Scholasticism in the Later Middle Ages

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Editors: Edward I. Bleiberg , James Allan Evans , Kristen Mossler Figg , Philip M. Soergel , and John Block Friedman
Date: 2005
From: Arts and Humanities Through the Eras(Vol. 4: Renaissance Europe 1300-1600. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 7,254 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1370L

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The term scholasticism, a word invented by sixteenth-century humanist critics, has long been used to describe the dominant intellectual movement of the Middle Ages. The humanists used the term to attack the verbose style and arid intellectualism they perceived to be the defining features of medieval intellectuals. Humanists criticized the scholastics for concentrating on legal, logical, and rationalistic issues at the expense of genuine moral and ethical problems. In truth, the thought of the schoolmen possessed considerable variety and depth. These thinkers often engaged in debating complex moral and intellectual issues in ways that were far from arid and which dealt with realistic considerations. There was not, moreover, a single set of assumptions about philosophical issues within the scholastic movement. Instead it possessed great variety and witnessed continued vitality and development throughout the later Middle Ages. But humanist philosophers came to contrast their own method of discussing and writing about philosophical problems against those of the scholastics and to argue that their ideas were more original and morally relevant than those of the medieval schoolmen. At the same time humanist thinkers were often indebted to the ideas of the scholastics, and the gulf that separated the two movements was less profound than many humanists often imagined.


Scholasticism first developed in schools attached to Europe's cathedrals in the twelfth century. By 1200, the most successful of these schools had emerged as universities. These first universities—places like Oxford in England, Bologna in Italy, and Paris in France—shared a common educational outlook, even though each specialized in different kinds of learning. These institutions were carefully nourished, both by the church and their local states, since the students that they trained provided a pool of eligible talent to assume positions of authority in secular and religious governments. The medieval universities enjoyed special legal status as largely autonomous bodies, free from local control. As a result, "town and gown" rivalries often erupted, even at this early point in their development. The curriculum taught in the universities changed little over time. Students began their instruction at the universities in their mid-teens after completing their preparatory work at home or in the secondary schools in Europe's cities. Since all instruction within the universities was in Latin, most students required years of elementary and secondary instruction, either formally or informally, before they could enter a university. The course of primary and secondary education differed from place to place, as did the number of schools available to educate young boys in the basic instruction that they would need before they entered the university. While there were a few notable exceptions of talented, young women who attended universities in the Middle Ages, women were prohibited from taking degrees. And as a rule, women received no instruction in Latin, so that in all but extraordinary cases, this prevented them from pursuing higher learning. Before a student entered university, he needed a basic knowledge of the seven liberal arts: the trivium (which included rhetoric, grammar, and logic) and the quadrivium (astronomy, geometry, arithmetic and music). A university's curriculum was more systematic, though, and during the four or five years a student was enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts curriculum he was expected to master logic and the other tools of the scholastic method. At the end of this course, a student usually took the degree. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were a great period in the expansion of university education throughout Europe. University education still was a rare thing, but universities spread in this period to almost every corner of the continent. In 1300 there were only 23 universities in Europe. During the fourteenth century, an additional 22 were founded, and in the fifteenth century 34 new institutions appeared. This growth was strongest in Germany, Eastern Europe, and Spain. As new universities appeared throughout the continent, the number of individual colleges within these institutions also grew, as nobles, wealthy burghers, kings, and princes moved to endow new schools within the framework of existing universities. Medieval universities also specialized, as universities do today, in particular areas of expertise. Until the sixteenth century, Paris remained Europe's premier theological university, while Bologna in Italy was known for its legal studies. It trained many of the lawyers who practiced in the church's courts. Salerno, in Sicily, was Europe's first medical school. As university specialization increased in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages, a new kind of itinerant scholar appeared. Many fourteenth- and fifteenth-century students migrated from university to university, spending only a year or two in each place, before taking the B.A. at one institution. In this way students took advantage of the lectures given at particular places by the most expert of professors. Rising complaints of students who lacked direction and seriousness, though, also accompanied these Page 217  |  Top of Article changes, and the European system of degrees allowed students to remain in school for many years. For those who desired the academic life and who possessed the resources to pursue education, the Masters of Arts degree could be attained with another two to three years of study. At this point the most dedicated students usually became teachers for several years before pursuing the doctoral degree, which required another seven or eight years to complete.


