The ideals of the Middle Ages are still holding back scholars

Amanda Power considers some of the deeper attitudes that can still inhibit academics from fully engaging in essential policy issues

November 14, 2019
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In the light of the intensifying climate crisis, a recent piece in Nature argued that scientists “must act on our own warnings to humanity” by joining civil disobedience movements. The authors see this as a radical step, justified because extensive conventional engagement with policymaking and the wider public has failed to bring about action on the necessary scale. Even so, the argument will make many academics uneasy. Many would recognise an implicit agreement that there are limitations on what individual academics should do in their professional capacity. There is a sense, alluded to by the authors, that there are “proper channels” for scientific input into policymaking.

These ideas have real-world consequences. They have been used both within and outside the academy to mock or discredit “activist” academics, which in turn deters their colleagues from such involvements. Given the urgency of the global situation, it seems worth asking where these constraints on academic behaviour come from, whether they are still fit for purpose – and, if not, what should replace them.

Many people might assume that the separation between academic and political domains was a progressive modern development, intended to protect academic freedom, integrity and the pursuit of rational enquiry from the encroachment of politicians, vested interests and contemporary prejudices. They might locate its origins in Enlightenment attempts to curb the influence of absolutist monarchies and religious institutions on intellectual endeavours. But this is quite wrong. The origins of the idea of a depoliticised realm of scholarship in dialogue with, but in essence ancillary to, the realm of politics and power lie much further back in our history.

A number of Western academic practices and ideals that remain influential, I want to argue, have deep roots in Christianity, particularly those strands of it that found enduring institutional form in monasticism. Men and women, striving after perfection in wisdom, tried to strip out the traits that, in the view of the early church, made them most human and imperfect. To seek truth with clarity, and to gain authority, they disciplined away, as best they could, their desires for riches, fame, love, family, sex, food and physical comfort.

The reason for this was that they believed that truth resided eternally with God and could be accessed only by people who had distanced themselves from a personal interest in transient life on this earth. From these beginnings, I believe, came our ideal of scholarly objectivity.

This disciplined space for enquiry was framed throughout the medieval period in stark contrast to the sphere of secular affairs. “The world” was envisaged as the place of triviality, short-termism, irrationality, dishonesty, greed, vanity and politicking. It was not enduring and not eternal, but hazardous to everything that was. Its inhabitants were said to ridicule and despise scholars and their work. “They pay no attention to what philosophy teaches, and what it shows we should seek out or avoid. They have only one concern: to make money,” complained John of Salisbury in the late 1150s. To avoid being drawn into error, the person who wanted to think clearly should go through the world, it was often said, as a pilgrim and a stranger. “He is perfect,” wrote Hugh of St Victor, advising students in the 1120s, “to whom the whole world is a place of exile.”

The conventions of academic life were deeply influenced by notions of holy retreat to deserts and wildernesses. Monks and nuns built walls, took vows of renunciation and attempted to live in communities based on shared ethics, strong internal discipline and a common purpose. One result of all this was that most scholarly activity took place in an environment marked by a great deal of willed ignorance of political, social and human realities. Guibert, abbot of Nogent, whose mother had decided early that he should become a scholar as well as a monk, described a childhood in the 1060s during which he was isolated from other children, restricted to the house, made to dress and behave like a cleric, and to study constantly.

Another result was that when scholars did find themselves having to deal with “the world”, they tended to assert both their reluctance and their fear that contact would impact on the clarity of their insight. Characteristic was the care with which Asser, teacher and biographer of Alfred the Great, described his response to the king’s request (c. 885) to join his court. It seemed wrong to him, he told the king, to leave the monastery in which he had been educated and ordained “for the sake of any earthly honour and power”. Negotiations followed: Asser would spend just half the year with the king; the king would offer protection to his monastery in return. It is notable that Asser professed himself unwilling, even though he gave a glowing picture of Alfred’s court as a place of extraordinary virtue, piety and learning.

