In the Night-Nursery with R.W. Southern

The great mediaevalist understood and taught that History, if it cannot replace Theology as a source of universal truth, can at least offer the chastening dividends of moral honesty.

Interior of the Church of St. Eustache, Paris. (Image: John Towner/


In an essay entitled “The Truth about the Past” (1988), which the mediaevalist R.W. Southern (1912-2000) delivered to the St. John’s College Historical Society, he pointed out that it was not until 1850 that Oxford first included history in its curriculum – seven hundred years after the university’s founding. Now, when the study of history is at the very center of our increasingly fierce and consequential culture wars, it might be useful to revisit Southern’s understanding of the discipline in light of his preoccupations with scholasticism to see whether he has anything useful to say to historians and their readers now.

But first I should say a few words about Southern himself. Born in 1912 in Newcastle upon Tyne, the second of the four children of Matthew Henry Southern, a timber merchant, he attended the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, and in 1929 went up to Balliol, where he read modern history, specifically medieval history under Vivian Galbraith, about whom he would later write that the “colloquialisms and expletives of his lectures — relics of his army days – were abundant on all occasions… and the delight of his audiences.” Another of Southern’s tutors at Balliol was Francis Fortescue Urquhart, aka ‘Sligger,’ Oxford’s first Catholic tutor since the Reformation, who was instrumental in seeing to it that Ronald Knox was made Oxford’s Catholic chaplain. Indolent and unscholarly, Urquhart was nevertheless one of the most fondly remembered of all of Oxford’s dons, largely because of his charming personal influence, which he exerted for many years both in his summer reading parties in the French Alps and the salon he set up for undergraduates in his rooms over Balliol’s back gate.

By recommending that Southern read J.A. Round’s Feudal England and John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, Urquhart only deepened his desire to pursue the life of learning. He also introduced him to Newman’s understanding of knowledge, a keynote of scholasticism, which would fascinate him all his days.

Truth is the object of Knowledge of whatever kind [Newman wrote in the Idea]; and when we inquire what is meant by Truth, I suppose it is right to answer that Truth means facts and their relations, which stand towards each other pretty much as subjects and predicates in logic. All that exists, as contemplated by the human mind, forms one large system or complex fact, and this of course resolves itself into an indefinite number of particular facts, which, as being portions of a whole, have countless relations of every kind, one towards another. Knowledge is the apprehension of these facts, whether in themselves, or in their mutual positions and bearings. And, as all taken together form one integral subject for contemplation, so there are no natural or real limits between part and part; one is ever running into another; all, as viewed by the mind, are combined together, and possess a correlative character one with another, from the internal mysteries of the Divine Essence down to our own sensations and consciousness, from the most solemn appointments of the Lord of all down to what may be called the accident of the hour, from the most glorious seraph down to the vilest and most noxious of reptiles.

Although Southern succeeded Galbraith in 1937 as fellow and tutor in medieval history, Maurice Powicke was the Oxford colleague who had the most influence on him, principally by suggesting that his protégé study St. Anselm, whose dictum, “I believe in order that I may understand” would animate everything Southern ever wrote. In 1940, he enlisted in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire light infantry. In 1941 he was commissioned in the Durham light infantry where, as second lieutenant, he trained as a tank commander. In 1943 he was transferred to the political intelligence department of the Foreign Office and in 1944 he was promoted to major. In 1944 he married the widow of an RAF hero, with whom he had two sons.

After the war, Southern returned to Balliol, where his dash and brilliance would become legendary. In 1950, upon being diagnosed with tuberculosis, he was obliged to leave Oxford and convalesce for two years, though he turned his unexpected leisure to account by writing his first book, The Making of the Middle Ages (1953), In 1961 he left Balliol to become the Chichele Professor of Modern History at All Souls. In 1969, he assumed the presidency of St. John’s College, Oxford, a post he held for twelve years. Unlike G.M. Trevelyan, whose popularity incurred the contempt of his fellow academic historians at Cambridge, Southern enjoyed both academic and popular acclaim. In 1974, he was knighted. For the medievalist M.H. Keen, who contributed the entry on Southern to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “striking energy” was not the historian’s only virtue, for “his personality, grace of manner and playful, almost wayward wit were foils” to his “acute mental power” and “relentless integrity.”

