Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe

by R. W. Southern

Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

“Humanism,” as a word, has several modern senses which are not only irrelevant to the main subject of this book, but directly opposed to it. In modern usage a “humanist” is someone concerned only with the human world, someone who does not accept the authority of the divine: this sense is not known before the nineteenth century. “Humanism” can also mean devotion to the subjects now known as “the humanities,” primarily art, philosophy, history and literature; while the phrase “Classical humanist” had for a time the relatively strict meaning of a member of the postmedieval Renaissance, one of the scholars who rediscovered Latin literary works and attempted to revive the study of the Latin language in its Classical purity. None of these senses is at all applicable to the “scholastic humanism” which Sir Richard Southern here attempts to identify and chart. The men he studies all accepted divine authority in all walks of life, without question; to them, the human was entirely subject to the divine. They had no apparent interest in “the humanities” for themselves, but only as tools for discovering divine truth. To them the Latin language was furthermore only a tool, for use, not a work of art to be admired. As a final blow to their standing and esteem in the modern world, “scholasticism” was increasingly contemptuously dismissed in the early modern era as being fundamentally pre- or even anti-scientific. It will be seen that Southern has a great weight of modern dissent to remove in his attempt to redefine, and do justice to the movement he calls “scholastic humanism.”

His argument is as follows. In the later eleventh century, Christian Europe could be seen as emerging from a period of very extreme hostile pressure, from many social forces including pagan invasion, depopulation, and disease. As some measure of political and economic power began to return, a body of men working in the cathedral schools of northern France began a major collective endeavor: To try to recover the body of knowledge which (in their Christian-mythical view of history) had been lost through various disasters from the Fall of Man to Noah’s Flood, and in the times of their own ancestors, through poverty and ignorance. The way to do this, they argued, was by an increasingly intensive study of the authoritative texts left to them, primarily the Bible, with the aim of seeking out all contradictions and harmonizing them in a greater consistency. Once this had been achieved, the way of salvation would at least be clear, and might even be enforceable. In the first two words of Southern’s title, “scholastic” refers to the method of teaching and disputing in the “schools,” while “humanism”—in the author’s unusual formulation—refers to the deep respect of the medieval scholars for human nature itself, and especially for the power of their main tool for discovering the divine will, human reason. Southern seeks further to persuade his readers that the power of the schools and scholars was a major force in unifying Christian Europe under the authority of the pope (often challenged though this was by secular kings and emperors), and ultimately that the modern contempt for and withdrawal from the whole phenomenon has been an error with disastrous human consequences (including the “world wars” between mostly Christian states, unthinkable to the early medieval mind).

In part 1, Southern considers the “Aims, Methods, and Environment” of “scholastic humanism.” Some of its aims perhaps remained unconscious, such as the overriding need for answers derived not to contradict already-fixed European practices: Social hierarchy, the institution of war, rights of property. Where the Bible appeared on the face of it to contradict these practices—as by its precept, “Thou shalt not kill”—the text would be studied until more refined, and less unacceptable, meanings could be drawn from it. The basic method was always rigorous textual study, with a positive and one would nowadays say “pro-active” search for contrasts and inconsistencies, both between texts and within a single text, with the intention always of finding some way of resolving these. To take one example only, the four Gospels all give slightly different versions of the scene of St. Peter’s denial of Christ. Did Christ’s prophecy take place at the Last Supper (Luke and John) or on the Mount of Olives after supper (Matthew and Mark)? Were all three denials before the first cock-crow, as three Gospels have it, or was it only the first denial, as Mark declares. These questions might seem trivial to a modern Bible class, used to the idea that eyewitnesses often disagree. To scholars who assumed the absolute truth...

(The entire section is 1920 words.)