Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Mathematical TheologiesNicholas of Cusa and the Legacy of Thierry of Chartres$

David Albertson

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780199989737

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199989737.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use.  Subscriber: null; date: 17 September 2019

Thierry’s Diminished Legacy

Thierry’s Diminished Legacy

(p.140) 6 Thierry’s Diminished Legacy
Mathematical Theologies

David Albertson

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explains why Thierry of Chartres’s innovative ideas had little impact on later medieval Christian theology before Cusanus. His early readers attended to his theology of the Trinity but were overshadowed by the turn against Platonism in the later twelfth century. The anonymous treatise De septem septenis, influenced by Latin Hermeticism, celebrated Thierry’s triad but conflated it with his four modes. The conservative Clarembald of Arras tactfully censored his master Thierry’s more daring claims by cloaking them in Augustinian vocabulary. Finally, one anonymous treatise from the late Middle Ages, Fundamentum naturae, brilliantly critiqued Thierry’s four modes and his doctrine of folding. Informed by Aristotelian scholasticism and echoing Augustine, Fundamentum charged that Thierry’s theology of the quadrivium and its mathematical mediation jeopardized the sovereignty of the divine Word as sole mediator. Thierry’s reception history underscores the tensions between his theology of the Word and his embrace of Neopythagoreanism.

Keywords:   Thierry of Chartres, De septem septenis, Hermeticism, Clarembald of Arras, Fundamentum naturae

THIERRY OF CHARTRES crafted a remarkable Trinitarian model out of the least promising of materials. His Boethian commentaries sketched the outlines of a whole new species of Christian mathematical theology founded not on abstraction but on geometrical folding. After centuries of delay, western Christianity finally revisited and appropriated critical moments in the genesis of Neopythagoreanism for the first time. And yet, despite the widespread personal esteem of his contemporaries, Thierry’s efforts had only scant immediate influence. When we attempt to track the after-effects of his achievements in subsequent decades, the trail quickly grows faint. In part Thierry was simply the victim of shifting fashions in the schools of Paris. New scientific translations were flooding into Latin Europe from Jewish, Islamic, and Byzantine traditions, changing the subject away from the Platonism in which the school of Chartres had invested. Masters simply found these newly accessible versions of Aristotle’s tidy handbooks more pedagogically useful.1 By the turn of the thirteenth century, Chartrian Platonism already seemed naïve.

Yet if we leave the story here, the eclipse of Thierry’s theological program can seem almost necessary, a planned obsolescence that cleared the way for a new era. There are other factors to consider when weighing the causes and the legitimacy of Thierry’s diminished legacy, beyond the turn to Aristotle in the thirteenth century. Some are more local, and some have a longer term, even into the present. In the first place, it must be said that Thierry picked the worst possible decade of his century to test out a novel Trinitarian analogy. Just a few years prior, a fellow Breton, Peter Abelard, had been castigated from all sides for his suggestion that the Father, Son, and Spirit could be known more originally as divine Power, divine Wisdom, and divine Goodness (potentia, sapientia, benignitas or bonitas).2 Abelard’s proposal was tied up with his idiosyncratic views of language and reason in theological method. But his soon notorious triad succeeded in provoking an unprecedented degree of investigation into the semantics of such triadic formulae. Thierry’s quadrivial reading of Augustine seemed to merit the same suspicion, and too often the same strategies for resisting or evading Abelard’s questions were simply redeployed against Thierry. (p.141)

By the 1160s, Peter Lombard’s Sententiae had begun to consolidate an emerging consensus among networks of early scholastics. Triads assigned to the Trinity, they concluded, fall into two categories.3 Some are “proper” names, and others are “appropriated” or “attributed.” Proper names denominate real differences among the three divine persons. The Father is the Generator because that is exactly what it means to be Father; the Spirit is the one who spirates. Appropriated names designate, strictly speaking, the one substance shared by all three persons, but can be provisionally parsed out according to Trinitarian differences. Hence the Son is Wisdom because it is more fitting to call the Son Wisdom than the Father; God is Love, but one may appropriate that name especially to the Spirit. On this view, Abelard’s problems began when he construed his appropriated triad as a proper triad. Thierry clearly considered his mathematical reading of Augustine’s triad to be a proper name of the Trinity. He was convinced that unity, equality, and connection are not essential attributes like beauty or goodness, but are definitions of paternity, filiation, and spiration themselves, such that the category of number (the quadrivium) can be wielded in theology as a primary means of authentically naming God. But after Thierry’s death, the most influential early scholastics—from the young Porretani Simon of Tournai and Alan of Lille, to the magisterial Peter Lombard and Richard of St. Victor—classified Augustine’s mathematical triad otherwise, lumping it together with Abelard’s triad as two classic instances of appropriated names. It was this view that influenced the giants of the thirteenth century, effectively silencing Thierry’s distinctive Neopythagorean interpretation.4

Until quite recently the minority report of those who sided with Thierry’s controversial reading was lost to history. Häring recovered two short anonymous texts from the 1140s or 1150s, known as Tractatus de Trinitate and Commentarius Victorinus, which praise the arithmetical Trinity at length.5 Composed by members of an inner circle familiar with Thierry’s commentaries, these student treatises represent the first moment of Thierry’s reception history. Both authors eagerly followed their master in applying the quadrivium within theology, spelling out what Thierry had left implicit, adding corroborating details, and demonstrating how the triad refutes heretics. Unlike their teacher they also took pains to list the authorities supporting his new approach, from the Gospel of John and Augustine to the Ps.-Dionysian “theology of negation.”6 Another student, Achard of St. Victor, penned a brilliant, lengthy exploration of the beauty of the arithmetical Trinity, De unitate dei et pluralitate creaturarum.7 But Achard’s work was already forgotten by 1200 and not fully restored until the 1980s. Alan of Lille concurred with Thierry’s reading belatedly in Regulae theologiae and De fide catholica, but only thirty years after his influential Summa “Quoniam homines” had urged many of his peers in the opposite direction. None of these four authors (with the possible exception of Achard) stepped beyond the confines of Thierry’s Trinitarian theology to consider his other innovations.8 (p.142)

Even if Thierry’s doctrine of the arithmetical Trinity had not slipped through the cracks of the twelfth-century schools, his vision of a Christian Neopythagoreanism still may never have been realized in the following centuries. Thierry not only wrote right after Abelard, he wrote just before the rapidly developing exact sciences took their leave from theological oversight. The Neopythagoreanism of Moderatus, Nicomachus, and Iamblichus—and its occasional survivals in the young Augustine and Boethius—had been premised upon the immediate proximity of an integrated mathematical discourse to discourse on the gods and the One. But from the thirteenth century onward, mathematics and theology retreated from each other at record pace. This is a second, more serious challenge facing Thierry of Chartres’s legacy than the swing from Plato to Aristotle or the paucity of his supporters’ writings. The very disciplinary conjunction required by Christian Neopythagoreanism, its native territory, threatened to disappear from the map altogether.

As others have explained in detail, the aging quadrivium was finally retired once mathematics had learned to expand its domain beyond static quantities. At Oxford and Paris, fourteenth-century masters like Thomas Bradwardine, Jean Buridan, and Nicole Oresme began to challenge Aristotelian natural philosophy when they discovered how to quantify motions and qualities, making it possible for the first time to render all aspects of physical phenomena in exclusively mathematical terms.9 Rather than serve the ends of contemplation as in Platonist traditions, the new mathematics sought quantitative measures of divine infinity and even divine grace.10 At the same time, the character of Christian Platonism underwent a profound transformation in the fourteenth century. In hindsight one sees just how short-lived the springtime of eccentric Boethian Platonism was in the first half of the twelfth century. It provided a rare but opportune climate for Neopythagorean ideas to flourish. But soon thereafter, Latin Christian Platonism turned to its Augustinian and Proclian lineages again, in reaction to controversies over the use of Aristotle.

The conflict between radical Aristotelians and episcopal authorities at Paris in the 1270s provoked a range of different responses in academic theology over the course of the chaotic fourteenth century.11 A central part of the story concerns the genesis of so-called “nominalism.” By elevating God’s absolute freedom beyond the reach of every metaphysics of participation, William of Ockham and others worked to minimize the influence of ancient Neoplatonism on Christian theology. Augustinians like Bradwardine (again) and Gregory of Rimini found that a sharper distinction between reason and faith helped to restore a salutary focus on grace, salvation, and the Church.12 But in other quarters the Parisian condemnations encouraged a modest renaissance of Christian Neoplatonism. Dietrich of Freiburg and Berthold of Moosburg sought rather to strengthen the old alliance with Neoplatonism by investing in Ps.-Dionysius, the Liber de causis, and (p.143) new translations of Proclus. Already in the thirteenth century, Albert the Great, Bonaventure, and Meister Eckhart had discovered that such Proclian sources could illuminate the workings of the Christian Trinity. In the fifteenth century the Albertist school in Paris and Cologne would follow the same agenda.13

As we have seen, despite their differences, the Augustinian and Proclian traditions agreed that arithmetic, and mathematics generally, could not take pride of place within Platonist theologies. So unlike the Boethian Platonism of Bernard of Chartres or Thierry of Chartres two hundred years before, these streams of thought now seized on Logos and the motion of cyclical emanation as alternatives to mediation by Arithmos. Albert linked Christ as the medium of creation to the order of the Ps.-Dionysian hierarchies. For Bonaventure and Meister Eckhart, the divine Word is the common exemplar and principium of the procession of the Trinity and the creation of the world. The soul returns to God by recognizing the Word’s mediations either hidden within created vestigia (Bonaventure) or virtually present as the indistinct One (Eckhart).14 When mathematics no longer provides a viable mediation within Christian Platonism—when the Boethian option is foreclosed and the quadrivium has no commerce with theology—then we witness Ps.-Dionysian and otherwise Proclian Christian theologies adverting to Christological mediation. This era of late medieval theology, deprived of the Boethian “hidden tradition, ” exacerbated the structural oblivion of Thierry of Chartres’s thought over three centuries. But paradoxically it also provided the key to its reemergence, as will become clear in Chapter 7.

A final challenge facing Thierry of Chartres’s legacy is the undue focus historians have placed on the arithmetical Trinity at the expense of other doctrines. The reception history of Thierry’s theology can be divided in three parts; to date scholars have really studied only two of them, and only one adequately. The first is Thierry’s naturalistic hexaemeral exegesis in the first part of Tractatus. Much of this text was incorporated into the Chronicon of the Cistercian Helinand of Froidmont and thus passed to Vincent of Beauvais.15 Tractatus was the most frequently copied of Thierry’s works, particularly at St. Victor in Paris and in Cistercian communities in Bavaria.16 Today Thierry’s hexaemeral exegesis has been well studied. It fits neatly into existing narratives regarding the slow rise of medieval science, the twelfth-century interest in nature, and the parallels between reading books of scripture, nature, and experience.17

The second component in Thierry’s reception history is the arithmetical Trinity. As we have seen, the doctrine is expressed more or less completely within the second half of Tractatus and is amplified slightly thereafter in Commentum. But Thierry’s arithmetical Trinity is most often approached through the lens of its reappearance later in the writings of Cusanus.18 Indeed, it was this shared doctrine that first revealed the cardinal’s debt to the Breton master.19 But the frequent comparison with Cusanus can occlude a better understanding of the fate of (p.144) Thierry’s doctrine in the decades after its initial debut and before its eclipse in the mid-twelfth century. Students of Thierry are left wondering why the famed teacher failed to win more support for his brilliant triad; students of Cusanus, lacking evidence of anyone else engaging Thierry’s ideas before 1440, might assume that the German cardinal simply transcribed the triad into his texts, much like Thierry’s other students auditing his Parisian lectures. On the contrary, Cusanus changes the triad as it suits him and experiments with new applications within the altered parameters of late medieval theology, as we shall see. This ahistorical comparison has also encouraged some to vaguely classify Thierry’s efforts as “number speculation, ” rather than as a provocative, nuanced rereading of a major patristic authority.

