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History of Philosophy
by Turner, William (S.T.D.)

Life. Roscelin of Compiègne was born either at Compiègne, or as is more probable, in lower Brittany, about the middle of the eleventh century. He studied at Soissons and at Rheims. In 1098 he became canon of Compiègne and taught in that city, and later at Besançon and at Tours. Among his many disciples was Abelard. On account of the great number of those who flocked to hear him and partly also on account of the development which he gave to Aristotle's dialectical doctrines, Roscelin was styled Novi Lycaei Conditor. He died about 1100.

Sources. It appears that Roscelin did not commit his doctrines to writing, contenting himself with promulgating and defending them orally. There has come down to us, however, a letter addressed by him to Abelard [1] dealing chiefly with Roscelin's Trinitarian doctrine. Apart from this document we have no sources of information except the statements of Anselm, Abelard, and John of Salisbury, who were Roscelin's opponents. Monograph: M. Picavet, Roscelin d'apres la legende et d'apres l'histoire (Paris, 1896).
[1] Migne, Patr. Lat., Vol. CLXXVIII, coll. 358 ff.

From the sources mentioned in the preceding paragraph we derive the following points of doctrine:

1. Roscelin taught that universals are mere flatus vocis. Anselm [2] says: "Illi utique nostri temporis dialectici, imo dialectice haeretici, qui nonnisi flatum vocis putant universales substantias. . . ." John of Salisbury refers the same opinion to Roscelin by name: "Alius ergo, consistit in vocibus, licet haec opinio cum Rucelino suo omnino jam evanuerit." [3] From these passages we infer that Roscelin was a nominalist, although the expression flatus vocis is obviously the phrase used by his opponents rather than by Roscelin himself to describe his doctrine.
[2] De Fide Trinitatis, Cap. 2.

[3] Metalogicus, Lib. II, Cap. 13.
2. Consistently with his nominalistic doctrines that the genus and species have no substantial unity, -- that the union of individuals in the genus or in the species is a mere fabrication of language or at most the work of thought, -- Roscelin maintained that the distinction of the whole and its parts is also the result of mere mental analysis. Thus Abelard declares: "Fuit autem, memini, magistri nostri Roscelini tam insana sententia ut nullam rem partibus constare vellet, sed sicut solis vocibus species, ita et partes adscribebat"; [4] and elsewhere, [5] after describing his former teacher as "pseudo-dialecticus et pseudo-christianus," he argues that when the Gospel tells us that Christ ate part of a fish Roscelin would be compelled to maintain that Christ ate part of a word.
[4] Ouvrage inéd., p. 471.

[5] Epistola XXI ad Episcopum Parisiensem.
3. Roscelin did not hesitate to apply his nominalism to the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity. [6] The one nature in three divine persons must, he argued, be a universal. Now, the universal has no real existence. Therefore, he concluded, the oneness of the divine nature is not real (tritheism). That Roscelin held this doctrine is evident from the references of St. Anselm, [7] from Abelard's epistle to the bishop of Paris, and from Roscelin's letter to Abelard.
[6] It is by no means certain that this is the application which Roscelin made.

[7] Cf. De Fide Trinit., Cap. 1.
4. It appears from the testimony of St. Anselm that Roscelin either taught or was suspected of teaching the tenets of sensism. In De Fide Trinitatis, Cap. 2, Anselm is evidently speaking of Roscelin's school when he says:

In eorum quippe animabus ratio, quae et princeps et judex omnium debet esse, quae sunt in homine, sic est in imaginationibus corporalibus obvoluta ut ex eis se non posset evolvere nec ab ipsis ea quae ipsa sola et pura contemplari debet valeat discernere.

In the fifth chapter of the same treatise allusion is made to the danger of passing from sensistic empiricism to rationalism: "Nolentes credere quod non intelligunt, credentes derident."

Condemnation of Roscelin. Scholastic philosophy contained from the very outset an element of rationalism, which Cardinal González [8] describes as "Un racionalismo sui generis." The Scholastic movement was the outcome of an intellectual renaissance of Christian civilization, and hence the danger arose of claiming for reason too much freedom in the domain of theological inquiry. The peril which Scholasticism had to fear was twofold: the abuse of reason on the part of the rationalist and the undue restriction of reason on the part of the mystic. Fulbert of Chartres (died 2029), Othlo of Regensburg (died 1083), and St. Peter Damian (998-1073) had already sounded the note of alarm, and had condemned the abuse of dialectic. Berengar of Tours (999-2088) had brought discredit on the Scholastic movement by his heterodox views on the question of transubstantiation, and his condemnation in 1050 by four different councils resulted in a more or less widespread suspicion of all philosophers and of philosophy itself. Under the influence of Lanfranc (1005-1089), abbot of Bec, and afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, there began what may be described as a reaction against the use of dialectic. The effect of Roscelin's Trinitarian error was similar to that of Berengar's heresy.
[8] Historia de la Filosofia (Madrid, 1886), II, 218.
At the council of Soissons, held in 1092, Roscelin was obliged to retract his heretical teachings concerning the Trinity, but he continued, apparently, to teach his nominalistic dialectic. Again, in 1094, he was cited before the council of Rheims, and again he retracted (abjuravit). Afterwards, however, if St. Anselm is correct, [9] Roscelin asserted that he retracted "quia a populo interfici timebat." Picavet [10] makes no mention of the second council, and maintains that the council of Soissons never condemned Roscelin; that, in fact, it could not condemn him, because he repudiated the doctrines attributed to him by John, a monk of the abbey of Bec. [11] Nevertheless, Roscelin was virtually condemned by public opinion, and although after his brief sojourn in England he was restored to the dignity of canon and was even allowed to teach, he gave occasion to Anselm and others to look with suspicion on the use of dialectic argumentation, and on any attempt at opposing the realism which was the traditional view, -- the antiqua doctrina, as Abelard calls it.
[9] De Fide Trinit., I, r.

[10] Op. cit.

[11] Labbaeus (X, 497) and Mansi (XX, 795) give the documents referring to the council held at Rheims in 2094. In these documents there is no mention of Roscelin.
Historical Position. Roscelin is not to be dismissed with the remark that he was "a dangerous heretic." His heretical doctrines are indeed to be deplored both because of the errors which they contain and because of the momentary discredit which they brought on the Scholastic movement; but it must be remembered that Roscelin remained faithful to his Catholic convictions, and by the strictness of his conformity to Christian ideals of conduct earned the right of criticising his contemporaries. In this respect he is to be contrasted with his pupil, Abelard, who was a rationalist devoid of all reverence for dogma and for traditional morality. Roscelin was an independent thinker who carried freedom of thought to the verge of rationalism. He represents an important phase of the Scholastic movement, -- the beginning of the age of dialectic madness, through which the movement had to pass before reaching the age of constructive activity.


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