A common way of teaching known as the scholastic method dominated in most universities. The scholastic method—often attacked by later humanists for its verbose style—was, in reality, a logical way of examining problems from contrary points of view. The scholastic thinker set out a proposition to be debated and then he proceeded to present arguments on both sides of this question. He carefully answered each argument in support of this proposition and each in opposition before coming to a final conclusion about the matter. To practice this method, students relied upon a highly technical form of Latin, one which humanists attacked as barbaric in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. A thorough knowledge of the ideas of previous authorities was also a key skill needed by those students who hoped to succeed in mastering the method. The accomplished scholastic was expected not only to be able to deal with problems in their discipline logically, but to recall and manipulate the ideas of previous authorities on a subject. These skills were put to the test in oral debate, as students were called upon to demonstrate mastery of the material through engaging their peers in verbal matches.


This style of examining intellectual questions was common in all the disciplines that were taught in the medieval university and was particularly important in the development of law, theology, natural philosophy (that is, those studies concerned with matter and the physical world), and medicine. Philosophy itself was not an independent discipline in the medieval university, as it is today, although its methods of rational analysis and its logic pervaded all studies. Much of what we would identify today as "philosophy" was concerned with theological issues, although in every area of academic endeavor, medieval scholars wrote works that were philosophical in nature. The importance of philosophy in the medieval curriculum, especially in theological studies, had grown during the course of the high Middle Ages (the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries). In the eleventh century, for instance, many of those who taught in Europe's cathedral schools had been wary of the use of ancient
Instruction at the University of Paris in the later Middle Ages. © LEONARD DE SELVA/CORBIS. Instruction at the University of Paris in the later Middle Ages. © LEONARD DE SELVA/CORBIS. philosophy within theological studies, but over time the rational and logical analysis that philosophy offered influenced theological study more and more. In the twelfth century Peter Abelard (1079–1142) compiled his Sic et non, a work that presented the conflicting statements of the scriptures and of early church fathers concerning doctrinal issues. Although Abelard was a Platonist as were many scholastics of his day, he relied on Aristotle's dialectical method as a means to analyze and harmonize contradictory statements. Peter Lombard (c. 1100–c. 1160) built upon his efforts to construct his Sentences, a work that examined the sum of the church's theology, and which attempted to harmonize the contradictory statements of the ancient church fathers concerning the key teachings of Christianity. In many cases, however, Lombard's Sentences left the contradictions that existed between early Christian authorities unresolved, and thus his work became Page 218  |  Top of Article an important textbook for those theological students who followed him. Students were expected to weigh the contradictory statements of ancient church authorities and the Scriptures the Sentences contained, and to construct their own theological judgments by confronting and harmonizing those contradictions through reasoned and logical analysis. As the Sentences became more popular the dialectical method of Aristotle and the teachings of ancient philosophy concerning the science of logic became increasingly important to European theologians, many of whom wrote commentaries on Lombard's work. By the thirteenth century, in fact, logic had a pre-eminent position in the theological curriculum of universities throughout Europe.


Aristotle's increasing prominence in medieval theology arose, not just from his expertise in logic or the dialectical method, but because the philosopher came to be accepted as a pre-eminent authority on science, nature, and ethics. Early scholastics like Peter Abelard and Peter Lombard had advocated the adoption of Aristotelian forms of reasoned argumentation, but they had remained Platonic in their theological outlook and often wary of Aristotle's ideas. During the twelfth century, though, Western thinkers had begun to re-acquire a firmer understanding of Aristotle's works. They were aided in their efforts by the studies of Aristotle that had been undertaken by Jewish and Muslim scholars in previous centuries, since firsthand knowledge of Aristotle's texts had largely disappeared in medieval Europe. As more and more European scholastics studied the philosopher's works, Aristotle's influence grew, and the sense of uneasiness that had once existed regarding his "pagan" philosophy disappeared. Aristotle became a powerful ally in the attempt to construct a reasoned defense of the Christian faith. By the thirteenth century key aspects of Aristotle's ideas, including his system of logic, his science, and his moral philosophy, helped to fashion a new Golden Age of scholastic theology. Theologians saw in Aristotle's science and metaphysics—particularly in his emphasis on a Prime Mover—new ways to prove the existence of God. They embraced his ethics because they saw in it ways to defend Christian moral imperatives. Aristotle also provided a set of logical tools that allowed theologians to systematize the doctrines derived from the Bible and church tradition. They also relied on these tools to make the church's system of the sacraments rationally coherent. During the thirteenth century, then, the philosopher's largely secular-spirited philosophy served as a foundation for theologians' attempts to interpret the Bible and to explain the workings of the Christian religion and its sacraments. This new marriage between theology and ancient philosophy also played an important role in defining the limits of secular and ecclesiastical authority.


