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Hugh of St. Victor

Medieval philosopher, theologian, and mystical writer; b. 1096 in Saxony; d. March 11, 1141

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Hugh of St. Victor, medieval philosopher, theologian, and mystical writer; b. 1096, at the manor of Hartingham in Saxony; d. March 11, 1141. The works of Derling and of Hugonin leave no doubt that Mabillon was mistaken in declaring his birthplace to be Ypres in Flanders. He was the eldest son of Conrad, Count of Blankenburg. His uncle, Reinhard, who had studied in Paris under William of Champeaux, had on his return to Saxony been made Bishop of Halberstadt. It was in the monastery of St. Pancras, at Hamerleve near Halberstadt, that Hugh received his education. In spite of the opposition of his parents, he took the habit of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine at Hamerleve; before his novitiate was completed, the disturbed state of the country led his uncle to advise him to go to the monastery of St. Victor in Paris, where he arrived about 1115. William of Champeaux, its founder, on his election to the See of Chalons, in 1112, had been succeeded by Gilduin, under whom it lost none of its reputation for piety and learning. Under his rule and guidance Hugh spent the rest of his life, studying, teaching, and writing. On the tragic death of Thomas (August 20, 1133), Hugh was chosen to succeed him as head of the School of St. Victor, and under his direction it attained to brilliant success. He is sometimes spoken of as alter Augustinus, because of his familiarity with the works of the great Father of the Church.

His own works cover the whole range of the arts and sacred science taught in his day. Until a few years ago, however, most historians of philosophy put him down as a narrow-minded mystic out of touch with the world of thought and study, who hampered rather than helped scientific progress, and whose fantastic symbolism misled subsequent generations. A careful examination of his works has led to a truer appreciation of one whom Harnack (History of Dogma, tr. London, 1899, VI, 44) terms “the most influential theologian of the twelfth century”. A great mystical writer, he was also a philosopher and a scholastic theologian of the first order. Primarily, he was a great lecturer, and that fact accounts for the early dispersal of his works as his hearers dispersed, their frequent incorporation in later treatises, and the publication under his name of so many unauthentic treatises. His teaching was one of the foundations of Scholastic theology, and his influence has affected the whole development of Scholasticism, for he was the first who after synthesizing the dogmatic treasures of the patristic age systematized them and formed them into a coherent and complete body of doctrine. That was the work of a genius. But his great merit as head of the school of St. Victor is that, when the heterodoxy and doctrinal temerity of Abelard endangered the new method which was being applied to the study of theology, Hugh and his followers, by their prudent moderation and unimpeachable orthodoxy, reassured alarmed believers and acclimatized the new scientific method in the Catholic schools.

The work of theological classification made great progress in the time of Abelard, and in the “Summae were condensed encyclopedic summaries of the whole of theology. Abelard’s “Sic et Non” traced the lines upon which the “Summae” were built up; but they reproduced the drawbacks of the parent work in that the difficulties stated in the pros and cons were frequently left unsolved. The introduction of more strictly logical processes culminated in the fusion of patristic erudition and rational speculation in the new constructive dialectical method. After the dogma had been established by the interpretation of the Scriptures and the Fathers, the assistance of philosophy was sought to show the rational character of the dogma. That application of dialectics to theology led Abelard into heresy and theologians of the twelfth century were deeply divided as to its legitimacy. It was defended by the Abelardian and Victorian Schools, and from them is descended what is properly known as Scholastic theology. The Abelardian School of theology continued to exist even after its founder’s condemnation in 1141, but was influenced by the Victorian School, which in turn felt the influence of the Abelardian School, but kept well within the limits of orthodoxy. Thus both contributed to the triumph of Scholasticism.

Any attempted synthesis of Hugh’s teaching should be preceded by a critical examination of the authenticity of the treatises which have been included in the collected edition of his works, and some of the most authoritative historians of philosophy and theology have gone astray through non-observance of this elementary precaution. Others again have concentrated their attention on his writings on mystical theology, where the supernatural reigns supreme—to attempt to appreciate an author’s philosophical teaching upon data furnished by his endeavors to explain what passes in the soul possessed of perfect charity can only lead to confusion. Hugh has left us sufficient material, philosophical and theological, in which rational explanations stand side by side with revealed teaching, to enable us to form a sound opinion of his position as a philosopher, a theologian, and a mystic.

