Hugh of St. Victor on the Perfection of Human Nature

Not too long ago I had occasion to study a remarkable work about education, the Didascalicon by Hugh of St. Victor, a 12th-century theologian and scholar. Education back then meant a whole lot more than standardized tests; the educated man was the wise man, and Wisdom meant seeing everything in its rightful place and in relation to God. Hugh’s vision of things, I believe, can help us think about our own priorities both as individuals and as a nation.

“Of all things to be sought, the first is that Wisdom in which the Form of the Perfect Good stands fixed,” writes the French theologian and scholar.[1] For the Platonic tradition in which Hugh stood, the Perfect Good is that which, once attained, leaves nothing else to be desired, and in relation to which everything we do bears the relationship of means to an end. Plato had seen that the ultimate good we are all seeking is Happiness, which among all other human goods is the only one of which it makes no sense to ask, “And why would you want that?” Human happiness itself is the eternal possession of the transcendent Goodness and Beauty, or a kind of eternity of action in these spiritual states.[2]

Aristotle, whose thought Hugh was attempting to synthesize with Christianity, agreed with Plato’s basic analysis of the Ultimate Good, but took a less radically anti-materialist view of it.[3] All actions, events, and states of being in the world are ordered to one another as means to ends, but what makes human life and activity unique is that it is self-consciously and freely ordered in such a way: we can not only choose among ends but also among means to those ends. All human actions are naturally oriented toward the final end of happiness, and we attain happiness through enlightenment and moral action—what Aristotle called “rational activity in accordance with virtue”; so far, Aristotle agrees with Plato. But Aristotle thought that virtuous action was impossible or at least seriously hampered without certain external goods. A child who receives no education or a poor education will never come to discern either the ultimate good or the means to achieve it; the mind of the poverty-stricken man is not focused on virtue and enlightenment but on where his next meal will come from and on whether he will be thrust out into the cold; the sick man finds it extremely difficult to focus on anything other than his symptoms. Community is necessary as well, for only in cooperating with others can we attain these and many other external things we need to live the authentically good life (a solitary man, says Aristotle, is “either a beast or a god”). Thus, for Aristotle, the human good is integral: it means the perfection of human nature through the possession of the intellectual and moral virtues as well as external goods—mind, heart, and body. 

Deeply influenced as well by St. Augustine’s view of the liberal arts, Hugh of St. Victor created a compelling Christian synthesis of these ideas from which we can still learn much today. Wisdom for Hugh is Christ Himself, the divine exemplar “through whom all things were made” (Nicene Creed), the “light that enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1:9, Douay-Rheims), and He in whose image we were made. When man fell from grace in Eden, he became corrupted in his very nature: his intellect was afflicted with ignorance, his will beset by concupiscence (disordered desire), and his body by privation, illness, and mortality. Man was originally made perfect according the divine model of Christ, and Christ himself came to restore to us what was lost through sin. Through the discernment of the Good, He calls us back to Himself and to restoration of human nature within us. The science that seeks out the Good in all things is Philosophy, literally the “love of Wisdom.” The goods at which the fundamental spheres of human activity aim are themselves images or reflections of the Good, as exemplum to exemplar, and the means by which human nature returns to perfection. Philosophy is divided into four arts. The mechanical arts and sciences, such as agriculture, architecture, and medicine, serve to relieve the needs of physical existence and make possible a life of virtue in Aristotle’s sense. The practical part of philosophy leads to the possession of moral goodness, the virtues of the heart, while theoretical philosophy aims at knowledge through possession of the intellectual virtues. The final component of philosophy is logic, by which the mind is led to find truth in the other three. In this way, all human activity can be seen to be rightly ordered toward Happiness, which means the perfection of human nature in mind, heart, and body, and finally in salvation through eternal union with God.
This view of things gives us a way, I believe, to not only understand the many mundane and seemingly unspiritual tasks at which we are compelled to spend most of our time—they are part of and images of Christ’s work of restoration—but also as a standard by which to critically examine the way our society spends its time and resources. Economic activity, for example, ought to be for the meeting of human needs, not for luxury or other forms of gratuitous self-indulgence. Nor should it result in destruction of the environment. Moreover, personal wealth should not exceed a level sufficient for meeting those needs while also allowing for leisure, education, and in general the development of one’s faculties and potentials. Law, also, as an important shaper of character, ought to be radically rethought in that light. And since every human being enjoys the inherent dignity of being made in the image of God, healthcare, employment, leisure, housing, nutrition, access to culture, a healthy environment, and education should all be guaranteed. And it should become once again a belief deeply held by our culture that temporal existence is not an end in itself but only an image of the eternal Good, the end of all striving and the meaning of human life.         

Doran Hunter

[1] The following summary is from Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicon, New York, Columbia University Press, 1961, Book I.
[2] Plato, Symposium, London: Penguin Books, 1951, 84–6
[3] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon, New York: Random House, 1941.