Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/April 1882/The Scholastic Prelude to Modern Science

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IN the latter half of the sixteenth century a wondrous change came over the spirit of the nation which then held the foremost place in culture and civilization.

After twelve centuries of existence, the Niobe of nations had fulfilled her destiny. By the middle of the fifth century her empire, which had extended from the Euphrates to the Tagus, and from the Forth to the cataracts of the Nile, had seen province after province rent away from her, and had shrunk within the limits of Italy. Rome, which had not seen a foreign foe for seven centuries, had been four times sacked by the barbarians. The free yeomen of the bright days of the republic had perished in the civil wars. The land was parceled out among a small number of gigantic proprietors, and cultivated exclusively by slaves. Tillage had nearly ceased, and all the supplies of corn came from the provinces. With the loss of these the supplies failed, and the population was reduced to the lowest depths of misery. War, pestilence, and famine desolated whole provinces. The army was a host of mercenary barbarians. In 476 they peremptorily demanded that one third of the lands of Italy should be divided among them. The youthful Emperor had the spirit to refuse this demand, and took refuge in Pavia, where he was immediately besieged: the town was captured and pillaged: and the Emperor laid down his uneasy crown. The Senate ignominiously surrendered the vacant authority to the Emperor of the East; and Odoacer, the military commander, reigned in Italy. One third of the lands was immediately confiscated and divided among the successful mutineers.

Sixteen years afterward, a new swarm of barbarians under Theodoric conquered the country and effected new confiscations and settlements; and for thirty years the land enjoyed peace and prosperity under the reign of the wise Theodoric. But in 568, Alboin, King of the Lombards, introduced a new host, and founded a dynasty which lasted two centuries, until overthrown by Charlemagne and the Franks; and they again were succeeded by the Germans, in 962, under Otho the Great.

Thus, during the space of five centuries, Italy was overrun by five successive hosts of invaders: but, with great sagacity, they left the Roman municipal institutions untouched: so that while the forms remained the population was almost entirely renewed. Moreover, the invaders on all occasions favored emancipation, so that by the eleventh century slavery had died out, and the land was once more inhabited by a free people.

Thus, after the gestation of five centuries, the conquering races and the conquered had become amalgamated into one people, and a new nation arose which exhibited such a transformation as had never before been exhibited in the history of the world. The land which had been held by the most prosaic and unimaginative of nations became the mother of all the arts and of all the sciences.

The cities of Italy, enjoying peace and settled government under the Germanic emperors, rapidly progressed in prosperity and wealth, and began to extend their commerce throughout Europe, and became habituated to self-government under the decaying house of Franconia.

But when the Hohenstaufens, a more energetic race, succeeded, Frederick Barbarossa, one of the ablest sovereigns of the middle ages, attempted to reimpose upon them the yoke of the empire. The Lombard cities took up arms in their own defense. Barbarossa was at first successful: he captured Milan and razed it to the ground. But he was finally vanquished in 1176, on the field of Legnano; and Italy became all but nominally independent.

The energies of the people being thus aroused, soon developed themselves in every direction. First architecture, then sculpture, then painting, then poesy, was called into existence; and, during the space of four centuries, Italy produced such a galaxy of illustrious names in the arts as no other country can boast. The powers of Nature seemed to culminate in Michael Angelo, and then decayed.

The day that Michael Angelo died, Galileo was born.

At the same time the study of jurisprudence revived. The great Code of Justinian had been published during a short period while Italy was reunited to the Eastern Empire, and then Justinian caused his code to be adopted throughout the whole empire. But the original Latin soon fell into desuetude in the East, and was superseded by Greek compilations; and was finally set aside by the revised code called the Basilica, published in Greek in the ninth century.

In the troubled state of Italy the study of jurisprudence was naturally much neglected. Each separate race of invaders had its own code of laws—founded, however, on preceding Roman codes; and every nationality was allowed to follow its own laws. Consequently, though the Code of Justinian never ceased to exist, its effects were much weakened. At the beginning of the twelfth century a great school of law was founded by Pepo and Irnerius at Bologna, and for two centuries produced an illustrious line of jurists, to which students flocked from all parts of Europe.