In addition to the classic The Making of the Middle Ages, Southern’s books include Saint Anselm and His Biographer: A Study of Monastic Life and Thought 1059–c.1130 (1963); Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (1970); Robert Grosseteste: The Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe (1986); Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (1990); and Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe, 2 vols. (1995, 2001).


Why Oxford took so long to acknowledge history as a study worthy of learning was a nice question. First, by its very nature, it was thought incapable of supplying a body of systematic, general truth. Oxford, hitherto, like all the early schools set up in Europe, had looked to theology, law, medicine, arithmetic, geometry, music and the arts of the Trivium – grammar, rhetoric, and logic – for this authoritative truth.

Secondly, history, as Southern quotes Samuel Johnson as saying, might tell us “that certain kings reigned” or that “certain battles were fought,” but “all the colour, all the philosophy of history” was “conjecture.” Why, then, was the new Honor School of Law and Modern History established in 1850? Southern’s answer was rather comical: history won its place in the curriculum not so much on its merits as by a kind of desperate default:

The view of knowledge promoted by the old syllabus — the view, namely that reasonable completeness had been reached on most subjects, and that all that was needed was to transmit the body of ascertained truth from one generation to the next, to complete this body of knowledge in detail – had during the previous century been subjected to hammer-blows which left the whole structure in a state of ruin. It was the collapse of the old body of learning which gave history for the first time a claim to be no worse than any of the other subjects, and just possibly much better. There were not many people in England who were convinced that history could produce anything much better, but there were many who thought that it was at least worth trying…

This readiness to look to history to extricate the university from its metaphysical impasse arose from several factors. Although unlikely to produce the sort of truth that the university had traditionally dedicated itself to extolling, history did nevertheless condition the subjects from which such truth was attained. Indeed, “the queen of the sciences, systematic theology,” Southern reminded his readers, “was known to be a growth with many historical roots in the Bible, the Fathers, the Councils of the Church,” not to mention “the vast works of critical and historical elucidation” to which interpretation of these sources gave rise. Development, in other words, was essential to these subjects, and there could be no development without history.

Nevertheless, the paradox remained: while history might be “regarded as an essential background to systematic knowledge,” it was not seen as “a study in its own right.” Even the Tudor historian, G.R. Elton, no fan of scholasticism, acknowledged that “history does not prove the truth of universals.” And as to why this should have been the case, the good historian in Southern showed how capable he was of entering into the thinking of the university prior to 1850 when he explained to his readers that, for the scholastic university, even though under assault by the “hammer blows” of the Enlightenment: “the essential substance of history came, not as a result of historical investigation, but from divine revelation.”

One can only imagine how such a statement went down with his largely sceptical audience. Here was an understanding of knowledge completely at odds with the doctrinaire uncertainties of modern or post-modern scepticism. Yet Southern could not have been more foursquare on the matter: “what was important about this whole body of knowledge was that, though it had emerged through a long process of accumulation and refinement, the knowledge it contained was not a product of history, but of Revelation and Reason—and therefore absolutely unshakable.” For the Schoolmen who had put the university on the map in the first place, and their legion heirs, “history could accumulate and refine, but God and reason alone could guarantee the truth of the whole system—including, incidentally, the truth of a whole system of universal chronology.” For Southern, the moral of this thinking was categorical: “We can understand nothing about the historical revolution of the last one hundred and fifty years unless we understand this paradox…”


As to how the scholastic tradition lost its influence not only over the thinking but the practical affairs of men, Southern supplies the reader with a rather questionable tour d’horizon of Western apostasy. For the historian, while it was true that the “alliance between divinely revealed and protected history” and “rational scientific truth served all the main purposes of European life till the first half of the nineteenth century,” it was also true that “from about 1700” doubts and questions began to assail the alliance, though “for most people, and even for most intellectuals,” the alliance “stood up to criticism without having to face any unanswerable objections.”

