Scholasticism was philosophy's attempt to apply reason to Church doctrine. But while the medievals were constrained by a notion of overriding divine authority, we should not underestimate the theistic dimension of Western thought today
In his literary satire, In Praise of Folly, Erasmus famously ridiculed the temper of medieval scholasticism: “Could there be several sonships in Christ? Is the proposition possible that God the Father hates the Son? Might God not also have taken the form of an ass or a pumpkin? In what manner would the pumpkin have preached and wrought miracles, and how would it have been crucified?” These are questions that strike us today, not least because Erasmus remorselessly mocked them, as pointless and absurd. And our universities, thankfully, no longer compel us to pursue these intellectual dead ends.
But perhaps we should not be so complacent. Scholasticism had started out as a valiant effort to apply reason in a rigorous way to the doctrines of the Church. Reason would be, as the schoolmen said, the handmaiden to theology, and that would be the key to unlocking not only the secrets of heaven, but those of earth as well. Of course, as we now know, that is where the medieval scholastics went wrong. Reasoning about “this-worldly”, finite things required a different method, and the schoolmen had not yet worked out the methodology of science; as Francis Bacon was later to point out, this rested on the inductive method, which proceeds from the observation of specific instances to the elaboration of general laws and uniformities. The schoolmen however, were still reasoning from within a theological straitjacket, their logic comprising a series of deductions from premises sanctioned by the Church, and the rigidity of their approach would often lead to intellectual sterility.
The method, scope and limits of science: a posthumous translation of Francis Bacon’s 1605 treatise, “Of the Advancement and Proficiency of Learning”
But if scholasticism is characterised by a kind of mental rigidity, can we be sure that our universities are entirely free from its stifling grip? Consider, to take one example from many, the book Beginning Theory — an Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory by Peter Barry, which has virtually become a set text for any humanities or literature undergraduate course in a British university today. Five rules, Barry affirms, are to be borne in mind for critical thinking about literature: “politics is pervasive, language is constitutive, truth is provisional, meaning is contingent, human nature is a myth.” The scarcely acknowledged philosophical presumption is pure Nietzsche: man creates his own values and is consumed by his will to power; therefore the task of theory, whether Marxist, feminist, structuralist, post-structuralist, post-modern, lesbian-gay, post-colonial, narratological or ecocritical, is to “deconstruct” the dominant normative liberal humanist “Eurocentric” narrative and expose the power relation at the heart of it — invariably the unassuageable compulsion to oppress some marginalised group. Thus whatever you might think of, for example, Jane Austen, the defining novel is always Mansfield Park. Why? Because as that exemplary exponent of post-colonial theory Edward Said (“carefully”, as Barry says, “foregrounding the background”) has observed, the estate of Mansfield Park in England, portrayed as a model of order and civilisation, is supposed to be maintained by its owner Sir Thomas Bertram’s slave plantation in Antigua. From this esoteric fact alone a whole indictment is constructed: of Jane Austen, of Georgian England, and of the canon of English literature itself which dares to include amongst its distinguished luminaries this alleged slave-ownership-endorsing authoress.
What is the kind of thinking being deployed here by Barry and his parade of post-modern heroes? On the face of it, there is an attempt to be scientific and to use the method of induction. The family of critiques — Marxist, structuralist, post-colonialist, etc, are each seeking to construct a general theory from specific instances. But the extreme selectivity by which those instances are chosen, and the determination to ignore context and apply judgment in a manner manifestly skewed to prove a point, is precisely evidence of the kind of rigidity typical of scholastic thinking. We may call it a new variant of scholasticism, which is a kind of reversal or mirror image of the medieval type: whereas the medievals were arguing from rigidly fixed premises, the post-moderns are arguing towards rigidly fixed conclusions. The old scholastics were confident of heaven, but did not know what to make of the finite, applying their bludgeoning logic to all manner of worldly things in a barbaric manner, as Hegel said, and mixing up the sacred with the sensual. The new post-modern scholastics have the opposite problem: they are at home with finite things, with the earthly and the political, but are desperate to find a principle of “infinite” validity that confers absolute value and commitment, so they strain the scientific method to extract spiritual and moral desiderata — and that means coercing the facts to support their preordained conclusions.
