Divine Wisdom at the Root of Things: Hugh of St. Victor

Shortly before the first Gothic arches of Paris began bearing the weight of their spires, a young man arrived in Paris. His origins are unknown to us now, but his destination was clear: he had come to join the new religious community at the Abbey of St. Victor, just outside the walls of medieval Paris.He would remain there the rest of his life, writing and teaching under the name of Hugh of St. Victor until his death in 1141. That is almost all we know of the events of Hugh’s life: he had no dramatic role on the public stage like his contemporaries St. Thomas Becket and Henry II, or Peter Abelard and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. But we know a great deal of what he thought,and it is clear that there was no place more apt for the work of Hugh’s life than St. Victor.

Paris was already then a center of great activity: it was rapidly becoming the center of an intellectual and cultural revival that would spread across Europe. Scholars rushed to it to study with quick and piercing minds like Abelard’s, even as others were rushing out of it just as quickly to heed the urgent call of monastic reform led by St. Bernard. Hugh’s life at the Abbey of St. Victor was an attempt to reconcile these two great forces: on the one hand, the intellectual energies of students and schools which were soon to coalesce into one of the world’s first universities, and on the other, the spiritual urge to return to the simplicity of the apostolic life in austere Cistercian monasteries and later in the mendicant orders. Hugh took his stand on the outskirts of that rising center of Latin Christendom—in Paris but not of it—and set about building foundations of his own, shaping both minds and hearts.

hugh+of+st+victorAt St. Victor, both scholastic and monastic theology found a place,both the desire to understand the world and God through reason and theological scrutiny, and the desire to turn inward to experience the deep mysteries of Scripture and prayer. The canons of St. Victor ordered their daily lives around a rule yet were simultaneously dedicated to scholarship, to running a rigorous school both for their novices and for any other student in the city who might choose to attend. For over twenty years Hugh taught at and then governed their school, where many of Europe’s best minds came to learn.

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Long before St. Thomas Aquinas described teaching as the “handing on of things contemplated,” Hugh epitomized the ideal. Reflecting deeply on the latest advances in knowledge, he sought their meaning sub specie aeternitatis, on the path to true wisdom. His efforts were still bearing fruit over a century later: St. Bonaventure declared Hugh the master in every area of theology.

G. K. Chesterton once claimed that “the moment men begin to care more for education than for religion they begin to care more for ambition than for education.”This was as much a danger in twelfth-century Paris as it is today. As new translations of ancient works flooded into the city and the boundaries of knowledge expanded, what students learned became increasingly fragmented and channeled into mutually unintelligible specializations. At the same time, ambitious professional advancement rather than wisdom was too often the goal, so that the pious preferred rather to shun the academic world than be corrupted by it. Faced with this culture, Hugh sought to introduce a capacious unity grounded on the permanent things.

He laid out in his Didascalicon (On the Study of Reading) a program of Christian learning, in which he boldly stated, “Learn everything; you will see afterwards that nothing is superfluous” (Omnia disce, postea videbis nihil esse superfluum). Hugh did not intend thus to validate an insatiable appetite for consuming whatever came along, as if indulging in the latest ephemera were equivalent to reading Scripture.Instead, “Learn everything” was above all an affirmation that our desire for truth is legitimate, because it points us to the Truth that is the source of all truths. Yet at the beginning of the whole endeavor, Hugh insisted, lies humility, a willingness to proceed step-by-step, from the lowest to the highest. Do not be ashamed to descend, he says; from there, one rises.  Hugh’s humility sprang from a great openness to Creation and to creatures: “Learn gladly from everyone what you do not know…  You will be wiser than all if you are willing to learn from all.”Even subjects dismissed by contemporaries as unworthy of scholarly attention, he embraced: fabric-making, hunting, and theater, among other arts received a place in his pedagogical program.  These activities of daily life help clothe us, feed us, refresh us with entertainment, and so they are all indispensable elements in our pursuit of wisdom.

At the heart of all Hugh’s thinking is a deep sacramental awareness: the humble elements of Creation bear within them the healing presence of the divine, the seeds of spiritual renewal. Christ revealed this, not only when he made bread and water vehicles for God’s grace in the Eucharist and Baptism, but also, Hugh wrote elsewhere,when he used mud to heal: “by that mud which is beaten under your feet, the eye of the blind man is illumined for sight.”The visible, the real, is the path to the invisible. Hugh expressed disdain for those who wanted to leap too quickly into great spiritual ecstasies, or who sought the creator without proper awareness of the creation. For Hugh, all Creation was a sacrament: even the birds and fishes were worthy of the name. Hugh certainly understood the term “sacrament” in our modern, liturgical sense, but his expansive use of it was a salutary affirmation that the world is enchanted,that the wondrous mysteries of God are visible signs everywhere. And Hugh believed they were efficacious signs: Creation itself heals us as we observe it, study it, meditate upon it. It re-educates our eyes to see divine Wisdom at the root of things.

This is certainly the point of Scripture, Hugh says: even its lowliest events are signs of the the divine. Reading of them teaches us and heals us at the same time.But for Hugh, this was true of all that we learn: everything, properly considered, is a sacrament. Josef Pieper summarized Hugh’s approach to study: “the knowledge of reality was the prerequisite for contemplation … No kind of science exists which is not destined to be turned into contemplation.”That contemplation, Hugh believed, would lead in turn to the growth of love and virtue within the learner.

This sort of study and contemplation is a bulwark against what Hugh considered a very real spiritual danger—and one with which our own age is all too familiar—the “scattered self.” In his sermons, Hugh evoked the strong pull of distraction;he must have been particularly attuned to this weakness, looking upon the faces of students eager to keep up with the latest developments or to encounter the frenetic energies of Paris. Against such distractions, Hugh insists, we must learn to be with ourselves in a new way, to see again. To unify the scattered self and find rest for our restless hearts,he writes, you must build “the ark of your heart” out of your learning. This ark will carry you safely across the fluctuations of life or its disordered concatenations. The ark of our hearts touches the floodwaters; it must, for we are creatures in the world and we must encounter reality. But, it also floats above those waters, with its central pillar stretching up to the heavens. Looking out safely from the ark upon the waves, we can contemplate the world and engage with it lovingly.

Hugh’s program of reading and study at St. Victor did not separate the intellectual life from the life of contemplation and of charity. He united all of them—in St. Benedict’s words—in a true “school for the Lord’s service.”


  • Brian FitzGerald

    Brian FitzGerald is a professor of humanities and Latin at the College of St. Mary Magdalen in New Hampshire. He earned his D.Phil. in Medieval History from Oxford University. He has particular interest in the intellectual and religious history of Europe from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries.

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