At the high point of scholasticism's development in the thirteenth century many scholastic philosophers were convinced that human knowledge could be harmonized with divine knowledge. They believed, in other words, that faith and human reason were complementary and that human reason could be used to prove the tenets of the Christian religion. This confidence in the compatibility of human reason and the Christian religion was nowhere more profoundly displayed than in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). Aquinas was an Italian by birth who entered the Dominican Order, and eventually studied at the University of Paris, then Europe's preeminent theological institution. After spending some time in Cologne, he returned to teach in Paris before retiring to Italy in his later years. His career thus exemplifies the international nature of university education in the thirteenth-century world. An indefatigable scholar whose literary output was vast, he was sometimes observed writing one work while dictating another. One of his greatest achievements was his Summa Theologiae, or Theological Summation. In this work Aquinas argued that many of the truths of the Christian religion were beyond rational explanation and that they must, by their very nature, be treated as mysteries of a "divine science." At the same time, he applied Aristotelian logic, metaphysics, and ethics to theological problems to make the intellectual issues of the faith readily intelligible and rationally coherent. Almost invariably in the Summa, each article follows a set form. Its title asks whether something is true, such as "Is the Existence of God Self-Evident?" This question is then followed by the words "It seems that" as well as a series of objections that refutes the initial question. These objections include statements from the scriptures, the church fathers, the saints, and other Christian authorities, although in some cases they present purely philosophical statements about logic or nature. The side of the argument Thomas wants to defend is then introduced with the words "but on the contrary," and is accompanied by the quotation of the same kinds of authorities previously presented under the objections. Then Thomas turns to the heart of the article with the words "I answer that" in which he shows by logical argument and the citation of authorities that "what seems" is incorrect, and that what he has stated following the words "on the contrary" is, in fact, correct. He then disposes of the initial "objections," most Page 219  |  Top of Article often by showing that if one interprets them correctly, they actually do not support the erroneous side of the argument. The Summa in its entirety—in its four parts and hundreds of questions—is always built upon these same balanced and orderly principles of argumentation. Aquinas's Summa Theologiae is thus a work of theology, but one that nevertheless relies on philosophical methods and ideas to defend many Christian teachings. In other writings, particularly his Commentaries on Aristotle, he treated subjects that were more purely philosophical in nature, but most of Aquinas's works are best described as works of theology that make use of philosophy's tools. As a theologian, Aquinas was well aware of the problems that might arise from a too heavy reliance on logic and reason to prove Christianity's premises. At the same time, a confidence existed in his work that the mind of man mirrored the mind of God, and thus human beings might strive to understand the Christian faith aided both by divine revelation (the sacred Scriptures and those authorities that had commented upon them) and human reason.


In the decades following Aquinas's death a number of scholastic theologians criticized what they felt was a too heavy reliance on reason in his and other thirteenth-century theologians' works. The issues that precipitated this debate involved the nature of universals, an issue that had been debated by theologians since ancient philosophy had begun to make inroads into scholasticism in the twelfth century. The issues surrounding universals seem to modern minds to be erudite and removed from practical considerations, but to thinkers in the high and later Middle ages, the debate over universals was part of a broader set of discussions about the science of epistemology, that is, the science of how human beings can establish the truth of what they know. These epistemological debates became fundamental to theologians' considerations of their discipline and to their treatment of Christian truth, the church's sacraments and institutions, and even to their considerations of the relationships between religious and secular authority. Until the thirteenth century many scholastics had relied on Platonic realism to explain why human beings shared certain ideas and concepts. Plato had taught that the human mind had been imprinted at birth with knowledge of archetypes or universals that existed in a perfect realm, and this knowledge allowed human beings to recognize and react to the ideas and objects they observed on earth. As a human being saw the elements that made up the world, in other words, each particular object or idea forced the mind to recall its correspondence to a perfect universal. When the human
Engraving of Thomas Aquinas. NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY PICTURE COLLECTION. Engraving of Thomas Aquinas. NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY PICTURE COLLECTION. eye turned to look at a chair, for example, the mind recognized it as a chair because of its relationship to the pre-existing universal idea of chair. This way of interpreting earthly reality as a shadowy emanation of a realm of pure forms or universals has often been called realism. It proved particularly amenable to the needs of some early scholastics desirous of proving the Christian faith using reasoned arguments. In the eleventh century, for example, St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) had relied on realism to prove the existence of God. According to Anselm's proof, if God was conceived in the mind as that "being which nothing greater could be conceived" then the very presence of this notion in the mind proved God's existence. As a realist, in other words, Anselm believed that certain concepts were imprinted on the mind at birth that pointed to the reality of their existence in the realm of universals. As scholastic theology matured, however, new positions on the subject of universals had multiplied. Some thirteenth-century thinkers had remained faithful to realism and had even become "ultra-realist" in their attitudes toward universals. Others insisted that the precise nature of universals was unknowable and they refused to pronounce any opinion on the matter. Still others, like Aquinas, forged positions on universals that were somewhere in between both alternatives.

