Roscelin (Also Roceln, Rucelin, or Ruzeltn), Jean
Roscelin (Also Roceln, Rucelin, Or Ruzeltn), Jean, a scholastic theologian of the 11th century, who ranks in the common estimation as the originator of the Nominalist theory in philosophy and as a Tritheist in theology. The circumstances of his life are shrouded in obscurity, however, and the particular views he advocated are not well determined. His place in history was achieved chiefly through controversies with Anselm and Abelard (see the respective articles) in which he became engaged. He first arrested attention by expressing opinions concerning the Trinity which were deemed heretical, at a time when he was canon at Compilgne. As he claimed that Anselm shared his views, the latter interposed a denial, and was about undertaking a refutation of Roscelin's teaching, when the Synod of Soissons (1092) compelled a retraction of the heresy. The course of Roscelin's life becomes doubtful again at this point, and such facts as are known to have occurred are variously combined by students. The following seems to be the view now generally preferred. Roscelin soon recalled his retraction, according to Anselm, because his action at Soissons had been governed by fear of the populace. Anselm consequently wrote the refutation previously begun (De Fide Trinitat. et Incarnat.), and Roscelin went to England, where he attempted to injure Anselm by treating him with contumely, but was himself compelled to return to the Continent, partly because of his relations with Anselm, then archbishop of Canterbury, and partly because he had offended the English clergy by denouncing abuses which existed among them. He then addressed an unsuccessful application for refuge to Ivo of Chartres (q.v.), and from that time was lost to notice for some years. The name of Roscelin is next mentioned in connection with a controversy with Abelard. The latter had been Roscelin's pupil; but the publication of his Introductio ad Theologiam (1119), in which he emphasized the divine unity in three persons, and in such a way as to reflect on the position Roscelin had occupied at Soissons, caused an open rupture between them. Abelard's language savored of Sabellianism, and Roscelin prepared to bring the new heresy to the notice of the bishop of Paris. Each of the parties contributed a letter to this controversy, which documents are still extant; and with the issuing of the Epistola ad Aboelard. Roscelin passes definitely from our view.
1. Roscelin as a Tritheist. — His opinions grew out of an emphasizing of the idea of personality in connection with the divine nature, and, as they appear in the writings of his opponents, may be comprehended in the statement that the three Divine Persons cannot be conceived as una res (οὐσία), unless the necessary consequence that the Father and the Spirit became incarnate with the Son be also accepted. To escape this consequence, he holds that the distinction between the Persons is one of substance; but he strives to preserve the divine unity by postulating a unity of will and power. It seems evident that he believed this provision sufficient to preserve his doctrine from being charged with polytheism and atheism, and that he was therefore not guilty of intentional heresy; but it was not difficult for the keen dialectics of Anselm to demonstrate his error. Roscelin cannot be justly charged with tritheism; and, if his argumentation was at fault, he certainly earned for himself the credit of scholarly penetration in having recognized the full greatness of the difficulty to be overcome in reconciling the doctrine of the Trinity with that of the Incarnation.
2. Roscelin as a Nominalist. — We are wholly dependent for a knowledge of his position in this respect upon the statements of his enemies, and it appears certain that they caricatured his views; but it is evident that they did not regard him as the originator of nominalism. He held the extreme of the nominalist position, denominating universal conceptions an empty sound (flatum vocis), but apparently only for the purpose of antagonizing the extreme realism of Anselm. His idea doubtless was that universal concepts exist simply in our thought, and do not at the same time postulate a real existence extraneous to the mind. He laid down the axiom that "no thing has parts" — a paradox which can only mean that no whole can really exist and furnish its parts from out of itself. The parts really constitute the whole, and alone possess a real existence; and the whole, as a unity, cannot be distinguished from them otherwise than in thought. In its application to the doctrine of the Trinity, the axiom implied that the real existences in the Deity are in the three Persons, and that the unity of the Godhead exists only in the thought which comprehends them together into one. The only point of interest to him as a philosopher, however, was to discover whether the reality lies in the general concept or in the concrete individual; and his axiom has, e.g., no relationship with the atomism of Democritus.
3. The Connection between Roscelin's Philosophy and his Theological Views. — This is evident from the foregoing statements. He did not, however, publicly connect his theological innovation with his nominalism, but based it on the Christological difficulty already mentioned. According to Anselm (De Fide Trinit. 3), Roscelin declared that "Pagani defendunt legem suam, Judaei defendunt fidem suam, ergo et nos Christianam fidem defendere debemus," thus showing that it was not his purpose to damage the faith: but the words sound like a plea for scientific discussion of the faith in general, or perhaps for liberty of the thinking mind to apprehend, and consequently to further the development of, the doctrines of the Church. Nominalism, in general, would seem to have been nearly always connected with a rationalistic tendency.
See Anselm, Ep. 2, 35 and 41, and De Fide Trinitatis et Incarnatione; a letter to Anselm by John, abbot of Telese, later cardinal-bishop of Tuseoli (in Baluz. Miscell. 4, 478); Abelard, Epist. 21 (Opp. [Paris, 1616] p. 334), and Dialectica (in Cousin, Oeuvres Inedits d'Abel.); Epist. Roscel. ad Aboelardum (ed. Schmeller, Munich, 1851); a letter to Roscelin by Theobald of Estampes (in D'Achery, Spicilegium, vol. 3), and one by Ivo of Chartres (Epist. 7); John of Salisbury, Metalog. 2, 17; Otto of Freisingen, De Gest. Frider. vol. 1, c. 47, et al.