28 July 2010

Auctoritas in Hugh's Didascalicon

Per Joseph Patterson’s recommendation, I bought (for less than $6!) and am now reading Ivan Illich’s fascinating In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon. Though I am already nearly finished, I couldn’t resist the urge to go back to the very first chapter for a brief post. There, Illich discusses the first sentence of the Didascalicon of Hugh of St Victor: Omnium expetendorum prima est sapientia, in qua perfecti boni forma consisti. In Jerome Taylor’s translation, which Illich calls ‘a masterpiece’, this is rendered, ‘Of all things to be sought, the first is that Wisdom in which the Form of the Perfect Good stands fixed.’ [1]

First, Illich points out, ‘By connecting wisdom with “the form of the perfect good”, [Hugh] signifies that he accepts the meaning of Varro’s definition [of the good], but as it was received and changed and handed on by Augustine.’ [2] But of course, the statement itself comes most immediately from Boethius, ‘who subtly but significantly modified Augustine’. [3] So in De consolatione philosophiæ III.10 we read, Omnium igitur expetendorum summa atque causa bonum est, [4] which Illich quotes as, ‘Of all things to be sought the first and the reason why all others [sic] things are pursued is the Good . . .’ [5]

But the most interesting bit to me was at the end of this section on the opening sentence, where Illich introduces the mediæval idea of auctoritas. He writes:

For the contemporary reader the incipit was immediately recognized as an auctoritas, a sentence worthy of repetition. When Cerimon the Lord of Ephesus in Shakespeare’s Pericles ‘by turning o’er authorities’ has ‘built such strong renown as time shall ne’er decay’ (Pericles, act 3, sc. 2, lines 33, 48), he does not say that he had subverted established power, nor that he had consulted weighty authors, but that reflecting on a number of authoritative sentences he had established his reputation of mighty wisdom. Authorities, in this now obsolete sense, are sentences which created precedents and defined reality. When Hugh picks this auctoritas as his keynote, he does not appeal to Boethius for his prestige. The sentence states an obvious truth precisely because it had been disembedded from the discourse of this or that particular author; it had become a free-floating statement. As such a verbal institution, the auctoritas quoted by Hugh became an exemplary testimony to untouchable tradition. [6]

It may not be that they disagree entirely, but I find Illich’s focus on the notion of auctoritas a significant difference from C.S. Lewis’s references to the notion of the auctour in The Discarded Image. Lewis speaks of ‘the overwhelmingly bookish or clerkly character of medieval culture’, calling the Middle Ages ‘the age of authorities’, and noting, ‘Every writer, if he possibly can, bases himself on an earlier writer, follows an auctour: preferably a Latin one.’ [7] Lewis in this passage certainly seems to be speaking of ‘weighty authors’ and not ‘authoritative sentences’, and certainly, as an illustration of the ‘bookish or clerkly character of medieval culture’, it is far from Illich indeed. A significant part of the latter’s thesis is that what he calls ‘the new clerical culture’ was a rather late development (mid-1100’s) and it seems that the shift of focus from words to their authors could be part of that development. [8] Perhaps when Lewis speaks of ‘medieval culture’ he really means, or is speaking more truly of, late mediæval culture.

But at any rate, I find the idea of ‘authoritative sentences’ serving as ‘exemplary testimony to untouchable tradition’ a fascinating one which seems to demonstrate the continuity of the earlier part of the Western Middle Ages with the culture of the Desert Fathers (as described, for instance, in Douglas Burton-Christie’s The Word in the Desert).

[1] Jerome Taylor, tr., The Didascalicon of Hugh of St Victor: A Medieval Guide to the Arts (NY: Columbia, 1991), p. 46.

[2] Ivan Illich, In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1996), p. 9.

[3] Illich, p. 12.

[4] Boethius, Tractates, The Consolation of Philosophy, tr. H.F. Stewart, E.K. Rand, & S.J. Tester (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 2003), p. 282.

[5] Illich, p. 12.

[6] Ibid., p. 13.

[7] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval & Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002), p. 5.

[8] Illich, p. 84.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for pointing out this distinction between Illich and Lewis. The comparison had not occurred to me.I am glad you enjoyed Illich's book. Thanks for the post.

Joseph Patterson

aaronandbrighid said...


You're welcome. And thank YOU for the wonderful recommendation!

It really does seem that Lewis is not only working within the clerical/scholastic tradition of studium, but that it is the works of that tradition (albeit on the literary rather than theological side of things) that is the primary object of his study. It is not surprising that he would understand 'authorities' in terms of authors and texts rather than in terms of the 'living' word.


Taylor said...

Lewis is perhaps, as you suggest, describing later, high medieval literature rather than the middle ages as a whole. Dante's Virgil is likely as explicit an example of personal auctoritas as one could find. Thomas Aquinas' references to Aristotle as The Philosopher is another, though less striking, example. It may also be that both personal and impersonal forms of auctoritas persisted throughout the middle ages - personal more in the realm of poetry and literature and impersonal in the realm of philosophy.