By any calculation, this chronology is askew. To take just the case of Oxford, serious challenges were mounted against the scholastic tradition earlier than 1700. Putting aside John Wyclif and Lollardy, which David Knowles nicely called “that urgent, untutored, racy, fiercely independent, half-sour religious zeal that was to become such a powerful and characteristic force in English history,” by 1521, books by Luther and Melanchthon were already in circulation at the university, as, later in the century, would be John Jewell’s Apology of the Church of England (1562), which, in essence was an English version of Melanchthon’s Augsburg Confession (1530). John Jewell (1522-71), reader at Corpus Christi and later Bishop of Salisbury, was one of the principal architects of the Elizabethan Settlement (1558), which made the new order palatable alike to moderate Calvinists and the more acquiescent Romanists. Jewell’s greatest contribution to Elizabeth’s ‘hedge priests,’ as she called them on her deathbed, was to patronize Richard Hooker, whose Ecclesiastical Polity (1594-7) put a supple seal on England’s repudiation of Rome.

Jewell also famously disputed the papacy and transubstantiation with Thomas Harding, Regius Professor of Hebrew, reminding his former colleague, as the Tudor historian Jennifer Loach notes, that he had once referred to Rome as “the sink of Sodom” and had wished that he had had a voice “equal with the great Belle of Oseney” to resound in “the dull eares of the deafe Papists.” (Oseney Abbey was a house of Augustinian canons founded in Oxford in 1129, south of the modern Botley Road, which was relinquished into the king’s hands in 1537.) Jewell’s view of the recusant priests who made the sacraments available to faithful Catholics during the Elizabethan terror was typical of the Reformation gentry: he referred to them as “those oily, shaven, portly hypocrites.”

It may be true, as Loach says, that Elizabethan Oxford was not a religiously radical place, and Protestant ideas “might have been accorded no more than the academic courtesy of a careful perusal;” but it is still striking that Southern should ignore the English Reformation in his chronology. Even the historian V.H.H. Green, who had nothing of Southern’s command of ecclesiastical history, recognized the grievous cost of the Reformation, which he saw not only in the vandalism of statues, altars, pictures, images, vestments and bells but the loss of several monastic colleges following the dissolution of the great abbeys. Colleges faithful to the ancient faith like New College, Exeter, Trinity and Lincoln were holdouts, but even they would eventually be made to conform to the new Protestant order. Arguing that serious challenges to the scholastic tradition did not arise in England until 1700 betrays the Anglo-Catholic in Southern, who, despite rejoicing in that tradition, could never bring himself to acknowledge what Newman recognized so clearly — the patent heterodoxy, indeed unreality of the Church of England. Coincidentally enough, in 1850, in lectures published as Anglican Difficulties, Newman mined ecclesiastical history to show how entirely at variance Anglican theology was with the Fathers and the Councils of the scholastic tradition.

In all events, doubts did persist with regard to Oxford’s scholasticism, but since “there was no plausible alternative,” as Southern says, they were held at bay. Then, “suddenly the doubts became quasi-certainties, and the first glimmerings of a new, vastly longer chronology began to appear,” and the rest was history. As Southern reminds his readers:

It was really the breakdown of biblical chronology which ruined the whole system, and by about 1800 it had broken down for most people; by 1850, the breakdown had become irreparable. As it penetrated deeper and deeper into society the discovery that the fundamental chronology on which the whole system of a divinely ordered and rationally comprehensible universe had rested, was profoundly untrue, not just in detail, but in its essential framework, gained more and more adherents. It is hard to think of a more deadly assault on the foundations of European thought and life than this. The prospect of the survival of any ordered view of the world seemed very bleak by 1850.

Tennyson’s great threnody, “In Memoriam,” Queen Victoria’s favorite poem, published in 1850, confirms this.

Behold, we know not anything:
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last – far off – at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.

After the publication of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830), which torched the old Biblical timeline, Oxford-educated Victorians constituted a kind of despondent night nursery. John Ruskin, like so many others, could have richly commiserated with Tennyson. “You speak of the Flimsiness of your own faith,” the art critic wrote one of his correspondents. “Mine, which was never strong, is being beaten into mere gold leaf, and flutters in weak rags from the letter of its old forms… If only the Geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses…”

It was characteristic of Southern that he should respond to this reversal not with a chronicler’s dispassionateness but Christian pity. “I feel immense sympathy for those who were first exposed to the dreadful fall from certainty into a vast pit of doubt,” he wrote; though he was also emphatic that the “historical revolution” beginning in 1850 “was a first attempt to climb out of the pit.”