But the most remarkable and original product of the middle ages was the Scholastic Philosophy; and, as the Baconian philosophy was the reaction against it, it is necessary to give a brief outline of it.

Socrates was the first to perceive that all systematic reasoning in science and philosophy must be based upon general concepts, ideas, or definitions of terms. The dialogues of Plato are full of discussions on the meanings of terms—the Good, the Beautiful, the Holy, the Just, and numerous others. If any action was said to be holy or just, it was first of all necessary to define the holy, or the just. Thus the Platonic dialogues are full of inductive reasonings as to fundamental concepts. Now, when a certain moral concept is formed in the mind, it does not by any means follow that it should be realized in any actual person, nor that it should be seen in any action. It is quite possible to form a mental concept of the holy or the just, without there being any holy or just person, or any one doing a holy or just action.

From this it followed that general concepts might have an actual and real existence without being embodied in any concrete form. Plato argued by analogy from the moral to the physical world. He held that all nature was framed in accordance with certain ideas, or notions existing in the Divine mind, which were quite independent of any particulars. Thus, there was an idea or notion of a man, horse, etc., before there was any actual man or horse—though he was rather staggered at the notion of there being eternal ideas of mud, hair, dirt, etc. Thus, besides the world of spiritual existences, Plato held that there is also a distinct world of invisible, self-existent, eternal, and unchangeable ideas. These, with some variations, were the doctrines which were called realism in the middle ages. Aristotle, the disciple of Plato, combated these doctrines in several of his works. He maintained that these universals, as they were called, could not be separated from their particulars: he denied that universals could have a separate reality from the particulars. Hence the universals were mere names for certain particulars. This, somewhat modified, was termed nominalism in the middle ages. t

The Greeks were the first to discover that there is an innate power of discerning truth in the human mind; and that there is a science of truth, which can be reduced to a systematic form. This science is termed logic. Zeno, of Elea, was the first to employ this science, to prove the fallacy of the arguments of his opponents. It was much used by Socrates and Plato in their discussions and dialogues; but Aristotle was the first to reduce it to a systematic form. He first showed that all error can be exposed and all truth set forth in a systematic form.

Logic or dialectic, therefore, in the hands of Aristotle was a mere method of testing the truth of philosophical systems: he never supposed that syllogism could be applied to the discovery of the truths of physics. Both he and Plato foreshadowed and adopted the inductive method for the discovery of truth; in which, however, he was not very successful.

The scholastic philosophy of the middle ages was the attempt to combine the idealism of Plato with the logic and dialectics of Aristotle: but, unfortunately, it attempted to apply the syllogistic method to the discovery of truth.

When Christianity became known to philosophers, the Platonists perceived that there was much in it in accordance with their system. They were the first of philosophers to adopt it, and they endeavored to combine it with their own philosophy.

As the general intellect decayed in the decadence of the Western Empire, all originality vanished. The highest literature fell into oblivion. Theology was taught from books; and consequently writers confined themselves exclusively to commenting on the usual text-books. St. Augustine and some of the Latin fathers were still read; but the whole course of philosophy consisted of some parts of Aristotle's "Organon," Plato's "Timæus," and a few tracts of Cicero and Seneca. A few lessons in grammar and logic, with just enough mathematics and astronomy to calculate Easter, were the highest instruction. The age of Charlemagne was the nadir of the human intellect. Soon after him appeared the first original genius of the middle ages. Paschasius had asserted the doctrine of transubstantiation. John Scotus Erigena was employed to refute it. He was a realist and a mystic: his work marked the revival of metaphysical speculation.

About the middle of the eleventh century Berengar, Archdeacon of Tours, revived the eucharistic controversy, adopting the same side as Erigena. Berengar's doctrines, founded upon reasoning, and supported by much profane learning, greatly agitated the Church; and he was combated by Lanfranc in the name of authority, and afterward by Anselm, who endeavored to reunite the claims of reason and faith. These metaphysical controversies about the deepest mysteries of faith revived the old contests of Plato and Aristotle.