Unfortunately the reception history of the modal theory of Lectiones and Glosa, arguably most important component of Thierry’s legacy, has been the least studied. I showed in Chapter 5 that one should not place undue emphasis on the arithmetical Trinity alone, since this was not the endpoint of Thierry’s deliberations, but their point of departure. To remedy this situation one would need to find evidence of how medieval readers interpreted not only Thierry’s triad, but also the three perpetuals, the four modes of being, reciprocal folding, and other major doctrines of the Boethian commentaries. This broader perspective on the history of Thierry’s reception would also reveal the complex potentials latent in his doctrines when combined in different permutations.

To date, however, I have found only three texts that serve this purpose. (1) The author of an anonymous twelfth-century treatise, De septem septenis, hails Thierry as his teacher and combines the arithmetical Trinity with the three perpetuals and a version of the four modes of being. (2) Clarembald of Arras proudly advertises his tutelage under Thierry of Chartres and Hugh of St. Victor. Yet despite his loyalty, Clarembald’s anxiety about some of Thierry’s doctrines is painfully evident, as he weighs the relative worth of the arithmetical Trinity, the four modes and the three perpetuals. While penning his own commentaries on Boethius and Genesis, Clarembald plays the role of polite censor, tactfully softening Thierry’s sharpest edges. (3) The recently discovered Eichstätt treatise, provocatively titled On the Foundation of Nature which the Philosophers Apparently Do Not Know, was written around the turn of the fifteenth century. Its author is conversant both with Aristotelian philosophy and with several of Thierry’s doctrines, although he never addresses the Breton by name. Educated in the regnant anti-Platonism of the fourteenth century, the author of Fundamentum naturae inveighs against Thierry’s theology of the four modes, contrasting the foolishness of subdivine mediators with the wisdom of the Verbum.

Viewing Thierry’s legacy through the prism of these few sources, however thin an archive, reminds us that Thierry’s contemporaries had difficulties understanding what he was up to and were uncertain about some basic features of his (p.145) signature concepts. It also shows the great distance that lay between Thierry’s austere lectures in the 1140s and the crowded universities of northern Europe clotted with competing schools by 1400. Nor is it an abstract exercise to read these texts closely. All three sources, including the brilliant dismantling of Thierry’s ideas in the Fundamentum naturae treatise, found their way into Nicholas of Cusa’s breakthrough work, De docta ignorantia—a riddle we will have to unravel in Chapter 7.

Confusion about Mediation

The moral value of the quadrivium and trivium was hotly contested in the mid-twelfth century. The new cathedral schools claimed to provide a practical education superior to that of the monasteries, but within a few decades came under criticism for the avarice and arrogance of their students.20 The treatise De septem septenis addressed the theme of the spiritual meaning of the seven liberal arts, but from the peculiar point of view of medieval Christian Hermeticism.21 The Greek text of Asclepius containing the teachings of the sage, Hermes Trismegistus, stemmed from second- or third-century Egypt. Translated into Latin around the time of Augustine, it exerted its greatest influence on Christianity during the twelfth century.22 Several of Thierry’s other students, like Hermann of Carinthia and Bernardus Silvestris, frequently referenced another contemporary Hermetic work, De sex rerum principiis.23 John of Salisbury, cultured observer of the Chartrian circle and the Parisian schools, was long believed to be the author of Septem, but this has been discredited.24 Nevertheless, the author’s concerns about the moral and exegetical value of the quadrivium fit squarely within the mid- to late-twelfth century.25

The text of Septem has seven sections, each of which lists seven terms. The author refers twice to “my teacher” (magister meus) and is obviously familiar with several of Thierry’s formulae.26 Unlike other texts by Thierry’s earliest students, Septem combines Thierry’s doctrines from several different Boethian commentaries and mixed these with a stew of other influences. This leads us to believe that the author of Septem faced the challenge of distinguishing, combining, and editing Thierry’s different concepts toward his own ends. The peculiar way that Septem ended up reshuffling different doctrines in the final section of the treatise demonstrates how imperfectly Thierry was understood by early readers. But before turning to that passage we can establish two other points of contact that betray the Breton master’s influence.

First, like Thierry, the author of Septem considers how the quadrivium and trivium ought to relate to theology. He places himself within the Pythagorean lineage in pursuing scientia as a means to wisdom and virtue. The seven liberal (p.146) arts lead one to eruditio, an integrated theoretical and spiritual knowledge of divine things.27 The author lists the quadrivium in the order assigned by Boethius and then defines the scientific lesson that each art conveys.28 But then he lists the more essential moral training acquired through the liberal arts; each via, as he puts it, should reform a different aspect of vita.29 The trivium instructs one how to distinguish true from false arguments, but the real goal is to become more truthful. The quadrivium should also grant moral dividends. What good is arithmetic, he asks, if it only fuels the merchant’s greed? Rightly understood, arithmetic provides the basic operations for reading scripture: addition (history), subtraction (allegory), division (tropology), and multiplication (anagogy). Music trains one in ethical harmony (concordia morum) amidst the dissonant voices of life. Geometry teaches measure and equality, leading the passions to the mean. Astronomy teaches wonder-filled reverence for divine providence.30

These seven disciplines, considered wisely, are seven ways for the soul to a life of integrity.... Therefore a well-instructed spirit gains wisdom and eloquence through these seven ways of trivium and quadrivium; in the ways and modes explained here, any soul can attain its own reformation and its passage into God. Hence through these man-made ways of the soul one perceives the universal ways of the Lord, namely mercy and truth.... Of this the Lord said: “I am the way, the truth and life”—the way by example, the truth by promise, and the life by reward, or again, the way to him, the life from him, the life in him.31

What first appears a moralizing homily on the liberal arts turns out to be a rather creative gloss on John 14. The viae of the quadrivium point one ultimately toward the revealed via of God, the way that is not only truth but also life. Hence for Septem the divine Word is the foundation of the quadrivium, ensuring that knowledge of the physical world leads one to theological insight. This conviction reflects the agenda of Thierry’s Genesis commentary.

Second, Septem repeats Thierry’s psychological epistemology from Commentum, combining Boethian terms with a miscellany of others.32 In his discussion of intellectus, the author feels compelled to distinguish it from intelligentia, recalling the ambiguity that Thierry addressed in Boethius.33 Most importantly the treatise shares several passages on spiritus theory in common with Thierry’s Commentum.34 As I noted in the previous chapter, this likely points toward a common source, given the widespread interest in Galen’s theory of the brain among twelfth-century natural philosophers. At the end of its spiritus passage, Septem echoes Thierry closely, contrasting the disciplina or doctrina of mathematics with the intelligentia of theology.35 When he posits three types of contemplation (p.147) (revelation, emission, and inspiration) in the sixth section, he recapitulates the Boethian anthropology of imagination, reason, and intelligence also used by Thierry.36

With these shared topics as backdrop, the author of Septem directly engages Thierry’s doctrines in the final section of the treatise, where he affirms the critique of the liberal arts found in Asclepius. Hermes Mercurius had scolded the learned philosophers for remaining ignorant of the deeper principles upon which their disciplines were founded.37 Likewise Septem writes that philosophers “seek the first principle and the other principles eagerly in the trivium, they pursue it keenly in the quadrivium, and they search after it subtly in the examinations of theology and philosophy. All seek this, but they do not find it, because the manner of their search and their ignorance of truth obstructs them.”38 To tutor such philosophers, Septem accordingly compiles seven fundamental principles and names the authorities behind each one. His emphasis on the credentials of those authorities makes him all the more deliberate in citing Thierry’s doctrines among this final “sevenfold”:

According to the theologians, there is one principle, God, the creator of all things; according to the natural philosophers (physici), there are three principles: matter, form, and the created spirit (that is, nature); and according to Hermes Mercurius there are four: the law of the stars, nature, the world, and the machine of the world.39

The remainder of the treatise is devoted to expounding these seven principles in turn (the two senses of “nature” are counted as one).40 The final four principles derive from Hermetic teachings.41 But “theology” and “physics” come straight out of Thierry of Chartres. Within a few lines the author will not only cite the arithmetical Trinity, but also conflate the three perpetuals and the four modes.

The first of the seven principles is that God is the eternal creator. To elaborate further, Septem layers different ancient sources upon each other, building toward the Johannine theology featured at the beginning of the treatise. Not only the Gospel of John, but Heraclitus, Hermes, Boethius, and the Sibyl have all perceived that true divine Lord is not Mars or Mercury but God’s coeternal Son.42 Then Septem apparently turns to Thierry’s lectures:

Parmenides also says: “God is the one for whom being anything that is, is being everything that is.” Again he says: “God is unity: from unity is born the equality of unity. But the connection proceeds from unity and the equality of unity.” Whence, therefore, Augustine says: “To all those who perceive rightly, it is clear why from sacred scripture the doctors assign unity to the Father, equality to the Son, connection to the holy Spirit. (p.148) And although from unity is born equality, connection proceeds from both; yet they are one and the same.” This is that unity of three, as Pythagoras taught, which alone deserves to be adored.... Indeed I would conjecture that whoever desires to consider that true unity, letting go of the mathematical point of view, must raise the soul to the simplicity of intelligence.43

For the author of Septem, the arithmetical Trinity handed down by his master was in turn bequeathed to Augustine from Parmenides, and ultimately from Pythagoras. This divine One, already worshipped by the ancients, is not opposed to mathematics, but is rather its foundation. This is precisely the view that Thierry had developed across his lectures on Genesis and Boethius.

The author of Septem promised that the next three principles would derive from the physici. But once he names them, we see that they are simply Thierry’s trinity of perpetuals. The author follows Thierry’s wording in Commentum very closely: “from this high and eternal trinity descends a certain trinity of perpetuals. For matter descends from unity, form from the equality of unity, and the created spirit or nature from the connection of both.”44 This means that Septem names Thierry as a physicus as well as magister meus. Finally, he conflates the three perpetuals with Thierry’s four modes of being. Notably Septem uses the preliminary version of the four modes in Commentum (deus uel necessitas, formae rerum, actualia, and possibilitas) instead of the mature version found in Lectiones.45

These are three principles, descending from the first principle. Hence my master says that the first principle is eternity, which since it is immutable is called necessity. The second principle is matter, which because it is capable of receiving all forms is called possibility. The third principle is form, which because it determines matter in one state or another, is called finality. The fourth principle is the created spirit, who because it is the universal motion of things, is called actuality.46

Septem then attempts to link Thierry’s third perpetual (“created spirit”) to the various Hermetic principles of nature.47

Thierry’s signature in the Septem treatise is unmistakable, especially once the differential development of the Boethian commentaries has been properly taken into account. But by combining Thierry’s terms together under the pressure of his sevenfold system, the author strains well beyond his master’s theological intentions. Thierry juxtaposed the mathematical and perpetual trinities, but he never mixed either of them with the four modes, even in their nascent form in Commentum. For Thierry’s goal, even from his early meditations on Genesis, was to articulate how the Creator remains immanently within the causal or modal structures of creation. Septem’s conflation of the triads with the four modes has (p.149) the opposite effect. He counts the first mode as a “first principle” and separates it off from the lesser “three principles, ” namely the fourth, second, and third modes, which correspond to the triad of possibility, form, and created spirit. Hence the subtle effect of Septem’s combination is to lift the transcendent divine principle above the fray of the cosmic principles of the physici. The theologians alone preserve the name of the divine Son; the natural philosophers are free to juggle Hermetic principles as they see fit, since they merely pertain to the created order. This division of labor is altogether contrary to Thierry’s theological program. Nevertheless, Septem’s evident confusion about the distinct varieties of mediation in Thierry’s thought seems the unintentional by-product of his enthusiasm as a former student. The author had no qualms about passing down the doctrines he learned from Thierry without revision, particularly those from Commentum.48 Other readers of the Breton master did not agree.

