Hugh of St. Victor

c. 1096 - 1151
by David F. Coppedge

A remarkably clear thinker and learned man, Hugh of St. Victor advocated knowledge and investigation of the natural world. He had remarkable scientific insight for someone living six centuries before the rise of modern science, and he built his philosophy squarely on the foundation of the Bible, especially Genesis.

Looking back over the past millennium, our roster of creation scientists begins with a teacher named Hugh, from the abbey school of St. Victor outside Paris. He gained notoriety for barring flower arranging in the monastery, rebuking it as a waste of time for those devoted to higher contemplations. It was this incident that gave us the phrase, “Hugh, and only Hugh, can prevent florist friars.”  (Not really, but a little pause for levity before considering 1000 years of science doesn’t hurt.) Actually, he probably admired flowers as an illustration of the wisdom of the Creator.

Hugh of St. Victor illustrates that medieval Europe should not be labeled with that disparaging anachronism, “the Dark Ages.” A remarkably clear thinker and learned man, he had no time for superstition and magic, but instead advocated knowledge and investigation of the natural world. He had remarkable scientific insight for someone living six centuries before the rise of modern science, and he built his philosophy squarely on the foundation of the Bible, especially Genesis.

Reaching back a thousand years, we are not looking for a fully fleshed out scientific philosophy, but for distinctive beliefs that would eventually set it in motion. Important among these are the doctrine of God, the philosophy of nature, and the role of man. Scientists today avoid thoughts of God, yet depend on the theology and philosophy of the early natural philosophers who changed the way people view God, the world, and man: instead of capricious acts of warring gods, intelligent design by a wise Creator; instead of magic, law; instead of superstition, creative investigation by minds made in the image of God. Scholastic philosophers of the middle ages had many faults and were wrong about many things (as are we), but they laid intellectual foundations that could hold up a skyscraper of science. Modern science today is an atheistic facade on a theistic superstructure. Not only the foundation but much of the interior that holds up the structure was built largely by creationists, and they were building on the Word of God.

In this series of biographies, we intend to present real historical characters with wrinkles and all. Including someone in this hall of fame does not imply advocating everything the person believed and taught. Hugh was clearly medieval in a time flooded with false notions about Scripture and nature. He was undoubtedly influenced by classical texts available to him. Of all civilizations to this time, the Arabs and Greeks had come closest to a true scientific understanding of the world. Europe owed much to their contributions. But in both civilizations, science never became self sustaining, and eventually faded. Meanwhile, the Catholic church had corrupted Biblical views of God, man, and the world. The pursuit of knowledge as encouraged in the Proverbs of Solomon had been replaced by mindless obedience, asceticism and reliance on authority.

Hugh of St Victor (public domain)

The influx of Greek manuscripts (especially Aristotle) via the Arabs, and their advances in mathematics and medicine, seemed to be a wake up call to medieval scholars. Aristotle’s system, though cogent and comprehensive, was a mix of good logic and nonsense. His man-centered views were often contrary to the Bible. European Christian philosophers needed to re-evaluate their core beliefs, and some looked deeper into the Bible for answers. While impressed with Aristotle’s system, had they embraced it uncritically, it would have proved a dead end – and it nearly was. It took centuries to dethrone Aristotle as the default expert on everything. Those who knew the Bible, and trusted its authority, were the ones who saved science from this fate*. Hugh of St. Victor exemplified these who built natural philosophy on the Scriptures. In time, this view would provide a more fertile soil for science than classical philosophy..

Dan Graves in Scientists of Faith says, “His assumption was simple: because the Bible is God’s reliable word, Christians need not fear scientific inquiry. All truth, when fully understood, will support all other truth. But to make sense of the world’s obscurities, we must start from that which is plain” (Graves, p. 18, emphasis added). “All nature expresses God,” Hugh said, and “Nature is a book written by the hand of God.” Such statements would be common later, but they reveal a profound difference in world view from the animist or pantheist: nature is a thing, an object other than God. As a material system made by a transcendent Creator, it can and should be studied as a means to gain wisdom.

Medieval scholars like Hugh of St. Victor also reveal a profound difference from the Greeks and Arabs, whose theologies diminished the role of God as Lawgiver and sustainer of the world. Greek gods were as mischievous as humans; why trust them? The Allah of the Muslims was sovereign to the point of capriciousness; his actions were unpredictable. Arabs had their Koran, but this collection of rambling, unclassified oracles of dubious origin (written down long after Mohammed had died), rarely intersected with verifiable natural phenomena or historical events. The Koran and the Bible are poles apart. The Bible was written by 40 authors over many centuries, and contains thousands of names of people and places and events that can be cross-checked against other sources. Only in the Bible is there the balance of law and grace, the consistent standard of righteousness, the appeal to think and reason, the frequent exaltation of creation as the work of an omniscient God, and the consistent linear timeline from creation to consummation. No other sacred book in the world compares with it. This was the rock on which Hugh of St. Victor and his successors started building their science. It worked. The storms came, and the winds blew, but the structure stood. It is not the structure alone, but the rock-solid foundation, that keeps it upright.

