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Medieval philosophy

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Medieval philosophy is the set of works and philosophical currents developed during the Middle Ages in a slightly larger geographic area than that of the Hellenistic and Roman world of Antiquity, and in which Judaism, Christianity and Islam were developed. These include (and among others) scholastic philosophy, Byzantine philosophy and Islamic philosophy.


The period of the Middle Ages was established according to criteria of the western historiographical tradition. Medieval philosophy is thus the subject of various and often contradictory theses depending on whether the Middle Ages are considered to be a dark age of thought, or whether the very idea of ​​the Middle Ages is held to be an imposture fueled by legends. Having as main subject the works of Latin Christian authors having lived during the millennium which separates Antiquity from the Renaissance, the study of medieval philosophy relates at the same time to the relations of the thought of the Christians of the Middle Ages with that of Jews and Muslims, in particular those of Avicenna and Averroes which were read and translated by the Latins in the Middle Ages, or even that of Maimonides, a 13th century Jewish author who wrote in Arabic a work offering considerations on all the thoughts of his time.

In the Middle Ages, religion did not appear as a distinct element in societies, while at the time when the study of medieval philosophy was constituted as a disciplinary field, religion was largely considered incompatible with the philosophy. The modern study of medieval philosophy was thus set up in a polemical context vis-à-vis Christianity with, in particular, the works of Ernest Renan at the end of the 19th century and those, more apologetic, of Etienne Gilson at the start of the 20th century. The latter identified medieval philosophy with a Christian philosophy in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy. In this context, the question was whether philosophy can be religious, whether a thought qualified as religious can be considered philosophical, or whether the thought of the medieval brought anything interesting to that of the humanity.

The study of medieval philosophy requires attention to the diversity of societies and eras included under the expression “Middle Ages”. Alain de Libera thus offers a general introduction entitled Medieval philosophy in which he takes up the results of the work of medievalists, theologians or Islamologists. He organized these elements around the idea of ​​translatio studiorum, that is, the idea that “science”, identified with Greek philosophy, moves from place to place and gives rise, where it is established, to ways of thinking which have their own coherence and which do not deal with the same problems. It is thus a question of “Philosophy in Byzantium”, of “Eastern Islam” then Western, of “Jewish philosophy”, and finally, of “Medieval Latin-speaking philosophy” century by century, from the 9th to the 15th centuries. For Rémi Brague science or philosophy does not, however, present itself as a “thing” susceptible of such displacements and he pleads for a comparative approach of the different philosophies, considering that the philosophical problems which are tackled there cross more widely the history and the diversity of civilizations than the model of translatio studiorum implies. It also raises the question of whether it is legitimate to speak of medieval philosophies as of Jewish, Christian or Muslim philosophies, or if the identification of the currents of thought of the Middle Ages with the essential elements of the religion of their authors is not excessive.

Characteristics of medieval philosophy

Building the intellectual foundations of knowledge

The period of the Middle Ages (the expression dates from the 19th century) sometimes suffers from a negative image, especially in Western Europe, due to the fact that European civilization, in the 10th and 11th centuries (see year 1000), accused a significant delay compared to other civilizations (Muslim, Chinese …). We also retain images of intolerance.

The great invasions of the 5th and 6th centuries, then to a lesser extent, after the Carolingian period, the Viking, Saracen and Hungarian invasions (from 850 to 920 approximately), were for much in the degradation of the countries which inherited the civilization of the ‘ancient Western Roman Empire.

The appropriation by the West of the great philosophical systems of Antiquity, first especially Latin, then more Greek, helped the West to establish the philosophical and intellectual foundations of knowledge, necessary for the development of civilization, on the plans both artistic, scientific and technical.

During the Middle Ages, this appropriation was almost exclusively the work of religious, humanists in the proper sense of the term, who worked in monasteries (scriptoria), then in urban schools and universities.

