Sunday, July 11, 2010

Trappist Historiography

From: Damasus trapp, OESA, "Augustinian Theology of the 14th Century: Notes on Editions, Marginalia, Opinions and Book-Lore," in Augustiniana 6 (1956), 146 ff.

For the sake of convenience history has been divided by centuries. The genesis of historical events is not affected by the large time-element of a century. But the modern reader who has studied and learned his history by centuries, psychologically cannot avoid thinking in categories of centuries and tends to separate the chain of cause and effect by the century mark. Thus our tools become our masters.

When we discuss the history of theology in the 13th and 14th century the importance of the year 1300 is only fictitioius; 13th and 14th century theology can safely be compared to one another only if this psychological handicap is kept in mind.

A worse psychological impediment arises if one century -- in our case the thirteenth -- follows a line of progress which we spontaneously compare to a proud curve soaring up to a highest apex; because we instinctively continue the parabolic line in our mind, and identify the following century -- the fourteenth -- with the descending curve. How often the evaluation of the 14th century has been victimized by such an instinctive comparison to a falling curve descending from an apex somehwere in the 13th century can only be left to an intelligent surmise.

We should not compare progress to one vertical parabolic curve but to many horizontal halves of successive curves. The line of progress ascends and seems to, or actually does, come close to the ideal; but then it stops at a point which ignores the century mark altogether. Some of the new curves start successively on a lower or higher level, and rise and also stop: progress is not to be identified with any one in particular as all contribute their greater or lesser share.

With these reservations in mind I want to contribute a few notes on the 14th century Augustinian theology. I indicate here only the outlines of a larger study which could not be printed here...

History above the level of simple chronography needs categories to present many facts under a few headlines. If in the following I attempt to give a preliminary description of two historical categories which to my mind are characteristic of the 14th century theology I am not unaware of the persent situation. Only more research in the neglected 14th century can show whehter the two proposed categories come close to the facts of reality.

I would like to call the 13th century the great century of speculation, the 14th the great century of criticism, a criticism moving along two lines, the historico-critical and the logico-critical.

The 13th century created the great systems of Augustinianism, Thomism, and Scotism. When the first generation of Augustinianists, Thomists, and Scotists ascended the magisterial chairs they soon clashed violently and were forced to examine the positive premisses of their patristic sources, and the theoretical premisses of their theory of knowledge.

I am led to believe that the examination of the positive premisses brought about a historical -- and therefore -- historico-critical attitude; with the examination of their theories of knowledge the gensesis of a logico-critical attitude, I think, was in some way connected.

On the one hand much more attention was now paid to the exactness of quoting from the Fathers and to quoting in general; quotations from Fathers and past theologians furnished material for a critique of the preceding days and ways.

On the other hand the priority, not primacy, of the cognitio universalis gave way to the priority, not primacy, of the cognitio rei particularis. This cognitio rei particularis as such did not question the possibility of reaching universal knowledge; criticism only tried to build a new road to the heights of universal knowledge, along a more toilsome ascending trail which, if longer, was believed to be safer.

The description of the logico-critical attitude is, of coruse, not yet complete. A sum of compelx features enters into the true picture of the two attitudes. What follows affects alrgely the critical group but to a certain degree also the historical one.

A dialecticasl element must be considered as the prediominant factor in the logico-critical attitude, togher witha maximumd emand for mathematical evidence and apostulate of such simplicity as to reduce the traditional distinctions -- the mountain-jhigh accumulations of realities, formalities, and modalities -- to the barest minimum.

Maximum and Minimum are concepts in vogue. Algebraic symbols are applied to handle complex entitites of the syllogism; pure algebraic reasoning replaces the long and flowing phrase. Is it only a time-saving device or is it a typical logico-critical, a quasi-mathematical manifestation?

Geometry becomes an ideal for theology. The Commentaries are arranged more geometrico; among the quoted authors those are preferred who reason more geometrico. The 14th century introduceres the arabic numbers into wide circulation. A new mathematical consciousness is all-pervading although it does not rise beyond the level of algebra. The theologians accept a new shorthand symbol for instans, the zero of time, from the zero sign of India.

