To meet this frontal attack upon Christianity it was not enough to condemn the heretical propositions. Youth had tasted the strong wine of philosophy; could it be won back by reason? As the mutakallimun had defended Mohammedanism from the Mutazilites, so now Franciscan and Dominican theologians, and secular prelates like William of Auvergne and Henry of Ghent, came to the defense of Christianity and the Church.

The defense divided itself into two main camps: the mystic-Platonic, mostly Franciscans; and the intellectual-Aristotelian, mostly Dominicans. Benedictines like Hugh and Richard of St. Victor felt that the best defense of religion lay in man’s direct consciousness of a spiritual reality deeper than all intellectual fathoming. “Rigorists” like Peter of Blois and Stephen of Tournai argued that philosophy should not discuss the problems of theology, or, if it did, it should speak and behave as a modest servant of theology—ancilla theologiae.46 It should be noted that this view was held by only a sector of the Scholastic front.47

A few Franciscans, like Alexander of Hales (1170?–1245), adopted the intellectual approach, and sought to defend Christianity in philosophical and Aristotelian terms. But most Franciscans distrusted philosophy; they felt that the adventure of reason, whatever strength and glory it might bring to the Church for a time, might later elude control, and lead men so far from faith as to leave Christianity weak and helpless in an unbelieving and unmoral world. They preferred Plato to Aristotle, Bernard to Abélard, Augustine to Aquinas. They defined the soul, with Plato, as an independent spirit inhabiting, and thwarted by, the body, and they were shocked to hear Thomas accepting Aristotle’s definition of the soul as the “substantial form” of the body. They found in Plato a theory of impersonal immortality quite useless for checking the bestial impulses of men. Following Augustine, they ranked will above intellect in both God and man, and aimed at the good rather than the true. In their hierarchy of values the mystic came closer than the philosopher to the secret essence and significance of life.

This Platonic-Augustinian division of the Scholastic army dominated orthodox theology in the first half of the thirteenth century. Its ablest exponent was the saintly Bonaventura—a gentle spirit who persecuted heresy, a mystic writing philosophy, a scholar who deprecated learning, a lifelong friend and opponent of Thomas Aquinas, a defender and exemplar of evangelical poverty under whose ministry the Franciscan Order made great gains in corporate wealth. Born in Tuscany in 1221, Giovanni di Fidanza came for some unknown reason to be called Bonaventura—Good Luck. He nearly died of a childhood malady; his mother prayed to St. Francis for his recovery; Giovanni thereafter felt that he owed his life to the saint. Entering the Order, he was sent to Paris to study under Alexander of Hales. In 1248 he began to teach theology in the University; in 1257, still a youth of thirty-six, he was chosen minister-general of the Franciscans. He did his best to reform the laxity of the Order, but was too genial to succeed. He himself lived in ascetic simplicity. When messengers came to announce that he had been made a cardinal they found him washing dishes. A year later (1274) he died of overwork.

His books were well written, clear, and concise. He pretended to be a mere compiler, but he infused order, fervor, and a disarming modesty into every subject that he touched. His Breviloquium was an admirable summary of Christian theology; hisSoliloquiumand Itinerarium mentis in Deum (Journey of the Mind to God) were jewels of mystic piety. True knowledge comes not through perception of the material world by the senses, but through intuition of the spiritual world by the soul. While loving St. Thomas, Bonaventura frowned upon the reading of philosophy, and freely criticized some of Aquinas’ conclusions. He reminded the Dominicans that Aristotle was a heathen, whose authority must not be ranked with that of the Fathers; and he asked could the philosophy of Aristotle explain a moment’s movements of a star?48 God is not a philosophical conclusion but a living presence; it is better to feel Him than to define Him. The good is higher than the true, and simple virtue surpasses all the sciences. One day, we are told, Brother Egidio, overwhelmed by Bonaventura’s learning, said to him: “Alas! what shall we ignorant and simple ones do to merit the favor of God?” “My brother,” replied Bonaventura, “you know very well that it suffices to love the Lord.” “Do you then believe,” asked Egidio, “that a simple woman might please him as well as a master in theology?” When the theologian answered in the affirmative, Egidio rushed into the street and cried out to a beggar woman: “Rejoice, for if you love God, you may have a higher place in the Kingdom of Heaven than Brother Bonaventura!”49

Obviously it is a mistake to think of “the” Scholastic philosophy as a dreary unanimity of opinion and approach. There were a hundred Scholastic philosophies. The same university faculty might harbor a Thomas honoring reason, a Bonaventura deprecating it, a William of Auvergne (1180–1249) following Ibn Gabirol into voluntarism, a Siger teaching Averroism. The divergences and conflicts within orthodoxy were almost as intense as between faith and unbelief. A Franciscan bishop, John Peckham, would denounce Aquinas as sternly as Thomas denounced Siger and Averroës; and Albertus Magnus, in an unsaintly moment, wrote: “There are ignorant men who would fight by every means the employment of philosophy; and particularly the Franciscans—brutish beasts who blaspheme that which they do not know.”50

Albert loved knowledge, and admired Aristotle this side of heresy. It was he who first among the Scholastics surveyed all the major works of the Philosopher, and undertook to interpret them in Christian terms. He was born at Lauingen, Swabia, about 1201, son of the rich count of Bollstädt. He studied at Padua, joined the Dominican Order, and taught in Dominican schools at Hildesheim, Freiburg, Ratisbon, Strasbourg, Cologne (1228–45), and Paris (1245–8). Despite his preference for the scholastic life he was made Provincial of his Order for Germany, and Bishop of Ratisbon (1260). Tradition claims that he walked barefoot on all his journeys.51 In 1262 he was allowed to retire to a cloister at Cologne. He left its peace when he was seventy-six (1277) to defend the doctrine and memory of his dead pupil Thomas Aquinas at Paris. He succeeded, returned to his monastery, and died at seventy-nine. His devoted life, unassuming character, and vast intellectual interests show medieval monasticism at its best.

Only the quiet routine of his monastic years, and the massive diligence of German scholarship, can explain how a man who spent so much of his time in teaching and administration could write essays on almost every phase of science, and substantial treatises on every branch of philosophy and theology.* Few men in history have written so much, or borrowed so much, or so frankly acknowledged their debts. Albert bases his works almost title for title on Aristotle; he uses Averroës’ commentaries to interpret the Philosopher; but he corrects both of them manfully when they differ from Christian theology. He draws on the Moslem thinkers to such an extent that his works are an important source for our knowledge of Arabic philosophy. He cites Avicenna on every other page, and occasionally Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed. He recognizes Aristotle as the highest authority in science and philosophy, Augustine in theology, the Scriptures in everything. His immense mound of discourse is poorly organized, and never becomes a consistent system of thought; he defends a doctrine in one place, attacks it in another, sometimes in the same treatise; he had no time to resolve his contradictions. He was too good a man, too pious a soul, to be an objective thinker; he was capable of following a commentary on Aristotle with a long treatise in twelve “books” In Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in which he argued that Mary had a perfect knowledge of grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.

What, then, was his achievement? Above all, as we shall see, he contributed substantially to the scientific research and theory of his time. In philosophy he “gave Aristotle to the Latins”—which was all that he aimed to do; he promoted the use of Aristotle in the teaching of philosophy; he accumulated the storehouse of pagan, Arabic, Jewish, and Christian thought and argument from which his famous pupil drew for a more lucid and orderly synthesis. Perhaps without Albert, Thomas would have been impossible.

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