The Foundations: Augustine and Boethius

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The Foundations: Augustine and Boethius

The Augustinian Model.

Although Augustine (354–430) lived during the waning decades of the Roman Empire in the West, his influence was crucial in the Middle Ages, for his work as a theologian trying to reconcile belief with reason defined a major problem that would be at the heart of philosophical pursuit for the next thousand years. It was Augustine, the great bishop of Hippo in North Africa, who established the first successful synthesis between a school of Greek philosophy (namely, Neoplatonism) and the Christian religion. A

Philosophical Terms

Augustinianism: The school of philosophy in the thirteenth century that adhered to the teachings of the pre-Aristotelian period, rallying around the name and authority of St. Augustine, and that strongly opposed Aristotelian and Thomistic views.

Cause/Causality: Responsibility of one being for some feature in another (the effect), such as its existence, essence, matter, accidents, or changes.

Contingency: (a) A state of affairs which may and also may not be; (b) a relation between events such that the second would not happen but for the first.

Deism: The view that while God is responsible for the existence of the world, He otherwise has no commerce with it.

Dialectics: (a) The science or art of logic; (b) a method of arguing and defending with probability open questions.

Disputation: A formal and structured dialogue between master and pupil, proposing questions and replies, difficulties to the teacher's reply and solution of these.

Emanation: Flowing forth from a source; the pantheistic view that all things arise necessarily out of the substance of God's being, intellect, etc.

Essence: In the broad sense, what a thing is, all its characteristics, as contrasted with its existence.

Essentialism: The metaphysical view that identifies being with essence or claims that the act of existing is always identified with the actual essence.

Existence: The actuality of an essence; that act by which something is.

Fideism: The thesis that religious belief is based on faith and not on either evidence or reasoning.

Illumination: In the Augustinian sense, the function of the divine light within a human intellect making truths or intellectual knowledge (as opposed to sense knowledge), especially of immaterial things, possible to the rational creature.

Immanence: (a) Presence in and operation within; indwelling: as God is immanent in all things; (b) Pantheistic sense: God's presence in the universe as a real part of it.

Metaphysics: The division of philosophy which studies being as such and the universal truths, laws, or principles of all beings; "the science of being as being" (Aristotle).

Mysticism: The religious theory that conceives of God as absolutely transcendent, beyond reason and all approaches of mind, placing emphasis on the negative way, that is, on what God is not.

Neoplatonism: The philosophical school, founded by Plotinus (205–270), which extended and built the philosophy of Plato into a system, focusing on the emanation of all things from the One (or Good) and their return thereto; a version of this philosophy, made compatible with Christian teachings, was forged by St. Augustine and became the most influential school in the Middle Ages.

Nominalism: The theory that universal terms like horse or equality are merely names, not real essences.

Pantheism: The doctrine that the world or nature in the widest sense is identical with God.

Principle source: That from which something proceeds.

Quietism: The attitude of passivity and receptivity before God, as opposed to activism (that is, the view that the human agent has some role to play in earning God's favor).

Rationalism: Any one of the views that attribute excessive importance to the human reason: for example, that all authority in matters of truth is subject to the scrutiny and approval of reason, without any duty of obedience or reverence for religious authority.

Realism: (a) The philosophical position that accepts the existence of things prior to and independent of human knowledge; or (b) in relation to the problem of universals, the epistemological view that man's direct universal concepts ordinarily represent natures that are objectively real and in some way fit to be represented as universal by the mind's activity.

Skepticism: The philosophical school that doubts or denies the possibility of any certain human knowledge; the skeptic is therefore enjoined to suspend all judgments in the speculative order.

Transcendence: Existence apart from and superior to the universe: opposed to immanence.

Universal: A term for a typical form that can be affirmed of or is attributed to many in a univocal and distributed sense; one name applied in exactly the same sense to many objects taken singly.

genius of the first rank, Augustine agonized over the pursuit of truth, falling prey to several positions that he eventually rejected as false, including skepticism. Finally, when in his thirties, he was lent a copy of the treatises of the Greek philosopher and disciple of Plato, Plotinus (205–270). A new world suddenly opened to him, and within the context of the other-worldly philosophy of Plotinus, the teachings of the Christians, previously rejected as primitive and unsophisticated, now made sense. "Far be it from us to suppose that God abhors in us that by which he has made us superior to the other animals [that is, the reason]," he wrote in one of his letters. Faith alone is not sufficient, as it was for Tertullian (c. 160–220), the greatest of the early Latin Christian theologians. Humans are rational creatures and crave to know, and this natural desire for knowledge cannot be quenched. As articulated by Augustine, this stance became the overriding theme of the medieval enterprise: faith in search of understanding. "Unless you believe," wrote the prophet Isaiah, whom Augustine frequently quoted, "you shall not understand." This adage became the motif of the succeeding age, which since the fifteenth century has been labeled the "Middle Ages."

Boethius as Translator.

Exactly half a century after the death of Augustine, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, the man sometimes called "The Last of the Romans," was born in privileged circumstances, but privilege that coexisted with a new political reality. The Roman Empire in the West by the late fifth century had ceased to exist, and the Italian peninsula was ruled by the Ostrogoths. Notwithstanding, Boethius received the best philosophical education available. He studied at either Athens in Greece or Alexandria in Egypt, the latter the site of the greatest library of the ancient world, where among other things he mastered the Greek language. Rightly convinced that Greek was becoming a dead language in Western Europe, he undertook what he hoped would be his lifelong project—the translating of Plato's and Aristotle's complete works into Latin—in order to show the ultimate harmony of their thought. Unfortunately for later centuries, Boethius had not made much headway in his project—in fact he had translated only two of Aristotle's six volumes on logic—when he came under suspicion of treason and was cast into prison under sentence of death. Nonetheless, the translations and commentaries he completed formed much of the basis for logical inquiry—what was called the "old logic"—until the recovery of the remaining works of Aristotle, which occurred in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

The Consolation of Philosophy.

While in prison, awaiting a cruel and, in his view, unjust execution for treason, Boethius wrote his most famous and enduring work, a dialogue entitled The Consolation of Philosophy. Destined to become a "best seller" in the Middle Ages (a status determined by the number of Latin manuscript copies and vernacular translations), the work deals with the problem of evil in a very existential setting. Boethius asks why he, a good and virtuous man, lost everything—his power, his wealth, contact with his family, and, not least, his good name. He receives consolation in his troubled state from Lady Philosophy, who is a personification of Boethius's better self. She tells him that happiness does not consist in the goods of fortune (a Stoic message) but rather in the unending possession of the Highest Good, which is God, a goal still within his grasp. The question of whether Boethius was a Christian used to be much debated, since he never made any explicit references to his religion in the Consolation. Ever since the discovery and authentication of his tractates on theological topics, however, the question has been laid to rest.


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

Alan D. Fitzgerald, ed., Augustine through the Ages; An Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999).

Scott MacDonald, "Augustine," in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Eds. Jorge J. E. Gracia and Timothy B. Noone (London: Blackwell, 2003): 154–171.

John Magee, "Boethius," in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Eds. Jorge J. E. Gracia and Timothy B. Noone (London: Blackwell, 2003): 217–226.

John Marenbon, Boethius (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

James O'Donnell, Augustine (Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1985).

Frederick Van Fleteren, "Augustine," in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 115: Medieval Philosophers. Ed. Jeremiah Hackett (Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, Inc., 1992): 53–67.

see also Literature: Translatio studii: Sources for Romance

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