Medieval History

Selected Sources Full Text Sources Saints' Lives Law Texts Maps Medieval Films Search Help

Selected Sources Sections Studying History End of Rome Byzantium Islam Roman Church Early Germans Anglo-Saxons Celtic World Carolingians 10 C Collapse Economic Life Crusades Empire & Papacy France England Celtic States Nordic Europe Iberia Italy Eastern Europe Intellectual Life Medieval Church Jewish Life Social History Sex & Gender States & Society Renaissance Reformation Exploration
IHSP Credits

Medieval Sourcebook:
Peter Abelard (1079-1142): Prologue to Sic et Non

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was one of the great intellectuals of the 12th century, with especial importance in the field of logic. His tendency to disputation is perhaps best demonstrated by his book Sic et Non, a list of 158 philosophical and theological questions about which there were divided opinions. This dialectical method of intellectual reflection - also seen in Gratian's approach to canon law - was to become an important feature of western education and distinguishes it sharply from other world cultures such as Islam and the Confucian world. Abelard's mistake was to leave the questions open for discussion and so he was repeatedly charged with heresy. For a long period all his works were included in the later Iindex of Forbidden Books.

Peter Abelard: Prologue to Sic et Non

Here begins Peter Abelard’s prologue to Sic et Non:

(1-11) When, in such a quantity of words, some of the writings of the saints seem not only to differ from, but even to contradict, each other, one should not rashly pass judgement concerning those by whom the world itself is to be judged, as it is written: "The saints shall judge nations" (cf. Wisdom 3: 7-8), and again "You also shall sit as judging" (cf. Matthew 19:28). Let us not presume to declare them liars or condemn them as mistaken – those people of whom the Lord said "He who hears you, hears me; and he who rejects you, rejects me" (Luke 10:16). Thus with our weakness in mind, let us believe that we lack felicity in understanding rather than that they lack felicity in writing –- those of whom the Truth Himself said: "For it is not you who are speaking, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks through you" (Matthew 10:20). So, since the Spirit through which these things were written and spoken and revealed to the writers is itself absent from us, why should it be surprising if we should also lack an understanding of these same things?

(11-18) The unfamiliar manner of speech gets very much in the way of our achieving understanding, as well as the different meanings these words very often have when a given word is used with a particular meaning only in that particular manner of speech,. Indeed, each man is as well-stocked with words as he is with sense. And since according to Cicero (De Invent. I, 41, 76), "A sameness in all things is the mother of weariness" (that is, it gives rise to distaste), it is fitting to vary these words used on the same topic and not to strip everything bare with casual and common words. Such topics, as blessed Augustine said, are veiled for this reason, lest they become cheap, and the greater the effort it takes to discover them and the more difficult it is to master them, the more precious they are.

(18-43) Likewise, it is often appropriate to change the wording to suit the differences among those with whom we speak, since it frequently happens that the proper meaning of a word is unknown or less familiar to some people. Certainly if we wish, as is fitting, to speak to these people, to teach them, we should strive after their usage, rather than after proper speech, as that leader in the grammatical arts and instructor of speaking, Priscian himself, taught. Even that most painstaking doctor of the Church, St. Augustine, took this into account when he instructed the ecclesiastical teacher in the fourth book of On Christian Doctrine and warned him to leave out everything that might hinder the understanding of those with whom he spoke and to scorn elaboration and pickiness in speech, if he could make himself understood more easily without them. He said (De Doct. Christ. IV, ix-x), "As for the one who is teaching, he should not be anxious as to how much eloquence he uses as he teaches, but rather as to how clearly he teaches. A person who is eager to be careful sometimes avoids the more elegant terms. For this reason someone said, when discussing this kind of speaking, that there is in it a certain careful casualness." And further: "Among good teachers there is such a zeal for teaching that whenever the word that is neither obscure nor ambiguous does not happen to be ‘correct’ Latin, they use it anyway, just as it is spoken in common usage, to eliminate ambiguity and obscurity; thus it is spoken not as an educated person would usually say it, but as an uneducated one would. For if we are not ashamed to say ‘de sanguinibus’ [i.e. ‘concerning blood offerings’] when we translate, since people feel that it is suitable to the situation in that particular place to use the plural of a word that in Latin is used only in the singular – if this is not shameful then why should it be shameful that a teacher of the church, in speaking to an uneducated audience should say ‘ossum’ [i.e. a non-standard Latin form] rather than ‘os’, to prevent the syllable ‘os’ from being understood as the ‘os’ [i.e. ‘mouth’] whose plural is ‘ora’ instead of the ‘os’ [i.e. ‘bone’] whose plural is ‘ossa’? For what use is a properness in speech that the intellect of the listener does not follow, since there is no reason for speaking at all if the listeners for whose understanding we are speaking, do not understand what we say? Whoever teaches, therefore, should avoid all words that do not teach." And again: "It is a noteworthy quality to love the truth in the words, not the words themselves. For what use is a golden key if it cannot unlock what we desire? And what is wrong with a wooden key, if it can unlock what we desire, when we wish nothing but to open what is closed?"