Ontology gives way to description; the old problem of "degree" is treated not as a fact to be explained but as a phenomenon to be described. It is a consequence of the new theory of knowledge. Among the Moderni one finds a frenzied interest in the degress of perfections which, with the reader's forbearance, I compare to the Jacob's ladder of old reaching from the finite to the infinite. The modern theologians (Moderni) climb this ladder up and down; they count the rungs of the ladder (finite or infinite), they try to establish the relative importance of the two ladder ends (recessus a summo gradu, recessus a non-gradu). Here our pretended critical Moderni demonstrate an unexpected love and flair for an innate human tendency, speculation. Square-yards of parchment and lakes of ink are sacrificed for treatises on Maximum and Minimum as well as on the problem of degree.

The new shorthand symbol for the individual point of time, the instant, is symptomatic of a greater interest in the individual. In philosophy we have the cognitio rei particularis, in moral theology we find a greater reverence for the individual conscience, even the erroneous one. The 14th century discovers the individual; a breath-taking freedom prevails in the intellectual field. Freedom of conscience in the moral field is treated on a scale never to be attempted again.

One might seriously consider whether the 14th century was more interested in moral theology than in dogmatic theology. English theology especially deals with moral problems. A delight in casuistry is the result; a new English essay-style is born, quite different from the old Quaestio-style. Chillington, Rodington, Rosetus, Osbertus, Ulcredus Dunelmensis, inflate the few Contra of the old Quaestio into a long series of problems; they reduce the old corpus articuli to a few lines (sed his non obstantibus dico) and then solve the initial problems with an even longer series of loosely connected small treatises.

Casuistry takes over also in the field of dogma and leads a few, the Modernists among the Moderns, to aberrations. The disquiting thought of the potentia dei absoluta, already prominent in Anselm, for whom the Moderns and the Modernists have so much affection, makes the revolutionary Modernists in particular lose sight of all perspective and of all horizons. On a ever-increasing scale allowances are made for a possible divine intervention liable to suspend the created order; ingenious but very doubtful "cases" are invented and uncritically adduced to invalidate the general rule.

It is really puzzling to note that the cognitio rei particularis which prides itself on a critical treatment of pure concepts is accompanied by an uncritical and conceited proclamation of non-contradictions between all kinds of admittedly imperfect concepts. Worse, these our "critics" blunder into the bland assupmtion that the non-contradiction between imperfect concepts guarantees the real possibility of very complicated facts. The 14th century knows far too much about the possibility of elephants with a thousand tails.

The description of the two attitudes which I propose as categores to encompass the 14th-century complexities is naturally still problematical. Simple is the characterization of the historico-critical one: a new historical consciousness which stresses the importance of the sources more than had been done before. Complex in the extreme is the delineation of the logocio-critical attitude.


The condemnations of 1347 fell upon their extremism. From Peter Ceffons we know that the mains issue of 1347 was subtilitas and cosnequently evidentia. By subtilitas we must understand the neglect of the fathers and a logico-theological abuse of the doctrine of possible divine intervention. From the abuse of this premiss flow all the errors of 1347, errors in Christology, errors in the doctrine of grace, errors about causality and about evidence.

With the daring freedom theologians enjoyed in tthose days some extremists abused the premiss of possible divine intervention with the dexterity of magicians. De potentia dei absoluta, some pointed out, God might accept the sinner without grace: and joined the Pelagians fo old. Under the same presmiss they allged the ppossiblity that the Second Person of the Trinity might assume, dismiss and reassume a sinning nature: and so produced a monstrous Christ. While modern unbelievers are afraid of one singer miracle lest the created order become unstable these audacious extremists admitted the possiblity of infite miracles: and thus cast effective doubts upon the principle of causality. Under the same magic premiss of possible divine interference withour sensations a conclusion was reached which did away with the last remnant of evidence in our knowledge.

This mania of the logico-critical attitude had to be checked and condemned; but the doctrine of possible divine intervention could obviously not be censured. Only common sense in the application of this theological principle had to be restored. The condemnations therefore fell upon an audacity which overshot the mark of pure criticism and ventured on a road that inevitably had to lead to a denial of common sense and of dogma.

1 comment:

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