We may be able to make better sense of the remarkable parallels between the old and the new scholasticism by invoking the great medieval historian Walter Ullmann’s felicitous distinction between the descending and ascending principles. The medievals, we may say, were prisoners of the descending thesis: from God comes authority; from authority comes law; and law requires intellectual and political obedience; so every subject under the sun, whether sacred or profane, tend to be viewed through the prism of an overwrought theology. The moderns and post-moderns, by contrast, may be said to be prisoners of the ascending thesis and of an overwrought science.
What do we mean by the ascending thesis? We mean nothing less than the guiding principle of modernity: the notion that the world is governed by consideration of what constitutes human choice, human capacity and human need. It means looking at the world, as it were, bottom up, through the prism of the finite; it is very much what defines our contemporary secular mindset; and this is in contrast to the descending thesis which views the world top-down — or through the prism of the infinite. Descending: everything comes from God, religion encompasses all; or ascending: everything comes from man and nature; science and politics is the key to all. Which is it? What distinguishes the scholastic mentality is ultimately an inflexible refusal to acknowledge the possibility that each of the two separate orders represented respectively by the descending and the ascending principles may have integrity and independent validity in their own right.
For many centuries a “descending” scholasticism governed Western modes of thought. In this regard, we cannot understate the importance of the late Roman imperial decrees of the fourth century, by which the subjects of the Roman Empire were required by law to live, as the decrees said, “according to apostolic discipline and evangelical doctrine.” As a result, Western thought got shunted on to a closed track, and developed a pure descending doctrine, where the Church, as God’s instrument on earth, was deemed to have ultimate jurisdiction over all questions, whether sacred or profane. (Gregory VII: “If the see of Peter decides and judges celestial things, how much more does it decide and judge the earthly and secular.”) This descending ideology, perfected by the medieval papacy, effectively ruled out compromise with ascending principles. It embraced a vision of heaven, of infinity, of eternity and of grace which has effectively overwhelmed and colonised the lower realms. Christianity had seized the whole of man, and this left no room for any serious or systematic thought about identity independent of a man’s specifically Christian status, for example as a being with natural or human rights, or as a citizen of a state independent of a Church. Rather, it led straight to the scholastic type of thinking memorably mocked by Erasmus.
In exactly the same way as descending ideology led to scholasticism (old style), so a contrary ascending ideology leads to scholasticism (new style). The ascending ideology inverts the medieval paradigm: where religion was once pervasive, now it is science; where everything was explained by spiritual power, only material factors now count; where the Church was once supreme, now it is the State. A pure descending doctrine, because of its excessive deference to authority, had struggled to acknowledge the ascending principle, and this had led to a crisis of the understanding. By contrast, a pure ascending doctrine, now possessed (thanks to the prestige of science) with overweening confidence in the powers of the understanding, has persuaded itself it has no need of a descending principle at all, and this has produced the distinctive crisis of the contemporary world, which is, first and foremost, a crisis of authority.
Voltaire once said that if God did not exist, it might be necessary to invent him. It is certainly striking how even the most secular and atheistic philosophies are beholden to some kind of theological doctrine of how the world is governed. Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy, had famously drawn attention to the exact functional parallels between the Christian and the Marxist visions: thus, God = Dialectic materialism; The Church = the Party; the Creed = The Communist Manifesto; The Bible = Das Kapital; The second coming = the revolution; paradise = the communist commonwealth; hell = punishment of capitalists. Other varieties of ascending ideology such as feminism or post-colonialism have a similar (if less elaborate) theological dimension, embracing the characteristic eschatological form — oppression/struggle/liberation — and dividing the world into evil oppressors and innocent victims. Deep down, it would seem, humankind cannot live without the descending principle and needs to defer to some kind of authority. The question is — what kind of authority? Who do we trust? If it turned out in retrospect that we couldn’t trust the medieval schoolmen, is there any more reason why we should trust our modern professoriate?