(44-53) Who does not see how rash it is for one person to make a judgment concerning the sense and intelligence of another when our hearts and thoughts are revealed to God alone? He calls us back from this presumption when He says: "Do not judge and you shall not be judged" (Luke 6:37). And the Apostle: "Therefore pass no judgement," he says, "before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the things hidden in darkness and make manifest the counsels of hearts" (1 Corinthians 4:5), as if he says openly: Entrust the judgement in such matters to Him Who alone knows all things and discerns our very thoughts. Accordingly it is also written metaphorically about the paschal lamb in reference His secret mysteries (Exodus 12:10), "If there be anything left, you shall burn it with fire"-- that is, if there is anything remaining of the divine mysteries that we are not able to understand, let us keep what is to be taught aside for the Spirit through whom these things were written, rather than explaining them rashly.

(54-85) We also ought to pay close attention so that, when some of the writings of the saints are presented to us as if they were contradictory or other than the truth, we are not misled by false attributions of authorship or corruptions in the text itself. For many apocryphal works are inscribed with the names of saints in order that they might obtain authority, and even some places in the text of the Holy Testament itself have been corrupted by scribal error. Whence that most trustworthy author and truest translator, Jerome, warned us in his letter to Laeta concerning the education of her daughter, when he said (Epist. 107, 12), "Let her be wary of all apocrypha; and if she ever wishes to read such works not for the truth of dogma, but for the miracles contained in them, let her know that they do not belong to those men whose names are indicated in the inscription and that it requires great wisdom to seek gold amid the mud." The same man has this to say about the 77th Psalm (Tractatus sive Homil. in Ps. LXXVII), concerning the attribution in its title (which is like this: ‘recognized as Asaph’s’), "It is written according to Matthew (cf. 13:34-35), "when the Lord had spoken in parables and they did not understand, etc…". he said these things happened so that what had been written by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled (Psalm 77:2): "I will open my mouth in parables". The Gospel has this wording even up to today. However, Isaiah does not say this, but Asaph." And further: "Therefore let us say plainly that, as it is written in Matthew and John that the Lord was crucified at the sixth hour, and in Mark that it was the third hour –- this was a scribal error and ‘the sixth hour’ had been written in Mark, but many scribes thought it was a gamma instead of the Greek episemon [i.e. a symbol for ‘six’; it resembles gamma, which can be used as a symbol for ‘three’], just as the error was scribal when they wrote ‘Isaiah’ instead of ‘Asaph’. For we know that many churches were made up of uneducated Gentiles. Therefore, when they read in the Gospel " … that it might be fulfilled as it was written by the prophet Asaph", the first one to copy the Gospel began to say, ‘Who is this prophet Asaph? He is not known among the people.’ And what did this scribe do? In attempting to correct an error he committed one. We may say something similar about another place in Matthew; he says ‘then he brought back the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him who was priced, as it was written in the prophet Jeremiah’ (cf. Matthew 27:9). We are not able to find this in Jeremiah, but in Zachariah (cf. Zacharias11:13). Therefore you see that this is also an error just like the other." And if in the Gospels some things were corrupted due to scribal ignorance, what is so surprising if it should also happen sometimes in the writings of the Church Fathers who came later, and possessed far less authority? So if something in the writings of the saints should seem perhaps to be deviating from the truth, it is honest and in accordance with humility and appropriate to charity (which ‘believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’ (1 Corinthians 13:7) and does not readily suspect errors from those whom she embraces) that either we believe that this place in the text may have been corrupted or not translated faithfully, or that we acknowledge that we do not understand it.

