A venerable story in the history of medieval philosophy has it that the eleventh century saw a debate between certain 'dialecticians', who exalted the role of reason and disdained theological authority, and 'anti-dialecticians', who carefully limited—or even rejected—the application of dialectical reasoning to Christian doctrine. A number of authors have called into question certain details of this story, but in Dialectic & Theology in the Eleventh Century, Toivo J. Holopainen argues that the whole story needs rewriting. He devotes a chapter to each of four major figures in the discussion—Peter Damian, Lanfranc of Bec, Berengar of Tours, and Anselm of Canterbury—and in every case but the last he contends that the standard account of the eleventh-century debate is woefully inaccurate. Such a vigorously argued reappraisal of these figures deserves careful consideration, so I shall look at each chapter in turn, briefly summarizing Holopainen's main arguments and then offering some critical remarks.
In the chapter on Peter Damian, Holopainen is chiefly concerned with two views that have been ascribed to Damian: that God can change the past, and that God can violate the law of non-contradiction. He argues convincingly that Damian acknowledged that God cannot change the past. Damian's chief concern was to show that this inability does not imply any lack of power on God's part. He accused his fellow disputants of confusing what Anselm calls subsequent necessity with preceding necessity. Subsequent necessity—the sort of necessity identified in a statement like 'If something exists, then, necessarily, it exists'—is perfectly harmless, and it applies to all times, past, present, and future. So if it implies a limitation on God's power over the past, it equally implies a limitation of God's power over the future. Note that what Damian here protests is not the application of dialectic to theology, but the misapplication of dialectic to theology. As Holopainen points out, Damian can be called an antidialectician only in the sense that he had no inclination to apply dialectic to theology on his own initiative. When confronted with what he saw as a pernicious use of dialectic, Damian responded by showing himself a better dialectician than his opponents, not by dismissing dialectic altogether.
What is most surprising, given the views that have been ascribed to him, is that Damian actually relies on the principle of non-contradiction to argue that God cannot change the past. For God to bring it about that what has been done has not been done would be for God to bring about a contradiction, which he cannot do. It is here that I have some qualms about Holopainen's analysis. Although he acknowledges that Damian 'interprets the principle [of non-contradiction] in a somewhat eccentric manner' (p. 34), he underestimates the significance of that eccentricity. For Damian, whatever God brings about will have being; conversely, whatever does not have being cannot be brought about by God. What is good has being; what is evil does not have being and is nothing. So God cannot bring about evil. Contradictions are evil, so God cannot bring about a contradiction.
If this line of argument saves Damian from holding that God can bring about a contradiction, it unfortunately leaves open the possibility that less perfect agents might do so. Damian says that 'Any evils whatever, such as iniquities and sins, although they appear to be, are not, since they are not from God. And consequently they are nothing, namely, because God, without whom ‘nothing was made', did not at all make them'. If it is in this sense that contradictions too are nothing, there is nothing intrinsically impossible about a contradictory state of affairs, any more than there is something intrinsically impossible about sins. To conclude, as Holopainen does, that 'Damian . . . did not attack the universal validity of the principle of non-contradiction but instead affirmed it' (p. 42) is therefore misleading. What Damian affirmed was not really the principle of non-contradiction at all.
The next chapter reevaluates Lanfranc's reputation as someone proficient in dialectic and finds that it rests in large measure on misunderstandings. In De corpore et sanguine Domini Lanfranc uses dialectic to counter the dialectical arguments of Berengar of Tours regarding Eucharistic doctrine. But as Holopainen shows, Lanfranc intentionally distorts Berengar's arguments in an effort to undermine his credibility. There is no doubt that his analysis shows a thorough knowledge of syllogistics; unfortunately, 'the syllogism he criticizes is of his own invention' (p. 64). Furthermore, a much-cited remark about 'equipollency' of propositions 'is not an allusion to some specific technique of dialectical argument; instead, we seem to have a policy of making dialectical points without using any modes of expression that could be considered as dialectical technicalities' (p. 52).
