Lesson 2: Medieval Education

From Liberal Arts to the University

From the age of five when Thomas Aquinas was sent to the nearby abbey of Monte Cassino he entered a system of education that stemmed from the recovery in translation during the Dark Ages of some fragments of classical thought. Saint Augustine taught in the system of Imperial Schools, first in North Africa, then in Rome, before moving with his entourage to Milan. After being moved decisively by the preaching of Saint Ambrose, he withdrew to a retreat at Cassiciacum where he prepared himself for entry into the Church, thus fulfilling the prayerful hopes of his mother Monica.

At Cassiciacum, Augustine wrote a number of works, many in dialogue form, which give us a taste of the teacher he had been. On the Teacher, a dialogue with his son Adeodatus who would die young, Augustine examined what happens when one learns with the aid of a human teacher. He concluded that we have but one teacher, Christ, and that the soul contains a participation in the light that is the Word of God that enables us to grasp truths. In On Music, he discusses one of the liberal arts and here and elsewhere he is one of the major conduits of the notion of liberal arts. The number of the arts is nine in Augustine and it is only later in the fifth century that Cassiodorus Senator and Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (480-524) that the number of the liberal arts was established as seven. The Institutiones that Cassiodorus composed for the monastery at Vivarium which, though a layman, he founded, is one of the most succinct expressions of the relationship between faith and reason which would characterize medieval education.

Cassiodorus distinguished between sacred learning, that contained in the Bible, and secular learning which he took to be adequately summed up in the liberal arts. Eventually, the arts were divided into two groups, the trivium -- grammar, rhetoric, logic -- and the quadrivium -- arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. The terms suggest that the liberal arts are propaideutic to sacred learning, a threefold way and a fourfold way. And ways to what? To the wisdom contained in Revelation. From first to last, medieval education was founded on the conviction that reason and faith are complementary and that secular learning finds its fulfillment in the use put to the arts in the interpretation of Scripture.

This system of education was initially located in monasteries where it was chiefly aimed at the training of choir monks whose work was the Opus Dei, the daily chanting of the hours in the abbey church. Some laymen, and laywomen in the case of monasteries for women, also benefited from this education. It is the contention of the great French medievalist Regine Pernoud that the position of women in medieval society was quite favorable until the founding of universities in the 13th century. Still, there were female masters as well, notably Christine de Pizan.

At Monte Cassino, Thomas would have been introduced to this liberal arts tradition of secular learning. At the end of the first millennium, the cathedral school became a second center of education, training the priests of the diocese. This development accompanied the formation of towns and cities apart from the rural fastness in which the monastery was set. When Thomas transferred to the University of Naples in 1239, he came into a setting which was the organic development of the liberal arts tradition. The organization of the university may be seen as the recognition that the hegemony of the liberal arts was over. The arts could no longer be seen as effectively summarizing secular or natural knowledge once the influx of translations of the treatises of Aristotle was felt. Organic as the development of the university out of the seed bed of liberal arts tradition came to seem to Thomas Aquinas, the transition was a difficult one. At first there was a prudent caution shown toward the new learning and eventually, in the third quarter of the thirteenth century, at Paris, the phenomenon known as Latin Averroism or Heterodox Aristotelianism prompted Thomas to write his commentaries on Aristotelian treatises discussed in the previous lesson.

It is convenient, and indeed inevitable, that Paris should be regarded as the flagship of the medieval university. Its papal charter dates from early in the 13th century and it was at Paris that the great battle between old and new was fought. In the 12th century, Paris was already a center of European education. The Englishman, John of Salisbury, has left us vivid accounts of the lively intellectual scene he found there in the 12th century. There was the cathedral school on the Ile de la cité and there were the schools on Mont Ste Genevieve, where Peter Abelard taught, as well as the remarkable School of St. Victor, of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine. When the university was formed -- the magistorum et scolarum of Paris -- it amalgamated the existing schools and introduced a common program of preparation for the Master of Arts and Master of Theology. We will return to the structure of the medieval university.