(86-148) Nor is it any less a matter for consideration whether such statements are ones taken from the writings of the saints that either were retracted elsewhere by these same saints and corrected when the truth was afterwards recognized -- as St. Augustine often did –- or whether they spoke reflecting the opinion of others rather than according to their own judgment, just as Ecclesiastes often brings in conflicting ideas from different people, whence ‘Ecclesiastes’ is translated as ‘provoker’, (as St. Gregory asserts in his fourth Dialogue, or whether they left such statements under investigation as they were examining them rather than concluding with a confident solution, just as the aforementioned venerable doctor, Augustine, says that he did in his work On the Text of Genesis when he recalls this work in the first of his Retractions (II, xxiv, I): "In this work," he says, "more things were sought after than found, and of those found, very few were confirmed –- the rest, in fact, were so proposed as still to be in need of investigation." By the evidence of St. Jerome, as well, we know that this was the custom of the Catholic teachers -– that in their commentaries they would insert among their own thoughts even some of the worst opinions of heretics, while, in their pursuit of perfection, they rejoiced in omitting nothing of the ancient authors. Hence, writing in reply to St. Augustine, after he had been brought to task by Augustine concerning the exposition of a certain spot in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, Jerome said (Epist. 112, 4), "You ask why I have said in my commentary on Paul’s letter to the Galatians that Paul could not have rebuked Peter for what he himself had also done. And you asserted that the reproof of the Apostle was not merely feigned, but true guidance, and that I ought not to teach a falsehood. I respond that your good sense ought to have remembered the little preface to my commentary, because, being aware of the frailty of my own abilities, I followed the commentary of Origen. For this man wrote volumes about Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians -- I am not even including Didymus, who looked at my work, and Apollinaris of Laudicea who recently left the church, and the old heretic Alexander; these men themselves left some commentaries on this matter. I read all these things, and jumbled them up even more in my mind, and when the scribe had been called, I dictated both my own ideas and those of others." And again, "It should have been characteristic of your erudition to inquire whether what I had written was contained in the Greek sources, so that, if these sources did not say something, then you might appropriately condemn it as my own thought; especially since I openly admitted in my preface that I had followed Origen’s commentaries and had given both my ideas and those of others, so I might leave it to the judgment of the reader whether these ideas should be accepted or not." So also we have no doubt that St. Hilary and some other saints interspersed among their written opinions many ideas from Origen himself and other mistaken ones, presenting us with the opinion of others rather than their own thoughts. This situation, however, became known to us a little later, not so much through the authors themselves as through others. Hence the aforementioned ecclesiastical teacher Jerome said to the priest Vigilantius when he would excuse himself for sometimes offering or conveying the writings of Origen (Epist. 61, 2), "If this is a crime, then the confessor Hilary may be denounced, since he carried over from Origen’s works his interpretation of the Psalms and his homilies on Job." Indeed, where we find some things at variance with the truth and in opposition to the writings of the other saints, these ought to be attributed to Origen rather than Hilary, even though Hilary himself does not differentiate. Of such a sort is the passage which attempts to impute that the 1st Psalm is not to be understood about a leader, but is to be taken generally about any just man. Jerome himself, in a certain explanation of certain Psalms, also proposed this following Origen. It is not to be doubted that even Origen, as he himself attests, possibly proposed some ideas entangled with great errors by following the opinion of others. Thus Jerome, in writing to the priest Avitus, as he gathered the complicated errors that Origen put forth in his book Concerning Beginnings, spoke thus concerning Origen (Epist. 124, i, 4), "After such a wicked argument, by which he has injured the mind of the reader, Origen says, ‘These are not, in my view, dogmatic truths, but have only been assumed and then rejected, lest they seem to be completely unchallenged’." In the same way Jerome himself said above that he often expressed his own ideas along with those of others, so that he left it to the judgement of the reader whether these ideas should be accepted or not. St. Augustine, also, in retracting and correcting many points from his own works, acknowledged that he set out many ideas there based on the opinions of others, rather than on his own judgement. Even in the Gospel, some things appear to be said according to human opinion rather than according to the truth, as when, following common opinion and custom, Joseph is referred to as the father of Christ by the mother of the Lord, when she says (Luke 2:48), "In sorrow thy father and I have been seeking for you." And the Apostle was not afraid to give an account of himself in many places using what had been said about him his detractors, even though it was unlike how he considered himself. Of such a sort is this (1 Corinthians 4:10): "We are fools for Christ, but you are wise in Christ." And the Apostle even says (Hebrews 7:3) Melchisedech was "without father, without mother, without genealogy, nor" did he have a "beginning of days nor end of life", meaning that what the Scripture does not make explicit is hidden from our awareness, as it were, not because this is the actual truth of the situation. Samuel also is said to have appeared in a phantasm to the Pythoness -– not so much in actuality, but according to the appearance of the situation, which gave rise to the false opinions on the part of those watching. For as St. Augustine recalls, this phantasm was called ‘Samuel’ because it displayed a resemblance to Samuel, just as someone might say that he saw Rome in his dreams, because he had conjured up the image in his mind.

