Early Medieval Philosophy: Ancient and Early Christian Roots

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Early Medieval Philosophy: Ancient and Early Christian Roots


Ancient Roots. Textbooks and histories have often called the Early Middle Ages an age of Platonism. Yet, from the Carolingian Renaissance of the ninth century through the School of Chartres in the twelfth, other philosophical traditions—including Stoicism and Aristotelian-ism—were influential as well. For these reasons it is best to consider early medieval philosophy as a continuation of Greek and Roman philosophy.

Platonism. Not many of Plato’s writings were known in the Middle Ages. In fact, the only Platonic dialogues available to western European scholars were the Meno, the Phaedo, and a part of the Timaeus, and they became available only in the twelfth century. While the Meno and the Phaedo were known in Paris, they do not seem to have been widely used. The Timaeus was studied with the aid of a commentary by the fourth-century Christian scholar Calcidius.

Neoplatonism. The teachings of Plato came to the medieval scholars of Western Europe largely through two diverse traditions of interpretation: the Neoplatonism of the Latin tradition in the thought of Augustine, Boethius, Cicero, and other Roman writers, and the Neoplatonism of the Greek tradition in the writings of the anonymous author known as Pseudo-Dionysius, who lived in Syria during the late fifth and early sixth centuries, as well as in the thought of the Greek Church Fathers Gregory of Nyssa (fourth century) and Maximus the Confessor (circa 580–662). The Greek tradition goes back to the fifth-century Greek Neoplatonist Proclus, while the Latin tradition has its roots in the third-century Neoplatonists Plotinus and Porphyry, who were part of an important intellectual circle in Rome. These two traditions came together in the thought of the Irish philosopher John Scottus Eriugena (circa 810 – circa 877). In the Neoplatonic system, the world and human life are part of a vast hierarchical structure. At the apex of the triangle is the super-transcendent One. Below the One is Intellect, from which the spirit, the mind, and all realities emanate down to particular material objects. This system involves a graded order of reality. For example, an animal has a lower degree of reality than a human. Capable of rising above base materiality by a process of purification and contemplation, a human can achieve a kind of union with pure thought and can contemplate, but not know, the One.

Stoicism. The Stoics divided philosophy into logic (including language study), physics (the study of natural things, including divinity), and ethics. Stoicism came directly to the medieval scholars of western Europe through Roman writers, especially Seneca and Cicero, as well as indirectly through early Christian writers, such as the Greek Church Fathers Clement of Alexandria and Origen in the late first and early second centuries and Gregory of Nyssa and Nemesius in the fourth century and the Latin Fathers Tertullian (third century), Lactantius (early fourth century), Jerome (late fourth century), Ambrose (late fourth century), and Augustine (early fifth century). The Roman Stoics were especially influential later, in the thirteenth century. Peter Abelard and Roger Bacon considered Seneca the greatest of all moralists, and both Seneca and Cicero had a deep influence on Thomas Aquinas. The teaching at the School of Chartres included elements of Stoicism as well as Platonism. Platonism and Christianity both held that the basic structure of reality was spiritual. That is, the human soul and God were spiritual substances and, as such, higher forms of reality than matter. Stoicism, however, held that the highest principle or world soul is corporeal. Yet, despite this major disparity between Stoicism and Christianity, medieval Christian thinkers managed to encorporate much of Stoic thought into their philosophical systems. Perhaps this synthesis was made possible because Plotinus had “spiritualized” certain forms of Stoicism and because late Stoicism included a recognition of some form of moral spirituality. It is amazing, however, that the Church never condemned Stoicism as a pagan philosophy and religion—as it did certain aspects of medieval Aristotelianism. Stoicism was absorbed into Christian thought slowly, over six hundred years, while

most of Aristotelianism appeared virtually all at once between 1140 and 1260.