From the 5th to the 7th century

In the early days of the Church, the most rigorous of clerics wanted to impose the abandonment of profane culture. For them, “there was no possible compromise between classical culture and Christian culture. If you wanted to put your intelligence at the service of God, you had to start rejecting classical letters, because you could not at the same time sacrifice to the worship of the Muses and to that of God” (Étienne Gilson, L’Esprit de la philosophie médiévale). The biographers of Saint Cesaire say that having fallen asleep on a book by the grammarian Julien Pomère, he has a dream during which he sees a dragon come out of the book. Gregory the Great, biographer of Benedict of Nursia, says that he came to study in the schools of Rome, that he stops studying in books, frightened by the dangers he sees there. The Statuta Ecclesiae antiquita of the second half of the 5th century prohibited bishops from reading pagan works. This prohibition also applied to clerics of major orders. In the 5th century, “the cultivated clergy felt the need for a break with classical culture, but could not resolve it”.

In the 5th and 6th centuries, the first Christian, monastic, diocesan and presbyteral schools were established in France, Spain and Italy. They train the children and adolescents entrusted to them to read and write, to study the Bible, to memorize the Psalter and to practice the chanting.

Faced with this ascetic culture, some clerics wanted to establish a middle way to establish a biblical science as Saint Augustine had described in De doctrina christiana. He had shown there “what the literate Christian had to borrow from the program of ancient education in order to be able to safely interpret the Bible”. It was not until the 6th century that this work of Saint Augustine was studied and copied. Father Eugippe makes an important place in his work on Saint Augustine, in particular, he retains the passage on the legitimacy of secular studies. Cassiodorus said that he was a remarkable exegete. He had founded near Naples a monastery which was a center of religious culture which had no equivalent in Rome at that time, which Cassiodorus regrets. When Justinian undertakes to reconquer Italy, Africa and Spain, he tries to restore the teaching of ancient culture by giving back to the teachers their privileges and their treatments, but twenty years of war between Ostrogoths and Byzantines and a new invasion of Italy by the Lombards, three years after his death, will lead to the failure of this attempt.

Saint Gregory the Great received in his youth a liberal education of literate and kept the knowledge of grammar and rhetoric but seems to have forgotten the ancient philosophy and he fights it after his conversion. He was scandalized in 600 when he learned that a bishop in Gaul named Didier was teaching grammar, that is to say, belles-lettres. He founded the Saint Andrew monastery which was then the only center of religious culture in Rome. For the training of bishops, he wrote the Regula Pastoralis Liber in which he insisted on study. He demands that a candidate for the episcopate at least know his psalter, which is why he thinks that monastic recruitment is the best guarantee for having a well-formed episcopate. He is perhaps at the origin of the creation of the Lateran library after having received part of the manuscripts of the monastery of Vivarium. In the preface to the Life of Saint Eloi, Saint Ouen wrote “What do we need from Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle? What do the songs of Homer, Virgil, Menander, this peat of scoundrel poets (sceleratorum mœnia poetarum) matter to us? Salluste, Herodotus, Tite-Live, these historians of the Gentiles, of what use are they for the Christian family?”

In Spain, after the conversion of the Arian Visigoths to Catholicism at the end of the sixth century, the outstanding figure is that of Isidore of Seville.

In England, the departure of the Romans from the beginning of the 5th century will lead to the arrival of the Angles and the Saxons pushing the Celts to the west and causing the virtual disappearance of Roman culture to the east. Roman culture found refuge in the Celtic Church created in the 4th century. In England, the first Christian schools appeared in the 7th century with the Canterbury school after the sending of missionaries by Pope Gregory the Great. In the Celtic countries, it is Irish monasticism which will spread Christian culture in Scotland, in Iona, then in the north of England, in Lindisfarne and Whitby. Saint Colomban will distribute it in Francie. After the Council of Whitby the church of Celtic tradition adopted the practices of the Roman church.

Faced with the establishment of a Christian education in the religious world which is built first against ancient culture before seeking a possible synthesis, secular education still remains largely marked by ancient culture in the education of the richest laity in Gaul and Spain until the 7th century.

We can then very schematically distinguish two major periods:

The High Middle Ages (7th to 10th century)

Plato, Seneca and Aristotle(The legacy of ancient philosophy in the Middle Ages: Plato, Seneca and Aristotle, miniature from an English medieval manuscript written around 1325-1335 (MS Hunter 231 (U.3.4), page 276).)

