Medieval FranceNewman continued his discussion of the integrity of a university by directing his attention to the moral life of professors and their submission to the Church’s Magisterium. For this he proposed to look at the figure of Abelard considered as the first master of scholastic theology. Newman began by observing that there are men who have anticipated theological problems and posed solutions but without sufficient measure and prudence. They have thus fallen into errors of excess and presumption that are typical of heresies.

Philosophy and theology consist in making judgments about true propositions and connecting with other truths. In Newman’s words: “Nothing is more certain, than that some ideas are consistent with one another, and others inconsistent; and, again, that every truth must be consistent with every other truth;—hence, that all truths of whatever kind form into one large body of Truth, by virtue of the consistency between one truth and another, which is a connecting link running through them all.” The medieval university developed the ancient art of logic and applied it to its work as the “scholastic method.”

Newman considered Abelard to be “the ill-fated logician who had a principal share in bringing it into operation.” He acknowledged that others consider St. Anselm and the school of Bec to be the founders of scholasticism, but noted that Abelard who taught at the university of Paris “illustrates the strength and the weakness of the principle of advertising and communicating knowledge for its own sake, which I have called the University principle.”

The end of 11th century William of Champeaux founded the celebrated Abbey of St. Victor in Paris and there he introduced the dialectic method of analysis to the study of philosophy. To him falls the credit of forming the University from the various Schools of Paris. His young pupil was Abelard, who at the age of twenty-two was capable of disputing his teacher and of starting his own school, and a long rivalry with his former teacher, and later monk.

Abelard adopted his new method with a fury. “Great things are done by devotion to one idea; there is one class of geniuses, who would never be what they are, could they grasp a second. The calm philosophical mind, which contemplates parts without denying the whole, and the whole without confusing the parts, is notoriously indisposed to action; whereas single and simple views arrest the mind, and hurry it on to carry them out. Thus, men of one idea and nothing more, whatever their merit, must be to a certain extent narrow-minded; and it is not wonderful that Abelard’s devotion to the new philosophy made him undervalue the Seven Arts out of which it had grown.”

Abelard opposed the reading and studying of the Classics (poets and philosophers), but not for ascetical motives. Instead he found them of little value. John of Salisbury and Peter of Blois had championed the importance of learning them by heart, analyzing their arguments and noting their fallacies. “But now, another teaching was coming in; students were promised truth in a nutshell; they intended to get possession of the sum-total of philosophy in less than two or three years; and facts were apprehended, not in their substance and details, by means of living and, as it were, personal documents, but in dead abstracts and tables. Such were the reclamations to which the new Logic gave occasion.”

Newman narrated Abelard’s ambition for fame mixed with a worldly desire of becoming a bishop. For a short while he attended Anselm’s lectures but not impressed he preferred to lecture himself on the Prophet Ezekiel. He was an eloquent speaker attracting students and masters from throughout Europe. But this popularity and brilliancy were to be his destruction. Besides being contentious, and proud, he fell into a third temptation, an illicit relationship with Eloisa, a very intelligent pupil and the niece of an ecclesiastic with whom Abelard lodged.

Abelard moved to the Abbey of St. Denis to live as a monk but while there he soon began to present his novel view on the Holy Trinity, drawing many students to listen to him. Next he moved to a hermitage in Nogent-sur-Seine in Champagne but again soon students flocked to hear him. From there he moved successively to various Abbeys, and in 1140-1141 was obliged to defend himself against St. Bernard. He was tried at two councils and received a papal sentence of excommunication, which was lifted on the condition that he remain at the Abbey of Cluny. Before dying at the age of sixty-two it is said that he retracted of his errors.

Newman narrated the sad history of this brilliant mind to caution against a worldly ambition not in keeping with wisdom that should be “from above,” “chaste” and “peaceable.” In doing so he also wished to indicate the peril to the integrity of a university in which students and teachers are not under the guidance and teaching of the Church: “such was the enthusiasm of the student(s), such the attraction of the teacher, when knowledge was advertised freely, and its market opened.”

Like this article?

Newman wrote, “I have been accustomed to consider the action of the creator on and in the created universe, as parallel in a certain sense to that of the soul upon the body.”

For a Christian, death is no longer defeat nor something to fear, rather it is the sign of Christ’s victory.

Leave a comment

We need to remember our mortality, so that we may be ready to meet Our Lord each and every day. Lent and lenten mortifications have a role in this preparation. We must die to self daily, so that we may be brought to the glory of His resurrection. 

Our Books

About Cardinal John Henry Newman

Purchase Book

A Guide to John Henry Newman will interest educated readers and professors alike, and serve as a text for college seminars for the purpose of studying Newman.

Review by Catherine Maybanks
(Catholic Herald, April 1, 2023)

Review by Serenheed James
(Antiphon, April 2023)

Purchase Book

Fr Peter Conley takes us on an exciting journey into the spirituality and inner life of Saint John Henry Newman.

