Socrates once said that “there is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.” But in the Middle Ages, very few people knew of Socrates; as a matter of fact, very few people knew much of philosophy to begin with. Peasants, making up the vast majority of medieval society, were illiterate. They could not read nor write – such privilege was normally bestowed on nobility and clergy, and it was the joint efforts of both these groups that allowed for education’s slow expansion. The two founded universities, built libraries, and made scholars out of simple men. Amidst these initiatives, a new form of learning was born, a beacon of knowledge that would drag Europe out of ignorance’s darkness – scholasticism.

A New Form of Learning

Scholasticism was, above all, a new way of reaching definite conclusions. It attempted to conciliate faith and reason by applying critical thought and dialectics in lectures. Before scholasticism, knowledge was transmitted without being duly processed, as it was often considered to be the product of divine revelation and ecclesiastical tradition. Such information was merely accepted as truth, since to deny it would be to go against the Church’s precepts, which was deemed heresy. In its defense, the Church often alluded to the idea behind Matthew 7:18: “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can an evil tree bring forth good fruit.” (DRA)

Nevertheless, that did not stop certain scholars and men of the cloth from pointing out the obvious elephant in the room: what about the classical philosophers? Many of the church’s precepts were established upon the works of Church fathers such as Augustine, who in turn were influenced by pagan philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. If these philosophers could hypothesize and influence the clergy’s understanding of the world without a Christian faith, what stopped medieval scholars from employing reason in their studies?

Thus monasteries and scriptoriums embracing scholasticism reached a compromise: reason and faith would work together to understand what reason alone could not account for a satisfactory answer. In other words, belief took the back seat when one could learn things rationally, with certainty and proof. Only in matters of religion did faith play a key role, since these matters were considered to be above mortal reason’s grasp.

Peering Through the Dark

In time, the scholastic method propagated through most Christian institutions of higher learning. Several universities dedicated to study and research were built across Europe, and scholars were attracted to various courts. Great names of theology and philosophy arose in this time: William of Ockham, Anselm, Albertus Magnus and Bonaventure among them. Their writings were the result of copious examination, and in turn they became subject to such examination themselves. Drawing on the accumulated wisdom that only an university could provide at that time, scholars worked diligently in their efforts to find rational answers compatible with divine revelation. Their productions reshaped the Church’s understanding of reason’s role in its philosophical and theological studies, especially with one particular author: Thomas Aquinas.

“Saint Thomas Aquinas,” by Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli

A Dominican friar, Thomas Aquinas was inspired by Aristotelian philosophy and its commentaries by Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes). His many contributions transformed medieval philosophy and theology, especially his Summa Theologicae, where he was able to mingle Christian doctrine with Aristotelian concepts and notions. Thomas has had an unexpected lasting influence, being recognized as a pivotal precursor to the great names of Renaissance thought.

In an era ridden with superstition and hearth wisdom, scholasticism became the driving force in medieval Europe’s intellectual progress. Its employment of discourse and investigation in studying propelled Western culture to rediscovering the wisdom of ancient and classical authors. By attempting to tackle difficult questions through debate and disputation, scholasticism formed the basis of the scientific advancement that marked subsequent ages. Often overshadowed by the obliviousness and fear so widespread in its day, we should remember scholasticism as a daring venture, one able to make inroads that would otherwise remain undone.

About the Author:

Daniel T. Gomes is a graphic designer and content writer from Lisbon, Portugal. He currently serves as Biblion’s Assistant Editor, having played a crucial role in the magazine since its inception. He is also a self-published author and one of the hosts of the biweekly Broklahomies Podcast.