Some of these claims of discomfort were, no doubt, performative, even tokenistic, on the part of scholars eager to involve themselves in public affairs. Even so, they were intended to reassure potential critics that the scholar had been compelled by a sense of duty or the pressure that had been put on them. Their recurrence served to perpetuate the idea that there should be separation between scholarly and worldly spheres. The dominance of this idea meant that crossing between the two induced genuine anxiety in scholars: anxiety about the response of their peers and anxiety about the impact on the integrity of their work. We have dozens of letters from the prominent 13th-century theologian Adam Marsh, complaining of demands on his time from the king, queen, archbishop, his friend Simon de Montfort and many other high-ranking people. He wrote of his fear that becoming involved in the corrupt practices of the world would distract from his studies – and possibly bring about his damnation.

What we see in this long apologetic tradition is the marking out of boundaries. There was in practice no lack of involvement in the worldly affairs of both church and state on the part of scholars, but there was a great deal of investment in preventing it from becoming normalised. Constantly raising complicated issues of prestige, moral virtue, public duty, personal priorities and fear of disapproval served this purpose.


Such attitudes were not greatly softened by developments that extended teaching and learning beyond the cloisters, into the freewheeling, combative cathedral schools and, subsequently, the more regulated universities. These produced Europe’s administrators, lawyers and higher clergy, as well as its teachers, philosophers and theologians. The growth of cities and related societal shifts, including increases in public literacy, thus led to a choice: should the separation between scholarship and politics be left within convent walls, or should it be maintained conceptually rather than physically?

In the event, it was maintained strongly. So what devices were used to discourage scholars from engaging in political activities? There were formal processes that could be used by both ecclesiastical and secular authorities for investigating, censuring and eradicating ideas considered dangerous. However, these were not a particularly common recourse in the schools and universities because they were not often needed. The conventions, and the anticipated consequences of defying them, were usually enough. Guibert of Nogent (1055-1124) described the failure of a celebrated theologian, Anselm of Laon, to prevent the pope from confirming a corrupt and ultimately disastrous episcopal election. Although Anselm had raised concerns behind the scenes, Guibert noted that he was politically impotent during the open discussion where the matter was decided because “as a good schoolman, [he] refrained from lord the pope”. Following the same ethic, William of Ockham admitted in 1334 that he had avoided reading the pope’s writings during his years at the papal court because he didn’t want to deal with the possibility that they might be heretical. (Unfortunately, once he had been instructed to evaluate them by a superior, he had to say plainly that they were – and so was forced to escape into exile.)

A second type of containment strategy has considerable resonance for today: the insistence that the credible scholar must adopt higher standards than people operating outside the academic sphere. Processes of “reform” were designed to distinguish clerics – including scholars – more sharply from the laity by requiring certain moral behaviours from them. In particular, they were supposed to be celibate, keep away from women, show exceptional financial probity – or avoid money altogether – and to remain above the political fray. Played correctly, impeccable behaviour could give scholars potent moral authority. But these standards could also be weaponised against them. If scholars involved themselves in worldly affairs in their professional capacity, they could be considered less worthy both to intervene in politics and to be taken seriously as scholars. When the German emperor, Frederick II, pointed out in 1246 that clerics “used to see angels and were resplendent with miracles…; they used to…subject kings and princes to themselves by holiness…[but now they are] choked by their surfeit of riches and power” – it was a serious allegation and, as Frederick intended, very difficult to rebut without clinging harder to the agreed ethical standards.

So how does this history help us now? What it makes plain is the longevity of the ideas around a separation of spheres, and the many ways they have been deployed both to protect academic space and to curtail the impact of academic research. They may have been reframed in secular terms during the Enlightenment, but the old monastic idea that academic work must be as free as possible of personal, political or ideological commitments remains highly influential (not least in our own minds).

The key point is that notions of academic disengagement are not something we have thought through from first principles. They are not an innovation from a period of enlightenment that we should celebrate for breaking with the past and instilling our current academic standards. Instead, they are part of our deep cultural inheritance, built into our academic culture when it operated in a heavily Christianised environment. Recognising this may help us make choices we did not know we had.

In many ways, of course, the academy is already rethinking its relationship with “the world” – for example, through diversity initiatives that facilitate the inclusion of people and ways of thinking that it had once renounced on principle. Such opening up, even when engendered by demands that could be labelled “political”, has enormous potential to improve the quality of academic thought. (The greatest risk to the success of such undertakings is if they are not permitted to be transformative, but are forced to adopt ethics that set academic work apart from active, political work.)