Purchase Book

Endorsement by Neyra Blanco (Amazon)
I bought this book for my son and he loved it, he wrote this review and urged my to submitted: “I think this book has a very beautiful message, because it shows how the young Newman was so determined to achieve his dream of becoming a priest, but even after his dream he continued to work in the church with passion until the day he died, it’s so admirable that even Newman so old and so weak still had that urge to continued his work of being a priest. And the book is well written with words not too complicated with very enjoyable texts and well illustrated pictures. I highly recommend this book for a 5th grader.  

Purchase Book

What is a Classical Liberal Arts Education? Why is it so important for the development of a person?

Fr. Juan R. Vélez answers these and more questions you might have about University Education in the 21st century. This book is aimed for parents, prospective University students, and educators. It will help you discern why adding Liberal Arts electives to your education will help it form it better, and help the student learn to reason, and not just learn.

He also explains how many Universities have changed the true meaning of Liberal Arts, and the subjects, and gives advise on how to choose College Campus, Subjects, and Teachers.

A wonderful book that every parent should also read way before your children are College bound. A Liberal Arts education can start earlier in life, even from home.

Purchase Book

Endorsement by Christopher Moellering (Goodreads, September 14, 2019)
In Passion for Truth Fr. Vélez gave us an outstanding biography of Cardinal Newman. In this work, he provides a concise overview of his thought and his devotion. This is a great work for someone who, perhaps hearing of Newman for the first time because of his beatification 13 October, 2019, wants to know more about this English saint.Vélez is a wonderful writer in his own right, and the frequent quotations from Newman round out the work nicely. I especially appreciated the frequent citing of Newman’s Meditations and Devotions, which show a different side of his spirituality than his more well-known works, Development of Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Assent.

Purchase Book

Take Five: Meditations with John Henry Newman, endorsement by Illow M. Roque (Amazon, September 3, 2010)
“There is a time to put direct inquiry on hold and give ourselves to prayer and practical duties.” Sound advice from one of the earlier, thought-provoking reminders in this sparkling gem of a book: Take Five | Meditations with John Henry Newman, written by Mike Aquilina and Fr. Juan R. Vélez and published by Our Sunday Visitor. This particular paragraph, referenced above, which begins with a direct quote from soon-to-be canonized priest, cardinal and poet, John Henry Newman: “Study is good, but it gets us only so far . . .” is actually the 15th in a series of 76 concise, logically organized meditations moving from the elementary to the sublime. Each meditation–one per page–is built upon the great man’s writings and remarkably rich spirituality. Whether taken whole in one reading or in part page-by-page over a course of weeks and months, these wonderfully insightful meditations will open up, even to the busiest reader in the midst of the world, a unique pathway into prayer and contemplation. My advice to spiritual inquirers at all levels, from the novice to the spiritually adept, is to follow the authors’ recommendation to use this book as a guide for daily prayer and meditation. The structure of the book itself is ideal: first, the authors introduce us to Cardinal Newman, the man, where we are given the opportunity to get to know him through a brief sketch of his life and spirituality at the beginning of the book. This is something readers will likely find themselves referring to again and again, prompting many, I suspect, to even wider explorations of this most gifted Christian leader. Then comes the meditations, consisting of a short summary of Newman’s thoughts on subjects taken, as the authors explain, from various salient points for which Newman is justly remembered: The pursuit of objective religious truth; Teaching on the Virtues; Defense of the Catholic Church; A devout spiritual and moral life; and Generosity and loyalty in his friendships, which sets the topic and tone for each meditation to follow. Each meditation consists of an excerpt taken from Newman’s thirty-plus volumes of writings and diaries. Next comes three brief and extremely useful sections entitled: “Think About It,” which establishes a prayerfully resonant tone throughout the book; “Just Imagine,” which provides a vivid, prayerful experience of the Scriptures that tie in, and finally, “Remember,” a pithy summation which the authors suggest may be used as a daily aspiration. Each meditation is given its own page, which makes it ideal for daily reflection for readers on the go. This book is a must have for every serious Catholic who wants to take their faith to the next level, which is to respond appropriately to the universal call to holiness and seek interior union with God.
About Newman
Fr. Peter Conley

Slopes, Popes and Newman

Newman wrote, “I have been accustomed to consider the action of the creator on and in the created universe, as parallel in a certain sense to that of the soul upon the body.”

Read More »
Sermon Blog
David Warren

Endurance, the Christian’s Portion

Today, on Good Friday, we remember our Lord’s crucifixion, not as though it was a wrinkle in His otherwise peaceful earthly life, but rather as the focus and the pattern of His life.

Read More »
About Newman
Fr. Juan Velez

Fasting and Holy Week

In Fasting a Source of Trial, Newman reminds that we must not forget its main purpose: to unite ourselves with Christ.

Read More »