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While Aquinas insisted on the reality of universals, he argued at the same time that human knowledge derived from sensory experience working in tandem with these ideas in the mind. The eyes, ears, and hands provided the mind with a reliable picture of the world, even though universal knowledge shaped and gave meaning to sensory perceptions. With this notion of universals, Aquinas was able to treat concepts like the existence of God in new ways. He avoided the old means of proof based upon a priori notions imprinted upon the mind at birth, notions that had once played such an important role in the work of figures like St. Anselm. Instead he looked to the natural world and argued that the senses might provide human beings with some reliable proofs for God's existence. Aquinas argued that wind, the flow of water, and the life cycle of flora and fauna all pointed to the presence of a prime mover, a planner that had set these processes in motion. Thus Aquinas's reformulation of the concept of universals allowed him to forge a new kind of theology that linked science, human reason, and divine revelation together, even if he continued to insist that neither nature nor human reason could provide sufficient proofs for the Christian religion on their own. The theologian, according to Aquinas, still had to rely on a detailed and logical study of sacred scriptures and the church's authorities to arrive at religious truth. Although Aquinas's formulations concerning these problems continued to be influential among many later medieval scholastics, particularly in the Dominican Order, his concepts were soon challenged after his death. By 1300, a new group of thinkers began to attack the concept of universals altogether, and in a skeptical vein they insisted that there were clear limits to human reason's ability to understand God and religious truth. As they attacked the concept of universals, they insisted that their precise nature was indeterminable and that each and every object in the world was endowed with its own peculiar, unique qualities. The terms that human beings used to describe these things, in other words, did not have their origin in universals imprinted on the mind, as earlier scholastics had argued. Instead they insisted that philosophical concepts were mere names that arose from human attempts to categorize and comprehend what they observed in the world.


This philosophy eventually became known as nominalism, taking its name from the Latin word for "name" (nomenus). The nominalists generally tried to limit the use of human reason in understanding the Christian faith. In place of the trust that Aquinas and other thirteenth-century thinkers had placed in logic and the mind's ability to comprehend the Christian religion, they argued that faith could not be proven by strictly rational means. Instead there were truths of faith that were not reliant on human reason, and truths of science that were independent of religion. The nominalist critique of the notion of universals was made most cogently by William of Ockham (1285–1349), a brilliant English philosopher and theologian. Ockham had a diverse and interesting career as an academic, a political theorist, and a campaigner for reform in the church. His impact on philosophy, though, proved to be his most enduring contribution. He denied the nature of universals and instead insisted on a simpler explanation for human knowledge. The concept he pioneered, today known as "Ockham's Razor," proposed that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon should win out over a more complex one. Ockham divided all human knowledge into intuitive and abstract categories. Intuitive knowledge is by far the more common, since it is the basis upon which all human understanding of the world is constructed. Intuitive knowledge is acquired through experience and from discussing one's experiences with others. Through their intuition human beings discover that the sky is blue, water is wet, and wood is hard. These intuitive conclusions, though, are nothing more than names which human beings use to describe the realities that they observe in the world. The second category of human knowledge, abstract knowledge, arises from human beings' ability to imagine. Here Ockham cites the example of the unicorn as a typical invention of humankind's abstract knowledge. A fantastic and concocted being, the unicorn is not an expression of a heavenly archetype, but is instead a completely imaginary animal created within the human mind out of the intuitive knowledge of horses and horned animals. From their ability to think in abstract terms, human beings possess the ability to create, but Ockham cautioned that abstract knowledge can also err and, as in the case of the unicorn, create ideas that are completely imagined. In this way Ockham argued for a dramatic reduction of the role of universal truths, one of the fundamental building blocks of scholastic philosophy up to his time. Instead of insisting that universals were pre-existing archetypes in the mind of God, Ockham argued that they were little more than ideas that human beings created to name the things that they observed while living together in the world. This denial of universals or archetypes had a profound effect on philosophy and theology. Fueled with his new understanding of how the mind operated, Ockham argued that the truths of religion could not be understood using human reason. The human mind, in fact, could not establish the reality of Page 221  |  Top of Article God's existence, nor could the truths of religion be defended using an abstract system of logic. Human knowledge existed in a realm completely separate from the majesty of God, and it could only establish the absolute truth of the things that it witnessed through its own observations.