Holopainen shows that Lanfranc made considerable use of topics and syllogistics in his commentaries on the Pauline epistles, but he casts doubt on the view that he also used the predicables and categories. In particular, he argues persuasively against Southern's view that Lanfranc applied the Aristotelian notions of substance and accident in explicating Eucharistic doctrine. But his own, admittedly tentative, interpretation of Lanfranc's reference to 'principal and secondary essences' seems less plausible. Holopainen associates these terms with Apuleius and Anselm. Roughly, Apuleius had identified intelligible reality as primary substances and sensible reality as secondary substances. Anselm in the Monologion would later speak of God the Word as the 'principal essence' of created things. Neither of these sources helps much in interpreting Lanfranc, however. For Lanfranc speaks of God as having created things in principalibus ac secundis essentiis, and neither the Apuleian nor the Anselmian sense of 'principal essence' would permit us to speak of God as creating anything ‘in' a principal essence. Montclos's interpretation, according to which 'principal essence' refers to what Lanfranc usually just calls 'essence', and 'secondary essences' to the visible appearances or 'species', remains more probable. It is important to note, however, that Lanfranc's remark about principal and secondary essences plays almost no role in his arguments against Berengar, and that Holopainen identifies his interpretation of the terms as tentative. So even if he is wrong on this score, his main point here—that there is no evidence that Lanfranc applied dialectical theories like those of predicables and categories—stands.
The next (and longest) chapter analyzes Berengar's rejoinder to Lanfranc, the Rescriptum contra Lanfrannum. Berengar's criticism of Lanfranc's understanding of the Eucharistic conversion 'is conventionally summarized by saying that he rejects the doctrine of substantial conversion because he finds it incompatible with certain philosophical ideas that he has come to accept as a dialectician' (p. 84). In fact, however, Holopainen shows that what Berengar rejects is not the doctrine of substantial conversion, but Lanfranc's crudely materialistic version of that doctrine, according to which the bread is changed into a little bit (portiuncula) of Christ's flesh and the wine into a little bit of Christ's blood. (Granted, Berengar's explanation is incompatible with the later orthodox understanding of the Eucharistic conversion, but later explications of the doctrine were obviously not at issue.) He accepts the doctrine itself, and he accepts it on the basis of Scriptural and Patristic authority. Moreover, he appeals to authority in support of his view that bread and wine remain on the altar even after the consecration and argues that Lanfranc's view is incompatible with what the authorities say about the incorruptibility of Christ's glorified body.
So there is simply no truth in the common charge that Berengar was an extreme rationalist who repudiated authority in matters of faith. Far from fleeing from the authoritative writings, he relies on them constantly. His charge against Lanfranc is not undue reliance on authority but slovenly exegesis. It is true, however, that Berengar also relies on purely philosophical ideas (particularly on his understanding of matter and form and on the dialectical theory of predication) in defending his understanding of the Eucharistic change. Holopainen carefully and judiciously reviews the criticism that in doing so Berengar espoused a naive ontology that made no distinction between essential and accidental properties and claimed that one could determine the essence of something simply by looking at it. He concludes with justifiable exasperation that 'the value of Berengar's contribution is not diminished by any conspicuous naivety or crudeness in his ontological ideas; on the contrary, it seems that his remarks have been too sophisticated for some of the modern commentators' (p. 95).
This chapter is a very useful corrective to the picture of Berengar as an extreme rationalist. But in attributing to Berengar a consistent position on the relationship between faith and reason, or between authority and dialectic, Holopainen seems to have gone beyond what the texts actually warrant. He argues that there is no evidence that Berengar thought that reason could be used to establish truths of the faith; instead, he apparently held that those truths are established by the authoritative writings, and dialectic is used only to interpret and explain those writings. Such modest recourse to dialectic is justified, Berengar argues, by the practice of Christ himself and by the precept of Augustine. This description of the division of labor between authority and dialectic does seem to reflect Berengar's actual practice, but I doubt whether he formulated it explicitly in his own mind. The claims he makes on behalf of reason are not always quite so modest, and his appeals to Augustine often suggest a more ambitious role for reason in matters of doctrine.
That more ambitious role is explicitly adopted and defended by Anselm of Canterbury. As Holopainen shows, Anselm set out not only to show that Christian teaching was intelligible and consistent but also to provide rational justification for a large portion of that teaching. He concentrates on Anselm's two earliest treatises, the Monologion and Proslogion, in which 'the rational element in A's thinking achieves its clearest expression' (p. 118). In the Monologion Anselm's method excludes appeal to authority (although he is careful to point out that he says nothing in his rational arguments that is not also confirmed by authority). Where his predecessors had been content with general remarks about the application of dialectic to theology, Anselm reflects on the details of such application. For example, 'Anselm argues that the notions of accident and substance, as they are understood in the dialectical theories of predicables and categories, do not really apply to the Supreme Being' (p. 131).