(149-175) Poetic and philosophic writings also say many things based on opinion, as if they were steadfast in truth, things which however, are clearly quite inconsistent with the truth. Thus this passage of Ovid (Ars Amatoria I, 349-350):

"The grain is always greener in foreign fields,
and the flocks of our neighbor have richer yields."

Boethius also, when in the third book of the Topics he said accident and substance were the two primary kinds of things, was looking more to opinion than to truth. Cicero openly acknowledges that philosophers also expressed many ideas according to the opinions of others rather than their own judgement, with these words (De Officiis, II, 9-10): "Justice has sufficient authority without wisdom, but wisdom without justice does not have the force to instill faith. For the craftier and shrewder someone is, the more envied and mistrusted he becomes when his reputation for honesty has been lost. For this reason, justice accompanied by understanding will have as much strength as it wishes to instill confidence. Justice without wisdom is capable of much, but wisdom without justice can accomplish nothing. But let no one marvel why I say this, as if it were possible for anyone to be just who is not at the same time wise; since all philosophers agree, and I myself have often argued, that whoever has one virtue has them all. The reason for this is that our type of speech is one thing when truth itself is polished in argumentation, and another thing when it is entirely adapted to everyone. And therefore we are speaking here in the popular sense, when we refer to one man as brave and another as good and still others as wise. We must use common words and usage when we speak." Finally, the usage of everyday speech is such that most things are expressed in accordance with the judgement of the bodily senses, even if the reality is otherwise. For although there is no place in the entire universe that is entirely empty and not filled either with air or some other body, still we say that a box in which we perceive nothing by sight is entirely empty. For judging according to what we see with our eyes, we say that the sky is sometimes starry, sometimes not, the sun sometimes hot and sometimes not, or that the moon gives more light or gives less, or even does not give light at all, when, however, these things which do not always appear to us uniformly, in fact always remain uniform.

(176-187) What is so amazing, then, if some things are proposed or even written by the Holy Fathers sometimes based on opinion rather than on the truth? When conflicting things are said about the same topic, one must carefully distinguish that which is offered with the stricture of a command, that which is offered with the lenience of indulgence and that which is offered with exhortation to perfection, so that we might seek a remedy for the apparent conflict in accordance with this variety of intents. If indeed it is a command, we must distinguish whether it is general or specific, that is, directed toward everyone in general or toward certain people in particular. The times and causes of dispensation ought also to be distinguished, because what is permitted at one time is found to be prohibited at another, and what is often commanded with rigor may sometimes be tempered with dispensation. It is very necessary to distinguish these things in the statutes of the Church decrees or canons. Moreover, an easy solution for many controversies may be found as long as we are able to be on our guard for the same words being used with conflicting meanings by different authors.

(188-194) The reader who is eager to resolve conflicts in the writings of the holy ones will be attentive to all the methods described above. If the conflict is obviously such that it cannot be resolved by logic, then the authorities must be compared together, and whatever has stronger witnesses and greater confirmation should be retained above all. Whence also these words of Isidore to the bishop of Massio (Epist. 4, 13): "I have thought that this should be added at the end of the letter, that whenever a discordant opinion is found in the acts of councils, the judgement of that person possessing greater or more ancient authority is preferred."