Realist views were then generally current; but about the same period Roscelin, Canon of Compiègne, strongly adopted the nominalist side. In discussing the mystery of the Trinity he gradually lapsed into tritheism. The Church was shocked and alarmed, and in 1092 he was condemned by the Council of Soissons, and obliged to leave France. The impiety which resulted from nominalism produced a reaction in favor of realism. Anselm and William of Champeaux thundered against him on the realistic side.

But a doughty champion revived the fortunes of nominalism. Abelard pointed out the absurd consequences of realism, and William retired from the field. Three thousand disciples carried Abélard's fame and doctrine into every country of Europe. But the rage for definition and dialectics led Abélard into the heresies of Berengar and Roscelin, and he was silenced and consigned to the cloister.

These controversies had fairly roused the spirit of metaphysics, and several champions appeared on either side: when an unexpected discovery added tenfold fuel to the flame.

Athens had been for centuries the university of the Roman world. The narrow policy of Justinian closed her schools, and the teachers were scattered throughout the world. A learned colony had settled at Edessa on the borders of Syria and Mesopotamia, and founded a flourishing school of Greek science and philosophy. In process of time Edessa fell before the conquering Moslem. The dynasty of the Abassides came from Khorassan, where learning had long been held in honor. Almanzor, and his successor Haroun-al-Raschid, founded schools at Bagdad, and diligently sought out the monuments of Greek learning, and caused them to be translated into Arabic; and its literature was enriched by translations of the Greek works on mathematics, astronomy, mechanics, Euclid, Ptolemy, Hippocrates, Galen, Dioscorides, and especially Aristotle and the neo-Platonists.

Africa and Spain rejected the Abasside dynasty, but equally cultivated the arts and sciences. Colleges and schools were founded in every city of Spain. Magnificent libraries contained translations of all the Greek masterpieces. Thus for three centuries, while Europe was plunged into the lowest depth of barbarism, the arts and the sciences flourished in the Mohammedan world from Khorassan to the Ebro. Then arose a great series of Moslem doctors and philosophers, Alkendi, Alfarabi, Gazali, and especially Ibn-Sina, Ibn-Badja, Ibn-Thofail, and Ibn-Roshd, known to the infidels respectively as Avicenna, Avempace, Abubazer, and Averroes. These men annotated and commented upon the entire works of Aristotle.

The same spirit of inquiry agitated the Jewish world. In the eighth century the Karaites broke away from the Talmud, and asserted the right of reason to judge faith. To combat the growing heresy, the school of Sora was founded near Bagdad, and they were equally obliged to cultivate dialectics. Saadia (892-943) made a strong effort to reconcile reason and revelation.

The Jews in Spain were equally active, and the philosophy of Ibn-Gebirol (Avicebron), rejected by his own nation, convulsed the Christian schools. In the twelfth century an orthodox reaction began. Juda Hallevi denied the power of reason to judge religious mysteries. Jewish philosophy reached its highest point in Moses Maimonides.

Thus, by a curious coincidence the Jewish, the Christian, and the Mohammedan worlds were simultaneously immersed in dialectics, and agitated and convulsed by the perennial conflict between reason and faith.

While the minds of the three great religious communities were thus distracted, some rays of Mohammedan learning penetrated into the Christian schools. A few travelers had brought back specimens from the East. The Crusades still further stimulated intercourse between the hostile creeds. Arabic versions of Aristotle were imported along with bales of merchandise into Sicily, Italy, and the south of France; and some diligent scholars translated the Arabic works of science into Latin. Raymond, Bishop of Toledo (1130-1150), caused several of the works of Avicenna, Gazali, and Alfarabi to be translated into Latin; and Michael Scot and others translated the Arabic versions of Greek works into Latin. All this mass of new literature gave an immense stimulus to metaphysical controversy. The intoxication of mind produced a flood of discussion which threatened to be fatal to orthodoxy. The first scholastics professed themselves devout sons of the Church, but the inevitable tendency of free inquiry was to lead them further and further away from orthodoxy. The doctrines of Avicenna, Averroes, and Avicebron convulsed the Christian schools; and the teaching of Aristotle seemed to lead to the plainest pantheism and materialism.