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INTRODUCTION: Marsilius of Padua's Defender of the Peace was written in 1324 while controversy raged concerning the pope's recent decision to condemn the teachings of the Spiritual Franciscans, a group of the order who held to a strict interpretation of their founder St. Francis's ideas concerning poverty. Marsilius attacked the foundations of papal authority by insisting that the authority of the state should be supreme over the church. Marsilius also included an early theory of representative government in his work, arguing that all government's power derived from the people, but in the fourteenth century, most readers focused on his attack upon the power of the church.

Now we declare according to the truth and on the authority of Aristotle that the law-making power or the first and real effective source of law is the people or the body of citizens or the prevailing part of the people according to its election or its will expressed in general convention by vote, commanding or deciding that something be done or omitted in regard to human civil acts under penalty or temporal punishment …

On the other side we desire to adduce in witness the truths of the holy Scripture, teaching and counseling expressly, both in the literal sense and in the mystical according to the interpretation of the saints and the exposition of other authorized teachers of the Christian faith, that neither the Roman bishop, called the pope, nor any other bishop, presbyter, or deacon, ought to have the ruling or judgment or coercive jurisdiction of any priest, prince, community, society or single person of any rank whatsoever. … For the present purposes, it suffices to show, and I will first show, that Christ Himself did not come into the world to rule men, or to judge them by civil judgment, nor to govern in a temporal sense, but rather to subject Himself to the state and condition of this world; that indeed from such judgment and rule He wished to exclude and did exclude Himself and His apostles and disciples, and that He excluded their successors, the bishops and presbyters, by His example, and word and counsel and command from all governing and worldly, that is, coercive rule. I will also show that the apostles were true imitators of Christ in this, and that they taught their successors to be so. I will further demonstrate that Christ and His apostles desired to be subject and were subject continually to the coercive jurisdiction of the princes of the world in reality and in person, and that they taught and commanded all others to whom they gave the law of truth by word or letter, to do the same thing, under penalty of eternal condemnation. Then I will give a section to considering the power or authority of the keys, given by Christ to the apostles and to their successors in offices, the bishops and presbyters, in order that we may see the real character of that power, both of the Roman bishop and of the others.…

SOURCE: Marsilius of Padua, Defender of the Peace in The Early Medieval World. Vol. V of The Library of Original Sources. Ed. Oliver J. Thatcher (Milwaukee, Wisc.: University Research Extension Co., 1907): 423–430.