As a Philosopher, he has a clear idea, frequently emphasized, of the subject-matter of a purely rational science, different from theology; and the two orders of knowledge are as clearly differentiated in his writings as in those of St. Thomas. By philosophy he meant the whole range of knowledge attained by natural reason. The assigning of a definite place to philosophy in the plan of studies was the result of a long and gradual process; but its place above the liberal arts and below theology is clearly defined by Hugh in the “Eruditionis Didascaliw”. Abandoning the old outgrown framework, Hugh sets forth a new division of knowledge: “Philosophia dividitur in theoreticam, practicam, mechanicain et logicam. Haec quatuor omnem continent scientiam. “—”Philosophy is divided into theoretical, practical, mechanical, and logical. These four [divisions] comprise all knowledge.”—(Erud. Didasc., II, 2). This new division of knowledge into speculative science, concerned with the nature and laws of things, ethics, the products of man’s activity, thoughts and words, is well and logically thought out. The whole of his exposition of what is meant by knowledge, its object, divisions, and the order in which they ought to be dealt with, is a study unique in the Middle Ages before the second half of the twelfth century, and had Hugh never written more than the early books of the “Didascaliae”, he would still deserve a place among the philosophers of Scholasticism. It is interesting to note that, although the question of universals in his day filled the schools, and at St. Victor‘s William of Champeaux had many faithful followers, Hugh systematically avoids the whole question, although in places he rejects some of the principal arguments put forward by the Realists. The markedly psychological trend of the whole of his philosophical system has recently been the subject of careful study by Ostler. Hugh’s teaching concerning God has been fully analysed by Kilgenstein, and gives us the key to the whole of his teachmg: by the use of reason man can and must arrive at the knowledge of God: aseitas, pure spirituality, absolute simplicity, eternity, immensity, immutability of being and of action—such are the conceptions he discovers in his Maker, and which furnish him with a synthetic and well-reasoned idea of the Divine essence. At the same time he maintains the moral necessity of revelation, so that the teaching of St. Thomas, as set forth in the early chapters of the “Contra Gentiles“, adds nothing to Hugh. It is interesting to note that, following St. Anselm’s “Monologium”, he takes the human soul as the first element of observation as to the contingence of nature, and thence rises to God. (See P.L., CLXXVI, 824.)

As a Theologian.—His valuable work as a sound thinker has already been mentioned; he had a keen appreciation of the merits of much of Abelard’s theological work and always cites him with respect; at the same time he combated his errors. Thus, when Abelard, in treating of creation, had replaced the freedom and omnipotence of God by a most exaggerated Optimism, Hugh attacked the error in his “De Sacr.”, Bk. I, P. II, c. xxii. His Christological teaching is marked by a semi-Apollinarist error in attributing to the humanity of Christ not only the uncreated knowledge of the Word, but omnipotence and other Divine attributes. But he vigorously combats Abelard’s erroneous conceptions of the hypo-static union which led to a revival of Adoptionism that troubled the schools until its condemnation February 18, 1177, by Alexander III (1164-77). Hugh’s sacramental teaching is of great importance in that he begins the final stage in the formulation of the definition of a sacrament; synthesizing the scattered teaching of St. Augustine, he set aside the Isidorian definition and gave a truer and more comprehensive one, which, when perfected by the author of the “Summa Sententiarum”, was adopted in the schools. His works contain an extensive body of moral doctrine based upon a solid patristic basis, in the grouping of which the influence of Abelard is visible; but in his accurate analysis of the nature of sin, he combats Abelard’s error as to the indifferent character of all acts in themselves apart from the will of the doer. At the same time he held an erroneous view as to the reviviscence, after a fall, of previously pardoned mortal sins (De Sacr., Bk. II, P. XIV, c. viii).

As a Mystic.—Historians of philosophy are now coming to see that it betrays a lack of psychological imagination to be unable to figure the subjective co-existence of Aristotelian dialectics with mysticism of the Victorine or Bernardine type—and even their compenetration. Speculative thought was not, and could not be, isolated from religious life lived with such intensity as it was in the Middle Ages, when that speculative thought was active everywhere, in every profession, in every degree of the social scale.—After all, did not the same mind give us the two “Summae” and the Office of the Blessed Sacrament?—Hugh of St. Victor was the leader of the great mystical movement of which the School of St. Victor became the center, and he formulated, as it were, a code of the laws governing the soul’s progress to union with God. The gist of his teaching is that mere knowledge is not an end in itself, it ought to be but the stepping-stone to the mystical life—through thought, meditation, and contemplation; thought seeks God in the material world, meditation discovers Him within our-selves, contemplation knows Him supernaturally and intuitively. Such are the “three eyes” of the rational soul. Hugh’s mystical teaching was amplified by Richard of St. Victor, whose proud disdain for philosophy has been wrongly attributed to Hugh.