The Catholic Church was now thoroughly aroused and alarmed. It was, indeed, shaken to its foundations; and, as Aristotle seemed the original source of all these heresies, he was formally condemned by the Church in 1204, 1209, and 1215. Thus in all the three religious communities the appeal to reason was dangerous to faith; and the Aristotelian philosophy was a terror equally to orthodox Jews, to orthodox Mohammedans, and to orthodox Catholics.

The Catholic Church seemed on the very brink of destruction; the scandalous lives and the venality of the court of Rome shocked all Christendom. Every country swarmed with heretics in revolt against the tyranny of the priesthood. But the Pontiff was equal to the crisis. The Crusades had familiarized the followers of the meek and gentle Jesus with the idea that the slaughter of infidels was grateful to the Creator. And heretics were worse than infidels. Accordingly, Innocent III carried fire and sword into the fairest provinces of Christendom.

A great revolution was at hand, and the Church was saved in the very crisis of her existence. In the same year, 1206, Dominic, a Spaniard, founded an order of mendicant friars at Toulouse, and Francis, at Assisi. They were bound to devote themselves to poverty and preaching. The new orders spread with marvelous rapidity, and in a very few years all Europe was filled with them. They were devoted to the defense of Catholic dogma. Each order cultivated the most profound learning, and studied the pagan philosophers to profit by them and to confute them. The rival fraternities vied with each other in celebrated names. The Franciscans boasted Alexander de Hales; the Dominicans, Albert of Cologne, surnamed the Great. These two, with William of Auvergne, Bishop of Paris (1218-1248), consolidated that system called the Scholastic Philosophy, which saved Catholicism from the heretical wisdom of the Arabians.

The greatest of the three was Albert, and twenty folio volumes attest his industry. He commented on all the works of Aristotle. Albert perceived that general concepts are at the base of all philosophies. He held that they existed independently of the mind; but he did not recognize a being called Humanity independent of actual human being; nor of Animality beyond actual animals. He held that the genus is an essence which only exists in particulars, but does not depend upon them. It emanates from the mind of God. Thus humanity and all other essences are the concepts, ideas, or forms existing in the mind of God, realized in individual beings. Hence, to find the origin of the universal, it was necessary to go back to the first cause. Albert was thus a modified realist. All realities were supposed to exist as concepts of the Divine mind; and also all concepts of the Divine mind had corresponding realities.

By this means all knowledge of external nature was to be found in the concepts or ideas of the mind; and these mental abstractions were supposed to be real physical existences.

Now, theology is the creation of the human mind, and consists in abstract concepts; and these were formed into a logical system of dogmatic theology. This being granted, these great master-minds saw the prodigious use of the Aristotelian logic in forming the subject into a great scientific system. In fact, if the freedom of inquiry could be curbed, and opinion restrained to certain orthodox fundamental concepts, there was nothing like the Aristotelian logic for reducing them to systematic form. Hence the Aristotelian logic, instead of being adverse to the Church, was now its greatest defender.

The greatest of all the scholastic doctors was Thomas Aquinas, the pupil of Albert of Cologne; and his works are the very incarnation of the scholastic philosophy.

It was then supposed that theology comprehended every other science; and physics was framed in the same spirit as theology. All physical science was supposed to be founded on certain mental concepts, which were supposed to be real. But all reference to Nature herself was prohibited, as savoring of heresy, and from fear of contradicting some doctrine of theology. Aristotle's theory of matter and form was adopted—the matter being the physical substance and quality of things, and form being that which distinguishes them into different classes.

Thus all physical science was reduced to syllogisms; and it was supposed that by varying these all physical truth might be discovered. The system was therefore entirely a priori; it began with the highest abstractions pure fictions of the mind and reasoned deductively from causes to effects. By this means the idealism of Plato, together with the logic of Aristotle, was utilized in the service of the Church, and the union of the Church and philosophy was irresistible, and enthralled the human mind for three centuries.

Thus the logic of Aristotle, which was never intended as anything but a defense against philosophical error, was turned into a system for the discovery of truth and scientific investigation. Aristotle himself would have been the first to protest against this misuse of it. The labors of the men were prodigious, but they were utterly barren of results—as barren as the labor on the tread-mill.


  1. Abstracted from Macleod's "Elements of Economics," Book I, "History of Economics." D. Appleton & Co.