In reviewing how history was revisited from 1850 onwards in an attempt to fill the void left by the desuetude in which the scholastic tradition fell, Southern charted the failure of secular humanism. Initially, it was thought that the best means of studying history to establish general truths was through a study of institutions, particularly the development of Parliament and common law, and, by extension, the development of constitutional liberty, a development which could act as a useful guide not only to the conduct of life but to the challenges of empire, when the English still had an empire for which proconsuls had to be supplied.

Here, in embryo, was the Whig conception of history, according to which all history culminated in the triumph of Whig constitutionalism, and Southern vividly describes the welcome with which it was received two years after the Revolutions of 1848 rocked European institutions to their foundations. “It came as a huge liberation from a prison of despair to discover that here in our midst there was something like a divine instrument for the enlargement of human life,” Southern writes, “developing through the centuries from the earliest days.” Indeed, for those who had despaired of the general truths of Revelation, it offered nothing less than “a kind of secular embodiment of that force which had in the past been particularly associated with the now derelict pattern of Revelation.”

Consequently, History, not Theology, came to rule the academic roost. The claims made for the redemptive properties of historical study might now seem, as Southern says, “pure moonshine;” but it did not seem so in 1930, when Southern was an undergraduate. “Indeed, history had succeeded beyond all expectation in giving the university that central position in society which it had had in the thirteenth century and had gradually lost in the intervening centuries.” By 1900, one third of all undergraduates were studying history. Fifty years later, historical study had begun to lose and would never regain its fleeting centrality.

What had gone wrong? Well, the Whig approach to history, insisting as it did on continuity, degenerated into a kind of parlor game. As Southern shows in his essay, if the game was to show how a statement in a document of 1215, say, when Magna Carta was ratified, could be related to similar statements in documents of 1166, 1259, 1297 and then back again to the Anglo-Saxons, and forward to 1640, 1832 and 1887, winning the game of ‘hunt the continuity’ would always be fairly easy. For Southern, “Students discovered that… all they had to do was to learn the answers.”

Generations of students would duly parrot what passed for the axioms of continuity. “The republican experiment in the seventeenth century was an episode which had no sequel: and even the Norman Conquest made no complete or decisive breach with the past,” one English writer declared in 1940. “By retaining the ancient organization in the shires, the Norman kings made possible that interaction of central and local authority which ultimately took shape in Parliament. By observing Parliamentary forms, the autocratic Tudors kept in being a body which in due course showed itself capable of taking over the government of the country. By maintaining the monarchy at the Revolution, Parliament preserved, as it were, a centre of attachment and attraction; a unifying element not above, but within the Constitution itself…”

The writer of this could have been any number of students at either public school or university for over a hundred years: it just happened to have been written by the historian, G.M. Young, whose Portrait of an Age: Victorian England (1936) defined the object of historical study as ascertaining “the origin, content, and articulation of that objective mind which controls the thinking and the doing of an age or race” – not a definition that would have found much favor in his own or our day, though it confirmed Southern’s suspicion that history fell out of favor after 1950, partly, because it seemed more and more the handmaiden of an asphyxiating Establishment, something imposed on the university from above by “the socially dominant class in contemporary society.”

If anything, the political correctness of our own elites has only made such oligarchical priorities more dubious still. As Lord Acton once wrote:

The inner reality of history is so unlike the back of the cards, and it takes so long to get at it, which does not prevent us from disbelieving what is current as history, but makes us wish to sift it, and dig through mud to solid foundations.

Even James Anthony Froude, the first English historian to follow Ranke’s lead and to delve into archives, recognized the patent absurdity of claiming the art of history a science. In a lecture delivered at the Royal Institution on 5 Feb 1864, he confirmed that there was

something incongruous in the very connection of such words as Science and History. It is as if we were to talk of the colour of sound, or the longitude of the rule-of-three. Where it is so difficult to make out the truth on the commonest disputed fact in matters passing under our very eyes, how can we talk of a science in things long past, which come to us only through books? It often seems to me as if History was like a child’s box of letters, with which we can spell any word we please. We have only to pick out such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose.

