Alcuin: Reason in Service of Revelation
At the time of Charlemagne, the Roman Empire was fragmented between East and West, with the power residing in the East in Constantinople. The balance eventually shifted with Charlemagne assuming power. When he was coronated as the Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III, there was a “transferral of the imperium Romanum from the Greeks [in the East] to the West” (Lamers). Leading to his coronation, Charlemagne consolidated power and ensured “the acceptance of orthodox doctrine as well as a uniform liturgy throughout the empire” (“Charlemagne”). As part of instituting a uniform liturgy, he recruited clergy and scholars throughout Europe. One of the key individuals was Alcuin.
Born around 735, Alcuin of York had the mental acumen to be noticed at a young age and was appointed as “master of the cathedral school” in 766 (Ruud). As schoolmaster, Alcuin worked on establishing a significant library and would travel to continental Europe to acquire or copy manuscripts. Through these and other types of travels, fate would bring Charlemagne and Alcuin together; and in 781, Alcuin accepted Charlemagne’s invitation to live in Aachen and assume responsibilities of schoolmaster (Burns).
Alcuin was more of a “teacher rather than a thinker” and therefore was not an “originator of knowledge” (Burns). However, three of Alcuin’s key philosophical beliefs were centered around, subjecting philosophy and liberal arts to revelation, the applied use of logic to strike down heresies to unite diverse and competing cultures, and lastly, structuring and reforming a system for a liberal education. Foremost in his mind was ensuring all studies and application of education only served revelation. Keeping this priority in mind, Alcuin applied rhetoric and logic to convince various archbishops and students to abandon unorthodox ideas such as Adoptionism (Alberi). While the importance of arguing against Adoptionism may not be a critical task to modern students, the framework of learning and promoting a classical liberal education remains significant today. This third key philosophical belief focused on the structure of a classical liberal education and was part of a larger effort in a first attempt at a European renaissance. However, the Carolingian renaissance did not endure. What endured and still remains viable today was Alcuin’s efforts in the promotion of education and the use of logic. Perhaps what does not remain as practical today is the philosophical concept of revelation taking priority over reason.
At Charlemagne’s behest, Alcuin continued his work of training the clergy and “accurately translating ancient literature” as well as creating programs of learning at the school in Aachen (Brooks). As he established curriculum for liberal arts, Alcuin never forgot to keep the priority of God and revelation first. While it may seem that Charlemagne was endeavoring to create a ‘new Athens,’ in actuality, the prevailing perspective was Aachen already “possessed in Christ’s teaching the key to wisdom superior to ‘all the wisdom of academic exercise’” (Alberi, 36). For Alcuin specifically, he “preferred to advocate reform of politics and scholarship according to the standards of the Bible and the Fathers” (41). The real power of a liberal arts education was in its application to strike down heresies which ensured Charlemagne’s kingdom remained unified and aligned with the Pope. By aligning with the Pope, Charlemagne ensured a successful consolidation power in the western empire.
Always mindful of the power of logic and rhetoric, Alcuin was vigilant in ensuring liberal arts supported the word of God. As long as reason was advised by “the Bible and the Fathers” then the use of logic and rhetoric to tear down heresies was appropriate (Alberi, 37). One example of using logic to tear down a heresy was Alcuin fighting the idea of Adoptionism. Adoptionism was the revival of “Nestorian ideas about the dual substance of Christ (i.e., Christ was ‘adopted’ as the son of God) [and] was declared anathema by the papacy” (Carlson). It was of great import for this heresy to be eradicated as it threatened Charlemagne’s “military and political control” in the regions where this idea was being propagated (Alberi, 39). Alcuin leveraged his rhetorical skills and “composed a number of treatises against the Spanish Adoptionists, including a small book” (Carlson). In these writings, he defined terms and constructed syllogisms and successfully proved the “logical impossibility” of Adoptionism (Carlson). One supporter of Adoptionism was still not convinced of his errors and was subsequently summoned to Aachen to argue with Alcuin before Charlemagne and the bishops. Alcuin’s excellent skills were too much for this advocate and he subsequently was forced to make a “public ‘confession’” (Carlson).
