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(especially in "De Magistro"
by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas)

Acts of the International Seminar
on "Jesus, the Master"
(Ariccia, October 14-24, 1996)

by Franco Pierini ssp


6. THE LOWER MIDDLE AGES (1250-1500)

6.1. General view

The I Council of Lyon, held in 1245, with the deposition of Emperor Frederic II by Innocent IV, was only the peak of a political and ideological struggle that was not free from blows but also the setting into action of the fall of the so-called Medieval "Christianity". We do not need to recall here the various stages of the degradation which followed: the papacy became more bound with France and from this came the Pope’s stay in Avignon and then the schism of the West with the affirmation of conciliarist theories; the empire no longer succeeded to recover its hegemony over Europe, and the last attempt, that of Charles V, crashed with the political and religious fragmentation that was already overdue; the relationship between the two Christian world, the East and the West, would become even worse and all attempts for recovering the Holy Land and also the first missionary attempts beyond the Islamic world would fail; face to face with the Muslim aggressiveness, the economic conquests of high Middle Ages would fall into crisis and to this would be added the devastating epidemics like the famous "black death"; and more and more social disturbances would appear and the last feudal structures would fall.

It is a rather catastrophic picture which has become legendary as the "autumn of the Middle Ages" (Huizinga). It has not to be exaggerated as is usually done (for example in The name of the rose, the pseudo-historical novel by U. Eco), but it is not to be underestimated either, above from the religious point of view.

It was in fact in the lower Middle Ages, immediately after the summit signed by Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, that the first disintegrating currents of culture, of the scholastic synthesis that was established during the preceding period, began to develop. At the end the universities themselves were in crisis, culturally and pedagogically surpassed by two new institutions: the movements and the institutions devotional, ascetic and mystical in character taking part, indeed, in the "modern Devotion," that asserted itself in the French and German Europe; the movements and the institutions mostly of cultural character, typical of humanism and of renaissance, which asserted itself in a special manner initially in Italy. The "college" ("collegia pietatis" on one hand and the "collegia humanitatis" on the other) is the new structure destined to train the new class of European leaders.(45)

In the theological field, but especially in the philosophical field, there is the passage from the Aristotelian-Thomist synthesis to the Augustinian-Bonaventurian one, from the moderate nominalism of Duns Scotus to the radical one of William of Occam.

Paradoxically, though not much, the more the philosophical-theological discourse lost consistency due to the excessive abstraction and complexity of its results, the more the Christological discourse imposed itself, made way. In this sense, the lower Middle Ages is a period of strong Christological-anthropological-ecclesiological passion.

In extreme synthesis: there is a movement from the little interest of Thomas Aquinas for Christology,(46) to the contrary attitude of Bonaventure of Bagnoregio who in a Franciscan manner gives to the crucified Christ the central part.(47) From here we reach Duns Scotus who makes of Christ the Alpha and Omega of everything (48) and to Occam who considers almost eternal the teandric dimension.(49) Always along the Franciscan line, Dante Alighier(50) and Catherine of Siena (51) come to identify their own historical and ideological experience with Christ himself, while the mystic Meister Eckhart arrives at identifying Christ with every person.(52)

In parallel, in the Byzantine East, Hesicasm arrives at the more significant Christological conclusions. It reached, in fact, through the teaching of Nicephorus the Atonite, during the XIII century, a kind of "Christian yoga" practiced above all among the monks of Athos,(53) Hesicasm succeeds to overcome all its critics through the defense by Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). He, in fact, succeeds in making the point of view prevail, according to which the divinization of man takes place by the work of grace, or, as he himself prefers to say, "by divine energy," just as what qualitatively was accomplished in the humanity of Christ. Every person then can imitate the man-Christ divinized. God, in Christ-man, makes himself truly our Interior and Exterior Master.(54)

With this as the general atmosphere, one can understand the phenomenon of the multiplication and the spread of small and great treatises on the theme of "imitation of Christ," starting from the first, written by Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (Epistola de imitatione Christi),(55) until the famous Imitation of Christ, that one attributed to Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471), and nonetheless dating back to about 1441.(56)

Now the figure of Christ Master in this period of strong scholarization on almost all levels of society, in this period of scholarization, was also in intense transformation, no longer the "knight" of the early Middle Ages, no longer just man, the man-God of Bernard of Clairvaux, or the historical man, poor and suffering of Francis of Assisi: now Christ Master ends in being truly at the side of every man, especially of every man in crisis for the search of something and becomes, so to say, the "protesting" Christ.

This figure of "protesting" Christ is present in numerous individual and collective experiences, orthodox and heterodox (57) and arrives at two especially significant testimonies: the highly dramatic one of Jerome Savonarola (1452-1498) and that, considered the most authentic, of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536). (return to summary)

6.2. The "De Magistro" by St. Thomas Aquinas (1256-1259)

There is nothing to marvel about that Thomas Aquinas took up again the discourse on the master and on the magisterium, referring himself explicitly to the work of Augustine. The two works are, in fact, born on the basis of similar needs and cultural contexts.