(195-208) Indeed it is established that the prophets themselves at one time or another have lacked the gift of prophecy and offered from their habit of prophecy some false statements, derived from their own spirit, while believing that they were in possession of the Spirit of prophecy; and this was permitted to happen to them so as to preserve their humility, so that in this way they might recognize more truly what sorts of things come from the Spirit of God and what sorts from their own spirit, and recognize that when they possessed the Spirit of prophecy they had it as a gift from the Spirit Who cannot lie or be mistaken. For when this Spirit is possessed, just as it does not confer all its gifts on one person, so does it not illuminate the mind of the inspired one concerning all things, but reveals now this and now that, and when it makes one thing apparent it conceals another. Indeed, St. Gregory declares this with clear examples in his first homily on Ezekiel. And it did not shame even the very chief of the apostles, who shone so greatly with miracles and with the gifts of divine grace after that special effusion of the Holy Spirit promised by God, who taught his students the entire truth –- it did not shame him to abandon a harmful untruth, when up to that point he had fallen into a not insignificant error concerning circumcision and the observance of certain ancient rites, and when he had been earnestly, wholesomely and publicly corrected by his fellow apostle Paul.

(209-249) When it is clear that even the prophets and apostles themselves were not complete strangers to error, what is so surprising, then, if among such manifold writings of the Holy Fathers some things seem to be handed down or written erroneously, for the reason given above? But just as these holy ‘defendants’ should not be charged with lying if at one time or another, not from duplicity but from ignorance, they make some statements other than what the real truth would have them think; so in the same way something that is said for love while giving some instruction should not be imputed to presumption or sin, since it is well known that all things are distinguished by God according to intention, just as it is written (Matthew 6:22), "If thy eye be sound, thy whole body will be full of light." Whence also this passage St. Augustine in his treatise on Church discipline: "Have love," he says, "and do what you will." And this on the Epistle of John (In Epist. Ioan. ad Parthos, tract. V, 7) "Those who have no love are not of God. Have whatever you wish, but if love is the only thing that you do not have, then nothing avails you. If you should have nothing else, but you do have love, then you will fulfill the Law." And further (tract. VII, 8), "Therefore a single brief precept is commanded of you: Love, and do what you will." And this from the first book of On Christian Doctrine (I, xxxvi, 40), "Whoever seems in his own opinion to understand the Holy Scriptures or any part of them, such that with this understanding he does not build up that twofold love of God and of his neighbor, then he does not yet understand. But if someone has derived from there an idea such that it is useful for building up love, then although he may not have said something that the author whom he is reading is proven to have meant in that spot, still, he is not dangerously deceived nor is he lying at all. For lying involves the intent of speaking false things." And in the Against Lying (Contra Mendacium, xii, 26): "Lying is a false meaning in what is said, combined with the intent of misleading." And in the Enchiridion, chapter 23 , "No one is rationally judged to be lying when they say something false that they believe is true, because, inasmuch as one believes it, one does not deceive but is oneself deceived. Likewise, someone who holds false opinions, carelessly accepted in place of true ones, ought to be accused not of lying but of sometime rashness. On the other hand, anyone lies who says a true thing, while believing that it is false. For insofar as his intent is concerned, because he does not say what he believes, to that extent he does not speak the truth, even if what he says may actually turn out to be true. Nor is someone free from lying, if they unwittingly speak the truth, but lie insofar as their knowledge and intent." And this (Enchiridion 22): "Everyone who lies speaks in contradiction to what he believes in his mind, with the intention of deceiving." And also, in Book Two of his commentary on the Gospels (Contra Mendacium x, 24): "That Jacob managed at his mother’s bidding to seem to deceive his father; if examined carefully, is not a lie but rather a mystery. For a truthful [i.e. allegorical] meaning can in no way rightly be called a lie." Indeed in this passage the spiritual teacher only accepts as a lie a transgression which God, who is the judge of hearts and passions, weighs according to the intent of the speaker rather than according to the quality of the speech, paying attention not so much to what is done as to the spirit in which it is done. According to this, anyone is guiltless insofar as they think sincerely and without falseness and do not speak deceitfully – just as it is written (Proverbs 10:9), "He that walketh sincerely, walketh confidently." Otherwise even the Apostle Paul might be accused of lying when he follows his own judgement rather than the truth of the matter as he writes to the Romans saying (Romans 15:28), "Therefore when I have completed this, and have delivered to them the proceeds, I will set out by way of you for Spain." Thus it is one thing to lie and another to be mistaken while speaking and to stray from the truth in one’s words due to error, not to malice.

