A Few Precursors to Aquinas

Saint Anselm, Abelard and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.


“I believe, that I may understand.” St. Anselm was born in 1033 at a time when Platonic realism dominated philosophically in the Christian west.  He is most well known for his Proslogion and Monologion, but produced many other valuable writings as well.  Certainly, no philosophical proof of God has been more attacked or defended than his later named ontological argument, as presented in the Proslogion. (I discussed this briefly here)


St. Anselm did not seek to understand so that his understanding would convince him of the truth (or lack thereof) of the Christian religion.  Rather, he believed that his faith was a gift of God, and that a lover of God should seek to know Him both through revealed truth and reason apart from revelation.  He was certainly a theologian primarily, but his works are filled with philosophical insight and speculation.  Certainly, his ontological argument is an attempt from reason alone to prove the existence of God, even though he preempts it with Scripture: “The fool has said in his heart…”


There is no doubt that his ontological argument for God’s existence has had many supporters and opponents alike.  Opponents of the argument even include fellow Catholic saints such as St. Thomas Aquinas, who, understanding that the nature of God is not immediately apparent to us, would refute the argument as circularly reasoned.  But such well known philosophers as Descartes and Kant have given much ink to the argument.  If this argument was all that Anselm had to offer philosophy, it would alone be enough to give him a concrete place in the history of reasoned thought.


Much more given to direct philosophical speculation, and often treading dangerous waters when it came to the Catholic magisterium’s view of his works, was Peter Abelard. Born less than fifty years after Anselm, Europe had already changed much in the way of education, as Aristotle’s works were being reintroduced into western thought.  However, it was Aristotle’s Logical works that came first, and often, as is the case especially with Abelard, logic was philosophy.


Etienne Gilson has argued that Peter Abelard, along with others of his time, often dangerously speculated into areas of metaphysics with a logical mindset, not understanding the limits of logic itself.  This often got Abelard into trouble with the hierarchy, as he often ended in rationalizing truths of the faith to make them “logical.” In no way do we imply that the faith can be illogical, but it need not be able to be reasoned to.  There is a difference between irrational and supra-rational, and we need not become rationalists in order to avoid the error of fideism.


Abelard was a brilliant thinker, and no puppet of those he learned from.  He argued against the extreme realism (Platonism and Neo-Platonism) he had been taught, often putting his teachers to shame.  Where he lacked no acumen of the mind, he was often in need of humility.  Abelard did not seem to humbly submit his writings to a higher authority with words to the affect of “advise me where I prove ignorant, for I am unfit for the task, but with God’s help…” as find in the writings of Anselm, and most other Christian writers before him.  Abelard was very intelligent, and he certainly knew it.


An opponent of Abelard was St. Bernard of Clairvaux, born in 1090 and so only a little over a decade younger than Abelard.  St. Bernard can be considered a mystic, and his writings and person are rarely treated in works and histories dedicated to philosophy.  However, his dealings with Abelard and with heresies allow him a proper place in the study of medieval reasoned thought.


There was a struggle, well known by this time, between many of the theologians and the logicians.  Often, the theologians set out to protect the faith and the faithful from the speculation and often (whether intentional or not) heretical views of the philosophers.  St. Bernard succeeded in having some of the doctrines of Abelard condemned by the church.

However, the struggle between faith and reason was not over, nor will it ever perhaps be, but struggles such as those between Abelard and St. Bernard often bear good fruit.  In some ways, scholasticism was born or at least accelerated by Peter Abelard, and the great syntheses of philosophical and theological thought would soon be compiled over the next several centuries, through the writings of such great men as St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas, and Duns Scotus.


St. Anselm exemplified, in his time, faith which seeks understanding.  And true understanding will never contradict reason, although it may seem to if our reason be in error.  This is the place of logic, and Abelard was a first rate logician.  However, pure logic cannot always lead us to the truth in matters of higher things, which, within reason, often belong to the field of metaphysics.  While revealed truth need not replace reason, it gives boundaries so that we may not err, or at least know that we have erred when we do.  This is the place of the Church and her dogma’s, that we may know the correct interpretation of revealed truth, and so not stray from it.  No one in the early 12th century worked more tirelessly to defend to doctrines of the Church than St. Bernard.


All three men were pious Catholics, and none would ever intentionally stray from their faith.  It was the atmosphere created by these giants, as different as they often were in their views and speculations of truth, that would set the stage for that pinnacle 13th century, from whence we get what we would now call the perennial philosophy.

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