Anthony J. Lisska

title.none: Evans, Bernard of Clairvaux (Anthony J. Lisska)

identifier.other: baj9928.0109.008 01.09.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Anthony J. Lisska, Denison University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Evans, G. R. Bernard of Clairvaux. Great Medieval Thinkers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. vi, 215. ISBN: 0-195-12526-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.09.08

Evans, G. R. Bernard of Clairvaux. Great Medieval Thinkers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. vi, 215. ISBN: 0-195-12526-6.

Reviewed by:

Anthony J. Lisska
Denison University

This book is published under the rubric of "Great Medieval Thinkers", a new series edited by Father Brian Davies, O.P., formerly of Blackfriars, Oxford and now a member of the Philosophy Department at Fordham University. In the general introduction, Davies notes that this series is written with the student audience in mind. The foil, which many of us in medieval philosophy know all too well, is that often students are led to believe that nothing of philosophical significance happened between the death of Aristotle and the dream world of Descartes. Furthermore, Davies opines that too often students in theology programs assume that significant theological musings did not occur until the nineteenth century. As readers of this journal no doubt know, the exciting revival of medieval scholarship is approaching main street academia. This series offers a set of introductory texts in philosophy and theology suitable to students and the general reader interested in themes central to the philosophical and theological enterprise as elucidated in the Middle Ages. This series is useful for supplementary readings in both upper level undergraduate and graduate courses and seminars.

This present volume devoted to that quizzical yet practical theologian, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090/91-1153), is written by an illustrious scholar of early medieval philosophy and theology, Professor G. R. Evans of Cambridge University. Evans expands on some of the themes from her earlier well known study, The Mind of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (Oxford University Press, 1983). In eight closely argued chapters, Evans discusses themes in Bernard's monastic and academic theology, his role in exegesis in theology, how he accounts for what she calls positive and negative theology, and his ruminations on moral and political theology. There is a brief exposition of Bernard's life that includes a rather nice account of the medieval paradigm for writing a biography of a 'saint'. Along with a useful index, there are nearly forty pages of serious scholarly notes, which will be useful to the student and instructor interested in pursuing further work in this early medieval theologian. Throughout the text, Evans interweaves Latin quotations from Bernard's writings into her thoughtful analysis and commentary.

Bernard of Clairvaux was, in many ways, a master theologian but one who intellectually never ventured far from the confines of the cloister. Essentially, he was a monk writing and preaching the practical knowledge and wisdom of the spiritual and moral life as defined by the principles of the cloister. He sought to maintain a satisfactory contemplative life in the face of constant interruptions. A religious leader, and what Evans calls "a high profile figure", almost from the beginning (11), he became abbot at the newly founded abbey of Clairvaux when he was but in his mid-twenties. His writings offer evidence that he not only was disinterested in what we would today call academic theology, but at times, especially in his arguments with both Peter Abelard and Gilbert of Poitiers, he was positively hostile to this kind of scholarly, intellectual undertaking. Evans suggests that Bernard's responses to both Peter and Gilbert enable the contemporary reader to witness the contrast between different styles of medieval thinking. An issue confronting Bernard arose in the mid-twelfth century, which was how to deal with heresy, especially 'academic' heresy. Bernard was much closer to the monastic tradition than to the coming academic practice of the later twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Evans writes that in matters of theology, Bernard thought it "far more important not to rock the boat than to push the boat a little farther out to sea". (172)

Early on in her thoughtful analysis, Evans writes that Bernard had much to say about understanding the human condition, especially from the perspective of Cistercian monasticism. Bernard argued that all "Christians should seek to get a sense of where they stand in relation to one another and to God". (3) And to get this sense required an awareness of the proper order in our lives, our place in the world, and our relation with God. Evans notes quite perspicuously that what Bernard took as a major problem with Abelard was that this sense of rectus ordo had been breached. Bernard, as Evans writes, appears to have had a violent temper, and this temper seems to have driven him to seek resolution whenever breaches in the due order arose. As Evans notes, "A committed Bernard never did things by halves."