An Augustinian Censor

Clarembald of Arras (d. ca. 1187) proudly counted himself as a student of both Thierry of Chartres and Hugh of St. Victor.49 He studied under Hugh before the Victorine’s death in 1141 and under Thierry between 1136 and 1146 in Paris. By 1152, Clarembald was the provost of the cathedral school at Arras, and by 1156, he was promoted to the archdiaconate, a transfer from academic to church affairs. Before his death in 1187, it seems that Clarembald enjoyed two leaves from his administrative work to lecture at the famed school of Laon. During his first stay (1157–9) he wrote two commentaries on Boethius, and during his second (1165–8) he wrote a commentary on Genesis.50 According to Clarembald, all of these were intended as tributes to Thierry’s similar works, but also as rebuttals of the theological errors of Peter Abelard and Gilbert of Poitiers.51 Judging from his citations, Clarembald evidently had access to the full complement of Thierry’s extant works. Yet Clarembald’s writings were more independent from Thierry than the early student treatises and are more conservative than the melange of esoteric sources in Septem. Because Clarembald excerpted Thierry so frequently, we can watch as he weaves together the master’s different commentaries, revealing his own interests and, at times, his discomfort.

Clarembald spoke out against the controversial views of Abelard and Gilbert. Did he question Thierry’s provocative doctrines in the same way? In the first modern evaluation of Clarembald, Wilhelm Jansen contended that Clarembald “disregards those dangerous statements [by Thierry] that admit only a pantheistic interpretation.”52 Häring finds in Clarembald a sense that “after the bold sweeps of Thierry’s speculations a time of calm appraisal was clearly needed to assess their value.”53 What remains to be explored, however, is exactly how Clarembald (p.150) amended Thierry’s signature doctrines, with what resources and by what canons. Since his commentaries relied so heavily upon Thierry’s works and covered similar territory, it is possible to peer over Clarembald’s shoulder, so to speak, as he subtly revises Thierry’s four modes of being in particular. For it was this doctrine, not the arithmetical Trinity, that Clarembald considered the most provocatively avant-garde of Thierry’s work. Among the texts we possess by Clarembald, his efforts at loyal correction had two stages.54 First, his Tractatus on Boethius’s De trinitate resituated Thierry’s doctrines safely outside their original speculative context and circumvented potentially problematic passages. Then after a short commentary on De hebdomadibus, Clarembald went out of his way to address the issue again in his Tractatulus on Genesis. This time he deployed an authoritative text from Augustine in order to buttress the orthodoxy of the four modes of being. Yet by doing so he inadvertently indicated some of the latent ambiguities in Thierry’s theology.55

Anxieties about Mediation

Clarembald states that his commentary on Boethius’s De trinitate, the longest of his extant works, has two purposes. By “imitating the lectures” of his teachers, Thierry and Hugh, he will vindicate the orthodoxy of Boethius and provide a better guide than Gilbert’s notoriously difficult gloss.56 But in fact Clarembald makes selective use of Thierry’s doctrines once he arrives at the critical De trinitate II. To explain the Boethian division of sciences he follows along with Thierry’s Commentum, avoiding the fuller commentary in Lectiones. When he reaches Boethius’s difficult theory of God as form, Clarembald calls upon “my teacher” for assistance and begins to cite from Thierry’s Commentum II.18–19. But as we have seen, this was the problematic passage where Thierry had first tested (and rejected) an early ontological model of the four modes without the architecture of folding, then returned to the arithmetical Trinity, and finally added the trinity of perpetuals.

At this juncture Clarembald conspicuously decides to ignore the trinity of perpetuals and to focus instead on the arithmetical Trinity. Like his teacher, he focuses on aequalitas within the triad, citing verbatim from every paragraph of Thierry’s Commentum on the arithmetical Trinity.57 But then in the midst of discussing the Son as equality, Clarembald abruptly pivots to Lectiones. He cites the mature version of the four modes with several modifications. Clarembald devotes twice as much attention to the second mode of necessitas complexionis as to the other modes. He defines the concept in his own words: “from this absolute necessity descends the necessity of enfolding or of enchaining, by which those things which are enfolded in absolute necessity from eternity are dispensed in the continuity of times as if through causes enchained together and enfolding themselves.”58 This gloss alters his teacher’s account in several ways. Clarembald envisions the (p.151) complexio of the second mode as a causal chain (concatenatio) descending from the first mode.59 Thierry had described the descent of alterity from unity, mutability from immutability, inequality from equality, and the trinity of perpetuals from the arithmetical Trinity.60 But Thierry never applied “descent” to the four modes, whose relations were deliberately structured by reciprocal folding in lieu of such ontological subordination.61

Beyond these piecemeal adjustments, Clarembald’s decision to juxtapose Commentum and Lectiones itself modifies Thierry’s theology at a deeper level. First, it effectively decouples Thierry’s four modes from the division of sciences that had impelled Thierry to posit his modal theory in the first place. In Lectiones and Glosa, the first mode relates to the second mode as theology relates to mathematics. In Clarembald’s commentary, by contrast, the four modes are transformed from a metadisciplinary theory of science into an arbitrary ontological system. Clarembald’s editorial choices also lead him to omit (or censor) two key passages from Commentum. He skips over II.28 (the nascent four modes) and II.39 (the trinity of perpetuals) and instead focuses only on the middle section on the divine Trinity (II.30–38). If his goal was to benefit from his teacher’s unique doctrines, why avoid these passages? Given his intimate familiarity with Thierry’s commentaries, it is conceivable that Clarembald knew Lectiones to be the mature version of the four modes and observed that Thierry discontinued the trinity of perpetuals there as well. This would be more convincing if Clarembald did not return straight to both omitted passages the next time he discussed Thierry’s four modes, in his later commentary on Genesis. It seems better to ask what these two passages held in common that raised his suspicions.

Clarembald apparently found something objectionable in Commentum II.28 and II.39. In the first passage, Thierry defends Plato’s theory of primordial matter, and in the second passage he describes matter and form perpetually descending from the Trinity. To Clarembald’s eyes, Thierry’s dalliance with Plato raised the specter of eternal matter and the conflation of the Holy Spirit and the world-soul. Clarembald had frankly corrected Abelard and Gilbert for their perceived doctrinal errors. So when his former master appeared to flirt with heterodox ideas, it seems that Clarembald tactfully looked the other way, passing over the offending sentences from Commentum in silence. As we shall see, Clarembald postponed his treatment of Thierry’s trinity of perpetuals until his later Genesis commentary. For by that time he had devised a way to cloak Thierry’s controversial doctrine in the mantle of Augustine.

In the intervening years before that Genesis commentary, Clarembald penned a short gloss on Boethius’s difficult De hebdomadibus, in which we see him making further alterations to necessitas complexionis.62 He repeats the model of “descent” from his first Boethius commentary. But now, picking up a thread in Thierry’s Commentum, Clarembald also tries to connect the modal theory with Johannine (p.152) Logos theology. Thierry had studiously avoided this eventuality by segregating the arithmetical Trinity from the four modes. The results of Clarembald’s experiment are somewhat awkward:

For in absolute necessity all things are constituted from eternity in a certain enfolded simplicity. In it, they are what they are, as John, the greatest of theologians, witnesses: “What was made had life in him.” And since they are “life in him, ” the descents [descendentia] through necessitas complexionis to εἱμαρμένη now result manifestly in definite possibility and are subject to fate.63

In this revealing passage we see that Clarembald envisions the four modes as a kind of emanation from higher to lower levels of being. Instead of relating the first two modes through reciprocal folding as Thierry had, Clarembald describes discrete tiers of vertical “descents” passing from God (the first mode) down “through” an intermediary plane (the second mode) into actual beings subject to fate (the third mode). If his intention was to domesticate the second mode by situating it within Wisdom Christology, the ultimate effect was rather to render the function of the divine Word superfluous. For in this brief account, at least, it is the second mode that mediates divine order to creation. In Clarembald’s ill-advised revisions, we can detect a trace of the contest between Logos and Arithmos in Augustine’s theology of creation and of Thierry’s struggle to resolve it.

Paradigm Regained

In his subsequent Genesis commentary Clarembald’s concern about the respective roles of second mode and divine Word became even more pronounced.64 He intended to comment on the entire Pentateuch, but even the brief hexaemeral gloss that he completed (§§33–49) is overshadowed by his lengthier philosophical preamble (§§9–32).65 In a prefatory letter, he pays tribute to Thierry’s fame and concedes his dependency on his master’s model, and once Clarembald begins his commentary, his line-by-line debt to Thierry is obvious. But whereas Thierry dared to read Genesis according to physics and quadrivium, Clarembald reframes Thierry’s naturalistic interpretation as merely the literal sense that should ground spiritual exegesis.66 Clarembald conspicuously fails to mention Thierry’s arithmetical Trinity, which of course occupied a significant portion of his master’s Tractatus. He also says that he is writing to combat contemporary heresies. Without a proper understanding of creation, one inevitably falls into Christological errors, just as Boethius refuted Nestorius and Eutyches by exposing their philosophical failures. Thus, as Clarembald repeats several times, “on account of ignorance regarding creation” and for the sake of Christian orthodoxy, he feels compelled to set forth some philosophical principles in a protracted excursus.67 (p.153)

This philosophical preamble turns out to be Clarembald’s chance to return to his unfinished business with Thierry. Armed with texts from Augustine’s De genesi ad litteram, Clarembald is now ready to revisit both of the troublesome passages from Commentum that he had previously skipped over. Apparently Clarembald had found in Augustine precisely the warrants for Thierry’s innovations that he felt were lacking. As Häring observes, compared to Thierry, Clarembald “is more anxious to quote or refer to ideas voiced by Christian and non-Christian writers of the past.”68 Clarembald accordingly applies Augustine’s concepts to shore up both the trinity of perpetuals and the four modes of being. Perhaps Clarembald had found his answers in Augustine during the interval between his writings, or perhaps Thierry had noted the source in the classroom, and Clarembald now had occasion to revisit it. As we have already seen, Thierry did draw from De genesi ad litteram both in Tractatus and in Commentum.

Clarembald organized his excursus into four sections ordered according to Augustine’s theory of seminal causes in Book VI of De genesi ad litteram.69 His first three sections address what he calls “three inchoatives” (inchoativa), namely “primordial matter, ” “seminal reasons, ” and the motion of time. The final section discusses “four ways” (modi) that God works in creation: in the Word, in matter, in seminal reasons, and in time. Clarembald’s project in the excursus is thus to redeem Thierry’s questionable opinions in Commentum by couching them, as he writes, in terms “gathered from the holy doctors concerning the creation of things.”70 As Clarembald discusses the trinity of perpetuals and the four modes, his anxieties about the roles of the divine Word and the second mode resurface once again.