At Naples, Thomas first became acquainted with the 'new' Aristotle. Of course Aristotle had figured in the liberal arts tradition, represented by the few logical works of his which had been translated by Boethius. It is fascinating to wonder what would have happened if Boethius had been able to carry out the project he set for himself, the translation into Latin of all of Plato and Aristotle with the provision of commentaries on their work. As it happened, this project was interrupted when Boethius was accused by Theodoric the Arian ruler of Italy, with headquarters at Ravenna, of conspiring with the emperor of the east to overthrow him. One of the great works of prison literature, The Consolation of Philosophy, was written by Boethius while he awaited execution in Pavia, near Milan. Alternating prose and poetic sections, Boethius addressed the problem of evil, the suffering of the innocent. Dr. Johnson was to wonder, Boswell tells us, how in such circumstances Boethius could show himself magis philosophus quam Christianus, more a philosopher than a Christian. And indeed Boethius employs only secular sources to address his thematic question. If nothing else, this gives us a vivid sense of the difference between philosophy and theology. But Boethius was also the author of a number of theological treatises which would have a profound influence in later centuries. If all the writings of Aristotle -- and of Plato! -- had become available at the outset of the sixth century, the battles that characterized the thirteenth century might have been fought out much earlier. As it was, Aristotle would find a Latin voice only toward the end of the twelfth century and during the thirteenth century his entire corpus would find its way into the lingua franca of the medieval scholar.

From the outset, Thomas held that the treatises of Aristotle were both compatible with the liberal arts tradition and with Christian faith. His interest in Aristotle, quickened at Naples, would receive a further boost from Thomas's entrance into the Dominican Order. When he finally made his way North, he was to study with Albert the Great whose interest in Aristotle was profound, to the extent of writing a paraphrase of the whole Aristotelian corpus.

The Structure of the University

When the existing schools of Paris were amalgamated into the legal entity of the university, the program of study was formalized, modeled, as it must seem, on the guild system in which the apprentice was trained through stages to the status of master. The basic structure of the University of Paris was this. There was an entry level in the Faculty of Arts which young boys entered in their early teens to embark on a course of studies extending some seven to nine years when the Master of Arts degree was conferred on successful candidates. Once in possession of the Master of Arts, the young man, now perhaps twenty years of age, could enter one of the advanced faculties, that of Theology, Law or Medicine. It is doubtful that Thomas was ever a student of the arts at Paris, having completed that course before arriving. As a fledgling theologian he would over the course of years become proficient in Scripture and in the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Courses were cursory at first, a quick trip over the terrain, and then became progressively more demanding with the candidate gradually participating more and more in the teaching task itself, giving cursory readings of a book of Scripture, for example. The regnant master presided over such apprentice work. The same was true of the disputed questions.

A master would post a thesis he meant to defend publicly in advance of the date and the other masters and students would come prepared to raise difficulties for the proposed solution. The initial response would be by one of his assistants, with the magisterial resolution following. The apprentice would lecture on the Sentences of Peter Lombard to his juniors and gradually acquire mastery of the subject. A man was in his early thirties by the time he was subjected to the public testing that would determine whether he would be named a master of theology. As we have already seen, Thomas wrote some of his earliest treatises during these apprentice years at Paris.

All students were clerics, set off from the laity by the tonsure, not one of the Holy Orders. Students of theology were priests and thus could fulfill the third task of the master, preaching. The inaugural lecture before the whole corps of masters was the crucial final step. Thomas's as we have seen was devoted to the commendation of Scripture and its division into books. Once a master, a man was in principle qualified to teach in any university, but there was a limited number of regent professorships. The Dominicans held two and it was to one of these that Thomas was appointed, after opposition to him and the Franciscan Bonaventure had been resolved by the intervention of the pope. There was enmity between the secular masters -- priests who were not members of religious orders -- and the religious, particularly the two mendicant orders, that of St. Dominic and that of St. Francis. We have seen that some of Thomas's polemical writings were responses to these attacks. It was the practice of the Dominicans to put a man into one of their chairs for a three year period and then assign him to a teaching post in one of the houses of the order, so that there was a trickle down influence of a Parisian education. Thomas first occupied a Dominican chair, teaching in the Convent of St. Jacques, from 1256 to 1259. After that, he was sent to Italy where he taught in a number of places, Orvieto, Viterbo, Naples and Rome, before being called back for an unprecedented second term as regent master in 1269. The reason for his recall was that he might address the issue of Latin Averroism, since his own views seemed in the target area when Franciscan theologians responded to the so-called Latin Averroists who were masters in the Faculty of Arts.