(249-291) If God on occasion does allow this to happen even to the holy ones themselves, as we have said, in those situations that would cause no damage to the faith, it does not happen unproductively to those by whom everything is undertaken for the good. Even the ecclesiastical teachers themselves, diligently attentive and believing some things in their works needed correction, grant to posterity the license to emend or not to follow them; if somehow these teachers were not able to retract or correct in their works. Whence even the teacher Augustine, cited above, in Book One of his Retractions (prologus 2): "It is written," he says, "you do not avoid sin by loquacity." And also "The apostle James says (James 1:19), ‘Let every man be swift to hear but slow to speak’.’" And " (James 3:2) ‘For in many things we all offend. If anyone does not offend in word, he is a perfect man.’ I do not claim this perfection for myself even now, when I am an old man – how much less when as a young man I began to write." And in the prologue to Book Three of the On the Trinity (proem 2): "Do not defer to my writings as if they were canonical scriptures, but whatever you would find in the canonical scriptures that you did not believe, believe steadfastly. But in my writings I do not want you to accept with assurance something that you had not been taking as certain unless you now understand it as certain." And in the letters to Vincentus Victor, Book Two (De Anime et eius Origine iv, 1): "I cannot, nor should I, deny that just as I might be blamed for many things in my conduct by fair judgement without rashness, so I might be blamed for many things in my writings." And again in his letter to Vincent (Epist. 95, x, 35), "Do not desire, brother, to collect calumnies against such clear divine witnesses -– either from our writings, or from Hilary, or from Cyprian and Agrippinus, because this type of writing should be distinguished from the authority of the canon. For they are not to be read as if it were not permissible to disagree with the testimony presented in them, if in some place they should claim to know otherwise than the truth demands." And again to Fortunatianus (Epist. 148, iv, 15): "Nor ought we to regard the arguments of anyone, no matter how Catholic and well-regarded, in the way we regard the canonical scriptures, that is (with all due respect to these men) as if we were not permitted to refute or reject something that we find in their writings where their opinions differ from the established truth. I wish my readers to hold the same attitude toward my writings as I hold toward the writings of others." And again in the Response to Faustus (Contra Faustum, Book 1, Chapter xi): "We are far from saying that Paul sometimes erred and changed his opinion as he advanced. For one could say that the books we have written, not with the authority of commanding but in the exercise of utility, are not comparable to the [canonical] books." And again (Contra Faustum, XI, v): "For we are the ones of whom the Apostle said: ‘and in any point you are minded otherwise, this also God will reveal to you’ -- this type of writing of letters should be read not with a compulsion to believe but with the freedom to evaluate. However, so that the room for this freedom is not excluded, and that very healthy task of treating difficult questions and translating their language and style is not denied to later authors, the excellence of the canonical authority of the Old and New Testaments has been distinguished from that of the works of later authors. If there should be something in the Old or New Testament that seems as if it were absurd, you may not say that the author of this work did not possess the truth, but that the manuscript is corrupt, or the translator has made a mistake, or that you do not understand. But in works of later witness, contained in innumerable volumes, if perhaps some things are thought to deviate from the truth because they are not understood as they have been expressed, in these works the reader or listener has the freedom of judgement to approve what seems good or disapprove of what offends, and therefore when it comes to things of this type, unless they are supported either by sure reasoning or canonical authority, so that what is either argued or narrated there may be shown either to be entirely so or to be potentially so, if it does not seem good to someone or they do not wish to believe it, they are not reproached."

(292-304) And thus he calls the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments documents about which it is heretical to say that something in them contradicts the truth. Indeed, concerning these Scriptures he writes thus in his fourth letter to Jerome (Epist. 40, iii, 3): "In the explanation of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians I find something that pains me deeply. For if even white lies were permitted to the Holy Scriptures, what authority would they retain? How, I pray, could this view be set forth concerning the same Scriptures by whose weight the contentious depravity of falsehood is crushed?" And again, to the same man also about Holy Scripture (Epist. 28, iii, 3): " t seems to me a most dangerous thing to allow that anything in the sacred books may be a lie, that is, that those men who preserved and wrote the Scriptures for us should have lied about anything in their books. For if a single white lie is admitted anywhere in so lofty an authority, then no particle of these books will remain which will not be explained as the idea or practice of the author’s mind, using this most dangerous example whenever anyone finds something difficult to practice or hard to believe."