In the first place, Clarembald defines Thierry’s “three perpetuals” as “three inchoatives.”71 Augustine had drawn only a general contrast between perfected and “inchoate” creatures.72 But Clarembald renames Thierry’s triad as primordial matter, seminal reasons, and the motion of time. Most notable here is Clarembald’s attempt to spin Thierry’s second perpetual (forma) as Augustine’s rationes seminales. Unwilling to call Thierry’s perpetuals a trinitas, Clarembald can now countenance the triad provided that it is subordinated without question to the divine Son: “And we believe and declare that the Son of God is the creator of these three inchoatives.... The Son of God is the creator of the inchoate cosmos as well as the perfected cosmos—creator of inchoate things insofar as he is the Beginning; creator of perfected things insofar as he is the Word.”73 Clarembald goes out of his way to emphasize, as Augustine had done throughout De genesi ad litteram, that God created the world “in the beginning, ” that is, in the divine Word, God’s Son.74 In the remainder of the excursus, Clarembald has very little to say about the third inchoative, and his remarks on the second simply repeat Augustine’s comments on miracles.75

So Clarembald agrees to embrace Thierry’s trinity of perpetuals on account of Augustine’s “inchoative” seminal reasons. But now he also uses seminal causation (p.154) to justify Thierry’s four modes.76 Augustine had explained four distinct levels of creation on the basis of matter’s inherent “seeds.” Why couldn’t Thierry do the same? As Clarembald explains, the philosophers distinguish between “absolute possibility” and “definite possibility, ” and in this primordial matter divine Providence works as “absolute necessity...from which descends necessity of enfolding or enchaining.”77 According to Clarembald, what Thierry calls the four modes of being, “Augustine signifies by other names”:

All things, Augustine says, were made through him in the Word, in matter, in seminal reasons, in the creature. Thus Augustine calls absolute necessity the Word, that is, divine wisdom. He calls seminal reasons the hidden powers inserted in matter according to which some things are produced from others, each fittingly in its own time, through the necessity of enfolding. He calls absolute possibility matter; he calls definite possibility the creature.78

One has to admire Clarembald’s hermeneutical coup: Augustine’s system of seminal causation correlates beautifully with the four modes. This is not entirely accidental, of course, since it was conceivably one of Thierry’s inspirations in Lectiones. Clarembald is so content that he even admits Thierry’s favorite Calcidius passage on the monad and dyad and connects those Pythagorean terms to the four modes.79

Nevertheless, as before, Clarembald tacitly but substantively alters Thierry’s original doctrine, much in the pattern of his prior emendations. First, Clarembald carefully restricts divine activity to the two modes of necessity, something Thierry’s treatment does not contradict but certainly does not emphasize.80 Second, whereas Thierry strictly separates the four modes from the Trinity, Clarembald uses the folding of necessity to illustrate the role of the second person, divine sapientia. Returning again to John 1:4, Clarembald writes:

It is divine Wisdom that works in matter. And just as all natural things subsist actually and by nature in definite possibility, so also the same things exist in divine Wisdom or Providence, enfolded through a certain simplicity. Nothing exists in divine Wisdom except divine Wisdom alone. Even John the evangelist, the greatest theologian, witnessed to this, saying: “All things have life in him.”81

Clarembald’s point is that the virtual existence all creatures have in God subsists in the Wisdom or Word of God. In his view creatures are enfolded by the Word, not by the second mode. Clarembald also repeats his wholesale reinterpretation of the second mode, first vaunted in his De trinitate and De hebdomadibus commentaries, (p.155) as the mediator of a graded descent from God into matter. Again Clarembald uses descendentia to define necessitas complexionis, separating the cosmic function of the second mode from divine activity.82

Clarembald clearly took pride in vindicating his master’s Augustinian orthodoxy. After conspicuously avoiding texts from Commentum in his Boethius commentary, he recovered them in his Genesis commentary by offering tamer Augustinian substitutes. Yet his reliance on Augustine brings about unforeseen consequences. Clarembald deploys Augustine’s seminal reasons twice: once to ground the trinity of perpetuals, and once to ground the four modes (see Table 6.1).

Table 6.1 Clarembald’s twofold use of Augustine

Tria inchoativa (trinitas perpetuorum)




materia ab unitate

materia primordialis


forma ab aequalitate

ratio seminalis


motus ab conexione

principium temporalis

motus creaturae

Quattuor modi essendi




necessitas absoluta

Verbum / sapientia


necessitas complexionis

ratio seminalis

seminaliter et complicite

possibilitas determinata


actualiter et reparative

possibilitas absoluta

materia primordialis


This comparison of terms illustrates how “seminal reasons” performs two different functions for Clarembald. In the three inchoatives, seminal reasons are the primordial origin of the forms that determine matter, taking on the role of aequalitas in Thierry’s lexicon. In the four modes, seminal reasons account for the forms’ descent from the Word through the second mode into actuality.

This double burden placed upon the rationes seminales suggests that Clarembald’s quiet corrections represent more than a conservative repetition of Thierry’s thought. By bringing the two doctrines together in order to validate them simultaneously, Clarembald accidentally exposes a lingering tension in Thierry’s mathematical theology. Thierry had taken care never to combine his different doctrines. If he had, an awkward juxtaposition would have become visible (see Table 6.2).

Table 6.2 Clarembald’s comparison of Thierry’s major doctrines

Trinitas divina

Trinitas perpetuorum

Modi essendi


[Trinitas divina]

Necessitas absoluta

Pater (unitas)


Possibilitas absoluta

Filius (aequalitas)


Necessitas complexionis

Spiritus (conexio)


Possibilitas determinata

Clarembald’s interpretive operations effectively align the divine Son with the second mode. By associating the rationes seminales with both of them, Clarembald inadvertently names their similar function. Both the Son and the second mode (p.156) possess the unchanging forms of all beings, mediating between the plurality of creatures and the unity of God. So while Clarembald may have succeeded in buttressing the orthodoxy of Thierry’s perpetuals and modes, it is a pyrrhic victory that raises troubling questions about Thierry’s theology.

Is there an insuperable tension between the role of necessitas complexionis in mediating divine form (Arithmos, numerus) and the role of the Verbum in doing the same (Logos, sapientia)? Does Thierry’s modal theory, developed out of the Boethian quadrivium, remain ultimately in conflict with his theology of the Trinity? Can Thierry integrate Neopythagoreanism with Christian theology and still maintain Nicene orthodoxy? Clarembald’s reading of Thierry efficiently, if accidentally, reveals this contested zone of mediation. By translating Thierry’s ideas from their native Boethian context into the anti-Pythagoreanism of the later Augustine, Clarembald threatened to reopen the breach between Arithmos and Logos that his Breton master had struggled to heal.

A Late-Medieval Refutation: Word or Number?

I have been able to locate only one other medieval author, beyond Septem and Clarembald, who collated Thierry’s major doctrines and evaluated them together.83 This is the anonymous Eichstätt treatise titled Fundamentum naturae quod videtur physicos ignorasse, recently discovered among the volumes of a little-known German Dominican from the fifteenth century. Fundamentum discusses Thierry’s four modes of being in terms reminiscent of Lectiones and Glosa, but organizes its account around a triad of matter, form, and connecting motion, recalling the trinity of perpetuals in Commentum. The arithmetical Trinity is never mentioned. Moreover, the author of Fundamentum is quite clear about his intentions not to transmit or revise Thierry’s modal theory but to reject most of it. The treatise is difficult to date precisely, but must have been composed between 1267 and 1440—that is, well after any other known medieval reader of Thierry. To date, Fundamentum has been studied only in terms of its proximity to Cusanus’s De docta ignorantia, since the two works share several pages of nearly verbatim text in (p.157) common. I have analyzed this controversy elsewhere and explained my reasons for crediting Hoenen’s position that Fundamentum was not authored by Nicholas but rather used by him in the composition of De docta ignorantia.84

It is crucially important, however, to read the Fundamentum treatise on its own terms, and its author as an independent analyst of Thierry’s theological proposals, before considering how the text found its way into Nicholas’s book and what the German cardinal made of its ideas.85 More work remains to be done on the immediate occasion of the treatise’s composition and the contexts of its author. Yet we can already begin to situate the text by comparing Fundamentum to Thierry’s other known readers. This is not necessarily to suggest that the anonymous author had read Septem or Clarembald, nor to underestimate the centuries that lay between them. But knowing what other medieval Christian readers found distinctive, dangerous, or fruitful in Thierry’s theology can illuminate the details of Fundamentum’s particular interpretation.

Both Septem and Clarembald revered Thierry as a venerable master, but the author of Fundamentum attributes Thierry’s ideas to “the Platonists” and suspects their orthodoxy even more than the anxious Clarembald. Like Septem and Clarembald, Fundamentum combines the three perpetuals and the four modes—not to link them to Hermes Trismegistus or to amend them with Augustine but rather to condemn them as theologically unsound. What has occurred in Latin Christian theology in the intervening two hundred years between Thierry’s students and Fundamentum, obviously, is the rise of Aristotelian scholasticism. Further research will have to determine the precise affiliation of Fundamentum’s author, but two things are certain even now. First, the author represents, to date, the only confirmed Aristotelian to confront Thierry’s Neopythagorean theology. His reaction is decidedly, if not surprisingly, negative. For this reason alone the terms of Fundamentum’s critique are historically valuable. Second, the author offers an astute analysis of the logic of Platonic mediation that we have tracked from Plato through ancient Neopythagoreanism into the twelfth century. So without yet mentioning the Cusan affair, the Fundamentum treatise remains one of the most significant documents of the controversial legacy of Thierry of Chartres.86

The author of Fundamentum never indicts Thierry by name, but the treatise’s title opposes itself to someone quite like the Breton master. The works concerns “the foundation of nature of which, it seems, the physici are ignorant.” The topic under consideration is prime matter (as the author later defines fundamentum naturae) and the author’s opponents are the natural philosophers (physici) who claim special insight into nature. But the actual content of the Fundamentum treatise is a systematic presentation of Thierry’s four modes, followed by a deliberately argued refutation of two of them. Hence the author conceives of the inventor of the four modes as a natural philosopher who misconceives nature (and thus incurs theological error) by attempting to understand it through a misguided Platonism. (p.158) Thierry’s Genesis commentary interpreted the days of creation secundum physicam and discussed matter extensively. Septem’s author calls his master a physicus, and Clarembald had already worried about Thierry’s views of prime matter incurring theological error. So Thierry matches the author’s profile rather well. At the same time, the author of Fundamentum executes this critique by turning Thierry’s words against themselves. This means that although he clearly rejects the Chartrian doctrines, Fundamentum nevertheless transmits its distinctive vocabulary through its pages. A hasty reader might mistake this unrelenting deconstruction of Thierry’s thought for a summary of it.

Against Two Modes

The Fundamentum treatise is organized in four sections. First the author irenically outlines “the four universal modes of being” without a hint of the criticism to come—an unpolemical preface that makes Fundamentum susceptible to misinterpretation.87 The first mode, absolute necessity, is God. It is “the form of forms, the being of beings, the reason or quiddity of things, ” and in this mode all things are absolute necessity itself. The second mode is necessitas complexionis, and in it “the true forms of things exist in themselves, with the distinction and order of nature, just as in the mind.” The third and fourth modes treat determined possibility, in which things are “actually this or that, ” as well as absolute possibility, in which things are able to be as such.88 Together these three lowest modes of being make up one universitas, according to Fundamentum.89 Each of the subsequent three parts of the treatise is devoted to one of them. The first part is devoted to possibilitas absoluta and concerns “the possibility or matter of the universe.”90 The second part is devoted to necessitas complexionis and concerns “the world-soul or the form of the universe.”91 The third part is devoted to possibilitas determinata and concerns “the spirit of connection or the power of the universe.”92 By the beginning of the third part, it becomes clear that this organization corresponds to materia, forma, and the motus or spiritus that binds them, that is, to what Thierry called the trinity of perpetuals.

Thierry had seen no conflict between the fourth mode and the first; they both enfold all things in different ways.93 In the first part of Fundamentum the author contests this idea, arguing that the fourth mode has no existence apart from God, the first mode. According to the author, if possibilitas absoluta were to stand alongside the first mode of absolute necessity as a second absolute, it would compete with divine transcendence. His mode of argument against the fourth mode in this section relies on Aristotelian physics, draws on medieval Aristotelian handbooks, and formally resembles Aristotle’s critiques of Plato (and Pythagoreans) in Metaphysics. Like Aristotle, after reviewing the history of previous concepts of prime matter and possibility, the author contends that beings should be (p.159) understood relative to other beings, not in terms of a separate absolute, and finds Thierry’s abstract concept to be incoherent.

The author of Fundamentum wields a powerful conceptual tool against Thierry’s fourth and second modes of being, the notion of “contraction, ” or delimitation from the absolute to a reduced sphere of being. Because the world is contracted, there can be no mediators between the world and God, since such mediations claim to enjoy an uncontracted status beyond the world but less than God. But in fact, for the author, God alone is “absolute” or uncontracted. This particular sense of contractio originated within the tradition of scholastic commentaries on the Liber de causis beginning with Giles of Rome around the turn of the fourteenth century.94

Contractio operates as the basic structural principle of the author’s cosmology. By his account the universe consists of infinite degrees of difference spread out along a homogeneous continuum. But each degree, however formally identical to the others, is itself a unique combination of act and potential, which are “contracted” by one another. Together these “differences and gradations” construct an ordered progression of beings in a continuum regressing symmetrically toward two opposed endpoints: a minimum (matter, pure possibility) and a maximum (God, pure actuality).95 The cosmos is a graduated continuum of unique “degrees” of individuation that “gradually descends from the universal into the particular, and there it is contracted by means of a temporal or natural order.”96 The order of this stepwise descent is “conserved through its degrees” (servato per gradus suos).97 Hence all individuals are arranged uniquely—always singulariter, writes the author, and never aequaliter—on the continuum of discrete differences, precisely by virtue of their contraction.98 The absence of equality means that differences never repeat but relate serially in a measured progression, such that each added difference necessitates a new gradus.