Born in what is now Germany, Hugh was one of the masters of the abbey of St. Victor near Paris for many years. His writings were widespread throughout Europe. In theology, he was Augustinian; some historians classify him as Platonist in philosophy, living at the time right before Aristotle’s works were reintroduced to the West. But labels do not tell all. Though undoubtedly familiar with Plato (the Timmaeus was the only Platonic work available at the time), Hugh was also an original and critical thinker, as were many medieval scholars. He believed in interpreting the Scriptures literally: not slavishly, but wherever the context permitted it. “Biblical literalism” is often a term of derision today, the assumed antithesis of scientific thinking, but Hugh’s hermeneutic (method of interpreting Scripture) was actually a stimulus for science. Dan Graves explains his reasoning:

In order to fully understand its literal meaning, one must study the sciences that shed light on such things. Whether one wishes to reconstruct the design of Noah’s ark, date Easter, calculate chronologies, or understand Biblical weights and measures, sciences are needed. Curiosity then is a natural expression of reason, revealing the image of God that the Creator breathed into humanity at its creation.

Investigating the natural world and making discoveries, therefore, are to be thought of as worthy—even essential—ambitions. Hugh also saw work and technology as virtuous, based on Paul’s admonitions (e.g., Ephesians 4:28), contrary to Greek scholars who considered manual labor beneath their dignity. He himself worked with mirrors, geometry, and classification of the sciences. One of his best-known works is the Didascalicon or teacher’s manual. It discusses what is to be taught, and why. In this “remarkably comprehensive early encyclopedia” (according to Encyclopedia Britannica), Hugh acknowledged Greek science but saw the Bible as superior. He specifically denounced the logical errors of Epicurus and other classical philosophers who relied on reason alone. Instead, Hugh advocated mathematics for logical validity and precision.

Hugh of St. Victor held to a literal six-day interpretation of the Creation account in Genesis and viewed it as an archetype of the divine wisdom to which man can aspire. Jerome Taylor explains that Hugh specifically contradicted some of his contemporaries (like William of Conches) who tried to compromise Genesis with Greek philosophy, feeling that “the ancients were but laborers upon an inferior truth, while to Christians, to the sons of Life, was reserved the consummation of truth.” Instead of allegorizing Genesis like others, Hugh insisted that “the chaos [of Gen. 1:2] literally existed and that its ordering in an equally literal six-day period is a mystery, a ‘sacrament,’ through which the Creator determined to teach the rational creature that it must rise from the disorder of its initial and untaught existence to an intellectual and moral beauty of form conferred by the divine Wisdom.” This allegorical meaning extends from, but does not replace, the literal meaning and historical actuality of the Creation account.

Another original contribution by Hugh of St. Victor that fostered the development of science was the idea that learning has redemptive value. In the Didascalicon, he listed three consequences of the Fall: it damaged man’s relationship to God, his understanding of the world, and his body. Hugh taught that learning could ameliorate some of the consequences of the Fall in each of these areas. For the relationship to God, after one is redeemed through the sacrificial atonement of Christ, a person can grow closer to God through the study of theology. For the loss of natural knowledge that Adam had enjoyed, the redeemed man could regain some of it through the study of nature and the liberal arts. For redeeming the body, one could regain some control through the “mechanical arts” such as medicine.

Line drawing from “Is Genesis History?” (Compass Cinema)

In his redemptive view of science, Hugh originated a list of mechanical arts to complement the seven liberal arts. Each of these Hugh derived directly from the Genesis accounts of Creation and the Fall. (1) Fabric-making is needed because man is naked and not endowed with fur like other animals. (2) Armaments are necessary because man does not have the large teeth or claws of animals. (3) Commerce helps reconcile nations who have become alienated through selfish ambitions; it calms wars, strengthens peace, and turns the private good of the individual into the benefit of the many. (4) Agriculture helps compensate for the “sweat of the brow” that Adam had to endure after the expulsion from Eden. (5) Hunting formalizes the skills needed to obtain food. (6) Medicine overcomes the loss of original perfection of the body. And lastly, (7) Theatrics, if virtuous, can provide relaxation and refreshment to the mind.

The ground was cursed because of sin, but the stewardship role of humanity did not end.