Despite his criticisms of the limits of human reason, Ockham remained a devout Christian. As a result, he and his followers stressed the absolute power of God on the one hand, and the necessity for philosophers to confine their speculations to what they could prove through their observation on the other. His nominalist philosophy was particularly important in the University of Paris, Europe's leading theological institution. A second group of philosophers, known as Scotists, elaborated the positions of John Duns Scotus (1266–1308), a Scottish scholastic who had emphasized the will over human reason in his works. Scotus's thought had been complex and had merged elements of both Aristotle's and Plato's philosophies. Because he was so adept in harmonizing these two conflicting figures, Scotus became known as the "subtle doctor." Scotus's followers emphasized freedom of the will and the necessity of both good works and divine grace in the process of human salvation. Their theory of knowledge differed from the nominalists because the Scotists continued to affirm the role of universals in human thought. Scotism was most widely developed as a philosophical movement among members of the Franciscan Order. While Scotism was a more conservative movement in some ways than nominalism, Scotists often joined forces with nominalists in the later Middle Ages to oppose Thomists, and together the two philosophies became known as the via moderna or "the modern way." While the gulf that separated both traditions was pronounced, both Scotists and Nominalists were skeptical about the mind's ability to fathom the truths of the Christian faith rationally. Despite the Page 222  |  Top of Article growth of these two movements, Thomism continued to attract supporters in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but outside the Dominican Order its influence was slight. In contrast to the via moderna, Thomism was known as the via antiqua or the "old way." Like Thomas Aquinas, followers of the "old way" continued to express a confidence in the human mind's ability to understand sacred things. Within university faculties generally, bitter disputes often raged between followers of the "old" and "new" ways. Scotism and Thomism continued to attract support throughout the Renaissance, but nominalism would be the most definite force for change on the scholastic horizon. It helped to shape new ways of conducting theological study and new modes of asking philosophical questions. The simplifying effects of Ockham's teaching, in particular, have long been seen as laying the groundwork for the ideas of later Protestant Reformers. Martin Luther began his career as a scholastic theologian within the tradition of the "modern way." That philosophy also helped to shape John Calvin's theology, with its emphasis on the majesty of God and the importance of understanding the covenants that He had established with humankind in the scriptures. Beyond its religious implications, many have seen in Ockham's defense of empirical truths over abstract logic a development that helped to influence the course of Western science.


William of Ockham also involved himself in the political issues of his day, including the long-standing controversies that revolved around church and state power. Ockham became embroiled in these matters while defending the concept of Franciscan poverty against Pope John XXII (r. 1316–1324), who had declared a radical interpretation of the order's teachings on poverty to be heretical. In 1324, the pope summoned Ockham to Avignon, and Ockham, displeased with the papal behavior he witnessed, quickly became an opponent. After leaving Avignon, he joined forces with radical leaders in the Franciscan Order who had taken up residence at the court of the German emperor Louis the Bavarian. From there, Ockham wrote several works defending the outcast Franciscans and attacking John XXII as a heretic. These tracts argued that the pope should be deposed and they defended the power of church councils and the state over the papacy. Ockham's political philosophy was unusual in its arguments concerning the nature of church truth. Theologians had long argued that the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, could not stray from the truth. Ockham, for his part, noted that while truth always prevailed in the church in some quarters, the papacy and even church councils could err and stray from true Christian teaching. While his ideas shared certain affinities with later Protestant attacks, most late-medieval theologians and philosophers did not support them. Ockham's more limited defense of church councils to resolve the issues facing the church would be influential later in helping to resolve the crisis of the Great Schism (1378–1415). (See Religion: The Church in the Later Middle Ages.)


Ockham's radical political philosophy had been partly influenced by the ideas of Marsilius of Padua, who had completed his influential Defender of the Peace in 1324. Although Italian by birth, Marsilius rose to become the rector of the University of Paris and, like Ockham, became an outspoken opponent of Pope John XXII. Eventually, he, too, left his position to join the court of the emperor Louis the Bavarian. In the Defender of the Peace Marsilius stressed that the will of the people was the basis for all government. Power did not flow from God to the pope and into secular rulers, as many political philosophers had long supposed. Instead it rose from the people, who established governments in order to live by the rule of law. At first glance, these ideas might seem a democratic manifesto, but Marsilius still envisioned that kings, princes, and nobles would play a greater role in defining government than common people. The importance of his work lay in its strong support of the secular power of princes over that of the church. Throughout this political treatise Marsilius criticized the power of the clergy by insisting that they were only one part of society, and as such, bound by the laws the entire community enacted. As he turned his attention to papal power, he argued that the pope was merely a humanly appointed executive, responsible to the Christian community in the same way that all rulers were. The members of the church acting in a general council could, when circumstances warranted, depose him. While Marsilius's Defender of the Peace was an early defense of the principles of representative government, it did not influence political philosophy until much later. In the fourteenth century those secular rulers who prized it did so because it supported their power against the pope.


