The Emergence of Scholasticism: The Thought of the Schools


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Scholasticism, or ‘the thought of the schools’, was really mostly about the development of skills in public debate. Most of the learning was not really contained in books, per se—the books were repositories, records of debates that were held in public that students could be involved in by asking questions.

An image of the old medieval St Mary's Cathedral in Lincoln.
Theologians created schools that were associated with cathedrals. (Image: Lebendigger/Shutterstock)

When Islam Secured the Latin-Speaking West

When western Europe was trying to put itself back together again after the collapse of the Roman Empire, it was Islam that secured civilized life in the Mediterranean, and also secured the transmission of Greco-Roman classical antiquity to the Latin West—largely through the gathering together of these texts in their Greek and Latin forms and their translation in Islamic Arabic-speaking centers of learning in Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, etc.

At that point, once that Western heritage had been secured by Islam and then began to be transmitted back to the Latin-speaking West, the intellectual discipline known as Christian scholasticism emerged.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Way a Christian Matured Intellectually

Monastic city in Ireland.
After the end of the first millennium, leaders of monasteries, bishops, and religious intellectuals became important thinkers. (Image: 3DF mediaStudio/Shutterstock)

Soon after the end of the first millennium, the Christian intellectual culture in the West began to mature institutionally and intellectually. Theologians began to teach in schools associated with particular cathedrals.

Various religious leaders—leaders of monasteries, bishops, religious intellectuals of a sort who developed followers in the West—became important thinkers in their own right. There was a large-scale renaissance of monastic intellectualism at that time. As this went on, pre-Christian Greek and Roman thinkers were rediscovered, and more attention was also paid to Jewish and Islamic thought.

Learn more about Christian scripture—apocalypse and original sin.

The Emergence of the Thought of the Schools

As the intellectual conversation expanded in those first couple of centuries of the new millennium, very slowly, a network of medieval think tanks and schools developed. First associated, again, with cathedral schools and then monasteries, and then slowly as kind of free-standing institutions of learning, modeled importantly on Islamic centers of learning in Cairo and Baghdad and elsewhere—centers of learning that were understood to be the kind of proto-universities of the world. 

The intellectual and institutional context that emerged in these universities is something that was called scholasticism or ‘the thought of the schools’. 

But effectively what scholastic learning meant was the mastering of a huge body of traditional information, the development of the skill of summarizing that body of information, being able to articulate it in its most potent expressions, and then the ability to take that body of information and learn how to debate the various sets of tensions and conflicts that emerged from within that body of knowledge.

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Abelard, Medieval Scholastic, and His Book

One of the most important texts of medieval scholasticism was a book by Abelard, an early and very controversial medieval scholastic intellectual. He wrote a book called Sic et Non in Latin, that is ‘Yes and No’.

He effectively simply gathered together the entire tradition of Christian thought that he could get his hands on and demonstrated that very important authorities—ecclesiastical authorities, intellectual authorities, philosophers, theologians, bishops, councils, the scriptures—at different times could be heard to be saying something on both sides of an opinion. 

In a way, Abelard’s provocation of the tradition really effectively generated the history of scholasticism because it began to be a system to figure out how to make sense of the fact that very intellectually serious, authoritative people were able to take seriously, and with sincere truthfulness, claims that were effectively contradictory, and the tradition had to figure out how to make sense of those claims.

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Scholastic Thomas Aquinas vs. Non-Scholastic Anselm

Two of the greatest thinkers of the scholasticism tradition were unarguably Anselm, who also became the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Thomas Aquinas. 

An image of Saint Anselm University in Italy.
Anselm was not exactly a scholastic, but his thought served as one of the main ingredients of mature scholastic theology. (Image: Alvaro German Vilela/Shutterstock)

Anselm was not exactly a scholastic—he was a bit too early for the full maturity of scholasticism, and he himself was never per se a university teacher—but his thought served as one of the main ingredients of mature scholastic theology. Aquinas was often considered the greatest mind in the scholastic age, and not without reason, though he himself was fairly idiosyncratic. 

They both most importantly developed interesting and powerful analyses of evil, deriving from Augustine’s work in some important ways, but influenced by other philosophical currents; and they used these philosophical analyses to ask some deep questions about the origins and nature of evil. They each offer searching discussions that pertain directly to these questions: what an ‘evil act’ is, how it is intelligible as an evil act, and how it is also not ultimately intelligible.

Learn more about Greek philosophy—human evil and malice.

Investigation of the Fall of the Devil 

Anselm and Aquinas explored the mystery of wickedness by exploring the study of the fall of the Devil and the nature of what Aquinas ended up calling the infernal compact, the agreement among the demons to work together, not centrally by addressing the experience of human malice. This was a deliberate decision on both of their parts. 

Both Aquinas and Anselm deliberately focused a lot of their attention on the nature of the evil will on the fallen angels, the Devil, and the Devil’s minions, precisely because for them, it seemed to be a cleaner study of how an agency can go wrong than looking at embodied humans. 

Embodied humans have lots of motivations that can obstruct and obscure things; most of them thought about the nature of the human fall. But to figure out the core essence of what happens to a free agent when it freely chooses evil, they both thought that looking at a disembodied angel and the disembodied angel’s rebellion and fall would be a cleaner and crisper analysis of this.

Common Questions about the Emergence of Scholasticism—the Thought of the Schools

Q: What was scholasticism about?

Scholasticism, or the thought of the schools, was about mastering all the information related to tradition and then summarizing and articulating that information. It also was about taking and discussing that body of information.

Q: How did Abelard generate the history of scholasticism?

Abelard was one of those scholastics whose provocation of traditions generated the history of scholasticism. In his book, Sic et Non, he gathered the Christian thought to demonstrate them at various times.

Q: How did Anselm and Aquinas investigate the mystery of wickedness?

Aquinas and Anselm investigated the mystery of wickedness by studying the fall of the Devil and the nature of the infernal compact (an agreement among demons to work together).

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