Alcuin’s motto in life was “disce ut doceas (learn in order to teach)” (Burns). To this end, Alcuin and his peers tirelessly worked to attend to, safeguard and expand the libraries in York and Aachen. He often traveled Europe acquiring or copying books. This work laid the foundation for the real Renaissance. As Burns notes, Alcuin was pivotal in “the revival of learning which distinguished the age in which he lived, and which made possible the great intellectual renaissance of three centuries later.” Because of Alcuin’s efforts, western civilization’s Renaissance possessed libraries from which it would bloom. And because of the Renaissance, modern society’s higher institutions of learning enjoy continued success in educating today’s students.
The institutionalization of the study of liberal arts endures today, thanks to the work of Alcuin. One modern-day Master of Theological Studies described the “classical modes of learning,” which were divided into two groups: trivium and quadrivium (Brooks). The trivium was comprised of grammar, logic and rhetoric; and the quadrivium was comprised of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. These seven areas of study formed a liberal arts curriculum and were the basis for further studies in theology and medicine, as examples. Alcuin “popularized the liberal arts and paved the way for the later creation of the universities by the Church in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries” (Brooks). Because of Alcuin’s promotion of libraries and a curriculum, society today enjoys the benefits of higher learning.
Are Alcuin’s philosophical ideas regarding revelation trumping reason, the application of logic to strike down heresies, and the promotion of education still practical today? Because of his efforts in promoting education, many today enjoy a strong foundation from which to apply reasoning and critical thinking, therefore his idea of promoting education remains viable. Critical thinking and logic go hand in hand. In the age of misinformation, one must have all the reasoning skills at one’s disposal to not be led astray by extremism. While capable of sound reasoning, humans often are sluggish in decision making. In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt noted a research study which demonstrated humans have the capacity for sound reasoning, but when not held accountable (i.e., “know in advance that they’ll have to explain themselves”), they devolve into “errors, laziness, and reliance on gut feelings” (Haidt). In a related way, humans ought to be mindful of how much faith they place in revelation. Is it practical to subjugate our reasoning to revelation? One science fiction author bluntly cautioned when he wrote, “One of my most valued friends believes in astrology; I would never offend her by telling her what I think. The capacity of humans to believe in what seems to me highly improbable—from table tapping to the superiority of their children—has never been plumbed. Faith strikes me as intellectual laziness” (Heinlein, 249). Today, Alcuin may not find himself in familiar territory, as appeals to unproven varying opinions, including revelation, are widely not seen as viable.
In sum, Alcuin’s key philosophical beliefs were centered around, subjecting the study of philosophy and liberal arts to revelation, the applied use of logic to strike down heresies, and structuring and reforming classical education. Alcuin applied the use of rhetoric and logic in the service of revelation to defeat heretical ideas. He also ensured a strong framework for classical education endured, and today, modern society enjoys the fruits of his labors. While the viability of revelation over logic may not exist today, his other ideas around the practical use of logic and education endure in a society which appreciates their value.
Alberi, Mary. “Alcuin and the ‘New Athens.’ (Intellectual Life in Charlemagne’s Court).” History Today, vol. 39, no. 9, 1989, pp. 35–41.
Brooks, Tyler. “If You like Philosophy, Thank This Guy.” Catholic Answers, 22 Dec. 2021, www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/if-you-like-philosophy-thank-alcuin-of-york.
Burns, James. "Alcuin." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 17 Sept. 2022 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01276a.htm>.
Carlson, Laura M. “Carlson—the Rhetoric of Heresy: Alcuin, Adoptionism, and the Art of Language.” Heroicage.org, 2015, www.heroicage.org/issues/16/carlson.php.
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Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012.
Heinlein Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land. Ace Books 1961.
Lamers, Han. Greece Reinvented : Transformations of Byzantine Hellenism in Renaissance Italy, BRILL, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=4397567.
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