Either the Post-Constantine period (313-450) or the period of lower Middle Ages (1250-1500) were periods of intense Christian scholarization although, as we already noted, with diametrically opposed effects and consequences because the post-Constantine scholarization brought Christianity to a cultural hegemony, while that of the lower Middle Ages led this hegemony to decline. Now, it is natural that the periods of scholarization be those wherein reflection is made more intensely on the master and the magisterium and, in the Christian sphere, on that particular Master who is Christ.

Thomas Aquinas picked up the Augustinian reflection, between the years 1256 to 1259, in the XI of his Quaestiones disputatae de veritate, going back to it again, between the year 1266 and 1273 in some parts of the Summa theologiae (precisely in the pars I, quest. 111, art. 1 and 3; quest. 117, art 1; and in pars II-II, quest. 181, art. 3). In these texts no changes are noticed. The ideas of Thomas remain the same. We therefore limit ourselves to examine the question disputata XI, De Magistro.(58)

It is articulated in four sub-questions:

The problems St. Thomas raises, the arguments he develops, the conclusions he reaches are clearly more than and at the same time less than the problems, arguments and conclusions of Augustine. Thomas faces above all the question of the only teacher and that of didactic communication; he slides almost completely through the problem of meaning which instead occupies a large part of Augustine’s "De Magistro".

Regarding the question of the only teacher, Thomas, pivoting himself on the doctrine of potency and act, of primary causes and secondary causes, recognizes in God, especially in the Word, the principal causality in every form of teaching, but he also recognizes the characteristic of secondary and instrumental causality in the human teacher. Further correcting the Platonic-Augustinian theory of illumination with the Aristotelian doctrine of abstraction, he sees in the intellect of the learner the work of the passive and the active intellect, and he is brought therefore to reevaluate the contribution of the same recipient of the teaching.

Regarding the question of pedagogical communication, Thomas carries over the Augustinian argumentation in the following terms: "When signs of some things are proposed by man, him to whom they are proposed either already knows the things the signs refer to, or he does not know them. If he already knows them, we cannot say that he is being taught about them; if he does not know them, ignoring the things he shall neither know the meaning of the signs... If man therefore does nothing but propose signs through teaching, then it seems that he could not teach another man."

To this reasoning, he replies: "We must say that the things wherein we are taught through the signs we already know them under certain aspects and under another, we ignore them. If, for example, one wants to teach what is man, it is necessary that we already know something of him, that is, that we already have the concept of animal or that substance or at least of being, which could not be unknown; and thus when one wants to explain some conclusion, it is necessary that we also know the principles through which the conclusions are taught us, inasmuch as every teaching proceeds from a pre-existent knowledge."

Hence, Thomas does not intend at all to contradict the fundamental theses of Augustine; he only wants to express them better, structure them with greater precision, complete them. And, based on the Aristotelian doctrine of knowledge, he undoubtedly succeeds.

He neglects, however, the more intimate problem of Augustine’s doctrine of magisterium and of the teacher, that is, the problem of signification. It is in fact in this level that the pedagogical doctrine from abstract becomes concrete, from speculative becomes existential and historical.

In fact, before communicating truth, one must achieve it. The signification allows us to arrive there because, if correctly executed, it brings to relationship (in every moment of the communication process) the three elements: the sign, the meaning and the reference, that is, it creates the "adequatio rei et intellectus." But such a relationship of signification, such "adequatio," we can (re)build, and because it already exists, it is already given, it is transcendent of our categorical manner of doing itself. It requires therefore a total openness which, in concrete, in history, may also be not there. Because of this, Augustine writes: "He whom we appeal to is he who teaches, the Christ of whom it is said that he lives in the interior man, or the immutable Power and the eternal Wisdom of God. It is He which all rational souls appeal to, but he opens himself to each one within the limits wherein each could welcome it according to his own good or bad will. And should the soul err, it does not happen by defect of the Truth appealed to, just as it is not by the defect of external light that our bodily eyes often deceive us."

Admitted therefore that truth exists (if it does not then it is meaningless to look for it, and every knowing, communicating and signifying activity closes into itself), it is evident that it transcends the process of signification (The exterior Master) but it is also evident that it must also be immanent to it, at least as a possibility (the Interior Master), to which one could open himself and draw benefit from it. Thus, as it has already been noted, the triangle of signification (sign, meaning, reference) opens up to include in itself the element "Interior master" and is transformed into four-sides, or, better, in a hermeneutic circle.

Hence, we can conclude that the Augustinian analysis on the teacher or master and on magisterium is completed at certain points by the Thomist analysis, but this does not substitute or surpass it.

The fact that the Augustinian point of view can be reproposed also proves it, in those same years, in a manner more forceful and effective by some contributions of Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (1221-1274), dating back to about 1259, and in particular by the sermon Christus, unus omnium magister and by another sermon De excellentia magisterii Christi.

The whole patristic-Augustinian tradition, enriched by the contributions of the Franciscan-Bonaventurian, Cistercian-Bernardian, Carthusian and of the "modern Devotion," aside from the humanistic one, would build later, at the end of the lower Middle Ages era, in the work of Erasmus of Rotterdam and above all in his two works Enchiridion militis christiani (1501) and Encomium moriae (1509).(59) (return to summary)

return to summary


           Jesus Master yesterday, today and for ever

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