These strains of political theorizing continued in the fifteenth century, too. They can be seen in the works of the scholastic philosopher Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464), a German and a cardinal. In his Catholic Concordance Cusa examined the history of the church, including the long-term relationships between the German Empire and Rome. Cusa showed that the Donation of Constantine, one of the foundations of papal authority, had left no trace in historical documents throughout Page 223  |  Top of Article the ages, thus calling into question one of the foundations of the pope's secular authority in Western Europe. Like Marsilius of Padua, his Concordance argued that the basis of all government lies in the will of the people, although Cusa would take his conclusions farther than Marsilius. As the monarch of the church, Cusa argued, the pope should be elected by a body of cardinals that was truly representative of the entire church. Church councils, moreover, were the ultimate arbiters of Christian teaching because they derived their powers directly from Christ.

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INTRODUCTION: The scholastic philosopher Nicholas of Cusa was also a cardinal and a tireless campaigner for the reform of the church. In this capacity he gave hundreds of sermons throughout his life. This excerpt from one of these entitled "Where is He that is Born the King of the Jews?" makes the following interesting observations about religion as art. According to Cusa, one of the purposes of religion is to help human beings live better, more fulfilled lives.

Now everyone has one entrance into this world, but not all men live equally. For even though men are born naked like the other animals, still they are clothed by men's art of weaving so they may live in a better state. They use cooked foods and shelter and horses and many such things which art has added to nature for better living. We possess these arts as a great service and gift or favor from their inventors.

And so when many live wretchedly and in sadness and in prisons and suffer much, but others lead lives of abundance joyfully and nobly, we rightly infer that a human being can with some favor or art attain more of a peaceful and joyful life than nature grants. Even though many have discovered the various arts of living better by their own talent or with divine illumination, as those who discovered the mechanical arts and the arts of sowing and planting and doing business. And others have gone further, as those who wrote the rules of political life and of economic activity, and those who discovered the ethical life of habituating oneself through mores and customs even to the point of taking delight in a virtuous life and thus of governing oneself in peace. Nonetheless all these arts do not serve the spirit, but hand on conjectures how in this world a virtuous life worthy of praise can be led with peace and calm.

Thereupon religion based on divine authority and revelation is added to these arts that prepare a human being for obeying God through fear of him and love of him and one's neighbor in the hope of attaining the friendship of God who is the giver of life so that we may attain a long and peaceful life in this world and a joyful and divine life in the world to come. Nonetheless, among all the ways of religion which fall too short of true life, a way to eternal life has been revealed to us through Jesus, the Son of God. He handed over to us what the heavenly life is which the sons of God possess, and revealed that we can reach divine sonship and how to do so … Jesus is the place where every movement of nature and grace finds rest. The word of Christ or his teaching and his command or the paradigm of his movement is the way to vision or the taking hold of eternal life that is the life of God who alone is immortal. It is a more abundant life than the life of a created nature. Therefore, no one can reach on his own the way of grace which leads to the Father, but must proceed to that way through the gate.

SOURCE: Nicholas of Cusa, "Where is He that is Born the King of the Jews?" Trans. by Professor Clyde Lee Miller, State University of New York at Stony Brook.


Even as he devoted himself to writing political philosophy, Cusa was also an academic philosopher who embraced mysticism in other works. His On Learned Ignorance displayed a skepticism about the human mind's ability to understand God rationally and instead argued that God could be best understood through the way of negation. The deity, in other words, was most easily comprehended in terms of what He was not, rather than in terms of what He was. This small treatise advocated a mystical path toward union with God, a God that Cusa perceived as present everywhere in an infinite universe. On Learned Ignorance demonstrates another keen interest of the late-medieval scholastics: their fascination with mathematics and the natural sciences. In this work Cusa relied upon geometry to demonstrate the infinitude of the universe, a realm he described as having no center or circumference. As a result, his theory denied the traditional notion that the earth was at the center of the universe. For Cusa, the center of the universe was everywhere, a space that God alone occupied. He admitted that his concepts were difficult for the human mind to grasp, and he often relied on difficult mystical terms to present his ideas. At the same time his work was one of the first Renaissance philosophical documents to present a notion of the shape Page 224  |  Top of Article
Detail from Nicholas of Cusa's tomb, showing the philosopher venerating St. Peter. ALINARI-ART REFERENCE/ART RESOURCE, NY. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Detail from Nicholas of Cusa's tomb, showing the philosopher venerating St. Peter. ALINARI-ART REFERENCE/ART RESOURCE, NY. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. of the world that was different from the traditional "earth-centered" models that had long been accepted as orthodoxy.


