The Medieval Review 11.10.5

Coolman, Boyd Taylor and Dale M. Coulter. Trinity and Creation. Victorine Texts in Translation. Turnhout: Brepolis Publishers NV, 2010. Pp. 428. 60 EUR. ISBN 978-2-503-53458-9. . .

Reviewed by:

Philip O'Mara
Independent Scholar

This is the first of five volumes, with plans for five more, of selections from the works produced in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries at the Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris, a community of Augustinian canons founded in 1108. The abbey was richly endowed by, among others, the royal family, and for about a century a leading intellectual center in Paris. As the first in the series this book calls for an investment of more than its own cost; if the other volumes, including books on love, on biblical interpretation, and on spirituality, approximate the quality of this one the expense will be justified. The editors of the project. Gover Zinn and Hugh Feiss, O.S.B., are distinguished specialists in Victorine thought.

Three texts from Hugh and Richard, the most important philosophers and theologians in the Victorine school, are for the first time translated completely into English translation, and on the basis of recently established critical editions. The introductions and the extensive end notes are models of learning, insight, precision, clarity and focus on relevant concerns. Dr. Coolman's General Introduction summarizes most of the leading ideas found in Hugh's and Richard's works translated in the volume, with a concentration on divine goodness in relation to the created world.

The Abbey of St. Victor was a spiritually vigorous intellectual center. Hugh and Richard were both cosmologists and theologians, each commitment implicating the other. Arguably, Hugh's fascination with order in nature requires, shapes and reinforces his theology; while in Richard the demands of theology, especially reflection on the mystery of the Trinity, provoke devotion to creation in all of its splendor. In both authors and in Adam's hymns, religious piety and ecological enthusiasm stimulate one another.

Victorine philosophy of science and philosophy of religion were comprehensive, overlapping and of wide appeal. On the Three Days, a work by Hugh of St. Victor on the divine act of creation, is as remarkable for its thoroughness as cosmology as it is little known. The standard histories of medieval science, e.g. A.C. Crombie, Medieval and Early Modern Science (New York: Anchor Books, rev. ed. 1959), treat Hugh's Didascalicon, his classification of the sciences, but disregard this work. Hugh took care to explain and defend the traditional doctrines, e.g. of the Trinity, along with views that he had personally developed (briefly indicated below), all of which, despite their occasional similarity and possible indebtedness to Abelard, were accepted as orthodox. A favorite topic, the immensity and complexity of the natural world, evoked his repeated admiration, detailed enumeration, and arguments for the goodness and the infinite power of God. The Three Days in the title of this early cosmological and ecological work have nothing to do with the hexaemeron; they are metaphorical of three ways of approaching God, through fear, truth, and love. He finds divine power, wisdom and kindness exemplified through an assembly of information about plants, animals and human life, with much attention to interdependence, interaction, mutability, and the sublimity of the vast ordered world; the term "ecosystem," used (59) in the Introduction, is not unfair. He expounds cosmology in the Neoplatonic mode, inescapable for his era. Scholars and students will surely take advantage of Fr. Feiss's footnote with the lapidary phrase, "the diffuse Platonism of medieval thought" (98). Hugh's treatment (89) of the traditional approach to the creation of humanity in the image and likeness of God, only the likeness being lost through sin, is particularly close-grained and ardent.

The introduction to Hugh's work, by Fr. Feiss, shows that his views of creation are essentially Christian and biblical, but a creative, purely metaphysical natural theology appears, as in the description of God's generosity in granting the power of knowledge, the affections, and natural fulfillment to his creatures. The Trinitarian basis and origin of the divine creative act is clear (41). Similarly, the literary complexity of Hugh's book On the Three Days is well brought out (51). Hugh's evident ardor for study of the created world appears in his reports of his own observations, his enthusiastic catalogue of various beings known to him only by report, and his care to describe the religious basis and edifying results of his study. Footnote references and additional discussion make clear Fr. Feiss's learning, attention to historical context, and respect for other scholarly views.

An important source of Hugh's thought is the Sentences on Divinity, a long document, called a letter but really a treatise, composed by a priest, Lawrence, not himself one of the canons, and overseen by Hugh himself as Lawrence composed it from Hugh's oral teaching. Directed to Abbot Maurice of the Cistercian monastery at Rievaulx in northern England, the treatise, Lawrence declares, incorporates every addition, rearrangement and correction that Hugh requested. Self-knowledge is addressed here, in the double context of a further study of material creation and of meditation on salvation history leading to the knowledge of God. This comprehensive program looks forward to what has come to be called Christian humanism, as academic and spiritual program. The treatise is effectively of Hugh's own authorship, and here he does treat the Genesis account of six days of creation, offering teleological and mystical explanations for the sequence. The translator, Christopher P. Evans, and the author of the Introduction and the notes, Dale M. Coulter, both assisted by Fr. Feiss, provide several emendations, usually of single words and all entirely persuasive, of the Latin text. The errors are presumably a result of haste or confusion in the practice of reportatio.

