Rupert of Deutz: a monk’s critique of scholasticism

R. W. Southern. “Rupert of Deutz: A Voice of the Past.” Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe, Vol. II: The Heroic Age

From its very inception the scholastic project had its antagonists, and one of the first and most vocal was the Belgian monk Rupert of Deutz (born ca. 1075). According to Southern, Rupert represented those concerned “men who had been brought up to believe that the pursuit of truth was essentially a religious enterprise, and that the monastic life provided the most suitable environment for those who aimed at understanding the mysteries of God and the universe. They thought that the mysterious operations of God were not suitable for analytical treatment, and that the secular atmosphere of the new schools … was totally inappropriate for the sacred area of the ways of God, which required long exercise of prayer and discipline in the religious–and that meant the monastic–life.” Rupert saw the cathedral school of Laon in particular (for Southern the effective birthplace of the scholastic movement) as a “threat to the ancient modes of learning and spirituality,” and attacked it and its master Anselm accordingly.

Rupert himself was no meager writer, his work on the Trinity having aimed at “nothing less than to described the works of the three Persons of the Trinity from the Creation to the end of the world,” and which Southern estimates to have probably been the “longest single work of the twelfth century.” The sheer volubility of the work Southern finds representative of the monastic milieu that produced it: “it was certainly not a work for itinerant students who needed to have materials which they could carry back to their own countries,” as would be necessitated by the nascent scholastic culture; rather, “it was a work for men who were irremovably settled in their monastic communities.”

Indeed, in Southern’s account Rupert becomes almost a parody of monastic literary practice: “if the old biblical commentaries were very long, his were gigantic.” And in opposition to the newfangled dialetical argumentation and distinctions of his scholastic counterparts, Rupert re-asserted, almost in exaggerated form, the traditional symbolic interpretation of not only biblical texts, but of the world in general, of the monastic liturgical routines, and even of the events of his own life in particular. Southern gives as nice a statement as any of the monastic evaluation of the significance and even superiority of its peculiar form of life: “in the monastic day, these symbolic activities brought an intense experience of the supreme world-embracing reality in which the monastic community lived. Every item in the daily routine of the monastery was a declaration of the presence of God and of the whole company of heaven: it was theology in action. To take part in these actions and rituals, and to handle the symbolic objects, was to live through the historical process of redemption; it was to in time, and yet to transcend time in a perpetual re-enactment of the greatest even between Creation and the End of the world: the redemption of mankind…. For Rupert… theology was not an intellectual study; it was a succession of daily experiences which brought every monk into physical contact with the eternal truths of Christianity.”

The rhetorical and hermeneutical implications of such a life lived in the presence of God was that Rupert, for example, felt “he could never find enough words to express all the richness and variety of the truths contained in the symbols of his daily life. To him logical ambiguities were an almost necessary part of our understanding the essential truths conveyed by symbols deeper than any words can fully express.” But where ambiguity might be tolerable in the safe confines of the monastery, the scholars of the schools “who had to deal with the doubts of the world and with the persistent questions of puzzled people, saw ambiguities as breeding grounds of error.” The irony was that it was precisely the imprecision and, as a consequence and in some instances, even borderline heterodoxy of the interpretative, allegorical excesses of a Rupert that partly drove the scholastic penchant for accuracy in analysis. “To men with a more modern outlook this kind of theology needed to be supplemented–some might say replaced–by a more rigorous intellectual system…. it was precisely such blemishes as the see that rigorous theological enquiry was designed to uncover and correct.”

Southern illustrates this general confrontation between monastic and scholastic ideals by means of Rupert’s critique of Master Anselm’s teaching concerning the divine will. In a formula that would become incontrovertible among the schoolmen, Anselm distinguished between the sense in which God is said to will the good (approbens) and the sense in which he is said to will evil (permittens). To Anselm, such distinctions were necessary to understand Scripture; to Rupert, they represented an intrusion of human logic into the divine mystery of the undivided will of God.

The resistance of traditionalist and conservatives like Rupert, of course, utterly failed to stem the rising tide of the scholastic movement, which would prove to be, in Southern’s estimation, “the greatest organizing force that western Europe had experienced since the death of Gregory the Great.” At the same time, Southern hints that the source of scholasticism’s strength would also be the source of its own dissolution: “the process of development led to over-elaboration and then to progressive abandonment after the mid fourteenth century,” a theme he promises to develop in his third volume of Scholastic Humanism, alas, never to be finished.

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