As soon as one accepts the author’s argument that all possibility is contracted, Thierry’s fourfold modal system collapses: the fourth mode must either be elevated into the first mode or absorbed into the third. In effect, the author has eliminated any latent competition with divine transcendence by installing a stricter distinction between God and world:

There can be no creature that is not diminished as a result of contraction, infinitely separated from the divine work. Only God is absolute; all others are contracted. Nor does a medium arise in this way between absolute and contracted, as those Platonists have imagined who thought the anima mundi to be Mind, after God but before the contraction of the world.99

When the fourth or second modes are treated as subdivine mediators between Creator and creatures, then the principle of contraction is violated and divine (p.160) transcendence compromised. According to Fundamentum, those modes should either be identified with God (first mode) or deflated to contracted creaturehood (third mode), but they cannot hover in between after the fashion of the “Platonists.”

The author mounts two strong arguments against the fourth mode of being, both of which draw inspiration from Aristotle. First, the fact that the continuum of contracted degrees is infinitely differentiated entails that there is no “simple maximum” of act or potential that can be separated from the continuum.100 Since every instance of possibility belongs within the continuum of degrees, there is no conceivable instance of a separated, “absolute” possibility. This calls to mind Aristotle’s arguments against separable forms throughout Metaphysics.101 The second argument alludes to Aristotle’s account of causation and chance in Physics.102 In a hypothetical world in which the fourth mode did exist, writes the author, all things would exist by random chance.103 For unless all possibility were contracted to a unique “difference and gradation, ” there would be no reason why absolute possibility should produce any given being rather than another.

The author of Fundamentum concludes that once scrutinized, the fourth mode of being leads either to God or to an absurdity. Either “absolute possibility” trivially restates the idea of God or it attempts to say something about the universe. But in the latter case, possibility truly cannot be absolute. For even if a separated, abstract possibility were to precede all actuality (the world), this would not make it identical with God, and its distance from God would remain defined as a contraction of the absolute. Only God’s eternity is absolute, and it is impossible to characterize possibility in similar terms coherently. In the author’s pithy summary: “absolute possibility in God is God, but outside of God it is impossible.”104

The second target of Fundamentum’s attack is the second mode of being. Just as Thierry devoted most of his time to the second mode, the author of Fundamentum devotes his treatise’s central part to exposing necessitas complexionis as another false mediator and another threat to divine transcendence. Again the author applies the concept of contraction in order to force a dilemma: one must reduce the second mode to the Creator or to actual creation and so remove all false mediation between them. But the author notes that the second mode goes by other names, such as mens or anima mundi.105 By enunciating these alternatives, Fundamentum’s author shows that he desires to do more than simply contest the semidivine autonomy of the second mode (as in the case of the fourth mode). Even while rejecting the notion of necessitas complexionis as such, he also wishes to identify its proper function, correctly understood, within the Christian theological economy.

When the “Platonists” propose the notion of a second mode, the author believes that they name something real, but misrecognize it as the anima mundi. In his skepticism about the world-soul we already hear echoes of the twelfth-century defenders of “orthodoxy” who spoke against Abelard, William of Conches, and (p.161) Thierry when they identified the anima mundi with the third person of the Trinity. In a similar manner Fundamentum now contrasts, as mutually exclusive alternatives, Thierry’s account of the second mode and Trinitarian orthodoxy. Thus the author declares: “the necessitas complexionis is not mens, as the Platonists suppose, lesser than the Begetter, but is the Word and the Son equal to the Father in divinity, and is called Logos or ratio, since it is the ratio of all things.”106 For Fundamentum’s author, Platonist philosophers interpose false mediators between God and the world because they do not grasp the contracted nature of creation. What they mistakenly call necessitas complexionis, he avers, is in fact the divine Word. But having replaced necessitas complexionis with Verbum, the author nevertheless defines the Word’s function in the same terms. Like the second mode, the Word unifies the forms through folding “as ordered into an order.”107 The Word is the location of the truth of forms, as the “maximal truth” and “truth of truths, ” and is their ultimate ratio.108 Thus even if the Word assumes all the functions of the second mode, Fundamentum’s prohibition on mediating God and world will still hold. After all, in the mainstream Augustinian tradition, the mediating Word is itself God, and its divinity qualifies it to be the only true mediator.

So the author of Fundamentum maintains that the Platonic project of mediation is not only unnecessary, since the Trinity fulfills the same functions without jeopardizing divine transcendence. It is also a sign of one’s ignorance of the Word. The Platonists’ misrecognition of the divine Verbum as a subdivine mediator is, according to the author, their fundamental error. “Indeed the philosophers have not been sufficiently instructed concerning the divine Word and the absolute maximum, ” he writes. “Therefore they have considered the Mind and soul [of the world], as well as necessity, in a certain unfolding of absolute necessity without contraction.”109 Thierry of Chartres of course had intended complicatio and explicatio to operate as a reciprocal pair. But here Fundamentum’s author uses complicatio by itself to express the transcendence of the divine first mode.110 The text just cited is the sole instance of explicatio in the Fundamentum, and clearly it appears here only to indicate an undesirable error. The mistake of the “Platonists, ” according to the author, was to have made room for an “unfolded” second mode outside of the singular absolute of God. Where Thierry had used reciprocal folding to provide a substructure for the four modes, Fundamentum rather deftly uses it to pit one mode against another.

In the course of rejecting the second mode, the author has leaned on several of Thierry’s own ideas, from God as forma formarum to reciprocal folding. He is distraught at the notion of “plural exemplars, ” an idea Thierry embraced in Lectiones, where he located them specifically in necessitas complexionis. The author is particularly bothered by the notion of a divine Mind (mens), which Thierry of course repeatedly lauded after finding it in Macrobius. Given the author’s facility for careful reading and his evident concerns about Trinitarian orthodoxy, his silence (p.162) on one point is particularly striking. Fundamentum omits any mention of Thierry’s arithmetical Trinity or his doctrine of the divine Word as aequalitas. In several of the texts with which the author appears familiar, Thierry discussed aequalitas at length, and yet the author either overlooks or ignores such passages. Perhaps the formula was too Platonizing for the author, or perhaps he avoids Thierry’s triad because he is preparing to introduce his own alternative triad at the end of the treatise.111

Trends in Reception History

Once the critical perspective of the Fundamentum treatise is fully appreciated, it seems increasingly implausible that the text could stem from Cusanus. Whatever his relation to the treatise, it is clear that Cusanus is enthusiastic about Thierry’s arithmetical Trinity and especially the doctrine of divine aequalitas. That concept drives Nicholas’s appropriation of Ps.-Dionysian negation in De docta ignorantia I, grounds the Christology of De docta ignorantia III, and becomes the subject of an entire treatise (De aequalitate, 1459). Cusanus relishes explicatio as much as complicatio, both of which pepper most of his philosophical writings over several decades. Moreover, he makes no indications outside of the suspect passages in De docta ignorantia II that he disapproves of Thierry’s four modes.112 As we shall see, he repeats the doctrine in later works. Finally, Cusanus’s thought, more than most, fits the description of the very Platonizing theology that Fundamentum set out to disassemble. Having listened carefully to the voice of our anonymous author, does it sound at all like the German cardinal?

The author of Fundamentum dramatically contrasts two versions of mediation. One must choose either the eternal Word or the second mode, which in Thierry’s theology names the eternal mathematical order subtending the cosmos. The function in question is the same (the unification of plural exemplars, taken as forms or numbers), but the different agents entail different theological and discursive commitments. In this pivotal moment, when Fundamentum juxtaposes Verbum and necessitas complexionis, the treatise articulates with remarkable clarity the ongoing tension between Logos and Arithmos that we have witnessed over the centuries—in the plural mediators of Philo and Nicomachus, in Augustine’s debate with himself, and in Thierry’s attempt to perfect Bernard’s Platonism.

Fundamentum thereby crystallizes the moments of confusion and hesitation over Thierry’s doctrines that we observed in Septem and Clarembald. I have found no evidence that the author of Fundamentum was aware of either precedent, but viewed together, the three sources form a consistent reception of the Breton master. As self-conscious interpreters of Thierry, the projects chosen by Septem and Clarembald both reflect the challenging question that he had left unanswered. How do the new models of mediation theorized by Thierry relate to (p.163) the mediation of the Word? Septem used Thierry’s perpetuals alongside Hermetic principles to explore multiple, complementary mediations between God and the cosmos. But he also based his evaluation of the quadrivium on the supremacy of the Word. Clarembald singled out the Word as the sole mediator and took special pains to demote the duplicative second mode to something approximating Augustine’s seminal reasons. Similarly the author of Fundamentum exposes the awkward disjunction between Thierry’s theology of the Word and Thierry’s modal theory. Such formal continuities with the texts of twelfth-century interpreters indirectly support Hoenen’s contention that Fundamentum naturae stands as an independent text in the succession of Thierry’s interpreters. The treatise addresses many of the same themes raised by Clarembald and Septem but outstrips them in its sophisticated reading and elegant critique of Thierry’s modal theory. The very fittingness of Fundamentum’s response to theological problems lingering in Thierry’s wake argues for its autonomous existence within the Wirkungsgeschichte of the Breton master.

First, the comparison to Septem and Clarembald sheds light on the title of the anonymous treatise: Fundamentum naturae quod videtur physicos ignorasse. Since Septem attributes Thierry’s three perpetuals to the physici and later attributes the same triad to magister meus, it seems that he counts Thierry himself as a physicus, just as he believes Heraclitus the physicus to have been a source of Thierry’s doctrine.113 The correct theological interpretation of the principles of creation (fundamentum naturae) stood at the center of Clarembald’s Genesis commentary. Both Septem and Clarembald are frustrated with the ignorantia of their opponents. According to Clarembald, ancient heresies sprang “out of ignorance about the creation of things, ” specifically a failure to grasp the sovereignty of the divine Verbum.114 Likewise Septem predicts that philosophers will never find wisdom so long as they remain in spiritual ignorance. He belittles the “exhausted minds” of those whose studies have taught them nothing of the true principles of nature, “because their mode of inquiry and their ignorance of the truth obstructs them.”115

Furthermore, Septem and Clarembald can help to illuminate the structure of Fundamentum. Both of them combined Thierry’s three perpetuals and four modes, something the Breton master had never done. In Septem the four interlinked modes are transformed as three principles descending from the first principle: an eternal principle of necessity from which three lesser principles descend (matter, form, and spirit; or possibility, finality, and actuality). Similarly, in Clarembald’s Augustinian reading, absolute necessity is identified with the divine Word and the lower three inchoatives correspond to the Word’s creatures (primordial matter, seminal reasons, and creaturely motion). The author of Fundamentum combines Thierry’s doctrines in much the same way. The treatise is organized to link matter, form, and motion respectively with each of three modes, which considered (p.164) together make up “one universe.” Like Thierry’s prior readers, Fundamentum places the first mode above the lower three as God stands over the universe (see Table 6.3).