Then, again, the view of history served up for the Establishment made for an inescapable stasis. If it was the delineation of the development of constitutional liberty, for example, that gave Whig history its raison d’etre, this development culminated for the Whigs in the late nineteenth century. Yet, for Southern, “It was this conception which gave nobility and universal value to the whole study, just as five hundred years earlier, the application of logic, grammar and rhetoric to the mass of material handed down from the ancient world had given dignity and practical usefulness to the scholastic methods of the early universities;” yet the problem for both remained: “there was no more scope for discovery,” not to mention the fact that “the world did not seem much better for all that had so far been achieved.”

The renaissance of the 12th century, made possible by the practical benefits of the systematization of Theology, confirmed the salutary universalism of the early schools; there was no renaissance for the liberal academy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It only issued in nihilism. What is that line from Yeats? “Civilisation is hooped together, brought/Under a rule, under the semblance of peace/By manifold illusion…’ Indeed, now, in the twenty-first century, the fragmented, irrational, ideological university has succumbed to almost complete chaos, the idolatry of power and the obsession with grievance ensuring nothing of that respect for objective truth that made the accomplishments of scholasticism possible.

When after the findings of such Whig constitutional historians as Hallam, Macaulay, Stubbs, Freeman and Maitland were shown the door, and the Marxist and Annales schools were given pride of place, the game might have somewhat changed; the dictatorship of the proletariat and an equally fanciful multiculturalism replacing liberty as the teleological brass ring of historical study; but the old problem only reemerged in different guises: historical study could still offer no universal rule of human development. For Southern, “The greatest weakness of the historical thinking of the century after 1850 was its tendency to think of the present as a climax, with man in command of his destiny. Nothing has done more to impoverish humanity than this absurd delusion of self-sufficiency, which ultimately leads to despair as its falsity comes to be recognized.” Julian Barnes was withering about this blithe narcissism in his novel, Flaubert’s Parrot (1985):

What a curious vanity it is of the present to expect the past to suck up to it. The present looks back at some great figure of an earlier century and wonders, Was he on our side? Was he a goodie? What a lack of self-confidence this implies: the present wants both to patronize the past by adjudicating on its political acceptability, and also to be flattered by it, to be patted on the back and told to keep up the good work…

The academics most in vogue today – obsessed as they are with gender, class, race and what they now style ‘white supremacy’ – are but the latest exemplars of this “curious vanity.”

The only antidote that Southern could offer to this worsening solipsism was humility. For him, “the interesting, perhaps the educative, thing about the people of the past lies in the ways in which they differ from us rather than in what we have in common. They differ from us in their sense of eternity, their wealth of images and symbols, their recognition of their own powerlessness. Of course. no amount of understanding of the thoughts and symbols of the past can bring these lost parts of the human psyche to life again. But in understanding what we have lost, we take a first step towards our regeneration.”

A first, decidedly modest step, Southern realized, for true regeneration is not something historical study alone can offer, however well-intended. On this score Southern had no illusions. In “learning to understand the beliefs and images of the past, we shall not be brought into a believing or creative frame of mind, but we shall at least come to recognize our poverty in contrast to the wealth of the past.” For us to see the stark differences between ourselves and those of our predecessors who had the grace to take advantage of the spiritual and practical blessings of scholasticism, when scholasticism gave Europe not only its unity but its vitality, will at least acquaint us with our radical inadequacies, creatures as we still are of the false assurances of secular humanism. For Southern, the “mere thought of what we have lost is a challenge to explain, perhaps to replace, the defects of the present.” History, in other words, if it cannot replace Theology as a source of universal truth, can at least offer the chastening dividends of moral honesty. “We may come to look on the past as a treasury of unused wealth which is open to investigation, perhaps appropriation without any losers,” Southern wrote in the conclusion of his essay.

In The Making of the Middle Ages, he had another occasion to treat of this crucial matter of self-knowledge, the defiance of which has led so many otherwise sensible men to set sail for shipwreck. “St Bernard owed his influence as a guide to the spiritual life largely to the fact that men’s minds had been turning already in the direction along which he impelled them,” Southern writes of a time when introspection “ran like fire” through 11th-century Europe.