Assimilation of Stoic Thought. Stoicism has features that allowed it to be assimilated into medieval Christian thought. It preached internal liberation; what happened to one’s physical being was relatively unimportant so long as one’s mind was free to rise above misfortune and devote itself to knowledge and virtue. For this reason the Stoics taught that all human beings—male or female, aristocrat or slave—are fundamentally equal. The Stoics also believed that the entire development of the world was determined by a built-in Reason, and they had a doctrine of seminal reasons to explain the development of organisms from initial seeds. Much of this teaching was taken up in both pagan and Christian Neoplatonism. The main impact of Stoicism was in ethics and the debate over determinism and free will. The Stoics preached rational, moral self-control through the exercise of right or correct reason and promulgated the doctrine that the primary precepts or norms of a moral natural law are implanted in every human being. That is, while positive laws vary from one country to another and from one people to another, basic human values and rights are the same for all humans because they share a common humanity. These ideas were attractive to medieval Christian thinkers and had a major influence on medieval ethical and political theory.

Aristotelianism. Though most of the works of Aristotle did not become available in western Europe until after 1120 and did not become widely influential until the thirteenth century, some of Aristotle’s writings on logic (Categories, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics, and Topics) were known in the early Middle Ages through translations by Boethius and were a respected part of the philosophical method and heritage. Philosophers such as Eriugena in the ninth century and Anselm of Bee and Canterbury in the eleventh used Aristotelian logic to explain theological doctrine.

Augustine. The early Church Father who most influenced western philosophy was Aurelius Augustinus (354–430), who lived most of his life in North Africa during the final days of the Roman Empire. Though not strictly speaking a “philosopher,” he was deeply concerned with the philosophical quest from the time he was a teenager and read Cicero’s Hortensius, a now-lost introduction to the philosophic life. His Confessiones (Confessions, written 397–401) document his intense quest for wisdom. His search led him first to the Man-ichaeans, a Gnostic sect whose views Augustine later rejected. Around the time he converted to Christianity in 386, he discovered the works of the Neoplatonists Plotinus and Porphyry, as well as those of Christian Neoplatonists such as Marius Victorinus.

Augustine’s City of God. Augustine’s writings synthesized many Neoplatonic, and Platonic, doctrines with Christian teachings and had a major influence on medieval philosophical and religious thought. One of his most influential works during the Middle Ages was De civitate Dei (The City of God, written 412–425). It includes an account of the Christian religion and its superiority to pagan beliefs, a general history of western philosophy, a description of the doctrine of creation, a theory of society that allows for separation and integration of the secular and the sacred, and an account or theory of beauty.

Augustine’s Contributions to Education. In addition to his contributions to religious and philosophical thought, Augustine, who started out as a professor of rhetoric, contributed to the Latin West a basic theory of signs (what is now called semiotic), a theory of the liberal arts, an account of how to interpret a text, and a general philosophy of education. He also helped to pass on the works of Virgil and other Roman authors to the Middle Ages. While he did not have a thorough knowledge of the Greek language, he did master and transmit to the Middle Ages significant elements of ancient thought, including basic Aristotelian and Stoic semantics, Neoplatonic philosophy and aesthetics, some elements of ancient Skepticism, and aspects of Pythagorean and Epicurean thought. Throughout the Middle Ages the Christian scholars of western Europe looked to Augustine’s thought as the basis for philosophical speculation and the yardstick against which to measure the validity of their ideas.