Table 6.3 Consistent trends in Thierry’s medieval reception history




Highest mode

  • Necessitas

  • Aeternitas

  • Verbum et Filius

  • Providentia

  • Necessitas absoluta

  • Deus

Lesser modes (collectively)

Trinitas perpetuorum

Tria inchoativa

Una universitas

Lesser modes (distinguished)

  • Materia

  • Possibilitas

  • Forma

  • Finalitas

  • Spiritus creatus

  • Actualitas

  • Materia primordialis

  • Informitas

  • Ratio seminalis

  • Forma

  • Principium temporis

  • Motus creaturae

  • Possibilitas absoluta

  • Possibilitas seu materia

  • Necessitas complexionis

  • Anima seu forma

  • Possibilitas determinata

  • Spiritus conexionis

Against the spirit of Thierry’s theology, all three authors mark off the first mode as uniquely divine, treating the latter three as lesser modes of creation. Where Septem and Clarembald count three sublevels below God, Fundamentum even more sharply separates God from creation by collectively naming the lowest three modes “one universe.” Thierry of course had consistently held that all four modes together comprise “one universe.” The whole point of the four modes was to underscore that what theology knows is the very same thing (universitas rerum) apprehended by other disciplines, just in a different way (modus).116 By combining the three perpetuals and four modes, Thierry’s readers work in perfect opposition to his intentions by dramatically intensifying God’s transcendence beyond the physical world of matter, form, and motion. The author of Septem appears oblivious of such effects amidst his enthusiasm for immanent divine principles, but Clarembald welcomes this side effect of the new Augustinian basis he gives to Thierry’s modal theory. The author of Fundamentum, however, takes on the remotion of the divine principle as the very raison d’être of his treatise.

To worry about the perpetuity of prime matter, to oppose natural philosophy and orthodox belief, or to impugn the theological blindness of philosophers—these are common gestures in Christian thought influenced by Augustine. But (p.165) they are not features of Thierry of Chartres’s understanding of creation. Thierry’s own Tractatus on Genesis, by contrast, proposes to read Genesis secundum physicam. His invocation of “philosophers” is always sanguine, commending to the reader the wisdom of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, or Boethius. And at the very center of his theological interests is a fascination with mediators: fate, nature, the world-soul, the nexus of unfolding and enfolding. Where Thierry searched for divine activity within the fabric of the created order—in causes, in numbers, in the very structure of necessity—his later readers rearranged (or in case of Fundamentum, disassembled) the balanced structure of his mathematical theology in order to elevate God beyond the need for any Platonic mediation whatsoever.

This was done not only out of their common concern to safeguard divine transcendence, but because they detected in Thierry’s writings a nascent theology of the divine Word that, in their view, should have been more central. Thierry’s earliest students, such as the authors of Commentarius Victorinus or Tractatus de Trinitate, wanted to lift out in relief any statement on aequalitas that might promote a Johannine theology of the Word as mediator. Septem assembled a motley profusion of divine mediators, but also retains a Johannine focus on the unifying via et veritas of the divine Word, using Thierry’s triads to give order to the range of ancient terms. Clarembald affirmed Thierry’s modal theory but underscored, with Augustine, that the divine Word is the exclusive source of the rationes seminales. Clearly the author of Fundamentum only intensified this same line of questioning. Students of different persuasions and centuries thus identified the Word’s mediation of the exemplary forms as the critical issue looming over Thierry of Chartres’s theological legacy. Given the fragmentary nature of the evidence, this consensus is remarkable in its continuity. But equally surprising is the way in which Nicholas of Cusa, with many of the same sources in hand, overturned this reception history within the span of one book in 1440. Suddenly, Thierry’s doctrines did not threaten a theology of the Word, but, on the contrary, impelled Cusanus to draft one of the most creative Christologies in the history of medieval Europe. (p.166)


(1) . See Ricklin, “Plato im zwölften Jahrhundert, ” 160–163.

(2) . See Reynolds, “Essence, Power and Presence of God.” Hugh of St. Victor may have innovated the triad before Abelard: see Poirel, Livre de la nature, 345–420; and Mews, “World as Text.”

(3) . On the history of the theory of appropriated Trinitarian names, see Ott, Untersuchungen, 254–266, 581–594; and Hödl, Wirklichkeit und Wirksamkeit, 5–14, 28–59.

(4) . See Albertson, “Achard of St. Victor.”

(5) . See, e.g., Tractatus de Trinitate 12–19, H 306–308; and Commentarius Victorinus 81–88, H 498–499. I discuss these treatises in greater detail in Albertson, “Achard of St. Victor, ” 112–116. They appear after the text of the sole exemplar of Thierry’s Lectiones in MS Paris BN Lat 14489, fols. 62–66 (Tractatus de Trinitate), and fols. 67–95v (Commentarius Victorinus, formerly called In titulo and attributed to Ps.-Bede). On Commentarius Victorinus, see further Bertola, “Il ‘De Trinitate’ Dello Pseudo Beda”; and Evans, “Influence of Quadrivium Studies, ” 158–163. Häring notes several reasons for dating the two works after Thierry’s Glosa, whether they were written by Thierry or by one of his students: “Especially the manner of handling the ‘mathematical’ explanation of the Trinity, based on the Augustinian dictum cited above, offers impressive evidence to the effect that both works belong to the school of Thierry of Chartres” (“Short Treatise on the Trinity, ” 128). Häring would later argue, however, that Commentarius Victorinus could well have been written by Thierry himself, noting “very striking points of contact” with the anonymous Tractatus de Trinitate (Häring in Thierry, Commentaries on Boethius, 40–45).

(6) . See, e.g., Tractatus de Trinitate 26–28, H 309–310; and Commentarius Victorinus 99–110 passim, H 501–503.

(7) . On Achard, see Achard, L’Unité de Dieu, ed. Martineau; Châtillon, Théologie, spiritualité et métaphysique; and Ilkhani, La philosophie de la création.

(8) . See Albertson, “Achard of St. Victor.”

(9) . On fourteenth-century quantification, see, inter alia, Maier, “Concept of the Function”; Maier, “Achievements of Late Scholastic Natural Philosophy”; Murdoch, “Mathesis in philosophiam scholasticam introducta”; Murdoch, “Rationes Mathematice”; and Sylla, “Medieval Quantifications of Qualities.” In a broader scope, other valuable studies of medieval “mathematization” include Lindberg, “On the Applicability of Mathematics”; Crosby, Measure of Reality; Roche, Mathematics of Measurement; and Kaye, Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century.

(10) . See Wood, “Calculating Grace”; Sylla, “Autonomous and Handmaiden Science”; Davenport, Measure of a Different Greatness; and above all, Murdoch, “From Social into Intellectual Factors.”

(11) . See Aertsen et al., Nach der Verurteilung von 1277. For a concise overview of the historiographical problems surrounding fourteenth-century philosophy (and “nominalism”), see Courtenay, Changing Approaches.

(12) . See Trapp, “Augustinian Theology”; Courtenay, Schools and Scholars, 307–324; and Oberman, “Fourteenth-Century Religious Thought.”

(13) . On medieval Proclianism, see Kristeller, “Proclus as a Reader”; and Imbach, “Le (néo-) Platonisme médiéval.” On the Albertist school, see Hoenen, “Thomismus, Skotismus und Albertismus”; and Kaluza, “Les débuts de l’albertisme tardif.”

(14) . On Albert, see Mahoney, “Albert the Great on Christ and Hierarchy.” On Bonaventure, see Dettloff, “‘Christus tenens medium in omnibus’”; and (p.344) Gerken, Theologie des Wortes. On Eckhart, see McGinn, Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart, 72–90. Bonaventure viewed number as a special vestigium of God and even made use of arithmology (see Welte, “Zahl als göttliche Spur”; and Bernath, “Mensura fidei”).

(15) . See Jeauneau, “Note sur l’École de Chartres, ” 22–23; and Häring in Thierry, Commentaries on Boethius, 46–52. In Sermon II, Helinand (1162–1237) seems familiar with Thierry’s Commentum. See “In natali Domini I, ” PL 212: 486A–498C. He expands on Thierry’s doctrine of aequalitas essendi (491C) and on his image of the Word as figura of the Father (490B–490D). Although Helinand discusses unitas and aequalitas at length, he never treats the arithmetical Trinity per se (see, e.g., 490C).

(16) . See Häring in Thierry, Commentaries on Boethius, 25, 52. Cf. Southern, Platonism, 33–34; and Ziomkowski, “Science, Theology and Myth, ” 202.

(17) . See early analyses by Flatten, “Die ‘materia primordialis’”; Parent, La doctrine de la création; Jeauneau, “Simples notes”; and Crombie, Augustine to Galileo, 13–18. More recent studies include Zimmerman, “Kosmogonie des Thierry von Chartres”; Lemoine, “Le nombre dans l’École de Chartres”; and Otten, “Nature and Scripture.”

(18) . See, e.g., Beierwaltes, “Einheit und Gleichheit”; and Trottmann, “Unitas, aequalitas, conexio.”

(19) . See Duhem, “Thierry de Chartres et Nicolas de Cues”; and Chenu, “Une définition Pythagoricienne.”

(20) . See Jaeger, Envy of Angels; Fichtenau, Heretics and Scholars, 267–280; and Ferruolo, Origins of the University, 47–92.

(21) . See PL 199: 945D–964D. The sole known manuscript is in the British Museum, London, MS Harley 3969, beginning at fol. 206. What appears to be the last page is missing, breaking off the author’s conclusion in mid-sentence: “Unde notandum, quia triplex est veritatis causarum seu principiorum inquisitio et triplex cognitio. Prima inquisitio est mathematica, quae contemplatur [...]” (Septem 964D).

(22) . The Latin Asclepius survives in six manuscripts, all from the twelfth century (Lapidge, “Stoic Inheritance, ” 103).

(23) . See Lucentini, “L’Asclepius Hermetico nel Secolo XII.” Lucentini mentions Septem only briefly as a “fragment” by John of Salisbury and notes that John mentions “Hermes Trismegistus” once by name in Policraticus. But the references to “Hermes” in Septem denote De sex rerum principiis: see “Liber Hermetis, ” ed. Silverstein, 238; and Gregory, “Il Timeo e i problemi del platonismo medievale, ” 141–142. Lucentini has edited another twelfth-century Hermetic text, possibly by Alan of Lille, in “Glosae super Trismegistum.”

(24) . Schaarschmidt considers Septem “einer bewussten, wenn auch sehr ungeschickten Nachahmung” of John of Salisbury, reminiscent of the pseudonymous De quinque septenis transmitted as a work of Hugo of St. Victor (Johannes (p.345) Saresbariensis, 278–281). Even if some of Schaarschmidt’s evidence for dating is inaccurate, recent scholarship on Septem has concurred with his conclusions. Nederman concludes that Septem “bears no tangible relation to any of John’s other writings and rightly deserves to be excised from his corpus” (John of Salisbury, 80). Cf. “Liber Hermetis, ” ed. Silverstein, 238; Dronke, Fabula, 35; and Wetherbee in Bernardus Silvestris, Cosmographia, 11.

(25) . See Meyer, Zahlenallegorese, 38–40.

(26) . See, e.g., Septem 960A. Robilliard argues that the magister could not be Thierry himself. Although Septem exhibits close knowledge of the Commentum, he says, it displays too great a “flexibility of vocabulary.” Robilliard grants that the author of Septem copies from Hugh of St. Victor’s commentary on the Celestial Hierarchy, but insists that the master in question is Richard of St. Victor (see “Hugues de Saint-Victor”). Häring notes that Septem was once attributed to Robert of Courçon and that the title occurs in a work of Isaac of Stella (Häring in Thierry, Commentaries on Boethius, 81). Nevertheless: “it seems that the writer of the De septem septenis is the first witness to Thierry’s Commentum” (Häring, “Chartres and Paris, ” 290).

(27) . See Septem 947C–948B. Septem’s statements regarding Pythagoras and quadrivium are probably related to similar references in Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalicon (I.7, III.2) and in the Liber Hermetis edited by Silverstein. As Silverstein explains, Hugh cites a work titled Matentetrade, attributed to Pythagoras, concerning the ethical aspects of the quadrivium. Hugh’s title may itself be a misapprehension of a passage in Remigius of Auxerre’s commentary on Martianus Capella that refers to Pythagoras “qui non tacuit mathen tetraden, ” that is, to his teaching (μάθησις) about the tetrad. A marginal gloss in Liber Hermetis calls the same work the “liber de doctrina quadruuii.” See “Liber Hermetis, ” ed. Silverstein, 224–225; and Hugh, Didascalicon, trans. Taylor, 20, 189–190.

(28) . Arithmetic teaches one “to divide multitudes, ” music “to return dissonance to harmony, ” geometry “to make equality out of inequality, ” and astronomy to read signs of future portents. See Septem 948C.

(29) . See Septem 948D–949A.