Calling the entry level of the university the Faculty of Arts was a deliberate linking to the liberal arts tradition. Over the course of the thirteenth century this became in effect the Faculty of Philosophy, as treatises of Aristotle which could not be construed as dealing with one of the traditional arts were added to the curriculum. With the advent of the Aristotelian corpus in Latin translation it was no longer possible to think of secular learning as confined to the seven liberal arts. Some Masters of Arts remained in the Faculty of Arts and their attention was professionally focused on the Aristotelian treatises. A feature of the liberal arts tradition was that it incorporated the conviction that there was a complementarity and compatibility of secular and sacred learning. With the rising enthusiasm for Aristotle this modus vivendi came into question.

It has become fashionable to be skeptical about the so-called two truth theory as a central tenet of the Latin Averroists. That this skepticism should itself be subjected to skepticism is clear from Thomas's response to over enthusiastic Aristotelean.

Thomas's Polemics against the Latin Averroists

In his treatise On the Soul Aristotle offers an argument for the immateriality of intellect which is based on the nature of intellectual knowledge. In sense perception, for example when one sees green, green is present to or had by the sensor in a way that is different from the green of the shamrock. In the latter case there is an individual instance of green numerically distinct from other instances in other shamrocks, an unripe apple and your pallor the morning after the night before. Seeing green is not productive of another instance of green in the inventory of the external world. Individual instances of green are incidental properties or accidents of things, forms inhering in substance as in their matter. Green as seen is received by the sense in a different way in which it is received materially. Thus sensation comes to be spoken of as the reception of green otherwise that it is received by matter, or immaterially. For all that, the range of sight is limited to colors. But the range of intellect is unlimited, a truth that Aristotle expresses in the phrase "the soul is in a certain way all things." Unlike sensation, understanding or intellection does not employ a material organ. If it did, its range would be limited in the way that sight's is. The intellect is defined as a capacity to know whatever is and has as its object the nature or essence of sensed things grasped in a way that leaves out of account this or that instance of the nature. Immaterial reception here is of a more exalted sort than is the case with the immateriality involved in sensation. Sight can be overwhelmed by brightness and its activity impaired, but intellect thrives on rather than is impeded by greater intelligibility.

Well, this is a difficult topic and one could and doubtless should go on. But we are interested in a controversy that arose as to the upshot of this analysis in On the Soul. Is Aristotle speaking of the capacity of the human soul such that his account of the immateriality of intellection redounds to the intellectual soul? Is he establishing that, because intellection is what it is, that each individual soul that has the capacity for it is immaterial and can enjoy existence independently of the body whose substantial form it is?

In different ways, Avicennia and Averroism -- whose readings of Aristotle accompanied the translations of the treatises -- hold that what Aristotle is establishing is that immaterial intellect is not a capacity or faculty of the human soul but a separate entity whose causality accounts for our thinking. On this view, Aristotle is not establishing that each and every intellectual soul can exist apart from body -- the immortality of the soul -- but that there is numerically one intellect elsewhere whose activity causes our thinking. But our soul does not survive the body.

This Averroistic interpretation of the Aristotelian text continues to be the dominant reading of On the Soul. Masters in the Faculty of Arts in the thirteenth century accepted this reading, which is why they are called Latin Averroists. From this it should follow that we are faced here with one of the "errors of Aristotle." On the Averroistic reading, philosophy not only does not establish the immortality of the soul, it establishes that human souls are not immortal. But the Latin Averroists were Christians whose belief accordingly was that the human soul is destined for a continuing existence after death, whether of weal or woe. Surely then they must reject Aristotle and account his position false. The Latin Averroist controversy arose because these masters did not care to do this. Rather, they held, and were taken to hold, that something contradictory to Christian faith was philosophically true but nonetheless the Christian assumption about the immortality of each and every human soul is also true.

