Scholasticism: How a Philosophical Monopoly Succumbs to New Ideas

How do countries and cultures evolve from domination by one philosophy, one set of beliefs, one intellectual and academic establishment, to a radically different one?
Across Europe, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, first budding scientists and later intellectuals in the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, respectively, encountered an intimidating established authority—Aristotelian-Christian “Scholasticism”—at their universities. Most Enlightenment thought and teaching therefore took place outside of the university in “academies,” cafes, pubs, books, and letters, because the universities were controlled by “Scholastics”—that is, theologists preparing students, for the most part, for the ministry.

Adam Smith encountered this establishment at Oxford, so did John Locke, and others. For the most part, they found it boring and irrelevant and retreated to the great libraries to educate themselves. Why? In simplest terms, they were electrified by the achievements of the scientists of the seventeenth century and the role of reason, observation, and inductive logic in their achievements.

This will bring to the minds of some contemporary readers the grip of Left-Liberalism, and, on a deeper level, postmodernism, on American colleges and universities today—leaving dissenting intellectuals to work in “think tanks” and to found new publications in print or online. The parallel to the Age of Enlightenment is informative, but the “think tanks” then, were pubs, cafes, and academies in London, Paris, Berlin, Edinburgh, and Milan.

What, then, was “Scholasticism,” which dominated all Western European universities beginning in the fourteenth century—and endured even in the seventeenth century as the mighty Scientific Revolution unfolded—and well into the eighteenth century’s Age of Enlightenment? Another way of phrasing this question: What were the scientific and intellectual revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries rebelling against?


There always had been some fusion of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy with Christian theology—a merging that came about initially in the dying days of the Roman Empire, when the Church Fathers were steeped in Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism. Those Christian scholars turned to philosophy for the metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical structure of the new faith.

In so doing, the Church of Rome kept alive the philosophy, scholarship, teaching, and publishing that had survived the fall of the Roman Empire and the long struggle in Italy and Greece. They reemerged in monasteries, then the towns and royal courts, and later the budding new cities in the trackless forests of Europe, Britain, and Ireland. Sometimes there is a distinction made between “early” and “middle” Scholasticism. Make no mistake, these included rich periods of philosophical activity.

But the “Aristotelianization” of Christian thought, “high Scholasticism,” began in the late twelfth century, accelerated during the next century, and from the fourteenth century dominated the world of European universities. (All of this after a knock-down battle, especially in Paris, against any reference at all to the works of Aristotle.) “Scholasticism,” as its detractors named it, was the philosophical/theological authority of sixteenth-century Europe. Handbooks provided to most entering university students cautioned them not to deviate from the ideas of Aristotle and those who agreed with him. 

A last step in this evolution came in the sixteenth century with a focus on the great philosophical synthesis of Aristotle and Christian faith achieved by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), the Italian Dominican friar, priest, philosopher, and theologian. With his thesis that the natural philosophy of Aristotle enables one to understand the world and our place in it, Christian theology reached its peak of philosophical profundity. In other words, the “schoolmen” really did have an excellent product to defend and teach.

Thinkers in the Scholastic tradition, accepting what was known and remembered of Aristotle’s teachings as absolute authority, proceeded in their teaching, and proselytizing, by the method of “disputation.” That meant reference to intellectual authorities and logical deductions from their ideas, and, of far less importance, “appearances” of the world used mostly as “examples” of what the authorities meant. The Scholastics after Aquinas saw the world as coherently explained by Aristotle’s categories of causality: “material,” “formal,” “efficient,” and “final.”

Proceeding from this, the Scholastics distinguished all things, natural and supernatural, in terms of “degrees of perfection,” forming a “great chain of being” that informed us of the relative value of all things. And teleology, final cause, enabled us to know the purposes of all things, and, for Christianity, God’s design for all things.

In The Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries, University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Kors writes that “the dramatic lesson you understand from the great chain of being [the hierarchy of perfections] [is] that human beings can follow their bodies and pull further from the immutable perfection of God to the basest center of the earth (the location of hell) or escape their bodies and rise to the immutable celestial heavens.”

The seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution questioned, doubted, challenged, and assaulted this Aristotelian-Christian synthesis. It challenged what Scholasticism offered intellectuals as answers to such questions as “When is an argument compelling?” “What argument requires my belief?” “When must I say, ‘yes’?”

Faith, authority, deduction, and experience—in that descending order—were the standards of “disputation” under Scholasticism. In this context, “authority” meant supernatural or natural historical wisdom. Supernatural authority was scripture. Natural authority meant authority of the past (ideas that had survived the test of time since the Greeks, those that bolstered the Christian faith).

“Reason,” the Aristotelian laws of deductive logic, such as the law of noncontradiction, also figured into belief. The modes of reason—deductive and inductive—supported belief. But dominating all was deductive logic, which took as its premises the ideas of authority and faith.

All this, resting on a system of Aristotle’s authority, the greatest and perhaps truly only unified system, and especially his categories of cause, lend to Scholasticism a profound sense of coherence, of how things happen and why. Under God’s design, which we know entirely from Natural Law, all things strive for order, fulfillment of their purposes. Things on earth are mutable; things in heaven are immutable. It is a fundamental divide perfectly suited to Christian ontology (nature of being). For example, there is a hierarchy of “souls”: angels, mankind, animals, and plants. All explained and explicated.

