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.
The pursuit of knowledge as encouraged in the Proverbs of Solomon had been replaced by mindless obedience, asceticism and reliance on authority. 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. […] While impressed with Aristotle’s system, had they embraced it uncritically, it would have proved a dead end – and it nearly was, taking 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*. […]
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. They 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 stands. It is not the structure alone, but the rock-solid foundation, that keeps it upright.
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. […] [The] 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 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!
I like the man. It is good for me – and other Christians – to remember Hugh of St. Victor, and use that memory to press on!