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The term scholasticism (from the Latin schola, "school") refers properly both to the doctrine and method of teaching in the medieval European schools and to their successive revivals to the present day. As a method, scholasticism involves (1) the close, detailed reading (lectio) of a particular book recognized as a great or authoritative work of human or divine origin--for example, Aristotle in logic, Euclid in geometry, Cicero in rhetoric, Avicenna and Galen in medicine, the Bible in theology-- and (2) the open discussion (disputatio) in strict logical form of a relevant question (quaestio) arising from the text. As a doctrine, scholasticism refers to the kind of philosophy, theology, medicine, and law (canon and civil) taught by the faculties responsible for these disciplines. These four faculties constituted the medieval universities that began to be organized in the 12th century, beginning in Bologna, Paris, and Oxford.

The most important faculties, however, were arts (philosophy) and theology, and the term scholasticism is usually understood in the context of those disciplines.

The basic philosophy of the faculty of arts was Aristotelian because the greatest and most authoritative books in philosophy were believed to be Aristotle's. Aristotle, however, was interpreted differently by different professors depending on the commentaries used, notably those of "the Commentator," Averroes; the Christian Neoplatonist, Saint Augustine; or the pagan Neoplatonist, Avicenna.

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Similarly in theology, the Bible was variously interpreted depending on the kind of philosophy used to understand the Christian faith systematically. Among the numerous ways of systematizing the faith, certain schools of theology stand out as particularly notable and viable throughout the Middle Ages and to the present day. The most important of these scholastic theologies were Thomism, developed from the teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas; Augustinism, developed from Saint Augustine; Scotism, from John Duns Scotus; Nominalism, from William of Occam; and Suarazianism, formulated by Francisco Suarez, a 16th-century Jesuit who tried to synthesize various schools. The basic principle underlying all forms of scholasticism was rational consistency with the Christian faith as taught in the Bible and as understood by the living Church of Rome through the writings of the ancient Greek and Latin Fathers, the rulings of the ecumenical councils, the liturgy, and the continuing teaching and practice of the church.

Scholasticism is generally divided into three periods: medieval scholasticism, extending from Boethius (5th-6th century) to the 16th century, with its Golden Age in the 13th century; "second scholasticism," beginning in the 16th century with Thomas de Vio Cajetan, Conrad Koellin, Peter Crokert, Francesco de Vittoria, and Francisco Suarez; and neoscholasticism, beginning in the early 19th century, given impetus by the encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879) of Pope Leo XIII, and continuing at least until the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Medieval Scholasticism

Boethius is generally called "the first scholastic" because he provided the first Latin translations of Aristotle's logic and other basic works used in the schools of the early Middle Ages as a prerequisite to understanding the Bible and the Latin Church Fathers and to becoming an educated person. In this early period, however, the dominant philosophical influence was Platonism or NeoPlatonism, particularly as it was reflected in the work of Saint Augustine. Augustine formulated the maxim "Understand so that you may believe, believe so that you may understand"--an approach that lay at the heart of scholasticism--and urged the use of dialectics in examining Christian doctrine. His principles were applied with rigor by such early scholastics as John Scotus Erigena, Saint Anselm, Peter Abelard, Alan of Lille, and numerous teachers in the cathedral schools of Laon, Chartres, Paris, Poitiers, and the abbey school of Saint- Victor in Paris.

In a stricter sense, scholasticism began with the Sentences (c.1150) of Peter Lombard, the Decretum (c.1150) of Gratian, and the flood of new Latin translations of classical philosophers, including all of Aristotle, made from Greek and Arabic throughout the second half of the 12th century. Assimilation of this new learning took place in the universities of the 13th century through the genius of the Dominicans Saint Albertus Magnus and his great pupil Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologicae is widely regarded as the pinnacle of scholastic theology; and of the Franciscans Saint Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, and William of Occam (early 14th century), who challenged the Dominican school.

With the multiplication of universities between the 14th and 16th centuries came a decline in the standard of teaching and the caliber of teachers, and a "logicism" or formalism of thought that aroused the animosity of a new humanism that arose mainly outside university circles. The term scholasticism then began to be used in a derogatory sense.

Second Scholasticism

The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century stimulated a revival of theology by a return to the language of the Bible, the Fathers of the Church, and the great scholastics of the 13th century. This second scholasticism was aided by the founding (1540) of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) by Saint Ignatius Loyola with the approval of Pope Paul III. Foremost among the Jesuit scholastics of this period were Saint Robert Bellarmine, Francisco Suarez, and Gabriel Vazquez. Due largely to the scientific revolution of the 17th century (beginning with Galileo), the quest for philosophic originality (beginning with Rene Descartes), the rise of nationalism and colonization, and the splintering of Protestant religions, second scholasticism declined. Some forms of schoolbook scholasticism, however, remained for a time in Catholic countries, particularly Spain and Latin America. By the 18th century, scholasticism had again become a derogatory term, especially in non-Catholic countries.


Early in the 19th century in Italy certain Catholic professors of philosophy began to see in Aquinas's teaching basic principles that might resolve the problems associated with Kantian and Hegelian Idealism, British Empiricism, current Rationalism, Skepticism, and Liberalism. By 1850, neo-Thomism or neoscholasticism began to be heard through the writings of Gaetano Sanseverino in Naples, Matteo Liberatore in Rome, and the Jesuit periodical Civilita Cattolica founded in Naples in 1850. These efforts were brought to a head by Josef Kleutgen in Germany, Henri LaCordaire in France, Zeferino Gonzales in the Philippines and Spain, and Tommaso Zigliara and Pope Leo XIII in Italy. The charter of this neo-Thomism was Leo's Aeterni Patris (1879). Through subsequent encyclicals, Leo exemplified the applicability of Thomistic ideas to contemporary problems. All subsequent popes, including John Paul II, reiterated the need for a Christian philosophy based on Thomistic principles.

The rise of Modernism in the Roman Catholic church after 1900, however, resulted in a multiplicity of ecclesiastical condemnations, a legislated Thomism, and a failure to realize the hopes of Leo XIII. Despite this and two world wars, much fruitful work was accomplished by outstanding scholars, numerous periodicals, and editors of historical texts, including the critical edition of the works of Aquinas (the Leonine Edition). Among the great number of modern scholars who called themselves Thomists (but not neo-Thomists or neoscholastics) were Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Martin Grabmann, and Yves Congar.

For reasons still not fully understood, a decided reaction against Aquinas and neoscholasticism occurred in the 1960s. Some have erroneously associated this with the Second Vatican Council, which turned people's minds toward social rather than doctrinal issues. Aquinas was, however, the only scholastic doctor mentioned by name in all the conciliar documents. The real reasons for the decline of neoscholasticism must be sought in the wider sociological and psychological concerns of contemporary society.

James A. Weisheipl

Cassidy, Frank P., Molders of the Medieval Mind (1944; repr., 1966); Congar, Yves, A History of Theology (1968); Gilson, Etienne, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1957) and History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (1955); McInerny, R. M., ed., New Themes in Christian Philosophy (1968); Pieper, Josef, Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy, trans. by Richard and Clara Winston (1960); Smalley, Beryl, The Becket Conflict and the Schools: A Study of Intellectuals in Politics (1973); Weinberg, J. R., A Short History of Medieval Philosophy (1964).

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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