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Eleventh-century monk who was bought before a council at Soissons (1093), where he was accused of Tritheism

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Roscelin, a monk of Compiegne, was teaching as early as 1087. He had intercourse with Lanfranc, St. Anselm, and No of Chartres. Brought before a council at Soissons (1093), where he was accused of Tritheism, he denied the doctrines attributed to him; but this was done through fear of excommunication, for later he returned to his early theories. He was successively in England, at Rome, and finally returned to France. Of his writings there exists only a letter addressed to Abelard. Haureau brings forward his name in connection with a text: “Sententia de universalibus secundum magistrum R.” (“Notices et extr. de quelques manuscr. lat.”, V, Paris, 1892, 224), but this is a conjecture. On the other hand we have as evidences of his doctrine texts of St. Anselm, Abelard, John of Salisbury, and an anonymous epigram. His share in the history of ideas and especially the value of his Nominalism have been exaggerated, his celebrity being far more due to his theological Tritheism. This article will study him from both points of view.

I. Roscelin’s Nominalism, or “sententia vocum”.—According to Otto of Freisingen Roscelin “primus nostris temporibus sententiam vocum instituit” (“Gesta Frederici imp”. in “Mon. Germ. Hist.: Script.”, XX, 376), but the chronicler of the “Historia Francica” (cf. Bouquet, “Rec. des list. des Gaules et de la France“, XII, Paris, 1781, 3, b, c) mentions before him a “magister Johannes”, whose personality is much discussed and who has not yet been definitively identified. What constitutes the “sententia vocum”? To judge of it we have besides the texts mentioned above which bear directly on Roscelin an exposition of the treatise “De generibus et speciebus” (thirteenth cent.), wrongly attributed to Abelard by Victor Cousin. The “sententia vocum” was one of the anti-Realist solutions of the problem of universals accepted by the early Middle Ages. Resuming Porphyry’s alternative (mox de generibus et speciebus illud quidem sive subsistant sive in nudis intellectibus posita sint) the first medieval philosophers regarded genera and species (substance, corporeity, animality, humanity) either as things or as having no existence (see Nominalism, Realism, Conceptualism). and applying to this alternative a terminology of Boethius, they derived thence either res (things) or voces (words). To the Nominalists universals were “voces”, which means: (I) above all that universals are not “res”, that is that only the individual exists: “nam cum habeat eorum sententia nihil esse praeter individuum …” (De gener. et spec., 524). Nominalism was essentially anti-Realist. (2) that universals are merely words, “flatus vocis”, e.g., the word “homo”, divisible into syllables, consonants, and vowels. “Fuit autem, nemini magistri nostri Roscellini tam insana sententia ut nullam rem partibus constare vellet, sed sicut solis vocibus species, ita et partes ascridebat” (Abelard, “Liber divisionum”, ed. Cousin, 471). “Alius ergo consistit in vocibus, licet haec opinio cum Rocelino suo fere omnino evanuerit” (John of Salisbury, “Metalog.”, II, 17). The universal is reduced to an emission of sound (flatus vocis), in conformity with Boethius’s definition: “Nihil enim aliud est prolatio (vocis) quam aeris plectro linguae percussio”. Roscelin’s universal corresponds to what is now called the “universale in voce” in opposition to “universale in re” and “universale in intellectu”.

But this theory of Roscelin’s had no connection with the abstract concept of genus and species. He did not touch on this question. It is certain that he did not deny the existence or possibility of these concepts, and he was therefore not a Nominalist in the fashion of Taine or in the sense in which Nominalism is at present understood. That is why, in reference to the modern sense of the word, we have called it a pseudo-Nominalism. John of Salisbury, speaking of “nominalis secta” (Metalog., II, 10) gives it quite another meaning. So Roscelin’s rudimentary, even childish, solution does not compromise the value of universal concepts and may be called a stage in the development of moderate Realism.

Roscelin was also taken to task by St. Anselm and Abelard for the less clear idea which he gave of the whole and of composite substance. According to St. Anselm he maintained that color does not exist independently of the horse which serves as its support and that the wisdom of the soul is not outside of the soul which is wise (De fide trinit., 2). He denies to the whole, such as house, man, real existence of its parts. The word alone had parts, “ita divinam paginam pervertit, ut eo loco quo Dominus partem piscis assi comedisse partem hujus vocis, qum est piscis assi, non partem rei intelligere cogatur” (Cousin, “P. Ablardi opera”, II. 151). Roscelin was not without his supporters; among them was his contemporary Raimbert of Lille, and what the monk Heriman relates of his doctrine agrees with the statements of the master of Compiegne. Universal substances, says Heriman, are but a breath, which means “eos de sapientium numero merito esse exsufflandos”. He merely comments on the saying of Anselm characterized by the same jesting tone: “a spiritualium qumstionum disputatione sunt exeufflandi” (P.L., 256a), and says that to understand the windy loquacity of Raimbert of Lille one has but to breathe into his hand (manuque on admota exsufflans; “Mon. Germ. Hist.”, XIV, 275).

II. TRITHEISM OF ROSCELIN.—Roscelin considered the three Divine Persons as three independent beings, like three angels; if usage permitted, he added, it might truly be said that there are three Gods. Otherwise, he continued, God the Father and God the Holy Ghost would have become incarnate with God the Son. To retain the appearance of dogma he admitted that the three Divine Persons had but one will and power [Audio … quod Roscelinus clericus dicit in tres personas esse tres res ab invicem separatas, sicut sunt tres angeli, ita tamen ut una sit voluntas et potestas aut Patrem et Spiritum sanctum esse incarnatum; et tres deos vere posse dici si usus admitteret (letter of St. Anselm to Foulques)]. This characteristic Tritheism, which St. Anselm and Abelard agreed in refuting even after its author’s conversion, seems an indisputable application of Roscelin’s anti-Realism. He argues that if the three Divine Persons form but one God all three have become incarnate, which is inadmissible. There are therefore three Divine substances, three Gods, as there are three angels, because each substance constitutes an individual, which is the fundamental assertion of anti-Realism. The ideas of the theologian are closely linked with those of the philosopher.


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