The contemporary crisis of authority comes about because the new scholastics, while they may be scientifically competent, are theologically naive: they have rejected the old God, but often without realising it, have not ceased their hankering for new gods, who are failing them constantly. Part of this predicament no doubt arises from a failure to grasp fully the theistic vision which the old God had made possible. That vision, of necessity, embraces paradox. A theist may be likened to a rope stretched out over an abyss between the descending and the ascending principles, each of which are brought into sharp relief by the theological framework of theism. The great challenge for Western thought — the key indeed to its much prized flexibility and vitality — may be said to consist in the ability to overcome this dualism and to manage the tension between descending and ascending principles.
How, we may ask, did this “paradox of theism” come about? In the first instance, we need to appreciate how theism represents a radical break with the mythological and fatalistic worldview that had shaped religious consciousness previously. The Bible is expressly and didactically anti-mythological. Its worldview destroyed irrevocably what Gershom Scholem called the monistic vision according to which man and the gods were simply an extension of animated nature and ultimately in harmony with her. Those gods had been capricious and pitiless, controlling man’s fate as they pursued their selfish vendettas, but in the end, whatever the gods decreed was as it should be; the gods’ power, as well as that of their worldly agents, was always vindicated in the eternal cycle of nature, of birth, death and renewal.
This harmonious monistic vision was shattered by the God of the Bible. Here was a God who was so far exalted above the world of man and of nature which he had created, a God who had so comprehensively absorbed in his person all power, all creativity, all truth, all goodness, that man is like a creature bereft, a lost soul, who appears to be separated from his God by an abyss. This would have been a stark dichotomy indeed had God not shown compassion and revealed himself equally as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a God who speaks to ordinary mortals, relieving man of his isolation, guiding him to an ethical life of justice, mercy and holiness, and thus, as it were, throwing across a lifeline over the abyss. Here in essence is the paradox: God is transcendent, mysterious, exalted; and yet God is also intimate, compassionate and morally engaged: all-powerful and yet all-loving.
The idea that God is sovereign over heaven and earth is the ultimate descending idea. But the paradox at the heart of the theist vision of God calls forth two vital principles that are absent from the mythological framework, namely historical revelation and redemptive covenant; and these two principles in turn powerfully intimate certain key ascending themes.
It is highly significant that for the theist, history rather than nature becomes the scene of man’s encounter with the divine; no longer are the gods mediated through the sun, the wind, the trees and the stars or through physical objects of worship; mediation rather takes the form of the memorialisation and exploration of an unchanging revelation that is understood to have happened in the past, but is kept alive and transmitted through a tradition. This has two important consequences: first of all, the deanimation of nature, now stripped of its myths, its magic and its mysteries, will eventually pave the way for a scientific apprehension of the natural world — conceived as an orderly space — which will allow generalisations of cause and effect. Secondly, and critically, God’s apparent withdrawal from the world, his decision to reveal himself and then to hide himself, creates an autonomous space for man to exercise his freedom. In the mythological world, the actions of the gods had to be seen to be believed, but for the theist the action of God in the world has to be believed in order to be seen. Faith is not merely the passive expression of submission to an inescapable fate, but becomes an active commitment and a positive choice: to follow the way of the righteous as opposed to the way of the wicked (Psalm 1), a demanding undertaking, forever fraught with the back-sliding temptations of sin and infidelity.
