars of the West gained access to the Cappadocian Church Fathers and the Greek theological tradition.
This period ushered in the rediscovery of many Greek works thanks to translations by 10th century scholars in Spain, who gained access to them during the Reconquista, or reconquest, of the Iberian Peninsula in the 12th century.
Incidentally, as Europeans encountered Islamic philosophy, they stumbled across a wealth of Arab knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, from which we get our current numbering system and, most important, the number zero, until then unknown to, or at least unused by, Europeans.
During the 11th through 14th centuries at least eight major remarkable Christian figures emerged, scholars renowned everywhere as the heart and soul of religious scholasticism, whose contributions came in what I would describe as three waves.
The first of these involved three foundational scholars of the 11th and 12th centuries. Anselm of Canterbury was among other things one of the earliest to reason in favor of the existence of God—using what is known as ontological argument. Peter Abelard is almost better known for a storied personal romantic and devotional life than for his scholarship. Yet he was the key developer of the “algorithms” or essential logical concepts that became the tools of all who followed. Peter Lombard sought to encompass all Christian teaching in one work that became the standard textbook of theology of his time and provided the framework for four centuries of scholastic interpretation of Christian dogma.
The next wave, covering the 13th century, brought a debate between the two top masters of scholasticism, the Franciscan friar Bonaventure, a Platonist who drew on St. Augustine, and the Dominican priest Thomas Aquinas, the first Christian Aristotelian, who gave rise to a centuries-long mainstream Christian philosophy and theology, Thomism.
Three great scholars of the 13th and 14th centuries rounded out medieval scholasticism. The theologian Duns Scotus commented on Lombard’s work in light of Aquinas. The metaphysical theologian Meister Eckhart was also the most notable great mystic within the medieval scholastic tradition. Finally, William of Ockham, who grappled with the distinction between faith and reason, provided a tool with which to give many a future thinker a shave.
In the next few weeks we will review each of these stages and their protagonists in greater detail. They represent the best of medieval rumination on the faith, and many of their key insights continue to enlighten millions of Christians today.