(30) . See Septem 949BC. The PL text should be corrected at 949B: musico for unifico and musicalem for unificalem.

(31) . “Ista septem disciplinae, sapienter consideranti, septem sunt viae animae in vitae et morum honestate.... Sic igitur animus erudientis per has septem trivii et quadrivii viae eloquentiam et sapientiam adipiscitur, et anima cujuslibet in iisdem viis et iisdem modis, quibus dictum est, sui reformationem et accessum ad Deum consequitur. Per has igitur animae vias artificiosas percipiuntur universae viae Domini, scilicet misericordia et veritas.... De qua Dominus: Ego sum via, veritas et vita; via in exemplo, veritas in promisso, vita in praemio, vel via ad se, veritas ex se, vita in se.” Septem 948D, 949D–950E.

(32) . The author lists imaginatio, ratio, and intellectus, as well as four miscellaneous powers (animus, mens, opinio, and memoria) to fill out his complement of seven. See Septem 951BC.

(33) . Septem 951D–952A. See further McGinn, Three Treatises, 55.

(34) . Compare Septem 952D–954A (“In libro vero Electionis invenitur scriptum de modo actionum eius sensualium...sine omni partium compositione comprehendit”) and Commentum II.4–7, H 69–70. Septem refers to his source as “Liber Electionis.” Silverstein has identified this work as the Liber eleccionis or Liber de electionibus by Zahel ben Bischr (Sahl Ibn-Bišr), an early medieval Arabic astronomical handbook originally edited by Octavianus Scotus (Venice, 1519) (see “Liber Hermetis, ” ed. Silverstein, 228, 236). The argument of the Liber cited in Septem, however, is notably more complete than the corresponding passage in Commentum. Most likely Septem is citing verbatim from a source that Thierry paraphrased during his lectures on Boethius (much as Clarembald fills out Thierry’s allusions to De genesi ad litteram, as we shall see). If so, this would represent Thierry’s most extensive use of an Arabic source.

(35) . See Septem 953D–954A: “In media vero parte capitis, in cellula quae dicitur intellectualis anima, cum simplex tum immutabilis, ad suam quoque immutabilitatem se recipit, et rerum formas extra materiam in sua immutabilitate considerat. Haec vis animae disciplina vocatur, quia per disciplinam et doctrinam ad hanc formarum considerationem venitur. In eadem vero cellula, qua anima formas rerum in sua simplicitate considerat, se ipsa utens pro instrumento, ita scilicet ut formam circuli non solum a materia abstrahat, verum etiam et sine omni partium compositione intelligat. Haec vis intelligentia dicitur quae solius Dei est, et praeter hoc. Differt autem a disciplina, quia haec immutabiliter rerum formas ut ex partibus compositas considerat; intelligentia vero sine omni partium compositione comprehendit.” Cf. Septem 951D–952A, where the author makes the same point before citing “Liber Electionis.”

(36) . See Septem 957C–960A; cf. Ps.-Hugh of St. Victor, Liber de spiritu et anima 38 (PL 40: 808D–809A). Septem defines the three kinds of contemplation in terms that mirror the Aristotelian-Boethian division of the sciences in Book II of De trinitate:




Cum materia et forma

Sine materia cum forma

Sine materia et forma










(37) . See Asclepius I, 12b–14a, ed. Scott, 308–311.

(38) . “Propterea hoc primum principium et caetera omnes quaerunt studiosius in trivio, inquirunt perspicacius in quadrivio, perquirunt subtilius in theologiae (p.347) et philosophiae scrutinio. Haec omnes quaerunt, sed non inveniunt, quoniam modus inquisitionis et ignorantia veritatis eis obsistunt.” Septem 964C; cf. Septem 960BC, 962D.

(39) . “Secundum diversos auctores, septem sunt rerum principia quae dicuntur causae primordiales; secundum theologos unum est principium, Deus creator omnium; secundum physicos, tria sunt principia: materia, forma, et spiritus creatus, id est natura; secundum Mercurium quatuor: lex astrorum, natura, mundus et mundi machina.” Septem 960C. The author’s schema identifies some principles with others, and suggests each is the mode of one cosmic whole. Combining the overlapping accounts yields this overview (see 962CD):


Principium rerum

[Quomodo omnia in principio]

I. Theologi

(1) Deus, Aeternitas


II. Physici

(2) Materia

Apte et possibiliter

(3) Forma

Incorporaliter et visibiliter

(4) Spiritus creatus


III. Mercurius

[(4) Natura]


(5) Lex astrorum


(6) Mundus


(7) Machina mundi

Proportionaliter et concorditer

(40) . See Septem 962AB.

(41) . The principles of De sex rerum principiis are causa, ratio, natura, mundus, machina mundi, and tempus et temporalia. See De sex rerum principiis, Pars Prima (8–40), ed. Silverstein, 248–251. On the author’s sources, see Delp, “Immanence of Ratio, ” 66–72.

(42) . Septem 960D–961B. The author’s citations from Hermes, the Sibyl, the Gospel of John, and “Augustine” in this passage stem from the fifth-century bishop Quodvultdeus, Adversus quinque haereses, III.1–21, ed. Braun, 264–268.

(43) . “Parmenides quoque dicit: Deus est cui esse quidlibet quod est esse omne id quod est. Item idem: Deus est unitas: ab unitate gignitur unitatis aequalitas. Connexio vero ab unitate et unitatis aequalitate procedit. Hinc igitur Augustinus: Omni recte intuenti perspicuum est, quare a sanctae Scripturae doctoribus Patri assignatur unitas, Filio aequalitas, Spiritui sancto connexio; et licet ab unitate gignitur aequalitas, ab utroque connexio procedat: unum tamen et idem sunt. Haec est illa trium unitas: quam solam adorandam esse docuit Pythagoras.... Opinor ideo cum qui illam veram unitatem considerare desiderat, mathematica consideratione praetermissa, necesse est ad intelligentiae simplicitatem animus sese erigat.” Septem 961BC. It is difficult to determine possible sources of this passage among the known texts of Thierry’s circle. The (p.348) best conjecture seems to be Commentarius Victorinus, which includes the first sentence quoted by Parmenides, but does not attribute the triad to him: “Et secundum theologicam affirmationis data est illa descriptio de deo a Parmenide philosopho quam utinam dedisset aliquis sanctorum: deus inquit est cui quodlibet esse quod est est esse omne id quod est.” Commentarius Victorinus 99, H 502. But Septem’s summary of the arithmetical Trinity resembles not only Commentarius Victorinus 83–85, H 498–499, but also Commentum II.38, H 80. For other possible sources of the Parmenides reference, see Häring, “Creation and Creator, ” 163.

(44) . “Ab hac ergo summa et aeterna trinitate descendit quaedam perpetuorum trinitas. Ab unitate namque descendit materia, ab unitatis aequalitate forma, a connexione utriusque spiritus creatus, id est natura.” Septem 961C. Cf. Commentum II.39, H 80: “Ab hac igitur sancta et summa Trinitate descendit quedam perpetuorum trinitas.” See further Dronke, Fabula, 178–179.

(45) . See Commentum II.18–29, H 74–77, especially II.22–23 and II.28.

(46) . “Haec sunt tria principia, a primo principio descendentia. Unde magister meus dicit, primum principium aeternitas, quae quia immutabilis est, dicitur necessitas, secundum principium: materia quae quia apta est recipere omnes formas, dicitur possibilitas; tertium principium forma, quae quia materiam in alicujus statum terminat, dicitur finalitas; quartum principium spiritus creatus, qui, quia motus est rerum universalis, dicitur actualitas.” Septem 961CD. Cf. Glosae super Trismegistum 36, ed. Lucentini, 235: “Nota quod aliter dicuntur omnia esse in anima, aliter in primordiali materia, aliter in mundiali machina, aliter in divina sapientia: omnia enim in anima dicuntur esse intelligibiliter, in primordiali materia materialiter, in mundo essentialiter, in divina sapientia causaliter.”

(47) . See Septem 961D–962D; cf. Glosa II.12–23, H 271–273.

(48) . Among Thierry’s extant texts, the three perpetuals, the nascent four modes, references to Pythagoras by name, and the spiritus theory of mind appear only in Commentum. Thierry’s interests in Hermes Trismegistus and in Augustine’s arithmetical Trinity are more pronounced in Commentum than in Lectiones or Glosa. See, for instance, the juxtaposition of John 1:4, a saying of Hermes, the nascent four modes, and the universal spiritus creatus in Commentum IV.7–9, H 97–98.

(49) . On Clarembald’s life, see Häring in Clarembald, Life and Works, 4–23; and Fortin, Clarembald of Arras, 15–30.

(50) . On Clarembald’s Boethius commentaries, see Jansen, Kommentar; Fortin, Clarembald of Arras; and Fortin and George, Boethian Commentaries. On his Genesis commentary, see Martello, Fisica della Creazione.

(51) . Clarembald, Epistola ad Odonem 2–3, 7–8, ed. Häring, 63–65. On Clarembald’s critique of Abelard and Gilbert of Poitiers, see Häring in Clarembald, Life and Works, 38–45; Jansen, Kommentar, 18–22; and Fortin, Clarembald, 44–48. Occasionally Thierry also weighed in against Gilbert; see, e.g., Lectiones II.56, (p.349) H 173. Gibson notes that several of the conservatives reacting against Gilbert of Poitiers in the 1150s stemmed from Thierry’s circle (see “Opuscula Sacra, ” 223).

(52) . Jansen, Kommentar, 148; cf. Häring in Clarembald, Life and Works, 51.

(53) . Häring in Clarembald, Life and Works, 52. As Dronke observes: “Clarembald repeats a number of Thierry’s detailed insights regarding the natural unfolding of the universe, but does not fully grasp Thierry’s underlying principles of natural explanation. Instead, he mingles sentences drawn from Augustine, seemingly unaware of the vast difference in orientation between the two writers on Genesis, so that [Clarembald’s] tractatulus, though assembling some valuable materials, uses them for little more than a banal essay in Christian apologetics” (“Thierry of Chartres, ” 381; cf. Southern, Platonism, 32).

(54) . I assume Häring’s analysis that dates Clarembald’s Tractatus on De trinitate before the Tractatulus on Genesis (in Clarembald, Life and Works, 21–23).

(55) . As Ziomkowski points out, the fact that Clarembald found it necessary in his own Genesis commentary to connect Thierry’s four modes to Thierry’s hexaemeron—something Thierry never did—is further evidence that Thierry’s Tractatus predated his Boethian commentaries (“Science, Theology and Myth, ” 380–382).

(56) . See in Clarembald’s Tractatus the Epistola ad Odonem 1–2, ed. Häring, 63; as well as his Introductio 18–19, ed. Häring, 72–73.

(57) . See Tractatus II.34–40, ed. Häring, 120–123; cf. Commentum II.30–II.38, H 77–80. Of the nine paragraphs on the arithmetical Trinity in Clarembald’s Tractatus, six concern aequalitas.

(58) . “Ab hac autem Necessitate absoluta necessitas descendit complexionis sive concatenationis cum ea, quae in absoluta necessitate complicata sunt ab aeterno, in temporum continuatione quasi concatenatis et sese complectentibus causis amministrantur.” Tractatus II.44, ed. Häring, 124–125. Clarembald repeats this definition of necessitas complexionis on two more occasions: see Tractatulus 23, ed. Häring, 236; and De Hebdomadibus III.19, ed. Häring, 201.

(59) . See Tractatus II.45, ed. Häring, 124; cf. Glosa II.20–21, H 273. On concatenatio see further Häring, “Creation and Creator of the World, ” 143; and Asclepius III, 39, ed. Scott, 362 (cited above).

(60) . See Commentum II.36, II.39, II.43, H 79–82; Lectiones II.4, H 155; and Lectiones II.25, H 163. Clarembald knows this pattern well: see Tractatulus 25, ed. Häring, 237. To be fair, Thierry does state on one occasion that “inter hec autem quasi inter extrema sunt forme rerum et actualia. Forme namque rerum a deo quasi a primo descendunt principio” (Commentum II.28, H 77, my emphasis).