The historical character of revelation points to certain ascending themes: not only to the concept of a demystified nature which releases man’s powers of scientific investigation, but to the doctrine of man’s free-will and responsibility in a space where God cannot be taken for granted but must actively be sought. This brings empowerment, through the exercise of moral choice, to the humblest of human beings, and not, as in the mythological dispensation, only to those outwardly favoured by the gods. This idea is amplified by the second great theistic principle — of the redemptive covenant. God’s covenant to mankind through Israel is framed more or less in these terms. God says: “Be faithful to me and to my teaching and I will be faithful to you in my promise of redemption.” Thus a God who is transcendent and perfectly capable of acting with arbitrary power has instead, by declaring his law will not change, the redemption will come, his promise will be fulfilled, bound himself and, in effect, imposed a limit on his own transcendence. As a result, man is raised to the dignity of a full partner in the work of creation: he is made in the image of God (Genesis 1.27), granted dominion over the world and all creatures within it, and given the task of helping to repair a fractured world by pursuing justice (Deuteronomy 16.20). Thus a Biblical vision which on the one hand proclaims the descending idea of an all-powerful and all-loving God who creates, rules and redeems the world, on the other hand endorses a countervailing ascending idea according to which human will, human capacity and human need is empowered to exercise sovereignty within its own sphere of influence. If the Bible highlights the dramatic tension between ascending and descending ideas, it was not until much later, and in particular not until the rediscovery of the philosophy of Aristotle in the Middle Ages that theologians felt compelled to deal with this tension in a more thorough and systematic way. Three thinkers in particular, Maimonides, Aquinas and Francis Bacon, stand out as figures of huge importance for the subsequent development of Western culture. Each of these in turn came to articulate certain key distinctions which are needed to reconcile the respective claims of the descending and ascending principles. What follows is an all too perfunctory sketch of their views, but we cannot possibly grasp the fragile tension that in many ways defines the character of Western thought, without having some appreciation of the intellectual synthesis which these thinkers helped to establish, and which to this day, underpins a confident self-evaluation of Western culture.
Maimonides wished to assert that God had to be seen as both transcendent and immanent. He used Aristotle’s rationalism to attack all forms of spiritual agency which contradicted the pure doctrine of a transcendent God. This meant a polemic against superstition, astrology and all anthropomorphic conceptions of the Godhead, which Maimonides regarded, at best as a debased, and at worst as an idolatrous form of religion. God’s actions in the world, however, including his revealed law as transmitted by the authority of the rabbis, could be shown to rest on rational foundations, and was an aspect of God’s immanence. This distinction had immense significance for the subsequent development of Western thought. Reason was now being adduced as an alternative basis for authority, which Maimonides, as a committed theist, insisted did not contradict but rather supported the traditional authority of the rabbis.
Aquinas built further on Maimonides’s insight. His system aimed at nothing less than a thorough reconciliation of Christianity with Aristotelianism: Man, Aquinas affirmed, following Aristotle, had status and dignity by virtue of his natural and human qualities, and could now be seen as governed by natural law, as well as by the eternal law of God. Two important consequences followed: first of all, religious identity ceased to be the one exclusive and all-encompassing identity that mattered; man’s possession of a natural identity now allowed his activities to be discerned according to a wide variety of different norms and postulates (political, religious, moral, economic, and so on). Secondly, Aquinas’s concept of natural law allowed the emergence for the first time of the modern idea of the State, and of the distinction between Church and State. The State was a product of nature, a self-sufficient and living organism, pursuing aims which were inherent in its natural essence, which was the wellbeing and welfare of its members. Crucially, for the working of the State, no divine or supernatural elements were necessary; the state was simply, according to Aquinas’s definition “the congregation of men”; and this was in contrast to its supernatural counterpart, the Church which was the “congregation of the faithful”. St Paul had said that by virtue of his baptism, man was made “a new creature” and had shed “the man of nature”. The papal and theocratic doctrines had made much of this distinction, asserting that the reborn creature by the grace of God had superseded the merely natural creature. But Aquinas was having none of this dichotomy: nature and grace were not opposites but rather represented two different but hierarchically placed orders, complementing and dovetailing into one another; for as he famously expressed it, “Grace does not do away with nature but perfects it.”
The importance of the distinction between Church and State for Western culture can scarcely be exaggerated; in time the concept of the Church, as later thinkers such as Coleridge came to understand it, acquired a wider significance and came to embrace not merely ecclesiastical institutions but other autonomous bodies within the nation defined by their spiritual purposes, including its voluntary associations, its charities and most notably its universities. In this wider Coleridgean sense, the Church, far from being confined to the private sphere (an arch-liberal and ascending conceit), cannot help but inspire and unify society around its religiously-based spiritual ideals. It is worth recalling why the British Constitution (now somewhat emasculated) was once so widely admired: it was a unity in diversity, where the clash of secular interests (the ascending principle) could flourish under a spiritual ideal which was symbolised by the monarch (the descending principle) — a paradox nicely captured by the phrase, King-in-parliament (nature touched by grace). Britain was widely regarded as a free country, but that freedom was in no small measure accounted for by its also being a Christian country.