Cusa's interest in considerations about the shape of the universe illustrates another dimension of late-medieval philosophy: its continuing interest in nature and metaphysics. Before the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, universities treated the physical sciences largely as branches of natural philosophy, an important part of the philosophical curriculum in both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Aristotle's ideas concerning matter and the physical universe had largely shaped the development of medieval natural philosophy, and Aristotelian ideas continued to be important in Renaissance natural philosophy, too. Over the centuries, though, some Christian, Neoplatonic, and Islamic commentaries had been added to the corpus of works treated in the universities' natural philosophical instruction. But as a discipline, natural philosophy continued to be dominated largely by Aristotle. Two of his commentaries were especially important: the Physics and De Anima (On the Soul). These provided the discipline with many of its underlying assumptions. Natural philosophy was concerned chiefly with understanding natural bodies—their form, motion, shape—and the causalities that altered or affected these bodies. Motion had been introduced into the world by a Prime Mover, and now everything in the world that moved contrary to its natural course did so because of the force being applied to it. Following Aristotle and other Antique writers on nature, natural philosophers accepted that there was an inherent purpose or potential in every created thing, for nothing had been created by chance or without a reason. Matter tended to fulfill these natural purposes and in doing so, it came to a state of rest. Natural philosophers debated these questions of purpose through intellectual speculation and by studying previous writings in their discipline. They only rarely observed or experimented with matter. Aristotle's influence, too, prevented them from stepping outside traditional ideas. Although some experiments disproved Aristotle's physics in the fourteenth century, his authority tended to survive unquestioned. In the fifteenth century this began to change, as natural philosophers embraced alternative theories about nature. The revival of Plato was of key importance in questioning Aristotelian ideas about natural philosophy as Plato's works became better known through more accurate Latin translations Page 225  |  Top of Article and Greek editions. Nicholas of Cusa had relied upon Platonic ideas about nature when he created the infinite universe of his On Learned Ignorance. But Cusa was not alone, and fifteenth-century natural philosophers now investigated other ideas in the works of ancient authorities, including those of Pythagoras, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Hermetic tradition. The rise of knowledge of these alternative systems of physics complicated the natural philosophy taught in the Renaissance, and opened up the possibility of new hybrid approaches to the discipline. Over time, too, observation and the testing of the assumptions contained in natural philosophical texts through experiments became more common. But until the advent of Galileo's modern scientific method after 1600, the observation of nature was not seen as a means of establishing a truth, but as a way to confirm what one had read in the works of other authorities. Renaissance thinkers, in other words, remained wedded to the notion of "textual" truth.


Although scholasticism is typically thought of as a medieval phenomenon, the movement survived long after the Middle Ages. Scholasticism's vitality persisted in the sixteenth century, helping to shape the teachings of both Protestantism and Catholicism. In Spain many of those who became leaders within the Society of Jesus had trained as scholastic philosophers, and they mixed Thomist teachings with humanism in their educational schemes. Of the Jesuits' many philosophers, the most influential in shaping the development of the society's teaching was Francisco Suarez (1548–1617), who taught a version of Thomism that nevertheless included powerful theological and philosophical arguments drawn from Scotism and nominalism. As a result of the Council of Trent (see Religion: The Council of Trent and the Catholic Reformation), Thomism increasingly became the position of the official theology of the Roman Catholic Church, helping to sustain scholastic instruction into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Scholasticism, too, affected the development of early-modern Protestantism. Protestants like Martin Luther may have criticized medieval philosophy, but Protestant universities soon welcomed the scholastic method. In Germany, Philip Melanchthon and others re-introduced Aristotelian logic and metaphysics into the university curriculum. They adopted the scholastic method in university instruction as well. Elsewhere, in Protestant England, Scotland, and the Netherlands, scholastic philosophy continued to play a role in the early-modern period. And by virtue of the planting of new universities by missionaries and settlers in North and South America, scholasticism exercised an influence in Europe's colonies overseas.


M. Colish, Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997).

F. C. Copleston, Aquinas (Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1965).

D. Hay, Europe in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries. 2nd ed. (New York: Holt, 1989).

S. Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250–1550 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980).

C. Schmitt, Studies in Renaissance Philosophy and Science (London, England: Variorum Reprints, 1981).

W. A. Wallace, The Modeling of Nature: Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Nature in Synthesis (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3427400717