Both St Bernard and St Anselm began their reconstituted ladders of humility with self-knowledge; and this theme of self-knowledge was deeply rooted in the new monastic movements of this time. The first abbot of Cĩteaux wrote of his followers as ‘those to whom grace has been given to know themselves.’ Guigo, the greatest of the early Carthusian writers, in his Meditations, composed between 1110 and 1116, which have been justly compared to the Pensées of Pascal, expressed more luminously than any contemporary writer the mystery of the self: ‘See how ignorant you are of your own self; there is no land so distant or so unknown to you, nor one about which you will so easily believe falsehoods.’


If lack of self-knowledge unsettles men, so too does lack of confidence in the promises of peace. During the Battle of Britain, the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973), who wrote one of England’s best wartime novels, The Heat of the Day (1949), recalled that the attitude of the Shelburne Hotel in Dublin “to any few wartime travellers who filtered through was one of maternal solicitude.” Describing this attitude in her history of the hotel, Bowen wrote:

It was the rooted belief of all chambermaids that those arriving from London were to be treated as casualties from bomb-shock: voices and footsteps were accordingly muted, soft ministrations were many, and in no night-nursery could one have been more fondly, soothingly, firmly tucked up in bed. “Sleep well tonight,” they murmured. “Here nothing will trouble you.” Never was one more conscious, through this kindness, of the hotel’s primitive human core.

Now, in our own age, when casualties of spiritual bomb-shock strew the post-Christian landscape, we need more than solicitous Irish chambermaids to repair our “primitive human core,” and no one fits this bill as handily as Southern, who made good on his recommendation to treat history as “a treasury of unused wealth” by dedicating the last twenty odd years of his life to recreating, in his late masterpiece, Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe (1995), the scholastic tradition of the 12th and 13th centuries, on which Christendom, however mutilated, still relies.

The first thing Southern does in the book is to distinguish ‘scholastic humanism’ from what we ordinarily understand by the word ‘humanism.’ If ‘humanism,’ as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, means “any system of thought or action which is concerned with merely human interests, or with the human race in general,” and if its main instrument is scientific knowledge, which it seeks to extend, to the exclusion of the supernatural in human affairs, those who adhere to humanism look down their noses at the Schoolmen, regarding their works as superstitious and retrograde. They especially deplore, as Southern says, “their emphasis on the supernatural end of man, their assumption of the primacy of theology among the sciences, [and] their source in a primarily clerical culture and hierarchical organization under a universal papal authority…” Elton, again, is worth quoting on this score. “Humanists can up to a point be identified by their principles as students and teachers: humanism above all was an educational movement,” he wrote in an essay entitled “Humanism in England” (1990).

However, there is surely one characteristic he had to display in order to join the club: he must think humaniter and believe in human ability to control human fate. Not all of them need to have fully subscribed to the slogan, ‘homo mensura;’ it was possible to doubt that man is the measure of all things and to allow for the work of God’s grace in men nevertheless endowed with free will. What no one properly to be called a humanist could adhere to was an Augustinian belief in the total and helpless depravity of fallen man…

That the Schoolmen should be tarred with so slapdash a brush might be unfair but it is still proof of the total victory their opponents had over them in the court of intellectual opinion. In other words, humanists have always tended to credit what G.K. Chesterton once called “the loose and largely unverified legend of the Renaissance, that the Schoolmen were all crabbed and mechanical medieval bores.” By contrast, humanists have always been regarded as the bright and coming men; it is the badge of their worldliness. The new atheist head chaplain at Harvard, Greg Epstein is typical of such worldly, self-assured humanists. “We don’t look to a god for answers,” Mr. Epstein recently told The New York Times. “We are each other’s answers.” In Saint Anselm and his Biographer (1966), Southern quotes something that the resolutely unworldly saint wrote in one of his letters:

If the world smiles on you with its favours, do not smile in return. It does not smile that you may smile in the end; but it mocks you with its Prince, that you with its Prince may mourn. Therefore, however it smiles on you, turn from its smile that you may rejoice when the Mocker mourns.