The final distinction of supreme importance for Western culture is that between theology/philosophy on the one hand and science on the other; this allowed the intellectual confusions of the old scholasticism (which even confounded Aquinas, for all his fresh insights) to be cleared away once and for all. It was Francis Bacon who was the first to elucidate clearly the method, scope and crucially the limits of science. He understood that science was a collective enterprise, the conclusions of which depended on certain hypotheses being advanced which were to be tested by experiments under controlled conditions; scientific conclusions were by necessity provisional because they were reached by a method of abstraction; this “inductive” methodology is highly effective with quantifiable and measurable phenomena, which are amenable to the experimental method, but is out of its depth when it purports to deal with the individual, the concrete and the real. The very highest generalisations of all, Bacon said, are out of reach, too near God and final causes, and must be left to the philosopher.
Science did not contradict religion. Indeed, the crucial factor which laid the groundwork for a proper clarification of the scientific method was the final overthrow of the Aristotelian cosmology. As Herbert Butterfield points out in his authoritative The Origins of Modern Science, an Aristotelian universe which saw unseen hands in constant operation, material bodies endowed with souls and aspirations or a “disposition” to certain kinds of motion, and planets moving obediently in their prescribed celestial spheres, demonstrated that the old mythological way of seeing things was still haunting Western thought and holding back progress in science until well into the 17th century. The Bible, by contrast, provided no authority for the spiritual agencies demanded by the Aristotelian cosmology; as Bacon says: “It was heathen arrogance, not the Holy Scripture which endowed the skies with the prerogative of being incorruptible.” To the contrary, and as we have seen, a purified Judeo-Christian theology seemed rather to demand a demystified nature and therefore to support a “clear and clean” conception of science.
Our trio of medieval and early modern thinkers, Maimonides, Aquinas and Bacon, were able to demonstrate that descending and ascending principles were mutually consistent. But this did not mean they were commensurate. A succession of natural theologians and pantheists in the early modern era had laboured under the delusion that somehow or other the truth of religion and the truth of reason or nature could be shown at bottom to be identical. But the point about a God of revelation, as Pascal well understood, was that he remained ultimately unfathomable and mysterious. If we could rationalise him or square him or contain him, he would cease to be God. Or he would be a different kind of God. Of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we could never say that he was something, but only that he did something. For the thoughtful theist, the abyss between the descending and ascending principles was a fact of consciousness, which in the end could not be bridged by reason but only by faith.
Immanence, subjectivity, reason, science, natural law, human rights, moral autonomy, political freedom, artistic expression — this constellation of ascending ideas virtually defines our modern world. But we who live in an ascending era should not undervalue the theistic dimension of Western thought. The suggestively ambiguous way in which the God of the Bible, a God who is all-powerful but all-loving, a God who reveals himself but hides himself, a God who is inscrutable but yet faithful, has shaped a quite extraordinary and complex sensibility. The opposite poles represented by the descending and ascending principles create a powerful magnetic field, where the tension is overwhelming, and sometimes unbearable. The distinctions between transcendence and immanence, the supernatural and the natural, Church and State, theology and science were incubated in the West and stimulated amazing creativity in all fields of human endeavour — art, philosophy, science, politics. But this creativity, like Western culture itself, is a fragile thing. For centuries Western culture languished and sank into scholastic barrenness when only the descending principle seemed to count for anything. But when we go to the other extreme — when we appear to attribute integrity exclusively to the ascending side of the equation — that is to say, only to immanence, to nature, to the state, to science — the question is worth asking whether we are not once again in danger of succumbing to the moral and political impoverishment which is the inevitable consequence of permitting a blanket of intellectual sterility to suffocate our culture.