New England

Brett Smith

What does an obscure, medieval polymath have to say to the modern world about the soul? As it happens, quite a bit. In his new book ‘Aspectus and Affectus’ in the Thought of Robert Grosseteste, Dr. Brett Smith, a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College, New England, expounds the rich anthropology of this undeservedly neglected figure.

“When I matriculated at The Catholic University of America, I was planning to write my dissertation about Aquinas,” says Dr. Smith. “But the impression I got from studying Aquinas more carefully was that dissertations about his works are mostly about the secondary literature surrounding Aquinas.” That was a letdown to the budding scholar. “I came to graduate school to read medieval theologians, not doctoral students from five years ago,” he says.

‘Aspectus and Affectus’ in the Thought of Robert Grosseteste coverTraipsing further afield into the hinterlands of medieval philosophy, Dr. Smith eventually encountered Robert Grosseteste, whose sheer breadth of learning gave him pause. “He wrote about nearly every current topic of his day: scientific works, philosophical commentaries, theology, and vernacular literature,” Dr. Smith observes. “He was also the only man of his day that we know of who was both a serious theologian and a competent translator of Greek into Latin. If I studied Grosseteste, I would always have something interesting to learn — and I haven’t been disappointed.”

Among the lessons Dr. Smith learned from Grosseteste was a bit of wordplay about the soul. “Grosseteste never wrote a treatise on the soul as such, but he often used this phrase, ‘aspectus and affectus,’ to talk about the cognitive and appetitive powers of the soul,” explains Dr. Smith. Aspectus is a Latin word meaning “vision,” heavy with the connotations of intellectual vision, while affectus means “passion.” Grosseteste’s use of this rhyme thus handily captures the soul’s twofold abilities to know (aspectus) and to love (affectus). “Previous scholars observed that this wordplay was probably an original contribution to the tradition, but nobody could quite verify that claim. When I found out about that, it was obvious that someone needed to write a book about it.”

At just over 400 pages, however, ‘Aspectus and Affectus’ in the Thought of Robert Grosseteste provides far more than the genealogy of a curious phrase. “Because Grosseteste used ‘aspectus and affectus’ all over the place, tracing the wordplay throughout his thought demands an overview of many different topics in his theology and philosophy,” says Dr. Smith. “The net effect is that this book updates the study of Grosseteste’s thought in multiple areas, including his epistemology and psychology.”

Such an updated exposition is timely. “The last time someone published a monograph on Grosseteste’s thought was around 2004,” Dr. Smith notes. “Anyone interested in writing about him, therefore, will find much of the most up-to-date information in my book.”