We are also seeing new claims being put on academics in their relations with “the world”. These are visible, for example, in the demand from both the school climate strikers and Extinction Rebellion that our policymakers listen to scientific findings and “tell the truth”. This is in effect to require that political and business leaders operate within an intellectual and ethical framework closer to that of the academic world than has been previously expected of them. It challenges the old notion that there is a space governed by academic values and serious, objective research, and that it should stand at a remove from real-world decision-making. It seems plausible that public demands for action will be more powerful if scientists are among “the public”.

As Farhana Yamin wrote in a follow-up piece to the article in Nature, “The climate emergency we face now requires every one of us to question how we compartmentalize our professional, personal and political choices. That means acting differently in all three spheres and rethinking how to become audacious leaders in all aspects of our lives.”

These fundamental changes won’t be easy to make, but an important step is to grasp why many people still think that academics should compartmentalise their choices. We are facing an escalating crisis with a scholarly ethos still ultimately derived from the view that the best thinking is achieved through conscious rejection of love for life on this earth, having children and investing in the planetary future. In its modern, secular form, this ideal of academic life has asked us at least to leave this love, any children and our commitment to the future outside the doors of the laboratory, lecture theatre and library. We have already begun the process of asking what happens when we don’t. It is a matter for clear thinking about potential losses, dangers – and gains. But this thinking must be done from first principles, without an unwitting dependence on a set of moralised values that crystallised in the dying days of the Roman Empire.

Amanda Power is associate professor of history at the University of Oxford and the author of Roger Bacon and the Defence of Christendom (2012).


Print headline: Think outside the cloister

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Reader's comments (5)

The distinction between philosophical inquiry and political oratory is as old as the Hellenic Greeks. Something of the sort is found in Aristotle, for example. No doubt it was taken up by Christianity. However, St Paul saw that the church needed to engage with the secular authorities, which he thought were also ordained of God.
The politicization of academia encourages group-think within institutions and funding bodies, and destroys objectivity and civility in academic debate. The current anti-rational emanations from US "liberal" arts colleges represent the madness created by a positive feedback loop between academia and politics. Universities need to be havens of dissent where current ideas can be tested in light of current and historical data, and where nothing, particularly the science, is settled and beyond debate.
Most HEIs have become, at best, amoral: they advocate the use of gross global tax avoiders and oligopolies like Amazon (to the extent of awarding Amazon vouchers as prizes), Google, Microsoft, and Apple, some of which also have issues surrounding the treatment of their workforce here and abroad. UKHE has the resources to develop alternative technologies. Some HEIs have become entirely venal, as implicit in the nature of many donations to 'Oxford Thinking' and recent reporting by Isis of that HEI's links to the arms trade. A large number rely on outsourcing of their workforce to avoid proper working conditions, involving numerous disputes now. IMHO, the best policy of UKHE is to reform itself before tackling political policies.
Amanda Power claims that ‘the old monastic idea that academic work must be as free as possible of personal, political or ideological commitments remains highly influential (not least in our own minds)’. Perhaps this is true at the University of Oxford, but it is hard to reconcile with universities today as sites of mass higher education, whose main public rationale is to contribute to the economy through their research as well as their teaching, by maximising ‘impact’ on society. It is also at odds with the large numbers of humanities and social sciences scholars whose work is explicitly political in motivation and goal, albeit not usually focused on the issue of climate change. Of equal importance, though, is that Power, instead of engaging with the arguments put forward in favour of academic detachment, seeks to discredit it by ‘revealing’ its religious origins. In its modern form, this principle bears only superficial resemblance to ‘the old monastic idea’, and does not prevent academics engaging in climate change protest as citizens (which is certainly desirable) – it simply denies them the right to abuse their academic authority in claiming to determine who is to blame and in campaigning for particular remedies. This restriction is a rather important component of any defence of democracy, I would have thought, as well as being necessary to minimise bias in academic work, this coming from the temptation to treat as true what is politically convenient, and to reject what is not.
Well said.