Hugh’s chief works are:

a) “De Sacramentis Christian ae Fidei” (c. 1134), his masterpiece and most extensive work, a dogmatic synthesis similar to, but more perfect than, the “Introductio ad Theologiam” of Abelard (c. 1118), which was only concerned with the knowledge of God and of the Trinity. It is of a more literary character: in it the first place belongs to the argument from authority, but the utilization of the dialectical method binds the discussion together. It is at once a summary and a corrected version of his earlier works. The work is divided into two books comprising twelve and eighteen parts respectively each containing numerous chapters. The following analysis of its contents will convey some idea of its range: Book I: 1. The Creation; 2. The end of man’s creation; 3. The knowledge of the Triune God; 4. The will of God and its signs; 5. Angels; 6. Man before the Fall; 7. The Fall and its consequences; 8. The restoration of man and the use of sacraments; 9. The sacraments in general; 10. Faith; 11. The sacraments in particular and primarily those of the natural law; 12. Sacraments of the written law. Book II: 1. Incarnation of the Word; 2. Grace and the Church; 3. The orders of the ecclesiastical hierarchy; 4. A mystical explanation of the sacred vestments; 5. Dedication of churches (in which the sacraments are conferred); 6. Baptism; 7. Confirmation; 8. Holy Eucharist; 9. The lesser sacraments (sacramentals); 10. Simony; 11. Matrimony; 12. Vows; 13. Virtues and vices; 14. Confession and absolution; 15. Extreme unction; 16. The state of souls after death; 17. Christ’s second coming and the resurrection of the dead; 18. The state of things to come.—It is the first complete theological work of the schools.

(2) “Eruditionis Didascali, libri septem” comprises what we should now speak of as encyclopedics, methodology, introduction to Sacred Scripture, and an indication of how we may rise from things visible to a knowledge of the Trinity.

(3) Scriptural commentaries (important both for his theological and mystical doctrines): “Adnotationes Elucidatorise in Pentateuchon”; “In librum Judicum”; “In libros Regum” (notes on the literal meaning of the texts); “In Salomonis Ecclesiasten Homilim xx” (practical rather than exegetical); “Adnotationes Elucidatoriae in Threnos Jeremiae; in Joelem prophetam” (working out the literal, alle-gorical, and moral meanings); “Explanatio in Canticum Beatty Marine” (allegorical and tropological). The “Qustiones et Decisiones in Epistolas S. Pauli”, printed among his works in Migne, are certainly posterior to Hugh.

(4) “Commentariorum in Hierarchiam Coelestem S. Dionysii Areopagitae secundum interpretationem Joannis Scoti libri x.”

(5) His chief mystical works are: “De Area Noe Morali et Mystics”; “De Vanitate Mundi”; “De Arrha Animae”; “De Contemplatione et eius specie-bus” (first published by Haureau as an appendix to his book in 1859).

(6) As regards the “Summa Sententiarum”, usually ascribed to Hugh of St. Victor, considerable discussion has recently taken place. Ham-eau, Mignon, Gietl, Kilgenstein, Baltus, Ostler attribute it to Hugh. Denifle, arguing from the anonymity of the MSS., left the question open. But Portalie, basing his argument upon important doctrinal differences, appears to have shown that it is not the work of Hugh, although it belongs to his school. The general line of his argument is that the “Summa Sententiarum” is certainly posterior to the “De Sacramentis”, upon which it frequently draws; doctrines, methods, and formulae show evident progress in the “Summa”. It would seem that it is absolutely impossible that Hugh should have written the “Summa” after the “De Sacramentis”, for the “Summa” borrows from the Abelardian School errors Hugh would not have taught, and even errors and formulae which he expressly attacked. De Wulf agrees with this, and Pourrat has brought additional evidence, based upon an examination of the sacramental teaching of the two works, in support of the same thesis. None of the writers cited above, as being in favor of Hugh’s authorship, have dealt with Portalie’s evidence.

The best edition of the works of Hugh of St. Victor is that of the Canons of St. Victor, printed at Rouen in 1648. It is not a critical edition, however, and genuine, spurious, and doubtful works are found side by side. It was republished in 1854, with slight modifications, by the Abbe Migne in P.L., CLXXVCLXXVII, but it is neither complete nor critically satisfactory, and should be used in conjunction with J.—B. Haureau’s “Hugues de St-Victor et l’edition de ses oeuvres” (Paris, 1859) and the same writer’s “Les G;uvres de Hugues de Saint-Victor: Essai Critique” (Paris, 1886), in which he supplements and corrects many of the conclusions of the earlier work. But Haureau’s rationalistic bias renders his exposition of Hugh’s doctrine unreliable, without careful checking.


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