During this period, the West was still very rural. Knowledge developed in monasteries, outside the cities, under the rule of Saint Benedict which imposed intellectual work (Benedictines, order of Cluny). The ancient authors were translated and transcribed in the scriptoria of the monasteries.

The monastic schools were the center of medieval knowledge. The libraries of the monasteries, very small in the eyes of our contemporaries (a few hundred works at most), included the main authors of the Latin language. Greek philosophy was not entirely unknown, however, because it was already translating and reading Plato (not yet Aristotle), which had been transmitted via Plotinus, Saint Augustine, Isidore of Seville …

Bede the Venerable laid, in the 7th century, the foundations of the liberal arts (Septem artes liberales), and studied rhetoric and dialectic in particular, starting from Greek philosophers. At the court of Charlemagne, Plato was read, who was known to the entourage of the emperor (Alcuin). The High Middle Ages therefore saw the flourishing of neoplatonic philosophers such as Jean Scot Erigene and Isaac Israëli, the latter is counted among the first Neoplatonic Jews. This school lasted until the late Middle Ages (Saint Anselme …), then in the form of Augustinianism.

The foundations of philosophy were then based on question and answer systems, derived from dialectics, one of the seven liberal arts. The presocratic Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea (Eleatic school) is at the origin of the dialectic, which was transmitted to us by the translations and transcriptions of Plato, by Plotinus, and during the High Middle Ages.

However, after the Viking invasions, the monasteries were disorganized, the rules were no longer observed, and several liberal arts were no longer taught: dialectics precisely, and the four disciplines of the quadrivium (algebra, geometry, astronomy, music).

It was the monk Gerbert d’Aurillac who, around the 970s, broadened the foundations of medieval culture, in particular from the philosophy of Aristotle. During a two-year stay in Catalonia, in a monastery not far from Barcelona, ​​he enriched his culture by learning the works of Aristotle and the sciences (mathematics, astronomy), thanks to exchanges with Muslims then established in the most of Spain. Called to Reims by Adalbéron, Gerbert d’Aurillac introduced dialectics and quadrivium to the cathedral school of Reims: in particular algebra (Arabic numerals). Gerbert had a very clear idea of ​​the classification of philosophy. He became pope under the name of Sylvestre II (the pope of the year thousand was Franc).

The Low Middle Ages (11th to 15th centuries)

A new period of translation of Aristotle’s works began in the 11th century, the translations are then multiple and differ from each other, making them even discordant, and even from their original sources, although some are quite faithful and even correspond to what that modern philology has restored. Then it was not until the years 1120 to 1190 that the translations were organized.

11th century

The 11th century was marked by the increased importance of dialectics in the studies and the fight between dialecticians and anti-dialecticians. Dialecticians believe that by resorting to Aristotle’s logic, a rational explanation of the Christian mysteries is possible. Anti-dialecticians, on the contrary, think that dialectics risks dissolving the mysteries of the Christian religion and are in favor of the faith and the absolute authority of the Church Fathers and the Councils. The imposing work of Anselm of Canterbury dominates this period of trial and error on the relationship of reason with faith.

12th century

The 12th century continued and amplified the development of dialectics and sowed the seeds that led to scholasticism in the 13th century. Speculative logic and grammar develop and become the instruments of theology. It was also in the 12th century that the quarrel of the universals was durably structured around two antagonistic groups: the realists and the nominalists. Of all his masters, we hardly know today but the names of Roscelin de Compiègne and Guillaume de Champeaux, the masters of Abélard, the greatest dialectician and the principal nominalist of the time.

At the end of the 12th century, Henri Aristippe translated Book IV of Aristotle’s Meteorology, from which Gérard de Crémone had translated Books I to II from Arabic into Latin. Alfred de Shareshel writes glosses on this text and adds, by translating them from Arabic, three new “chapters” to this treatise: it is De mineralibus d’Avicenne. Aristotelian science thus returns to the West.

The founding of these schools opens the way to the founding of Universities (the oldest Bologna, followed by Paris and Oxford) which flourished in the 13th century.

