Philosophy 70 - 4.3.3 Early Christian Philosophy

Late antiquity witnessed the gradual demise of the Roman Empire in the West, a political development accompanied by great social turmoil and uncertainty. The Catholic Church gradually filled this political and cultural void, as it sought to make itself the legitimate heir of Roman power. Philosophy reflects this transformation in Western European society, with the uncertainty and turmoil of the period reflected in the work of philosophers of late antiquity such as Augustine and Boethius. The triumph of Christianity can be seen in the grand edifice of scholasticism that developed later, reflected in the writings of Thomas Aquinas.

Augustine

Augustine (354–430 CE) was one of the most influential philosophers and theologians of late antiquity. In his Confessions, he used his own life and the story of his initially reluctant turn to Christianity as an allegory for understanding God’s universe and humanity’s place within it. His narrative begins with a discussion of his struggles with faith, particularly with sexual desire. In later books, he turned to considerations of history and the nature of time. Augustine famously posits a theory of time that holds that we experience the temporal present in three different ways: the present anticipates the future and bleeds into the recent past.

As Bishop of Hippo, Augustine sought to defend theological orthodoxy against various heresies. He wrote against the Pelagian heresy, which held that humans could achieve salvation themselves without divine grace, and the Manichean heresy, which held that the universe was a battlefield between the forces of good and evil that are equal in power. In contrast, Augustine held that all of creation was good simply by virtue of the fact that God had created it. Nothing in God’s creation was evil: things that appeared evil to us were all part of God’s providential plan. Even Satan’s rebellion was part of God’s plan.

Augustine’s ideas raise interesting issues with respect to free will. How can we reconcile individual human freedom in a world where an all-powerful God knows all? In opposition to the strict determinism of the Manicheans, Augustine sought to make room for some amount of human freedom. Despite the original sin of Adam and Eve discussed in the Christian and Jewish Bible and the fall from grace that this entails, Augustine held that it is within our power to choose the good. Augustine sees this conflict as one between two rival wills, one that wills the good and one that desires sinfulness. Only divine grace can ultimately resolve this, though it is within our power to choose whether to sin.

Not only did Augustine articulate Christian doctrine that shaped medieval European philosophy for centuries to come, but he raised questions that are still being pondered today. Queries about the nature of time and temporality as well as agency and free will remain relevant for philosophers today, as does Augustine’s development of possible answers.

Boethius

Like Augustine, Boethius (c. 477–524 CE) was a philosopher who straddled the late Roman and Christian worlds. Indeed, he serves as one of the most important intermediaries between these two very different worlds. A Roman statesman and Christian theologian, Boethius is best known for his work The Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius was imprisoned on conspiracy charges and subsequently executed by the ruler he had served, the Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great. Prior to his imprisonment, he had translated and written commentaries on Aristotle’s work, logic, music theory, astronomy, and mathematics that were influential for medieval philosophers. However, while imprisoned, he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy, which takes the form of a dialogue between Boethius and philosophy personified by a beautiful woman who visits him in his cell. The text starts out with a bitter Boethius complaining of his fall from power to Lady Philosophy. She consoles him by showing Boethius that happiness remains possible for him even in his wretched state. She argues that Boethius has not lost true happiness, or the true Platonic form of happiness, as these are not found in material possessions or high stature, but in family, virtuous actions, and wisdom. She then reminds him that true good—and so true happiness—is found in God. Extremely popular throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Marenbon 2020), The Consolation never makes mention of Christianity. In facing death, Boethius turns to Plato. His work and influence exemplify how Catholicism incorporated classical philosophy into its worldview.

Page from a text displaying an image of a man in bed with a woman kneeling at his side.
Figure 4.8 In this copy of a 15th-century painting, Lady Philosophy consoles Boethius as he faces death. (credit: “The Figure of Philosophy Appearing to Boethius” by Wellcome Collection/Public Domain)

Think Like a Philosopher

When Lady Philosophy says that true goodness is God, she is referring to Plato’s idea about the form of goodness. Read this excerpt from Plato’s The Republic, an exchange between Socrates and Glaucon that begins with a discussion of what allows us to see beauty. Glaucon initially answers that it is sight that allows us to see beautiful things but through questioning recognizes that it is both eyes and light—or the sun—that enables us to see. This leads Socrates toward a discussion of goodness. What do Socrates—and so Plato—believe is the form of goodness? Is this form of goodness similar to how Christianity or other religions or philosophical approaches that you’ve encountered view God? Do you agree with Plato’s conclusion? How would you define the form of goodness?

Socrates: You know that, when we turn our eyes to things whose colors are no longer in the light of day but in the gloom of night, the eyes are dimmed and seem nearly blind, as if clear vision, were no longer in them.

Glaucon: Of course.

Socrates: Yet whenever one turns them on things illuminated by the sun, they see clearly, and vision appears in those very same eyes.

Glaucon: Indeed.

Socrates: Well, understand the soul in the same way: When it focuses on something illuminated by truth and what is, it understands, knows, and apparently possesses understanding, but when it focuses on what is mixed with obscurity, on what comes to be and passes away, it opines and is dimmed, changes its opinions this way and that, and seems bereft of understanding.

Glaucon: It does seem that way.

Socrates: So that what gives truth to the things known and the power to know to the knower is the form of the good. And though it is the cause of knowledge and truth, it is also an object of knowledge. Both knowledge and truth are beautiful things, but the good is other and more beautiful than they. In the visible realm, light and sight are rightly considered sunlike, but it is wrong to think that they are the sun, so here it is right to think of knowledge and truth as good like but wrong to think that either of them is the good—for the good is yet more prized.

Anselm

Anselm (1033–1109) served as Bishop of Canterbury and sought to extend the reach of Christianity into the British Isles. Philosophically, he is best known for his formulation of what has come to be known as a proof for the existence of God, which he elaborated in his written meditation the Proslogion. Anselm is an early proponent of—and some say the founder of—the philosophical school of Scholasticism, which anticipates the writings of prominent Scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas. Like later Scholastics, Anselm believed that a rational system of thought reflects the rationality inherent in the universe and that reason and logic can lead people to God.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax