Scholasticism is the dominant western Christian theological and philosophical school of the Middle Ages. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines Scholasticism as “a philosophical movement dominant in western Christian civilization from the 9th until the 17th century and combining religious dogma with the mystical and intuitional tradition of patristic philosophy especially of St. Augustine and later with Aristotelianism.” According to Dictionary of Philosophy, “it is the university philosophy; academic philosophy: philosophy of the kind cultivated in the schools i.e. the medieval Christian universities (Mautner, 558).”
The Middle Ages is marked by the influence of Christianity and many of the philosophers of the period were greatly concerned with proving the existence of God and reconciling Christianity with classical philosophy. The church was the most powerful institution. “The problems of the vast, dispersed organization of the continent-wide church, the relations between church and monarch, between church and state raised many doctrinal and legal matters (Tarnas, 325).” These matters were discussed, debated and resolved in the monasteries and the schools that were set up at this time. They were known as scholastic. Later these debate and discussions were developed as the system of philosophy and teaching and it dominated the medieval Western Europe. “Both masters and pupils travelled from all regions of Europe to these schools and took home the sciences which they had learned.”
Even by the year 1250 there were still very few universities in Europe: Bologna in northern Italy, Montpellier in southern France, Paris in northern France and Oxford in England. The aim of early teaching was to teach Christian theological concepts like the Creation, the Fall and Redemption of mankind etc. “By 1175, scholars saw themselves not only as transmitters of ancient learning, but as active participants in the development of an integrated, many-sided body of knowledge ‘rapidly reaching its peak’.” Similarly, the pope guaranteed independence for the University of Paris in 1215 following a long tussle between religious and political authorities.
Besides theologians, there were two scholars who contributed to the idea of the West. They were: Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus. “Both men were devoutly loyal to biblical theology, yet also concerned with the mysteries of the physical world, and sympathetic to Aristotle’s affirmation of nature, the body, and the human intellect (Tarnas, 137).” “Aquinas’s (c. 1225–1274) attempt to reconcile Christianity with Aristotle, and the classic was a hugely creative and mould-breaking achievement (Watson, 3300). “In all Catholic educational institutions that teach philosophy, his system has to be taught as the only right one; this has been the rule (Russel, 418).”
His “best known work is his ‘Summa Theologiae’, an attempt to replace Peter Lombard’s ‘Sentences’ as the standard text book for student of theology (Mautner, 37).” Aquinas insisted that there is a natural, underlying order of things, which appeared to deny God’s power of miraculous intervention. . He argued there is a ‘natural law’ which reason can grasp. Moreover, “he proposed that secular learning – focused on the sheer reality of the natural world – was a necessary grounding for religious contemplation (Watson, 330).” Before Aquinas the world had neither meaning nor pattern except in relation to God. After Aquinas, objective study of the natural order was possible, as was the idea of the secular state. ‘Learn everything,’ was his motto, ‘later you will see that nothing is superfluous.’ From this attitude grew the medieval practice of writing summae, encyclopedic treatises aimed at synthesizing all knowledge.
Albertus Magnus, a scholar at Paris and Aquinas’ teacher, “was the first medieval thinker to make the firm distinction between knowledge derived from theology and knowledge derived from science (Tarnas, 138).” He also asserted the value of secular learning, and the need for empirical observation. For Aquinas Aristotle’s philosophy was the greatest achievement of human reason to be produced without the benefit of Christian inspiration.
Previously, Augustine had thought that reason is the servant of faith. Saint Thomas, however, had argued that, although reason and faith were independent, reason may supplement but may not contradict faith (Gottschalk and Lach, 33). Moreover, he meant that philosophy was no longer a mere handmaiden of theology.
Man could only realize himself by being free to pursue knowledge wherever it led. According to Aquinas,” because God had designed everything, and secular knowledge could only reveal this design more closely – and therefore help man to know God more intimately.” Moreover he said “by expanding his own knowledge, man was becoming more like God (Watson, 331).” Thomas’ strong belief that faith and reason could be united at first drew condemnation from the church. The other scholars at that time argued that philosophy and faith could not be reconciled because they contradicted one another. According to them “the realm of reason and science must be in some sense outside the sphere of theology.” This was ‘resolved’ by positing a ‘double truth’ universe. However, “the church refused to accept this situation and communication was severed between traditional theologians and the scientific thinkers (Watson, 330).”
“With the introduction of Aristotle and the new focus on the visible world, the early Scholastics’ understanding of “reason” as formally correct logical thinking began to take on a new meaning: Reason now signified not only logic but also empirical observation and experiment—i.e., cognition of the natural world (Tarnas, 178).” Finally, Aquinas succeeded in persuading the Church that Aristotle’s system was to be preferred to Plato’s as the basis of Christian philosophy (Russel, 419). “In Christianizing Aristotle, Aquinas eventually succeeded in Aristotelianising Christianity (Watson, 343). A secular way of thinking was introduced into the world, which would eventually change man’s understanding for all time. Aristotle was accepted where he hadn’t been accepted before. Russel, however, comments on Aquinas, “I cannot feel that he deserves to be put on a level with the best philosophers either of Greece or of modern Times (427).”
Gottschalk, Louis, and Donald Lach. The Rise of Modern Europe. Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1951. Print.
Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Mautner, Thomas. The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy. London: Penguin, 2010. Print.
Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. London: Pimlico, 1996. Print.
Turner, William. “Scholasticism.” Catholic Encyclopedia. New Advent, n.d. Web. 11 July 2014. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13548a.htm>.
Watson, Peter. Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud. London: Phoenix, 2006. Print.
“Scholasticism.” Merriam-Webster. n.d. Web. 10 July 2014. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scholasticism>.