Notice that Hugh’s method strove to build a system of inquiry directly on Scripture, specifically Genesis. Whether his list was complete or useful to modern teachers is not the point; Hugh fostered the systematic pursuit of useful knowledge from the study of nature. Most important, he taught that the pursuit of natural knowledge was a priority for the Christian. It was a way for human beings to partially recover from the effects of the Fall. Once redeemed by grace through faith in Christ, the man of God can embark on a path leading back to the wisdom of God.**

In these concepts, we see liberation of the Christian life from asceticism and authoritarianism – two corruptions of New Testament teaching that distorted theology after Constantine. Hugh of St. Victor encouraged his students to search for truth about the world. He said, “the intention of all human actions is resolved in a common objective: either to restore in us the likeness of the divine image or to take thought for the necessity of this life, which, the more easily it can suffer harm from those things which work to its disadvantage, the more does it require to be cherished and conserved” (p. 54). He went on to explain how science breeds both understanding and remedy for harms, that these are wise and just, and thereby noble outworkings of the divine image. Hugh commended logic and disciplined thinking. He repudiated magic (including fortunetelling, divination and astrology) as “the mistress of every form of iniquity and malice, lying about the truth….”

This does not sound like the Dark Ages, does it? The Didascalicon is obsessed with classifying things and pursuing knowledge, wisdom and virtue. Though antiquated in many respects, it contains core concepts that are like fertilizer and rain for deserts of authority and superstition. It helped cultivate a soil in which the fruitful vine of science could grow.

One of his best-known quotations is: “Learn everything; you will see afterwards that nothing is superfluous. A skimpy knowledge is not a pleasing thing” (p. 137). It must be recognized that he was speaking here of Bible study; he was arguing that one should not skip over the historical narratives: “Some things are to be known for their own sakes,” he explained, like the ethical principles of the New Testament, but other passages, like the detailed genealogies of I Chronicles, “although for their own sakes they do not seem worthy of our labor, nevertheless, because without them the former class of things cannot be known with complete clarity, must by no means be carelessly skipped.” Then he stated the “Learn everything” line. While it would be invalid to lift his proverb out of context, we do see Hugh’s passion for knowledge and clarity of thinking, a passion that extended to all scholarly endeavor. What a contrast to the surrounding civilizations!

Where does Hugh of St. Victor stand at the headwaters of scientific thought? Encyclopedia Britannica states, “Hugh’s somewhat innovative style of exegesis [including literal interpretation of Genesis] made an important contribution to the development of natural theology: he based his arguments for God’s existence on external and internal experience and added a teleological proof originating from the facts of experience…. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Hugh upheld secular learning by promoting knowledge as an introduction to contemplative life.”

In closing, let Hugh of St. Victor speak for himself from ten centuries ago:

Now there are two things which restore the divine likeness in man, namely the contemplation of truth and the practice of virtue. For man resembles God in being wise and just — though, to be sure, man is but changeably so while God stands changelessly both wise and just. Of those actions which minister to the necessity of this life, there are three types: first, those which take care of the feeding of nature; second, those which fortify against harms which might possibly come from without; and third, those which provide remedy for harms already besieging us. When, moreover, we strive after the restoration of our nature, we perform a divine action, but when we provide the necessaries required by our infirm part, a human action. The former type, since it derives from above, we may not unfittingly call “understanding” (intelligentia); the latter, since it derives from below and requires, as it were, a certain practical counsel, “knowledge” (scientia).

*Dan Graves looks even earlier. He describes John Philoponus, an Alexandrian Christian scholar (late sixth century), an early critic of Aristotle, as exemplifying these same principles of Christian natural philosophy. It is unlikely he was alone in his views. And according to Graves (Scientists of Faith, pp. 15-17), Philoponus knew prominent early Muslims in Alexandria, and may have influenced their science with his insistence on the transcendence of God (as opposed to pantheism) and natural law (as opposed to constant intervention by God). Perhaps the Islamic scientists were indebted to Christian thought more than is commonly assumed.

**Jerome Taylor, in his introduction to the Didascalicon, claims that Hugh believed in “the spiritual perfectibility of man—a concern which dominates the whole of his theology” (p. 13), but this appears to be a distortion. In Book Six, Hugh clearly expressed the need for repentance and grace (p. 139). The pursuit of wisdom, knowledge and virtue is wholly in accord with New Testament teaching for the redeemed. The apostle Paul pressed toward the mark for the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14). Perfection may be unattainable, but that does not devalue the pursuit of it. In the words of a locker room poster, “Reach for the stars.  If you don’t make it, you’ll land pretty high anyway.”

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