Through much of this study, the shadow of Augustine hovers intensely. Bernard, in many ways, is a twelfth century Augustinian. While he appears to have known the writings of Anselm, Bernard harks back to the time of Augustine for his thought patterns rather than to the Archbishop of Canterbury. He does not lean forward, as it were, towards the more balanced Aristotelianism of a Thomas Aquinas or Albertus Magnus.

The discussions of Bernard's monastic theology foster themes common to monastic spirituality. Yet there are some interesting issues found in contemporary moral theory and action theory. In discussing conscience, Bernard sounds like a "moral sense theorist" of the eighteenth century. Evans notes that Bernard lacks the sophisticated discussions of syndersis that are found in action theory in the thirteenth century. His is a good example of a practical, pastoral theology rather than any form of academic theology. Bernard focused upon, as Evans writes, "a theology of effort and self-discipline, or persistence of purpose". (41) Bernard was an effective letter writer most of his life, and these letters shed light on his principles of pastoral theology. One is reminded of the early monastic writings of Thomas Merton, probably the most famous monk of our own time.

In her discussions of Bernard's academic theology, Evans notes the difference between "animus" (intellect) and "anima" (soul). Bernard, of course, was preeminently interested in the latter. He was not associated with the fledgling schools of the day; hence, he was not trained in the give and take of academic discussion like Abelard and Gilbert of Poitiers. Evans writes that the issues here characterize well the contrast of cloister and academic school in Bernard's mind. John of Salisbury wrote perspicuously about the differences between Gilbert of Poitiers and Bernard. John noted that Bernard could be quite active in instigating attacks upon what he perceived as faults in academic theology. Bernard possessed a deep worry and concern about the study of classical philosophy. Curiosity appears, in his mind, to be the first step on the way to pride. Bernard, as Evans notes, did not understand the excitement, the challenge, the incipient adversariability common to a vibrant intellectual life. "He never sharpened his wits by challenging his master in a lecture on logic." (43) There are passages where Bernard likens knowledge for its own sake with curiosity. The role of academic theology, in a much-modified sense, is to help effect salvation by developing an "affective spirituality". Evans notes that "Bernard's categorical imperative" is salvation. The university life was observed as an obstacle to salvation, and so for the most part were academic philosophers and theologians.

Like many medieval theologians, the scriptures played an important role in the spiritual theology of Bernard. He was, as Evans puts it, a "practical exegete". Evans provides a good account of the different modes of interpretation for the biblical texts. From Gregory the Great, Bernard appropriated "four senses of the biblical texts": the literal or historical, the Tropological or moral, the allegorical, and the anagogical or prophetic. As Evans notes, no one in Bernard's day thought that there was only one meaning for a specific text in the scriptures. One finds these categories in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, for instance. In his theology, Bernard shows the influences of both Augustine and Anselm. Evans writes that Bernard's writings are more like Augustine's Confessions than Aquinas's Summa Theologiae or Summa Contra Gentiles. There are indications in the texts that Bernard wrote with a sense of linguistic style and flair; for example, "In sordibus generamur, in tenebris controvemur, in doloribus parturimur". (70)

In discussing Bernard's positive theology, Evans writes that Bernard's goal was what she calls "damage limitation". The guiding principle for Bernard's theology: "to protect and preserve orthodox belief in the minds of simple men". (73) He was, as Evans puts it, a "reactive" rather than a "proactive" theologian. Evans elucidates a good account of the Trinitarian theology of the day and indicates the divisions of the Greek from the Latin Church. She writes that William of St. Thierry was the theologian who probably exerted the most positive influence on Bernard. Like Anselm, Bernard's attention was directed to the perennial question for Christians: "Cur Deus Homo?" Hence the issues of the incarnation and the redemption color much of Bernard's positive theological writings, which are mostly found in the sermon mode with no theological treatises as such. Again, the pastoral motif looms large in Bernard's theological mode.