(61) . See, e.g., Lectiones II.9–10, H 157–158; and Glosa II.20, H 273. One exception might be Abbreviatio monacensis De Hebdomadibus II.39–42, H 412, but even here the notion of the second mode as descent is left implicit.

(62) . On the date of Clarembald’s De hebdomadibus commentary, see Häring in Clarembald, Life and Works, 19. Schrimpf provides a thorough evaluation (see Axiomenschrift, 88–118).

(63) . “In necessitate enim absoluta ab aeterno omnia simplicitate quadam complicata constiterunt et in ea omnia erant quoad ipsa, ut Iohannes summus theologorum testatur: Quod factum est, in ipso vita erat. Cumque in ipso vita esset, descendentia per necessitatem complexionis ad inmarmenen iam se in possibilitate definita manifeste depromunt ac fato subsunt.” De Hebdomadibus III.19, ed. Häring, 201. Cf. Commentum IV.8, H 97: “Quod autem deus sit omnia testatur Iohannes Apostolus dicens omnia inquit in ipso uita erant i.e. sapientia.” This passage follows immediately after Thierry’s abortive fivefold modal system. Thierry’s appeal to John 1:4, repeated by Clarembald here, is an allusion to De genesi ad litteram V.13 (29–30), ed. Zycha, 156–157, where Augustine is constructing his distinction between rationes divinae and rationes seminales.

(64) . Häring notes that Clarembald “could not simply shake off the effects of Thierry’s lectures and made it a special point to reconcile ‘most views of the philosophers’ [viz. of Thierry] with the Christian truth” (“Creator and Creation, ” 180).

(66) . See Tractatulus 8, ed. Häring, 229; and ibid. 45, ed. Häring, 247.

(67) . See ibid. 11–16, ed. Häring, 230–233.

(68) . Häring, “Creator and Creation, ” 180.

(69) . Clarembald’s four sections cover primordial matter (§§18–25), seminal reasons (§§26–29), the motion of time (§§30), and the four modes (§§31–32). See, e.g., Augustine, De genesi ad litteram VI.10 (17), ed. Zycha, 182–183.

(70) . Tractatulus 17, ed. Häring, 233.

(71) . See Clarembald’s discussion of perpetuitas at Tractatulus 46–49, ed. Häring, 248. By contrast, Martello interprets Clarembald’s three inchoatives as a gloss on Thierry’s four modes (see Fisica della Creazione, 309–313, 319–321).

(72) . See Augustine, De genesi ad litteram VI.11 (18–19), ed. Zycha, 183–185.

(73) . “Et haec sunt tria inchoativa quorum Creatorem Filium Dei credimus et asseveramus.... Filius Dei Creator universorum est tam inchoativorum quam perfectivorum. Creator inchoativorum est secundum hoc quod est Principium. Perfectivorum vero secundum hoc quod est Verbum.” Tractatulus 17–18, ed. Häring, 233.

(74) . See, e.g., Augustine, De genesi ad litteram I.1–6 (1–12), ed. Zycha, 1–10. Cf. Tractatulus 24, ed. Häring, 237; and Tractatulus 30, ed. Häring, 240.

(75) . On the second inchoative, see Tractatulus 27–29, ed. Häring, 238–239; cf. e.g., Augustine, De genesi ad litteram VI.10 (17), ed. Zycha, 182–183. On the third inchoative, see Tractatulus 30, ed. Häring, 239.

(76) . Lapidge suggests that Clarembald’s emphasis on seminales rationes pushes Thierry’s modal theory toward the Stoic doctrine of causation as fate (see “Stoic Inheritance, ” 110–112).

(77) . See Tractatulus 21–23, ed. Häring, 235–236.

(78) . “Haec sunt itaque quattuor rerum universitates quas Augustinus aliis nominibus significans: Omnia, inquit, per ipsum facta sunt in Verbo, in materia, in seminalibus rationibus, in opere. Verbum autem absolutam Necessitatem, hoc est divinam sapientiam vocat. Seminales rationes vocat vires occultas insertas materiae secundum quas per necessitam conplexionis alia ex aliis temporibus consuete producuntur. Materiam vero vocat possibilitatem absolutam. Opus vero possibilitatem definitam.” Ibid. 23, ed. Häring, 236. (I omit Häring’s quotation marks.)

(79) . “in unitate Deum i.e. Necessitatem absolutam, in binario materiam i.e. absolutam possibilitatem ratione alteritatis constitueret, in ternario qui primus omnium numerorum medio termino connectitur necessitatem conplexionis, in quaternario qui primus opere et actu tetragonus est materiam quattuor elementorum formis vestitam hoc est possibilitatem definitam intelligeret.” Ibid. 24, ed. Häring, 236. Cf. Commentum II.28, H 77; and Calcidius, Timaeus 295, ed. Waszink, 297–298. Martello proposes Eriugena as a possible source for Clarembald’s “Pythagorean” doctrine, but this seems unnecessary in light of Thierry and Calcidius (see Fisica della Creazione, 321–326).

(80) . See Tractatulus 21–22, ed. Häring, 235–236; cf. Tractatus II.46–47, ed. Häring, 125–126.

(81) . “Divina namque sapientia in materia operatur. Et sicut omnia naturalia in definita possibilitate actu et natura subsistunt ita eadem in divina sapientia sive providentia per quandam simplicitatem conplicata. Nichil in ipsa sunt nisi quod ipsa divina sapientia est. Quod etiam Iohannes evangelista, summus theologus, testatur dicens: Omnia in ipso vita erant.” Tractatulus 22, ed. Häring, 235–236.

(82) . See Tractatulus 23, ed. Häring, 236; cf. Tractatus II.44, ed. Häring, 124–125.

(83) . One liminal case is Achard of St. Victor, who discussed Thierry’s arithmetical Trinity at length in De unitate dei et pluralitate creaturarum. There are hints that he also engaged reciprocal folding in his concept of rationes explicatrices, but this portion of his book has been lost. See, e.g., Achard of St. Victor, De unitate dei et pluralitate creaturarum I.39–42, ed. Martineau, 108–112.

(84) . See Hoenen, “‘Ista prius inaudita’”; and Albertson, “Learned Thief.”

(85) . The following pages summarize the argument of Albertson, “Late Medieval Reaction.”

(86) . If on the basis of future manuscript discoveries Fundamentum naturae is somehow proven to be an early work of Cusanus himself, all of these observations will remain valid. It seems inconceivable, future discovery or not, that De docta ignorantia precedes Fundamentum, for reasons that Hoenen has explained well (see “‘Ista prius inaudita’”). Even if Nicholas is the author of Fundamentum and De docta ignorantia, then his earlier, indubitably negative reading of Chartrian sources in Fundamentum would still be just as valuable as an initial reception of Thierry’s theology. Indeed, given the self-contradiction that the positive reception of Thierry’s ideas in De docta ignorantia would in that (p.352) case represent for Nicholas as an author, a careful study of Fundamentum would become even more important, not less. The key here is to see that whoever its author may be, Fundamentum was written to refute Thierry’s theology.

(87) . See F 4r, 448. The four sections correspond to DI II.7–10. The introductory part appears at the end of DI II.7; the subsequent three roughly correspond to DI II.8–10, with extensive additions by Cusanus, as I will discuss in Chapter 7.

(88) . “Est enim modus essendi, qui absoluta necessitas dicitur, uti deus est forma formarum, ens entium, rerum ratio sive quiditas, et in hoc essendi modo omnia in deo sunt ipsa necessitas absoluta. Alius modus est, ut res sunt in necessitate complexionis, in qua sunt formae rerum in se verae cum distinctione et ordine naturae, sicut in mente. Alius modus essendi est, ut res sunt in possibilitate determinata actu hoc vel illud. Et quartus ultimus modus essendi est, ut res possunt esse, et est possibilitas absoluta.” F 4r, 448.

(89) . “Tres ultimi modi essendi sunt in una universitate, ” F 4r, 448.

(90) . “Quos tres modos ultimos aliquantulum discutiamus a possibilitate inchoantes.... Et tantum de possibilitate seu materia universi.” F 4r–6v, 448–458.

(91) . “Anima sive forma universi seu mundi non est elementum nec ex elemento.... Et haec de anima mundi seu forma universi sufficiant.” F 6v–8r, 460–468.

(92) . “Motum, per quem est conexio formae et materiae, spiritum quendam esse.... Et hoc de spiritu conexionis seu virtute universi sufficiant.” F 8v–9v, 468–476. The manuscript ends here.

(93) . Thierry attributes the plurality and mutability of the universe to its fourth mode: see Glosa II.17, H 272.

(94) . See Vescovini, “Temi ermetico-neoplatonici”; and Catana, Concept of Contraction, 103–134.

(95) . See F 5v, 456.

(96) . “Ita quidem motus gradatim de universo in particulare descendit et ibi contrahitur ordine temporali aut naturali.” F 8v, 470.

(97) . Ibid.

(98) . See F 9r, 472.

(99) . “Et nulla potest esse creatura, quae non sit ex contractione diminuta, ab isto opere divino per infinitum cadens. Solus deus est absolutus, omnia alia contracta. Nec cadit eo modo medium inter absolutum et contractum, ut illi Platonici imaginati sunt, qui animam mundi mentem putarunt post deum et ante contractionem mundi.” F 8r, 468.

(100) . “Cadunt autem differentiae et graduationes, ut unum actu magis sit, aliud magis potentia, absque hoc quod deveniatur ad maximum et minimum simpliciter, quoniam maximus et minimus actus coincidunt cum maxima et minima potentia ut sunt maximum absolute dictum.” F 5v, 456.

(101) . See, e.g., Metaphysics 990b1–991b10.

(102) . See Physics 195b30–198b8.

(103) . See F 5v, 456.

(104) . “Quare possibilitas absoluta in deo est deus, extra vero non est possibilis.” F 5r, 454.

(105) . See F 7r, 460.

(106) . “Unde necessitas complexionis non est, ut posuerunt Platonici, scilicet mens minor gignente, sed est verbum et filius aequalis patri in divinis, et dicitur logos seu ratio, quoniam est ratio omnium.” F 7v–8r, 466.

(107) . “Unum enim infinitum exemplar tantum est sufficiens et necessarium, in quo sunt omnia ut ordinata in ordine, omnes quantumcumque distinctas rerum rationes adaequatissime complicans, ” F 7v, 466.

(108) . See F 7r–8r, 466–468.

(109) . “Philosophi quidem de verbo divino et maximo absoluto sufficienter instructi non erant. Ideo mentem et animam ac necessitatem in quadam explicatione necessitatis absolutae sine contractione considerarunt.” F 8r, 468.

(110) . See F 7v, 466; and F 8r, 468. In Fundamentum’s third part, the author also uses complicatio to define the divine rest from which all motion proceeds: “Non est ergo aliquis motus simpliciter maximus, quia ille cum quiete coincidit. Quare non est motus aliquis absolutus, quoniam absolutus motus est quies et deus. Et illa quies complicat omnes motus” (F 9r, 472).

(111) . See F 9r, 472.

(112) . McTighe’s analysis of DI II.8 (139) and DI II.9 (148) reveals the same rejection of the fourth and second modes (see “Contingentia and Alteritas, ” 60–61). Yet without the perspective added by the Fundamentum treatise, McTighe mistakenly considers this rejection inherent to reciprocal folding itself, whether in Boethius, Thierry, or Nicholas—a surmise belied by the example of Thierry himself (see “Neglected Feature of Neoplatonic Metaphysics, ” 30–34; cf. Lectiones II.66, H 176).

(113) . See Septem 960C–960D.

(114) . “de quibus nisi sciatur quid teneri debeatur multae haereses proveniunt quemadmodum ex ignorantia creationis rerum haeresis Euticiana et Nestoriana orta sunt.” Tractatulus 11, ed. Häring, 230.

(115) . “Haec omnes quaerunt, sed non inveniunt, quoniam modus inquisitionis et ignorantia veritatis eis obsistunt.” Septem 964D; cf. Septem 962D.

(116) . See Lectiones II.3–15 passim, H 155–159.