Hugh of St. Victor and the “Secular Writings:” a Shift from Philosophical Ardor to Doctrinal Prudence?

Hugh of St. Victor and the “Secular Writings:” a Shift from Philosophical Ardor to Doctrinal Prudence?

By Elisabeth Mégier, Visiting Fellow, Medieval Institute, Notre Dame

Given at the 2011 Haskins Society Conference, Boston College

The following is the powerpoint notes from Professor Mégier’s lecture:

Hugh’s image in modern scholarship: is he a

– precursor of modern secularism
– model theologian
– or both, at successive stages
– The “secular” and the “divine scriptures”, and their relationship in the Didascalicon and in De sacramentis Christinae fidei: a change to be explored

The Didascalicon

– the work is divided into two parts, one addressed to the “reader of the secular scriptures”, one to the “reader of the divine scriptures”
– the perfect parallelism between the two parts expressed by the preface does not appear in the text

The secular scriptures in the Didascalicon

– they receive a conceptional frame: the search for wisdom = philosophy
– they comprise the whole of human studies and efforts
– they serve to restore man’s resemblance to Hod, and to alleviate the hardships of earthly life
– they demand a discipline of life
– they offer a Christian path to God without using an explicitly Christian language

The divine wisdom to be searched in the secular scriptures = Christ

– Hugh’s presentation of the secular scriptures in the Didascalicon is an outline of Christian philosophy: a presentation of the Christian message by the means of a universal philosophical language
– this Christian philosophy includes creation and “restoration” which belong both to the domain of divine wisdom, that is, to the domain of the secular scriptures
– Christ is not only the savior, but as the creator of all things

The divine scriptures in the Didascalicon

– they receive no conceptual frame, but an exclusively technical approach: criteria of inclusion, methods of reading are discussed
– their special status is based on the authority of the Church, not on intrinsic qualities
– their number and utility are limited

Hugh’s Later works

– Hugh gives up his attempt to unify the objects and fields of human knowledge, or search for knowledge, in a Christian philosophy
– instead, he devises a conceptual scheme that distinguishes between two kinds of God’s activity, and of human knowledge, called the work of creation, and the work of restoration/redemption
– to the two kinds of scriptures are now defined by their different kinds of subjects
– instead of philosophy, it is the Bible that fills in the whole space of human knowledge

De Sacramentis Christianae fidei

– Hugh uses this conceptional scheme to assess the value of the divine scriptures
– their specific status is now founded in their in subject matter, the work of restoration: the relationship to ecclesiastical authority is replaced by the relationship to God’s action
– the secular scriptures find their subject matter in the works of creation, but they have to share it with the divine scriptures which give also an account on creation
– so the formal parallelism secular scriptures-divine scriptures is reinforced at the expense of the secular scriptures


– I see a considerable difference between Hugh’s options in his early works, which he seems to have composed in a climate of scholarly enthusiasm shortly after his arrival in Paris, and his later position which might have been favoued by an experience of institutional control, but more probably by the aspiration for stability, in contrast to the intellectual disputes and calamities of life suffered by some of his contemporaries.

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