The young mind, to be educated, must understand and acquire a deep knowledge of this hierarchical system as a whole and all that it implies, knowledge of perfection and purposes—in particular, classification that confirmed the wisdom of God’s creation and man’s place in it. 

The “Scholastics,” or “schoolmen,” had not referred to themselves by those terms. They were Franciscans, Benedictines, Dominicans, later Jesuits. Their detractors during the Age of Enlightenment hung the epithet on them. Among those detractors of Scholasticism were Denis Diderot, who described it as “one of the greatest plagues of the human mind”; and C. A. Heuman characterized it as “philosophy brought into slavery to papist theology”—all curtly dismissed Scholasticism as not meriting attention.

It is an injustice to suggest that Scholasticism represented centuries of pure stasis. Some of the greatest philosophers in the Western tradition advanced Scholasticism: Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, Anselm, Abelard, and John Duns Scotus all infused into Scholasticism the recovered works of Aristotle that had long been preserved in Islam. Indeed, by the sixteenth century, the University of Paris seethed with innovative ideas, challenges to orthodoxy, a revolution in the epistemology of conceptual thought (about “universals”) from Aristotle’s “moderate realism” to Ockham’s “nominalism”—arguably the most fateful turn in all Western philosophy, which thereafter viewed all definitions as subjective, “arbitrary,” and so rendering all terms of argumentation as up for grabs.

Up to the seventeenth century’s Scientific Revolution, Aristotelian Scholasticism remained in total control of the curricula of secondary schools and universities across Western Europe. The historical status of Francis Bacon rests upon his first all-out assault on the predominance of Scholasticism. His great themes were the rejection of the authority of the past and the separation of natural philosophy (science) from theology. Scholasticism could not survive those two challenges. 

At universities in Edinburgh and Glasgow, Oxford and Cambridge, Paris, Bologna, and Milan—to mention but a few—the Scholastics ruled. They had ruled for centuries. Scholars like Thomas Aquinas had enormously bolstered their views and their confidence. Admittedly, this account barely suggests how large Paris loomed for Scholasticism: great disputes were argued there; intellectual giants came and went and left their mark; and when great intellectual battles were won, they often were won in Paris and radiated outward through Europe.

Paris unfortunately became a city of conflict and confusion. Religious-minded scholars revolted against it, while the growing number of humanists sought means to restore the classical concept of the liberal arts and return to the prescholastic type of culture. Since the University of Paris failed to achieve a synthesis of all these elements, old and new, one might take the founding of the Collège de France (1530), for the study of classics not provided at the university, as a sign that Scholasticism was at an end. In Germany, the vitriolic attacks of Martin Luther on the schoolmen and on philosophy, and the ravages of the Reformation, destroyed whatever Scholasticism was in that country. There had been little Scholasticism, as such, in Italy, and it gave way before the humanists.”

First, the Scientific Revolution, especially in astronomy, of the seventeenth century, challenged the neat Scholastic hierarchy of heaven and earth, and then, the Age of Enlightenment of the eighteenth century challenged Scholasticism at its root. Not authority, not deduction from authority’s premises, but observation of reality and formulation of principles by induction from experience were the royal road to knowledge. The ancient packaged Aristotelian-Christian synthesis, permanent knowledge, bored John Locke, Adam Smith, Cesare Becarria, and other leading Enlightenment thinkers.

Pause for a moment to contemplate the Scholastic view of the earth and heavens as God’s hierarchy and Isaac Newton’s mathematical laws to explain the motion of the earth and the heavens. Young men like Locke, who knew of Newton’s mathematical principles, arrived at the Scholastic university to learn about the world. And realized that books in the library—and the academy, the cafe, and the pub—must be their classroom.

Scholasticism Meets History

And yet, when we contemplate how great philosophical systems fall and are replaced via intellectual battles, how ideas dethrone other ideas, we see but part of the story. During the period we have discussed, the terrible wars of religion were stretching over a century, from the 1550s to the 1650s. They proceeded in part from Martin Luther’s Reformation; all Christendom was divided and at war. People in Europe now fought not over dynastic claims but over their beliefs about God’s intentions. Religion made for a century or more a killing field of Europe. When it was done, the percentage of the population killed was much greater than the toll of World War I. Millions more perished from famine and disease. More than one-third of Europe’s population succumbed.

A great gathering of Catholic and Protestant powers in Westphalia in 1644 reached, during some four years of negotiation, a “lasting peace.” The participants acknowledged that religion was “for the most part the cause and occasion of the present [hundred-years’] war.” The Peace of Westphalia instituted religious toleration and banned confessional differences from the political stage. Only the papacy refused to endorse the treaty. Pope Innocent X declared the great treaty “null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all time.” He did not like it. 

After 1648, the nations of Europe would not go to war again because they disagreed over God’s intentions for mankind (Ireland, alas, remained the one exception). The conflicts, in parallel with the intellectual challenges we have seen, destroyed all faith in the intellectual system that had sustained the authority of the Catholic Church, which no longer could sustain the massive political, moral, and social structures it once had upheld. The philosophical consensus of Europe was in disarray. And this, too, broke the monopoly of Scholasticism over the European mind and invited the Age of Enlightenment’s reexamination not only of the old certainties, the authorities, but also of all the older, once indubitable methods of inquiry called “Scholasticism.”