The first sums of sentences are drawn up and present in an orderly manner the various doctrines of the fathers of the Church and of the Councils. This concern for organizing theology systematically is the direct source of the theological sums of the following century.

The second half of the 12th century saw the start of a vast movement of translation which started in Toledo, reconquered by the Christians. From there, then from Italy, there are schools of translators who make available to the Christian world in addition to religious texts (Peter the Venerable translates the Koran) and scientific texts (works of geometry and algebra, Almageste of Ptolemy), many philosophical works. These translations, which are often not first-hand, nevertheless introduce into the West the vast current of Arab aristotelianism rethought in a neo-Platonic spirit.

13th century

The spread of Aristotle’s philosophy gave birth to a new philosophical method: scholasticism. This was based on a set of works by Aristotle, gradually brought together, by Thomas Aquinas and other theologians. The classification included several sets: logic (Organon), physics (Physics), metaphysics (grouping of fourteen books of Aristotle), ethics (Nicomachean Ethics), politics, poetics … However, the assimilation of Aristotle’s entire corpus is not without its difficult problem. It is indeed the first philosophical corpus where it was clearly impossible to find the slightest reference to Christian beliefs. However, in the middle of the century, the incorporation of Aristotelianism into Christianity, which seemed an impossible task, was achieved thanks to the gigantic Thomist synthesis. If the Dominican current quickly adopted it, a strong Franciscan current rejected it and remained faithful to Saint Augustine (Saint Bonaventure), while others turned to Avicenna or Averroes (Siger of Brabant, Boethius of Dacia). The bitter intellectual struggles that ensued led to the condemnation in 1277 of 219 Aristotelian and Averroist proposals by the bishop of Paris. Thomist education was suspended until 1285 while vigorous opposition to Thomism was organized. It is from this opposition that new schools will arise at the beginning of the 14th century, from the Franciscan masters: Duns Scotus and William of Occam.

Scholastic assessment

The evolution compared to the previous period was due to a higher degree of dialogue compared to the liberal arts which remained taught: the dialectic was enriched by Aristotelian logic, which provided very advanced foundations and concepts of reasoning. It allowed competing or contradictory positions and philosophical systems to begin to dialogue with one another, with a view to reconciliation. This method was at the base of the so-called general logic. It was based on inferences, which were not only logical deductions (mathematical logic).

This belief is the true essence of the philosophical conception according to Aristotle, which was intimately associated with the scholastic philosophy of the late Middle Ages.

Aristotelian debates in the 12th and 13th centuries led to the subordination of philosophy to theology, and to the rationalization of the Christian message.

14th and 15th centuries

From the end of the 14th century, scholasticism stopped. Schools (Albertists, Thomists, scotists, nominalists, Averroists …) subsist and quarrel but are not renewed.

In 1438, the Byzantine Gemiste Plethon urged Cosimo de ‘Medici to found a Platonic Academy (1459) and in 1447, the University of Louvain separated teaching from theology and philosophy. It is the end of medieval philosophy.

Criticism of medieval philosophy

The criticism of the permanent interrelation of religion with philosophical speculation during the period preceding the Renaissance, developed in the 16th century, and especially in the 17th century, when it became evident that the scholastic method placed its protagonists in withdrawal by report to new experimental observations of physical realities. In particular, the Galileo affair discredited scholasticism, so that Descartes never stopped criticizing his former masters and the philosophy of Aristotle. Descartes produced his famous cogito, and proposed a classification of knowledge mixing philosophy and science in the Principles of Philosophy written in 1644.

Auguste Comte traced the modern development of the scientific spirit to the philosophies of the 17th and 18th centuries (Descartes, Hume, Condorcet …) and considered theological and metaphysical speculation obsolete, but he held doctrines socially and morally important of the Middle Ages (Saint Bernard and Thomas Aquinas in particular).

These positions partially reflected on Aristotle’s philosophy. It was, in fact, mainly rejected on these two precise points, which recent discoveries made with the scientific method had largely invalidated:

  • geocentrism (Aristotle retained the world view of his time in the 5th century),
  • the notion of movement, of which Aristotle actually gave an interpretation essentially with an ethical vocation.
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