Wednesday, September 2, 2009

SLJ: Hugh of St. Victor

As I mentioned last week, I recently obtained a wonderful book, The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor, translated and with notes by Jerome Taylor. The original (which I hope to obtain eventually) dates to the 1120s, and it concerns learning and philosophy, and a variety of related issues - though it antedates Buridan, I certainly expect that it should play a role in our study. Perhaps once I finish my reading, and have some time to consider it, I might try to comment further.

But as you may expect, I wondered if Father Jaki mentioned Hugh, and found that he did, though in one citation he spells it "Hugo". It seems to be a bare mention in passing, but the context is worth our study.
--Dr. Thursday

It is doubtful that almost thirty years after Descartes had slighted Bacon's method in a letter to Mersenne, the Baconians had not yet learned of it, as Mersenne was well known for his rapid transmission of informations received by him. But feeling confident about possessing the philosopher's stone, the Baconians readily claimed for themselves the good points of even their most resolute antagonists. In describing Descartes as "one of the greatest Wits ever the Sun saw, a Person too great for praise, designed by Heaven for the Instruction of the Learned World," Glanvill was probably thinking of analytical geometry and perhaps even more of Descartes' very Baconian aim to provide the means, however unBaconian, of turning man into "master and possessor of nature." The phrase, which soon became taken for the epitome of the modern mind, was already five centuries old when Descartes pulled it out of his subconscious which had been nourished by the catechism and the deeply scholastic tone of instruction he had received from his Jesuit teachers at La Flèche. To become master and possessor of nature was a primary injunction made on man at the very outset of the history of salvation which through the preaching of the Gospel became part of a widely based tradition and the leaven of a cultural matrix that turned medieval Europe into its specific and historic identity. In that tradition, inherited by Baconians and Cartesians alike, the sense of a God-given duty to dominate nature was accompanied by respect for ancient learning. The latter received its pregnant formulation - "we see farther because we stand on the shoulders of giants" - from Bernardus Sylvestris almost exactly at the time when Hugo of St. Victor wrote in his De sacramentis that "God put man on earth to make him the master and possessor of nature." It shows something of the intellectual turbulence of Bacon's time that the phrase of Bernardus Sylvestris had become a shibboleth in an acrimonious controversy concerning the respective merits of ancient and modern learning, whereas Hugo of St. Victor's anticipation of Descartes motto was conveniently overlooked.
[SLJ The Origin of Science and the Science of its Origin 15-16]

Long before Descartes set forth his method to enable man to become master and possessor of nature, Hugh of Saint Victor emphatically declared in a widely read work - with an eye on Genesis - that God created man "to be the owner and master of the world." Hugh of Saint Victor was one of the many who kept their eyes fixed on Genesis as on a guiding star. It was a star also in the sense that its light did not burn and blind. It merely twinkled but did so unfailingly in the manner of genuine stars.
[SLJ The Road of Science and the Ways to God 49]

In that excerpt, the quote has the following footnote:

71. De sacramentis fidei christianae, liber 2, pars 1 (Migne, Patrologia
, vol. 176, col. 205). One need not be a medievalist: it is enough to recall the vigor of the technological quest during the High Middle Ages, to make one realize the risk of writing off this phrase as untypical of medieval mentality, as done by R. Gruner, who found the phrase quoted by K. Lowith (Gott, Mensch und Welt in der Metaphysik von Descartes bis Nietzsche [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1967], p. 37) and who in his essay "Science, Nature and Christianity" (Journal of Theological Studies 26 ((1975)): 55-81) came to the conclusion that Christianity neither helped nor impeded the rise of science. Of course, as long as one uncritically follows Lowith, not seeing the enormous difference between the sovereign Creator of the medieval Christians and the pantheistic "God" of Schelling, belief in the Creator will not appear as a special factor with an impact of its own worth pondering. Again, if that belief is kept in the background by a studied agnosticism, the results will not be better than lip service to medieval theology, as can be seen in The Cultural Context of Medieval Learning: Proceedings of the First International Colloquium on Philosophy, Science, and Theology in the Middle Ages, September 1973, ed. with an introduction by J. E. Murdoch and E. D. Sylla (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1973).

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