A Down-to-Earth Thinker

Lately, I’ve been reading through a 12th-century book called Didascalicon which was written by Hugh of St. Victor. Hugh was a theologian who lived at the Abbey in Saint Victor of Paris and became influential to many thinkers throughout the centuries, though his name is largely unknown to the average reader today. 

The Didascalicon is somewhat of an encyclopedic manual for spiritual and intellectual growth. It not only covers the classical “liberal arts” (Quadrivium: arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy), but it also surprisingly includes the “mechanical arts,” of which he lists seven umbrella categories: fabric making, armament, commerce, agriculture, hunting, medicine, and theatrics. Woodworking and carpentry fall under his classification “armament” because “[s]ometimes any tools whatever are called ‘arms’…meaning implements.” He lists crafts involving “stones, wood, metals, sands, and clays” under this category.

He explains: “The constructional [type of armament] is divided into the building of walls, which is the business of the wood-worker and carpenter, and of other craftsmen of both these sorts, who work with mattocks and hatchets, the file and beam, the saw and auger, planes, vises, the trowel and the level, smoothing, hewing, cutting, filing, carving joining, daubing in every sort of material – clay, stone, wood, bone, gravel, lime, gypsum, and other materials that may exist of this kind.”

For a medieval theologian to include the mechanical arts in a “didascalic” manual (essentially a guide to education), was quite unusual. In this inclusion, Hugh ennobled the manual skills to place they had not been previously, especially in the realm of philosophy.

I think this holistically integrative vision of “head, heart, and hand” is a recipe for a truly transformative learning experience. It’s not enough to theorize about something. Until your sleeves are rolled up and there are callouses on your hands, you will be stuck in your basement wondering what’s it’s like to be out there in the world. The good news is that we all (as embodied beings) are not stuck wondering, and no one is hampered by a lack of qualification from the “right” institutions. We have all been given bodies so that we may experience the world in all its richness. Whether it’s saw or auger, trowel or level, or good old fashioned digging in the dirt, we all have the means to engage the world in some way. 

In his section on understanding the nature of the Biblical text, Hugh explains it in terms of Divine masonry: “You remember, I suppose, that I said above that Divine Scripture is like a building, in which, after the foundation has first been laid, the structure itself is raised up; it is altogether like a building, for it too has its structure. For this reason, let it not irk us if we follow out this similitude a little more carefully. Take a look at what the mason does. When the foundation has been laid, he stretches out his string in a straight line, he drops his perpendicular, and then, one by one, he lays the diligently polished stones in a row. Then he asks for other stones, and still others, and if by chance he finds some that do not fit with the fixed course he has laid, he takes his file, smooths off the protruding parts, files down the rough spots, and the places that do not fit, reduces to form, and so at last joins them to the rest of the stones set into the row. But if he finds some to be such that they cannot either be made smaller or be fitly shaped, he does not use these lest perhaps while he labors to grind down the stone he should break his file.”

If you ask me, we need more down-to-earth thinking like this these days.



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