Review of “Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy” by Josef Pieper

ImageIn formulating his theory of the development of the modern man during the Italian Renaissance, Jacob Burckhardt presents the distinction between the men in the Middle Ages, who conceived of themselves “only as a member of a race, people, party,” and the “many-sided men,” the Humanists, who arose in the 14th century to take their place. Josef Pieper’s discussion of Scholasticism does not endeavor to disprove Burckhardt’s theory, but in presenting the great figures of Scholastic philosophy, Pieper takes care at the outset to establish that Anselm, Abelard, Aquinas, and their contemporaries, are better than specimens of a dogmatic and intellectually exhausted age.

The view of the Scholastics presented in the book is that “they are… partly ‘contemporary’ and partly ‘outmoded,’”1 yet unimpeachably relevant to the modern understanding of the writings of Antiquity, which the Scholastics labored so long to assimilate and codify in their theology and philosophy. Pieper’s reference points of “personalities and problems” bear out that no single figure or event can be said to properly represent the (many-sided) Scholastic or Medieval Christian spirit, and this is evidenced in times containing such radically dissimilar men as Peter Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux — one man was seduced, first by Heloise, then by Greek logic; and the other, continually taxed by a kind of arduous mysticism. Thus, to reduce the main tenant of Scholasticism to the conjoining of faith and reason will not do, being in the end more a dualism of parlance than a definition.

Pieper propounds and elaborates the following thesis throughout the book:

We must realize how impossible it is to understand any Medieval author if we do not consider one of the fundamentals of his thinking about the universe and man: his utter conviction that the event of the Incarnation made accessible a truth which possesses a power to reveal reality transcending any human insight…2 

Indeed, this formulation can be applied to the entire range of issues, historical, biographical, and scholarly, that Pieper handles. Examining the condemnation of 1277 at Paris and Oxford, it is the resolute standard of truth set by divine Revelation that consequently made the Truths of Faith and the Truths of Reason ever more uneasy bedfellows. Thomas Aquinas, one of the most significant workers in the codification of Scholastic theology and philosophy, had but recently died when the controversy in 1277 arose, and Pieper notes that the opposition between fides and ratio was to grow only larger after that turning point — “the golden age of Scholasticism,” as Aquinas had known it, “the honeymoon of theology and philosophy,” as Pieper dubs it, was at an end.

Pieper’s discussion of the condemnation of 1277 acts as a fulcrum between the first phase of Scholasticism and the second, which was to bear witness to the radical thought of Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. Prior to these two thinkers, the philosophical “necessitarianism” implicit in the creative activity of God, articulated by Siger of Brabant and others, lurked just beneath the window of Scholastic Theology. What Pieper refers to as a form of extreme Aristotelianism was challenged first by Scotus, then by Ockham, each of who joined in rejecting the “Greek necessitarianism” condemned in 1277, to propounded a theory of God’s “unlimited freedom in the exercise of power.” Ockham, as Pieper suggests, was equally extreme, but in the opposite direction, as the necessitarianism that he disparages. Quoting Ockham, Pieper observes a hint of brutality in the way

Ockham envisages the various alternatives to the story of man’s redemption. He [Ockham] argues that God’s becoming man… was so little meaningful and necessary ‘in itself’ that God, if he had wished, might just as well have assumed the nature of a stone, a tree, or an ass.3

The story is somewhat different with Scotus, though, and the younger Ockham was already critical of his predecessor for “trying to prove too much” in areas of speculation where too little could be proved. Scotus’ standard of proof, nevertheless, was inscrutably high. Both Aquinas and Scotus “agreed on the point that human reason may never touch upon the secret of divine freedom,”4 yet for Scotus, and unlike Aquinas, this become a negative element in the possibility of conjoining faith and reason — absolute certainty was diminishing in strength before an existential resignation, due to the non-necessity of creation, man, and his destiny. Thus, faith and reason, rather than being conjoined, are split, and the troubling possibility of “double truths” — on one hand, God’s truth, on the other, a separate truth for the creation — arises.

One of the more startling points made in Pieper’s review of the Scholastics is the extreme youthfulness, not in the sphere of ideas only, but in the literal sense of the age of those philosophers and theologians that dominated the Middle Ages. Boethius, we are told, was a mere 20 years when he began to distinguish himself in scholarship; Anselm, only 30 when he became Prior of Le Bec; Scotus wrote his most renowned work, the opus Oxoniense, at 35; and William of Ockham, a seeming Rimbaud of Scholasticism, retired from the world of letters at 25.5  Observing this, Pieper points out that the vast project, over several centuries, of assimilating the objects of Antiquity, was largely undertaken by men possessing both youth and enormous energy.

From the outset of the book to the end, Pieper reinforces the notion that the men of modern times are the (often ungrateful) sons of the Medievals. To this end, he remarks that “the greatest Summa of the Middle Ages,” Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, did not remain just by chance uncompleted, “but because its author wished it so.”6  This is mentioned in light of the impossibility that now faces modern man — that of “attaining… a closed and rounded view of the world in any legitimate way.”7  The Scholastic conception of “natural reason” permitted, even encouraged, Christian theological and philosophical debate to range outside of itself, taking and considering things as they were presented, and not merely vanquishing the alleged opposition from the outset. This, as Pieper notes, was the objective method of that most comprehensive of the Scholastics, Aquinas; and Pieper finally recommends that such rational honesty and liberality be adapted and directed against the modern quarrel between faith and reason, i.e., faith and science.

1 Josef Pieper, Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy (St. Augustine’s Press: South Bend Indiana, 2001), p 158.

2 Ibid., p 18-19.

3 Ibid., p 148.

4 Ibid., p 144.

5 C.f., p 78-79.

6 Ibid., p 159.

7 Ibid., p 158.


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