The Wise Learn by Doing

The purpose and point of learning were questions that kept Grosseteste awake at night and dominate his surviving writings. From the treatise on the liberal arts, the first paragraph of which stresses the place of the arts in leading human operations to perfection by correcting the, to the sermons, dicta and later theological writings, the ends to which learning are directed are never far from the surface of Grosseteste’s thought. In this he was hardly unique, although his questions and reflections provoke particular interest. As Sigbjørn Sønnesyn showed in his fascinating seminar to the Durham Medieval Thought Seminar, the ways in which twelfth century western thinkers raised questions on the purpose of learning were connected intimately to their knowledge of, and engagement with, ancient models and lived experience in community. Aristotle, Augustine and the author known as Pseudo-Dionysius are amongst the most dominant of the classical and patristic authors used by thinkers of the high medieval period. Medieval familiarity with these authors followed different contours, following the course of new translations, collections and interpretative frameworks. In the same period new communities, monastic and educational, proliferated and evolved: it is from these institutions for example, that the medieval universities of Oxford, Paris and Bologna emerged.  Sigbjørn’s presentation brought all of these elements together to question how medieval thinkers thought, and why they did so. For those that could not be there, some snippet sections of the lecture are included as part of this post.

Sigbjørn concentrated on the place of ethics within medieval learning, examining in particular the works of John of Salisbury (c.1120-1180), Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), Bernard of Chartres (d.c.1130) and Hugh of St Victor (1096-1141). To treat the positions of Cistercian, Augustinian and secular thinkers allows the stronger currents of similarity between them to be identified over and against the differences of institutional or individual circumstance. The place of imitation, introspection and communal practices in which a shared set of principles are embodied formed the principle aspects explored. In the twelfth century, ethical knowledge was held to be architectonic, that is to say, that the purpose of learning was essentially moral. Human life was considered as best when  directed towards a set goal; a notion inherited from the Greeks, reaching a climax in Aristotle. As Augustine would put it, the  purpose of philosophy is to attain happiness, with moral knowledge as a prism through which other areas of learning are perceived, as well as being a good in itself. This binding of moral growth and intellectual progress formed a significant area of continuity between classical and patristic attitudes in both monastic and scholastic environments.

The importance of training in ethics is emphasised as much as in any other form of knowledge and its acquisition. For Thomas Aquinas (on whose feast day the lecture took place), the adequate student of moral knowledge must be well-led in habits of civic life. Ethical behaviour is achieved through experience as, for example, when concupiscence is conquered by abstinence. Self-reflection in this sense is a reflection on the self as ordered towards a particular point. Epistemology and Ethics cohere in human action: ethical knowledge is not acquired simply as armchair philosophy. Imitation is a central part of didactic knowledge; the student of ethics is the pupil of the virtuous man. To acquire virtue requires the student to be socialised into the community, the values of which the good man embodies.

Sigbjørn led the audience through his chosen case-studies. Bernard of Clairvaux stressed repeatedly the book of experience,  and regularly admonished the audiences of his sermons to contemplate their actions. Bernard moved further than this, however. To experience yourself is essential to empathise with others, but to experience and imitate Christ, the perfect human being, lies at the heart of this process. Imitation and active reflection on the imitation was, for Bernard, the central part of human trial towards truth.

This was not confined to monastic mysticism. The example of another Bernard, of Chartres, a celebrated Parisian master of the first half of the twelfth century, speaks to similar practices. Those who recalled Bernard’s teaching emphasised how he compelled his audience to imitate the teaching and its point. Grammar, for example, was far more than classroom exercise: moral prayer is the point of grammar. A moral way of life is therefore not added to grammatical knowledge as a pious hope, but rather as part of its essential aim. Hugh, at the abbey of St Victor, employed a similar programme: the wise learn by doing.

The implications of Sigbjørn’s presentation are considerable. The further dissolution of a longstanding and overly-rigid distinction made within modern scholarship between monastic and scholastic communities in the Middle Ages is important. So, too is the emphasis that across different educational forums in the period the same purposes for learning are to be observed. For the Ordered Universe project it might raise, again, the question of the relationship between knowledge and morality (does this pertain to modern science?), as well as the importance of experience within interdisciplinary research.

Asked about the place of the observation of nature within a scheme of ethical knowledge, Sigbjørn gave the following reply:


The intertwining of ethics and epistemology, of morals and learning, in the twelfth century is a healthy reminder too, to today’s intellectual communities, from undergraduates onwards: the acquisition of knowledge is a long process of mastery and apprenticeship and one that relies on individual action in the context of a community worthy to be emulated.

4 thoughts on “The Wise Learn by Doing

  1. David Thomson January 30, 2016 / 5:13 pm

    Reblogged this on Bishop's Blog and commented:
    It’s very good indeed to have Sig’s reflections here both in summary and on film. Grammar and the arts have been a big part of my own academic study and working with Sig and the Ordered Universe project have helped me crystallize for myself the essential relationship between the study of the arts – the whole business of “a liberal education” – and the restoration within God’s purpose of the world to his intended order. Three cheers for a non-utilitarian philosophy and purpose of education.

    • sigsonnesyn February 1, 2016 / 1:38 pm

      Three cheers and an amen to that, Bishop David! Thanks for your comment – I would also like to point out that you are a very good example of the highly comforting fact that we still have committed clergy who do serious academic research.

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