The Latin Averroists were thus seen as calling into question the traditional assumption that faith and reason are compatible. They were taken to hold that philosophical truths and revealed truths can be contradictorily related yet both be true. This was the situation to which Thomas Aquinas returned in 1269 when he once more became regent master at Paris. His treatise De unitate intellectus contra averroistas -- which I have translated as Aquinas Against the Averroists: On There Being Only One Intellect -- is of fundamental importance for understanding Thomas's own Aristotelianism. In the treatise he shows at great length that the separatist reading of Aristotle on intellect will not do. His rejection of it could simply be based on its conflict with a fundamental assumption of Christian belief. If Christianity is true, this view of the mortality of the human soul must be false. But did Aristotle teach what the Latin Averroists thought he did? That is the heart of the polemical treatise. Thomas argues that the text of Aristotle simply will not support the separatist interpretation, that Aristotle is clearly establishing the intellect as the faculty of a soul that is the form of a body is such that the human soul cannot cease to be when a person dies.

Of course Thomas may be wrong in his own reading of Aristotle but his interpretation has to be appraised on the basis it is offered. The text of Aristotle and the wider context of Aristotelian philosophy. It is a matter of what Aristotle actually taught. This is a textual and historical question. What is the correct or true reading of Aristotle? Anyone wishing to get a sense of Thomas's approach to the Aristotelian text owes it to himself to ponder this treatise carefully. Clichés about baptizing Aristotle or benign -- that is, distorting, that is, false -- reading of Aristotle to make him compatible with the faith dissolve on a close reading of this treatise.

After he has established in great detail the correct reading of Aristotle, Thomas moves beyond the merely historical question to argue that Aristotle's position is true. All in all, the treatise is a devastating refutation of Latin Averroism. And it is a massive impediment to the tendency to suggest that we must distinguish Thomas's "personal" views from his interpretation of Aristotle.

The treatise On the Eternity of the World casts further light on Thomas's view of the relationship between philosophy and faith. Among what were called the "errors of Aristotle" -- that is, Aristotelian tenets which conflict with the faith -- is the eternity of the world. This is a quite different case from the foregoing. There is no doubt that Aristotle held that the world had always been because it makes no sense to say that it has come to be. But we read in Genesis that in the beginning God created heaven and earth. Here, surely, there is a contradiction. How does Thomas deal with it?

First, Aristotle is right in holding that the world cannot come to be in the sense that there is something which before being the world comes to be the world. There is no antecedent matter in potency to becoming the world. If the world comes to be, this must be in a quite different sense, ex nihilo, from no previous subject or indeed state of affairs. Call this creation as opposed to becoming in the way in which things come to be within the existent world. Is Aristotle denying that the world comes to be in the sense of being created? There are those, e.g. Mario Sacchi, who take seriously Thomas's attribution of creation to Aristotle. I agree with Sacchi. But this does not settle the dispute before us. The world can be a created word and for all that have always existed. Say that is Aristotle's view. It is still incompatible with Christian faith and thus, on the assumption that Christianity is true must be accounted false. But Thomas is not done.

Thomas goes on to say that Aristotle's arguments for the eternity of the world are at best probable. Indeed, Thomas holds that it is philosophically impossible to establish with certainty either that the created world has always existed or that it was created in such a way that time has a beginning with it. On this view, the most that philosophy can do is offer a probable argument for a position in conflict with the faith. The result is that there is no flat out contradiction of faith and reason.

Suggested Reading Assignment

On the Eternity of the World. In Thomas Aquinas Selected Writings, translated and edited by Ralph McInerny. London: Penguin, 1998, pp. 710-717.  

Aquinas Against the Averroists: On There Being Only One Intellect. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1993. 

Josef Pieper, Guide to Thomas Aquinas. New York: Pantheon Books, 1962.

Suggested Writing Assignment 

 Write an essay outlining the argument of On the Eternity of the World.


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