In the realm of negative theology, Evans suggests that there are two meanings of this concept: (a) What belongs to Christian mysticism--hence what has come down to us as the role of purgation; and (b) The thinking required to deal with heresy and schism. It is in regard to this second thrust that Bernard received a degree of historical notoriety in the narrative of western philosophy. Bernard was involved in memorable trials involving two leading academics of the day: Peter Abelard and Gilbert of Poitiers. Geoffrey of Auxerre reports on these trials in his biography of Bernard, the Vita Prima. In dealing with Abelard, Bernard was a polemicist; he was a chief member of a "reforming party" showing steady hostility to Abelard. Evans's account of these academic troubles for Abelard and for Gilbert is a highlight of this book (pp. 115 ff.). She writes perceptively that these efforts of Bernard on behalf of orthodoxy "marked a key stage in the uneasy story of the relationship between theological scholarship and the teaching office of the Church". Moreover, she notes that "these tensions were to heighten in the later Middle Ages. They have not diminished in the late twentieth century." To this reviewer, the many issues raised during the pontificate of Pius IX in the nineteenth century ring a familiar bell with Evans' analysis and exposition. The account Evans offers of the two trials Abelard endured, the Council of Soissons (1121) and the trial at Sens (1142), is most fascinating. Abelard attempted to unpack various theological conundrums, and Bernard considered these speculations to be harmful to orthodoxy. Hence the tensions between the teaching office of the Church and the role of theological scholarship. John of Salisbury provides historical evidence of the trial of Gilbert of Poitiers. Gilbert appears to have had the same academic purpose as Abelard. Through all of this, Bernard's driving force is "the duty to defend the faith". Evans suggests that the "typology" of a heretic was quite strong in the twelfth century. From an historical perspective, this chapter may indeed be the most interesting in Evans' excellent narrative on the life and work of Bernard of Clairvaux.

In discussing the role of moral theology, Bernard writes on the tension between action and contemplation and the importance of the latter for a reflective monastic life. Bernard provides an account of the four cardinal virtues. Moral philosophers will note that Bernard's analysis of the virtue of justice is strongly reminiscent of Kant's categorical Imperative. (134) In the normal medieval analysis, the four cardinal virtues are coupled with the three theological virtues. In an analysis akin to Abelard and to Kant, Bernard notes that discovering the intention is of principal importance in determining the rightness of an action. At times, Evans suggests that "there is something approaching a situation ethics in this". (137) On matters of law, Evans appeals to the writings of Anselm to explicate what Bernard probably held. Like Plato, "Justice is above all a device for ensuring that the strong do not always win". (146) Evans notes that Bernard appears to be concerned with due process. Yet in the trials of Abelard, such due process appears to have been stretched in Bernard's favor. Evans needs, I suggest, to amplify this, at least, apparent opposition between Bernard's theory on the importance of due process and his practice in dealing with theological opponents.

The final chapter deals with political theology. This set of issues is like Augustine's emphasis on the direction of history towards the city of God. Nonetheless, Bernard was active in the political arena of his day, and he was an extremely practical politician. Evans writes that "Bernard's De Consideratione is his City of God". (156) The failure of the Second Crusade, for which he preached vibrantly, hung over Bernard for some time. He once wrote, with keen insight, that ill-prepared leaders are "governed more by ambitio and avaritia than by any true sense of their duties". (164) A perspicuous insight indeed.

There is a useful bibliography of secondary source materials, in which the reader immediately notes the editions of several of Bernard's works published by Cistercian Publications at Kalamazoo; this indicates the importance of this Institute at Western Michigan University for serious medieval scholarship.

This is a quite readable narrative that is well researched, well developed, and well documented. It is part of an ambitious and thoughtful series on medieval thought. The book certainly meets the expectations of the series. A stellar achievement for students of medieval philosophy and theology.