Boethius and the Consolation of Philosophy. Another philosopher who was widely read in medieval Europe was Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (circa 480 – circa 524), who was born into the Roman nobility at about the time of the fall of the Roman Empire in the late fifth century. Boethius was interested in both Greek philosophy and Christian theology, especially that of Augustine. His best-known work, today as in the Middle Ages, is De Con-solatione Philosophiae (On the Consolation of Philosophy, written circa 524), which includes significant elements of Neoplatonism and Stoicism. The impetus for writing De Consolatione Philosophiae came when Boethius, who was master of offices for the Ostrogoth king Theodoric, fell out of favor with Theodoric and was condemned to death for conspiracy and treason. During the year he spent in prison before his execution he wrote his most magnificent literary and philosophical achievement, which is still studied in the twentieth century. Every educated person in the Middle Ages and Renaissance had a knowledge of this work, particularly those who were being prepared for positions of leadership in society. (Queen Elizabeth I of England made her own English translation.) Written in prose and verse, the book asks why the evil prosper while the innocent suffer and concludes—in an argument that echoes Plato, Aristotle, the Neoplatonists, and the Stoics—that the only sure source of human happiness is in the life of the mind; that is, if one renounces the lures of wealth and power and seeks knowledge and virtue, one finds the “consolation of philosophy.” Because Boethius drew heavily on Greek poetry and philosophy for this work and made few references to the Christian and Jewish scriptures, Samuel Johnson commented to his biographer James Boswell in the eighteenth century that Boethius showed himself more a philosopher than a Christian. Recent scholarship, however, has noted references to scripture and to Augustine in this work. Moreover, he exhibited his religious faith in works such as De Fide Catholica (On the Catholic Faith) and De Trinitate (On the Trinity), both written circa 521. In another philosophical-theological work from the same period, Quomodo Sub-stantiae in Eo Quod Sint Bonae Sint cum Non Sint Substantialia Bona (Whether Everything That Exists Is Good Just Because It Exists), he introduced medieval philosophers to the basic Platonic doctrine of transcendental notions such as Being, Good, Unity, and Truth, identifying God as both the First Good and the First Being in which all finite beings strive to participate.

Boethius’s Contributions to Medieval Learning. Boethius’s major scholarly project was an attempt to reconcile the differences in the philosophical systems of Plato and Aristotle and to translate their works into Latin. He never completed this monumental task, but he did succeed in translating and writing commentaries on Aristotle’s Categories, On Interpretation, and Prior Analytics and Topics. These works introduced Aristotle’s basic logic and semantics to early medieval scholars in western Europe. Boethius made his own contributions to logic in De Syllogismo Cate-gorico (On Categorical Syllogisms, written circa 505–506), Liber de Divisione (On Division, written circa 508), and De Syllogismis Hypotheticis (On Hypothetical Syllogisms, written after 516). In his polemical work Contra Euthycen et Nestorium (Against Eutyches and Nestorius, written circa 512) he fashioned a Latin vocabulary to interpret the Greek philosophical concepts of person and nature. Indeed, he set out the technical vocabulary of medieval Latin philosophy, including essence, substance, nature, subsistence, and reason. He made significant contributions to the mathematical arts in his De Institutione Arithmetica (On the Institution of Arithmetic) and De Institutione Music (On the Institution of Music), both written around 503.

Pseudo-Dionysius. With Augustine and Boethius, the anonymous scholar now known as Pseudo-Dionysius, was the most important influence from late antiquity on the Early Middle Ages. Indeed, his influence lasted into the Renaissance. Nothing is known about his life other than the facts that he lived in Syria around the year 500 and that his works were used in public debates in the Eastern Christian Church during the rule of the Roman Emperor Justinian I (reigned 527–565).

A Case of Mistaken Identity. Modern scholars have suggested that he was a monk trying to bring about the resolution of doctrinal disputes plaguing the early Church. To lend authority to his theological arguments, however, this monk identified himself as “Dionysius the Areopag-ite,” who is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as a Greek that Paul converted to Christianity when he preached at the Areopagus (Hill of Ares) in Athens at some time before the year 60. Medieval scholars believed this story and accorded him almost full “Apostolic” authority, but Renaissance literary scholars such as Lorenzo Valla and Erasmus of Rotterdam cast doubt on the authenticity of the works of Dionysius, providing evidence that the language in which they are written is not New Testament Greek. Another clue to the author’s misi-dentification is his reference to the martyrdom of Ignatius of Antioch, which occurred in 107. Thus, the sixth-century “forger” now known as Pseudo-Dionysius was either planting a clue to his hoax, or he wanted his readers to believe that he had an extremely long life. Modern scholars have demonstrated that portions of his writings were excerpted from the writings of the pagan Neoplatonic philosophers Proclus (circa 410–485) and Damascius (480-circa 550).