Hugh's confident work scarcely hints at possible controversy, and his younger contemporary Richard (they may have been colleagues, but the date of Richard's entry into the abbey is unknown) is even more assured. When Richard, writing of the Trinity, employs analogies from the created world, his examples are not merely illustrative; for him they are temporal evidence, even proofs of a vital and eternal truth. Close analysis of the mystery of evil and of God's foreknowledge and human free will, distinguishing among "operation, permission, precept and prohibition" (149), maintains an understanding of God as always active and provident. Readers may admire the argument here as acute and brave whether or not they find it, even in its historical context, fully persuasive.

Richard's thought is consistent with Hugh's and develops from it, although his cosmic and ecological reflections are not as well organized. Hugh's fascination with the innumerable details of created nature was intellectually innovative and adventurous, and religiously too. Other cosmologists of the time had been more superficial, more secular, or theologically more questionable. The brilliance, fame and tragic career of Abelard, and the absence of a strong following for the conjectures of Adelard of Bath, Bernardus Silvestris and others, contrast with the stable, unvaried course of Hugh's career and with the profound influence that he exerted on later thinkers.

In Richard's treatise On the Trinity, more notable for attention to detail and for close reasoning than for eloquence, most of the chapters are brief, often less than a page. The relatively few passages devoted, like so much of Hugh's writing, to descriptions of created nature are uncharacteristically lacking in order. He attends to heterodox arguments, those of Peter Lombard and Abelard in particular, concerning the divine substance, providing patient analysis and efforts at refutation. Toward the end of the work he allows himself some irony at their expense. Richard's work on the Trinity is adventurous, revising the Boethian definition of "person" and employing emanation to account for the relations of persons in the Trinity. Using the analogy of one man communicating all of his knowledge to another, he suggests a way of thinking about God's wisdom, originating in the Father and received from eternity by the Son, precisely the same wisdom in both persons, and moves on to a comparable treatment of the godhead of the Holy Spirit. He does not employ the terminology that was later to become standard, e.g. analogical predication, or even the term "participation" in its various Neo-platonic senses, but his discussion (204 f.) of the double attribution of being, power and wisdom, as they appear differently in God and in human beings, anticipates scholastic teaching and mode of analysis. His analysis of love, originated, received and shared, extends over several chapters (16 to 23, pp. 309-316), is at least as penetrating as his earlier reflections on wisdom, and like them may be appropriated to topics other than Trinitarian theology. Richard's style is more difficult than Hugh's; the notes (361-362), synthesizing his thirteen principles that underlie his demonstration of God's existence, are insightful and clarifying.

The works translated here present philosophy of nature, in Hugh's case a true cosmology, and the religious and theological implications that Hugh and Richard derived from it, were part of the intense intellectual life of the Parisian schools in the twelfth century, and they remain part of the history of thought, perhaps more centrally than the much-studied Didascalicon. Future volumes will perhaps situate Victorine thought in the context of the developing University of Paris, a topic that is not addressed here. Victorine thinking may have done more to stimulate later work in the philosophy of science than has been understood up to now.

Less than twenty pages are given to an introduction to the hymnody of Adam of St. Victor and to translations from a few of his works. Here the absence of the original Latin, with Adam's brilliant doctrinal formulations in technically adroit and singable verse, is to be regretted. A bilingual edition of all of Adam's poetry, however, is promised from a translation series sponsored by the University of Dallas.

The extensive polyglot bibliography includes even doctoral dissertations. The book's usefulness is enhanced by an index of scriptural references, separate from the subject index. Where the translation of a term is debatable, the Latin original is given in parenthesis, e.g. "supreme causes" for causalissima, and conditio as a (rather surprising) synonym for creatio (140). The endnotes explain difficult terms, e.g. condilectus (371) and omniformitas (266), briefly in most cases, but when the difficulty is considerable, at greater length, e.g. the single note (360-364) explaining Richard's distinction between necessary and probable reasons. These notes, formidably learned, are helpful to students and scholars at any level of knowledge and will suggest valuable lines of further research. Regrettably, the long guide to abbreviations, which includes publication data, overlaps incompletely with the bibliography, since each provides information on works that do not appear in the other, thus requiring consultation of both lists. There are occasional verbal oddities, e.g. "upmost" for "utmost," and the intensive "very" is overdone when it is used to qualify different (twice), similar, common, and difficult, all in two pages. A few typographical errors appear, e.g. igitiur for igitur, (174), chrism for charism, (175), Einsedlen for Einsiedeln (208).