Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Alain de l’Isle

Click to enlarge

Alain de l’Isle, (also called ALAIN OF LILLE, ALANUS AB INSULIS, or DE INSULIS, ALAIN VON RYSSEL etc.), monk, poet, preacher, theologian, and eclectic philosopher, b. probably at Lille, whence his name, about 1128; d. at Citeaux, 1203. Alain, there is reason to believe, studied and taught for some time in Paris. In 1179 he took part in the Third Council of the Lateran. Later he entered the Monastery of Citeaux, where he died in 1202 or 1203. Alain attained extraordinary celebrity in his day as a teacher and a learned man; he was called Alain the Great, The Universal Doctor, etc. To this the legend alludes, according to which a scholar, discomfited in a dialectical contest, cried out that his opponent was “either Alain or the devil”. Alain’s principal work is “Ars Fidei Catholicae”, dedicated to Clement III, and composed for the purpose of refuting, on rational grounds, the errors of Mohammedans, Jews, and heretics. With the same view he wrote “Tractatus Contra Haereticos” and “Theologicae Regulae”. He wrote two poems, “De Planctu Naturae” and “Anticlaudianus”. The only collection of Alain’s works is Migne’s somewhat uncritical edition, P.L., CCX. The two poems are published by Wright in “Satirical Poets of the Twelfth Century”, II (Rerum Britannicarum Scriptores). There are several of Alain’s treatises still unpublished, for instance, “De Virtutibus et Vitiis” (Codex, Paris, Bibl. Nat., n. 3238). Alain’s theology is characterized by that peculiar variety of rationalism tinged with mysticism which is found in the writings of John Scotus Erigena, and which afterwards reappeared in the works of Raymond Lully. The mysticism is, perhaps, more in the style than in the matter; the rationalism consists in the effort to prove that all religious truths, even the mysteries of faith, flow out of principles that are self-evident to the human reason unaided by revelation. His philosophy is a syncretism, or eclecticism, in which the principal elements are Platonism, Aristoteleanism, and Pythagoreanism. He esteemed Plato as The philosopher; Aristotle he regarded merely as a subtle logician. His knowledge of Plato he derived from Martianus Capella Apuleius, Boethius, and the members of the school of Chartres; his firsthand acquaintance with the “Dialogues” being limited to Chalcidius’s rendering of a fragment of the “Timaeus”. He was acquainted with some of Aristotle‘s logical writings and with the commentaries of Boethius and Porphyry. He derived his Pythagoreanism from the so-called Hermetical writers, Asclepius and Mercurius. Finally his mystic manner was influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius and John Scotus Erigena.

The effect of all these influences was an attempt on Alain’s part to fuse into one system the various elements derived from different sources, without taking much pains to find a common basis or a principle of organic synthesis. Thus, in psychology he gives at different times three different divisions of the faculties of the soul: a twofold (ratio, sensualitas), a threefold (sapientia, voluntas, voluptas), and a five-fold (sensus, imaginatio, ratio, intellectus, intelligentia). The soul, he teaches, is spirit; the body, matter (in later Platonic sense); and the bond between them is a physical spirit (spiritus physicus). In cosmology he teaches that God first created “Nature“, whose role it was to act as his intermediary (Dei auctoris vicaria) in the details of creating and organizing matter into the visible universe. At every step in this portion of his philosophy the influence of the neo-Pythagoreans appears. As a writer, Alain exhibited an unusual combination of poetic imaginativeness and dialectical precision. He modeled his style on that of Martianus Capella, though in his later years the influence of Boethius was, perhaps, predominant. Ile is to be enumerated among the medieval writers who influenced Dante.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!