Pseudo-Dionysius’s Theology. It is difficult to underestimate the fundamental importance of Pseudo-Dionysius’s De Divinis Nominibus (The Divine Names) and De Mystica Theologia (The Mystical Theology) to medieval Christian theology. He provided the manner of speaking about God that was employed by all the major western theologians, including John Scottus Eriugena, Anselm of Bee and Canterbury, Robert Grosseteste, Albertus Magnus, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, and Nicholas of Cusa. In Pseudo-Dionysius’s language about God, positive and negative terms must be mutually related. Positive theology, called kataphatic, involves attributing to God those good attributes of earthly creatures that may be applied to him. Since God is unlimited and transcendent, however, it is necessary to guard those qualities by means of a careful use of language. That is, to avoid the simple-minded view that God is good in exactly the same sense that a human is good, it is necessary to state that God is super-good. Negative theology, called apophatic, states that God is not good in the limited human sense of good. For example, humans are changeable, but God is not; thus, God is ultimately unknowable and indescribable. This manner of speaking has a prehistory in Greek thought and in the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. Furthermore, the idea that God is unknowable has its predecessor in Plato’s Good “beyond being,” and his “One which is not.” Thus, the ultimate mystical experience is beyond light and darkness: it is utter silence. Dionysius’s Mystical Theology provided the basis for much of medieval mysticism, especially among philosophers of the first rank such as Grosseteste, Albertus Magnus, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Eckhart, and Nicholas of Cusa—for whom the way to God is a journey through stages of purification, illumination, and perfection.

Church Hierarchy. Pseudo-Dionysius’s De Ecclesiastica Hierarchia (The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy) provided the Middle Ages and Renaissance with their notion of cosmic and human order. He based his notion of hierarchy on the fundamental notion of holiness, especially the superior holiness of the divinity. He coined the word hierarchia (hierarchy) from hierarch, the Greek word for high priest or bishop. Ultimately, it refers to the ordering of all reality under a transcendent unity. Thus, all religious representatives in the Middle Ages were seen as having a definite place in a strict hierarchical order, and religious rites were initiations into sacred mysteries that had to be performed by the appropriate hierarch. Aspects of this hierarchy may be seen in some branches of modern Christianity, most notably the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Anglican Church.

Cosmology . In Pseudo-Dionysius’s De caelesti hierarchia (The Celestial Hierarchy) he described different levels of heavenly reality from the unseen spiritual divinity, through levels of angelic powers, down to the human being. These angelic powers are the “intelligences” that move the spheres in Dante’s Commedia (The Divine Comedy, completed 1321). This hierarchical system is based on an ordered outpouring from the One and a return to the One. In this way the varieties of things in the universe uring from unity and return to unity.


Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (London: Faber & Faber, 1967).

Henry Chadwick, Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology and Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).

Peter Dronke, A History of Twelfth-Century Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 1988), pp. 21–150.

Stephen E. Gersh, From Iamblicus to Eriugena (Leiden: Brill, 1978).

J. C. Marler, Entry on Pseudo-Dionysius, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 115: Medieval Philosophers, edited by Jeremiah Hackett (Detroit & London: Gale Research, 1992), pp. 325–333.

Ralph Mclnerny, Entry on Pseudo-Dionysius, m Dictionary of Literary Biogra- volume 115, pp. 110–117.

Renee Roques, L’Univers dionysien: Structures hierarchique du monde selon le pseudo-Denys (Aubier: Montaigne, 1955).

Frederick Van Fleteren, Entry on Augustine, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 115, pp. 53–67.

Gerard Verbeke, The Presence of Stoicism in Medieval Thought (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1983).

Garry Wills, Saint Augustine (New York: Viking, 1999).


Early Medieval Philosophy: Ancient and Early Christian Roots