T.S. Eliot, once settled in London after the Great War, took great pleasure in mocking the humanists who had taught him at Harvard when he was an undergraduate there. If alive today, he would doubtless find the appointment of Epstein not only a delicious absurdity but a predictable outcome of the teachings of the Harvard humanist, Irving Babbitt (1865-1933). In “Second Thoughts on Humanism” (1929), for example, Eliot was unsparing:

Man is man because he can recognize spiritual realities, not because he can invent them. Either everything in man can be traced as a development from below, or something must come from above. There is no avoiding that dilemma: you must be either a naturalist or a supernaturalist. If you remove from the word ‘human’ all that the belief in the supernatural has given to man, you can view him finally as no more than an extremely clever, adaptable, and mischievous little animal.

Here, however, Eliot overlooked one of the signature accomplishments of scholasticism. Apropos the differences between the Schoolmen and their secular humanist successors, Southern rightly shows that the Schoolmen never shackled rational enquiry. On the contrary, by including the supernatural in their studies they were acknowledging “the complexity and richness of the scene of human life:” they were not limiting it. Indeed, it was precisely their supernatural studies that gave them their unique understanding of the natural world. In their respect for the natural world, the Schoolmen were the “direct ancestors” of the secular humanists, without ever falling prey to their parochialism. In other words, they were proper naturalists only because they were supernaturalists.

In the opening pages of Scholastic Humanism, Southern captures the understanding of human nature that lies at the heart of scholasticism, which sets it entirely apart from secular humanism and merits quoting in full, epitomizing as it does so much of the mediaevalist’s masterly work:

The first fundamental characteristic of the products of the schools is a strong sense of the dignity of human nature. Without this there can be no humanism of any description, and it is a conspicuous force in the schools of the twelfth and thirteen centuries. That Man is a fallen creature, who has lost that immediate knowledge of God which was the central feature of human nature before the Fall; that human instincts are now deeply disturbed and are often in conflict with reason; that human beings are now radically disorganized and disorientated – all this is common ground to all Christian thinkers at all times. We must not expect a denial of this condition in the Middle Ages, or in the Renaissance for that matter, or any time not blinded by excessive optimism about human capabilities. But what we may reasonably claim for the twelfth-century schools is that they were the first institutions in Europe to make it their main purpose to set about systematically restoring to the fullest possible extent the knowledge that had been forfeited at the Fall. The method employed for effecting this restoration was to study the works of the ancient scholars who had begun the slow process of repairing the ravages of sin in destroying man’s knowledge of both the natural and supernatural worlds, and to elucidate and complete this process – so far as is possible in this world – by systemizing and elaborating the truth regained by ancient scholars or revealed in Old Testament prophets, and more fully available to later Christian Fathers and students. The expectation was that, when all had been gathered in, a very great part of the knowledge lost at the Fall would once more be available for the guidance and instruction of human beings.

For Southern, this was the first aim of scholasticism: but it had another, equally important one, which shows why scholastic humanism can be relied upon to extend our knowledge of the natural world in ways humanism cannot.

Just as human nature has an inherent dignity which, though ruined by the Fall, has not been altogether lost, so too the whole natural order is in a similar situation. The continuing human power to recognise the grandeur and splendour of the universe, to understand the principles of the organization of nature, and to order human life in accordance with nature is symptomatic of the survival of human dignity, in however depleted a form, after the Fall. But it is also symptomatic of the continuing dignity of the natural world itself that it is intelligible. Consequently, when human beings understand the laws of nature, they not only achieve their true dignity as nature’s keystone, holding the whole created order together in an intelligible union, but they also recognise the rationality of nature itself. Further, this position gives human minds access to the divine purpose in the Creation, and therefore, in some degree, access through reason, as well as Revelation, to the divine nature itself.

Given the profundity and practicality of scholasticism, the irony was that the very thing that it was designed to redress – the “ravages of sin” – should be its downfall. If the scholasticism of the early schools wielded great salutary influence in the world by disproving St. Augustine’s contention that government could never be anything but organized robbery, it also created a certain amount of competitiveness among scholars, especially where there was not an unlimited number of schools, cathedrals, or patrons. “Teachers – it is hard to believe it, but it seems to be true – became a road to profit as well as fame,” Southern writes in The Making of the Middle Ages. The result of this scramble for place was that some used what they had learned in the schools to prostitute their learning. As Southern points out, “As they consolidated their positions, these scholastically-trained career-men developed some clearly marked attitudes, which included a willingness to serve the interests of any employer who could reward them.” Although sworn to uphold the hierarchical unity of Christendom, the schools could not control the ambitions of their graduates. Once the services of scholastically trained men became available for the defense of every side of every issue, “the unity of western Christendom, which was the great aim and, in some degree, the achieved result of scholastic training and doctrine, gradually dissolved in a spate of disagreements supported by scholastic arguments.”