In the Proslogion Anselm claims to have found 'a single argument' (unum argumentum) by which he can prove not only the existence of God but also many facts about the divine nature. Appealing to Boethius's commentary on Cicero's Topics, Holopainen argues that 'argumentum' here is a technical dialectical term, referring to a middle term 'that is capable of bringing together the extreme terms in a proposition in doubt' (p. 145). That single 'argument', then, is the formula ‘that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought', which serves as a middle term in syllogisms like the following: 'God is that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought; that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought is omnipotent; therefore, God is omnipotent' (p. 141).
This reading of 'argumentum' is dubious, both as an interpretation of Boethius and as a reading of Anselm. Boethius says that an argument is the discovery of an intermediate (inventio medietatis), not that it actually is an intermediate. Moreover, he defines an argument as 'a ratio that produces belief regarding a thing in doubt' (p. 136). And what produces belief, according to Boethius, is not the middle term itself, but the connection of the extremes by the middle term, and the setting out of that connection in the form of a proof.
As a reading of Anselm, the interpretation faces a serious problem. For as Holopainen himself admits, syllogisms like the one given above are not spelled out anywhere in the Proslogion or in the response to Gaunilo. Holopainen explains this fact by saying that 'constructing syllogisms like this is a trivial matter' (p. 141). But this is no explanation. Why would Anselm be so proud of his 'unum argumentum' and yet never actually show that it could be put to the use for which he intended it? The fact is that Anselm is not much interested in claims of the form 'God is f'; all his work goes into establishing claims of the form 'that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought is f'. This task proves to be quite easy, of course, since he merely needs to run his reductio over and over: 'If that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought does not exist (is not omnipotent, etc.), one can think of something greater, since it is greater to exist (to be omnipotent, etc.) than not. But by definition one cannot think of anything greater than that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought'. So if we must pin down a definite meaning for 'unum argumentum', I would suggest that we understand it as meaning the formula 'that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought', combined with the reductio strategy that Anselm uses over and over in the Proslogion and the response to Gaunilo. In any event, it strains credulity to suppose that Anselm identified his formula as an 'argumentum' because it played the role of middle term in a series of invisible syllogisms.
By failing to notice Anselm's lack of interest in claims of the form 'God is f', Holopainen deprives himself of a valuable resource in his attempt to argue against Karl Barth's interpretation of the Proslogion argument. Barth held that the sentence 'God is that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought' expresses an article of faith, a definition of God that is a matter of Christian belief; consequently, 'Anselm's project . . . is to prove articles of faith by means of other articles of faith' (p. 146). The truth of the matter, however, is that we could remove the sentence 'God is that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought' and almost nothing in the Proslogion would be affected at all. Anselm would still prove on purely rational grounds that there existed an omnipotent, omniscient, impassible, simple, just, merciful, timelessly eternal, necessarily existent being than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought on whom all other things depend for their existence. That someone might refuse to call this being 'God' is surely inconsequential.
Rather than taking this way out, Holopainen appeals to the devotional character of the Proslogion (which is, after all, a prayer). Its arguments are not directed at the Fool at all, he says; it 'is a work of devotional exercise' (p. 152). Nevertheless, 'it can serve as a first introduction to the single argument as a rational argument. If those believers who take part in the contemplation composed by Anselm really understand what they contemplate, they should realize that the single argument can be used to demonstrate the rational necessity of a number of statements about God' (p. 152). So Holopainen rejects Barth's notion that the Proslogion argument is capable of speaking only to those who already accept the Christian understanding of God, but he also rejects the views of those who hold that the Proslogion itself was intended to speak to the Fool.
Holopainen's work deserves the attention of all who are interested in medieval discussions of the relationship between faith and reason, as well as those who study medieval logic. He takes care to explain technical dialectical terms as they arise, so the work will be accessible even to those with no previous background in medieval dialectic. The footnotes provide extended citations (in Latin only) of passages that are merely summarized or alluded to in the text proper, and these are valuable helps to the reader who wishes to make up his or her own mind about the accuracy of Holopainen's interpretation. Moreover, considering how much of the book is devoted to cleaning up what he regards as the mess left by other scholars, his work is remarkably even-handed and free of polemic. In sum, while I disagree with Holopainen on many matters of detail, I find his overall reevaluation of the eleventh-century debate to be well-argued, thoroughly documented, and ultimately convincing.