Friday, May 27, 2011

How to Understand Scholastic Thought

Here are some pointers for beginners wanting to learn about Scholastic theology and philosophy. I hope my fellow bloggers will add their own material to this post.

1. Learn latin (otherwise, you'll be stuck reading Aquinas).

2. Learn the basic elements of Aristotelian logic: quia vs. propter quid demonstrations, parts of a syllogism (middle term, major and minor premises).

3. Read as much Aristotle and Augustine as possible.

4. Know the basic Scholastic genres: Quodlibet, Sententiae, Ordinary questions, Summa, various kinds of commentaries.

5. When you've done all this and are confronted by an actual Scholastic quaestio, consider the following bit of advice I have received from several professors but never followed: start by reading the determination [=the author's own answer/solution] of the question, then read the initial objections and their responses. I have never followed this myself, but it is good advice. Some scholastic questions can be bewilderingly complex (Scotus and Alnwick come to mind) and it is easy to get lost in all the back and forth. In my less lazy moments I like to at least glance over the structure of the question.

6. Read as much as you can by as many authors as you can find. At first the latin will seem weird and opaque if you are classically trained, but the amount of vocabulary is really quite small and the grammar is easier than classical latin. There are no dictionaries of scholastic terms (save for the Aquinas lexicon), so the best way to learn the Scholastic jargon is to read.


Anonymous said...

Thank you a lot for this post, I've come to take an interest in the Scholastic writers even though they've been challenging to understand sometimes. It's great to have a bit of a guide to coming to read the Scholastics

Best of luck in your own readings!

-Steven Reyes

Michael Sullivan said...

I'm not sure about 5). I've heard the same advice but am not convinced it's sound. The quaestio structure is not arbitrary, and there's good sense in waiting for the determination until the contrary arguments have been considered. First one weighs the question; then one hears a number of presumably plausible-sounding arguments which, if they're not going to be accepted, need to be answered; then in the determination one gets a solution to the question as well as the necessary conceptual tools to sufficiently answer the opening arguments; and only then are the opening arguments answered. In an ideal, well-constructed question, the contents of the determination would be necessary to answer the opening arguments but would not itself answer them in sufficient detail, while the opening arguments would condition the order and copiousness of the determination. Of course many or most quaestiones do not fit the ideal mold, the various parts only loosely cohering, but this is the eidos to which they are approximated, I think.

Reading the elements out of order disrupts the dialectical flow of the question and ignores the literary form - and thus the rhetorical force of the argumentation - in favor of a goal of absorbing an abstracted intellectual content. This seems to me to be a mistake. Just because the literary genres of scholasticism tend not to be particularly artful or stylized doesn't mean that they are irrelevant to how they convey their meaning. It's always significant when an author avoids the quaestio in favor of a more linear approach, like St Thomas in the Summa contra gentiles or St Bonaventure in the Breviloquium or Itinerarium. There's an important literary difference between a quaestio-commentary and an expository commentary.

So, I think 5) is misguided and the way you (and I) read scholastic works is actually more correct, in principle at least. In practice full comprehension of a question, especially if it's long, will require some orientation and flipping around.

Michael Sullivan said...

I definitely agree with 1-4. To 6) I would add, read as much as you can of the classics besides Aristotle too: Cicero, Seneca, Virgil, etc. etc. Even the Greek classics that the scholastics didn't read, like Plato and Plotinus, will help enormously in their interpretation (and to inculcate a philosophical spirit in general). The classics are the sedimented foundation of medieval thinking. Same thing goes for the Church Fathers. Augustine is most crucial, esp. De Trinitate, De Civitate Dei, and a few others, but as much of the other Fathers as one can manage will definitely help.

I would also pretty strongly recommend a reading through of Peter Lombard's Sentences pretty early on in one's scholastic study, and the Vulgate Bible too, although that might go without saying. But in order to understand an author or series of authors there's nothing like reading the books that they most read and absorbed to grasp where they're coming from. And every important scholastic author from Alexander of Hales on gave serious study to the Vulgate and the Lombard.

A general cultural orientation book is a good idea too, if you need such a thing. C.S. Lewis' The Discarded Image, though oriented more towards "literature", is still valuable for comprehending the thought-world of the medievals, and will explain a lot of things that scholastic authors may be taking for granted without talking about them all the time.

I guess you could boil all this down to: learn latin. Read a boatload of it. Read a boatload of latin classics, patristic latin, the major Doctors, and as many scholastics as you can. As practical advice I don't know how helpful this is - study hard! Forever! - but that's really the way.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this advice. I have not much dabbled in scholastic theology or philosophy, but it is not because I am not interested. It is nice to know where to start.