Scholasticism is the system of education, especially in theology and philosophy, that dominated European schools and universities from the ninth to the 15th century. These institutions blossomed in the High Middle Ages of the 12th century. It was at this time that the mendicants, or begging orders, arose in the midst of a wider wave of religious revival.

They aimed to foster religious renewal among the urban populations and counter heretical movements. The two pioneering mendicant orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, opened schools that combined to create the first universities.

Scholasticism was marked by formal and material characteristics. The first formal element was the application of the rules of Latin grammar to all kinds of problems, on the assumption that the laws of language correspond to the laws of thought.

Thus analysis of language was prominent. Second was the use of dialectic, or disputation. This lies at the heart of the quaestio, the most typical literary form of Scholastic thinking, in which an issue is set, for example, the question of whether or not God exists.

The question is then settled by setting out objections to the proposition one intends to defend, stating a contrary position to that of the objector, and finally offering counterarguments to the objections. Despite limitations dialectic could produce rigorous critical thinking and encourage consideration of all sides of a question.

Scholastic Authorities

The material characteristic of Scholasticism was its use of authorities, texts that were consciously and deliberately treated with deference. A large part of Scholastic education consisted of commentary on such texts.

Authorities were commonly cited to back up a position in debate. Yet authorities were not treated uniformly. The Bible held a unique position as unerringly teaching the truth; disputes arose over its interpretation.

The great teachers of the first eight centuries of Christian theology held the next place, though the best Scholastic thinkers did not pretend that their authority extended to, say, medicine or natural philosophy. By far the most important of these authors was Augustine of Hippo, whose thought was the subject of constant discussion.

Next most important was Aristotle, though his acceptability at times was a matter for intense debate. His thought arrived in Europe in three stages. From the beginning of the Scholastic period his Categories and On Interpretation were known and used. These works treat the interpretation of texts and the categorization of entities, such as man or horse, and their characteristics, such as quantity and color.

The second entry, in the 12th century, was the discovery, through contact with Arab civilization, of Aristotle’s works on the nature of reasoning. From this time the quaestio becomes the dominant form of thought and expression in theology and philosophy.

Finally in the later 12th and early 13th centuries, Aristotle’s works of natural philosophy (what we would call natural science), anthropology, and metaphysics—the study of the principles common to all entities—came into the hands of the West. Much of the Aristotle the Europeans encountered in this phase was laced with the Neoplatonist philosophy of Arab commentators.

In addition the works of Pseudo-Dionysius enjoyed great prestige. Pseudo-Dionysius was thought to be a direct disciple of St. Paul but was actually a fifth century Christian who espoused a Christian form of Neoplatonist philosophy.

Great Scholasticists

Albertus Magnus
Albertus Magnus

The medievals’ genius lay in synthesizing and reworking these material elements in new and subtle ways. Four of the most important thinkers of this epoch were Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham.

Albertus, born near the end of the 12th century, probably in southern Germany, entered the Dominicans in 1229. He studied in Cologne and elsewhere and became a master of theology at Paris in 1245, where Thomas Aquinas was his pupil.

Albertus returned to Cologne to found a Dominican house of studies in 1248, taking Thomas with him. Thereafter he devoted himself to a mixture of study and pastoral and diplomatic work, including brief service as a bishop.

In addition to commentaries on the Bible and Pseudo-Dionysius, Albertus produced a corpus of commentaries and paraphrases on the works of Aristotle, taking a special interest in his newly discovered natural philosophy, which he was instrumental in defending to church authorities.

His enormous output included works of botany, zoology, cosmology, psychology, logic, metaphysics, ethics, semantics, and, above all, theology. Albertus advocated the use of the full range of available learning in Dominican houses of study and championed the Dominican commitment to the serious study of philosophy.

The towering figure of Scholastic thought is Thomas Aquinas. Born in 1224 or 1225, he was educated at the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino, then at the University of Naples, where he entered the Dominican order in 1244. After studying in Paris and Cologne with Albertus, Thomas returned to Paris in 1252, received his license in theology in 1256, and lectured there until 1259. He also taught in the papal court and later established a Dominican house of studies in Naples.

At the end of his life, he abandoned writing without completing his great Summa theologiae, and died several months later, in 1274. Thomas produced voluminous biblical commentaries and commented on most of Aristotle’s works.

He wrote two summae, vast guides to theology intended to equip his fellow Dominicans for pastoral and missionary work, as well as a smaller, more popular compendium of theology. His other works range from hymns to polemical essays. Altogether, he wrote some 10 million words.

Thomas is best known for his understanding of God as the completely indivisible and self-existent creator, the source of all being. God not only is the origin of creation, but all beings continually depend on him for their existence; their being is a participation in the being of God. Similarly God is the source of all goodness, and so for Thomas, knowledge of God is the goal and the final happiness of all rational creatures.

In keeping with that principle, he reworks the Aristotelian ethical theory of virtues to cohere with the Christian doctrines of creation, sin, and grace: Human beings come from God, have fallen away from God, and in Christ return to him and to the perfection of their own being.

Thomas’s thought, far from a closed system, is marked by openness to ever-deeper, more refined understanding. The variety of the schools of interpretation of his thought testifies to its intrinsic vitality.

John Duns Scotus was born around 1265 in southern Scotland. He joined the Franciscans and was ordained a priest in 1291. He studied theology in Oxford until 1301, and then lectured in Paris and Cologne, where he died in 1308.

Scotus and Thomas agree that God can be known as the cause of all things by observing his effects, creatures. Similarly they agree that we cannot know God’s essence in this life.

Yet Thomas held that our language about God, which always derives from our sense-based knowledge of creaturely things, has a different sense when applied to God; we can truly say God is wise, because he is the cause of whatever is called wise in creatures, but wisdom in God means something beyond our grasp. To say God is wise—or even that God is—is only analogous to what we mean in saying creatures are, or are wise.

The analogy allows us to think and speak logically of God, but the meaning finally remains shrouded in mystery. Scotus, on the other hand, asserted that we can and must be able to speak of God as wise. The difference is that God’s wisdom and being are infinite, but that of creatures is finite.

William of Ockham (1280–1349), a Franciscan, studied at Oxford and Paris, where he taught from 1315 to 1320. Probably a student of Duns Scotus, he developed a number of Scotus’s leading ideas, some of them in a sharply different direction. He is best known as the father of nominalism. Scotus believed that universal concepts, such as human nature, have a formal existence.

They exist, but always concretized in an individual. Ockham held that universals, such as human nature, exist only in the mind, or nominally, by abstracting from individual examples those elements they have in common.

Universals do not exist apart from our thinking them. This rejection of the real existence of universals, in favor of taking such ideas as nature or being, to be the products of mental acts, fueled the increasing concentration of late Scholasticism on analysis of concepts and mental acts.