(305-329) St. Jerome, also, when he preferred some ecclesiastical doctors to the rest, thus counseled us that they should be read in order to judge among them rather than merely accepting them. Whence this advice of his in his letter to Laeta concerning the education of her daughter (Epist. 107, 12): "The works of Cyprian she ought always to hold in hand; the works of Athanasius and the book of Hilary to tread with an unhindered foot; let her enjoy the treatises and talents of those in whose books the piety of faith does not waver. The others she ought to read so as to judge rather than to accept." So also in speaking on Psalm 86, as if clearly offering his authority on all these writers, Jerome says (Tractatus de Ps. 86): "‘the Lord will tell, in the writings of the leaders and the princes, those who were in her [i.e. Zion]’. He did not say ‘those who are in her’ but ‘those who have been in her’. ‘Of the peoples’ is not enough, but he also says ‘of the princes’ –- and of what princes? Of ‘those who have been’. Thus you may see how the sacred Scripture is filled with holy mysteries. We read the Apostle saying (2 Corinthians 13:3), ‘Do you seek a proof of the Christ who speaks in me?’ What Paul said, Christ said (‘For he who receives you, receives me’ – Matthew 10:40) in the Scripture of the princes and ‘in the Scripture of the peoples’, which is the Scripture for all people. You may see what he says: ‘those who have been’, not ‘ those who are’, so that with the exception of the apostles whatever else is said afterwards is separate, and does not possess authority afterward. Therefore, however holy someone may be who lived after the apostles, and however well-spoken, he does not possess authority." And the same author writing to Vigilantius (Epist. 129, 11): "Whoever reads works of many treatises ought to be like a trusted moneychanger so that he rejects any coin that is false and lacks the image of Caesar and is not marked by the public mint; but the coin showing the face of Christ in the clear light he stores up in the pouch of his heart. For what ought to be pondered is not the predecided opinion of the teachers, but the logic of the teaching, as it is written (1 Thess. 5:21), ‘Test all thing; hold fast that which is good.’" However, this is said in reference to the commentators, not in reference to the canonical Scriptures, in which one should have undoubting faith. Jerome also wrote to Paulinus concerning the holy teachers in the Good Man Concerning the Good Treasure of the Heart (Epist. 58, 1, 10): "I am silent concerning the rest, both the dead and those still living, over whom others after us may judge either way."

(330-350) With these prefatory words, it seems right ,as we have undertaken to collect the diverse sayings of the Holy Fathers, which stand out in our memory to some extent due to their apparent disagreement as they focus on an issue; this may lure the weaker readers to the greatest exercise of seeking the truth, and may render them sharper readers because of the investigation. Indeed this first key of wisdom is defined, of course, as assiduous or frequent questioning. Aristotle, the most clear-sighted philosopher of all, advised his students, in his preface 'Ad Aliquid', to embrace this questioning with complete willingness, saying (cited by Boethius, In Categorias Aristotelis, ii): "Perhaps it is difficult to clarify things of this type with confidence unless they are dealt with often and in detail. However, it would not be useless to have some doubts concerning individual points." And indeed, through doubting we come to questioning and through questions we perceive the truth. In consequence of this, Truth herself says (Matthew 7:7), "Ask and it shall be given you; knock and it shall be opened to you." Teaching us this spiritual lesson with Himself as an example, He let Himself be found, at about twelve years of age, sitting and questioning in the midst of the teachers, showing Himself to us in the model of a student with His questioning, before that of a schoolmaster in his pronouncements, although His knowledge of God was full and complete. And when some passages of Scripture are brought before us, the more the authority of the Scripture itself is commended, the more fully they excite the reader and tempt him to seek the truth. Hence it seemed good to me to prefix to my work here (this work of mine which we have compiled out of passages from holy authors, gathered into one volume), the decree of Pope Gelasius concerning authentic books, so that it can be understood that we have included no passages from apocryphal writings here. We also append excerpts from the Retractions of blessed Augustine, from which it may be clear that nothing set forth here is taken from passages that he later emended when he made his retraction.


© Translated by W. J. Lewis (aided by the helpful comments and suggestions of S. Barney) from the Latin text in the critical edition of Sic et Non edited by Blanche B. Boyer and Richard McKeon (University of Chicago Press, 1976).


Biblical quotations are translated following the Douai translation of the Vulgate, with adjustments as necessary. Numbers in parentheses before each paragraph refer to the corresponding line numbers in Boyer and McKeon’s text..

Another translation of this Prologue, by A.J. Minnis and A.B. Scott, can be found in: Medieval Literary Theory and Criticism c. 1100 – c. 1375 (Oxford, 1988)

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

Paul Halsall, February 21, 2001


The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of  Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University.  Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.

© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 31 May 2024 [CV]