By the fourteenth century, scholasticism had begun to lose its way in such futile disputation. By the late seventeenth century, Southern writes,

it was hard to see the other side of the picture—the wide agreement in principle which these acrimonious disputes presupposed; the hard intellectual discipline; the order and system which the study of logic had diffused throughout the whole body of thought and learning; the awakening of the intellect to the study of itself and the arrangement of its impressions of the outside world; the recognition of the autonomy of reason in the discussion of philosophical and theological problems.

Thus, Southern pleads for what he sees as the continuing usefulness of scholasticism, despite the disrepute into which it fell as a result of its being misapplied, and he manages this largely by helping himself to the encouragement to be found in the study of history. For Southern, the scholastic humanism of the mediaeval schools, “as far removed from the elitism of Renaissance humanism as it is from the godlessness of modern secular humanism… whether we consider its inherent grandeur or its influence on the future… has a good claim to be considered the most important kind of humanism Europe has ever produced.” It saw England through the invasions of the 11th century when Viking armies overran the country by persuading Aethelred II to meet the crisis with two decrees: build more ships to repel the invaders and see to it that “every Christian man shall go frequently to confession, and freely confess his sins, and readily make amends as prescribed for him.”

Later, when Ethelred ordered all the Danes in the country massacred, he might have been grateful for the latter decree. In all events, with the rising demand on the part of kings, bishops, monasteries and great landowners for educated officials, not to mention the rising schools, the Schoolmen lay down codes of behavior that would seek to advance peace and probity throughout Western Christendom. In the formulation of such codes in such continually inauspicious circumstances Southern rightly saw an admirable confidence:

Regarded simply as an attempt to regulate human life and to direct it in all its aspects towards the attainment of stability on earth and everlasting happiness thereafter, the efforts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries – coming so soon after the most fragmented period of European invasions and resettlements – have an astonishing assurance of permanence.

Now that we find ourselves in our own night-nursery, with the City of Man in an awful shambles outside the green baize door, and the City of God under unrelenting assault, we could do worse than revisit the work of the historian who recommends this permanent philosophy with such exuberant, solicitous learning.

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About Edward Short 37 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries, Newman and his Family, and Newman and History, as well as Adventure in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews. His latest book, What the Bells Sang, includes essays on poets, moralists, novelists, historians, and Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.


  1. Perhaps I’m picking nits, but Oxford always had history in its curriculum if you count ancient history (Greats, as it’s called there).

  2. “Now, in our own age, when casualties of spiritual bomb-shock strew the post-Christian landscape, we need more than solicitous Irish chambermaids to repair our primitive human core” (Short). When chaos reigns truth, our apprehension of what constitutes order [Southern’s when human beings understand the laws of nature] suffers a form of collective shell shock.
    RW Southern perceived stability in truth, “I suppose it is right to answer that Truth means facts and their relations, which stand towards each other pretty much as subjects and predicates in logic”. Fear, and the loss of confidence is devastating in a world, and Catholic Church in disorder. Our Dublin chambermaids as Short suggests must be sought elsewhere.
    Apprehension of truth was closely, if not realized by Southern’s “facts,relations as subjects and predicates in logic”. Aquinas defines apprehension of truth when the intellect apprehends subject and predicate in one act of knowing. As with grasp of first principles. With that we have certitude.
    It’s sufficient to understand this when bombarded with the irrationalities of chaos, doubt, and subsequent insecurity. So our solicitous chambermaid today is recognition of our own, inherent ability to identify truth. That fear, despair, depression are realities, only to the extent that we objectify what in effect are emotive.
    Faith in Christ is above all the linchpin principle that opens the mind to that peace, that state of mind which the world cannot give. Augustine’s City of God.

  3. An insightful and informative article that captured many of the challenges in teaching students of the law the complexities of discerning facts and truth in the pursuit of justice. The quotes from Southern were enlightening.

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